Music News

Sharp Tool

Tool grants very few interviews, never appears in its own videos, has a singer who often performs in the shadows onstage, and releases albums full of complex, epic songs that fans scour for secret codes and meanings that the band neither denies nor confirms. The rare occasions that front man Maynard James Keenan talks to the press generally result in stories about how "mysterious" Keenan is and how Tool is an elusive, enigmatic band.

Or maybe that's just a bunch of bullshit the band perpetuates for its own amusement. In any case, there's no getting a straight answer from Keenan, who called New Times before an August show in Vancouver. "You say we're elusive and enigmatic because we told you that," Keenan says. "You're doing an interview, and I tell you that we're elusive and enigmatic, and then you print that. I could tell you I had three arms, and if you printed it, people would probably believe it, even though they can look at a picture of me and see that I only have two arms."

Clearly, Keenan isn't keen on the press. He makes no secret of the fact that he's annoyed with reporters who don't do their research before talking to him, and even went as far as to insert ridiculous and untrue factoids about the band in the press release for its 2001 album, Lateralus (things like "the band bakes cookies together"). He's not crazy about doing interviews, which may be why he's only quoted in two of the band's five "official" press clippings (recent pieces from Blender, Guitar World, Billboard, Modern Drummer, and Revolver). But after repeated requests for an interview with any member of Tool and a final plea that there would be no story on the band without some Q&A, Tool's publicist arranges a 15-minute phone call from Keenan, which we've prepared for with hours of research.

But Keenan's terse about most things.

Is it true that he's an avid gun collector? Yes.

What's his favorite firearm? He doesn't have one.

What does he think of Tool's current tour mates, Isis? "They're a good band."

What are his favorite wines? (A valid question, given that the guy owns a winery.) "Australian, French, and Spanish wines."

When will the video for the band's latest single, "Vicarious," be released? "Soon."

The very private Keenan — who has a soft, slightly nasal speaking voice — can't be expected to be chatty, especially when fans and journalists have likened him to an alien for his surreal onstage demeanor (i.e., performing in diapers, kabuki costumes, and bizarre full-body paint). But the idea that Keenan and Tool are mysteries to be unraveled isn't necessarily true, either.

The article about Tool that appeared in the August 2006 issue of Blender and Keenan's bio on the Web site reveal that Keenan was born James Herbert Keenan in 1964 in Ravenna, Ohio. He joined the U.S. Army in 1982 but dumped West Point Academy for art school. He once worked in a pet store. He's unmarried and has an 11-year-old son named Devo. He owns Merkin Vineyards and Caduceus Cellars in Page Springs, Arizona (near Jerome in the northern part of the state), and makes his own wines. He enjoys cooking. He admits to liking Joni Mitchell records.

Other than the fact that he became a prog-metal icon starting with Tool's multi-platinum 1992 album Undertow, the guy's pretty normal. And contrary to what some people might think, Keenan does care what the music press writes about Tool. During our interview, he brings up how the press plays off the idea that Tool, which has sold more than 14 million records to date, is an "underground" band.

"Yeah, we're an underground band," Keenan says, with more than just a hint of sarcasm. "We're an 'underground, indie band' that sells millions of records and plays arenas. How is that an 'underground, indie band'?"

Okay, maybe Keenan's entitled to a bit of an attitude — after all, with songs that usually stretch well over six minutes, and Claymation videos with imagery so disturbing that many programmers won't play them, Tool isn't exactly the most commercially viable band around, and yet its last two albums both debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts. What does Keenan think about that?

"It's horrible," he says with more sarcasm. "What do you want me to say?"

Much of Tool's success can be attributed to the band's intensely devout fans, who spend hundreds of dollars for concert tickets from scalpers for prime seats at Tool's sold-out shows; pay anywhere from $40 to $99 a year to be in the band's official fan club, The Tool Army; gobble up merchandise; and camp out overnight to be among the first to buy the band's CDs, which helped Tool's sixth and newest album, 10,000 Days (released May 2), sell more than half a million copies its first week in stores.

The album's illustrious packaging probably helped, too. True to Tool's history of producing a visual component to complement its audio odysseys, 10,000 Days comes in a glossy black gatefold cover embossed with the kaleidoscopic future wasteland imagery of Tool guitarist and art director Adam Jones, with built-in stereoscopic glasses for viewing the art. There's also a 15-page, full-color booklet full of grimoire-ish graphics and photos of the band members surrounded by occult classics like skulls, candles, daggers, black birds, and bloody things in jars. It's so cool, even Keenan's talking about it.

"We want all the elements of what we present to have a flavor to it as far as taste, mood, and depth," Keenan says. "Nowadays, more people are downloading music than buying CDs — at least that's what they say — and we wanted to present something that wasn't just a piece of music, but a piece of art. And maybe more people will want to go out and buy the CD because of that."

When it comes to its live shows, Tool is even more visual, using everything from huge screens showing surreal, frenetic slideshows of Jones' art to naked people covered in gold paint swaying on cables high above the stage. Tool will unveil its full-scale production on its current tour, having solidified its set earlier this year with a tour of smaller, more intimate venues. Phoenix fans should be pleased to know that "something special" is planned for the show here.

But, of course, Keenan won't say any more than that.

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Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea