Home Read Features Back Stories | My 2012 Interview With Maynard James Keenan

Back Stories | My 2012 Interview With Maynard James Keenan

The maverick musician talks winemaking, Zappa, comedy, creativitiy & much more.

Since multi-talented musical maverick Maynard James Keenan just celebrated his 60th birthday, it seemed like a good time to post the chat we had back when he was just a young pup of 47. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Keenan — he doesn’t come off as the type to gladly suffer a fool (which I clearly am) — but he turned out to be eloquently smart, confidently opinionated and indulgently patient, which are qualities that don’t always go together (especially in rock stars). Anyway, here’s how it went. As usual, I have added in some bits that were cut for space back in the day. Enjoy.


Maynard James Keenan is not what you expect. Much like the music he makes with Tool, A Perfect Circle and Puscifer, the frontman is complex, enigmatic and contradictory. He’s a celebrity who disdains fame. A rocker who puts music on hold to bottle wine. An independent rule-breaker who’s also an Army vet. And an American with a Canadian sense of humour.

“I think somehow, I must be partially Canadian,” the 47-year-old Keenan claims from a recent tour stop. “Kids In The Hall made sense the first time I saw it. Some of my friends would be sitting there scratching their heads and I would say, ‘I can’t explain this to you. If you don’t get it, I can’t help you. How tragic that you don’t get the Chicken Lady.’ ”

Soon, Keenan will find out if Western Canadians return the favour and get Puscifer. Touring Alberta and B.C. behind their rootsy sophomore album Conditions of My Parole, the shape-shifting collective — whose name is pronounced “like Puss in Boots,” Keenan specifies — are somewhere between a band, a comedy troupe and cabaret act. Not that you’ll hear that from the head cat. “I’m a foe of spoilers, so I’m not going to give much away about the show,” he demurs. “Just open your mind and go and experience it and forget everything you know about me. If people just give it a chance, they’ll be pleasantly surprised. It’s not going to be what they’re expecting.”

Like that’s a surprise. Here are more bon mots from Keenan’s fertile mind and desert-dry wit:

From singing in the dark onstage to wearing disguises, you take great pains to avoid the spotlight. Is that personal discomfort, part of the art or a comment on fame?
That’s a big question with a big answer. I feel that as a culture — and I’ll just use the North American continent as a starting point — we’ve lost touch with things. Even just with simple things like therapy: You’re not growing up. You’re continually giving away your power to your father figure, rather than taking responsibility for yourself and just diving in and fixing it. We’ve given a lot of that power away, and as individuals, we’re kind of crippled. I truly believe that we’re living in the age of the sensei, the guru, the leader, the idol. But the idol worship thing is over. You’re just spinning your wheels with that; you’re not helping yourself. You’ve kind of missed the point. You need to stand on your own two feet, and then collectively, as strong, self-sustaining individuals, we can all move forward. If I can teach anybody anything, it’s to figure out how to do it yourself. Figure out the value of a dollar, learn the value of your time and what it takes to make something happen on your own. Don’t rely on anybody else. As soon as we all figure that out, we’ll be a much stronger group of human beings globally.

Do your three bands each scratch a different creative, personal or emotional itch?
I guess. Some of them are things I don’t need to scratch anymore. Don’t get me wrong; I am proud of what I’ve done with those projects. But a 50-year-old dude trying to pretend like he’s a 27-year-old angry dude? That’s just kind of depressing. Whatever I was scratching back then to try to sort out, if I haven’t sorted it out by now, whoever’s listening must feel doomed.

Conditions of My Parole was recorded in your winery. How does the music factor into the place and vice versa?
The emergence of the winery 12 years ago was a step I’d been trying to take for quite a long time. Everything comes together with Puscifer and with the winery, in terms of being a sustainable, nurturing life endeavour that’s connected not only to a group of artists but a community. I moved to Arizona to get the f— out of L.A. To get back to things that matter. To rediscover something that’s going to grow with me as an artist, something I can take into my old age, rather than this L.A. sycophant nightmare of vampires and neon, self-deprecating crappiness. People there don’t know where their water comes from. They don’t know how to grow their own food. They’re going to be zombies someday. And I will be taking the head shots. Yes sir.

How do you balance the wine-making business with your more artistic endeavours?
Well, I consider wine-making an art. Art to me is interacting with chaos, and then explaining it — observing, interpreting and reporting what we see. In terms of winemaking, we’re dealing with Mother Nature. We’re slave to the Sun and rain. That schedule is fairly set, even though it fluctuates because of the weather. So generally speaking, from the beginning of August to the middle of November, that’s where I’m at. I can’t tour. We can do some recording and filming here and there, but the musical projects have to work around the winery.

You obviously have a disciplined work ethic. But in other ways, the military and you don’t seem like a logical fit.
We’re an absolute fit in terms of order, logistics, the tetris of life. I was a wrestler and a cross-country runner. When the gun goes off, it’s all about inches in those sports — fighting and running, you’re operating on your base instincts. And it’s just you. You can’t rely on somebody or pass the ball and expect them to do it for you. You translate that into the military, same thing. You’re up at a certain hour, and you better be ready. That kind of discipline in terms of organizing time is absolutely translated into my ability to be able to wear these separate hats.

Isn’t it difficult to switch gears between all your jobs?
It’s becoming less difficult, because I’m able to make the shift with some experience and see what works, what I need for time, what doesn’t take a huge toil on me.

Do you have enough time to take up another creative endeavour?
I was thinking of taking up ballet. I’m kidding.

When you were a kid, was rock star what you wanted to be?
Not rock star. Never rock star. I wanted to be move people. I know it’s not the politically correct thing. Most kids just roll their eyes and go, ‘What the f— is he talking about?’ But when you hear some of those earlier Joni Mitchell songs or a solid Bob Dylan song, it just moves you in a way. Some early Marvin Gaye. I like that. That makes sense to me.

I think most people would take you for a Frank Zappa fan.
Nah. That’s heady stuff. It doesn’t hit you on an emotional level. It doesn’t soothe me. Don’t get me wrong; I really enjoy the theatrics and comedy sewn into Frank Zappa’s music. It’s just the music that doesn’t move me. I wanted to find some happy medium in that. Again, it’s one of those things that resonated with me initially that didn’t resonate with my friends.

You seem to enjoy being something of an enigma, with an air of mystery. Do you prefer to have misinformation out there, rather than facts?
When it serves me, to be honest. When it helps. Again, coming back to Kids In The Hall, when you look at it and go, ‘That’s funny.’ When somebody gets a little smile on their face, that’s OK. If it’s just disinformation for the sake of disinformation, just to be a dick, then no. But I feel like no joke should go unexecuted. When it’s ‘Shave and a haircut,’ you have to do the ‘Two bits.’ I’m compelled to.

I am required by rock-critic law to ask about new music from Tool and APC. I understand both are in the works. When might we hear something?
You will know when I do. That’s all I can say. A lot of times I’ll say something because somebody is pressuring me to give them some answer, and then that answer gets turned into a fact, and then details get added and before I know it, I’ve just released a new record. So no, I have nothing to tell you. When something is actually happening, there will be no doubt it’s happening.

Based on all the changes in your life, is it hard to get back into the headspace to write those songs?
Did I mention being almost 50 and trying to be the 27-year-old angry guy?