Nobody's Tool: Maynard James Keenan Would Rather Talk About His Other Bands
Maynard James Keenan drives around Arizona's Verde Valley in an oversize green pickup. The truck's wheels kick up clouds of dust as he rumbles down the dirt road that leads to Four Eight Wineworks, the barreling room where wine from his nearby Merkin Vineyards ages in casks. From here it will be shipped to stores across the Southwest and to his Caduceus Cellars Tasting Room up the mountain in Jerome.
A bitterly cold wind blows as he emerges from the vehicle, thick, black glasses wrapped around his signature bald head. Wearing dark-blue jeans cuffed around dirt-caked boots, he sports a puffy down jacket zipped up to his chin. He checks in with members of his staff, bearded guys blasting RJD2 loudly from speakers that send the progressive instrumental hip-hop bouncing off tin walls.
Keenan wears one look as he maneuvers himself in front of New Times' cameras, and it's intimidating: severe, dead-set, his dark eyes magnified behind the glasses.
"I only have the one," he says of his expression, barely the hint of a smile tugging at the edge of his mouth. Keenan is protective of his image, and he often performs with his bands — Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer — from the shadows, in elaborate costumes. Or from behind video monitors that distort and obscure his face.
His mystique translates to interviews as well. He has a reputation for being distant and is known to respond to interviewers' questions curtly in one or two words. But he's not always tight-lipped. Once you get Keenan going, he'll happily expand upon and illustrate his ideas — he just has to be interested in doing it. He has little time for questions whose answers are apparent. No patience for "customer service."
When pressed, he'll explain his severity in simple terms:
Right now, Maynard James Keenan is very, very busy — and he would like to get back to work.
Keenan is famous primarily as a musician, the frontman of heavy alternative-metal band Tool, whose string of hits in the 1990s and 2000s added a knotty, progressive rock edge to the down-tuned nu-metal sounds that dominated rock radio. He's had nearly as much success with his theatrical art-rock combo A Perfect Circle and the electronic-tinged Puscifer. But Keenan spent the past decade devoting an even greater share of his time to wine, with occasional forays into acting.
He's played bit parts in Crank 2: High Voltage, appeared on the anti-comedy TV series Tim & Eric Awesome Show: Great Job, and played Satan in the Troma-style Charlie's Angels spoof Bikini Bandits. In 2010, he was the subject of a documentary by directors Ryan Page and Christopher Pomerenke, Blood into Wine, which charted Keenan's fascination with oenology and his desire to cultivate a world-class vineyard in Arizona. In 2012, he took another turn with Pomerenke and Page, playing the bizarre Bobby Angel in the pair's surreal country-western comedy, Queens of Country, starring alongside Lizzy Caplan, Ron Livingston, and Jo Lo Truglio.
Last fall, he added "columnist" to his list of job titles, penning a biweekly treatise for New Times' music blog, Up on the Sun. From September 2012 to the beginning of January, Keenan pontificated and rambled, offering tongue-in-cheek proclamations of imminent world destruction, pop culture reflections on obscure installments in the Planet of the Apes series, and his take on television shows like Walking Dead, Justified, and Sons of Anarchy. He wrote detailed glimpses into his day-to-day tasks as a vintner, with occasional outlines of his creative philosophies. He finished each one with a signature tagline, "Chicken Little out."
The process of writing his ideas for a newspaper was an entirely new one for Keenan.
"No, they were all inside," he says of his thoughts. He's never been one for blogging, but he enjoyed the process and has started working on an autobiography.
"I think there are a lot of misconceptions with some people that, all of a sudden, I was born when my first band came out," Keenan says. "I actually had a life before that, and there were a lot of accomplishments. [The book] will kind of chronicle why it is I got to where I am, and why I got to where you knew about me."
Balancing the book with his wine-making is just one example of Keenan's burning the candle at both ends.
A Perfect Circle and Puscifer embark together on Australian and South American tours in February, with stops at Lollapalooza Chile and in Brazil, as well as at the Australian Soundwave Festival. Pulling double duty is intense for Keenan, who spent much of December and January locked in "the Bunker," his studio at Caduceus Cellars, prepping both bands for the road, the tours slotted around his schedule at Caduceus.
"That's the beauty of this project," Keenan says, laughing. "We can still maintain our irresponsible side — our rock-star side — but when it comes time to be responsible, we can react; we can respond. We can do what needs to be done. We can start rehearsal at 10 a.m. What band that you know of can actually get going at 10, 10:30 in the morning and get done by 1?"
The activity with A Perfect Circle doesn't point to new recorded material from the band, which features Ashes Divide guitarist Billy Howerdel, former Smashing Pumpkins member James Iha, bassist Matt McJunkins, and drummer Jeff Friedl (the latter two also play in Puscifer). The band hasn't released any recorded material since 2004's eMOTIVe, which found Keenan and company recording discordant and re-imagined takes on songs by Nick Lowe, Marvin Gaye, Black Flag, Fear, John Lennon, and Joni Mitchell, among others.
His best-known band, Tool, hasn't released an album since 2006's 10,000 Days. This month, the band announced via its website that it would play Ozzfest Japan in May, and the band's webmaster speculated that it was "about half-done" writing material for a new album. Keenan has nothing to say regarding a new Tool album. He's much more eager to discuss Puscifer.
The slow production schedule he typically favors doesn't apply to his multi-media ensemble. On February 19, the band will issue Donkey Punch the Night, an EP followup to 2011's full-length Conditions of My Parole. The record features seven songs, including two new Puscifer compositions, covers of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and Accept's "Balls to the Wall," and a handful of remixes. Puscifer moves fast: Since the band's recorded debut, Don't Shoot the Messenger, was released in 2007, Keenan has made sure that no more than two years go by between records.
"The general approach to the project always has been to do a couple songs at a time and put them out," Keenan says, explaining that there's an economic benefit to the single-release model of the '50s and '60s. "The single format was the format of the day, and I kind of like the idea of getting back to that a little bit, where you just focus on two thoughts, or one thought, and release that thought."
Keenan describes Conditions of My Parole as the band "on a roll," and while that album's blend of English folk rock and electronica made for a satisfying listen, there's something even more enjoyable about the scatter-shot approach of Donkey Punch the Night. Puscifer's take on "Bohemian Rhapsody" hews closely to the original's format, with Keenan and vocalist Carina Round wrapping their voices around Freddie Mercury's original vocal tapestry, as the band mimics the orchestral rock 'n' roll approach that made the song a radio staple, resisting any urge to add industrial undertones or alter Mercury's delicate arrangements.
The band's cover of "Balls to the Wall," however, is a radical reinterpretation of the song, reading the German heavy-metal band's cocky anthem like an existential manifesto, substituting airy synthesizers, echoing guitars, and a slow-motion, disco-punk beat for power chords and a fist-in-the-air chorus.
"Too many people don't see the imprisoned human race," Keenan seethes. "They believe slaves always lose / Fear keeps them in their place."
Rounded out by clubby remixes by Drumcell, Big Black Delta (pseudonym of Jonathan Bates, who's played in Mellowdrone and toured as a guitarist in M83), and Central American DJ Silent Servant, the EP solidifies Puscifer's electronic credentials — though Keenan admits that the EDM zeitgeist, one that sees electronic dance music acts selling out arenas and clubs worldwide, is far from his point of reference.
"I don't have my finger on that pulse whatsoever," Keenan says. "I'm in the bunker or composing, or something. I couldn't even speak to that, [but] the electronic component is very compelling to me. [I hand off programming to other bandmates] — I don't work on the computer at all. So I can hear it in a fluid and emotional form, and then kind of guide them, like, 'Hey, guys, you're off track.' In a way, I'm kind of a producer, an executive producer."
Whether the EP's glitchy remixes will find an audience in crowded clubs — far from the remote mountain town of Jerome — isn't something Keenan's particularly concerned with. But while EDM is experiencing an industry boom, he says electronic music hasn't returned — it's always been there.
"It's like Members Only jackets," he says. "They never will truly go away."
In 2013, making money playing music is tricky. Online streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora pay pennies to artists and CD sales continue to slump. Vinyl records are experiencing a steady growth, but the sale of LPs still remains a slight niche in the marketplace. Fans still consume music — more so than ever. They just don't pay for much of it.
"There's a disconnect between people not buying music and not understanding why [bands] go away," Keenan says. "There are people who are like monkeys in a cage just hitting the coke button. They don't really get that for [musicians and artists] to do these things, they have to fund them. They have to have something to pay the rent."
For Keenan, it means scaling down the operation. He's proud of Puscifer's status as an independent project, free from "some artless, soulless, heartless funding person getting in the middle and fucking up the art." The band records at Caduceus Cellars, and Keenan funds the manufacturing of CDs and merchandise. "[It's that] survivalist, end-of-the-world mentality," he says, "Pulling together your skill set so you don't end up becoming food."
His forecast regarding the music industry is bleak, but realistic:
"It's going to have to default back to people who are willing to do more work for less money, basically. You have to kind of do it out of love, and doing it by living within your means and getting to an end of what you want to do, other than worrying about 401(k)s and insurance and all that crap that comes with being paid by someone else [so] you [can] coast."
It makes sense that Keenan focuses on Puscifer. Tool records for Volcano, a subsidiary of Epic Records, owned by industry giant Sony. A Perfect Circle recorded for Virgin Records, bought out in 2007 by Capitol. The majors continue to consolidate as the market share decreases, making Keenan's small, locally sourced business approach to Puscifer look as much like a necessity as a creative capital choice.
"The illusion is gone," Keenan says. "There's no longer blank checkbooks. I remember playing a show ages ago, where Helmet got offered a [record deal worth a] million dollars. Oh, my God! A million dollars. Of course, all that did was make every other band with ego throw its dicks on the table and say, 'Well, I want a million five.' 'Well, I want two million; I'm more popular.' There was never any rhyme or reason to what those numbers ended up translating to at the end of the day. If you go back and track what somebody actually paid for something, it's not nearly as dialed-in as, say, a video-game corporation saying, 'No, we're going to sell exactly this many units of this game.' It was never that calculated. The people running [the business] weren't qualified to run it."
For a band to survive takes more than T-shirts and CDs, Keenan says. Embracing digital distribution makes too much sense to ignore, he says, but the MP3 model comes with downsides for someone interested in creating a complete package.
"I don't know, I feel like I'm kind of torn," he says. "There's two sides of my brain fighting with each other. There's something about connecting with that physical piece of property, and also things you don't know about. When you download the song, there's nothing. Sometimes it comes with a booklet, sometimes it comes with an image, but usually it doesn't. It's just this disconnected thing that you can't touch and feel and experience. [There are] other nuances to the songs. Some images and artwork that are totally connected and related to the song you're hearing, and you make the connection by seeing that image, and it completes the joke or completes the thought; that's a little disconnected.
"However, as an independent project — no funding, no record label, no underwriters, nothing — the whole digital route is a lot more sustainable. You're not wasting a lot of paper or plastic products, except for the manufacturing of computers, which apparently go out of date every week. Thank you very much, Apple. But you're able to get that music out there and have a direct connection to who you're selling it to — and actually fund your project."
Keenan splits the difference. Puscifer's music is available via digital outlets like iTunes, Amazon, and eMusic, but just up the hill from the Caduceus Cellars Tasting Room in Jerome, you'll find the Puscifer Store, a brick-and-mortar outlet devoted to Keenan's physical esoterica: CDs and vinyl from Puscifer, DVD copies of the Bikini Bandits films, Puscifer whole-bean coffee, jewelry, framed show posters, T-shirts, and releases from like-minded collaborators such as "America's Funnyman," comedian Neil Hamburger.
"You have to turn to weird stuff," Keenan says. "We just released a limited-edition giclée of an image [designer and photographer] Tim Cadiente and I put together, and we're being criticized because it's 250 bucks. But if you go online, Mickey Mouse giclées are 800 bucks. Am I Mickey Mouse?"
Keenan doesn't claim to have the solution for the ailing music industry, but he thinks it generally will sort itself out. Innovative bands will figure out a way to reach fans, while those that won't adapt to the new landscape — bands that refuse to take on the ever-increasing workload — simply will go away.
"We have our own thing figured out," he says. "I think that's how the pieces are going to settle into place. It's going to default back to people who want to do this and are willing to do this. Once people find their own way and find their own audience, they might kind of peek their head up over the crowd long enough to see that there's an entire movement happening, and we did it individually. It's critical mass; it all disseminates in a way that you go, 'Oh, this is the new thing now.' People just did it naturally, and people just did it in their own ways, in their lines and their mediums and surroundings. They'll all step back and realize they've all come to the same place."
Surrounded by round wooden casks cradled by sturdy metal racks at Four Eight Wineworks, Keenan is just about finished with his photo session. The camera's flash illuminates the recesses between the barrels, each worn and stained with the deep reds and purples of the wine within.
Keenan explains that the Four Eight barreling room, named for Arizona's status as the 48th state in the Union, will be Arizona's first wine co-op. He shows off the "Four Eight" logo on his sweater — a splashy, hip-hop graffiti-style tag. Keenan's mark is all over the Verde Valley. It is, after all, the place he feels he was meant to end up. Writing for Up on the Sun in the entry titled "Why Arizona" (October 24), he describes the fever dream he had in 1993 that led him to this valley:
"I dreamt I was flying above a small, mountainside town somewhere in the desert. The town itself, although in the desert, was green and alive. It was a place I'd never seen in real life, but it seemed welcoming and familiar. And, in the distance, I could see a great wave consuming the large cities along the vast horizon. About a month later, I received a cassette in the mail from my friend, the late, great Bill Hicks. He was in the middle of editing his third release and wanted my opinion on the musical portion of the piece. It was a rough mix of what he was calling his Arizona Bay CD. I felt that tickle again. The dream wasn't specific about that place on the mountainside. But I now knew it had to be somewhere in Arizona. I described it to a friend who used to live there. He knew exactly where this place was and drove me there in mid-1995.
"As we entered the Verde Valley, my heart started to race. By the time we got to Jerome, I was vibrating. We — my inner dialogue and myself — knew this was the place. This was like that moment when you realize you've just met your soul mate. You just know. Your heart swells to four times its size. You are equal parts panic and relief.
"This feeling has never left me. This place continues to be an endlessly creative and inspirational crossroads for me. Still waiting to see that 'great wave consuming the large city along the distant horizon.' Any day now."
Finished with his photo shoot, Keenan's eager to get back to work. He checks with his staff, and then he quickly slips out to his truck. As he tears up the dirt road on the way to his next appointment, he gives a quick wave of the hand.
"Chicken Little out."
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