Tool reflect on ‘Ænima’ in their first AP cover story—two decades later
You are reading this story because you want to know what inspires the four members of Los Angeles band Tool. What motivates the band—guitarist Adam Jones, drummer Danny Carey, singer Maynard James Keenan and bassist Justin Chancellor—to create lengthy rock opuses in a culture where ennui sets in at the touch of a remote-control unit? You want to know the band’s lyrics, examine their belief systems and ponder the significance of the floating eyes, the contortionist and the other shifting images that appear on the cover of Tool’s new Zoo album, Ænima. You want to be privy to their vision.
If facts, lyrics and assorted minutiae are what you’re seeking from Tool, here is a public service announcement: Tool advise you to think for yourself before somebody does it for you.
“Most people think, ‘What are you guys about? Explain yourselves, your music, your videos,’” Jones says disgustedly. “Why do we have to explain everything? Entertainment can be like going in the woods. You can see nature; you may understand the basics of it, but you can still enjoy it, and it can affect you in many ways. That’s how we approach music.”
Jones and Keenan formed Tool in 1991, enlisting Paul D’Amour to play bass and workaholic drummer Carey, who was holding down a straight nine-to-five job while playing with Carole King, Pigmy Love Circus and local country bands, as well as with comedy-metallers Green Jelly. (Incidentally, that’s Keenan singing the falsetto phrase “not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin” on Jelly’s only hit, “Three Little Pigs.”) Later that year, Tool signed with Zoo, who released their cement-mixer-heavy EP Opiate in 1992. The quartet’s synergy of atmospheric metal riffage and Keenan’s idiosyncratic vocal style was welcomed by audiences friendly to the stylistic inversions made to hard rock by bands such as Soundgarden and Rage Against The Machine.
Tool’s full-length debut, Undertow, was released in April 1993. The music inside the package was as claustrophobic and textured as the album artwork—graphic images of an obese woman, X-rays and grimy portraits of the band that scream homage to macabre photographer Joel-Peter Witkin. Consider if Black Sabbath had been formed by literate art students rather than a bunch of British working-class blues growlers. Not that any of the million-plus owners of Undertow thought specifically in those terms; regardless of the music’s air-punching/headbanging aspect, there was a tweaked aesthetic at work. Manager and Lollapalooza co-founder Ted Gardner installed Tool on the second stage of Lollapalooza ’93 for a few weeks before he graduated them to the main stage.
Three-and-a-half years in the making, Ænima was released in 1996. Produced by David Bottrill and clocking in at 77 minutes, it’s a harrowing collection of atmospheres and musical tributaries that doesn’t fit into tidy little slots like “metal” or “alternative,” or the grandfather of all musical categories used when your songs run over five minutes, “progressive.” (When Tool were asked if there were one band common to their individual record collections, Carey and Jones settled on King Crimson and the Melvins. If Keenan were King Of America, each home would own a copy of Peter Gabriel’s Passion.)
Ænima offers the brooding energy of “Stinkfist”; Keenan’s accelerated diatribe on credibility-police officers, “Hooker With A Penis”; the portentous metal of “Eulogy”; and the epic “Third Eye.” There are also plenty of in-jokes as segues (“Die Eier Von Satan” is a German recitation of a Mexican wedding-cookie recipe sonically modified to give the feel of an industrial-rock Nuremberg rally). Sure, Ænima is epic and at times sounds self-absorbed, but the disc has more substance than anything on the Billboard charts.
But if you are looking for specific insight into Tool—the band’s modus operandi, the je ne sais quoi, if you will—you’ll have to look elsewhere. The members of Tool don’t owe explanations to anyone: not to the record company, management, critics or fans. The band will tell you that they are only there for the music.
Jones, who has spent six years working in stop-action animation, creates Tool’s maverick videos—which almost never feature the band. Tool have turned down high-profile opportunities such as soundtrack offers and appearances on Saturday Night Live. The band refuse to do commercial-radio edits of their lengthy singles despite their label’s cajoling (“Every Pink Floyd record I ever heard, I never once said, ‘Hey, this is a really long song; it’s not radio friendly,’” Jones quips). After the compilers of the Led Zeppelin tribute album Encomium haggled with Tool over the length of their projected contribution (an 11-minute-plus version of “No Quarter”), the band walked.
Tool are a band first and foremost. AP photographer Chris Toliver was denied a request to shoot individual portraits because the band didn’t want just one member ending up on the cover. There was even a point where the band wanted to be interviewed together so one personality wouldn’t overtake this story. If they wanted any more control, they’d have to dissolve the band and get jobs in national security.
I’m waiting backstage in the Green Room of Fort Lauderdale’s Sunrise Musical Theatre with Tool’s A&R man, Matt Marshall. Marshall’s job on this trip is to placate me and the band, but not necessarily in that order. After I endure three hours of Comedy Central programming and an old Bob Hope movie, the band finally arrive for soundcheck, dinner and—I hope—conversation. It seems they were doing phone interviews for European press.
Marshall corrals new bassist Chancellor for the first interview. Chancellor was enlisted to replace D’Amour after his band Peach (not the American classic-rock revivalists on Caroline) had supported Tool on British dates for the Undertow tour. His brother had turned him on to Tool early on, and Chancellor had been friends with the band’s members prior to being enlisted. How a band like Tool figure into a British music scene driven by disposable fashion is a good place to start.
“The music scene is run by the two papers [NME and Melody Maker], with no scope of radio play,” Chancellor says. “Everyone’s looking over their shoulder. They will only commit to something if someone else does. That’s how you get a movement going, like shoegazing or Britpop. If you don’t conform to that, you are irrelevant. People in England say that Tool is not relevant.” He smiles, adding, “By virtue of that comment, we’re completely relevant.”
Chancellor feels that Tool’s think-for-yourself campaign doesn’t recognize frontiers. He feels that British audiences enjoy being spoon-fed the music of the hour. Chancellor’s personal favorites include Swervedriver, Mint 400, Penthouse and the God Machine—not necessarily Britpop’s Greatest Hits, but still bands with defined characters.
“It’s all about participation on behalf of the listener. It’s about digging in and exploring,” Chancellor continues. “[With Tool], everyone’s perception is different, whereas everyone’s perception of poppy British bands is pretty much the same. It’s all face value. Peach was more along the same lines as Tool sonically than what was going on in England. It makes you spiteful, but it also makes you more belligerent in your convictions.
“I have a friend in England who’s real into electronic trance music. I played him [Ænima], and when we talked about it, he was really excited about it. I suddenly realized that [Ænima] has more to do with [electronica] than anything else in England—both have momentum and move forward. As soon as stuff like ego and personality come into the picture, the purity of the music isn’t there.”
There are many stories about Maynard James Keenan, and you can take your pick from the ones you want to believe. Keenan is an Ohio native who did a stint in the Army and ended up in Los Angeles. He rigorously practices jujitsu, has a young son (who makes an appearance on “Cesaro Summability”) and has a profound respect for folk singer Joni Mitchell and the late comedian Bill Hicks (a portrait of Hicks graces the inner sleeve of Ænima, with the caption “Another Dead Hero” above it).
Keenan enters the Green Room with no introduction save a casual hello. He fixes me with a thousand-yard stare; I’m not sure whether it reflects boredom or contempt.
“In this quick-flip generation,” he says quietly, nursing an herbal tea to soothe his sore throat, “it’s easy for a kid to listen to what his older brother is listening to and say, ‘No. I want to listen to something completely contrary to what my brothers, sisters and parents are listening to.’ Then they find us. I don’t think we’re doing anything innovative; we’re just filling a need.”
But eight- and 15-minute songs are not something the marketplace commonly embraces. If that were true, Green Day would be covering all four sides of Yes’ Tales From Topographic Oceans—and getting paid. It seems that Tool have unearthed an audience eager to make the trip with the band.
“When the four of us are in a room making decisions, it comes down to whether the music holds its own,” Keenan says. “I don’t think we’re writing anything that’s timeless. In the big picture, I think that in 10 years nobody is gonna care. Twenty years, definitely not. Even if 15 million people bought our record and you gathered them together and tried to see them from the moon...” He laughs. “It’s nothing!”
But what about that kid in Squirrel Nut, Iowa, whose first record is a Tool record? When many of us brought home our first record purchase from a department store, we read every liner note; we ingested every image on the cover and in the inner sleeves. In the long run, that was necessary for developing a personal aesthetic and personal growth. Shouldn’t Tool fans expect more? What’s wrong with setting some kid’s perceptions straight?
“The record is written so that there are layers for him to get into,” Keenan says. “He’ll hear ‘Hooker With A Penis’ and initially think it’s a ‘fuck somebody’ song when actually it’s saying fuck everybody and not fuck everybody. It’s about unity, realizing that everything is connected. It’s about breaking down the process of pointing the finger. He’ll get it in about five years.”
So what should people take away from Tool?
“In a perfect world?”
Now you know the world is not perfect...
“Let’s speak in terms of a perfect world, because we’re dreaming today,” he quietly volleys back. “In a perfect world, people in general will hear the album, be inspired and do something extraordinary. I hope someone might use us as a backdrop for inspiration for some other activity they excel in. I’m not going to spoon-feed anybody and rob them of their own personal experiences. I read the interpretations of the lyrics that people send to [the Tool webpage]. They’re way off. But that’s fine.
“I really do have more faith in humanity than most people think I do. I get resentful and upset when people don’t use their heads about stuff. It upsets me when people are selling themselves short and letting themselves down, whether it’s education or information.”
While Keenan is highly articulate, it seems that he also cultivates a streak of misanthropy. During an encore at a recent Cleveland show, the singer stormed offstage after a fan made it over the barrier past security and gave him a hug. Keenan very well could have taken down the intruder with his martial-arts prowess. But why should the thinking people in attendance have to bear the consequences of one stage invasion? Hollywood Babylon author Kenneth Anger wrote that celebrities—actors, musicians, novelists, public figures in general—deserve about as much privacy as God does. Because some people identify with public figures and for the most part are responsible for a part of said figures’ successes, fans then think they deserve more.
“What I wear, how I walk, who I’m fucking, what I eat, what time I go to bed has nothing to do with what we’re doing,” Keenan stresses. “Presenting those things as somehow being part of Tool is deceptive. It’s not honest. I don’t embrace anybody. I want my space, my distance. I’m not a very warm person. I’m sure that most of the people [whose music] I love are assholes. Where I met them is at their music. That inspired me to do something for myself.”
When the lights go down at the Sunrise Theatre, the audience is treated to the animated, billowing smoke-box graphic from the cover of Ænima projected onto two video screens behind the stage. The image is accompanied by a menacing low-end rumble seemingly capable of disrupting human bowel functions.
At the beginning of the sequence, the audience screams, whistles, applauds and yells, “Tooooooooool!” After about six minutes, the band still haven’t shown up onstage. The crowd remains silent, save for the couple of bro-dudes screaming, “What the fuck? Already, huh?”
The audience’s reward for this behavior is “Third Eye,” Tool’s blistering, 15-minute psych-metal journey in praise of spiritual enlightenment. It’s no quick-fix radio hit; Tool are like life, buddy, and nothing ever comes easy with either of them.
Through brute force and volume, Tool burn brightly in front of the crowd. Keenan changes lyrics to the delight and disgust of the fans. Jones’ playing qualifies him for the honor of America’s First Intelligent Guitar Hero; he eschews tired look-at-me fretboard calisthenics for interesting atmospheres. Unfortunately, most of the intriguing musical subtleties that make Ænima so compelling get lost in the live arena. Of note is tonight’s extended intro to “Sober,” which features Jones and Chancellor creating drones while Carey plays random disjointed bursts from his kit.
In the middle of the set, Keenan addresses the crowd. “If any of you have nothing better to do, we’re playing Orlando tomorrow,” he says. “It’s only about four or five hours away.”
A handful of people, obviously heading to Orlando, whoop it up.
“If not,” Keenan adds softly, “we’ll miss you.”
The audience goes nuts. Keenan revels in the knowledge that when your audience rises above a thousand people, there is no room for irony.
“[Tool] are all really smart guys,” Kabir Akhtar, a University Of Miami graduate film student and the creator of Tool’s extensive website, says. Akhtar created the Tool FAQ file, which answers questions that range from general fan info (“What’s the line in the chorus of ‘Sober’?’’) to plain old urban-folklore stupidity (“I hear that Maynard keeps corpses in his home...”).
A few years back, Akhtar sent Keenan a brief email with the site address, telling the singer to check it out. Keenan did and got back in touch with Akhtar with corrections. The website gets thousands of hits each day and was recently reviewed in the New York Post. Akhtar says that although he gets a fair amount of dumb-guy mail, most of the internet surfers logging on to the Tool site are far more intelligent than your typical rock fans. When the MTV program 120 Minutes changed the title of the “Stinkfist” video to “Track #1,” Akhtar had MTV’s email address posted on the page in an attempt to get people to voice their complaints to the network. The avalanche of email was so large, host Matt Pinfield came on the air the next week to apologize about corporate policy.
“The Tool page has its own little agenda,” Akhtar reveals. “On the one hand, it promotes the band, but it also furthers their anti-stupidity message. Sure, I get a lot of ‘Dudes, you rock; come play my high school’ stuff. But a lot of people send me information on Hinduism, Buddhism, Jungian theory and how it applies to [Ænima’s] ‘Forty Six & 2.’ [These fans] are really intelligent people who figure this stuff out. Tool’s music means a lot to them on many different levels. These are the people who get what Tool is all about.”
The next day, at the University Of Florida’s field house in Orlando, Jones and Carey seize the opportunity to shoot some hoops on the remaining court after dinner and before showtime—and before the interview. Even Marshall joins in the fun, leaving me benched with bronchitis and a fraying temper.
“I want Tool to be powerful escapism,” Jones says, back on the band’s coach 45 minutes later. “I want Tool to be like a drug. Take Tool and kick back into your own little world or get aggressive or get all sweet and nice and go ice skating—whatever floats your boat. The bottom line is that we’re pretty selfish; this is our thing, and it’s what we want out of music. The fans are pretty secondary to that. It’s nice that they’re there and that they can appreciate us opening with a 14-minute song. I’m in this to be happy.”
Ænima’s musical schizophrenia can quench the desires of a broad range of music fans. But is that diversity merely tolerated by listeners? If someone loves the electro-rock aggression of “Hooker With A Penis,” will he or she be patient for a 15-minute piece of menacing terror like “Third Eye”?
“There are no rules to this,” he stresses, “and when you start making rules, it gets convoluted. Everyone wants to supply rules to it, and that takes away the magic [of doing] something musically that can remind someone of a sensory experience, a smell, a thinking process, whatever. It’s about exploring, any way to touch the senses.
“We try to push that sense of time,” Jones continues. “When the show begins, the rumble goes on, and the smoke-box
comes up. We leave it up for a while, and I can hear people in the crowd yelling, ‘OK, OK. Come on!’ Some people are thinking there’s a problem because we’re not coming out yet. It’s pushing the element; there’s the long fix and the quick fix. Which one’s better? Neither, but they’re both powerful.” At that point both Keenan and Carey get on the bus to prepare for tonight’s show.
Not much has been said about D’Amour’s departure from the band. It seems odd that someone would walk away from a million-selling band, especially when their music has evolved enough to accommodate the vision of the individual members.
“He was open to anything but not getting anywhere,” Keenan explains. “If you’re sitting there and not doing anything...”
“Where we bring in our individual ideas, he wanted us to come to him,” Jones says. “It’s not what it’s about.”
“Paul was more into pop stuff,” Carey says. “Wait for his album to come out, and you’ll see why he wasn’t happy. What we have now is a really good thing. We’re content with each other’s contributions, and I can’t see that changing.”
Carey remembers the band’s early days, when Nirvana had just hit and the last vestiges of hairspray metal were on the wane. He says that Tool, Helmet and Rage Against The Machine were all signed to major labels around the same time.
“The labels were looking for the next Nirvana,” he remembers, “and once we began to draw crowds, we knew we were next. I hope we can provide an alternative to all of the lowest-common-denominator shit going on right now. I just wish more people were doing something weirder than we are.
“I can’t listen to the radio,” he continues. “It bummed me out heavily when all that punk shit started happening again. That’s as far away from experimenting as anything. The same fucking guitar, bass and drums I’ve heard a million times from back in ’79. Maybe they don’t consider themselves artists, but I think they should have a little more responsibility to try to do something more than to cash in on a trend. I think that shit drags humanity down.”
At this evening’s sold-out show, Tool continue to pulverize the masses. Keenan twitches and turns like a marionette wrestler, while the rest of the band shore him up with a roaring sludge. As the general-admission crowd takes a break between songs from beating the hell out of each other on the gym floor, Keenan, covered from head to toe in dark clay-colored stage makeup, winds up the audience again.
“You know,” he says demurely, “I was reading on the internet that the state of Florida has the best dancers in the country.”
The audience erupts in cheers. The more vociferous members around me are several backward-baseball-cap-wearing bro-dude types. They hoot and holler the loudest because Keenan is speaking to them.
But they’ve got it all wrong. Keenan is not speaking to them. Tool are not speaking to them. They are speaking at them. And that’s OK. But that’s only what I think...
This cover story originally appeared in issue #104. Check out more issues here.