It seems a staid approach after three decades of output to simply brush up the enigma of Maynard James Keenan and Tool with superlatives. But Keenan’s envious regimen, in particular, is just too readymade for hyperbole. At the heart of it, Keenan and Tool are a study in contrasts—an anti-personae they’ve helped cultivate purposefully for their own twisted media lampooning over the years. Keenan, as de facto personality of the Tool juggernaut, is a seeker of knowledge and the breacher of goals one minute, court jester the next, fatalist idol-decrier down the line. The shapeshifting demeanor of one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most notoriously reclusive performers (yes, the same artist who has dressed in a full Robocop costume onstage, as well as myriad other androgynous guises) is as fascinating as it is confounding.
Tool has remained plenty busy over the 13 years since the release of their last album, 2006’s 10,000 Days. At the end of August, the band was somewhat reintroduced into the modern cultural zeitgeist (and to some millennials for the first time) with the long-awaited release of their fifth record, Fear Inoculum. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, knocking Taylor Swift out of the top position, a perhaps unexpected byproduct of more than a decade of the Tool Army’s pent-up anticipation. Keenan, in response, somewhat courted the backlash from clueless Swift fans by re-Tweeting a fan-made meme depicting Keenan as Thanos conjuring the disintegration of the hapless pop singer.
The confusion caused by the dethroning of Swift is, regrettably, understandable; Tool was one of the last major holdouts of allowing their music to be streamed on service apps like Spotify, iTunes and others. The official announcement of the release date of Fear Inoculum also included an announcement that the streaming embargo had been lifted on July 29 of this year. As of this writing, the title track of the new record had garnered 16 million plays.
Yes, it’s been a fun sort of comeback thus far.
Ignoring the social media back-and-forth spawned by its release (Keenan also came under scrutiny this year by online teenybopper automatons for tweeting “#bummer” when Justin Beiber acknowledged his love of Tool in an Instagram post), Fear Inoculum on its own merit is a startling collection of progressive neo-metal that shows the depth of the band’s emotional and spiritual arsenal. Keenan’s vocals, as ever, are a centerpiece to a long and winding curation of radical sound.
In each of his musical endeavors—for the uninitiated, he is also the vocalist for A Perfect Circle, and his catchall solo cabaret project Puscifer—Keenan’s voice has the capacity to invoke spiritually provocative ululations and honey-sweet asides, as well as hellish conjurings of evil. Tool has garnered a worldwide fan base made up of obsessive disciples, often blinded by the magic in the music, forgetting the multifaceted humanity of the four guys writing it. Keenan, in turn, has gone on record against the kind of idolatry that seems to follow him around.
As such, he fled Los Angeles during the prime of Tool’s ascension, settling in the small former mining town of Jerome, Arizona, population 455. The intimacy of the region, though, suits Keenan’s community-minded milieu.
“I’m from a small town in Ohio, and grew up in an even smaller town in Michigan,” said Keenan in a recent email interview with Submerge. “The Verde Valley resonates with my core. And for the most part it’s much easier to identify the Living from the Zombies and Vampires I started to encounter in L.A. after the success.”
Keenan and Tool—the legendary quartet rounded out by guitarist Adam Jones, bassist Justin Chancellor and drummer Danny Carey—have forged a surprisingly reclusive existence outside the live setting since their inception. The beginning of the band’s media evasiveness or the shrouding of its likeness was palpable from the start, with their breakout album Undertow not featuring easily detectable images of the band in its artwork (unless you count pseudo-masochistic images of Keenan with pins sticking through his mouth), and the video for “Sober” less an unveiling of the band’s personages than a disturbing claymation horror short directed by Jones. While their stock in the worldwide metal/grunge scene grew thanks to the early ‘90s alternative-rock explosion (Headbanger’s Ball, Lollapalooza, flannel), and eventually their visages were revealed to a wider audience, the blueprint for how to remain somewhat anonymous was already put into motion. Keenan even vacated his position at the front of the stage during live shows and instead performs back near Carey’s drums.
But there are Tool fanatics for a reason. The imagery in both Keenan’s labyrinthine, vivid lyrics, as well as the band’s Alex Grey art accompaniment connote communes with an unseen Overmind who bequeaths passages and psychedelic instrumental opuses from elsewhere. The men in Tool take their work seriously; they just don’t take themselves all that seriously with relation to it. It is the expectation that to have plunged into the depths of cathartic release isn’t enough—you must embody it at all times. Tool fans, by and large, may be oblivious to this rift, but there are plenty more who’ve taken offense to the band’s seeming ambivalence to their adoration. It’s an unfortunate plight for such a chameleonic group of artists.
“First of all I named our band ‘Penis’ FFS [acronym for “for fuck’s sake”]. We started as a dick joke. And then I named all the other bands with similar genital jokes,” riffed Keenan. “I’m exaggerating, of course. They aren’t just dick jokes. I can say lighten up [to fans who take the band too seriously]. But if you are a dopamine junkie [a term Keenan has cross-employed for social media addicts], you won’t be able to hear through the screaming voice of your unconscious addiction. People have developed their false sense of identity through the subjects they find even remotely offensive.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that Keenan was a little reticent to talk much about Fear Inoculum, or the varied reasons why it took so long to come out. Still, he offered modest speculations on how it might have been different were it to have been released earlier (Keenan has stated in other outlets that he thought what would become Fear Inoculum sounded great eight years ago).
“Had the music been completed sooner, the stories would have been told from a different perspective,” said Keenan. “Younger narrator, different story. Not better. Not worse. Just different.
“One could argue ad nauseam from all points and all perspectives,” he continued. “Examples and graphs and feelings, etc. It is as it is, and it happened as it happened. The end.”
Tool’s headlining set on the third day of the 2019 Aftershock Festival will be more than just a kickoff to the band’s North American tour in support of Fear Inoculum; it’s also an opportunity for Tool fans and wine fans to converge with the common denominator being both are lovers of all things Tool. Danny Wimmer (of Danny Wimmer Presents, Aftershock’s festival production company) and Keenan met during a yesteryear benefit dinner for the TJ Martel Foundation, and bonded over their mutual love of wine, enough so that Aftershock is featuring Keenan’s thriving Caduceus Cellars wines during the festival.
Keenan’s winemaking ventures were initially lambasted by those with no fair understanding of his ambitious nature. Ignoring his proven creative drive, having been in Tool for 20 years at that point, as well as then-newer projects A Perfect Circle and Puscifer (not to mention Keenan’s ongoing Brazilian jiu jitsu training, interests in sustainable community-based commerce as well as being a low-key comic badass), it was presumed this foray would be a mere financial partnership into a world he didn’t know anything about. The presumption proved to be laughable.
“The truth is in the bottle. You can’t fake that,” stated Keenan. “But at the same time, you can’t expect everyone spanning from novice to expert to drop what they’re doing and coddle your bruised ego over not being immediately accepted into this ancient tradition. There are tried and true regions that have been through every phase of this process multiple times. Failure after success after failure over and over again. We, as in Arizona, and I, as the dismissed rock dude playing winemaker, are just beginning that long, long journey. I can’t hold it against anyone who shrugs off my efforts. But at the same time it won’t dim my passion. I’m not doing it for them. I’m doing it for us.”
Keenan (with specific viticultural guidance and tutelage) has built Merkin Vineyards and Caduceus Cellars from the ground up, along the way legitimizing his winemaking acumen and his passion for farming in the northern Arizona Verde Valley. His ongoing effort to remain as busy as just about any human on Earth could possibly be is undebatable, but he’s strategic about his approach to being pulled in so many directions, especially when it comes to hitting the road.
“There are meditative moments and breaks sewn into my schedule that allow me to recharge. Otherwise, resentment can fester,” explained Keenan on his mental and physical preparation before the upcoming Tool tour. “As harvest is winding down, I make sure to make adjustments to my diet, exercise and sleep schedule. Harvest and martial arts tend to have you up at 6 a.m. That is absolutely manageable provided you hit the sack at a reasonable hour. But road life is far more taxing.”
Keenan’s winemaking routine also happens to be creatively beneficial to him, as he explains.
“I do some of my best writing during vintage,” said Keenan. “The resting periods I spoke of earlier are when I clear my proverbial cache, and mute the voices. But during harvest, those words, stories, melodies are always being refreshed in the background. That’s why Mat Mitchell [Puscifer guitarist] knows to be on standby for a quick trip out to Arizona to track in the Bunker Studio. The art of unconscious writing is a tough one to develop. It requires you to look without looking. Consciously unconscious.
“I know,” he admitted, “I sound like a Hallmark fortune cookie.”
Keenan also illuminated the parallels he finds between making an album and the process of the harvest at his vineyard.
“Like individual melodies, riffs or rhythms, every [grape] variety on every block we farm has a unique voice,” said Keenan. “We treat them all as if they are a unique song to be nudged along and developed. Nudged but not shoved. Getting out of the way is probably the most difficult lesson to be learned.”
If trends continue, all rock stars worth their grapes will end up as farmers one day, yearning for yields from homegrown harvests that have nothing to do with why anyone pays more attention to them than the millions of other farmers tilling the soil. Other notable rock ‘n’ roll winemakers include Les Claypool and Dave Matthews, to name only a few. Neither, it should be noted, and with no offense intended, appear to be nearly as disciplined or as hands-on as Keenan.
But the dedication has everything to do with returning to their roots … remembering what it feels like to truly labor, to be hungry and have to feed yourself. Keenan has essentially eschewed the seduction of the party-god rock icon farce, and instead thrived under the humility of understanding he doesn’t know everything, hasn’t done everything and that striving to learn as much as possible about the things that interest him even one iota is the path he alone must take. Long after the screams die down from another blistering, humane, mindfuck of a live performance, he understands he’ll just be Maynard James Keenan again. A dude in the world.
To those for whom that humility is simply too unforgivable, or shamanistic, or even hokey, luckily you’ve got five entire Tool records of psychedelic prog-metal epics to console you.
Catch Tool as they headline Aftershock on Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019. Aftershock runs from Oct. 11–13 at Discovery Park (1000 Garden Highway, Sacramento). Other headliners during the weekend include Slipknot, Korn and Staind. For more information on tickets, visit Aftershockfestival.com.
**This piece first appeared in print on pages 26 – 29 of issue #301 (Sept. 25 – Oct. 9, 2019)**