Maynard James Keenan is an industry unto himself. Once known primarily as Tool‘s enigmatic, vocally astonishing frontman, Keenan has evolved into an ever-prolific creative force. As fans continue to wait patiently, or not so, for news of Tool’s long-rumored fifth LP, Keenan continues to busy himself with all sorts of other endeavors — art-pop collective Puscifer; his winemaking outlet, Caduceus Cellars — that have been going on way too long to be considered mere side projects. Add one more to the list: Word emerged today that Keenan is collaborating with seasoned writer-editor Sarah Jensen on an authorized biography.
We reached Keenan by phone to discuss the writing process, the day’s happenings at Caduceus and, yes, what’s up with that long-awaited Tool album.
Can you give me the backstory on this book? How did it come about?
One of my best friends in high school, we’re still close, his sister’s a writer, she’s 10 years older than we are; she’s kind of been around for a while, of course, seeing everything that went on pre–high school, high school, etc. So I approached her, because she’s a writer, to see if she was interested in helping me work on a semi-autobiography. Because I didn’t really want to write it as an autobiography, first-person — I’d rather have it be more in story form, like you’re kind of along for the journey, with sidebars by me throughout, in my voice, kind of expanding on particular instances or anecdotes. But for the most part, it’s just she and I on the phone a couple times a week, just going over timelines, going over stories, etc.
Why did you feel that now was the time to tell your story in this format? I imagine people have approached you before with the idea of doing a book.
I wasn’t really sure how long it would take to actually pull off writing a book. I was kind of shooting for my 50th birthday, but we didn’t really get the conversations going quickly enough to get it done in my 50th year. So it’ll end up being a little later.
So I assume the fact that you were already friendly with the writer made this process more appealing than working with a stranger.
Right, because she already knows where I come from. She’s from there, so there’s a lot of holes that can be filled in just basically because she grew up where I grew up.
You’ve obviously talked about your life a million times in interviews and in the documentary that you did, Blood Into Wine. Were there particular things that you wanted to share with people that you felt hadn’t been dealt with in previous accounts of your life?
I guess so. I mean there’s always that perception that whatever you’ve done that’s the largest media-friendly thing in your life, where the world came to know of you, there’s a perception that there was no life before, and that you were nothing before. There’s a lot of stuff that went on in my life that nobody really knows about. So I feel like this is the chance to show the patterns, tell a story.
“Most people want to hear the kiss-and-tell crap, the garbage on the bus. That’s boring to me.”
Can you think of a particular aspect of your life that was one of those hidden things that we might look forward to reading about in this book?
[Laughs] Nice one. Do you want me to go ahead and talk about it now so you don’t have to buy the book, or …?
[Laughs] Well, I’m just looking for a little bit to whet our appetite.
No, there’s just a lot of things that have happened in my life prior to music that have been talked about but not [told in] many details. So this book goes into more details and kind of gives you a timeline, shows you even more family history, going back to pre–Revolutionary War. So just a lot of things mapped out.
Did you learn anything about yourself or your family in the course of this process?
Absolutely, because you start seeing patterns. And I think that’s part of the exercise, as well. When you get to a certain age, you think you’ve learned everything, and when you start really putting these patterns together, you start seeing your own patterns of behavior, and it’s an opportunity to fix them, you know?
Sounds a little bit like therapy …
Yeah, artist therapy.
Presumably you’ve read your share of artist memoirs or biographies. What do you think makes a good or bad one?
It all depends on the reader, I suppose. Most people want to hear the kiss-and-tell crap, the garbage on the bus. That’s boring to me. “We threw a piano out a window!” That’s been done a million times before even Buddy Rich was around. Just a lot of things that you read in biographies, I feel like they’re just kiss-and-tell war stories. The ones I prefer are when they get more into the psychology and the decision-making process, not really who you know and “… then I met the president.” Those are boring. I’m more concerned about or more interested in crossroads, where the person in their story comes to a crossroads, and they make a decision, and you see the effects, the cause-and-effect process of those decisions.
Can you think of a particular biography you’ve read that had what you’re aiming for with your own?
Bowie, he had some solid memoirs. That’s the only one that comes to mind at the moment. But again, we’re trying to write this a little bit more, almost like you’re following a character through a story. If you’ve ever read John Crowley’s Little, Big, it’s quite a brain-teaser, a fantastic fantasy novel with multiple dimensional layers of story. So if I had to kind of put the book in perspective, it would be something like that.
“There’s always that perception that whatever you’ve done that’s the largest media-friendly thing in your life … that there was no life before.”
Since you said this isn’t written in the first-person, did you give Sarah carte blanche to talk to everyone else in your life?
Oh, yeah, we had lists and lists of people that I’ve come in contact with throughout my life, some of which are no longer living, so we couldn’t quite get their story. But yeah, a lot of it is shared paths, so when we’re talking to old friends of mine, we’re not really necessarily talking about me. We’re talking about the experiences we had with some other teacher, coach, elder … space, time, those kind of things.
In terms of all that data that she’s collecting, is everything coming back through you, or are you giving her license to just incorporate it as she sees fit?
She’ll write section-by-section; we’ll go back and edit and fix and tweak, section-by-section, chapter-by-chapter. We have conversations twice a week to just go over … She’ll send me the chapters, and I’ll read them through, and then she’ll have questions or clarifications, contradictions. You talk to somebody else; they didn’t remember it the same way, so you had to rack your brain and go, “OK, was I drunk? Did I sleep through that?” A lot of just editing, fact-checking. But we’re pretty much … For the most part, it’s not complete, but it’s 90 percent complete, so we’re hoping to have it out by fall, next fall.
You mentioned this third-person format with sidebars. How did you come up with the idea of writing sidebars in your voice?
Well, because she was writing the whole book as if you’re observing this path, and I’m not actually speaking, sometimes it felt better … If we get off the path, it was better to have it in my voice to kind of tell those sidebar stories.
When you were working on that part of it, were there any writers you wanted to emulate?
No, it’s all just in my voice. And like I said, [Sarah] is a writer in her own right, so letting her let her voice speak, as far as how she’s telling the story. We’re co-writing this, so it’s important for her voice to be as loud as mine.
Even for an avid fan, it’s tough to keep your career straight: your different bands and the winemaking and everything else you do. Was there a certain element of wanting to have everything on the same plane, to reconcile everything you do in one place? Was that part of the impetus to want to do this?
I would imagine that’s kind of a collateral benefit. If you just see an artist as an artist, then anything goes. If you see them as having a job and a role, if you need to compartmentalize, just because you’re lazy, I suppose, it makes it easy if Steven Tyler just remains “Steven Tyler in Aerosmith,” I guess that’s easier for you. There’s a lot of shit going on in the world. You don’t have the patience to have all that kind of space on your mental hard drive to keep all that shit straight; it’s just easier if people maintain that line, but I’m just not that person. So I guess maybe a collateral benefit of this project will be that you can kind of see a through-line of a creative process.
“You talk to somebody else; they didn’t remember it the same way, so you had to rack your brain and go, ‘OK, was I drunk? Did I sleep through that?'”
You mentioned this idea of people wanting to assign you to one role, or of one thing you’ve done taking up more space in the media, is that something that you worry about, that people know you as the guy from Tool and aren’t paying as much attention to the other things you’re doing? Or are you more just, like, “I’m going to do this stuff, and however people take it is fine.”
That’s always been my M.O. As an artist, you just have to follow your path, and you have to follow those movements. Whatever little inclination or inspiration comes your way, it’s kind of your job as an artist to follow them. I don’t know … I kind of agree with Joni Mitchell that the whole idea of picking a trade and sticking to it is kind of limiting; the idea of a jack-of-all-trades is far more appealing.
Does the desire to want to write this book have anything to do with being a father and wanting to have some kind of a record for your kids?
Well, but I’ve been a father for 20 years, so that might have been part of it, but not necessarily.
Do you see the book primarily as a selfish thing, then, and it’s sort of a secondary benefit for other people to want to check it out?
Yeah, I think so. That would probably be more accurate. I think most people, when it comes to celebrities, they think of the word “selfish” as being negative, but when it comes to art, you have to be selfish, you have to be in your own space and kind of make that space — it’s a very selfish space — to create from. Otherwise, you’re part of a corporation, and you’re moving at the whims of your boss-slash-public. As a true artist, you have to be a little selfish to exist in that space, find that connection, that human connection with the intangible connections, whether it’s digital or cosmic, whatever. You have to find your connection.
You obviously have to be aware that you have a huge fan base that wants to know all the details of your life. Is there a certain element of “Here’s all the information — now we don’t need to go over my personal life anymore.”
No … I’d have to think about that. I don’t think so. I think, again, I’m just approaching this like any other creative process, or creative project. I’m just writing a story — it just happens to be about my life.
You must be pretty busy with this book and the upcoming Puscifer album and tour. What’s going on with your winemaking?
I just dumped out — a ton and a half at a time — I just dumped out three bins of various fermentations that were finishing up; I’m pressing all day. Four and a half tons of fruit I just dug out. So we’re still in the process of pressing; everything’s in, in the cellar. I’m kind of just … whenever there’s a gap, I work on other stuff. But as far as the book’s concerned, most of that was two conversations a week for a couple hours at a time with Sarah, and then she does the heavy lifting by putting it all together and coming back. I just kind of make sure she’s on the right track.
So there was a conversation you had a couple weeks back with one of our writers, and he asked about the progress of the new Tool album, and you mentioned that there was no music to work with. And last year, another Rolling Stone writer talked to Danny and Adam, and they said that there was some new material. Can you help us get to the bottom of where you’re at with the new record?
Do I seem like a lazy person to you?
Of course not.
OK — that’s all I can really say.
They’re working hard in their own way; I’m working hard in my own way, and I’ve got nothin’ for ya.