Maynard James Keenan, singer and lyricist with the U.S. heavy rock band Tool, has got a crush on Japan. "It's my favorite place on Earth," he gushed on the phone from Switzerland in the middle of a European tour, promoting Tool's most recent album, "10,000 Days." After seven trips to Japan, the thing that appeals most to him is the courtesy.
"That's what I like--the courtesy, everybody knowing what they're supposed to do and happy to do it," he said.
I asked Keenan if his job as a singer in a heavy rock band is to be a "sanctioned wild man." Isn't he supposed to disapprove of such nerdy behavior and, instead, to take drugs, sleep with groupies and smash up hotel rooms?
"You know, I'm 42 and I haven't smashed up one hotel room," he said with a touch of irony, admitting that this is one of the common expectations of someone in his position.
But the Los Angeles-based Keenan, who also owns and runs a winery in Arizona and has a successful musical side project (though now on hiatus) with his other heavy-metal band, A Perfect Circle, is far from being a typical rock star. Tool's music, too, although hard and heavy in a way common to any rock band appealing to a young male demographic, is anything but the usual hard-rock fare.
Seen as something of an intellectual in rock circles, Keenan has written lyrics inspired by the theories of Carl Gustav Jung and Karl Marx; his career has included a two--year stint in the U.S. Army, a spell in art school and a job designing pet stores. He founded Tool in 1990 in Los Angeles with guitarist Adam Jones, drummer Danny Carey and bassist Paul d'Amour, who left in 1995 and was replaced by English bassist Justin Chancellor.
The Tool sound that evolved between its grungy heavy metal debut, 1992's "Opiate" EP, and the band's 2001 breakthrough album, "Lateralus," is showcased on the current release. "10,000 Days" includes lengthy compositions with complex musical structures that eschew obvious hooks and verse--chorus-- verse repetitiveness. This creates songs that sound rambling and even jazzy in form, but, according to Keenan, this appearance is deceptive.
"We spend a lot of time in what we call our improvisational phase when we're writing," he explained. "But when a piece is finished, it's something we've gone over and over, and we've mapped it out, more like a classical piece with specific movements like a symphony."
After composing the music, which the band members create together, Keenan writes the lyrics on his own. Although some songs on "10,000 Lives" are lyrically weak, the album also includes "Vicarious," a pummeling masterpiece of invective that makes serious points about the age of Internet and cable TV:
"I need to watch things die/From a good safe distance/Vicariously, I/Live while the whole world dies."
With lyrics that allude to universal themes of evil, alienation and later redemption, and a sound that comes across as epic and indefinable, Tool's music succeeds in sounding both big and clever, but the essence of its appeal is that, like Wagnerian Opera or a lengthy Indian raga, it invokes the sublime rather than the beautiful.
Because of its musical complexity, the band has inevitably been tagged as progressive metal.
"The press are going to define us on what they know and what they're into," Keenan responded. "If they're only into classical music, then they're going to define us as some kind of crazy devil-worshipping metal band. If they're really into metal, death metal and that kind of stuff, then [they're] going to call us [a] fluffy prog rock band."
But with music that creates a brooding sense of menace and lyrics that conjure a bleak universe, doesn't Keenan sometimes wish to unleash the cliched rock 'n' animal and throw the proverbial TV set into the proverbial hotel swimming pool, instead of sublimating all his rage and aggression into his music?
"I've never done that; it's not in my nature," he replied. "My nature is to sit in the middle of a room with four guys and create something, then go out and represent it the best way we can."
Consensus, conscientiousness and hard work--no wonder Keenan loves Japan so much!
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Tool will perform Feb. 8 (7 p.m.) at Zepp Osaka. Call Kyodo Osaka at 06-6233-8888.
Feb. 9 (7 p.m.) at Zepp Tokyo. Call Creativeman at 03-5466-0777.
Feb. 14 (7 p.m.) at Club Diamond Hall in Nagoya. Call SMC Plaza at 052-265-2666.
All shows 7,000 yen.
Sold out: Feb. 12 (6 p.m.) in Kawasaki.(IHT/Asahi: January 12,2007)