Ahead of their recent UK tour, James McMahon talked to A Perfect Circle (and Tool) frontman Maynard James Keenan about new album 'Eat The Elephant', martial arts, internet culture and what a bloody mess everything is
Last time A Perfect Circle released an album, on November 1, 2004, President George W. Bush was just about to begin his second session in the big chair of the White House. Three-years earlier, the west had lost its perceived right to security when two concrete towers in New York City crumbled and fell. In Iraq, a year after the coalitions’ invasion, the war raged on despite cries of its illegality.
Oh, and in February of that year, Facebook launched, and happiness was cancelled forever.
Fourteen-years-later, A Perfect Circle – featuring founding members, guitarist Billy Howerdel and vocalist Maynard James Keenan, he of alternative metal titans Tool, supported by a host of names, whose current pedigree includes members of The Smashing Pumpkins and Eagles Of Death Metal and in the past has drawn from Marilyn Manson (the band) and Primus – release their fourth album, ‘Eat The Elephant’, into a world that is seemingly coming apart at the stitching. It’s a world that’s been turned upside down since the release of 2004’s ‘Emotive’. And it’s a world that finds itself being strangled by weeds that were planted there and thereabouts.
It’s a world surely too fast, too critical, too violent, too gluttonous to be sustainable. It’s a world that, like a balloon that’s been put over an exhaust pipe, sometimes feels like it might burst any day now. It’s a world too loud – and don’t worry, the irony of saying that within a collection of words regarding a band Spotify categorise as ‘art metal’ isn’t lost on this writer. It’s a world that’s running out of all its major resources, it’s wildlife, it’s places of natural beauty. If only you could run a car on bullshit, we’d never have to mine for oil again. It’s this landscape which forms the subject matter of A Perfect Circle’s excellent and important new album.
“These are polarized times,” says Maynard, groggily. He’s just woken up. “I’m in Oslo. I think it’s still Oslo…” he shares, stifling a yawn. A brief conversation about dry-cleaning, and whether it’s worth the expense, or whether it’s better waiting until the A Perfect Circle tour arrives in a country that’s slightly less damning on a foreign wallet, is all that lies inbetween us and the singer getting right into it, albeit with the disclaimer that some of what follows will be broad strokes. “If I read an article and someone is telling me what to do,” he says, “I normally put that article down and I walk away.”
“We’re missing the Gordon Ramseys of the world, people who’ll critique every gross path you’ve decided to take. But people don’t want that. They want to be a powder puff. A snowflake. Friction is needed to make art possible.” – Maynard James Keenan
“With everything that’s happened with digital and social media, there’s an abundance of platforms for people to squeak,” he says, when asked about the idea of accountability, a theme running throughout ‘Eat The Elephant’ and a phrase that’s been shared countless times by the Californian in explaining his bands’ new songs, ever since its release into the world this past April. “What they’re squeaking about,” he continues, “always seems to be about what you’re doing wrong, rather than what they’re doing wrong. There’s little accountability. There’s little desire to look at themselves and ask what they’re contributing to make things better…”
He sighs. “We’re living in a time where you don’t always see the accountability, because all you hear is the squeaking…”
Maynard is a man with an audience who hang on his every word – get stuck in a lift with a hardcore Tool fan (and there are very few Tool fans that aren’t hardcore) and by the time you’re rescued, you’ll know more about ufology, Carl Jung and the Fibonacci sequence than you did when you got in. But he’s also a misunderstood man too. On the face of it, ‘a man who sings about serious things who is often capable of being quite a silly man too’ shouldn’t be that difficult of a concept to grasp, but that takes nuance, and consequently, time to stop and think. And there’s a lot of squeaking right now. Throughout our conversation, Maynard seems acutely aware what he’s saying might come off like an old man – he actually turned 54-years-old this past April – shouting at clouds (or The Cloud).
“I grew up with fantastic, satirical comedy – Monty Python, Kids In The Hall, George Carlin, Andy Kaufman, things like that – so if I’m going to be preachy, I try to do it in a sarcastic Irish way,” he explains. “But that infuses me trying to take accountability for my own action too. So, in fitting with the comedy I like, I can be very self-deprecating…”
Ask Maynard about social media – the new song ‘Disillusioned’ is perhaps the most mindful rock song written in recent memory, decreeing it’s “time to put the silicon obsession down, take a look around, find a way in the silence” – and he laughs, says he “prays for meteors. Or a tsunami…” Another laugh. “Metaphorically, of course, “but we need something.” He continues, “I’m being glib, but it’s all about the old ‘devil makes work for idle hands cliché’. If there’s something physical to do, something to help your neighbour, your family or your community, as soon as you get into the work, you forget about all that crap.”
Maynard is big on work. He cites his parents as instilling that in him. As well as Tool, and A Perfect Circle, and the project he describes as his “creative subconscious”, Pucifer, he makes wine, owning a produce market in Cornville, Arizona, as well as Merkin Vineyards and Caduceus Cellars, close to his home in the same region. The former is named after the term for a pubic wig, obviously. He also studies Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Even his singing – nobody in rocks recent memory sings with the grace or gravitas Maynard does – he says came about as the result of putting in the time. “I did a lot of work in high-school, in choir,” he says. “People thought we used to just go into the band room and sing songs, but it was scales, every day. Learning the craft”.
So much of what Maynard is saying here, and A Perfect Circle’s new album, doesn’t paint a particularly attractive portrait of humanity. Don’t believe the lazy and the apathetic who say modern music is apolitical; there is music being made everywhere that is documenting the fine line between modern life and dystopia, a line that is dissipating, Thanos like, in front of us, in real time. But in rock music? Not so much. Still a lot of fingers in ears within rock music. ‘Eat The Elephant’, however, is a sort of Domesday Book for where society finds itself.
There’s The Contrarian – “Hello, he lied,” purrs Maynard at the top end, seemingly channelling the spirit of Laurence Olivier’s Richard III – a syrup throated warning to anyone investing their trust in someone – and 2018 has no shortage of tricksters with big voices and tiny hearts – to try to look behind the eyes of the subject. There’s ‘The Doomed’, in which Maynard spins Christ’s Sermon On The Mount, the righteous central tenet of Christianity, in which Jesus praises the meek and the lowly for enduring suffering in reward of divinity, into an spiritual hymn to the 1%, while the ‘truthful, the dutiful, the decent’ bend down ‘to be their whores’. And there’s ‘TalkTalk’, which, with it’s opening refrain of “you’re waiting on miracles, we’re bleeding out” is most likely concerned with a gun obsessed culture that would rather pray to the heavens for change, than have a grown-up conversation on earth.
Does Maynard think there’s hope for us?
“There’s absolutely hope, but there’s going to be a lot of struggle to get there,” he says. “And that’s the problem. Everyone wants to be a black belt, but they want to go straight from being a white belt to being a black belt. Because they read an inspirational meme. They don’t want to put the time in. Everyone needs a bit of a Gordon Ramsey in their life. They really do. We’re missing the Gordon Ramseys of the world, people who’ll critique every gross path you’ve decided to take. But people don’t want that. They want to be a powder puff. A snowflake. Friction is needed to make art possible.”
We explain to Maynard that ‘snowflake’ is a contentious word. A word often used to shut liberal voices down for caring.
“Clickbait is the currency. Something doesn’t have to be true, you just have to click on it. You just have to be incendiary. It’s such a fucking rabbit hole” – Maynard James Keenan
“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” he says. “I am a snowflake. I am that liberal democrat that wants to embrace people and help people. I’m sat here trying to work out what the fuck is going on in my country we’re they’re separating children from families. And of course, my military and law enforcement Republican friends are, like, ‘there’s the snowflake’. I’m, like, ‘how am I snowflake for questioning children being separated from families?’”
Maynard bursts into uproarious, incredulous laughter.
“And of course, there’s also the question of whether it’s actually happening, because can you trust social media? Clickbait is the currency. Something doesn’t have to be true, you just have to click on it. You just have to be incendiary. It’s such a fucking rabbit hole…”
Can you describe the process of making art during a time as tumultuous as now?
“It’s a hard balance to strike, right?” he says. “Because there’s so much horseshit flying around. I don’t believe that total isolation is healthy for any artist, especially if you’re an artist that’s had some sort of success, because that can be quite posh, and you can lose touch with things. You have to get your hands dirty, and find a way to work through the noise. At the same time, I think you have to find that quiet time, the quiet room so to speak, because that’s where the work is done.”
He continues, “it’s like in martial arts. You learn to implement techniques you learn under stress. If you can’t do them under stress, you haven’t learned anything. And that’s where the writing comes in. Can you do this amongst the noise? Can you tune in and find out who you are as a writer.”
He pauses, collects his thoughts.
“Listen, there is a way out of this I believe, and it’s about not being caught in the drama and the distractions. Ignorance is your biggest enemy. The more the polarization of social media and other distractions draw you in, the less you’ll talk to each other…”
“And if we don’t talk to each other, we won’t find a way out of this crap…”