Date: June, 2001
page: title: Prising Open the Box author: The cult of secrecy surrounding ‘Lateralus’, Tool’s first album in five years, would have made officials at the famed Area 51 base blush, such were the restrictions imposed before its release. Catherine Yates met up with the LA rock eccentrics with the aim of probing behind the smokescreen for one of the most anticipated releases this millennium, only to find that the band quite literally, want the music to do the talking. Bummer. STRIKE ONE This is the one, people. This has to be the one. There have already been the pretty non-revelatory releases from Sepultra and Fear Factory. Everyone wants to hear the impending Guns N’ Roses release, but that’s because no- one’s had a decent laugh in ages. It could all go so badly wrong for Slipknot, and as for Korn, well, who knows? Lest we forget, Tool are on the cover for a reason : They have a new album out and given that their last studio release was back in 1996, this is A Bit Of An Event. So, we thought it was nigh on time for a chat and a cover story. There’s plenty to talk about after all. Where on earth they’ve been, the success of A Perfect Circle, just what it is they plan to do about the current, desperate state of rock music and, oh, yes, that small matter of the album that no-one’s been able to hear. Yes, there are easier bands to interview, but we’ve given them quite a bit of coverage in the past, so it can’t be too much of a problem… Except that although our interview request is one of only five accepted, Tool have the odd stipulation or two to impose. The first is that no-one gets to interview them without hearing the album first. No problem – of course we want to hear it. Except that to do so necessitates an arduous journey to Crouch End on the day of a tube strike to former Eurythmic Dave Stewart’s recording complex for a one-listen only playback. The second is that they want to see the questions, or at least the angles first. And they don’t want to talk about music. Comedy, or humour is suggested, except that the interview’s the next day so it hardly allows for any preparation. And there’s no Maynard either. Part of you thinks, here is a band that maintains group autonomy and artistic integrity in the face of music industry promotional duties. The other part of you thinks: Bastards. SYMPATHY FOR THE MUSIC INDUSTRY We know that Tool are not exactly fond of press, with a ‘wariness’ toward the UK in particular. Everyone seems to know this, but no-one seems to know why. Previous misunderstandings and bad experiences at the hands of ill- informed Limey hacks have been cited, but you wonder just who their then label had been setting them up with. Every Tool fan I’ve ever met, has always demonstrated an appreciation of their music that far surpasses any ‘dude they rock’jockisms. Indeed, given the accolades afforded their last release, ‘Ænima’, from just about every major UK music publication, make you wonder just what made it into their press cuttings file. But it seems that everything to do with the band is geared towards a deliberate obscuring of information. Go to dissectional.com, the site of their new label and you are simply told ‘May 15’ (Lateralus’ release date). Go to the official toolband.com site and the news archive details a piecemeal, gradual spooling of information as album and song titles, artwork and lyrics are posted almost tantalizingly slowly. And then there’s the proclamation dated May 7 that states ‘so far NO-ONE has a copy of [Lateralus]’. Add to that the fact that mtv.com was given a different title and track- listing for the album every day for an entire month and you can’t help but think that heads got somewhat lodged up arses somewhere along the way. So with such misgivings in mind, you hope a face to face meeting will help clarify a few things, but walk past the impossibly high glass ceiling of the dining room in the impossibly plush Landmark Hotel, (you know a hotel’s posh when there are phones in the toilet – not in the marbled, triple-sinked bathroom but mounted right next to the brick chair itself) and the biggest one of all rears its obstructive head; the band themselves. Tool it turns out, are absolutely knackered. Having been in interview since 11am, they’re running close to empty when I show up a whopping seven hours later. It’s not that they’re uncooperative – far from it, drummer Danny Carey and bassist Justin Chancellor are most courteous interviewees. It’s just that, as the low-voiced Carey notes, “It’s kinda hard not to go onto auto-pilot when you’ve been talking about the same thing all day.” ENIGMA VIBRATIONS Despite the tiredness, it still becomes apparent that Tool in person are very much like their music; shrouded in mystery and impossible to pin down. On anything, Carey in particular is a master of The Vague Statement. For example, when pressed on the matter of keeping ‘Lateralus’ a distinctly promo-free affair, he alludes – vaguely – to the fact that the artwork and video hadn’t been finished and that the band wanted to released everything at the same time to make more of an impact. Which doesn’t really wash since the whole point of a promo, or ‘promotional item’, is as its name suggests, a method of generating public interest (ie : record sales) through a given medium (ie : music press). Isn’t this more of a demonstration of contempt for music industry norms from a band who, because of their status, just can? “Not really,” he drawls. “We just always want to put the music first and we know some press is necessary. You want to have the word out there so that everyone knows the record is going to be available.” Then why change the word every day for a month as you did with mtv.com? “As soon as we released ‘Salival’ [Tool box set released last year – CY] and the song titles, somebody instantly registered the domain names of all those songs and started making bootleg shirts and selling bogus artwork under our name,” he explains. “So this time we thought we’d put out a couple fake sets of ‘em out there so they’d waste all their money on it.” “And two days after we posted them, they were all taken,” adds Justin. “Every song title and the album title were taken as domain names.” “And the next day we’d change it so they’d get burned!” laughs Carey. “I mean it’s too bad it confused the fans a little bit but it also confused the assholes, which is who it was intended towards.” Taking action against the likes of bootleggers is fair enough, but you also get the impression that their definition of ‘asshole’ extends to anyone encroaching on their way of doing things. Toolband.com carries a strict legal warning advising that Tool will ‘aggressively enforce intellectual property rights to the fullest extent of the law’. “You just have to take care of business before you share it, which is what that was,” he says. “Getting all the real domain names registered in our name before we put it all out. Keep it all under our hat instead of someone else’s.” LATERAL THINKING Keeping things under their hat is something very particulate to Tool. At the time of writing, ‘Lateralus’ has been heard once and once only. By the time you read this, the album will have been on sale for two weeks and therefore you’ll have far more of a clue yourselves. You’ll perhaps notice that Adam Jones’ guitar gets ‘a little gnarly’ at times, or that the gritty/clean bass sound of Justin Chancellor comes from careful manipulation of two separate cabinets, one clean, one distorted. Or that, compared to the almost deliberate listening challenge posed by some of the more space-rock moments on ‘Ænima’, ‘Lateralus’ seems to be more content to just let the songs breathe. But as for gaining any greater insights from the band… no dice. “Something like ‘Eon Blue Apocalypse’ is just a really short into to ‘The Patient’ that you would never think of as a separate song,” offers Carey. “It’s a tribute to Adam’s Great Dane that died. Well it didn’t die actually, it had cancer…” Okay… “‘Mantra’ is kind of a breather thing in there, it sounds like a mantra, sort of a relaxation thing y’know,” he continues. “Then ‘Parabol’ is just an intro to ‘Parabola’.” All of this (apart from the unfortunate dog anecdote) is pretty self explanatory stuff, and does little to explain why ‘Lateralus’ really is something to get excited about. So how about the not-so-obvious, the eleven minute tribal trance-out of ‘Reflection’ a major departure and one of their finest ever moments? “Yeah it was kind a new exploration for us to try and do a song like that,” says Carey. “I was kinda proud of us for doing something we hadn’t done before and going for more of a trance like feel. I really enjoyed doing it.” But, to paraphrase Bill Hicks at the end of ‘Ænima’, all good rock music is made on drugs and if you think otherwise you’re mistaken. Are drugs a big part of Tool? “Oh they’re a key part of our band I would say…” concurs the drummer, flashing a grin positively Cheshire cat in its dimensions. But Tool are associated with consciousness expanding and a lot of eastern music is geared towards the induction of altered states through certain rhythmic patterns. The frenetic, hypnotic pummeling on ‘Triad’ conjures up images of whirling dervishes and the like. Who else in the rock world, which is still Tool’s main market, would come up with that? “Yeah, that’s a good compliment,” he muses. “I like creating images in people’s heads rather than having someone go ‘well that’s kinda interesting’ or ‘that guy’s burning in his instrument’. It just gets boring y’know. To make people think of images like that, that’s awesome, that’s what I hope to do.” That Tool are intelligent, well-disposed beings is not up for debate. It’s jus that generating specifics on anything is almost impossible. THE LAST STAND Still, if they can’t expound further, there’s still the hard evidence to fall back on. Like the fact that right now, here we are at one of the most stale and conservative points in American rock history and Tool are really the only true contenders left. All their peers they helped spearhead the alternative music revolution with the early 90’s have either split (FNM, Jane’s Addiction, Soundgarden), got dropped (Ministry) or been left behind in the nu-metal gold ruch (NIN, Rollins). As Melvins would say, Tool have continued to make music that doesn’t suck. And more importantly, have retained their popularity alongside it (a recent New York show sold out in 60 seconds). “Yeah,” muses Carey, obviously very aware of the fact. “We just kept doing what we did to begine with I guess, and we kept it all under our control, and didn’t succumb to any kind of outside influences that might have told us to write songs and get on the radio, and I guess that’s kinda why we’re still here…” Although you would have been forgiven for thinking the band hadbefallen the same fate as their peers. A lengthy absence from the scene, due in part to protracted legal wrangles with their former label, prevented any releasing of material and delayed the writing process for the new album somewhat. “We’ve been pretty much in a room, writing music for like the best part of a year and a half maybe, so that kind of preserves what you’re doing a little bit,” notes Justin. “I think it could do a lot of bands some good to take a sabbatical and try to expand their horizons in one way or another, and then they could come out with something that their fans would really appreciate,” adds Carey. “If you just keep cranking out things you don’t give yourself a chance to grow as individuals. That’s one thing that’s good. It’s allowed us a little time off from each other too to explore our own ways a little bit. It’s kinda been good for everyone.” The other hard fact is that as generators for some pretty self- indulgent music that hasn’t adhered to a single trend, which or other, Tool have a surprisingly wide fanbase. Through doing it by and for themselves, they can count denim clad, mullet sporting Kreator fans as much as sportswear toting teens, and everything that goes inbetween as supporters, without ever catering specifically to any one market. Which begs the question, why, after such careful demonstrations of group autonomy, have they agreed to a high profile package tour like Ozzfest? “We want to reach as many people as we can,” explains the drummer. “As long as the music comes first, it’ll speak for itself. The only thing we usually try and keep a lower profile of is our personality instead of the art that you make and I think usually it’s ‘cause the art might suck that people have to resort to that. If your work is good enough, it’ll stand up on its own.” LOST IN THE TRANSLATION As long as there is music it will be open to interpretation and more importantly, misinterpretation – as the less information is provided, the more people will invent their own to fill in the gaps. Let Tool’s music speak for itself and parts of the conversation are clearer than others. Musical proficiency and technicality infused with a near psychedelic sensibility and a crushing rock weight are easily identifiable. The highly evocative, introspective lyrics of Maynard James Keenan are not so easy to get a handle on. Take ‘Ænima’ live favourite ‘Stinkfist’, a huge, epic rock song that blooms out of festival Pas and flattens crowds with a chorus as monstrous as it is majestic. Its lyrics (on the surface) are a blackly humorous paean to fisting. Or take ‘Prison Sex’ (from 1993’s ‘Undertow’) a radio friendly, upbeat, funk metal number about rape and the cycle of abuse boasting the harrowing refrain, “Don unto others/What has been done to you.” A rarity in music itself, never mind the rock world, it seems strange that so little is so often made of such an unusual lyrical bent, particularly when it’s such a defining characteristic of the band. But then perhaps it’s never possible to underestimate people’s capacity for missing the point. A friend of mine used to go to school with someone who would play ‘Prison Sex’ every time he had a rugby match, to put him in the ‘mood’. Despite the fact that lyrics pertaining to ‘shit, blood, and cum’, and being ‘forced wide open’ are pretty clear in the mix, he had no idea what the song was about. When a lyric sheet was finally thrust in front of him, the tape was consigned to the bin in disgust, never to be played again. And despite Tool’s desire to put distance between art and articulations on art, surely even they have to be asking at least some questions when their singer is coming up with odes to extreme sexual pursuits or displaying frightening levels of introspection on the darkness within. “Oh Maynard’s willing to share it all with us,” says Carey. “We have conversations about what the songs mean. I have a lot of respect for how much of his soul he’s always willing to bare to everyone and it takes a lot of courage to do what he’s done and continues to do. Maynard to me is the best singer out there. Let alone his persona and the way he can just pull it off.” Given the above rather extreme but amusing example of misunderstanding, do you ever find yourself forming a certain interpretation of the lyrics only to discover a very different, intended message? “Oh definitely,” he agrees. “I think everybody does. That’s definitely the whole intention. He’s very conscious of making them able to be interpreted on a lot of different levels and I’m sure he has his own interpretation that’s probably far different to even to the one he shares with us.” It transpires the drummer has his own anecdote concerning Tool songs, friends and interpretations. “Actually, I have a friend who’s a big body builder and he poses to ‘Prison Sex’ at his contests and stuff,” he grins. Does he know what it’s about? Cue another grin. “Oh yeah, he knows…” Frankly it’s hard to decide which is scarier. TROUBLE AT THE CHECK OUT Despite having sold more than seven million records over their career, one place that hasn’t until now, been able to fully observe Tool’s favourite maxim of finding out for yourself has been the UK. The band last played here in 1996 and getting hold of a copy of the subsequent album was a far harder task than it should have been. “There was such a lack of support from the label,” notes Justin. “We only did one gig when we came over [at the London Astoria].” “We played to more people in England than we sold records!” exclaims Carey. “When our record came out I think Take That and Whitney Houston, who were on the same label, had just come out and we got shoved in a little corner. People would come to our shows all the time but couldn’t get our records in the stores. Things have changed now we’re on a new label because we’re selling as many ‘Ænima’ records now as we did when it came out!” “At one point ‘Ænima’ sold more copies in Poland than it did in England when it came out,” says Justin. “And we’ve never been to Poland!” adds Carey. Which might go some way to explaining why you rarely see Tool records in second hand stores, or if you do, they’re rarely in there for long. But then of course, people don’t sell Tool records do they? They’re too busy listening to them, searching for the answer. “We don’t want to provide that answer either,” reasons Justin as the interview draws to a close. “So to a certain extent, it’s a diversionary tactic to bring you back to the music. If you can’t find the beginning or the end of what you’re looking at, then you’ve got to go back and check out the music again and again.” Well, don’t negate the entire basis for feature writing in one fell swoop will you… “You should have ‘Just Listen to It’ on the cover, and then just have a bunch of blank pages!” he laughs. “I mean, who’s done that?” Tool play London Brixton Academy June 11 and 12. See live dates for full tour details.
Posted to t.d.n: 10/28/01 02:38:03