Tool remain true rock enigmas

By Scott Kara

Maynard James Keenan is the grumpy old man next door who won't give your ball back.

In fact, offers the frontman of American art-metallers Tool, he's probably an even bigger "arsehole" than that.

"Some days you throw the balls back, and then some days you keep them," he says bluntly.

He's an intimidating presence with an unforgiving face to match - even though with a big cowboy hat atop his shaved head he's still small in stature.

But if you know Tool's music, an uncompromising mix of menace, power, and heaviness, then it will come as no surprise that Keenan is one scary wee fellow.

In contrast, sitting next to him in a dimly lit bar in a grubby lane in central Melbourne, is hairy and down-to-earth bass player, Justin Chancellor. He's a polite Pom who joined the band in 1995 after the departure of original bassist Paul d'Amour.

Chancellor is laughing at the singer's admission that some people think he's an arsehole, a quality that is especially evident after a gig.

"Once you've walked off stage, and you've been in this emotional space," explains Keenan, "it's hard to turn that off and you don't a lot of the time.

And that's why people say, 'He's an arsehole'."

He's got better over the years, he reckons, but he still has his moments. "Sometimes I'm even more bitter," he says.

Tool have taken over the bar for the day to talk to media about their fourth album, 10,000 Days.

Three hours beforehand interviewers had their first chance to hear the album.

It's been five years since Lateralus and although the crowd gathered here is an industry one, the reactions on their faces over the next 76 minutes is a good indication of how highly anticipated 10,000 Days is.

There's a guy next to me air drumming. And as the 11-minute-long Rosetta Stoned pummels to a climax he claps and hoots a hearty, "Yeah".

From behind a black curtain Keenan puts on a hick cowboy accent and tells him to, "Quieten down in there".

10,000 Days is heavy, beautiful and powerful. It writhes, contorts and unravels like one continuous song.

As Keenan says: "We took great care this time in choosing the order so that it felt like a whole piece.

"But rest assured, there are - once you see some of the stories broken down - individual pieces and stories."

For a band who formed in Los Angeles 16 years ago it's remarkable that they have only released three full-length albums so far - Undertow (1993), nima (1996), and Lateralus (2001), having announced their arrival on the music scene in 1992 with the six-track mini album, Opiate.

But it's quality, not quantity, that marks Tool's output. They have not put out a bad album and songs like Opiate, Prison Sex, Sober, Stinkfist, Schism and Ticks & Leeches, have gained them legions of fans.

The band's worldwide album sales have reached more than 14 million. In New Zealand - per capita Tool's biggest selling market - they have sold more than 180,000 albums. nima has sold 80,000 copies alone.

Last time Tool toured here Keenan bought large quantities of wine - his favourite is pinot noir - from Pegasus Bay winery, near Christchurch. He's looking forward to going back when the band tour later in the year (rumoured to be November).

He also has a theory on why New Zealanders are the world's biggest Tool fans.

"New Zealand seems to be a place where a lot of people get to be in some pretty quiet spaces.

"A lot of time to think, a lot of time to read, a lot of time to spend some time with themselves.

"And our albums are exactly that. You've gotta take the time."

10,000 Days certainly takes time to digest.

There are signature Tool tracks (like catchy first single Vicarious), then there are mantra-like moments (Wings For Marie, Pt 1, where Keenan sounds like a Buddhist monk), as well as bludgeoning, 11-minute epics like 10,000 Days, Wings Pt 2 and Rosetta Stoned.

"10,000 Days is getting closer to the album we want to make," says Keenan.

"It's about growing as musicians, and growing as artists, and there are still things about it that we'd probably change, but it's closer than last time."

While Keenan is happy to explain the use of tabla samples on the album, or tell all about drummer, Danny Carey's new electronic drum kit, he refuses to talk about the experiences, that have influenced the songs of 10,000 Days.

He even refuses to talk about individual songs.

"No. No," he says. "As soon as you start doing that, and drawing out a map for people to follow, rather than just experiencing [the album] like you did today, which is a completely emotional experience, it becomes some kind of analytical left brain experience."

"It's just naturally what came out of us," continues Chancellor.

"It's heavy, because we mean it really sincerely. It's got weight to it. But in saying that I like to think there are also a lot of different shades to it.

"We want to hear new sounds. That's what excites us," he smiles cheekily.

"But we kind of let the song run the show," says Keenan.

"When we're writing, if we need a certain sound we do our best to serve the song."

Tool are all about intensity, even during their quieter moments and the pair believe the secret to maintaining this is by listening to each other rather than playing harder.

Chancellor: "We allow each other space to breathe. Perhaps the other three have backed off and are being patient, and when we do all play together it doesn't have to be for too long to have that power.

"Everything individually can sound that powerful if it's given room to breathe."

"We're different from your Average Joe," adds Keenan.

"If we like what we hear, we absorb it and then we have the ability to express it back rather than just playing what we heard.

"Whereas a construction worker who likes music doesn't really have any chance to express what he's heard.

"But because of our chosen field, we get to give it back."

LOWDOWN

WHO: Tool
FORMED: Los Angeles, 1990
LINE UP: Maynard James Keenan (singer), Adam Jones (guitars), Danny Carey (drums), Justin Chancellor (bass)
NEW ALBUM: 10,000 Days, out Monday
ALBUMS: Opiate (mini-album, 1992); Undertow (1993); Aenima (1996); Lateralus (2001)

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