Maynard James Keenan: Blood Into Wine

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By: Andrew Bruss

Maynard James Keenan
On a stormy Monday night at Boston’s Berklee Performance Center, Maynard James Keenan was dressed in a fashionable black suit, his iconic bald head was recently shaved, and he was cradling a glass of his own Stronghold wine. Keenan was performing as Puscifer, an act all his own, that allows him to incorporate humor and improvisational theatrics in a way he couldn’t as the frontman of both Tool and A Perfect Circle.

During a phone interview prior to his performance at Berklee, Maynard described Puscifer as having “more to do with Saturday Night Live and Monty Python than Led Zeppelin.” Keenan continued, “People don’t get [that] we’re a troupe not a band. It’s a performance, not a concert.”

Although in reality Puscifer is more Led Zeppelin than Monty Python, in the sense that the project incorporates guitars, drums, bass, keys and vocals, but the troupe does utilize comedy, multi-media and improv antics that traditional hard rock projects do not.

As the writer of lines like “Fuck your god” and “Wear your grudge like a crown,” it’s easy to believe that most people miss out on the bulk of Keenan’s humor. He refused to speculate on whether or not people appreciate his humor, saying, “I have no idea. I think there’s humor throughout everything I’ve done, but it would be hard to get into someone’s head and see.” However, he did make a point of acknowledging the importance of humor to his and all art. “In general, as an artist, all good art involves comedy and tragedy. That’s just a Shakespearean way to write. It’s always there; it’s a good balance.”

Maynard’s got a rep for being a real tough interview. YouTube is littered with video clips of Keenan being interviewed by unprepared reporters who get their asses handed to them, and that’s part of his allure. Unlike most rock stars churned out by the industry machine, the members of Tool have never done things by the book. When asked about doing press, Keenan said, “Frank Zappa always resisted talking about music. It just didn’t make any sense to him, and sometimes I feel the same way. Just talking about these things is far from the actual experience of tasting and hearing and seeing.”

For the better part of Tool’s career, Keenan has performed in various disguises, ranging from blue body paint, drag and kabuki masks, as well as an array of wigs he wore while touring in support of A Perfect Circle, his other multi-platinum act. Performing as Puscifer, Maynard sang behind a plasma screen that had a camera fitted to the back, allowing his audience to see him sing in real time but through the filter of a television. Maynard James Keenan has never accepted that by being a rock star he has to forfeit his identity as a private citizen. He’s pulled this off in large part by insulating himself from the usual trappings of fame, by denying the rock star perks Los Angeles surely would have bestowed upon him, and by moving to Jerome, Arizona, an old mining town that, according to the 2006 Census Bureau, boasts a population of 343. As someone whose spent time in Ohio, Massachusetts, West Point Prep School and L.A., Maynard said, “I’ve been rooted in Northern Arizona for 15 years now. There are very few places I’ve lived longer than that. It’s been home since ’95.”

Maynard James Keenan with Tool
Maynard likes to joke that he “shoots trespassers on sight,” but recently, he’s had to give up a lot of his hard won privacy and smile for the camera. Directed by Ryan Page and Christopher Pomerenke, Blood Into Wine (being released on DVD September 4, 2010) is a documentary about Keenan’s experiences as a winemaker. The film tells the story of how, with the help of winemaker Eric Glomski, Maynard’s Caduceus Cellars got off the ground, what brought him to plant grapes on Merkin Vineyards, and what wine means to him. Although Maynard feels the film was overall a positive experience, it wasn’t something he enjoyed doing.

“You don’t want to do that [be a part of a documentary film],” he said. “I don’t recommend it.” When asked if he regretted being a part of the film, he said, “No. It’s something that we needed to do for the area.”

More than being good for his business, Maynard said the film is “good for Arizona, and in general, for people thinking about doing something in their area in any state. If we can tell that story and inspire people to drop back, dig in and figure out what works in [their] area, we can really understand what it means to be local and sustainable.”

A Perfect Circle has been on hiatus for years, and Tool’s last release, 2006’s 10,000 Days, was the follow up to 2001’s Lateralus, an album many Tool fans thought would be the avant-garde prog-rock act’s last. Something most Tool and APC fans fail to take into account when awaiting a new release is that for Keenan all of that work exists within the context of the seasonal wine making process.

“More recently, in the last ten years, some of that [time management between Tool, APC and wine] has depended on pure timing,” he said. “The grapes are harvested within a certain window of time, so I turn my phone off for that period because I can’t wait for them to be harvested. When they’re ready you’re a slave to the sun and the rain at that point. [The weather] pretty much calls the shots.”

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The world is falling apart, there has to be another solution [and wine making is part of it].

Maynard James Keenan

 
Photo of Maynard James Keenan from laist.com.

Much more so than A Perfect Circle and Puscifer, Tool has always presented itself as a singular, pseudo-omnipotent entity that is greater than any of its four members, and it was clear that when asked about the group’s inner workings that was a subject Keenan would not discuss. Given Tool’s high profile and the business ramifications of taking long lengths of time off, it’s more than reasonable to assume that Maynard’s scheduling is something that has a significant impact on his bandmates. But when asked how drummer Danny Carey felt about the amount of time he takes off for wine making and other musical projects, Keenan replied that he had no idea. When asked if it was something they’d ever discussed, he said, “Not really.”

Tool at Lollapalooza 2009 by Dave Vann
There are other subjects Keenan was hesitant to get into, and for the most part his unwillingness to discuss these subjects pertained to his desire to protect the secretive allure that surrounds his projects and himself. When asked what he thought of the new documentary, he said, “I haven’t seen the film.” That was a tough pill to swallow, so I pressed and asked if he’d really never seen the film. “I’ve seen parts of it,” he replied.

As difficult as it is to get a clear answer out of Maynard on many subjects, when talking about wine making he was more passionate and engaged than at any other point in our conversation. When asked about the goal of Blood Into Wine, he gave his longest response.

“We’re hoping that [through the work of Caduceus] people in other states can figure out what’s possible,” he said. “I think a lot of the biggest resistance people have when they try to start something up is a lack of understanding from the people around them, like the local government and neighbors. The more they can educate those people about what it actually takes, what kind of commitment it takes, and what kind of benefit and low impact it has as a green footprint is fantastic. We’re talking about sustainability. Hopefully the film will help the people in [other] areas to have a calling card they can hand someone and say, ‘Watch this. It will explain what I want to do in my backyard.”

For as much positive attention he hopes the film brings his region, he said that there could be too much attention, something they hope to avoid.

“We’re not looking for people to flock to our area, but we want people who already live there to see the land’s potential. The last thing we want is a gold rush to Northern Arizona,” he said. “The point is for people, wherever you are, to reconnect to your area. There’s a lot you can gain and learn from that reconnection. Hopefully people can use our film to educate people around them, because the biggest resistance is always the neighbors and local government.”

Maynard James Keenan
Although both Caduceus and Blood Into Wine have brought sizable revenue and publicity to Jerome, Arizona, Keenan said that the battle with the local government over ordinances, land use and resources is far from over.

“You didn’t even see half of [the bullshit we had to go through to set up shop]. The directors cut out half of the red tape of the film, because if we included all the red tape and all the baloney and all the hurdles you would fall asleep. It’s nauseating.” He continued, “Until the local government actually sees our operation in full swing, they won’t get it. It takes seven years to be able to present the idea and show it in a bottle. Never mind the resistance once it’s in a bottle.”

Maynard then got to the core of what he sees as the power of the drink.

“The world is falling apart, there has to be another solution [and wine making is part of it],” Keenan said. “If you look at Europe, parts of the Mediterranean, the little communities that have wineries and vineyards as the cornerstone of their economy, they’ve survived several World Wars. It didn’t matter who was in charge – kings, queens, dictators, presidents. It didn’t matter who was holding the baton over their head. Those small communities were the ones that were relatively bomb proof because they could communicate with each other and communicate with the land. They weathered the storm.”

As for his future, Maynard said, “[In 2010] I’ll be making wine. A new year, a new harvest that’s closer to 100-percent Arizona juice. Some of the vineyards are finally producing their own grapes for the first time, so in 2010 and 2011 we’ll see those infants making it to bottle. There’s always music going on in-between the cracks.”

As for new music from Tool, or any studio project for that matter, he said, “Do I plan on writing? Yeah. I’m always writing, and have been for 45 years. I don’t know if there’s a conscious plan laid out for a studio project.”

For as much success as Keenan has had in the music industry, his recent ventures into wine making stand to seriously alter his legacy and the way he may be perceived by future generations. Fortunately, Maynard could give a shit.

“As long as I’m happy with what I’m doing, the other stuff doesn’t really matter,” he said. “The guy who invented parachute pants is a perfect example of a guy who invented something that became a slice out of history [laughs]. It was true to what he wanted to do, and god bless him for parachute pants.”

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