Date: June, 2001
page: 52 title: Precision Tool author: Jon Wiederhorn The Larabee North Recording Studio is easy to miss if you don't know what you'r looking for. There's no sign outside the nondecript building on busy Lankershim Boulevard in Universal City, California, only a small notice on the locked front door announcing that the entrance is around back. Off an there's a small outdoor parking lot boasting a single basketball hoop - and absolutely no hint that you've arrived at an elaborate, state-of-the-art music-making complex where such high-powered acts Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson, and Limp Bizkit have toiled. Inside, there's a decided lack of pretencse or flash. No platinum or gold records line the walls, no juice bar serves smoothies to the stars, and the only luxury in the lounge is a 24-inch TV, a stereo and video rack, and so many remotes that no one seems able to turn anything on. All in all, Larrabee North's scaled-down anonymity makes it the perfect place for the four members of secretive, multiplatinum alt- metal band Tool to mix and master their fourth recored, Lateralus. Consider: The four members of Tool never appear in their album art or videos, rarely grant interviews, and refuse to discuss their private affairs. Onstage, they play in near darkness, flanked by colorful visuals. Shaved-headed front man Maynard James Keenan has been known to take the stage garishly dressed in drag, or decked in a business suit and gray wig, or adorned in nothing more than underwear and face paint. Recently, he's taken to wearing a red brush- cut wig and scholarly eyeglasses for band photo shoots. "We don't want to look and act like typical rock stars, because that's what people have had shoved down their throat for years," says guitarist and art coordinator Adam Jones, sitting on one of two black leather couches in the studio lounge and hesitating between every dozen or so words. "Anyway, we're not celebrities, we're just geeks. I go to comic-book conventions and I like toys. I'd much rather have some one listen to our music and look at a cool visual to help them understand where we're coming from than look at us." Not only are the members of Tool notoriously wary of what they tell reporters, the band is also careful about what it reveals on its Website. A brief glance at www.toolband.com seems to offer a multitude of information about the group's origins, philosophies, and cuttent activities. But careful investigation reveals a sea of misinformation, including incorrect song and ablum titles, bogus bios, and bizzare essays on drug use, the occult, and extraterrestrials. "We don't like to explain a lot, because no matter what you do, the unknown is more interesting," says drummer Danny Carey, sitting net to Keenan on the couch opposite Jones. "It allows people to come up with their own interpretations and keeps them striving for something." "The other thing is we really like our private lives," adds Jones, pushing a stringy lock of hair away from his eyes. "We've been very careful not to overexpose ourselves, and it's workedto the point where we can play in front of 15,000 people and I can go out and watch the opening band without being recognized." Longtime Tool producer David Bottrill (Peter Gabiel, King Crimson), who worked on Lateralus, Aenima (1996), and last year's live album, Salival, says the bands nonconformity and cryptic persence are a large part of its attraction: "There's a mystery and a danger there, which is why it's so appealing. When we were recording Aenima, Dann [Carey] had a [Ouija] board with him, and he said when we were done with the record, he was going to sacrafice me. I remember laughing nervously." It has been almost a year since Tool began work on Lateralus, and just days before the album is scheduled to be completed, the band is still plugging away. Today's schedule includes working with Bottrill to master a droning, tribal, 20- minutes-plus, three-part composition tentatively titled "Disposition/Resolution/Triad/" And before the cang congregates in the studio lounge for out interview, the boys are whisked into a closed-door meeting to discuss the concept for their next video, which, in keeping with their code of silence, they refuse to name. Jones will conceive and direct the shoot, as he has for Tool's previous eye-popping videos, "Sober" and and "Prison Sex" (from its 1991 disc Undertow), and "Stinkfist" (from Aenima). Every 20 or 30 minutes or so, a band member emerges from the conference, scurries down the hallway, and disappears - perhaps to sacrafice another lamb for the Tool cause. It soon becomes abundantly clear that the Tools have tailored their interview time to maintain as much secrecy as possible. Many other artists happily offer guided tours of their homes or ringside seats at recording sessions in echange for a few pages of primo magazine coverage. Not these guys, who refuse to let me in the studio while they work. The only time I'm allowed to leave the Larrabee North lounge is when Borttrill escorts me to a mixing room and plays me the majority of Lateralus, which is unquestionably Tool's most ambitious, visceral, and emotionally challenging release to date. Almost every one of the nine songs (not including experimental between-tune segues) is more than eight minutes long, and each is flush with multifaceted rymes, multiple tempo shifts, and unconventional time signatures. Frequently the songs sound like six different cuts spliced together. Without question, Lateralus is bold and inspirational. Placed alongside the sonic wallpaper of most contemporary rock radio, however, it sounds inaccessible and exlusionary - as if the band that was once embraced by MTV for the Billboard Award-winning video "Sober" and the MTV Video Music Award- nominated "Prison Sex" now wants to position itself far outside the mainstream. Indeed, these musicians seem to equate the mainstream with oblivion "Music radio today is so empty and horrible that it's like the end of the world is nearly here," Jones says once Tool is finally gathered inside the studio lounge. "I'm sure the letters TRL [for Total Request Live] are in some way incorporated into Nostradamus's book of the end-of-the-world predictions," snickers Keenan, the most outspoken and eccentric voice of a country preacher, and continues, "And the cattle shall gather beneath the MTV glass booth in Times Sqaure!" Formed in Los Angeles in 1990, Tool is a result of serendipity. Keenan, 36, was born in Akron, Ohio, the only child of a devout Baptist household. He spent much of his youth bouncing with his family from city to city, and at 18 he joined the army. In 1989 he moved the L.A., where he lived in a loft upstairs from CArey, whom he befriended. Later that year, a girl Keenan was dating introduced him to Jones, and before long the two were jamming. "There was this instant chemistry because we both loved Italian horror movies and heavy-metal music," recalls Jones, whose friend, bassist Paul D'Amour left the band after two albums because of artistic differences, and was replaced in 1995 by Justin Chancellor, and Englishman whose former band, Peach, toured with Tool in the UK in 1991. Perhaps tellingly, Tool's music has always been a labor of love, not necessity. When they started playing together, the members all had stable gigs outside the band. Carey was doing session work for Carole King and drumming in alterative bands Pygmy Love Circus and Green Jello. Keenan was painting sets in Hollywood, and Jones was working on Jurassic Park as a special-effects designer. He had previously contributed to Predator, Terminator 2, and Edward Scissorhands. And while initially driven solely by the passion of creation, Tool's music has, over time, evolved into a rather compelling composite of each one of the band members' personal interests. Keenan, whose bald head and penetrating eyes make him look like a disciple of satanist Anton LaVey, is a relentless autodidact. He's knowlegeable about the writings of mythologist Joesph Campbell, psychologist Carl Jung, psychedelic philosophers Terence McKenna and Timothy Leary, and establishment-skewering comedian Bill Hicks, and combines aspects of each into his cryptic lyrics. If Keenan provides the mystery in Tool's sound, Carey is the source of its menace. With his shoulder-length hair, striped earth-tone shirt, and baggy shorts, all he needs is a hackeysack to be a dead ringer for a Deadhead, yet his artistic vision is dark and ominous. His tribal drumming is inspired in no small part by his fascination with the occult, and his home studio is reportedly filled with occult symbols, magic books, and first editions by occult figurehead and satanist Aleister Crowley, once considered the most wicked man alive. "I'm really impressed by people who have the courage to face darker things and make it work for them," Carey says in such a calm manner he could be talking about mortgage rates. "To me, those traits make great men, and those people accomplish great things." For their part, Chancellor and Jones contribute individual subtexts to Tool's success story. With his scraggly locks and Mint 400 T-shirt, bassist Chancellor resembles a clerk at an alternative racord store. The youngest and newest member of the band, his playing is buoyant and exploratory, imbuing the group's music with a sense of wonderment. And while he wrote many riffs on Lateralus, he's elastic enough to vibe with whatever his bandmates throw his way. "I came into Tool with a really open mind," he says. "These guys have some specific interests in all sorts of spiritual idea and music, and I'm open and interested in all of them." And then there's Jones, whose two-day stubble, gentle voice, and modesty bespeak a stellar graphic artist, but certainly not a rock star. "I've always felt really fortunate because my position in the band has been overseeing art and the visuals and the video, and that's the stuff I love," he says. "I approach my guitar playing the same way I approach my art. It's all about experimenting and coming up with ways to express your emotions." Despite Tool's multiplatinum cred, Lateralus may prove a hard sell. While their brooding atmospherics and angular guitar lines inspired such current monster acts as Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Deftones, Tool hasn't produced any music in four years. Its last studio disc, the double-platinum Aenima, was released in 1996, and since then the group has been plaqued with contract negotiations, lawsuits, and crippling miscommunication. Shortly after Aenima hit the shelves, Tool's then-label, BMG subsidiary Zoo Entertainment, ran short of money and nearly folded. Then, after the record sold its first million copies, the band was handed a disappointing royalty check. "It was for something really insulting, like ten grand," grumbles Keenan. "That's where it all started. When we discovered that they forgot to pick up the option to our contract, we said, 'That's it. We're oput of here.'" Zoo refused to back down without a fight, and a protracted legal battle ensued that not only left Tool in recording limbo, but also sapped its creative juices and artistic hunger. "We were ready to bail because we weren't making together anymore," says Carey. "We'd just get together to talk about what we're gonna do with this lawyer or that lawyer - all this business shit." While Tool was tied up in legal battles, the band's old guitar tech, Billy Howerdel, invited Keenan to sing and write lyrics for a melodic alternative group Howerdel was forming with session drummer Josh Freese (Guns n' Roses, Chris Cornell). Frustrated with the lack of momentium on the Tool front, Keenan accepted. The new outfit called itself A Perfect Circle, and before long its debut album, Mer de Noms, was climbing the nation's rock charts and headed for platinum status. Meanwhile, CArey jammed with his old bandmate D'Amour, and Jones created artwork for the rerelease of an album by Chancellor's old band, Peach. By the begining of 2000, all was able to reenter the recording studio. Lateralus is being released by Valcano, a label co-owned by industry ace Clive Calder (who founded Jive Records) and veteran band managers Peter Mensch and Cliff Burnstein. "For me, this record is about reestablishing the communication we lost when we were away from eachother," says Keenan. "It's about working out some old issues, rediscovering where each of us has gone individualy, bringing that to the center and feeding off that energy. I think we've all grown tremendously and developed a connection that's probably better than what we had to begin with." "I think one of the reasons why the group hasn't fallen apart yet is because when we were atarting out, none of us were going, 'We've gotta get our shit together so we can get signed.'" opines Jones. "When we first got a record offer [in 1991] we all laughed and kind of blew it off. Even now, all the stuff that's gone on - changing managers, lawsuits - it still has that element of comic relief to it." As on Aenima, the lyrics on Laterlus address topics Keenan has discovered on his philosophical safaris. But this time, his verse is much more personal, peppered with references to Tool's own near-demise. "There's definitely an orientation behind the eyes of peopel who have faced death," says Keenan. "There's a calmness and a feeling of having let go. They've kind of accepted that fate." He smiles at the weight of his comment, then elaborates. "I don't mean to be heavy-handed. I think there's a huge range of things that could be considered near- death experiences. Some shamans will go out in the middle of an ice tundra in a small igloo with a cup of water and get to the point where they're near starvation and they have that revelation of sorts. Other people do a whole baggie full of mushrooms, which is a similar near-death experience. It's a matter of shifting your focus, seeing things from a different light, and readdressing your conscious frequencies, so to speak." Indeed, mind-altering drugs have been a core inspiration of Tool's music for years. "Third Eye" from Aenima includes pro- drug samples by Bill Hicks; the band's live album, Salival, features spoken-word snippets from Timothy Leary; and the artwork for Lateralus was created by psychedelic painter Alex Gray. "We're a total drug band," agrees Carey "We're as psychedelic as a band can get, but we're articulate about it, I suppose. That's the difference between us and some other groups." "I think psychedelics play a major part in what we do," agrees Keenan, shifting uncomfortably. "But having said that, I feel that if somebody's going to experiment with those things they really need to educate themselves about them. People just taking the chemicals and diving in without having any kind o preparation about what they're about to experience tend to have no frame of reference, so they're missing everything flying by and all these new perspectives. It's just a waste. They reach a little bit of spiritual enlightment, but they end up going, 'Well, now I need that drug to get back there again.' The trick is to use the drugs once to get there, and maybe spend the next ten years trying to get back there without the drug." The Tool four have learned to use their music to reopen what Aldous Huxley referred to as the "doors of perception." The band's sprawling passages and pulsating beats can cause the listener to lose track of time, and its spiraling guitar lines and evocative lyrics practically recount and acid trip. "If the rythm is intuitive enough, your breathing blends into the music, and you can tap into this almost yogaic process," says Keenan. "You start seeing those other spaces that take you out of your reality. That's maybe why Tool's music ends up being a little longer than most, because it takes a little longer to get into that meditative state." As upfront as the member of Tool are about drugs, they sound the retreat when talking with reporters about sex. With dong titles like "Stinkfist, " "Hooker With a Penis", and "Prison Sex," it's clear they think with both heads; their songs pulse and throb, building musical tension then releasing it with the power of a good orgasm. Yet these rockers are not interested in detailing their climactic exploits. "Sexuality penetrates our music from the rear," says Keenan, scratching his chin in his best effort to appear professorial. He leans back on the couch, thrusts his chest out, splays his legs, and blurts, "Don't mind me, I'm just getting prepared for my Penthouse shoot." His bandmates laugh, and any discomfort with the subject momentarily vanishes. "I think Tool is a house built on a foundation of sexuality," offers Jones. "I don't think that's the key to everything, but it's underneath there. It's not cock rock. It's passionate, but it's not something where we go, 'Well, let's write a song about fucking.'" "You just don't have to be vulgar or crass about [sexuality in music]," adds Carey. "You can watch dry-humping videos all day on MTV, and it's boring. We're trying to offer something a little subtler, with slightly higher aspirations in mind. But we're all sexual people, so that element has to be there." Relieved to find the discussion veering away from their own sex lives, Carey and Jones talk briefly about cybersex and downloading porn. Keenan, a technology buff, seizes the opportunity to discuss his latest favorite gizmos. "Have you seen the new phones the Japanese have developed?" he asks, eyes widening. "It's basically a watch, and there's a microphone in the wristband and a little contact that pushes against a bone on your finger. You talk into your wrist, stick your finger in your ear, and your finger acts as the speaker. It resonates on the bones of your ear and you listen through your finger." "Sounds like an ivitation to cancer," interjcets Carey. "It's definitely a metaphor for all those old writings about the collective unconscious," continues Keenan unperturbed. "Also, I think the internet is definitely a metaphor for the collective unconscious as well. There's the old master saying tht if you meditate long enough with focus, you can tap into the collective unconcious. Well, what the fuck do you think people are doing every day when they sit in front of the computer? Pretty soon, we're gonna get to the point technologically where you're not gonna even the external apparatus to do that. Eventually, quantum physics will develop some kind of orientation where you'll just be sitting there talking to your friends on the East Cost with nothing - just with your focus." Just as an uncharacteristically candid Keenan reveals the sci- fi geek within, Bottrill enters the room to announce that the band is needed in the recording studio. The guys excuse themselves, but not before Carey sums up the band aesthetic: "We're dealing with the chaos of life, and we're rubbing it down. The deeper you rub, the more patterns you can see until you realize that it's really an organized chaos. There isn't really ever any chance to understand it all, but we're here to keep rubbing."
Posted to t.d.n: 06/15/01 16:31:50