Giving In to Lure of the Undertow, Tool Suffers Gladly
“I don’t want to be hostile. I don’t want to be dismal,” goes the opening line of Tool’s new album, “Undertow.”
But the Warholian 15-minute ticker hasn’t run out yet on hard rock’s anger-and-grunge formula, so what the heck. The Los Angeles band spends virtually the entire album milking the most hostile, dismal feelings it can muster.
Unmodulated, unmitigated balefulness and rage are growing awfully familiar in the wake of Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and numerous others. What keeps Tool’s first full-length album interesting is its ability to mix things up, even if all the songs are about feeling down.
Instead of a steady diet of dense noise, guitarist Adam Jones, bassist Paul D’Amour and drummer Danny Carey play with definition, discipline and a range of dynamics that gives Tool more dexterity than most straight grunge bands, without sacrificing impact.
The singer and lyricist, Maynard James Keenan, knows that if you want to go for dramatic effect, it helps to do some murmuring and whispering before you let go a scream.
On “Sober,” a song of self-disgust whose lamenting chorus wouldn’t sound out of place coming from Richard Thompson, Keenan achieves a sense of yearning-for-better before he succumbs to the worst. That introduces an element of poignancy to go with the customary grunge-rock dread.
When a song does call for screaming, such as the swaggering, chip-on-his-shoulder “Swamp Song,” Keenan’s feats of character assassination match the best efforts of such bilious champions as Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Ministry’s Alain Jourgensen.
Speaking over the phone Tuesday before a concert in San Francisco, Keenan, 29, said that Tool has therapeutic reasons for accentuating the negative.
“What we’ve decided to do for our release is play music, so all the ugly stuff is gonna come out there. It’s kind of like going to an A.A. meeting and hearing a guy give a speech about all the horrible things that happened to him when he was drunk. It’s not as if the rest of our life is that way.”
He can even imagine writing a song based on more pleasant feelings. So far, Tool, which plays Sunday at California Dreams in Anaheim, has permitted itself one track of black-comic relief on each of its two releases (the band debuted last year with a seven-song EP, “Opiate”).
“If things turn into good experience, maybe our approach will change,” Keenan said. “Maybe (songs will be) more attentive to arrangements, ethereal stuff to take you into a dreamlike state. The same way we were trying to get out the bad seed (on the first two releases), there might be a seed we want to grow.”
Meanwhile, there is a career to grow.
Tool’s slot on this summer’s Lollapalooza ’93 tour could be a chance at rapid advancement for a band that thus far hasn’t had an impact on the charts. Tool will start out as second-stage headliner, then switch to the main stage about halfway through the two-month itinerary.
The tour will mark a high-school reunion of sorts for guitarist Jones. Tool’s founder hails from the Chicago suburb of Libertyville, Ill., where his schoolmates included two other Lollapalooza musicians: Tom Morello, now the guitarist of Rage Against the Machine, and Maureen Herman, who plays bass in Babes in Toyland.
“Maureen and Tom and I made films together in high school,” noted Jones, 28, whose enthusiasm in a separate interview contrasted with Keenan’s civil but guarded tone. “Tom and I are good friends. It’s a coincidence. Can you imagine it?”
As Jones tells it, Tool’s arrival as a band-with-prospects also was a matter of coincidence. After art studies and a stop in San Francisco, he came to Los Angeles about seven years ago and found a job in Hollywood doing sculpture and makeup for film special effects.
Keenan’s route was a little more circuitous. After high school in Scottville, Mich., he says, he served a three-year hitch in the Army. Keenan said he had done well in an officers’ preparation program and was about to enroll at West Point when he decided he would rather be an artist.
He wound up studying art and design in Grand Rapids, Mich., which led eventually to a job in Los Angeles applying the spatial concepts he had learned to remodeling pet stores. After that, he worked on set design in the film industry.
Jones and Keenan met through a mutual friend. After hearing a tape by a band Keenan had fronted in his Michigan art-school days, Jones persuaded the initially reluctant singer to start a band with him.
“I’d seen the ugly part of the film industry, and I didn’t want to get involved in the music business,” Keenan said. “I decided if we did what we were doing and enjoyed it, (record companies) wouldn’t look at us,” which, at the time, would have been fine with him.
According to Jones, getting ahead wasn’t the point when Tool began in 1991.
“I’ve always played in bands for fun, and I wanted to put a band together just for fun. It was never to the point where I wanted to be signed and do this for a living. I was successful with what I was doing. But the band took off.”
Carey, who had played drums for Green Jello and Pygmy Love Circus, was coaxed to sit in with Tool when the band’s previous drummer skipped a rehearsal, and he wound up joining. D’Amour, from Spokane, Wash., was recommended by an art-world friend of Jones.
After a demo tape and a few live shows, Tool was courted by record companies that were becoming savvy, in the wake of Jane’s Addiction and the first Lollapalooza tour, to the increasing commercial possibilities of alternative hard-rock music. The band signed with Zoo Entertainment.
“When we did our first (record), we picked our heaviest songs. People went, ‘Oh, you’re a metal band,’ and I thought that was kind of lame,” Jones said. “We try to branch off into different directions. We try to touch base with all our influences.”
Those include the Swans, Tom Waits, Judas Priest, AC/DC and Joni Mitchell on Keenan’s side, and surf rock, Metallica, Parliament, Kansas and Dwight Yoakam on Jones’.
Keenan said he doesn’t mind if Tool, which sounds like a less-plodding version of Soundgarden, gets lumped in with the Seattle/grunge contingent--a scene he respects and feels will outlive its current trend-appeal.
“When the wind blows over and all is said and done, those albums will be able to stand on their own,” he said, citing releases by Soundgarden and Nirvana. “Angry or not, they’re good musicians, and they’re all (playing) heartfelt stuff. It’s all going to come down to writing good songs. I’m hoping we can maintain the focus on the music and have a career, whatever they want to call (our style).”
Actually, Tool doesn’t put its focus solely on the music. With his art background, Jones has designed album covers and CD booklets that make a shocking statement of their own. A collage on the “Opiate” inner booklet includes a photograph of what one hopes is one of Jones’ film illusions, but appears to be a man having intercourse with a skinned corpse.
“We’re not supposed to talk about the Polaroid,” he said. “I’m not trying to be rude, but our lawyer said not to.”
The images on “Undertow” include a pig with the word “undertow” shaved into its hide, a photo of a naked, obese woman engulfing a frontally nude man in a loving embrace, and an X-ray of a medical curiosity best left unspecified.
“I like a picture that makes you uncomfortable on one (hand) and it’s beautiful on the other,” Jones said. “Something kind of gross, but you look anyway. Something you’d never want to see, but it’s kind of beautiful.”
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