Backstage with Tool

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My girl took me to see Tool for our 20th anniversary of being together. Despite Tool being my favorite band since…well, since I had a favorite band, it was my first time seeing them live. And she didn’t just get us tickets—she got the VIP package.

I wasn’t overly enthused about the VIP thing, actually. In most cases you’re able to buy stuff that others can’t (thanks, I think), and then maybe you see some member of the band for 45 seconds before you’re back to the cattle truck.

Not so with Tool.

I got to hang out with Adam Jones, the guitarist, for over an hour and a half. It wasn’t just me, of course, but it felt like it. It was a very small group of us, and he was right there with us telling stories, answering questions, talking about how they write music, and things like that. It was extraordinarily intimate.

Then he says he’s going to play for us. He’s got a stack up there (this is like 5 feet from where we’re sitting, at floor level). He busts out his iPhone and puts on a version of Jambi that is missing the guitar track.

Then he comes in with the riff. When I heard it, several things pummeled me at once:

  1. This sounds exactly like Tool!

  2. Holy piss, it IS Tool!

  3. Um, he’s standing right here!

  4. Um, he’s looking at me, and walking around!

He seriously walked up to a couple of feet from me and played it.

Let me be clear about something: I’m not a worshiper of things. Or people. Or anything like that. And if I were to be it would be people like Hitchens—not rock bands. So it wasn’t that this famous guy was so close to me. That wasn’t even in the equation.

No. What gave me goosebumps and nearly overwhelmed me, was thinking about all the times since 1993 that I’d listened to Tool. I thought about how it’d been a part of my life for so long. And how personal it was.

I don’t follow bands. I don’t really go to concerts. So I didn’t even know all the band members’ names until that night. I only new the music. The music I’d played over and over, thousands of times.

So when this man was standing next to me, playing a Tool song, it was overwhelming in a surreal way. It didn’t make sense to me. My brain was saying, “That sounds just like Tool.”

That was the single most powerful musical experience I think I’ve had—hearing Tool pumped through me, being played by the guy who was playing guitar back in 93′ when I used to listen to them. But he’s standing right next to me.

For several minutes afterwards I was sure I was pregnant.

But then the insanity got upgraded. He passed around his guitar.

I’m like, “Oh, that’s cool. The guitar he’s playing with right now, he’s passing it around. That’s cute.” So the first guy takes it and is staring down at it, and I hear Adam say:

I’m like, WHAT? Wait. (looking around to see if other people heard that) You mean this is THE guitar? The same fucking one? The one that played the music I loved back in 93′, in my Mazda Protege? When I was first dating my girl? The girl who just got me back here to see this?

Holding that guitar was special in a way that I did not anticipate. It’s not hero worship. Homey don’t play that. It’s more like sitting in Newton’s favorite thinking chair. Or holding a sketchpad from Archimedes. Or being in the exact same place in space-time where the big bang happened. It’s about sharing time or space with an epic event.

From there we got to go and do a soundcheck with the band. That means just a few of us in the front row (like right next to them) listening to them play a couple of songs. And the whole time, they’re basically looking right at us, smiling and such. Especially Adam, since he we just left the room where we were hanging out for the last 90 minutes.

So Tool played for us, privately, for two songs, in the exact place where THOUSANDS of people would be in a couple of hours.

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It was otherworldly.

Notes from my time backstage

While backstage with Adam we weren’t allowed to take any pictures or anything, but I was taking notes on things I thought were interesting. Here’s the capture from that, with very little organization:

  • Adam has a complex mix of rockstar ego and humility. He seemed genuinely insecure about many of his abilities, although it was impossible for me to tell how much he was playing the, “See how humble I am” card. He was definitely trying (in a good way) to lower people’s hero factor by making himself approachable. I think much of it was genuine, though. He said he was nervous doing the Jambi jam in front of us, and was petrified of messing up (which he did, to great applause). In all, he just seemed like a great guy.

  • When they write songs, it starts with Adam and Justin throwing around riffs. Then they bring Danny in to mess around with them. One hilarious anecdote was him talking about how when he and Justin are first trying to play with a riff, Danny will be all up in some 15/17 time signature and shit. And they’ll have to be like, “Dude, Danny, can we get a fucking 4/4 over here?” Ha.

  • Maynard comes in extremely late to the process. They basically make the songs, and he comes in later and writes lyrics and such. Were I younger I would have been quite disappointed by this. Being a deconstructionist I already don’t see magic in anything—even Tool. But to many, and probably many in that room, there is some sort of mystic forge of geometry and ritual and meaning and purity that takes place to make a single Tool song. A mythic union between lyrics, vocals, and music that forms perfection. Turns out (which I knew but would rather not think about), the guitarist and bassist throw around riffs and they put drums and lyrics to it later. Turns out it’s a band. And I’m fine with that. It’s just the best band ever.

  • Regarding the mystical symbols and geometry and such, he didn’t go so far as to say it was false or superfluous or anything that extreme. But what he did do is describe their interests in those topics as constant but peripheral interests. In other words, he clearly conveyed that they were just a band that made riffs, and mixed well, and had a unique approach to quality control and the creation process. And that they mixed that with some of their interests (the symbolism, art, etc.) it turned into what it is. He basically said not to take it too seriously, though. I think it was mostly age talking. Meaning, if they were 20 years younger they’d be pushing the mysticism more. And at this point they’re like, “Dude, it’s a fucking band. We like math. We like geometry. We incorporate it. Don’t make a fucking religion out of it.”

  • On 46 and 2, he and Justin came in with two separate riffs. He called it chocolate and peanut butter

  • Maynard picks all songs they play at concerts. The band doesn’t even know what they’ll be. He comes in afterwards and gives them the setlist. Adam said it’s all based on what he thinks he can perform that night.

  • He said he sometimes calls their music “pop prog” because it doesn’t get old like most prog

  • He mentioned King Crimson and the Melvyns several times

  • At one point Adam was saying that he and Justin can make magic happen in just a few hours, and end up with a nearly finished product. A guy right next to him was froggy and asked, “Um, well if making good content is that fast then shouldn’t you have more than five albums?” The whole room laughed. Except Adam. Ha.

  • On the topic of why they don’t make more albums, he said they just let shit happen. And if things get in the way, they don’t rush it. And he said that as they get older, more obstacles come up. He repeatedly alluded to him getting old, and to others in the band getting old.

  • Adam’s philosophy for watching films or listening to bands is to pretend he’s 12 so that he’ll experience the wonder

  • Danny Carey ripped a tendon in his arm at one point by reaching out of bed to lift his dog into it. Took forever to heal, and it still bothers him

The big news

So here’s the big one. On the topic of a potential new album, here was his quote:

The timing of how he said it was strange, as he had been joking before, but when the room laughed at him saying this, he paused, unsmiling. He was like, “No, I’m serious. It’s coming along and we have a lot of material. We’re just not rushing it.”


Thanks so much to my girl for taking me. It was unbelievable.

Oh, and the show was brilliant as well. I’d say 9/10. I felt like the whole Maynard weirdness issue was somewhat off-putting. The vocals were very low in volume, and he stayed in the dark the whole time. After spending time with Adam and hearing about how close-knit he and Justin and Danny are, it just seemed strange to see Maynard up there in the dark almost like a separate unit.

I’d only put one show as being better than that concert: Radiohead. They’re the 10/10. But I’m not a big Radiohead fan. I’m just saying unity and sound and vocals and everything.

But when you factor in meeting Adam, and hearing him play Jambi, and holding the guitar, and hearing directly from him that a new album is imminent, the experience was a 12/10.

Just brilliant.

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