THE GRAPES OF WRATH
Unwavering in their often industry-counterintuitive resolve for over two decades, Tool have risen to the ranks of one of the most worshipped rock acts on the planet with their ornate brand of progressive metal. In the week ahead of the outfit announcing their welcome return to Australia, I spoke with drummer Danny Carey in the AM before being connected with vocalist James Maynard Keenan in the PM. The one proviso of the interviews was to avoid the question of when the next Tool album will arrive. But as Danny and Maynard reveal, the band is currently putting together the pieces for the long-awaited follow-up to 2006’s 10,000 Days.
Do you still take the time to practice drumming at this stage in your career?
I used to practice quite a bit, but I don’t do it so much any more. Usually I tend to play, show up at gigs and play. I do that around once or twice a week. Between that and rehearsing every day, writing on the Tool record, I don’t have time to sit down and practice. I need to though, these little kids coming up doing the drum stuff are running circles around me now. The new generation have gone beyond what I’m doing. You have to have a different approach, and people dig what I’m doing.
How difficult is it coming up with and navigating these time signatures?
I mean I’m lucky enough to be playing with Adam [Jones, guitarist] and Justin [Chancellor, bass], and they come up with a lot of these time signatures with their riffs and what they write. I’m just trying to remain completely flexible and not bend it into something square. Maybe sometimes I do try to push it and make it even weirder, creating a polyrhythm or something rather than playing in unison with them and thinking the same thing, trying to take things to a place that’s interesting as possible. There’s natural flow of things, the way things work in the band. It’s funny, sometimes we hear things differently. If Justin comes up with a weird riff and I can hear it in a different time signature than what he’s hearing it in. That’s the magic of the whole group effort – people can hear meters in different way, or hear it twice as fast or twice as slow, or subdivide in different ways. It keeps it interesting, it can lead to trainwrecks when writing. But we always suss it out before it reaches a critical stage. Some of the best things we come up with are mistakes, then they become parts of the song that we really like.
Are you still exploring electronic pads?
I lean on them pretty heavily, particularly with new material. It’s pretty much the same setup I had before with my Mandala pads that were made for me. I use a program called Battery and I can just dump samples in and out pretty easily on to all these different pads and save it for each song. Just the other day I got almost 100 new samples of ethnic drums and pieces of metal. I always try to keep my palate fresh so I can add textures to the new things we’re working on. I still use the old Korg Wavedrum that I’ve been using for years, plus I just picked up a new one, and Roland Octopad. Plus I still have all the acoustic elements – I got a bunch of new cymbals from Paiste this year, so I’ve been trialling those out.
Have you settled on the acoustic elements of your kit?
I’m always keeping my eye out for new things, but for acoustic drums I’m pretty happy with what I’m getting right now. I guess the cymbal thing is a constantly evolving process, people are always coming up with new things so I try to keep my eyes open. But I have most of my acoustic drums dialled in.
Do you think the dynamic between recording an album and touring the album has changed since Tool first began?
Yeah it’s kind of tricky. The market definitely has shifted. When we first got signed, we did live shows to sell the records. Now we do records to sell the live shows because there really isn’t that much money in record sales anymore. We still have the old school approach of making albums. From the beginning, we never did singles, only albums. We’ve always been kind of archaic in our approach to the system, and I think people are hungry for that. People can still sit down and listen to a whole record, and that’s how I picture our fans.
MAYNARD JAMES KEENAN
Where are you calling from today?
Just finished up in the bunker, in Arizona.
How are things at the winery?
Solid. We just did a bunch of pre-filtering and getting ready for bottling.
You’re in the midst of preparing new Tool material, how does that fit in with your winemaking duties?
It’s more about being a slave to the sun and the rain. There’s a specific schedule that you’re on when it comes to harvest and processing, and making music can be scheduled around that because making music isn’t necessarily seasonal. It does flow with moods, that’s for sure. You can’t really force art. But with the wine, you’re definitely on a clock.
Do you take comfort in being subservient to nature, to have things out of your control?
It’s great. It’s nice to be in the midst of that chaos and navigate it wide awake.
Distribution has changed dramatically since the last Tool album, and Tool has always gone above and beyond in terms of packaging. How do you see that fitting in to the digital realm?
It’s funny, I grew up with vinyl and that was the medium, and of course there was the embarrassing thing called the 8-track too. But vinyl was the main medium. But even back then, I remember looking at the 8-track and thinking that, ‘this is kind of awful’, because you don’t get all the fun images with it. With the album you could have the double gatefold with all this extra information and images that leant themselves to what was going on with these particular songs, you could find out who wrote what, who performed what, who mixed what. It was always a nice complete package, literally and figuratively, with vinyl. I feel that, these days, that is missing with the iTunes experience.
But it could be argued that there is a sort of limitless package that can be offered in the digital form in terms of multimedia, correct?
Yeah, in a way. But generally speaking, people aren’t sitting there at their computer looking at that information. It’s not physically not in front of you. You didn’t have to pick up that information to listen to that music, you know what I mean?
I was speaking to Danny earlier about how it used to be a case of touring to support the album, but now it seems to be a case of recording an album to support the tour.
They’re still hand in hand depending on the project. There are some people who make a living performing live, but there are definitely a lot of people that rely on their digital presence to pay the bills. I kind of find a happy balance of that with Puscifer. I think both points could be easily argued. My touring schedule is wrapped around my winery activities, or I just don’t tour at all. I put out things digitally, and I still do vinyl with all the projects because I just like that medium.
You’re currently working on putting together a biography. Is it daunting to think about your mortality and legacy in that way?
If you read the Motley Crue biography, it’s what you would expect – craziness, hostility, drugs, breaking things, fun times. They’re not the biographies I end up getting in to. I lean toward more story-oriented biographies. Not like a diary of sorts, those can be kind of boring. But I do find that the process is interesting in terms of legacy. You don’t want it to be airing dirty laundry, because that is boring. You want it to find the positive aspects and influences, then highlight those. I’m working with a writer friend of mine, I’ve known her for decades. She’s the older sister of one of my best friends from high school. We’re going through it and putting in all the information then sifting through it, working around it like you would a song.
How do you react to the intense fan discourse in regards to Tool’s body of work?
I guess some of the best chefs in the world have many layers to what they’re presenting in front of you. There are definitely nuances to what you enjoy in that dish, many layers and experiences depending on your palate. That’s what I gravitate towards – that execution of art in general. Whether it be a chef, a winemaker, a painter, a filmmaker. I guess it would come naturally that I would want some of that represented in whatever I do.
Do you subscribe to Barthes’ notion of Death Of The Author, that your work should be interpreted separate to your ipersonal identity?
I don’t know if I’ve actually thought about it too hard. There’s certainly a misconception when it comes to collaborative work. When there’s more than one person working on something, people tend to assign their ideas on who the people are based on the collaboration, when the collaboration has nothing to do with the individual pieces. The collaboration is pure, some kind of alchemy that takes it to a different space.
You’ve dabbled in film, most notably in the documentary Blood Into Wine. Could you see yourself becoming more involved in screen work in the future?
Only when it makes sense. I don’t foresee myself being an actor. Though I don’t mind playing dress-up and pretend as long as the part is right and the people involved are fun to work with, that it’s a challenge for me. But as for it being a new career, no. I don’t think that’s a great idea.
There is a lucrative trend of repackaging and rereleasing albums. Is that an avenue you have considered for Tool?
I haven’t really thought about it. I’m still in the middle of creating new things. The idea of going back and rehashing old things doesn’t really fit on the calendar.
There’s not really a pattern in terms of Tool touring, how do you decide when it’s time to hit the road?
I base it on my back. Whatever the back can take. Whatever set we’re constructing, whether it’s A Perfect Circle, Puscifer, or whatever it is I’m doing, you have to consider the age. Again the internet, people don’t realise what’s happening, and we’re quickly closing in on 50. We’ve been doing this for a while.
What is the plan for when age becomes a more prominent factor?
I just won’t do the things that are tiring. That’s the danger with some of these projects, you see people out there, some ageing rock star trying to do the powerslide. It’s embarrassing, just don’t do the fucking powerslide. Do something else. Present your strengths, not your weaknesses. We’ve already heard about your weaknesses.
[The phone operator interjects to advise there is time for one more question.]
Do you think you’re a funny guy?
I wish I was. I wish I was funnier. And the act of wishing that makes you not funny. I think there are people that have a natural timing and natural ability to be funny. I tend to think of myself to be more like the idiot radio announcer in Good Morning Vietnam who thinks he knows funny.
BY LACHLAN KANONIUK
Tool will tour Australia this April and May.
April 27, 28 – Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne VIC
April 30 – AEC Arena, Adelaide SA
May 3, 4 – Allphones Arena, Sydney NSW
May 6 – Entertainment Centre, Brisbane QLD