The prominent passions of Maynard James Keenan’s life are wine and music — which comes first depends on the day. And the adjectives to describe both are surprisingly similar: intense, age-able, supple, organic, hand-made, labor-intensive. You could be speaking about Keenan’s body of work with Tool (five albums in 29 years) or a glass of his 2015 Merkin Vineyards Chupacabra, an easy-drinking blend of mostly grenache and syrah.

Yes, a merkin is a pubic wig, and in the logo for Keenan’s winery and osteria in Jerome, Arizona — a town of less than 500 in the Black Hills of Yavapai County — the merkin design is created from grapes. Keenan delights in the quietly subversive, provocative or, if you prefer, juvenile humor. (However, in the logo, the grape merkin is placed atop DaVinci’s classically proportioned “Vitruvian Man,” hinting at the intellect behind the mischief.)

Keenan was “disruptive” before it became a thing. The first Tool logo was a penis-shaped wrench with the band name on it, worn proudly by teenage fans. And his seemingly contrarian mien has earned the front man and the band both fanatics and detractors. For both sides, however, a most-asked question remains, and has reached a fever-pitch thanks to the release of the long-awaited Fear Inoculum: What’s Keenan really like?

Well, he doesn’t really want you to know. Is that why he’s often singing from the back of the stage, generally in near-darkness, in some form of “costume” (blue body paint; bra and bicycle-style shorts, a woman’s wig. Or from behind a Terminator stand-up)? Maybe. He could be shy, it could be for artistic effect; it could be both.

Sure, when it comes to lyrics, Keenan doesn’t like to discuss them in depth or assign precise meanings. He’d rather the listener relate to the words in songs like “7empest,” without preconception, and elucidate on their own. (“Acting all surprised when you’re caught in the lie. / We know better. It’s not unlike you,” could be about Trump, or it could reference your significant other.)

Is he “controlling,” asking the audience not to take phone photos or videos? Artists including King Crimson and Jack White request the same; it’s likely Keenan wants the crowd to be together in the moment, the way concerts used to be when he was a kid.

Even after an interview and hours-long hang with Food Network host Guy Fieri (?!) and Sammy Hagar for his Rock & Roll Trip TV show, the Red Rocker says to the inscrutably smiling Keenan: “I still don’t know you, though.” There was thankfully little brah-vado from Hagar, and welcome connection over Joni Mitchell, plus praise and wonder over Keenan’s precise, unusual phrasing when he sings.

There was rejoicing upon Fear Inoculum’s August 30 release when Tool fans/music critics felt that Keenan might be vulnerable and autobiographical on the new song “Invincible,” a 12-minute-plus opus where he croons “Long in tooth and soul. Longing for another win. / Lurch into the fray. Weapon out and belly in. / Warrior struggling to remain consequential.” It may or may not be about the 55-year-old, who also fronts Puscifer and A Perfect Circle.

“Every song is from either my perspective or the perspective of an empath speaking for a friend or a group of people,” explains Keenan of Tool’s songs, specifically “Invincible.” “It only feels autobiographical because of your age and where you are right now. If those words speak to you, only you understand what that is because you’re there.”

Take that, Baby Boomers. But a younger listener? “A 15-year-old’s gonna go, ‘Why’s the song so long?’”  


Once upon a time, before the internet, rock stars were mythical creatures; mysterious and unknowable. Fans might glean a bit from magazines that hit the stands three months after an incident occurred. Keenan offers access to press who meet his criteria, yet he still remains relatively alien. Today, Keenan’s calling from a building foyer on his 110-acre vineyard/estate. When Fear Inoculum, the band’s first record in 13 years dropped, he was here, “buried in grapes.” Gruelingly, four people “harvested 50 tons in five days.”

The raconteur holds up a baby bird to the phone; it makes softly adorable noises. “Plus, we had ducks hatching, and one of them hatched premature, so I had to hand-feed her for about four days to make sure she was even going to survive,” he explains. She did, and Keenan named her, which means she’s safe from the dinner table.” Along with her seven siblings.

Is the gun-loving, press-shy, wig-wearing weirdo rock star a mushy guy? Hard to say. He’s like everyone else: a mass of things, some contradictory, some born of passion, some of contrariness, some of playfulness. 

Although Keenan’s referring to wine growing in the difficult terroir of Arizona when he observes You have to work with all the challenges,” it also applies to Tool. “In a way, wine is made around or with the challenges, not with you fighting the challenges.”  If it was easy, he quips, “just make Welch’s [grape juice].” Or a Taylor Swift album?

Fear Inoculum is hardly a juice box for the masses. First off, the longest version, the digital one, is 1 hour and 26 minutes. It’s got Pacific Ocean sounds captured by drummer Danny Carey (used on the beginning of “Descending”); a mockingbird recorded by bass player Justin Chancellor in a nighttime back yard for “Mockingbeat,” a piece that ends the album; while the creepy AF, bad-acid-trip of the effects-driven “Legion Inoculant” contains all the lyrics on the album… if you can decipher them. All this, and it still knocked Taylor Swift off the No. 1 spot on Billboard. 

tool1 947218

(Travis Shinn)

The way Tool write is, unsurprisingly, unusual. The musicians (rounded out by guitarist/artist Adam Jones) all live in L.A. and collaborate on the music, which is jazzy, experimental and in odd time signatures. For starters.

Eventually their singer receives the completed music. “This has only been the last couple albums with Tool where I’ve had to actually wait for music,” Keenan says. “Because there’s a psychological — I don’t want to call it a control issue — but similar, where if I start to put something down, the band will go, ‘Holy shit! If you put something on it, it no longer can move, because he’s made a commitment, and he’s all about making the commitment and sticking to it.’ So then they move the target. They pick up the foundation and change where the walls go.”

The nearly 12-minute “Pneuma,” (which could mean breath, spirit or soul) is heavy on the delay pedals, and, explains Chancellor, “the tempo of the drums speeds up and slows down a little bit, because Danny won’t use a click [a kind of metronome], which is part of our secret. It gives you the feeling of that excitement when things swell up, or when there’s a breakdown, it really relaxes.”

What they do, however, is match a click to Carey’s playing after the fact. “The click will slow down and speed up — not that much, but a little bit. We got these pedals that actually tracked the clicks that we created so as you’re playing, your delay is speeding up or slowing down according to the drum track, so we’re completely syncopated.”

While the band spent years on such coolly creative endeavors, resulting in an album that will surely make year-end best-of lists, what’s Keenan’s M.O.? “I have to quietly, in the background, be composing things piece by piece, and then not let them hear it, and then wait for them to go final. Then I show them, “Oh yeah, I wrote this in a day,” when I’ve actually been writing it for eight fucking years. You have to play the game a little bit. If we get the result we get playing that game, I suppose that’s what I have to do.”

So, who’s the most anal in the band? Keenan laughs and retorts, “Fuck you, I’m not going there!

But there’s definitely always a person in the room…Like you wanna go, ‘OK, so we’re gonna do this?’ [And they’re] ‘Wait! Let’s talk about it more.’ ‘Do we have to talk about it more, because it sounds good, the plan sounds good. No? Order cards? No? Get the caterers on the phone? No?’”

So yes, Keenan is funny, crafty in more ways than one, and might actually not be the band member crying out “wait!”

The second to last song, the 15-minute-and-44-second “7empest,” is likely the most “accessible” and “early Tool” in its musical approach, though a knowledge of sacred geometry is helpful in understanding why the title is stylized with a 7, a number that has meaning throughout the record. It’s the “virgin” number in sacred geometry, and with Tool, the more you look the more you find. The Tool logo changes every record (screw branding!), and this time, is readable also backwards and upside down (ish), while the cover art appears to be a logarithmic spiral. It’s literal math rock. In speaking about the record — and life — Keenan discusses proving theorems and the concept of balance with a professorial eloquence. 

Then there’s “Legion Inoculant,” one of the “segues,” and the second time a version of that word is utilized. By definition, it’s often related to crops or earth as kind of a helper or guardian. Why is that idea so important to Keenan? “Never will I discuss that. I’ll never go down the specific path. We’ll let you figure that out for yourself.”

Or, you can decide to not jump into the Tool rabbit hole, and enjoy the experience prima facie, though the Reddit threads and heated, deep discussions indicate many don’t opt for the easy route. Like, of course, Keenan himself.  In an interview conducted decades ago, he likened the first Tool records to “a primal scream” and said he was reading esoteric and spiritual volumes, exploring to “work out” his issues and “move the fuck on.”

Some of Fear Inoculum’s songs sound like he’s still in that questing place, though he’s definitely done some moving the fuck on, without lessening the intensity of Tool’s approach. To be trite, Keenan is about the never-ending journey as much as the musical or gastronomical destination. Readings and teachings, he says, can reveal a pattern, “for, not necessarily a way out, but understanding that the chaos is life, there is no way out. And as soon as you embrace that in a positive way and just kind of strap in, you’ll get a lot more out of it.”


Back to winemaking: How does he know when a wine is ready to be bottled? “Ah, you don’t. I think a lot of winemaking, especially in new regions, comes down to logistics,” he explains. “Do I need that barrel right now? We have new wine; do I need that barrel? Bottle it.”

And what about a record’s completion? “When you’re done fucking recording it,” he says. “Just fucking finish it. I think a lot of bands get in their own way when they start to overthink things. I guess there’s still a preciousness from our generation and before our generation that the album has to be perfect. There’s no such thing. If you go back and listen to those old recordings that you were told your whole life were perfect, you start going, ‘oh, that’s not right.’ That’s fucked up. Old Zeppelin recordings where they’re just duct-taping together different takes from different times and different guitars; those things are fine. That’s what that moment was.”

Keenan believes any record is a “blending of the actual work and your hard work to get it right, blended with the moment and capturing the moment.” Then, he says: “you just have to let it go. It’s done because it’s done. It’s not done because it’s perfect, it’s done because you’ve captured where you were right then in that month, in that day, in that week. In our case, in that 13 years or whatever. But it is what it is. That’s a cross-section of what we went through.”

Fear Inoculum furthers the Tool mythos, and shows a band at the top of their powers. The album possesses qualities that, over the decades, have earned Tool three of the seven Grammy’s they were nominated for and raves for their ground-breaking videos and use of stop-animation.  Rolling Stone concluded that FI was “a formal masterpiece that should stand the test of time — either as a defining record of its era, or a monumental relic of an art form that had its day.”

Keenan asks — then answers — the question fans may be wondering, even as they’re diving deep with FI: “Will it take us that long to do another one? I hope not. I would hope that we would learn something from the process and not skip any steps, but just trust our intuition, trust our choices, and just go, ‘OK,’ and live with it, embrace it. If you make a mistake, learn from the mistake.”

Choosing to take the lyrics of the title track at face value, it seems Keenan himself has indeed learned: “Purge me and Evacuate the Venom & the Fear that binds me. / Your veil now, lift away. / I see you running. / Deceiver, chased away. A Long time coming,” the metaphorical burial of fear is powerful and positive, triumphant, even.

“My age, our age, our time in general, just what people go through when they finally flip that switch, when they’re no longer ruled by some kind of invisible power that shouldn’t really have any hold over them, but does…” he begins. “Flipping that switch is not easy. When you actually do, it’s kind of a glorious moment.”

In his glorious ventures, Keenan’s done the work. He finds the culture of instant gratification annoying at best. “I’ve noticed it in the last 10 to 15 years. Kid shows, movies, comic books — there’s this thing where some kid just wakes up one day with superpowers. It does not work that way at all. Amazon delivers your package yesterday. They read your mind and sent it to you before you even think about it. Free of charge! Free delivery! Free shipping!”

In a word: “Bullshit. Everything takes steps, everything takes work. So any epiphanies, you’ve already done the work and it all comes together, and you put it together. Then you have the epiphany, having done the work, having taken the steps, having been through the grinder.”

He’s been through that grinder in wine and music, and, he explains, “Winemaking’s not more important than music-making. I make both, and I enjoy and need both. And not just those things, but cooking, raising birds and dogs and kids and all those things. We need all those things.” That said, he’s aware of ego. “Everything else is selfish activity, me making music, me making wine, that’s all me, me, me, me being me, wanting to do what I want to do. But as far as the actually community building, planting the vines and letting that legacy continue, I feel like that’s bigger than us.”

That’s what Keenan’s striving for. “As far as continuing after you, to really know that it comes after you, vineyards and the state where I live — in that way, it’s more important than all those things. I think establishing the pattern, establishing the place is more important.” Tool won’t continue after his gone, but the land and practices he establishes will continue to give and grow.

His more immediate legacy seems cemented in both wine and music, with symbiosis a goal. “I really don’t see any of them as being a side or main project,” Keenan says about his spate of creations. “The only main project is the one in front of me in that particular given hour,” he concludes. “We all help express each other. Puscifer, A Perfect Circle, and the wine are just another dimension of Tool and vice versa.”

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.