“The beauty of not understanding it is letting it stay alive”: The untold story of Tool’s Lateralus

It’s an album that continues to captivate and confuse fans the world over. Two decades on from its release, Kerrang! and Tool bassist Justin Chancellor search for answers to the enigma that is Lateralus…

“The beauty of not understanding it is letting it stay alive”: The untold story of Tool’s Lateralus
George Garner
Scarlet Page

The interview begins not with a hello, but a gesture. No sooner has the Zoom video connected than the figure of Justin Chancellor appears with his right hand already positioned by his forehead in a salute – his sizeable beard framing a friendly smile.

For one quarter of the world’s most mysterious band – completed by vocalist Maynard James Keenan, drummer Danny Carey and guitarist Adam Jones – Tool’s bassist is remarkably personable, a man very much at ease as he regales Kerrang! about his morning spent walking his dogs.

As wonderful as it would be to find out more about his pets, including his “new puppy”, that’s not the reason Justin has granted K! the rarest of interviews. Rather, we’re interrupting his downtime to talk about the 20th anniversary of Tool’s revered third full-length album, Lateralus. A record, lest we forget, that upon release received a 5/5 Kerrang! review, which emphatically declared it to be “one of the greatest albums you’ll hear in your lifetime”.

Ahead of this trip down memory lane, Justin admits he is not typically someone who’s hardwired for nostalgia. In fact, he rarely revisits albums he’s played on.

“It’s the case with a lot of our records, because we spend so much time constructing them,” he begins. “During the time we’re writing, it’s in our head 24 hours a day. Literally. We’re all composers, and that’s part of the process, trying to figure it out internally: you go to sleep with it and you wake up with it.”

Whenever he does re-encounter Tool’s music away from having to bring it to life onstage, it often comes to him as a surprise.

“A nice part of it is randomly hearing it on the radio when you’re not expecting it because you’re not thinking, ‘This is my stuff,’” he explains. “You hear something and go, ‘Oh, what’s that? That sounds good’ – then you realise it’s actually something you’ve done! It then occurs to you just how much prejudice you’ve got against your own stuff. It’s very hard to enjoy it until you’ve got quite a distance from it…”

It begs the question of just how long it’s been since Justin last listened to Lateralus in its entirety. Presumably it’s been years, right?

“It was last night,” he chuckles, explaining how he wanted to be prepared for this interview. “I actually quite enjoyed it.”

To say his personal reaction mirrors the general perception of this record is perhaps the understatement to end all understatements. Freighted with a prodigious sense of musicality and lyrics with a profound sense of spiritual authority, Lateralus has transfixed successive generations of rock fans ever since it came into the world on May 15, 2001.

The context of that date is important. Upon its release, it had been five years since Tool’s last album, 1996’s Ænima, was released – “Like it was a long time!” Justin laughs, seemingly a wink to the 13-year wait for their 2019 album Fear Inoculum. But, in truth, a great deal had changed in that relatively short interval of time.

When Tool emerged in the early ’90s, they were assuredly an utterly unique proposition, but very much at home within a wider constellation of challenging, artistically-driven bands such as Nine Inch Nails, Faith No More, Jane’s Addiction, Rage Against The Machine, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains and Soundgarden. By 2001, almost all of these peers had been torpedoed either by tragedy or acrimony. Tool, then, returned to a radically altered music world in 2001; one in which the nu-metal of Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park and Papa Roach was ascendant.

“I felt like we were a little lost at sea in amongst everything else,” Justin reflects. “It was very different.”

Lateralus would cement that distinction. It first came into view in a comically camouflaged guise: the band claiming that it would be called Systema Encéphale and boast stupendous decoy track titles such as Pain Canal, Lactation and Riverchrist to throw people off (“We can always go back and make the music to the fake names,” Justin laughs, with Riverchrist in particular cracking him up).

Such humour belied the seriousness of the finished 78-minute record, as well its translucent artwork by Alex Grey and spectacular videos by Adam Jones. Lateralus was not only a Number One album boasting a GRAMMY-winning single (Best Metal Performance for Schism), but also a triumph of intellect in a nu-metal era of baggy jeans and heroically basic rhyme schemes. Very quickly, however, it transcended that status.

As one of the most press-elusive bands in rock history, Tool’s members shed precious little light on its making at the time, and into that vacuum stepped an army of fans eager to establish meaning. In turn, the record became a self-sustaining myth attracting borderline academic attention. At times it has felt like a vast tract of the internet – aka the part that isn’t porn, memes or spam – is made up of Lateralus dissections covering everything from its artwork, time signatures and polyrhythms to what it means to ‘swing on the spiral’. Suffice to say, Justin has an altogether different takeaway from hearing the record…

“It’s just very difficult to separate all the memories and feelings and the emotions that went into it at the time from just enjoying the music,” he explains. “When I listened back the other night, I was right there in the room with the guys. Every verse or chorus has particular memories attached, so it’s quite intense; it’s difficult just to relax and listen to it. In that album, you can hear the struggle to pull it all together, the tension between everything, and that’s something that’s quite beautiful about it, too. The struggle grabs you.”

What were some of the memories that sprung to mind?

“Oh God, just struggling over parts, fighting with each other, coming to a solution,” he reveals. “It was a very, very emotional roller coaster.”

Indeed, Lateralus is a ride comprised of highs, lows and more than a few dizzying spiralling sections…

“Maynard gets a theme or an idea from the music and very rarely goes back on that it…”

Listen to Justin Chancellor discuss Maynard’s hyper-focused approach to songwriting

When it came to getting the initial recording of Lateralus off the ground, things didn’t exactly go to plan.

“We spent the first day in the lounge having it out with each other, kicking and screaming, laughing and crying,” grins Justin. “That whole day, we didn’t go into the tracking room at all.”

So it was that returning Ænima producer David Bottrill sat in the studio, nervously twiddled around with equipment, and wondered when the hell the band he was meant to be recording were going to emerge. Eventually, he sent someone in to see what the deal was.

“That person was told to leave,” Justin deadpans.

There were many tributaries to this “having it out”. One was that Tool were exhausted from weathering a four-year legal case with their former label, Volcano Entertainment. For another, the Ænima tour had also been a classic case of what happens when people “spend too much time together”.

“We pulled apart a little bit because we forgot the journey we were on, where we were trying to go, and why we were doing it in the first place,” reflects Justin. “It was a bit of a moment where the friendships and stuff came into a little bit of jeopardy, because everyone got a bit too burned out. Which sounds ridiculous now when you’re older and more mature, you realise it was a little premature to be like, ‘This is all over.’”

Another factor was the formation of A Perfect Circle in 1999 during Tool’s legal deadlock. Maynard’s new band with Billy Howerdel quickly took off after the release of their classic debut Mer De Noms at the same time Danny, Justin and Adam were rustling up the musical side of Ænima’s follow-up. The public perception, as recounted in Maynard and Sarah Jensen’s book A Perfect Union Of Contrary Things, was that “fans who didn’t know the story of the Volcano impasse perceived APC as Maynard’s abandonment of Tool”. Which it wasn’t. Justin, Danny and Adam simply hadn’t progressed far enough in the writing stage of the record for Maynard to start his part of the process…

“We were like, ‘Can we finish this [working on Lateralus]?’” explains Justin. “And Maynard was like, ‘Well, you need to finish the music, I’ll be doing this while you’re finishing it,’ And it was kind of like…”

At this moment Justin’s phone starts ringing, his screen informing him it’s a call he shouldn’t answer.

“Ah, it’s my best mate ‘Spam risk’!” he chuckles. “I’ve lost my train of thought…”

You were saying how the APC/Tool situation resolved itself?

“The beautiful thing is that, in the end, [A Perfect Circle] did complement it, but if we hadn’t worked through that, and come back together, it wouldn’t have been so helpful,” he resumes. “If we’d have not figured out how to deal with that situation, everyone would have got upset and we never would have finished Lateralus. It’s like being in a relationship where you realise you need a little bit of space, instead of being like, ‘You’re always out fishing – fuck you, I’m leaving.’ It’s the way of balancing all that together.

“Tool is not a competition, and it’s not one thing against the other,” he continues. “It’s really all quite complementary in a way. I know for Maynard, he can express himself in all these different forums to lead out different sides of himself, which I can hear. In the end, you have to come back together and really hash it out. A little time apart is good, but if you’re going to create something together, part of that creativity is communicating with each other and understanding each other.”

Back, then, to the strange start of Lateralus’ recording…

“That first day was really intense; it all just boiled over,” says Justin of their unsuccessful effort to get Lateralus off the ground. “We had it out. By the end of that, we were all exhausted and we just said, ‘Alright, let’s just go home. Let’s try it again tomorrow.’”

David Bottrill presented Tool with a simple question: “Are we doing this?”

“We said, ‘Yeah, we're doing this,’’ he continues. “We all went home, came back in the next day, and then got on with it. It was quite a great way to start it. It was a clean slate with everything.”

Perhaps no-one savoured the potential of that clean slate more than Justin. When he joined Tool to replace original bassist Paul D’Amour – “I was the new working lad who was brought in to sweep the floor,” is Justin’s self-deprecating recollection of his induction – Ænima was already well underway.

“The album before was half-written when I joined,” he says. “So it still had a real feel of the old band, and I was influenced by that a lot so I was trying to try to make it all work with great respect to what they’d done before. This time, they were really like, ‘We want you to help us go somewhere else, we want to become something else with you.’”

With only Parabola having existed in any form previously, Lateralus was Justin’s chance to fully assert his own vision and creativity.

“It really was like having your pants around your ankles,” he grins. “It was like, ‘Okay, this is me!’”

Justin is full of praise for his fellow players’ open-mindedness that made Lateralus’ metronome-melting music possible (“Sometimes I would play something accidentally, that I didn’t want them to hear and they’d go, ‘What’s that? We’re working on that!’”).

As for Adam’s guitar work on the record?

“Amazing,” he says emphatically, before immediately upgrading his assessment: “Unbelievable.”

“Danny’s just not interested in doing anything by the book,” Justin continues, moving on to appraise Tool’s virtuoso drummer. “If he had another arm, he’d use it, you know? I don’t know if we meant to make Lateralus ‘out there’ in that way; I think it was combination of us being experimental, individually. It was very different from anything I’d heard – stuff like Schism was really weird. The word prog-rock started to be used [to describe it after its release], but to me that’s really accidental. That’s just me fighting with them about time signatures and rhythms.”

Yet the astounding music of songs such as Schism, Ticks & Leeches and the title-track would only be part of the enduring Lateralus legend.

“The approach to it was very tense. We hadn’t really come together as a unit”

Justin on how the first day of recording Lateralus with producer David Bottrill didn’t quite go to plan…

Maynard James Keenan was on the road with A Perfect Circle when he first heard the sounds the rest of his Tool bandmates had been conjuring. In the back of APC’s tour bus, he started putting pen to paper.

In A Perfect Union Of Contrary Things, the frontman describes Lateralus as “a soundtrack for healing”, explaining how it tapped “into the energies that lay in mathematical symmetry – and the position of the planet Saturn”. Referenced on the opening track The Grudge is the theory that every 28 years, Saturn returns to the place it had been at the moment of someone’s birth – a time of endings and new beginnings. 
“You either let go of past delusions and ascend to the next level, or you sink like a stone,” wrote Maynard. “If you can’t make it past your Saturn return, you remain stagnant.”

For two decades the words to songs such as The Grudge have set the minds of Tool’s fans on fire. But what was Justin’s personal response to Maynard’s lyrics?

“There’s a lot of the anguish of being in and out of love, and friendship, and what’s it worth? Where are you going with it? And what are you looking for?” he observes. “All of that’s in there. It starts with The Grudge; musically and lyrically it’s brittle and brutal. And then you get to a place like [the song] Lateralus where it’s full of hope and really beautiful. You go into the more spiritual realm where you’re going, ‘I’m not even sure what I’m looking for, but I’m looking, and I’m not going to stop looking.’ Listening to it the other night, I just feel it goes through the gamut of that struggle and those emotions.”

Tool had pushed their songcraft like never before musically; Maynard mirrored their efforts in word and melody. For lead single Schism, Justin had fashioned one of the most unique basslines of all time, and it found its match in lyrics that somehow married a line as complex as ‘cold silence has a tendency to atrophy any sense of compassion’ to a gorgeous melody…

“And to a weird time signature as well,” adds Justin. “It’s a beautiful line and I’m glad you brought it up. The music’s very complex, but to have Maynard go, ‘Alright, that’s fine,’ and listen to it studiously and fit words, thoughts and emotions to the scaffold of it is wonderful. It brings the emotion out of the music because, without that, that over-complicated rhythm section or the prog-rockiness of it is a little unemotional. But once the words and the melody of the vocal are on? It’s really nice. My mum loves it, you know what I mean?”

This grand union of complexity and feeling reached its apotheosis on Lateralus’ mesmerising title-track. Here, one memorable MetalSucks parody video christened Every Tool Fan Ever springs to mind…

“The lyrics to Lateralus switch between 9/8, 8/8 and 8/7 time signatures – with the number 987 being the 16th of the Fibonacci sequence,” explains the impassioned actor playing a devout Tool fan to two non-plussed people. “It’s simple logarithmitic spiral integer approximation theory!” The track is the epicentre of all Lateralus conspiracy theories.

“That whole song is just really crazy, because it was just the beauty of the way the universe turns,” explains Justin. “It’s always talked about. I see stuff online, like, ‘Tool wrote this according to the Fibonacci sequence.’ But it basically wrote itself. The original riff was a bar of nine, a bar of eight and a bar of seven, and the idea was that it feels like it’s folding in on itself.”

This then evolved when a friend of Danny’s was hanging with the band one day and Justin explained that very concept to their guest...

“And he said, ‘Do you know that 987 is actually the 16th number of the Fibonacci sequence?’” says Justin. “He started to explain it to all of us, and we started to pursue that idea; it revealed itself, then we followed it. And then Maynard started singing in the Fibonacci sequence, and then there’s a section in the end where he was talking about spirals, so Danny and I started to create the breakdown section where everything was just swimming around on top of each other, and then it all came back together.”

Justin is, however, quick to stress one thing…

“The Fibonacci sequence is not mathematically correct [in the song], but there are elements of it in there…”

Otherwise you’re just making a maths formula and not an actual song…

“Right, and so it wasn’t like that,” he explains. “But there is a beauty in following when these things happen, taking notice of them, and going, ‘Wow, okay, perhaps we should really pursue that course.’”

And just as Tool followed their muse so, too, would fans spend the next 20 years chasing the group’s creation…

“The whole song is crazy – I like to think it’s the beauty of the way the universe turns”

Listen to Justin discuss the initial inspiration behind Lateralus’ title-track, before the Fibonacci sequence came into play

Articulate, intelligent and insightful – not to mention a master of self-deprecation – Justin Chancellor dispatches questions with ease. Well, all of them except one. The only time he temporarily draws a blank is when K! enquires why, 20 years on, he thinks people are still obsessing over Lateralus.

“Not really,” is his response when asked if he has at least gleaned anything from speaking to fans over the years. Instead, he returns to his own reaction to it.

“When I listened to it the other night, I heard something that’s completely different that I hadn’t heard before,” he says. “The way it’s played, the type of music it is, the way the songs are formed, the way that the whole thing is put together, I just hear something completely unique, completely original. I think maybe as far as popular rock music [at the time], everything had gotten mushed, like when you mash all your food together. It just became this mush where everyone was doing the same thing. And not only that, but the stuff that is different got buried under the mush. Suddenly, all this stuff was saturated at the radio, the festivals. Perhaps it took someone like us slaving away and not really listening to that stuff. We already had this impetus from success before that and, because we followed through with it, we managed to crash through the ceiling.”

Many artists complain about the deterioration of attention spans that’s so endemic in the streaming era, where some casual listeners struggle to focus on one song, let alone a 79-minute complex body of work. Justin says he was blown away by the loyalty of Tool’s fans when he joined – noting that it was their love of Ænima that gave them the confidence to push even further on Lateralus. That fans are still poring over the minutiae of it 20 years later “means a lot”.

Yet such intense devotion can also be a curse. There are so many rumours about Lateralus that Reddit is now interpreting interpretations of interpretations of interpretations. Take the enduring fan theory of the “Holy Gift” – namely that a secret album is hiding in plain sight when its 13 tracks are rearranged according to, you guessed it, the Fibonacci sequence. It’s a theory, presumably, that Justin is aware of?

“Yeah,” he nods.

Can you confirm if there’s truth to it?

“I can neither confirm nor deny,” he smiles.

Perhaps we can approach it from another way. The fact that fans care enough to come up with a theory to experience Lateralus in a different way must, in itself, be a good feeling?

“I don’t know,” he says. “It’s like [Lateralus already] is the Holy Gift. It’s already there, do you know what I mean? You have the [theory] about Dark Side Of The Moon where you put it in sync with The Wizard Of Oz – you can put anything to anything and it works (laughs).”

So what you’re saying is Lateralus and Die Hard go hand in hand?

“Yeah! That bit where something blows up and nothing happens on the music, you can make it all work,” he continues. “I don’t know if it’s people hearing the emotion and the spirituality in it, and then trying to explain that, which is sort of the opposite of the purpose of it. You don’t really need to explain it to feel this greater power coming from it. It’s like the four elements come together and makes a fifth, which is, to me, the spiritual side of it, the creative soul of it. I think when people start going back in and trying to dissect it, it almost goes back the opposite way. It’s almost like deconstructing it back down.”

Justin suggests there’s not much to be gained from dismantling what Tool laboured so exhaustively to put together…

“It’s like you take a car engine apart, put it on the ground, and you have to put it back together to make it work, and that’s really hard,” he says. “You get a little lost doing that, but I feel like people do it because it moves them and they want to somehow explain that.”

In fact, some parts of Lateralus remain a headtrip even for Justin. Its eerie parting note, Faaip De Oiad – a heavily distorted recording of a distressed caller on Art Bell's radio show Coast to Coast AM claiming that extraterrestrials live among us – is one that still intrigues him.

“I was listening to that in particular, it just throws you off a bit,” says Justin. “Danny’s really good at that: just when you think you’re getting somewhere, there’s something that makes you go, ‘Wait a second, do I really understand what’s going on?’ Part of the beauty of not understanding it is letting it stay alive. It continues to live. Maynard’s lyrics, the poetry of them, is open. I think the mystery is a friend to the lasting creativity of the album.”

As the conversation draws to a close, something dawns on Tool’s bassist…

“It’s like a birth and a death when you record these albums, you know?” he explains. “It’s almost like a gravestone of all the creativity that led up to it. It’s like an ending, but it’s also a beginning because the thoughts it provokes going forward are for everyone else.”

So what would the gravestone of Lateralus say on it?

One last time, that big smile, framed by that big beard, spreads across Justin Chancellor’s face.

“It’s got a big spiral on it!”

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