Penthouse Retrospective

by Jon Wiederhorn Originally Published: June, 2001

Tool | 20 Years Ago This Month

The Larrabee North Recording Studio is easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Penthouse Magazine - June, 2001Ironically not  Being a Tool

There’s no sign outside the nondescript building on busy Lankershim Boulevard in Universal City California, only a small notice on the locked front door announcing that the entrance is around back. Off an alley there’s a small outdoor parking lot boasting a single basketball hoop — and absolutely no hint that you’ve arrived at an elaborate state-of-the-art music-making complex where such high-powered acts as Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson and Limp Bizkit have toiled.

Inside, there’s a decided lack of pretense or flash. No platinum or gold records line the walls. No juice bar serves smoothies to the stars, and the only luxury in the lounge is a 24-inch TV, a stereo and video rack, and so many remotes that no one seems able to tum anything on. All in all, Larrabee North’s scaled-down anonymity make it the perfect place for the four members of secretive, multiplatinum alt-metal band Tool to mix and master their fourth record Lateralus.

Consider: The four members of Tool never appear in their album art or videos, rarely grant interviews, and refuse to discuss their private affairs. On stage, they play in near darkness, flanked by colorful visuals. Shaved-headed front man Maynard James Keenan has been known to take the stage garishly dressed in drag, or decked in a business suit and gray wig, or adorned in nothing more than underwear and face paint. Recently, he’s taken to wearing a red brush-cut wig and scholarly eyeglasses for band photo shoots.

“We don’t want to look and act like typical rock stars, because that’s, what people have had shoved down their throat for years,’’ says guitarist and art coordinator Adam Jones sitting on one of two black leather couches in the studio lounge and hesitating between every dozen or so words.

“Anyway we’re not celebrities; we’re just geeks. I go to comic-book conventions, and I like toys. I’d much rather have someone listen to our music and look at a cool visual to help them understand where we’re coming from than look at us.”

Not only are the members of Tool notoriously wary of what they tell reporters, the band is also careful about what it reveals on its Website. A brief glance at www.toolband.com seems to offer a multitude of information about the group’s origins, philosophies, and current activities. But careful investigation reveals a sea of misinformation, including incorrect song and album titles, bogus bias, and bizarre essays on drug use, the occult, and extra-terrestrials.

“We don’t like to explain a lot, because no matter what you do, the unknown is more interesting,” says drummer Danny Carey, sitting next to Keenan on the couch opposite Jones. “It allows people to come up with their own interpretations and keeps them striving for something.”

“The other thing is we really like our private lives,” adds Jones, pushing a stringy lock of hair away from his eyes. “We’ve been very careful not to overexpose ourselves, and it’s worked to the point where we can play in front of 15,000 people and I can go out and watch the opening band without being recognized.”

Long-time Tool producer David Bottrill (Peter Gabriel, King Crimson), who worked on Lateralus, Aenima ( 1996), and last year’s live album, Salival, says the band’s nonconformity and cryptic presence are a large part of its attraction: “There’s a mystery and a danger there, which is why it’s so appealing. When we were recording Aenima, Danny [Carey] had a [Ouija] board with him, and he said when we were done with the record, he was going to sacrifice me. I remember laughing nervously.”

It has been almost a year since Tool began work on Lateralus, and just days before the album is scheduled to be completed, the band is still plugging away. Today’s schedule includes working with Bottrill to master a droning, tribal, 20-minutes-plus, three-part composition tentatively titled “Disposition/Resolution/Triad.” And before the band congregates in the studio lounge for our interview, the boys are whisked into a closed-door meeting to discuss the concept for their next video, which, in keeping with their code of silence, they refuse to name. Jones will conceive and direct the shoot, as he has for Tool’s previous eye-popping videos, “Sober” and “Prison Sex” (from its 1991 disc Undertow), and “Stinkfist” (from Aenima). Every 20 or 30 minutes or so, a band member emerges from the conference, scurries down the hallway, and disappears — perhaps to sacrifice another lamb for the Tool cause.

“Tool is a house built on a condition of sexuality. It’s not the key to everything, but it’s underneath there.”

It soon becomes abundantly clear that the Tools have tailored their interview time to maintain as much secrecy as possible. Many other artists happily offer guided tours of their homes or ringside seats at recording sessions in exchange for a few pages of primo magazine coverage. Not these guys, who refuse to let me in the studio while they work. The only time I’m allowed to leave the Larrabee North lounge is when Bottrill escorts me to a mixing room and plays me the majority of Lateralus, which is unquestionably Tool’s most ambitious, visceral, and emotionally challenging release to date.

Almost every one of the nine songs (not including experimental between-tune segues) is more than eight minutes long, and each is flush with multifaceted rhythms, multiple tempo shifts. and unconventional time signatures. Frequently the songs sound like six different cuts spliced together.

Choose the name "Tool" for your band, and you'll raise some eyebrows. Manage to live up to the name without being a Tool, and you've made it.