Interview with Maynard James Keenan
October 31, 2001

NOTE: Some of the quotations of Maynard are verbatim but most are paraphrased in order to maintain consistency and edit out redundancies.

Tool's manager (Rick) contacted me at my home at 8:30 pm on Halloween night. The band was getting ready to perform in San Diego. He handed the phone over to Maynard James Keenan and we had a conversation which lasted about 75 minutes. What follows is the content of that conversation.


First of all, I'd like to thank you for this interview .

MK: "You're welcome".

Do you mind if I record our conversation?

MK: "Not as long as it is for referential use only and not for sale".

Is there anything you care to know about me before we begin?

MK: "Sure".

I explained to him that I taught philosophy at the University of Guelph-courses in Introductory Philosophy, Philosophy of Medicine, and Critical Thinking. And I am also a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University working on a book in cognitive evolution.

MK: "Sounds like you have your plate full".

I'm going to ask you some questions about your lyrics and we'll see what type of tangents those will take us on.

MK: "OK".

I'll start with your first two albums Opiate and Undertow. The title of the first album I take it, is a reference to the Marx and Engels line 'Religion is the opiate of the masses?'

MK: "Yes, that's right".

Based on this theme of religion, you seem to have a rather scathing view of Christianity e.g.
1. In "Sober" Jesus won't you fucking whistle..."
2. In "Disgustipated" you assume the persona of a reverend
3. And in "Opiate" you state that God speaks through you and has needs and so the two desire rape: "Jesus Christ why don't you come save my life now, open my eyes and blind me with your light and your lies".

MK: "My views against Christianity or religion in general are directed towards the 'middle men'-those who are in power and use religion as a market force by which to manipulate human beings for their own personal gain. The middle men taint any purity of spirituality that could result from genuine religious/mystical experiences".

Maynard made reference to the Church of Jerusalem and what Christ himself was probably facing in human figures such as Caiaphas and Annas-powerful leaders of the church at that time and who felt threatened by new thinking. Maynard is against the idea of hypocrisy in organized religion-the Tammy Faye Baker and Jimmy Swaggert types and all others who use their views as a tool for power, manipulation, and the accumulation of wealth and material gain-the exact things of which Christianity is opposed. So it is the element of being ingenuine, insincere, and hypocritical to the point of using a belief system as a means for entirely secular ends.

Were there personal experiences in your life in which you witnessed first account cases of hypocrisy in Christianity?

MK: "I was raised a Southern Baptist". I witnessed first-hand the hypocrisy of this particular form of Christianity. But it was a gradual thing. As I got older, I began to see people claiming one set of beliefs and acting in ways which directly opposed these views".

My next question is going to deal with the Philosophy of Art. I have always been interested in the line between an artist's intention and an observer's interpretation. How flexible are you with the interpretations of your lyrics and to what extent do you have specific intentions in your songs?

MK: "There are diverse ways in which people can interpret art and lyrics and draw them into their own experiences. Our lyrics are heavily layered".

Maynard also said that people cannot simply attach any meaning they like to his lyrics. For example, taking the meaning of any particular song to be a cryptic message incorporating Nazi-like hatred against a particular group, is not acceptable. One of the main purposes of the lyric content in Tool's songs involves a personal connection on a level in which people are on quests for self-identity, understanding and reflection. Maynard describes the process of music creation, touring, and performing as 'spiritual' insofar as it deals honestly with exploring human identity, capacity, and expression.

MK: "This means different things to different people".

Tool will never proselytise to the point of saying: "This is THE way in which you are to recognize various aspects of yourself as being a part of your identity and coming to understand who you are and what you are and how you relate to this world".

So Maynard is not about to preach any definitive methodology for interpreting their lyrics but, for those who do understand that the lyrics have meanings at one intended level which can be interpreted by various people in various ways to relate those to personal self-reflection, those are commonalities which he does encourage.

The members of Tool generally shun human pretense and arrogance. This is stated explicitly in some of their lyrics, and it is one of the reasons I had a feeling Maynard would want to discuss these ideas with someone like me whom he has never met nor knows.

A question about ethics. In the song "Jerk-Off" you mention several tenets of ethical theory. In one case you state: "Consequences dictate our course of action and it doesn't matter what's right. It's only wrong if you get caught. If consequences dictate my course of action I should play God and shoot you myself. I'm very tired of waiting"

I mentioned to Maynard that Consequentialism is one of the main schools of thought in ethical theory. It states that humans need to focus on the effects of actions in order to determine whether or not they are good/bad, right/wrong, etc. I asked him if he was aware of this to which he replied: "No, I'm not terribly literate. I like to look into things and read up on them when I can". Most members of Tool have had university educations, but they are pretty well dilettantes when it comes to academic professionalism. And they acknowledge this without pretense. They have interests in various fields of study e.g. Egyptology, numerology, the occult, etc., and the take from these that which they find interesting and relevant to their own lives. They use this information in order to gain a better understanding of the world and their place in it, but also, to have fun and laugh about the entire process. Some of the things that struck me about Maynard's (and Tool's) take on lie are the aspects of humility, reverence, and humour (particularly, satire).

When they talk about a spiritual adventure or endeavour, they are referring to how they can grow as human beings trying to expand their awareness of themselves within a particular world. So I mentioned the great English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (for whom my eldest son is named), who was a founding member of University College London (for those who could not afford Oxford or Cambridge) and who donated his body to medical science in the early part of the nineteenth century (to help discourage grave-robbery and to convince others to do the same). Afterwards, as a condition of his will, Bentham's skeleton and head were stuffed and his remains preserved in a glass case (which one can still visit today). Bentham was the father of a consequentialist ethical theory called Utilitarianism (act in order to produce the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people). This underlies most current states of democracy and the ways in which politics and legislative assemblies function today.

I mentioned as well, a point which interested Maynard. Implicit in their lyrics from 'Jerk-Off' was a reference to the moral of a parable from Plato's Republic called the 'Ring of Gyges'. In the Republic, Socrates and friends are discussing the nature of justice. What is a just person? One of the speakers named Glaucon tells the story of Gyges. Basically, the story goes like this: After an earthquake in the countryside, Gyges, a shepherd of Lydia, discovers a chasm beneath the earth which houses the tomb of a corpse wearing nothing but a gold ring. Gyges takes the ring and, while wearing it at the local meeting of shepherds, turns the setting of the ring towards the inside of his hand. When he does so, he becomes invisible. When the setting is turned back, he becomes visible again. Glaucon asks us now to imagine two such rings: one is given to a just person, the other is given to an unjust person. Now although entirely fictional, Glaucon's point is a good one. And that is, since neither could be caught in acts such as stealing, voyeurism, rape, etc., because of their cloak of invisibility, neither would be just. It is only the veneer of what we have invented through culture which forces us to act in civilized ways. Once we can 'get away' with something without the fear of being caught, we will most certainly do it. And Maynard's lyrics "It doesn't matter what's right, it's only wrong if you get caught", echoes the very sentiment of this parable.

At this point, Maynard said: "Information, itself, is pure. Take a knife, for example. You can use it to cut up vegetables, meat, butter your bread, etc. Or you can use it as a weapon. The way in which information exists in its many forms leaves for us the decision as to how it is we wish to use it. Information itself has a certain purity. Humans have intentionality. It's humans who decide how it is they wish to behave. Information and technology are pure" [or what I referred to as amoral-that is, morality-the rightness/wrongness of actions-cannot take place until humans decide how they wish to use them].

I added the example of uranium as an analogy to his purity of information idea. That is, we can dig up uranium from the earth, and use it in rod bundles in nuclear reactors to produce electricity. If, as a result of this, we have some leftover Plutonium, which could mutate our DNA in horrific ways, should there be an accident, then the purity of Uranium becomes used in an intentional way. But the effects have been brought about by us, not the Uranium.

MK: "Once humans manipulate information, resources, and technology, they can take on value-laden contexts".

Perhaps the most insightful thing Maynard said during our conversation:
Every time I spoke about Maynard's lyric content which has layers of application from the point of intentionality at his level to the various ways they are interpreted by his audience to the ways in which I refer to them in classes, and can understand them at the level of a philosophy professor, his response was:

MK: "There must be something in common with what we're doing in Tool which has brought you and I to this point in our lives where we are having this conversation".

I think he's right about this because there does seem to be a commonality in his lyric content with how I view the world in some respects, how my students view the world, how the other listeners view the world, and so on. What Maynard says in his lyrics echoes the purity of information theme we discussed earlier. "You can choose to use a knife in many ways".

Do you see a moral relativism underlying societal activity today? Or do you think there are genuine rules of behaviour that are universally good or bad?

MK: "No. I don't see any clear rules right now. For example, think of alcoholism. I have a number of friends who are simply incapacitated because of alcohol. Yet you go to England, and there will be people with the same level of consumption. But it's a way of life, you just get up for your job. It's a cultural difference".

I then posed a philosophical thought experiment to him:

Imagine for a moment that a time machine has been invented in which you can go back in time. The machine is only suited for Maynard James Keenan's DNA structure. You will be sent back to 1938 Germany in which there will be a window of time that will allow you to kill Adolf Hitler. You would then get back in the time machine and come back to the present. Are you going to do it?

MK: "I'm not sure about this notion of a time machine. You're stating what is currently impossible".

I explained that this was one of the great things about philosophy and thought experiments i.e. scenarios can be imagined in order to find out more about who you are and what you believe. These 'What ifs...' are another form for self-exploration. Maynard very much appreciated this idea and I asked him again whether or not he would kill Hitler.

MK: "I would certainly go back and observe".

I again mentioned consequentialism to him and introduced a calculus for behaviour: By killing one man, you could potentially save millions of lives. There's no guarantee to this of course. But Hitler had the charisma, the cult of personality to lead a nation to accept Nazi ideals. And perhaps by taking him out of the equation early on, it may have thwarted or at least stalled the full effects of Nazism. Do you kill Hitler?

MK: "Yea, I'd take him out. I'd kill one man to save millions".

Then next questions deal with "Aenema" and "Lateralus".

I have on my office door the lyrics to "Stinkfist" because I have viewed this as a very telling statement in reference to what I have called the "Age of Immediacy". That is, we want input/information/pleasure, etc., quicker, bigger, better. We grow bored quickly and need more now. And so the metaphor of a gradual increase of larger sized objects shoved up a particular human cavity is quite appropriate to express our desensitization.

Do you think North Americans have finally been reached in some way by the events of September 11? Has the fist finally been shoved up deep enough to wake us up and make us realize that we are not watching a movie anymore?

MK: "Yes, I would say the people who have been touched most are the families of the victims. But I'm not so sure about the guys in Iowa, Montana, or Arizona who get there information filtered through CNN. Because to them, information is coming in a very filtered way, thick with propaganda".

I mentioned that this was interesting because when I had saw them at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, during their first song, "The Grudge", someone threw an American flag onto the stage. Immediately, the bassist, Justin Chancellor, kicked the flag off to the side where a roadie grabbed it and took it off stage.

MK: "Yea, I wanted to piss on it. The audacity that some people would assume that we're going to wave the flag and turn what we believe is a spiritual endeavour focussing on self-reflection and discovery into some kind of cheesy American propagandist movement, was the furthest thing from our minds".

I commended Maynard for this artistic resolution. You guys are entertainers. You have messages, but you're not preachy about them. You put them out there for people to take rides. And to this Maynard said:

MK: "That's how I see myself, really. I'm along for the ride. I'm a dancer, and I'm enjoying the dance. I don't know where the ride is going. But I'll take every opportunity I can to try to enlighten myself in whatever ways these experiences take me. If others want to come along for the ride, great. But to think someone is going to impose some type of right-wing Americana views onto our creativity, is misguided".

Maynard is extremely vocal against the influences of CNN to the world. He thinks they are extremely irresponsible as journalists because the information we receive is far from pure.

MK: "All these media guys have hard-ons because of this war. They can sell more papers, magazines, keep us glued to the TV longer. They know the public will buy their product, so they keep giving them more fuel for their fire".

I asked what his advice would be if people wanted to avoid the slanted trappings of the media.

MK: "Start by turning off your television for a year".

And then what? I said.

MK: "Talk to each other. Find out what the other person is thinking and why. You don't have to turn off your computers because that still allows you to talk to one another".

I told him that this sounded an awful lot like what the Ancient Greek philosophers were doing over two millennia ago-that is, engaging in meaningful dialogue about important issues. He laughed at the similarity.

MK: "There it is. You see the world through a philosopher's eyes, and I see it through my eyes. I'm certainly not as literate as you are, but I don't see that as being a problem".

I replied that there is much to be gained from dialogue but there is nothing wrong with trying to gain information and trying to increase your understanding of the world, yourself, and others.

MK: "Those closely affected by the September 11 attacks, have been deeply and forever moved in ways we cannot fully appreciate".

He finds George W. Bush has an inability to critically self-reflect on what he is currently doing in Afghanistan.

At this point, I mentioned my Critical Thinking text: How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass: A Practical Guide to Thinking Critically. He appreciated the title and we talked further on the topic of critical self-reflection which is lacking in the world today. We agreed that this can lead to a behaviour mode of Us against Them through an incapacity of self-discovery and self-reflection.

MK: "CNN furthers the clouding of our capacity to tap in to this notion of self-reflection and discovery".

We continued discussing for some time the topic of journalistic responsibility. Journalists have a responsibility to provide us with information which is not filtered through American propagandist or other filtration systems. Ideally, we should get our information in the least biased manner-no matter how painful the truth actually is. We must impress upon journalists their obligation to give us information as pure as possible and then let us decide how it's going to bounce off of us, how are we going to use the knife?

9. In "Parabola" you speak about the body as a type of vessel. And you state that we need to hold on to and stay inside this holy reality. In contrast to your attacks on Christianity, how should we interpret the use of the term 'holy', here?

MK: "Life is to be revered. Few people take the time to realize how valuable their experiences are at any given time in their lives because we can be snuffed out in the next minute".

Although some may take this to be a paraphrase of the 'Stop and smell the flowers' bit of flaky advice from the sixties, the central message is a good one because it demands of us the discipline by which to forcibly become self-aware of what is meaningful and essential to life. We do take things for granted, without doubt. Most of the time, we are caught up in the superficial trappings of cultural inventions. But to be alive, and to know it, is one of the first great cognitive evolutionary steps in the development of human consciousness.

MK: "Life should be revered simply for the fact that we need to be thankful that we are currently able to consciously appreciate what we are going through right now. There are layers to our lives which can be appreciated at various levels. This moment that we're having right now is highly significant."

At this point I mention Albert Schweitzer's book Reverence for Life where he mentions that some things are necessary in life. There are constraints on life and we have to function within those constraints. I referred to the lyrics in 'Disgustipated' where Maynard mentions that 'Life feeds on life'. This is an obvious biological truism which creates an environment of constraints in which we must live.

From this, I state that the feeling of eternity and reference to pain as an illusion in 'Paraboloa' is interesting. Is this tongue-in-cheek or is the meaning here literal?

MK: "Having a background in science, anyone will tell you that everything pretty much is light. Form and frequency, quantum physics and the fact that humans are made up of bits of matter (light), at this level, particles neither come into nor go out of existence, and at that level we are eternal. And although pain operates at one level, there is no pain at the underlying level of matter. People operate at different levels. Does that make any sense? These are huge, lofty spiritual concepts. Keith Richards is still walking around, doesn't that prove something?"

Laughing, at this point, I said that I was an evolutionist and I really think Keith Richards is de-volving back into a reptilian form. The man is becoming a lizard. Maynard laughs.

In the song "Lateralus" you refer to the origins of perceptual observation i.e. "Black then white are all I see in my infancy", "red and yellow then came to be, reaching out to me, lets me see". Again, is this more of a metaphor or are you being literal? The reason I ask is because human developmental reasoning is one of my areas of research. That is, to what degree are we born with human propensities for perception, speech, responses, etc., and to what extent are these learned behaviours?

MK: "I use the archetype stories of North American aboriginals and the themes or colours which appear over and over again in the oral stories handed down through generations. Black, white, red, and yellow play very heavily in aboriginal stories of creation."

Maynard now mentions the Spiral Sequence of Life, the Golden Rectangle, the Fibonacci Sequence and the Phi Ratio. For further information on these aspects of Tool's songs and ideas, there are several websites to consider for reference:

http://library.thinkquest.org/27890/theSeries1.html
http://library.thinkquest.org/27890/mainIndex.html
http://toolshed.down.net/articles/text/spinmag.jun.2001.html
http://library.thinkquest.org/27890/applications6.html

The mathmetician credited for discovering the sequence is Leonardo Fibonacci in 1202 (a.d.). Each number in the sequence is generated by adding the previous two, which produces a string of numbers like this: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610, 987. To arrive at each number of the series, you simply add the two numbers that came before it. And so each number of the series is the sum of the two numbers preceding it. In nature, you see many patterns which displays numbers from this sequence e.g. pineapples, flowers, conk shells, pine cones (hmmm...), etc. What I get from the sequence is the relation of a ratio (Phi) which has fixed spatial constraints on biological organisms. And so you see the pattern repeat itself again and again because of these spatial constraints.

If you look at the syllable of the opening lyrics in 'Lateralus', you can see evidence of the Fibonacci sequence ascending and descending:

1 (Black)
1 (then)
2 (white are)
3 (all I see)
5 (in my in-fan-cy.)
8 (red and yel-low then came to be),
5 (reach-ing out to me.)
3 (lets me see.)

The drummer of Tool, Danny Carey is very much interested in numerology, geometry, etc. His drum patterns are chosen very carefully to reflect some of the patterns he finds in the Fibonacci sequence and elsewhere. This has led me to consider to what degree there may be underlying patterns in nature, shape, and number, which resonate with us in musical notation. And that it is partially due to this pattern recognition which has had such a huge impact on Tools' fans.

The band is also very interested in what is called three-dimensional sound. For some time, Maynard and I talked about Synesthesia-the perceptual sensation produced when a stimulus experienced by one sense is experienced in another, as when the hearing of a certain sound induces the visualization of a certain colour or geometric shape. I recalled listening to 'Schism' and noting how the metre of Maynard's lyrical cadence was offset from the bass and drums in certain parts as to invoke a type of sharp-sidedness. I do not actually 'see' a geometric shape before me. But I do get a sense of what he meant. This ephemeral capacity to 'see' sound is about as close as I've gotten to a synesthetic experience.

MK: "When we compose songs, we start with the rhythms and melodies first. Each of us contributes instrumentally to a single song. And then I go away and work on the lyrics".

I have mentioned in class that the members of Tool display a good deal of discipline in their creative capacity. Their songs are not simply coincidental accidents but carefully developed arrangements based on themes and influences from a variety of sources. The layers of many of their songs are not unlike recognizable movements that you would hear in classical musical compositions.

10. In "Reflection" you talk a good deal about losing or getting rid of the ego in order to attain some further end. An end of enlightenment perhaps? What is it about the ego that prevents or in some way, blocks one from attaining some greater end? Or does it even make sense to speak in terms of lesser and greater ends?

MK: "If you look at the cycles of the moon, it starts as a thin crescent and then gradually waxes until it becomes full; then it gradually wanes back into another crescent and then it is gone. The moon reflects sunlight like humans reflect information. We wax and wane and when we become full moons, our egos are full. We think we have this knowledge when in fact, the information we have is pure. And how it reflects or shines off of us, is something we take credit for as though the moon could take credit for its brightness when, in fact, it is only reflecting light from the sun. We have to understand that we are ego-less just as the moon is without light. It and we are simply reflectors. The ego is not responsible for the information. It can reflect the information in creative ways, but the information itself is pure".

11. When my students heard we were going to talk, they wanted to say hello. Would you like a question from a student?

MK: "Sure".

We have studied Socrates, Plato and the ancient Skeptics a fair bit, so this next question has to do with the concept of justice/injustice. Tim Fitzjohn wanted me to ask you: "What do you think is/are the greatest injustice(s) occurring in the world right now?"

MK: "Religion, TV, and media. These have powerful effects on the way people see the world. When we're on the tour bus travelling from city to city, we have a Play Station 2. When I play [a game called] Quake 3 for a few days, I find it impedes with my ability to relate to people. So media in its various forms does, to some degree, affect the way in which we interact with one another. I have to deliberately separate myself from this game and the real world. Lately, the media has turned us into suspicious Americans. The media has generated enough fear to allow congress to give the cops permission to check our colons whenever they want to".

This is going to be an interesting world in the next five or ten years.

MK: "Yes, we just have to make sure everything comes true by 2010".

12. Another student has done considerable work with some biographical material (Martin German)-most of which I haven't yet had time to pour over. But the information relating to the books the band reads I found interesting. It says here that you are reading "The Egyptian Book of the Dead". Is this true. And is it a first edition copy from the British Museum? I was just at the British Museum in June and saw the Egyptian exhibit. Why the interest in this particular culture?


MK: "I find a lot of this type of stuff interesting. I'm into a lot of different things, including sci-fi events".

Like Area 51, Roswell, New Mexico, or more 2001?

MK: "Yea, I love all that stuff; they're very entertaining".

But L. Ron Hubbard too?

MK: "Well not literally, but in itself I find it interesting".

So you don't take this stuff too seriously?

MK: "No. But it sure is fun to think about".

The members of Tool, I was told, rarely take themselves seriously in terms of beliefs. They acknowledge a complex world and are having fun looking at the various ways in which we can understand it.

MK: "I have very much enjoyed the last ten years of my life and how much people enjoy what Tool is doing. If people can take something positive from Tool's music and use this for self-reflection and discovery, great. But I'm not going to preach to people about what they ought to do".

At this point, I thanked him very much and wished him well. He did the same.