Maynard James Keenan recently sat down for an impressively candid, hour-long conversation with Rick Beato. The conversation zooms in on some fascinating aspects of Maynard’s creative process when writing and recording with Tool, Puscifer and A Perfect Circle, etc.
The Pit has transcribed some of our favorite moments below, but if you have an hour, we recommend watching it all the way through.
Maynard talks about his overall songwriting approach and process:
“Generally speaking, because I accidentally only work with very strong personalities, stubborn people- I almost have to let them take the first step first and then react. And then allow them to see the reaction so they can build on the reaction. And that’s the same across all those projects. I never come in, I don’t normally come in and go ‘here’s a semi-finished or you know partially finished piece or bit or riff’. Early days, yes, but once you start to see the strengths of other people you’re working with, just you know, step back. Don’t get in the way. Stay in your lane. So you let those people chase your tails on some stuff and they present you something that might be partially finished, they might be barely finished, might be very well developed.
And then I create vocal rhythms to those syllables and a lot of it is just time. It’s just driving around in the car with that one riff on loop or in the winery or wherever, just letting it. You have to absorb it in order to react to it to where it becomes second nature. You hear the upbeats. You hear the downbeats. You hear the breaks.”
On Tool’s long creative process:
“Again, it’s also logistics of timing. Like the guys in Tool, they just take longer to process information and get it together and then present me something that I can start building on. I’ve made the mistake in the past of trying to build on something that wasn’t ready yet, and then all the work I put into building on ‘the thing’, they changed the foundation. I’m trying to decorate the house and then you move where the doors are and move the windows or add a floor. I got to start over as an interior decorator. So I have to wait for them to do it. So there’s time [for other musical projects]. I have time to do all these other things in between because I can and I should.”
On Tool taking so long between albums:
“One could argue a little bit of discipline and a little prodding, a little cattle prod or a taser would help move those guys along a little faster, but that’s their process. You just kind of respect it. Um, you know it’s frustrating. I’m sure they’re frustrated with me because they hand it to me and I’m like it’s done, like you didn’t take any time with it? Yes, I took 50 years right for this reaction to these things. I’ve been preparing for decades to hear these things and be able to react honestly and I riff on them… on all the projects, I riff on the thing. I go back- I try to beat the riff. I try to beat the riff again. I actually record words to some stuff and try to beat it and I usually come back to the first or second stream of consciousness take because that’s that’s the jazz part of it. Your first reaction probably was the correct reaction because it’s partly conscious but mostly unconscious reaction to the rhythms, having not reacted at all by listening to it for a week or two, driving around in the car.”
Maynard elaborates on the importance of listening during the creative process:
“It’s about listening… if you don’t have the listening skill far more honed than your regurgitating skill, you might get lucky on your first album but then it’s going to slowly degrade by your third or fourth album because you’re not listening anymore. You think ‘I’m the man – anything i do is going to be amazing because i sold a bunch of records first time.'”
When asked if Maynard has the final say on when a song or album is done, he says:
“No. Because if you end up being the final say, and you’re wrong… it has to be by committee. Even if it’s fucking death by committee. It has to be by committee because you have to trust each other at the end of the day for it to be the full encompassing piece with several sets of eyes (and ears on it).”
When asked if all of his bands come to a mutual agreement on when a song or album is finished, Maynard says:
“Generally speaking, I mean there might be songs when I go ‘no man trust me’. On one, you know, you might pick your battles on certain tracks, but generally speaking it’s mutually arrived upon.”
When asked if everyone in Tool wants their parts louder during recording, Maynard responds:
“Tool, yeah, yeah it’s a fight to the death every fucking time. But that’s typical with a live band, with four people who are deaf. [Laughter] Old guys that are deaf. I can’t hear me – you’re deaf. Generally speaking, though, you’re looking for the balance of it.”
Watch the full Maynard James Keenan interview with Rick Beato below: