Digging up the Past With Maynard James Keenan

We spoke to the enigmatic musician, artist, wine connoisseur, and more about his new biography and why fame is bullshit.

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Feb 27 2017, 9:12am

Maynard James Keenan doesn't have time for bullshit. What might otherwise come off like yet another chapter in the storied history of rock star arrogance is simply an honest truth for the 52-year-old musician, winemaker, artist, actor, former track star, and so on. Keenan literally doesn't have the time to address anything that isn't directly in front of him. It's the kind of unhindered focus and drive that's brought enormous success for the guy who started out like any other kid from the Midwest. "If I'm going to be talking to somebody, it would have to be somebody that I can trust," he says about 20 minutes into our phone conversation--a trite comment were it not for the fact that Keenan's fame and notoriety as an artist has always seemed juxtaposed to the fiercely private individual he is once the lights are down.

Running down the list of accomplishments and projects from Tool to A Perfect Circle to Puscifer to guest starring on Mr. Show to winemaking to god knows what else, Keenan's penchant for developing penchants extends well beyond an assortment of boredom-induced hobbies. When it was announced last year that he would be releasing a biography in 2016, conversations regarding the news naturally lent themselves to things like, "How much will he talk about Tool?" or "What about Tool?" or "Will there be a release date mentioned for the new Tool album?"

And yes, Keenan does take the time to discuss his role in Tool, the band that started it all for the man born James Herbert Keenan, with "started" being the operative word. As it happens, the band didn't come up once in our recent hour-long conversation to discuss A Perfect Union of Contrary Things, his biography published last month with author and childhood friend Sarah Jensen. Instead, we talked about things less likely to irritate the living shit out of someone who, surprisingly, becomes agitated when constantly asked the same question about the same thing. As it turns out, for Keenan, there's a hell of a lot more to talk about.

Noisey: Was writing this book especially challenging just given how fiercely private you've always been?
Maynard James Keenan: Yeah. I think that there's a weird ... I don't know if weird is the right word for it. There's an imbalance with celebrity worship, I think. It will probably take a couple of scholars to kind of trace whatever that is and however that works. Probably trace it back to Hollywood or something, I don't know. Like anything, it all comes back to money or power or something. It's just out of balance. I feel like, in order to kind of just let your work speak for itself, you kind of have to remove a little bit of the celebrity personality. You can still be an asshole. You can still be a kind person. You can still be all of those things behind the scenes, as an artist. If you let the personality part run it, then whatever you're getting done is compromised, I feel.

Was there a vulnerability for you in revisiting some of these experiences?
When you start digging up old wounds and stuff, things come out. You work your whole life, in theory—some people do—on trying to correct your trajectory, or at least help deal with and transmute some of those negative energies into something positive. To do that, sometimes you have to be pretty vulnerable. I guess that's a lifelong thing. Personally, I'm just used to doing that. I just don't usually do it with somebody in the room. It's a pride and personal thing rather than being out and writing it out loud.

You mentioned not letting your personality or persona sort of dictating things. Seems like the majority of celebrity biographies really hinge on that sort of masturbatory approach.
There's probably three main reasons people read celebrity biographies. The first would be because somebody has convinced them that they're not good enough to achieve something great. Which is bullshit. Everybody's capable of the most amazing act of kindness that, it might go unnoticed by most people, but if it was noticed by one person or was for one person, you achieved greatness. Just because nobody knows about it doesn't mean it's not valid. I think that there's somebody, somewhere along the line, that somebody's unplugged that possibility in people where they have to give all of their power and emulate some person who got lucky. Yeah, you prepare for things, you have talent. You do a thing, but at the end of the day there's no way to track it. It's a lottery. The success of some people is definitely in a lottery.

The other kind of person that reads the biography is probably just looking for sensationalism. They're just looking for the other side of those things. They're either giving away their power to somebody they've seen as a deity, which is ridiculous, or they're looking for the sensationalised. The third would be they're looking to see if this person's human. Because I've always had friends that go, "Hey, we're going to go out to this place, or we're going to go to this thing. Should we announce that you're coming too? Should we use your name?" The answer is always, "No, because nothing good comes of it. Not a fucking good thing. Not a single good thing comes of it because, if they don't like you, they're going to go out of their way to tell you whatever reason they have not to like you, and it's always unjustifiable. They don't like you because of a poem you wrote, so they're going to be unreasonable to you, or they're going to treat you like you think you're something special.

Well, if you do that, then that's your fault. You announced yourself like you're special. So that's your fault. They're either going to treat you that way or they're going to treat you extra special. Which is like, "Why are you treating me more special than the couple behind me, or the four people in front of me? There's no reason for you to treat me any better or worse than the person in front of me." So announcing your arrival ends up poisoning your experience and why you can't just have an experience.

That has to be an incredibly difficult position to maintain as a celebrity who has millions of fans around the world.
It can be. I guess it really comes down to what you want. If the only reason you got into whatever you're doing. Say you wanted to be a rock star chef. Is that what you wanted to be? Just a rock star chef? Is that what you wanted? Because if that's your goal, there's a lot of corners you can cut to get to that spot, without actually being really good at what you claim to be good at. If that's your goal. Usually when you achieve that thing. "I just want to be famous." Well, fuck. Oklahoma City was a famous act. I don't think it helped anybody. I guess that comes down to choice of attention or respect and being able to recognise the difference.

That idea of self-reliance seems to be a common thread throughout the book. Is that something you've always had, or was it something shaped by experience?
Go back to caveman days. When you couldn't get that rock up on the top of that other rock, and you didn't have anybody around to help you put the rock up there, you figured out a way. If you really needed to get that rock up there. Our creative side is what drives us. That need to survive. Not that I run around taking Tony Robbins courses or anything like that, but there's a great one online recently where he was like, "Most people, when given the choice of life or death, tend to choose life." If you're just going along, trying to get to the island, and you're just kind of coasting in the boat, get the fuck out of the boat.

You're either going to drown, or you're going to live. So get the fuck out of the boat and get to the island by dying or living. I guess somewhere early on, there's a lot of people that whether they wanted to get out of the boat or not, were out of the fucking boat. They had to make that choice. Again, I don't know the scenario that it would have been for me. It's hard to maintain that objectivity. I don't know if it came before then or after then. I really don't know. That moment happens for some people, and they just realise "I need to be self-reliant". I can, and I've gotten to the point where, over the years, I have been self-reliant, and I've thankfully been able to do that with talented people around me who are also self-reliant.

Was having Sarah [Jensen] write the book your way of maintaining that personal space while going into all these private details of your life?
Well, she's from where I grew up and went to high school. She has an idea of where I started, and her brother is my best friend. She has an idea of all of those things, having experienced the setting of where we both grow up and knowing where we're from. That's a grounding experience in and of itself as far as a writer's perspective. I ended going with her and letting her figure out who the agent and the publisher was going to be, because had I just brought her over to my side of things, taking her to my lawyer and to my agent, I think she would have been marginalised.

Having her be the person who has never really been through this before and having that learning experience through this weird process, and just given her experience in writing and her thorough attention to detail, I felt like those things were more important than some person who's just going to take their percentage and ghostwrite and go home. Her understanding of where I came from, getting to watch her have a new experience in this new publishing world that she hadn't have before, drawing on her years and years of experiences as an editor and a writer to get the details right——I just felt like that was just important. Just for the execution part. As far as the personal space, you said I'm a private person. If I'm going to be talking to somebody, it would have to be somebody that I can trust.

Were there certain things you'd previously forgotten that came back around as a result of doing this?
Yeah, as far as the book is concerned, that's one version of the story. That's just one sweater thread that we tugged. There's many other that we could have followed. That's just kind of one perspective. The best way I could describe it is the blind man feeling the elephant. They're all describing a different part of the elephant, and they're convinced that this is the way the world is. This is the world. The elephant is a metaphor for the world, and this is the way the world is. One guy is describing the tail, and one guy is describing the leg, and one guy is describing the trunk and one is describing the belly, and they're all disagreeing about what the world is. I guess that's kind of a metaphor for the path that I chose to go down with Sarah. We chose one particular part of the elephant to describe. There's so many other paths that are left open to explore. To your question, yes, some things came up that I had kind of forgotten about, but there's so many more things that we just had to omit because it ended up being too much information.

Were certain memories or experiences difficult but necessary in a way for you to revisit?
Yeah, I'm sure there were things that I had to generalise. The last thing I wanted to do was for this to be dirty laundry or some rock star expose or any of that crap. That's not really what we wanted to do. Yeah, there's some dark shit that happens to people, and you've got to figure out. Just empower people to say, "If life gives you lemons, fuck lemonade. Make lemon jello and lemon meringue pie and plant one of those fucking lemon seeds and grow another fucking tree to get lemon trees, and you can get drunk under the tree if you want." There are all these thing you can do.

Which goes back to the whole idea of self-reliance. Of course, your four-year stint in the military probably helped enforce that perspective in you as well.
I think those years are an important part of the equation. Understanding structure and discipline, to be able to draw a line and know where the line started and where it's going, and having the ability to predict it a little bit. And really being able to think outside of the box in general. It's a strange phenomenon for me when people think that there is a complete division between that warrior spirit and actual artist spirit. I think with self-discipline those things can be absolutely in balance because think about it. Like, at what point in our stage of development did we figure out how to take a stick, put a string on it, and put a sharper stick on it and fling it 100 yards away and get lunch? How wonderful was that idea? That's a warrior. That's a killer. That's what that thing is, but it had to start with the creative part of the mind. That was an artist that made that leap to figure that out and put it together. They're inseparable.

Has there always been a sort of unconscious biographical influence on your work as an artist and musician that you're unaware of until that specific project is completed?
I suppose so. I think a lot of the training comes from experience both conscious and unconscious, and they might reveal themselves as they go. I think it will be project by project, whether it's a wine, or a recipe, or a song, or a poem. They all kind of express themselves in some way. It is your hand, so of course, it could be unconscious movements throughout it.

You wear a lot of masks, sometimes literally. Was it hard to wrangle all that in and give it a single voice?
That was kind of part Sarah's job, but mostly mine, because when we would have our conversations every Sunday, I would have to make sure that I omitted stuff or not even bring certain things up so that it didn't confuse what she's going to see as a storyline or as a common thread. I had to edit myself speaking to her, so that we weren't getting way off the path of what was, in a way, me dropping unconscious breadcrumbs for her. She found a common path, and she made the bread, but I consciously didn't give other pieces of stories, just so that at least there was some cohesiveness before she actually got the bulk of the information that would end up being edited. She couldn't put certain things in because they didn't quite fit the overall story. All those things are still there. It's all true, it's all the path, but there's so many things that could have derailed her thread.

In a lot of ways, your entire career has been you telling different stories using different personas. Where did that all start for you?
In high school. In choir. Also, just in writing small poems in high school. I could see how some people were going through strange things, and I could recognise those experiences because of my own, so then I would write down a little limerick or a poem for them, about their situation. Maybe not specifically about their situation, but specific enough they definitely could tell it was for them. To have them react to it being accurate in a way that they weren't able to or aware of, or taught, or told that they could before, and in a way that they weren't expressing or were somewhat incapable of expressing themselves before–I was able to help them unlock that. I think that was where it really started is understanding that, "Oh, in a way I could prescribe some words that help this person move through a thing."

So the next project is Maynard's Book of Poetry.
No. [Laughs.] Having seen what Polly Harvey just recently did in terms of poetry, fuck no. I'm not even going to try that. That's beyond me. What she did was incredible, and I just would look like Romper Room meets Sesame Street if I tried to do something like that.

Do you see yourself as a writer first, and then everything sort of falling in line after that?
Yeah, I think so, but I also realise that the storytelling comes from actually getting your hands dirty, or at least engaging in the friction in some way. You have to be engaged, conscious and moving and touching. Otherwise, you're just a critic in a way.

It seems like writing a biography would naturally lend itself to the subject focusing on their own mortality. Does mortality play a more significant role in what you do as an artist now than it did 15 or 20 years ago?
I think that's the case with most people. Just thinking politically, you're never going to see a 21-year-old president. They haven't lived. They haven't been through anything. The libido hasn't subsided. They don't have skeletons in their closest. There's all these things that the inexperienced can't speak to. Their body literally couldn't handle it. Speaking in terms of wine, there's a lot of people that the wine experts would say, "Even if you have children that you have coming up into the wine industry and your family runs a wine business, their body can't even quite understand or grasp the complexities of a wine. You can't really truly understand it on an intellectual and spiritual level until after you're 25."

Occasionally there might be a kid in that scenario who gets it a little earlier than most people, but for the most part, you see a family of winemakers, and the kids go off and say, "Yeah, I'm not sure I want to do the business." Then right around the time they're 27 or 28-years-old they suddenly go, "Oh my god, this is the most amazing thing. What am I doing? I have to go back and do this thing." It's just a beverage at first, and then they finally start to understand the life that's breathing in and out of this bottle and in these vineyards. I think there's an age thing that you just have to acknowledge. That, as you get older, there are just different perspectives and different things that are unrecognisable until you've crossed a few bridges.

Jonathan Dick is a writer based in Birmingham, Alabama.