Maynard James Keenan: “If you’re going to put on make-up and wear stupid wigs you have to understand the ‘w*nker’ comments are coming”
This interview was originally published in K!1713 from March 2018.
Hen’s teeth, coherent statements from Donald Trump, and face-to-face interviews with Maynard James Keenan are all rare things. But what do you ask a man known for being one of the most intense, and intensely private, in music?
It’s a question Kerrang! is still pondering as we navigate the corridors of a posh London hotel as labyrinthine as a Tool song. One thing’s for certain: given the extensive warnings we’ve received beforehand, the topic of that band and the status of their new album is strictly off-limits today. But does that really matter? Not if you take into account the breadth of the man’s endeavours.
As well as being one of the most revered figures in rock, lending his magnificent voice to several other bands – A Perfect Circle and Puscifer – the man born James Herbert Keenan has been a wrestler, cross-country runner, soldier, improv comedian, pet shop designer, student of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, actor, winemaker and much more besides.
When we finally locate the suite he’s in, he’s sat alone at a long wooden table like a parent that’s waited up to issue a bollocking to their kid for staying out late; the lenses of his glasses magnifying shark-like eyes fixed on his mobile phone to “check in with the wife”. He directs K! to sit down with his free hand without looking up, in a manner you imagine one of his superior officers doing during his army days. It does little to dispel nerves. Nor do the first couple of minutes of conversation, in which you feel like he’s getting the measure of something – perhaps the intelligence, or intent, of the questions being asked. Soon, however, he shifts into being courteous, insightful and very funny company, and during the course of the next 50 minutes reveals himself to be something of an Anglophile – particularly with regards to his taste in comedy – while also possessing a sense of humour that suggests he’d likely snigger at the word ‘Anglophile’.
How do you feel about the word icon when it’s applied to you?
“For you to make the claim that something I’ve done is iconic, it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with me, but has to do with where you were at a particular time in your life, and whether something happened that meant you needed to hear a particular set of words and sounds being expressed. [Sex Pistols’ 1977 album] Never Mind The Bollocks… coming out when it did changed the way people looked at things, but those people had to be ready to hear it. It’s timing.”
Like the timing of your aunt introducing you to Black Sabbath and Joni Mitchell? Given that A Perfect Circle have previously covered Joni, do you owe her something of a debt?
“Owing the debt assumes she’s looking to collect. I think it’s more about being of service on this marble we’re on. You do things to survive: as an artist, parent or friend. You share without expecting anything back.”
That’s quite a Christian attitude. You’ve described a Baptist upbringing in Ohio as about having “a bible in one hand and a machine gun in the other, ready to annihilate”. Was that a tongue-in-cheek statement?
“I listened to ministers preaching about annihilating a particular group of people, whoever was on the radar at that point. They didn’t literally have a gun, but they were definite advocates of ‘our way or the highway’.”
Do you feel it provided you with a valuable insight to comment about the state of America?
“I think it’s the state of the globe, honestly. There are certainly things you can apply to [America’s] particular set of comedic circumstances – not so funny as they are. I’m not sure where my dad got it from, but he definitely instilled in me that sense of taking a step back and questioning authority.”
What did your mother instil in you?
“The same, though in slightly different ways. She taught me the ability to listen: she was good at listening [his mother, Judith Marie, died in 2003]. My dad was a teacher, so he speaks more.”
When you listened to comedy records when you were younger, did you consider that more rebellious than music?
“Yes. If you have any Irish-Italian blood in you, you definitely have a contrarian wiring. Comedy was always about the things you weren’t supposed to say, like in Fawlty Towers with the line, ‘Don’t mention the war,’ and of course he fucking mentions the war. The whole foundation of the script for Curb Your Enthusiasm is about what Larry David is not supposed to say. In The Office [UK] it’s about saying the thing you’re not supposed to say even after saying the thing you’re not supposed to.”
What’s your favourite moment from The Office?
“It’s a single word… (Recreates the moment the character Tim calls Gareth’s phone while sitting next to him) ‘Cock!’”
Given the fact you’ve been in the army, and study Brazilian jiu-jitsu, how important is discipline in your life?
“Discipline was almost forced on you because you couldn’t get anything done unless you did a thing. It’s harder for most people to understand discipline today, because everything is handed to you. It was a lot easier for me growing up because there were walls and doors between me and the goal. Discipline didn’t come easier, but there was stimulus to develop it.”
Before you became a musician, you were the guy who stood at the back of venues sniping at bands. Were you a reluctant musician because you knew there’d be people like you in the audience ready to heckle?
“Yes, there’s that, but I think it was also fear: you’re afraid you’ll become that guy onstage. I’ve always assigned characters to people to go, ‘What role describes you?’ There’s probably no better role to understand my wiring than Jack Nicholson’s character in the film As Good As It Gets: I open my mouth in the wrong way, but I do want to be a better man. I just can’t help myself sometimes – it’s like Tourette’s.”
You used to perform comedy at the Diamond Club in LA and appeared as a “metal douche” character. Did this introduce you to the idea of playing with different guises?
“It did, but you also have to bring a piece of yourself to those characters, provided you didn’t become the characters (laughs).”
What are the character ‘notes’ for your guise in A Perfect Circle?
“I took cues from English performers for the A Perfect Circle look, where it’s over the top, and for some people it’s mysterious, while for others it’s, ‘What the fuck is that guy doing?’ It’s a fine line: embracing that English thing where you almost have to become a caricature to become something relevant.”
Speaking of that fine line: Eddie Izzard says there’s a sliding scale of cool, where it’s cool, cool, cool, wanker…
“(Laughs) The ‘wanker-meter’ is something you have to embrace. If you’re going to put on make-up, wear wigs and stupid clothes, you have to understand that the ‘wanker’ comments are coming. And I’m okay with that – it’s part of the character.”
When Billy Howerdel first played you the music that would become A Perfect Circle, why did it resonate with you?
“I thought, ‘Awesome – now I get to be a wanker!’ I could hear parts of The Cure, parts of Tones On Tail, parts of Love And Rockets, which was cool but conjured images of dudes in goth outfits. You’ve got to sell it: watching dudes in T‑shirts and sneakers doing Shakespeare doesn’t quite sell it. There have to be some grandiose robes.”
It’s fair to say that A Perfect Circle unlocks a more ‘romantic’ side of you – whether that’s New Romantic, or in the Valentine’s Day sense…
“Or The Romantics, the band – What I Like About You. I think that’s absolutely accurate, because it has some landscapes and soundscapes that take you down that dramatic path, and it’s a very exposed and vulnerable path.”
You’ve described having a mental connection with late comedian Bill Hicks, and even had a dream in which you sensed something was wrong with him before people knew he was ill. Was your relationship one of mutual vicariousness: you envied his comedic abilities, and he, a frustrated musician, envied yours?
“Absolutely – I think that was our connection, for sure. I think the premonition part was probably a series of unconscious clues that I picked up from him or his manager that all came together in a dream. It wasn’t necessarily psychic – it was me picking up on the subtle hints and behaviours.”
Which musician do you share the closest mental connection with?
“That’s a tough one. It wouldn’t be one person, but a combination. I’d say Carina Round and Mat Mitchell [from Puscifer]. We all provide pieces that perhaps the others don’t have, and we all feed off of those things.”
How would you describe your creative relationship with Billy?
“I’m the guy who pulls him forward. When he gets in a studio he loses his way a little bit; he’s that guy who doesn’t know when the painting is finished. He wants to keep going and I feel my role is to drag him out of the closet.”
“So to speak (laughs).”
You go between projects with a certain degree of impatience. How does that line up with the man who enjoys the unhurried ritual of drinking wine, and the painstaking process of making it?
“It’s a balance. You have to understand what has to be done. There are certain things you have to push, and certain things you have to get through – shovelling through the snow on the driveway so you can get to where you need to be. And then you go and enjoy a movie or relax with your friends. But I can’t do that until I’ve put the work in.”
You used to work on the layouts for pet shops. Which is your creative process most like: making wine, or putting the big bags of dog food at the back of the shop so customers see the other products on the way to get them?
“All of the answers to those kinds of questions are about being conscious and aware, and ready to respond according to the situation. It’s about being connected enough in a pet store to understand, ‘We could probably sell more shit if we put this at the back.’ I didn’t just come in one day and say, ‘Hey! Put this back there – it’s an idea I have!’ You have to be there to witness people come in to the front of the store and realise they never see another aisle. When you’re planting grapes and realising that it’s colder than it is hot, it’s going to be more about avoiding cold and moisture than it is heat. It’s a conscious decision that you have to be present for and pay attention. If you’re not, you’re going to miss it.”
You’ve described your book, A Perfect Union Of Contrary Things, as “a metaphor for stepping into the light”. Did you view it as a vehicle to reveal as much as you were prepared to for a fanbase that’s fairly fervent, possessive and –
Perhaps. But was it a way for you to share insights on your own terms?
“Yes, what you said (laughs). A lot of those people don’t need to know beyond the details – they just need to know the basics. [Some fans] can be unreasonable, and we are dealing with the age of entitlement.”
You’ve said the book is one perspective, and likened it to a blind man feeling an elephant. Given that A Perfect Circle’s latest album is called Eat The Elephant, is there a connection, or would that be mixing metaphors?
“You never know (smiles). You never know. That’s all you’re getting today (laughs).”
That answer was tweet length. Explain something to us: what are you doing on Twitter? There’s a line from British comedy The Thick Of It that comes to mind, where a character who has a blog says it’s like opening “the shit room door”…
“(Laughs) Basically, it’s for the wine, and for Puscifer it’s been an instrumental piece in us being a completely independent project with no label behind it. Twitter is an unfortunate part of the business now. You used to have to go through this series of doors to get to your audience and expand your base, but now with social media you can get there more quickly, and somewhat on your own terms.”
Your work invites a huge amount of speculation. People seem to want you to tell them that their theories about the meanings behind your music are correct…
“Yes and I’m not going to do that (laughs), and that’s mainly because there isn’t just one explanation. Some things are subjective, and some things are not. 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 – rather than this crazed Twitterverse of horseshit. Shut the door to the shit room.”
You should check out The Thick Of It…
“I’m trying to find the new series of The League Of Gentlemen…”
Who’s your favourite character? Is failed rock star Les McQueen a little too close to home?
“(Does Les McQueen catchphrase) ‘It’s a shit business.’ The League Of Gentlemen is one of the few shows where I can’t point to a character I like more than others, as they’re all utterly flawless. I’ve heard they brought back Tubbs and Edward, though I don’t know how, given the beautiful way they had them being hit by a train at the beginning of series two. That’s a fucking awesome way to open a series!”
Does the idea of burning it down to build it back up appeal?
“Yes. I think there are things that should never have a part two. I’m hoping that A Perfect Circle doesn’t fall in that category, because here we are 14 years later, and I’m hoping that what we have to say is as powerful, or as funny, as the new League Of Gentlemen series.”
In the 2010 documentary Blood Into Wine, there’s a moment in which you tell actor Milla Jovovich that in 15 years live shows will be a fun break from winemaking. Do you feel your relationship with music changing?
“Only because of age and limitations. Your body changes and there are things that you can’t do, which is why people aren’t competing in the Olympics at the age of 40 – because they fucking can’t.”
What is the most frustrating thing about being Maynard James Keenan?
“Hmm… time. The lack of it, and the changes that come with it moving on. But I think that’s the same for anybody, really.”
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