'Conquer Those Fears Or Don't Give A Shit': Why It Took Tool 13 Years To Release A New Album

30 August 2019 | 9:01 am | Rod Yates

Tool release their first album in 13 years today. Maynard James Keenan, Danny Carey, Adam Jones and Justin Chancellor tell Rod Yates they're growing old gracefully. Cover and feature photos by Travis Shinn.

Photo by Travis Shinn

Photo by Travis Shinn

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Maynard James Keenan was dealing with an emergency at one of his Arizona vineyards when Tool’s first new single in 13 years, Fear Inoculum, was released. As the clock ticked down to the unveiling of one of the most anticipated pieces of music in recent history, the singer claims not to have been feeling anxious or excited, but another emotion altogether.

“Despair,” he offers deadpan, before a slight chuckle.

“We’re right in the middle of harvest. This is a 15-hectare site and it got inundated with hail that pretty much annihilated 50 percent of the fruit, so we’ve been scrambling for the last three-and-a-half days trying to get all the fruit off the vine. The silver lining is finishing a record and having a song come out in the middle of that. You go back and forth [between] sheer panic and sheer joy.”

A well-documented wine fanatic, Keenan owns vineyards in Arizona, and at one stage uses a wine metaphor to illustrate whether his extracurricular activities outside of Tool – such as winemaking, or fronting acts such as A Perfect Circle and Puscifer – may have influenced his work on the band’s long-awaited new album, also called Fear Inoculum.

“I would imagine they would have to,” he says. “Someone with a very good palate is going to be able to tell the difference between a Barossa Valley wine and an Adelaide Hills wine. They should speak of a place. So I would imagine that everything’s gone into – and sorry to get all wine geeky – my personal terroir. It would have to come through. Especially if I’m trying to get out of the way to let it come through.”

According to drummer Danny Carey, speaking from Maui where he’s holidaying with his family, Keenan is the most adept member of Tool at “getting out of the way” to let inspiration come though, seizing it when it strikes and committing to his initial impulse.

The rest of the band not so much. Carey points to the song 7empest – the album’s stunning near-16-minute finale, which features a riff in the time signature of 21 – as an example of the group’s elongated writing process.

“Justin [Chancellor, bass] came up with that riff. The phrase [lasts for] 21 beats, however you want to sub-divide it. Adam [Jones, guitar] would pick three fives and a six to get the total to 21, or seven threes; I do that on part of it. I can drop into three or just play straight sevens; as long as it meets up every 21 it leads to interesting polyrhythms. We spend a lot of time jamming and jamming, throwing lots of those possibilities around until we find the one [that works]," he laughs. “It’s time-consuming."

Carey says work started on Fear Inoculum in earnest five years ago, though in the years prior he’d regularly get together with Jones and Chancellor to go over new riffs and ideas. He chuckles when asked to estimate how many they worked on over the past decade.

“That would be impossible.”

Aside from the convoluted songwriting process, the reasons for the 13-year gap between Fear Inoculum and its predecessor, 2006’s 10,000 Days, are many and varied. For one, the band toured regularly, which would involve pressing pause on the writing sessions to rehearse for the shows; a lengthy and complicated lawsuit between the group and their former insurance company was an unwelcome distraction; and various members had families. A motorcycle accident in 2013, in which Carey broke several ribs, didn’t help matters either. 

"I think we’ve all learned a lot and just gotten older, and you either conquer those fears or you get so old you just don’t give a shit anymore."

As the years passed, the demands from fans for a new album grew louder and louder. 

“It’s been hard… but the timing hasn’t been good, the circumstances,” says Jones from his house in Los Angeles. “Most of the fans were very vocal about wanting to hear a new record, and a small percentage of them were very rude and demanding, and it gets under your skin a little. But you have to ignore that and stay true to what you do and rely on the fans who are being respectful.

“Tool’s always been like that,” he adds. “It’s always been our rules, and it’s worked that way. We’ll do something when we’re ready. And yes, there’s a commodity aspect – you have responsibilities, you have timing, you have budgets, you have contracts, blah blah blah. But that’s just not how this band has ever worked. Contractually we were supposed to deliver a record a long time ago, but it has to be the right conditions so we can do something good and not just crank something out and move on to the next thing.

“The fact that people are so passionate about it is a great thing. I think the [fans] who have been very positive can feel like they’re a part of the music, part of that drive and inspiration to get something done.”

With the drum tracks recorded at Henson Recording Studios in Hollywood – the legendary facility formerly known as A&M Studios, which over the years played host to artists such as John Lennon, Joni Mitchell and Carole King – and guitars captured at LA’s United Recording Studios, the resulting album is a near-80-minute epic, in which no song clocks in under the ten-minute mark. The digital version features interludes interspersed throughout, which Carey regards as “palate cleansers” (only one of them, Carey’s Chocolate Trip Chip, will be on the physical CD due to the practicalities of how much music can fit on that format).

Interestingly for a band as secretive as Tool, they started playing two songs from Fear Inoculum, Descending and Invincible, while on tour in the US in May and throughout their recent European festival run. In an age of YouTube and camera phones with shoddy audio capabilities, allowing people to hear new music in that setting seems to play against type for a band so concerned with quality and perfection.

“We wrestled with whether that was a good idea or not,” says Chancellor, speaking from his property on the outskirts of Los Angeles. “We all felt different ways about it. In my mind [the festivals] were putting us in the headline slot because we were supposed to have a new album out, but it wasn’t out. Danny and I were great advocates of this: we just need to bite the bullet and be brave and play at least a couple of new songs, or at least one new song.

“But can you imagine if people didn’t like it and you’d finished recording your album?” he chuckles. “It’s ready to come out and you go and play it in front of 40,000 people and they’re like, ‘Huh?’ But it really gave us a boost of confidence because it was received so well.”

Ask Keenan about the themes behind the album and he’s typically elusive, preferring the listener makes up their own mind. Carey, however, is a little more forthcoming when quizzed about the album’s title.

“There are always fears you’re trying to conquer… and that hold you back from doing things,” he offers. “After this time in between the last [album] I think we’ve all learned a lot and just gotten older, and you either conquer those fears or you get so old you just don’t give a shit anymore. A lot of the thematic stuff on the album... is about reaching this point where you have the courage to conquer your fears and do whatever you want to do, and be creative and not care what other people think. We’re not the types who are going to get plastic surgery to try and look like we’re younger. I think we can grow old gracefully and be happy with ourselves. And that’s the gist of the record, I believe.”

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