Q&A: Maynard James Keenan’s Life Comes Full Perfect Circle in New Biography

Jon Wiederhorn
photo courtesy of Backbeat Books
photo courtesy of Backbeat Books

In October 2015, Tool’s Maynard James Keenan announced that he was working on his authorized biography. The news came as a big surprise, and not just because Keenan was thought to be immersed in the band’s follow-up to 2006’s 10,000 Days when he wasn’t playing dates with his side band Puscifer, or laying the groundwork for new material with his other platinum outfit, A Perfect Circle. The shock and awe had more to do with Keenan’s reputation for being a very private individual.

Since the early days of Tool, Keenan has revealed little about his childhood or family in interviews, and has seemingly avoided the trappings of being a rock star. But A Perfect Union of Contrary Things, which came out this week and is currently #10 on the New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction best-seller list, is not a typical rock star biography. Co-written by Keenan and Sarah Jensen, the book doesn’t zoom in on childhood trauma, flaunt tales of alcohol and drug abuse, or revel in stories of sexual promiscuity. In addition, the book is as much an exploration of the paths Keenan took to get to the stage as it is an exploration of the experiences he has had since becoming a recognized musician.

YAHOO MUSIC: You’re not someone who grabs at every opportunity for publicity or recognition. Why did you decide to chronicle your life in an autobiography?

MAYNARD JAMES KEENAN: Turning 50, I was mentally chronicling what came before and what potentially might lie ahead. I wanted to have things on paper for family and friends. We’re quite a tight-lipped family – Irish Italian, post-World War II — and there were a lot of things I don’t know about my family because they just won’t talk about it. So I felt like it might be smart to put some of the things I knew on paper so that there’s at least a record of the pieces.

Many rock memoirs are first-person accounts based on many hours of interviews an artist does with the person helping him or her with the book. Why did you decide to write this book in the third person?

I worked with the writer of the book, Sarah Jensen, and I chose her because I felt like that’s how she was going to approach it. I’d had a few conversations and meetings years ago about this process and was immediately turned off by the beat and path I was seeing. There are some very good biographies out there, but they start to seem samey, especially some of the rock ‘n’ roll ones, which are just kiss-and-tell battle-scar memoirs. So I just felt like I needed someone from an outside perspective and somebody that grew up where I went to high school. It seemed like the right approach once we started working on it.

The book includes numerous interviews with teammates from your high school track days, peers from the Army, music industry friends, and co-workers from throughout the years. Do you feel they help create an authentic portrayal of who you are?

It’s definitely about pulling a thread on a sweater and unraveling a particular pattern. There are many more sweaters and many more threads to tug, but I feel like this presents a good start of that particular storyline. There’s a million storylines we could pursue, but it’s a pretty accurate representation of this trail of breadcrumbs.

Are you proud of the person who’s revealed in this book?

I would hope so. If you’re standing in your own skin, you better be OK with you are. I think that’s probably the hardest thing to look at. Have you made the right choices? And I think that’s what the book’s about – trying to make the right choices and following your instincts. As far as instincts are concerned, I’m proud of that person.

Looking back at all the memories you’ve recounted in the book, is there a period you look back at and say, “I really wish I had done that differently”?

No, not at all. Everything that you do is going to build on what you do next. So if you’re standing in a bad spot, it probably is based on some of the decisions you made. And if you’re still breathing, there’s probably still time to change that trajectory. You learn from those experiences and then go to the next step.

Discipline is a recurrent theme in the book. The first half of the book addresses finding your place, learning the rules and following them. Was that something that being in the Army instilled in you, or was it there before that?

It was there before that just primarily due to the nature of my father. He was a guy who, back when there weren’t running shoes, would be running from the farm uptown to his job, working out as a wrestler, as a football player. And everyone would be looking at him thinking, “Who’s this crazy person running down this gravel road in boots?” He always had that inner self-motivated point of view that he instilled in me. I think I got some of it – not as much as he does – but that’s where it’s coming from.

You and your father butted heads in your early years.

Yeah, I think that’s the case with most people. There’s those teenage years, and if you’re a contrarian by birth, you’re gonna buck the system. And if the system is your parents then you’re gonna buck them.

When did your contrarian streak begin? When did you start questioning everything around you?

I don’t remember when I didn’t. It was pre-grade school, I think. It always seemed to be there.

There was a period in your life when your ego became a paramount force that guided your decisions. Around the time of Tool’s Aenima, you seemed to give into your self-indulgence whims for a while.

Yeah, that comes from a combination of all those influences around the entertainment industry and Los Angeles in general. The decadent nature can be poisonous and very present, and for most people it’s very intoxicating. Right around that time when you start seeing some success, you start believing that your choices, actions, and attitudes are the absolute concrete reason for that success, and that’s where you start going down the rabbit hole.

Surely your ideas and your creativity were a major part of your success.

But it could be just circumstances. It just happened to be a perfect time for Nirvana to emerge ‘cause people were tired of hair bands. I don’t know. It might have had nothing to do with Nirvana. It was just timing. I’m not taking anything away from any of the musicians that were on those waves that were about to crest. All due respect to all of those musicians, but I feel that the problem then is that generally those musicians feel like they actually created the wave, when they were just on it and were prepared as it crested. That starts to be the poison.

Do you think as an artist, the forethought you’ve put into your actions helped you rise to the crest of that wave?

I would love to take credit for that statement. Hell, yeah. That’s me… No, that’s totally not me… I guess it could be perceived as calculated, but a lot of it really is following instincts and flying by the seat of your pants, and then when it works out you point backwards and go, “Yeah, I meant to do that.” From my perspective, that’s what it feels like. With hindsight, when you’re looking at it, it looks like it was calculated. But I think a lot of those things that appear to be calculated, there’s no way, standing in the shoes you’re in and you’re about to take that step, you truly know what’s gonna happen. It really is more like, “Well, I’m just gonna jump.”

At the same time, many of these paths that you’ve taken that have led to other paths almost seem predestined.

Because I’m a romantic and I’m a poet, that’s what I would call it. I would write it off to pre-destiny that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the choices I was making. It was more about me fulfilling a predestined path that had little to do with me other than having woken up in this body.

But why were you chosen for this predestined path? Why have your choices generally turned into successful ventures – be it with Tool, A Perfect Circle, or your vineyards?

There are just random things that happen. The energies line up and people just end up on that path. The ones that didn’t guess the right path, you don’t hear about.

Did your spiritual leanings begin after your friend, comedian and philosopher Bill Hicks, died?

No, I think all that was happening prior to Bill. He just happened to enter my life around that same time. That’s why he and I had lots of phone conversations about bigger picture things.

In your book, you address everything from small, mundane topics, such as your passion for working in a pet shop, to becoming a celebrity with multiple creative facets. It seems that as you pass through the years, you embrace more avenues of discovery and spirituality. Has age brought you wisdom?

I would say that’s true with anybody. I don’t think that’s unique to me. Every now and then you see a little meme on Twitter about how the best cure for racism and nationalism is travel. If you just get out and see the way other people live and really, truly dive into it – not take an executive’s version of travel – it’s really hard to maintain some of those weird perspectives that divide and separate. With anyone that has been out in the world and traveled and seen some success, I think a good percentage of those people widen, for lack of a better word.

You have taken an active interest in comedy as part of your exploration of the world of entertainment. There are sly elements of humor in Tool, you have befriended numerous stand-up comics, appeared on Mr. Show, and formed the comedic performance art/music ensemble Puscifer. You’ve called comedy “the great healer.”

There’s a danger with being comedic as musicians. You either have to be all-in with the comedy like Tenacious D, who are fantastic performers and incredible vocalists, but the jokes are meant to be funny. And it comes directly from that place and that’s where it stays. It’s far more rare that you have someone like Frank Zappa, who has humor throughout the music, but he made very serious music, and he got away with it. Usually when a comedian tries to do music with a funny song, it’s dreadful. And when musicians try to have funny songs, there’s a very fine line. It’s very difficult to pull off. I think Puscifer is the closest I can get to actually achieving a good balance.

So many people would be ecstatic to be in a band as successful as Tool and to make that their only creative outlet. Why do you feel the need to explore other artistic avenues? Do you get too bored easily and is there too much to explore out there to become complacent with a single project?

If Tool was more prolific, if they were a little steadier, if we could get things done a little faster I would probably be happy. But things take a long time, they’re tedious. The other guys are very meticulous and I get bored. So I have to go do things in between. The perception, of course, if that they’re waiting on me. No, that’s not the case.

The juxtaposition between the way they work and the way you’re inclined to create more impulsively creates a tension that fuels the music.

With any group of very strong-willed people – even with A Perfect Circle; we’re starting to work on some stuff as well – it’s always a struggle to find your groove within the personalities.

Less than half of A Perfect Union of Contrary Things is about Tool. Did you make a concerted effort not to turn this into a Tool book? Tool fans have been waiting for this book for a long time and would surely have embraced even more insight.

I think the same could be said for A Perfect Circle. Even though there’s a brief history, there’s a lot to be told, but I think that’s specifically for A Perfect Circle and that’s a whole separate book. The same thing goes for every project. There’s a whole entire winery book out there. What’s going on in Arizona? We’re just gonna touch on it here. Again, we pulled some specific threads. There are more threads to be pulled.

Is there a plan in place to write separate books about Tool, A Perfect Circle, and wine? Do you want to expand the Maynard franchise?

I suppose so, it just depends on each individual project. Just to take a broad stroke approach and say, “Yeah, let’s write a book on each of these,” that’s lofty and romantic. The execution of it has to be right. It can’t go forward if it’s not good, so we’d have to take baby steps.

Clearly, A Perfect Union of Contrary Things is not a confessional tell-all. Did you want to keep certain elements of your life private?

I don’t know about private. There are just things that aren’t that important. That’s the hard part about writing. Here you are writing a book with somebody about yourself, and you start to feel very self-important. And I think that’s a trap. You really have to go back through and look at those things and go, “Do I really I really need to tell people this boring s—?” Yeah, it’s personal, but is it important. And I don’t know if a lot of that crap is important.

Was writing this book cleansing or therapeutic for you?

I feel like it was survey work: Where was I, where am I, where am I going? I think part of the changes over the years have been the early days of doing a cassette back in Grand Rapids, Michigan, or a poem in high school, or releasing a rock record. Again, you’ve been surrounded by people that are making your feel self-important or profound. If you believe it then you believe it; if you don’t, you don’t. I think all of those things end up being, “It’s all about this, it’s all about me, it’s all about winning, it’s all about beating your competition.” It’s very competitive. And I feel like I finally flipped around somewhere in the middle of Puscifer and the winery. And now I can say these are all just pieces of a larger process. So Puscifer, this book, these are all pieces of a much larger story we’re telling.

Is it still about winning?

No, it’s just about accurately reporting. There’s a path, there are some decisions. If I can share them with my children, my friends, and their family, then I guess we’re all winning.