Tool: “You can’t really take yourself too seriously”

Tool have always been a band that defies expectations, so what can we expect when they hit our shores in May? JODY MACGREGOR has a brief chat to Adam Jones and Justin Chancellor to find out.

There are rock bands that set out to entertain you with all the showmanship and flair of an old-time vaudeville act who have discovered electric guitars and fireworks. And then there’s Tool, the kind of band who won’t drag you into having a good time – even if you’re not in the mood. Instead, they’ll trust that you want to come along on this journey with them and have, in fact, already packed your bags. Ask a Tool fan and they will almost certainly tell you that a Tool concert is a transcendental experience not to be missed, that the band can pull off all those bizarre time signatures and polyrhythms, and that insane drum fill Danny Carey does at the start of ‘Sober’? It’s so perfect you might almost be listening to the CD.

At first I’m worried about telling bassist Justin Chancellor and guitarist Adam Jones apart over the phone, until I remember that Justin’s English. He swears that Americans mistake his accent for Australian all the time but he sounds as English as crumpets and Spinal Tap to me. The two of them are waiting for a flight and maybe that’s why I get cut off immediately after my last question – or maybe I’ve offended them by trying to get them to talk out of class behind Maynard’s back. I’ll never know; just another tiny mystery about a band that’s wrapped in them.

I listened to the Opiate EP when I was pretty young and I hadn’t really been to any gigs yet, so those live versions of ‘Cold & Ugly’ and ‘Jerk-Off’ gave me completely unrealistic expectations for how good other bands would sound live. Tool basically ruined live music for me for years.

Adam Jones: You’re welcome.

Is it true that those songs were recorded at the band’s second ever gig?

AJ: Yeah, it’s not true. We did about 10 gigs, or maybe 12, and that was right on the time the record labels started asking us to sign with them. We were going through that process, playing gigs, then we got signed and that was our first project, our first record with that record label. We had played quite a few gigs before that. That was played right by our studio upstairs, the [comedy rock band] Green Jellí¿ were renting the loft up there, Bill Manspeaker was having a huge party so [Danny Carey’s former band] Pygmy Love Circus played and we played and it was really fun. We had a truck outside with a recording studio in it, like a lorry.

You’re famous for getting a really good live sound at your concerts. Is it just about your stage setup?

Justin Chancell: We got a great soundman. We’ve had the same monitor guy and sound man for a long, long time but I think it’s also that we go into a live show [and] it’s very simple: it’s a bass, a guitar amp, a drum set and a vocal and that’s all we do is sit in a room and play live so the sounds are pretty dialled-in. You know, they mash together really well in the first place. It’s just a question of translating them to the big PA.

And having the microphone further back on the stage the way you do so that it’s behind the guitar amp, that helps, right? That stops you from getting other sounds bleeding into it?

AJ: Yeah, actually for a long time I had a piece of plexiglass that would block out stuff spreading toward the vocals. Then we started playing in a line and that helped and then Justin and I started playing farther out and Danny and Maynard started playing farther back, and I do think that has a lot to do with isolating stuff. The thing that’s the attitude of our band is that we try to do things that are quality, so we do spend the time when we do pre-production we play and record and go out front and listen and really try to make the experience, to give people their money’s worth, you know?

Beyond that setup that you’ve got making for a good sound is there some sort of occult significance to it? I know that some of your fans have elaborate conspiracy theories about these things.

JC: Danny has his own system going on with his setup of his drums. He likes to record them in a helium tent to keep the skins really tight, but you’d have to ask him about that. We’ve all got very different spiritual beliefs.

“We’ve all got very different spiritual beliefs.”

A lot of bands have the hand signals or the looks they use to communicate while they’re playing, do you have those?

JC: Yeah, absolutely. It’s just raised eyebrows really. There’s nothing specific. When you play together enough times you know that something’s going on it really doesn’t take very much to communicate.

So if you’re about go into a bit of extended improv or something you haven’t really rehearsed you just look over and raise the eyebrows?

JC: Well yeah, you’ve got little inflections in your face. There’s no like sign language.

AJ: When you raise your eyebrows it’s not panic.

JC: No, it’s just a twitch.

AJ: Yeah, a “here we go” kind of thing.

I’ve heard that, Justin, you like to sneak in a bit of Metallica’s ‘Orion’ when you play live?

JC: I’ve only done that once.

AJ: He does it every time Kirk Hammett is on stage.

JC: Yeah, exactly. I did it one time we were in Hawaii and Kirk Hammett lives out there. He’d actually come and jammed before with us the time we played in Hawaii, so [the second time] it just occurred to me it was an opportunity I could play one of my favourite Metallica pieces with the man himself. [Late Metallica bassist] Cliff Burton was a great influence to me so it was really exceptional, but it’s only ever happened once.

On the subject of influences do you guys have a lot of that sort of stuff in common?

JC: You know what, there’s a few things but I’d say it’s pretty disparate really. We’re all into quite diversely different stuff. Danny likes some of the more jazzy, proggy stuff. I’m perhaps a little more into independent, thrashy, Sonic Youth-y stuff, even electronic stuff. Adam’s into the fucking whatever – the dark verses of Satanic something or other. And god knows what Maynard’s into. He likes KISS, doesn’t he?

AJ: Yeah.

Your fans have a reputation for being very serious about your music and very serious in general, whereas you guys have a sense of humour that comes across in the songs and the hoaxes on your website … Why do you think that is?

JT: I’m sure the very serious fans are the only ones you hear from. They’re the ones that are on the internet, right? The very serious ones. I’m sure the other ones don’t really bother with a lot of that in-depth study of what’s going on with our band. I think it’s probably not the case that they’re all like that. There have got to be a lot of fans with a sense of humour. I’ve met a lot of people that have. The very serious, what would you call – the nerdy, geeky ones – I would probably think they’re a minority to be honest.

I think you would have to have a sense of humour to wear the t-shirt of yours that has the very phallic-looking wrench and just the word TOOL.

JT: Right, you can’t really take yourself too seriously.

Adam, you’re responsible for the visual side of things. The Australian tour that you’re just announcing, what should we expect from the visuals on this tour?

AJ: I don’t know. We haven’t gone through the process yet, but it’s a process of talking, agreeing on a setlist and talking to our people and then we have a budget and deciding how can we really push that budget and make it mind-boggling and dark and entertaining for people and, again, give them their money’s worth and have fun, so you just evolve with the ideas. The first step is picking the setlist and then going out there and setting up video screens and lasers and lights and smoke and seeing how you can make it apply and advance what you’re doing on stage. It’s a reflective thing; it’s what I would want to see if I went to see a band. I want to see how they can enhance what they’re doing visually.

Have you talked about a setlist, yet?

AJ: No, sir.

Do you think we’ll be hearing any of the new songs?

AJ: I don’t know. We’re still in negotiations on that.

Back when you started working on Lateralus Maynard was still busy with A Perfect Circle so you guys started working on the music without him and I was wondering whether you’ve ever been tempted to become an instrumental band?

AJ: People have different styles of working. It’s like painting: some people can do a painting in five minutes and other people take six months to do something and it’s just different styles of the individual people in this band and it works really well. We jam and make riffs and at some point he comes in and does what he does and we’re all really happy with that.

JT: And the answer is “no”.

Tool 2013 Australian tour dates

Saturday, April 27 – Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne

Tuesday, April 30 – AEC Arena, Adelaide

Friday, May 3 – Allphones Arena, Sydney

Monday, May 6 – Entertainment Centre, Brisbane

Wednesday, May 8 – Vector Arena, Auckland

Tickets on sale Tuesday, February, 19 at 9am. Frontier Touring presale Thursday14 from Midday until Friday.