Maynard James Keenan
Interview by Adam McKibbin
Maynard James Keenan is a larger-than-life figure in the eyes of many rock fans. As the frontman of Tool and A Perfect Circle, he's been at the forefront of the genre for over a decade, operating outside of the mainstream but still able to draw festival-sized crowds. Keenan is an indomitable presence—and one that's taken extremely seriously, despite sporadic joke songs, Bill Hicks references and Mr. Show appearances.
Keenan's new project, Puscifer, very clearly isn't aiming for academia. To hear him tell it, Puscifer's first album, V Is for Vagina, is "groovy" and is meant to make you feel good, no strings attached. Keenan sat down to tell us more about Puscifer, his attempt to go it alone in the music industry, and the unwelcome discovery of censorship in an unlikely location.
The buzz that's still on everybody's lips is the new Radiohead album. As someone with a keen interest in escaping what you've called the "tar pits" of the traditional music industry, what are your thoughts on how Radiohead approached that? And do you think it's adaptable for your own ends?
I have no idea where that's going to go, but I think it's an incredible marketing plan. I don't necessarily agree with the idea of music being free. I know what goes into it, and I know how much it costs to produce it and make it and market it and duplicate the CDs and ship them—it's expensive. Of course, we're speaking in terms of physical items, but even if everything went digital, there's still a lot of expense involved. It's easy for me or Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails to be flippant about how we're going to go about it, because we have a little bit of a bank account and we have the luxury of touring and drawing lots of tickets.
But I think who gets hurt are the guys in between—those guys who aren't just a local band, who are starting to get around a little bit, and people are saying "Well, the standard for paying for somebody's CD online is two bucks." What?!? That thousand bucks is the difference between those guys going on the road or not going on the road, or being able to make the next record or the next song. That's huge. There's going to have to be a happy medium, because the misconception is that people can make music for free. You make a lot more money touring or selling shirts, yeah, but that's when you get to a certain level. That in-between spot is tough.
When people write about record labels nowadays, a phrase like "last throes" or "dying days" often can be found nearby. Do you think the industry can find a way to harness this new distribution and maintain their place as gatekeepers?
I think they will. I think the industry will figure it out. This is the X-factor that the industry is counting on: for the most part, generally speaking, musicians are kinda dumb. They're not really trained in business, they don't have a degree in marketing or law or any of that stuff. They're their own worst enemies. Just because they wrote a song that made this girl cry… [laughs] that doesn't mean they're successful businessmen. They'll screw themselves or drink themselves to death, so the industry will always have a leg up. Most likely the reason that guy wrote that song is because he's damaged goods to begin with, and he needs someone to help him out on those levels.
Now labels are exploring this so-called "360" approach to handling bands, and really getting their hands in all the cookie jars.
Yeah, they're going to get their fingers in that. "Well, let me just get a cut of your merch." [Laughs] "And your touring." Some stupid band is going to come along—and, like I said, they're dumb, for the most part—and their lawyer is going to be the guy who plays golf with the guy from the label, and the booking guy plays golf with the merchandise guy or the business affairs manager. They understand that the dummies come and go, and that they're the ones running the business. I think that's less relevant at the moment, but it will go back to being relevant at some point. When they figure out the new model, they'll trick these dummies into giving up huge percentages of their bread and butter by dangling this carrot in front—"We're going to give you twenty million dollars." Of course, they don't tell you that, by the way, it's standard for the lawyer to take five percent of your life, and the lawyer will tell you it's standard for the manager to get twenty percent of the gross, and of course the taxman takes half. All of a sudden, your twenty million dollars turns into twenty bucks and some fucking Starbucks coupons.
And then somebody in the band says something about illegal downloading and some blogger says "They got a twenty million dollar paycheck—fuck those crybabies!"
Exactly. They see the big number before all the people get their chunks, and then they just assume you're a millionaire. But now the bands that fall victim to those kinds of things are going to realize "Shit, I only have this much left—and now every time I step out the door, it's going to be the same thing." I had one friend who went on the road with a big tour in 2000 and was asking his manager "We want to do these big things, but this is going to be okay for expenses, right? We're not going to be screwing ourselves?" The manager says "No, it's all fine!" He comes to find out at the end of the tour that the manager got paid a bunch of money because he got paid on a gross percentage, so all those fun lights that went on the road came out of the band's pocket. [Laughs] So the manager made more than the band—like several million dollars, as opposed to being in the hole. Not only didn't he make any money, but he still owes money on the tour.
Tool has been cited by numerous bands—like Isis, for instance—as an inspiration for how to get bigger and bigger and to headline Coachella and to still stay true to the original overarching ethos. But that's usually from an outsider's perspective. Have there been sacrifices as you've moved up?
It really is a matter of compromise, and there's a lot of stress involved when it comes to labels—especially nowadays. We have been able to maintain some kind of individuality in how we do things, but the way that labels consume each other, it's almost like watching National Geographic films of praying mantises devouring their young. Every time you go to do something, you have a whole new set of people who a) don't work for you—they have a paycheck from someone else who is afraid of their own shadow and b) they don't really know what you're about. So they're not going to risk their job for your vision— especially for a band like Tool. We're not Britney Spears, we're not Metallica, we're not Pink Floyd's The Wall, we're none of those things. Somebody might think we're kind of that, but we're not that at all. We're never really going to appeal to a broad market. So when the businessmen really start crunching numbers, they go, "You know, these guys aren't really worth all this hubbub," and we end up getting the short end of the stick. It's a lot more difficult than you would imagine for us. The guys who have that Wal-Mart mentality don't really view us as a commodity.
I know from experience in the film industry that talent is often seen as something that needs to be "managed" by the people who are really calling the shots.
Oh, yeah. There's this misconception that Halle Berry is in charge of the film. [Laughs] Not at all. They're leading her around with carrots to get her to do what they want her to do. It's not beyond a director to make sure that the hot water is shut off in her trailer so that she's all upset for that next scene.
Going back to distribution, V Is for Vagina will be getting a traditional full-scale release, is that right?
Yeah, it will be in all the stores. I'm basically paying for everything. I found printers and duplicators and all that stuff. I did a deal with a distribution company. So it's traditional in a way, but what's not traditional is that I'm actually doing it.
Is there a part of your brain that enjoys that? Or is it a chore no matter how you slice it?
Uh, having a little bit of a military background, I kind of get off on order. Order within chaos. It's lots of chaos and it's very exciting and makes you feel alive. There's some payoff at the end of the day when you see that it all lined up and everything went where it was supposed to go—almost not on time, but it got there all of a sudden.
So you're the guy on the phone dealing with the calls, like "I don't know about that album title—can we put a sticker over that?"
I've been having to deal with that this whole time. Once again, it's those corporate people, those guys that are scared about one person complaining. I had an ad for The Onion and the ad department, the lawyers, I don't know who, they rejected my ad because it had the word "vagina" in it. The Onion, of all fucking magazines! So we had to start rattling cages with editors and writers and have them go "What the fuck are you guys doing? It's the fucking Onion!" So it all got sorted out, I think. But that's the world we live in nowadays. Your three-or four-year-old is allowed to say the word "vagina," but god help us if you try to actually put it in print. It's the craziest thing. Honestly, I was being kind of flippant about the title. I didn't think it was going to get this much reaction. It was kind of a joke within a joke. I thought it would be received with a lot of groans—"That's a very sophomoric, stupid title. Come on, dude, you can be more offensive than that." Honestly! I thought it was going to be "That's just corny. Clearly you're from Ohio." But it's been met with ridiculous reactions.
"You've finally crossed the line!" Have you managed to keep the album free from the leakers, so far as you know?
I have no idea. I'm sure that it's out there. The worst part about being on your own is that I don't have some big monster leaning over potential leaks and threatening to sue them. I don't know, I hope it makes it. The only reason I'm really concerned is that I put a lot of money into this and put a lot of time into it, and I wouldn't have made CDs if it wasn't for the artwork that I got attached to them. I was having fun with a friend of mine with this idea for artwork, and if I didn't have the physical artwork in mind, I would have just done it all digitally. Of course, there's a similar issue there with theft, but it wouldn't have been such an output of money. I'm kind of relying on the sales to pay back what I've put into it.
Once you've made that investment, does it make you reevaluate the music? I know the genesis of this project was about clearing the headspace and kind of doing whatever you wanted to do. But with the stakes getting higher, does it make it more important that it resonates somehow with Tool fans?
No, I'm not worried about that at all. The music is very soundtrack-oriented, it's groovy. Once people get their heads around the fact that it's not Tool, and why should it be? It's not Perfect Circle, why should it be? We already have those things. This is just soundtrack music and it's meant to get under your skin and feel good. I made sure that the lyrics weren't puzzles. I didn't want puzzles. It's supposed to be a feeling. The music is where the complexity is—that's the part that gets under your skin and makes you feel good. So there is an intent to it, and there is a purpose.
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