The Cover Story

Maynard James Keenan: ”If you’re not putting yourself in the space where the breakthrough can happen, you’re not going to have one”

After a 60th birthday celebration for the ages and ahead of a Fear Inoculum victory lap around the UK, Maynard James Keenan reflects on a life on the cutting edge of heavy music, how his priorities have changed with age, why he’ll never actually retire, and who would win in a fight between him and Mark Zuckerberg…

Maynard James Keenan: ”If you’re not putting yourself in the space where the breakthrough can happen, you’re not going to have one”
James Hickie
Travis Shinn

Maynard James Keenan is shouting at Kerrang!.

“Speak up, son!”

His voice – the honeyed instrument that’s bewitched OGTs since back in 1992, from the first EP – has hardened into something steelier and more cantankerous. Thankfully, he’s not actually angry with us. Instead, he’s feigning poor hearing while playfully leaning into his seventh decade, to evade a question about today being the 18th anniversary of the release of Tool’s 10,000 Days.

“Do you really think I can remember that long ago?!” he asks with mock incredulity, before taking a breath. “It’s been a minute…”

In fact, it’s been almost nine-and-a-half million minutes since the release of Tool’s fourth album, and more than 31 million since James Herbert Keenan arrived on this planet. That’s right: on April 17, Maynard turned 60. Being one of music’s most enigmatic figures, with a predilection for wigs and outlandish stage get-ups, has always made him a difficult person to place, age-wise. But with the arrival of this ‘Sessanta’ tour (Italian for 60), he’s making no secret of it.

Nor does he hide his fatigue. Since a COVID pandemic that inflicted him with lung damage, Maynard’s three bands – Tool, A Perfect Circle and Puscifer – have operated with truncated schedules in an effort to make up for lost time.

And so it is that after the conclusion of Sessanta at Forest Hills Stadium in New York – a jaunt that’s seen A Perfect Circle, Puscifer and their pals in Primus rotate sets across 30 songs – he has only a few weeks at home before Tool head to Europe. Except that domestic time means work on his winery, Caduceus Cellars, his Brazilian jiu-jitsu studio, Verde Valley BJJ, as well as his obligations as a husband and father.

“If we’re being honest, it’s pretty exhausting,” he says, his speech as slow as his engagement with reappraisals of his work. He’s cautious about what he does on his days off, so keeps socialising to a minimum. “I’m on full lockdown to make sure the pipes are ready for the next day.”

Of 10,000 Days, then, Maynard will simply say, “Some of the songs still ring true and are fun to play, while some are more difficult.” Meanwhile, practically speaking, he suggests, “People got caught up on wanting to fix a thing” – one of many references to his frustrations with the way Tool make records. Apparently the results make those challenges worth it. “[10,000 Days] is a beautiful marker for that moment,” he acknowledges.

Thankfully, Maynard isn’t too tired or long in the tooth to snigger at tonight’s show being at Clarkston, Michigan’s own Pine Knob Theater. “That wasn’t lost on me. And it’s just around the corner from Bellend Tavern!”

While the veracity of that piece of local trivia is questionable, what’s not is Maynard James Keenan’s ability to pivot – a word he’ll use several times throughout the course of this chat – to suit the circumstances at hand. Despite his regimented outlook, Sessanta offers the chance for a looser “reset” format with no opening act and no headliner.

“It lends itself to that community vibe, changing that idea of, ‘This set of egos play their songs, then this set of egos play their songs,’” he explains. “It forces that music in front of people and breaks down the barriers of the islands that bands tend to become.”

“It’s just f*cking money. It should be about the music, right?”

Maynard James Keenan

Not all established musicians, it turns out, are quite as willing to work this way. Maynard had a similar celebration, Cinquanta, for his 50th birthday, which saw A Perfect Circle, Puscifer and alt.rockers Failure play two nights at LA’s Greek Theatre (a live record from which was released earlier this year).

In recruiting bands for those shows, Maynard reveals, the majority of invitations went unanswered, with the one response he did get asking: ‘Why the fuck would you want to do it that way?’ of the intention to split everything from the shows equally between the three bands.

“You might be on top today, but you might be on the bottom tomorrow,” says Maynard of what the experience taught him. “It’s just fucking money. It should be about the music, right?”

Maynard and his family recently got a new puppy, a gorgeous bitch named Boba, which appears to be a pit bull.

They have another dog he describes as “already three years past her expiration date”, which he considers a miracle. Mindful that his wife and daughter will take the loss of the older dog badly and looking to ease that sadness, when a building manager in Texas revealed he had a large litter of puppies, Maynard was won over.

Fuck me,” he recalls thinking when he first saw the blue-eyed, pink-nosed beauty, knowing his menagerie of animals was about to welcome a new member.

Speaking of canines, Maynard’s friend has got a Jack Russell Terrier – an irrepressible specimen prone to clenching down on a tennis ball for hours at a time, making games of catch a frustratingly one-sided affair. The pooch is, he says, the perfect representation of his younger self, often unable to let go of “the shit that just doesn’t matter”.

Much has changed, though. So when, recently, snow storms prevented A Perfect Circle and Primus’ gear getting to Las Vegas’ Sick New World, Maynard and co. kept cool heads, begging and borrowing equipment from other bands on the bill.

“I’m not going to start yelling at the walls, or blaming production and management – that’s just a waste of fucking time and energy,” he reasons. “Was it avoidable? Probably. But here’s the problem in front of you, so as a professional that’s seasoned and knows how to pivot, that’s what you have to do.”

Maynard’s many non-musical pursuits have evidently added to his sense of perspective over the years.

“It’s what you do as a winemaker. If the weather changes, as cute as your plan might be, the reality is you have to pivot, or you don’t have wine this year. So when it comes to a show like [Sick New World], it shows you the creative power that the guys in Primus and our crew have. We were able to do what it took to make the show happen. It probably wasn’t the best show [A Perfect Circle] could have done, but certainly one of the more memorable ones.”

There’s evidence to suggest his capacity for grumbling hasn’t gone away entirely. We ask about being joined by the rest of Tool a few days earlier to perform Ænima at the Hollywood Bowl. But rather than focusing on the subversive satisfaction of playing a song praying for Los Angeles to be washed into the ocean while appearing in one of the city’s most iconic venues, he’s more interested in what the experience taught his bandmates – guitarist Adam Jones, bassist Justin Chancellor and drummer Danny Carey – about operating more flexibly.

“The kick I got out of it was watching [his Tool bandmates] realise that maybe we don’t need all the bells and whistles, and we can just plug in a couple of amps and bang it out,” says Maynard. “Of course, that’s easy for me to say – I’m the guy who sings in one end of the thing and sound comes out the other. I think they probably did find it refreshing that they didn’t have to overthink it, they could just come in and do that song. Does that open the possibility of doing things simpler like that in the future? Not up to me. But I would hope it would plant a seed.”

It’s easy to forget that asking Maynard a question about the inner workings of Tool would have been a bit of a no-no only a few years ago. When K! points out he appears to have softened with the passing of time, he agrees, though with a degree of irascibility.

“I just don’t care,” he explains, lilting upwards on the word ‘care’. “There are some things when you’re younger that you just fixate on. There are some things we definitely adhere to, and some things we’re kind of pricks about, but that just comes with the territory of being a weirdo onstage, writing songs. With age there’s some shit you let go of.”

“With age there’s some sh*t you let go of”

Maynard James Keenan

Maynard remains the subject of misconceptions and misinterpretations. How about the reason he stands at the back of the stage while playing with Tool, for instance. It’s to keep a greater distance from the audience and retain an air of mystery, right?


“With Tool, Danny’s drums are so loud, he has like 17 arms and 15 legs, and then you’ve got Adam’s row of amps and Justin’s wall of bass,” he explains. “It just makes it way harder for the front-of-house to have a mix if [I’m] down front. And the position up top is also great, visually, because I can see what’s going on, we can connect with each other by looking at each other. If I was facing the audience, my back would be to what’s happening, so I can’t take cues.”

Despite still not being entirely comfortable with the obsessive scrutiny that fans heap upon his music, telling us in 2018 he finds some to be “unreasonable”, Maynard has gone as far as engaging with them to help him with something important. For 15 years, he had used the internet to try to locate two friends from his army days, Cheryl Carney and Jeffrey Parks, but with no success. So he gave up for a couple of years.

Last year, on his 59th birthday, Maynard renewed the search, this time throwing it out to his social media followers. It worked; he hung out with Jeff only last night, meeting his grandson in the process. Cheryl, who shares a musical past with Maynard as well as a military one, reached out too, hanging out at Sessanta’s stop in Phoenix on his actual birthday. “The best present ever,” he says of reconnecting with Cheryl, the other half of his formative punk rock duo that would regularly make the 70-mile trip from Fort Hood (now Fort Cavazos), near Killeen Texas, to Austin for shows.

It’s very apparent speaking to Maynard that he has a deep and continued appreciation of the people who have positively impacted his life.

While he’s long been friends with all three members of Primus, having winemaking in common with “stellar musician” Les Claypool (who has his own Claypool Cellars), it’s drummer Tim Alexander who he shares the greatest connection with.

Back in the early ’90s, when Tim’s other band Laundry played with Tool, he brought along a VHS tape of an early UFC competition to watch on the bus, which inspired Maynard to study Brazilian jiu-jitsu under mixed martial artist Rickson Gracie.

Later, when Maynard decided it was time to “get the fuck out of” Los Angeles, it was Tim who suggested he check out a little town in Arizona called Jerome where he used to live, so the two took a road trip to check it out. Maynard moved there almost immediately.

“He was the first drummer on the APC stuff, The Hollow [from 2000’s Mer De Noms], and he did Queen B from the first Puscifer release [2007’s ‘V’ Is For Vagina],” he explains affectionately, relishing the chance to catch up with his friend post-show when there’s a double day off coming up, or on the many long drives as Sessanta traverses the country. “It provides the chance for camaraderie and communion.”

For a man who jokes about serious subjects, Maynard can also be surprisingly serious about the jokey stuff. A couple of months back, 57-year-old Mike Tyson paid a visit to Verde Valley BJJ, the jiu-jitsu studio Maynard co-founded, in the early stages of the former heavyweight boxing champion's fight with Jake Paul, 30 years his junior, taking place on July 20.

We ask Maynard, a college wrestler and Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, whether he’d consider a similar age-gap UFC bout – against enthusiast Mark Zuckerberg, perhaps?

“No, no… that’s absurd,” he scoffs. “Mike Tyson was a world-class fighter whose body was built for those things and was operating at the top three per cent of the people who did that thing. Everything about him, like his residual bone density, lends itself to that professional level. Even in high school, my wrestling record was barely above 50 per cent wins. I was a way better runner than I was a wrestler. The idea of competing against someone larger and younger than me is kinda dumb.”

Oh, and there’s one other thing…

“Mark [Zuckerberg] and I have mutual friends, so if I make any threats against him, I’d soon be dismissed, so I better shut up.”

After a moment’s silence, Maynard, sensing our disappointment, gives us what we want…

“Though I will say that I will fuck that punk up!” he booms.

“You have to dig in and get past that idea of how your process works and fix your process”

Maynard James Keenan

As bizarre as this exchange is, it’s a reminder that whatever his role in life, be it as a musician, a winemaker or a martial artist, Maynard is a practical man – albeit one with a very silly streak. When he’s at home, he’ll start each day by feeding the many dogs and cats and birds, then making sure his daughter gets to school, before turning his attention to music.

“Nothing else matters,” he says of that creative mindset. “There’s a new season of The Witcher? Don’t care. There’s a cool swap meet happening? No. You just have to make yourself dig in and get past that idea of how your process works and fix your process.”

That discipline means he gives short shrift to anyone less committed to the job at hand, especially when the clock is ticking.

“Definitely with Tool,” he offers. “We can’t fucking wait 14 fucking years to release a thing! That’s insane! So we just have to figure out a different way. With the other projects it’s easier, but we still have to set the time aside. Aside from your children and your wife or husband, the next priority has to be writing. Otherwise this is not going to get done.”

Does this new way of working mean releasing music little and often, rather than waiting a decade-plus for a new record?

“I mean all of those things. But ask yourself: if you’re writing a book and you spend an hour a week on it, how the fuck is that ever going to get done?! If you’re only working on that thing for five to six hours a week, then it’s not a priority for you.”

Does he wield his own busyness against his various bandmates in a, ‘If I can make the time, then you can!’ style?

“Yes, because I’m not allowed to have my morning coffee until I get something done. I go to jiu-jitsu to clear my head before coming back and digging in. At some point, even if you’re hitting a wall, you’ll have a breakthrough. Something fits. You’re not forcing it. You’re just making sure you’re in the space where the breakthrough can happen. If you’re not putting yourself in the space where the breakthrough can happen, you’re not going to have one.”

For Maynard, whose 85-year-old father still skis competitively, age needn’t mean obsolescence. It’s yet another change that life throws at you, arguably the ultimate one, that requires a realistic outlook, careful consideration and some sensible recalibrating.

Take, for example, his voice, that most celebrated attribute.

“There were approaches to vocals when I was 28 that I can’t do now, so there’s no point in trying to replicate it – it’s just not going to work,” he concedes. “Everybody’s voice is affected by ageing, with the exception of that dude from the Scorpions [75-year-old Klaus Meine]. Jesus Christ! That guy still hits the notes… it’s like, ‘Fuck you, man!’ Things change – so again, you have to pivot and come up with things that do work. Don’t bother putting your worst foot forward on a song you can’t do – you can adjust a song to make it work, or just write for where you are and age with it.”

With so many irons in the fire, however, not all can be kept aglow forever.

“At the age of 60, you’re always thinking of the exit strategy for a lot of the projects that I’ve built,” he admits. “If a band dies, there’s no more band. But with something like a winery or vineyards, the process for that label can continue for generations if there are generations to pick it up. And your community gets to benefit from the establishment of that endeavour.”

How much is he looking to exit from? Could he see himself retiring?

“You hear horror stories of people retiring from a position they've been doing their whole life and because they have no purpose, they check out – they just die. When I think of an exit strategy, I think of getting rid of the extra stuff and focusing on the things I can manage until death. So it’s not a full exit strategy; just a focusing of sorts. There’s no such thing as retirement.”

While it’s unclear which projects will and won’t make the grade in the years to come, for now Maynard is focusing is on the music that’s in front of him, which includes some tracks Mat Mitchell recorded with drummer Sarah Jones, who played on the majority of Puscifer’s 2020 album, Existential Reckoning, before a lucrative job offer whisked her away.

“We lost her to Harry Styles when he went out [on tour] for 20 fucking years,” says Maynard, that faux fire reappearing in his tone, before becoming more reasonable. “[Sarah] was supposed to be in [Puscifer], but she got picked up by Harry, which is an amazing gig.”

Once he’s home for a couple of weeks, then, before the Tool machine rolls again, Maynard will be in his office-cum-aviary, adding his magic touch to songs while birds tweet around him, and hanging crystals refract light into dancing patterns on the wall.

This appears to be his happy place, provided that Mat – Puscifer member/producer, tech wizard and mastermind of Sessanta – has sifted through countless hard drives to find these works in progress.

Perhaps this is something Maynard might like to add to his list of responsibilities in future? He scowls. Clearly he has his limits.

“Fuck that headache!”

Tool tour the UK later this month – get your tickets now

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