Lucky 13: The Real Story Behind Tool’s Fear Inoculum
“Can I ask you something?” interjects Justin Chancellor in his broad, unmistakably British accent. “How long should the album have taken?”
The question Kerrang! has asked of Tool’s bassist, on behalf of fans worldwide, is why the world has been waiting for Fear Inoculum quite as long as it has been. The band’s fifth album is, without question, worth that wait – as sprawling as it is densely constructed, enveloping as it is cryptic, and primal as it is beautiful. In short, then, it’s the most Tool album the band have ever produced. At almost 90 minutes it’s far from short, though, and almost too much to process on first listen, offering no easy entry points or answers. It’s also an album somewhat out of time because of the stock it puts in the album format, and asks much of listeners in an age when less demanding options are a skip button away.
It’s also an album that has taken 13 years to arrive as the follow-up to 2006’s 10,000 Days.
It’s clear from this conversation that Fear Inoculum has been made by four men whose separate abilities and experiences continue to coalesce into something magical, despite any differences they might have as people. Ask Justin and drummer Danny Carey, for instance, if there’s been a chat about not leaving it so long to make a record next time, and you get two very different replies.
“There hasn’t, but I don’t think there needs to because I’m not getting any younger,” says Danny in a drawl as hulking as his 6ft 5in frame. “The drums need to be attacked in a certain manner for it to sound like Tool, so it’s going to have to happen much quicker on the next one. I hope we do another.”
“I hope we don’t,” murmurs Justin.
“What a c*nt!” laughs the drummer.
Welcome to an audience with one of the world’s most serious bands – which, as is obvious, isn’t very serious at all. Sat in a loft studio in their native Los Angeles, the duo behave like a pair of stoners shooting the shit in their treehouse – cracking beers, cracking wise and, especially in Justin’s case, heckling one another at any opportunity.
“We toured for five or six years after the release of 10,000 Days, and we’re not a band that writes while we’re on the road,” says Danny, tackling the question of the album’s epic gestation. “And then we didn’t want to see each other for a little while.”
“Quite a long while,” adds Justin. “We were trying to come up with something and enjoy being around each other, and sometimes it fell apart. We went home and said, ‘I don’t want to see you until we play that festival.’”
“And we went through some lawsuits,” adds Danny. (Tool were sued over artwork credits, which snowballed into a multi-million-dollar action when the band were subsequently sued by their insurers over technicalities in the case. They countersued and eventually won.) “And then we started working. We spent a good, solid five years on it, like on all the other Tool records. I wish I could say it did take 13 years, because there’s nothing wrong with that!”
Danny Carey carries the laid-back air of a gentle giant, which made his earlier dropping of the C-bomb that bit more explosive. A musician first and foremost, he chose to record his parts for Fear Inoculum at Henson Recording Studios, part of the Jim Henson Company Lot originally built by Charlie Chaplin, not only for its brilliant drum room but its rich musical history, which has seen it play host to The Rolling Stones and The Police. He’s more comfortable letting his kit do the talking than his mouth, which, he suggests, is the cause of frustration at drum clinics where he’s required to communicate via both. He is, however, patient with all lines of enquiry and as fastidious with his answers as his playing.
Danny is so on top of his craft, in fact, that on Fear Inoculum’s instrumental track Chocolate Chip Trip, he nailed his fast, complicated part in one take while everyone else was out at lunch. And while that title might sound tongue in cheek, it serves two serious functions. Firstly, it’s his ode to his hero Billy Cobham, the Panamanian-American jazz drummer who worked with Miles Davis, and whose playing changed the course of the young Danny’s life. Secondly, along with Fear Inoculum’s two other instrumentals, Legion Inoculant (sparsely arranged but atmospheric) and Mockingbeat (a strange closer that sounds like it’s been recorded in an aviary of distressed birds), it provides a sonic palette cleanser between epic tracks Danny acknowledges are “big bites to chew”.
“By putting some tidbits on there, it gives us all the opportunity to do something in-between to catch our breath before we go into another 13-minute extravaganza,” the drummer suggests. “There’s a lot of heavy shit on this record, so I wanted it to be the same tempo as the rest of it.
“All these other bands are writing songs to do this or that, but our only concern is where we meet,” adds Danny of what sets Tool apart. “When we get in that room, where it takes us, that’s where it goes. Four years ago when we were looking at this, I wanted to try to do a record that was one giant song.”
“Isn’t that what we did?” asks Englishman Justin, who’s the exact opposite to Danny, creatively. A composer at heart, he and guitarist Adam Jones were forever tinkering with Fear Inoculum’s nine tracks – a process which, says Danny, would drive their other bandmates “fucking crazy”. Justin still jokingly refers to himself as “the new guy” despite being part of Tool for 24 of their 29 years. He likens talking about music to “dancing about architecture”, tending to take the piss to mitigate his discomfort with this part of the process. So when Danny says that responses to Descending and Invincible, the two new tracks debuted on their most recent tour had “renewed his faith”, Justin adds “…in Jesus Christ.” When the drummer suggests the new 10-minute-plus songs don’t feel like their duration, the bassist pops up to say they seem more like half an hour.
This subversive sense of humour undoubtedly bonded Justin and Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan, who’s absent today but never far from the conversation. In the days after this interview, Maynard went on The Joe Rogan Experience, the popular podcast of the comedian and mixed martial arts commentator, to give his two cents on the band’s dynamic.
“Everything’s a fucking committee meeting and it always gets shut down,” Maynard explained. “When you get successful, you think you’re right about everything and you’re pretty sure: ‘I am right and you are wrong, because I’m successful and we’re successful because of me, not because of you.’ It’s not that bad with us, but there’s a dynamic of, ‘I want this and I’ve always got my way and that’s why we’re successful, because I don’t compromise on this or that.’ I’m the same way. I’m totally the same way.”
When Maynard tackled The K! Interview last March, he attributed his “contrarian wiring” to his Irish-Italian heritage. This is the man whose Twitter biog describes him as an ‘Armed Snowflake’, after all, and who announced the title of an album fans have awaited 13 years for via an Instagram post hastily drafted during Rogan’s podcast – a message that concluded, with some understatement: ‘Thanks for your patience.’ Last year Maynard also likened himself to Jack Nicholson’s bad-tempered character in As Good As It Gets. “I open my mouth in the wrong way, but I want to be a better man. I just can’t help myself sometimes – it’s like Tourette’s,” he explained, confirming a degree of verbosity that puts him in stark contrast to guitarist Adam Jones, who’s such an enigma he makes Maynard look like David Lee Roth by comparison.
Adam clearly likes to monkey around too, though. In early 2014, when a fan at a show in Portland, Oregon, asked about the progress of the record, Adam replied, “[It’s] done and it’s coming out tomorrow.” Sadly, in the fan’s frenzied excitement, he didn’t hear the “just kidding” follow-up and told a lot of people. The music press naturally went into overdrive. So much so, in fact, the band issued a statement to explain the misunderstanding.
One of the unexpected things about Tool more recently is that, despite remaining such a private entity, there have been moments where they appeared to air their laundry in public. In January this year, for instance, a fan took to Twitter to question the band’s continued absence from streaming services. ‘Please, Maynard, help keep #TOOL as relevant and accessible as it’s always been,’ concluded the tweet. Maynard, who primarily uses social media to promote his Arizona winery, Caduceus Cellars, was taken enough with the sentiment to reply in his own inimitable style. “Squawking at the wrong tool,” he wrote.
If anyone in today’s interview is vehemently opposed to streaming, they’re in no hurry to put the boot in. In fact, Danny and Justin enthusiastically let Kerrang! in on the secret the world now knows: Tool’s back catalogue becoming available digitally in the build-up to Fear Inoculum’s release. Ask them whether there was any trepidation returning to a landscape in which music, and the way it’s consumed, has altered so drastically and Justin gives an answer that’s both absolutely daft and, on one level at least, completely true.
“Fucking Lynyrd Skynyrd played before us in France recently,” he laughs. “What’s changed?”
That may be so, but despite being a band since 1964, Lynyrd Skynyrd have long been on streaming services, averaging more than 10 million monthly listeners on Spotify, for example.
“We signed a five-record deal that was based around CDs,” explains Danny. “It got to this point where to accomplish the finality of releasing this record, we had to negotiate the whole digital domain. And we had already missed out on a huge facet of that as far as the download thing. It was a culture shock for us, but it’s a necessary that has to be done if you want to reach people with your art.”
“I don’t mind the streaming thing,” continues Danny. “The one thing that’s disappointing to me is that it caters to that shorter attention span. I don’t think that leaves much room for people, like us, that want to release a bigger package of music that’s more like reading a book than listening to a commercial. This was written and composed to be an album, an experience you can dig into for 80 to 90 minutes. But I don’t know how many people are left out there in the world willing to do that. When I was a kid I bought records and played them from beginning to end. That’s what I grew up on, so that’s what I’m still doing.”
“Wait until you see the new CD package,” adds Justin. “It’s going to blow your fucking mind!”
When Maynard James Keenan last spoke to Kerrang!, he was focusing on A Perfect Circle – they, lest we forget, had taken even longer to make a new album than Tool (2018’s Eat The Elephant arrived 14 years after their previous effort, Emotive.) And while the ‘T word’ was strictly off the table that day, Maynard’s comments on fan scrutiny in “the age of entitlement” were equally, if not more, applicable to Tool.
“Some things are subjective, and some things are not,” Maynard said of people’s obsessive preoccupation with knowing what’s behind the music and the people that make it. “Some things are logical: take a step back, take away all the grandiose stuff and the idol-worship part, and look at something practically and you’ll come up with an answer that’s fucking reasonable.”
“I understand that curiosity,” is Danny’s more forgiving take. “It drove me mad not being able to know more about Pink Floyd when I was a little kid. But that’s the great thing – there was this mystery behind it that made your mind work. The healthiest thing is not to take that away and take the piss out of it by saying, ‘This is this.’ Because then, what’s left? It’s like standing in front of the Mona Lisa – everybody has a different emotion when they see a great painting. Everybody gets to put it through their own life experiences and get something different out of it.”
Given this comparative openness and understanding, we brave asking what the title ‘Fear Inoculum’ actually means.
“I don’t know what Maynard’s talking about – he’s very cagey,” begins Justin, not altogether seriously. “I think the general gist of it is that as you grow up and learn, hopefully you’re not afraid of the stuff that held you back in the first place. It’s applying the idea that you can immunise yourself against the fears, sadness and lack of hope that ruins everything.”
“Generally growing old,” adds Danny, who at 58 is Tool’s most senior member. “You can crumble under it, freak out and get plastic surgery and all these stupid things, or you can grow old gracefully like… Katharine Hepburn. There are people who deal with it in good ways, and there are certain people who can’t handle it. To inoculate your fear, to me, is about getting old and not giving a shit. We’re all going there; in 100 years there’ll be all new people – not that big of a deal!”
“It’s not working for me,” says Justin, who’s 48. “I’m terrified!”
This fear of the toll taken by advancing years is apparent in the lyrics of Invincible (‘Beating tired bones again / Age-old battle, mine / Weapon out and belly in’), a highlight from the band’s extraordinary Download Festival headline set thanks to its raw guitar breakdown and multiple false endings. Time, or lack of it, has also clearly played a part in Tool wanting to ensure they got Fear Inoculum completely right, however long it took. Any pressure they felt came purely within their own ranks though, because no outside influence was going to force compromise for the sake of expediency. Not even Joe Barresi, who engineered and mixed Fear Inoculum and whom the band describes as “the guy we trust more than anyone” gets in the way of Tool doing their thing.
“No-one tells us what to do when it comes to our compositions because we’re so hard on each other,” says Danny. “Between the four of us that’s a big enough filter. As long as we pay attention to that then all will be good. We’ve never played to appease someone else. We have to be true to what we do between each other and the place we meet.”
Unlike 10,000 Days – the tracks of which were completed in the order they appeared on the finished record – Fear Inoculum was being built upon all the time. This process of continued jamming, layering and refinement makes it almost impossible for the duo to identify what was finished first – Danny suggests it was the second track, Pneuma, which is reminiscent of 2001 Lateralus track Schism but with heavier electronic elements, while Justin opts for Descending, which is heavy on the breakdowns but later features atmospherics similar to Reflection (also from 2001). Whichever of the two was completed first, this was only two years ago.
‘Completion’, it should be clarified, only refers to Danny, Justin and Adam finalising their collective efforts before Maynard adds his vocals – the point in the process that’s been the subject of some friction, given that the singer is arguably the band’s most time-poor member.
“Nothing bums him out more than us sending him something and then us changing it, which is putting the ultimate wrench into his work,” says Danny of Maynard, who apparently records in the bedroom of his Arizona home. “Once we give [the tracks] to him, that’s it and he doesn’t want to change it. I don’t blame him for that, because of the commitment he has to have to do his bit. On the previous records we’d send him something and then go, ‘Oh wait, we decided to change this chorus or the time signature’ and Maynard would reply, ‘So you’re pretty much saying I did all this work for nothing?!’ That’s disheartening – I understand that.”
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Whatever disagreements there might have been making an album, it’s clear the magic of what comes when these four men join forces overrides any logistical quibbles. Danny and Justin are full of praise for Maynard’s efforts, which, Kerrang! suggests to them, seem the product of a different approach. Unlike, say, Parabola (from Lateralus) or The Pot (from 10,000 Days) that feature powerful lead vocal performances, on much of Fear Inoculum, particularly the slow-burning opening title-track, his voice is used more like an instrument weaving in and out of proceedings, in a way more haunting than dominating.
“I don’t think he did anything differently,” suggests Danny. “I think it’s the growth he’s had over the last few years. A lot of that came from him working his ass off with his other bands and singing more than he ever has. He’s taken it to another level, as we all have. I’ve been playing with these heavy jazz cats and Justin’s been composing more than ever. I think we’ve all grown, so it better sound like we’ve gone somewhere different, otherwise it’s like, ‘What are we doing here?!’”
“He blew my mind on this album,” says Justin of Maynard. “He did things that were amazing, unexpected and transcendental. We thought what we were doing was already quite fantastic, but he made it incredible.”
Danny agrees. “It wasn’t just what he was singing, but what he didn’t sing. The spaces that he left, to let these compositions we’d worked our heart and soul out on shine. It was the ultimate compliment. It made me feel that we’re the musketeers again – we’re a fucking band again!”
Given Tool’s perfectionism, hearing them so enthusiastic about Fear Inoculum, and wholly satisfied with what they’ve produced, is reason enough to be excited. The fact that the resulting album more than matches the lofty terms its creators discuss it in, and the high bar they’ve set themselves over the years, sets things into overdrive. The wait is over – it’s time to get inoculated.
Tool’s Fear Inoculum is out now via Music For Nations/Sony Music.
Tool drummer Danny Carey says the band are “kind of on hiatus” right now – but he’s hoping they will regroup this year to “knock out another EP”.
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