"Maynard's not afraid of a sharp left turn," says Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello in A Perfect Union of Contrary Things, the upcoming authorized biography of his friend Maynard James Keenan. As the book progresses, the guitarist's characterization starts to sound like a massive understatement. A Perfect Union, written by Keenan in collaboration with longtime friend Sarah Jensen and out November 8th, chronicles 50-plus years, jam-packed with disparate pursuits and improbable episodes.
High school poet. Cross-country champ. West Point student. Pet-store display specialist. Music-video set assistant. Martial artist. Actor-in-training. Even setting aside the Tool, A Perfect Circle and Puscifer vocalist's relatively high-profile side gig as a winemaker, Keenan has led an extraordinary number of lives.
"If you're gonna play Monopoly, you're in it all the way," he told Rolling Stone of his guiding philosophy in a recent conversation. "No matter where you land. It doesn't matter if you don't own Park Place. If you decided to play, you're gonna play it better than you did yesterday and better than the person next to you."
Given the severity of Keenan's work ethic, it's surprising to discover through A Perfect Union just how long it took him to find the niche that would eventually make him famous. Time and again in the book's lengthy recounting of Keenan's pre-Tool life, he steps up to the mic to sing and ends up shocking friends who only knew him in some other capacity. "Even though this is a biography, I feel like it's more of a map," he says. "It's just a map of certain decisions and how they were arrived at, if nothing else, for an inspiration for me, to chronicle where I've been, to know where I'm going, and also for an observer to look at it and see how it applies to their life."
Keenan spoke to RS about his Army days, his Joni Mitchell obsession, his fateful encounter with early Tool adopter Johnny Depp, what Green Jellö taught him and much more during an in-depth chat the day after Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton squared off in the first presidential debate.
Did you watch last night's debate?
No, I didn't. I just don't know what the point would be – 2016 sucks, in general. Loss of life, family members, artists, professionals. It's a strange fucking year.
Agreed. So Trump is getting you down?
No, just the polarizing of people in general. And the bipartisan politics. It's divisive. There's so many things on the horizon; there's so many things happening in the universe in general and in our nation and just in people ... that I just feel like all this is a divisive distraction.
Moving on to the book, it seems like this is your attempt to say, "OK, there's this thing that everyone knows me best for doing, but there's all this other stuff that's gone on in my life that carries just as much weight in terms of my overall story." Were you trying to reclaim your narrative in a way?
Not necessarily. I'm just trying to tell a story and just show that there's a process that I feel like has been lost. Just kind of trusting that inner voice and making decisions that bring you places. There's also an overall broad stroke of kind of getting back to what matters. That connection, where you are and how you relate to that environment and your community. I feel like that shit's a really important message for now.
In addition to telling your own story, are you trying to impart a lesson, or just some wisdom to your fans?
I feel like there have been conscious and unconscious decisions throughout the years that I've made. And if there's any kind of benefit to those, if I can actually map some of those out. ... I'm no Deepak Chopra; I'm not Tony Robbins by any stretch. But I have seen a few things in my day, and if I can just kind of map some of them out and then have somebody else tell that story in their voice like a third party, maybe I can recognize some of those milestones. Or maybe somebody who's in a weird place can recognize them and use them to kind of move forward.
As the book depicts, you've been involved in, and excelled at, an amazing number of things. Obviously the military was a key one. The book suggests that seeing the movie Stripes influenced you to join – is that really how it went down?
Does that sound like a better story than, "I just needed the money?" 'Cause again, at the end of the day I'm an entertainer so I'm gonna tell you the story that sounds a little bit more entertaining. If that inspires you, that's great. Was Stripes part of that decision? Absolutely. Was it the only part of that decision? Probably not. It's not in my nature to just map it out for you.
It seems like for the time you were there, despite needing the money, you were obviously invested in it. I remember seeing a speech you gave at a show where you said you'd gotten some flak over expressing what some had perceived as pro-military sentiment. Is there a specific message you're trying to send in this book regarding your feelings about the military in general?
Not necessarily. I feel like from an artist perspective there is that warrior's perspective and I feel like that's in each one of us. And if you can embrace it in some way and understand ... even in terms of martial arts, when you step into that ring, on that mat, you have to kind of embrace that warrior side of you. You're competing against yourself more than you're actually competing against your opponent across from you.
Of course, you know the big pick-up we usually see when it comes to military is of course the entire globalization and our invasion of other areas for our own interests. That's not really what I embraced about the military. What I embraced about the military is that that warrior's mindset that you're competing against yourself and just understanding that you have to be able to get into that mindset in certain situations. But at the end of the day, you're competing against yourself.
Would you say that the military helped you and your journey, and you would recommend that to someone else if they were looking to get the same thing out of it?
Um ... yeah, that's a tough one. Because when I joined the military, I was pretty convinced that all of that crap was over. I believed we kind of found some kind of groove as far as world peace. We didn't really have any major conflicts – Grenada and a few things when I was in. Yeah, we were going through a lot of growing pains as a nation. I don't know that I would recommend going into active service right now. It might be good for some people. Yeah, that's a tough one, because the parts that I'm looking for, that discipline, that connection, was being absolutely vulnerable and having your life in the hands of your teammates, your friends, your colleagues. The growth that occurs in those spaces where you're just broken down and then being built back up – there's a lot to be said for those kind of things.
But being an extension of the global world domination, I don't know that that actually would be a goal at all [laughs]. Mixed feelings.
It seems like you'd already embraced that team mentality in terms of the sports you were involved in growing up. I was really fascinated by the parts in the book where your old cross-country and wrestling teammates talked about what a leader you were.
Yeah, they're saying that now. Those guys were calling me a prick back then, though – as you would [laughs]. And I was. And I am.
So you think you were too hard on people at that time?
No, not at all. But when you don't want to do a thing ... I guess the part of the military experience that spoke most to me is if you know that you have a way out of something, you're not really fully invested. So by joining the military, you're stuck now. You're stuck there for three to six years, depending on your involvement. So you can't get out, so you actually ... you're in. You can play Monopoly, but you can walk away from the table any time, it's just a game. But if you're in a situation where you can't get out of it, you've chosen to be a part of it, that's where you really find out what you're made of.
So a lot of the guys who were into sports back then, the cross-country – they were just kind of in it because it was a social thing to do. It's kind of what you did when you're in high school. So for me to actually drive them and push them, that was a wake-up call for them. Like, Why is this guy being such a hard-ass and a drill sergeant? It's just cross country [laughs]. They weren't necessarily fully invested. But that planted the seeds for them to be fully invested later, 'cause now you've got one of them that's the athletic director at the high school and the other guy, he teaches physical education and he's the cross-country coach for the boys' and girls' teams.
So, you know, that planted the seed in that community. It's helped them find their own drive and they're very successful with it – successful as teachers, as coaches, and as fathers and mothers.
"Most musicians are one-dimensional, so when success comes, they don't have the faintest idea how to deal with it. And most of them implode."
Have you ever felt those tendencies coming out in a band setting?
I think bands in general, not necessarily the ones I'm involved in, but I think [people in] bands in general are the ones who ... they kind of have the discipline enough to learn how to play their instrument. And they have some kind of accolades or positive reinforcement for some achievements they might've had early on. Playing guitar, playing drums ... so you know, as human beings you like that praise, you like those accolades. So you pursue it more to get more of those things. But in general, most musicians nowadays and in recent history, they lack the discipline outside of that one discipline. So in a way, they're one-dimensional, so when success comes, they don't have the faintest idea how to deal with it. And most of them implode. Most of them fall apart. They didn't have the discipline back then – they just had the discipline on what their single focus was, whatever instrument it was.
That theme of discipline comes up again during the Boston and L.A. years, when you worked in pet stores. It's a job that could've been a means to an end for some people, but for you it seemed like there was a real calling there. Could you talk about how you found that you had a talent for that kind of work and how you became so devoted to it?
I think that's something that's somewhat missing, just in general. ... I'm working right now to open up a second tasting room under Merkin Vineyards, Caduceus Cellars. And there's a very successful family that has several locations near where I'm opening up mine and I asked them about just the simplest things like, "Do I need a host or a hostess?" And the funny thing is that that person said that even in their places and even in the places he's seen that are actually even much busier than theirs in another city, those people in that position in our valley were operating at 50 percent [laughs].
So he's basically saying nowadays people just don't have that motivation or that thing that says, "This is it, and I'm going to make this the best thing, and I'm going to do the best at this thing. I'm gonna be better at this thing than anybody else." And I don't know if that's a symptom of the iPhone, disconnected generation, the Facebook age or if it's something that every person that reaches my age looks back and sees in the upcoming generations. You remember your grandfather bitching about, "These kids, they think this and that," walking up hills in the snow both ways [to school], all that crap. But I think somewhere along the line I understood that, and it might be inspiration from my father, from my mother, I don't know. ... But if you're gonna play Monopoly, you're in it all the way. No matter where you land. It doesn't matter if you don't own Park Place. If you decided to play, you're gonna play it better than you did yesterday and better than the person next to you.
So, if you're gonna sign on to be a journalist like you, the thing that frustrates me is if you don't even know how to do your job. So if I come off as being a little bit judgmental [in an interview], it's because you chose to be the guy doing this thing you chose to do. Why can't you do it well? Why can't you choose to do it well?
Present company excluded?
I'm not including you in that, but I'm sure you've read some journalists' pieces that you go, "How did this person even get that job?"
I think it can sometimes take like a greater foresight, though, to say, "This thing I'm doing right now, which might not be the thing I ultimately want to do, but I still have to be in the moment and do this thing."
Absolutely. You have to treat it like there is no other option. This is it forever.
I love going to Japan 'cause you can be anywhere in Japan – you know, at a gas station – and the guy springs out like this is the best thing that's ever happened and he's pumping your gas and he's happy and he has a job and he's personable and, I don't know, it's just ... it's very inspiring when you meet somebody that they're living big in whatever they're doing.
In the early L.A. years, you were kind of bouncing around between different pursuits that people might not know about. Green Jellö, for example: For someone who doesn't know that band at all, or beyond the "Three Little Pigs" video, what did you gain from that experience?
It evolved over the years away from what I initially responded to in terms of people in a room working together. I think Bill [Manspeaker, bandleader] had a different idea for the project and it ended up going a different direction and a lot of those guys ended up not being around for it, but that original incarnation – well, not original, but the L.A. incarnation of that – in 1990 was a lot of extremely talented musicians all in a room jamming, and they were just playing. And then they would end up coming up with jams that ended up evolving into Green Jellö songs, but this is, you know, three guitar players, two drummers, two bass players, all just shredding with each other.
So, to me, that was very inspiring to see them just enjoying this and they were working at record stores and working at various jobs. This was their ambition. They just wanted this, there was no, "Well, we're gonna make it big and go somewhere else with this." It was more about, "This is what we want to do, in this room right now. What do we have to do during our day that will make it possible for us to all get together and do this at night?" They were just loving what they were doing. It wasn't a stepping stone to another thing. This was life. This was it. So that was really inspiring for me.
At the same time, you were working as a set assistant on music videos like Tom Petty's "Into the Great Wide Open." What did you take away from that?
You know, it was fun because I love those puzzles. I'm not really sitting there at the airport doing crossword puzzles, not like that. Give me the parameters: "Here's what you have and we have to come up with something within this." That really was inspiring for me because usually these things are low-budget and they didn't have what they needed to complete the mission. Or somebody didn't quite get what they needed. So I had to be the guy who's scrambling to put the pieces together.
Did you have any interaction with Tom Petty or Johnny Depp on that particular shoot?
Johnny, yeah, but not Tom Petty, no. Johnny Depp, you know, it's probably long gone now, but he is the first person that I ever gave an actual 4-track rehearsal demo of Tool. Very appreciative and he called me out the next day on it in front of a bunch of people, it was very embarrassing.
Called you out in a good way, you mean?
Yeah. In the Petty video, he's riding up on the motorcycle to go, you know, knock over all the motorcycles outside the bar, or whatever. And as he was riding up, he pauses in front of this whole street full of people to thank me for the tape and call me out by name. I don't know how he recognized me in the crowd, but he pointed it out. I think he's just a big music fan.
Also around that time you were rehearsing with Tom Morello and Brad Wilk and came close to joining the band that became Rage Against the Machine. ...
Well, there wasn't a Rage when I was working with Tom. I think he was working with Timmy [Commerford], perhaps. I can't remember if Brad was drumming or not. This is very foggy at that time 'cause I didn't know Brad yet, so you'd have to talk to Brad, find out if it was actually him. We actually were in a rehearsal space – this is after [Morello's former band] Lock Up was dead and he was trying figuring out where he gonna go next, and so yeah, it was right around the same time all those things were happening. And I think just the vibe of where they wanted to go ... I guess I had a little bit of that Green Jellö thing going on in me still, so I was looking for almost a Puscifer approach to music at that point. They were looking for a more serious approach, so I think that was pretty much immediate. If there was a consideration for that at all, it was very brief, but it was all at the same time,
I don't know how dramatized this is in the book, but there's this bit about you sitting in the back of these clubs seeing these bands playing, as you put it, this kind of slap-bass, funk-metal type of thing, and that you were back there plotting out Tool in your head as a reaction to what you were seeing going on around you. Were you actually forming the aesthetic of Tool in your mind?
You know, that works well for a screenplay. But, you know, the actuality of it is probably a lot looser, a combination of many moments. But yeah, when you see something that's just not right, just like working in the pet store and seeing when a display of merchandise just seems like it hurts your head ... It's just all chaotic and nothing makes sense and there's no rhythm to it, there's no structure. When you see a band up there that just doesn't need to be up there, of course, I'm the vocal Irishman in the back, talkin' shit when I can see that it's not right. You don't need to be up there, in general. You can see. ... I'm the critic.
What did it feel like to have that critic attitude but then to step in the room and feel your ideas actually coming together and jelling? You'd already been in C.A.D., and you'd done other performances in Michigan, but as the book portrays it, Tool was fully formed by the time you played your first loft show. Is that accurate, that Tool was that commanding right from the start?
I have no idea. You know, I was in the middle of it. All I knew was the fun stuff. Some things felt right and some things didn't seem like they were together. So, if the energy wasn't right to begin with, it probably wasn't gonna last. So, you know, you had to kind of go with that gut of what you're feeling. I played with a lot of different people at that point in time, and you could see how some of it worked and some of it didn't. I don't know, you can't really put your finger on it, right? There's a million stories of Jimmy Page back in the day messing around with different bands, where he came from, where he was going, and it just kind of all fell together in the right way. And as soon as you knit those sounds together, you go, "Oh, you know, we can build on this." I would love to think it was a master plan. There's no fucking way you can claim that. No way. You've just got to let it happen. If it feels right, you just keep building on it. Until it doesn't feel right. It's hard to build on something that doesn't feel right anymore.
It was interesting reading about how relatively little you'd sang publicly before that. There was one moment where you got up with you high school choir, there was another one where you sang karaoke in Boston, and then you come to this first moment of Tool debuting at a loft party. In each instance, you have people around you that didn't even know anything about your vocal ability, being kind of like shocked by it.
Well, I had been publicly singing, but not in those kinds of circles where people would be paying attention, I suppose. Church, choir, you know. When you were in high school, did you go to the choir performances?
I had friends in a cappella. ...
So you're the one.
The karaoke thing wasn't karaoke. It was an actual full band. It was called the Cantab in Central Square, Cambridge, where it was open-mic night on a particular night. Wonderful to go hear these guys sing and perform. Cheap, shitty beer and ... I think at some point there were a lot of cameo appearances from Joe Perry and Steven Tyler in that location too. You'd have to confirm that, but I think that was one of those places that Joe Perry would walk into.
Do you remember what you sang at the open mic?
"King of the Road." They wanted to kick me the fuck out of there. Like, "Why do you want to sing 'King of the Road?' We know it, but why do you want to sing that one?" "It's because my friend Kjiirt [Jensen, brother of A Perfect Union author Sarah] wants to hear it, that's why." He was sitting there, and he was like, "Do 'King of the Road.'"
So moving a little beyond that L.A. period when the band started to get some kind of traction, I really enjoyed the description of Lollapalooza '93 – where you sang with Alice in Chains at one point – which I think for a lot of people is a golden moment of that era of rock music. What do you remember about that tour?
I guess you could probably save that response for when we do the Tool biography. You know, it's hard to say. I've had a lot of golden moments. That might've been one of 'em.
Do you plan to write a different book about that band in particular?
Oh, yeah, that would absolutely be in the cards, I think. It's just a matter of all four of us agreeing how that's gonna go forward. That's always the trick, isn't it?
This book you just put out is very adamantly not a Tool book. Tool is a part of it, but in some ways, there's probably more Puscifer or the winemaking or even the sort of pre-musical life. Was that a calculated thing?
There's so much stuff out there about Tool, and there's so many things about me with Tool out there right now it would just be redundant. And some of the more behind-the-scenes things that go on with the band, it should be a volume that's done by all four of those people, not just me. So, a lot of the things are saved for that next incarnation. Even though this is a biography, I feel like it's more of, like we talked about, a map – just a map of certain decisions and how they were arrived at, if nothing else for an inspiration for me, to chronicle where I've been, to know where I'm going, and also for an observer to look at it and see how it applies to their life.
Looking at it that way, there's a couple moments in the book when an idea of destiny comes into play, like when you go on that drive with Tim Alexander to your current home of Jerome, Arizona, and the town comes into view and you have this feeling like you're returning to your natural home. Would you say that moving to Arizona marked the beginning of a period of relative contentedness for you?
Yeah, absolutely. And I think everybody has those places. They don't necessarily need to move to Jerome. They have their Jerome in them; they just have to be open enough to find it.
We're talking about you moving through all different phases of life, and in the book, there's a bittersweet aspect to that because in some ways how active you've been was a reaction to your mom being incapacitated for much of her life and not being able to explore that freedom. Do you see a lot of this stuff that you've done as a tribute to what she couldn't do?
Yeah, I think it's both. I think my father was very active. You know, he's probably running up a fuckin' mountain right now. So, having a person who you could see who does not squander that ability to move, to do things, to be positive, to share with people, and then my mother who couldn't move and couldn't do things and couldn't communicate but still shares with people, still did her best. Whatever she could do, she did. It's just a foundational element that drives me, but it comes from both of them, not just her. It comes from him as well.
There's a very brief moment in the book where you talk about the sexual abuse your mother suffered as a child and how it plays into Tool's lyrics. What was it like for you to confront that fact of your family past even in such a fleeting way?
I think like most things – the rich girl in Beverly Hills who breaks a nail, and her entire universe it coming apart because of it – it's all a matter of perspective. Those kind of tragedies, you know, everybody has them. People around the world have them far worse than we will ever have. So what you can do is you can apply those things and build on them and learn from them rather than carrying them around at a torch for "woe is me." There's just things that happen. You just have to build on them and move past them and use them as a lesson because we do not have it bad. We haven't had it bad. So any of those things are just things that happen, and you just ... you gotta build on them.
Did you have an open dialogue with your mom about those things?
No, not at all. No, not a chance. Irish-Italian, are you kidding me? No way. You don't talk about that stuff.
And did she know that it was somehow coming out in your music?
No. No, not really. She just liked the sound of a voice, and she was very happy that she could have been a part of it.
Another theme in the book is your love of comedy, and your friendships with people like Bill Hicks and David Cross. There was a nice quote where you said, "If you want to follow me as an artist, you have to laugh." Why do you think it is that you resonate so much with that culture?
Because most [comedians] are people who have had weird stuff happen to them in the past, and they've built on it. Same thing we just talked about. But a lot of those people are tragic, miserable human beings that are making the best of a bad situation. I don't know if you've ever hung out with comedians. They're miserable. But they're doing their best. They're doing what they can to relieve that pain and whatever friction they came up with or experienced, their insane mental disorders. ... They're wonderful people, and they're doing their best.
Yeah, I rewatched some of the Blood Into Wine documentary the other day and remembered that you have those segments with Tim and Eric in there. I was thinking about how much awkwardness and pain plays into their work, and it's interesting to think about that as a flipside to something like Tool.
I don't know. I see it all as being interconnected: Puscifer, Perfect Circle, Tool, the comedy of David Cross, Bill Hicks, Tim and Eric, John C. Reilly. I don't see any difference at all. It's all the same kind of process. Different reactions, different results, probably different stimulus to begin with, but in general, it's thoughtful. As chaotic as the Tim and Eric comedy seems to be, it's absolutely thoughtful.
"A lot of comedians are tragic, miserable human beings that are making the best of a bad situation."
Yeah, I completely agree, especially in light of this idea you're talking about of turning discomfort and pain into art.
But you have to remember that their approach to amplifying that discomfort and frustration, the result and outcome of that, the resolution of it, you don't see on the screen, you feel in yourself because you're laughing your fucking ass off. There's the result. The result isn't necessarily in front of you: It's in you, as an observer.
Certainly. There's a couple other figures that pass through this book. One is Joni Mitchell, who you had the chance to interview once. Have you been in contact with her since she's been ill recently?
No, I haven't been in contact at all. You know, she lives a pretty isolated life with her close friends, which is understandable. I think the thing that resonated most with me is I didn't, you know ... it wasn't really a gender thing for me as a child, when my aunt was playing me some of this music. It was just music. And if you really go back and look at some of the early, oh, even the later records, but even in the early records, anybody who's a musician, has picked up a guitar, I dare you to try to play along with some of those [Joni Mitchell] songs. They're not just fluffy hippie songs. The structure, the chord structure, is really complex, and usually what she would do to write a song is she would tune the guitar to her mood in an open chord, and then she would write off of that open chord.
So, if she can't remember the chord, she can't ever play the song again, 'cause it was a particular time and a particular day, and if she didn't write down or rehearse that particular chord, that song is lost, unless you can just try to figure out how to get back to it. But that's just the musical side. At that time, a lot of the status quo were musicians that were playing other people's songs. That's what the whole idea of publishing was about. You'd write a song and you'd go sell the sheet music and you'd get your pennies on the sheet music to have somebody else play your song. Elvis wrote a half-song.
So that was kind of the status quo. So for this person to come along and she's actually writing her own songs and they're as complex as they are, but when you hear them, they're so fluid that you just kind of dismiss them as just being little hippie anthems, but the structure was there, so on a closer look you realize there's really a lot more to this. Never mind that she's a woman, just that this musician is actually writing and performing her own songs. That was already a huge step. Now add to that that she was engineering and mixing her own songs. So she was not only writing her own songs, performing her own songs, she was also recording and engineering her own songs. There were few musicians at that time that were doing that at all. You know, they had a producer, they had some kind of studio that was doing the things for them, but she was doing it on her own. That, to me, is pretty inspiring.
It was striking how Gone, the band led by Greg Ginn from Black Flag, made a huge impression on you, and then you later toured with Gone's Andrew Weiss and Sim Cain when they were playing in the Rollins Band. Could talk a little bit about those groups and what kind of effect they had on you?
Well, I remember a long time ago, an artist friend of mine, Ramiro Rodriguez, he was in my punk-rock era, and some of the type of things I was listening to, but he made me sit down and watch Stevie Ray Vaughan play a Jimi Hendrix song. It was a video. I'm sure it's been on YouTube lately, but he showed me that on a VHS tape years ago. And you know, of course, the immediate feeling I had watching it was, this guy is not really ... he's not ... there's no separation. The guitar and him are just one thing, and it's just breathing. It's a living, breathing creature. So, that's how I feel about Andrew Weiss. Andrew Weiss is the bass. The bass is Andrew. It just kind of happens, and there's sounds coming out, and then there's him standing there, smirking. It's annoyingly fluid and inspired, and you just want to punch him in the arm, you know what I mean?
And the same with Sim Cain. I just feel like there's just this kind of flurry and these rhythms are coming out right where they're supposed to be and fusing with Andrew's movements. I'm assuming they having played together in years, I don't know, but back then, it was a living, breathing creature. And I've never met [Gone and Black Flag guitarist] Greg Ginn; I have no idea what he has to say about it, but I would imagine, if it were me standing there in his shoes, I would be very thankful, 'cause whatever talent he had, they just made him feel better. Lifted him right up, because that kind of living, breathing creature underneath you, that's inspiring. So, yeah, Andrew Weiss ... he is that thing.
Again, same thing as when [Weiss] was working with Ween ... It's like watching those guys, the early Green Jellö guys in the space – that's what it's about. Keeping it grounded, and just enjoying this thing you're doing without it becoming an ego fest. That's always the hardest part about fucking bands is the ego thing just fucks them up
After so long, are you able to retain some of that basic, primal intimacy with playing with Tool on big stages?
I think with all of the projects, it's not a problem when you have people like I play with. Absolutely every one of those musicians that I work with on all of those projects, they prop me up. They are absolutely the living, breathing creatures that make me seem better than I am. Perfect Circle, Puscifer, Tool, the musicians behind me – or in front of me, in some cases – they absolutely lift me up. I am absolutely in their debt.