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Maynard James Keenan on baling hay, genies, and ruining family photos

Photo: Tim Cadiente

In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.

While once primarily known for being the enraged musical conduit for the jilted generation of the ’90s, Maynard James Keenan has spent almost the last two decades establishing himself as a connoisseur as well versed in the rarest of wines as he is in constructing whole albums based around the often overlooked theme of bukakke or the admirable simplicity of the old reliable dick joke. The vocalist and frontman for Tool, A Perfect Circle, and Puscifer, Keenan maintains his notorious enigmatic public persona with deliberate intent. Whether with his Arizona-based winery, Caduceus Cellars, or his most recent release as Puscifer, Money Shot, Keenan seems to revel in being on whichever side of the joke looks least likely to have a punchline. Maintaining his variety of personas and creative trajectories is for Keenan less an exercise in grasping for ubiquity and more a way of finding the most appropriate costuming for each role that he plays, whether that be a gimp suit or gardening gloves.


1. What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

Maynard James Keenan: I’d have to say baling hay in Michigan, because I didn’t quite make the connection between the holes in my jeans and the activity of baling hay. I’m short, so I’d have to use my knees to put the bales up onto the wagon, and I’m wearing through my knees with the hay bales. When we’d get done baling, I’d have to go buy new jeans, and the exact money that I would make baling was exactly what would cost me to buy a new pair of jeans. [Laughs.] I started to realize the American dream was alive and well in my world.

2. When did you first feel successful?

MJK: I think it was in high school. I’d moved from Ohio to Michigan to stay with my dad, and he’s a wrestling and football coach. So I went out for football my freshman year thinking, okay, I guess I’ll go out for football. It’s not really my thing, but I’ll see if I can’t do it to please dear old dad. Well, they cut the JV team and moved them up to varsity, and I’m like 105 pounds thinking, how the hell am I going to do this? These were big dudes. Hay bale throwin’ motherfuckers. I kind of gutted it out for the first week or so, and I looked over at all the spry young chaps in their running shorts and running shoes, and I thought, that looks like a hell of a lot more fun even if it’s just to run away from this situation with these pads I can’t see over. I keep getting knocked on my ass, and it’s just dumb. So I switched to cross-country and immediately excelled at it. I didn’t make the varsity team my freshman year until the regional and state meets. My times actually put me on the varsity team, and I would’ve placed better than some of my teammates had I actually run the state meet, because the junior varsity had run the same course the week before, and my times were better than most of my teammates. As a freshman I would’ve placed in the top 100, so I felt somewhere intuitively in my mind: I’m supposed to be over there, and against what I suspected would be resistance from dad, I went and did that and excelled. When I actually made the decision to do it, my dad says, “You know, I was gonna come to you and tell you you’re getting knocked down like a fucking rag doll, and that maybe you should go run instead.” [Laughs.]


The A.V. Club: So had it not been for the hay bale self-awareness epiphany, you might never have been a cross-country runner.

MJK: There you go. It’s all connected.

AVC: Do you still run?

MJK: I had a hip replacement three months ago, and I didn’t realize that I haven’t had any cushion in my hip in like seven years. I couldn’t figure out why every time I went to run or do jiu-jitsu or something, it would feel like I was injured. I’m thinking I’m out of shape, something’s wrong, or I just kind of pushed it too hard, and now I’m out for a week. Finally went and got an MRI, and they’re like, “You haven’t had any cushion in your right hip for almost a decade.” [Laughs.] I just thought all this back pain was me being a curmudgeon asshole. I just started jogging again and got back on the mat in jiu-jitsu. Grandpa’s feeling pretty spry.


3. If you were a supervillain, what would your master plan be?

MJK: Oh yeah. Let me think about this one. [Using sinister voice.] Yeah. There’s so many things! There’s smoke coming out of my ears. My old high school buddy and I, we didn’t like our neighboring town, so we had this whole master plan of somehow buying a radio station and playing stuff people didn’t want to hear. I don’t know why, other than to just wind people up. One of them was that the way we were going to buy the radio station was by renting white vans near neighborhoods where we knew people were going to be snoopy, and just load empty boxes in and out of these vans like day and night. We just knew eventually somebody would come out and yell, “I know there’s something going on with these vans!” We’d end up suing them for invasion of privacy because there’s nothing in the boxes, and we’re not doing anything illegal. Now, there’s a lot of mushrooms involved in this. [Laughs.] But yeah, master plan: Rent a van, bust people for thinking there’s something going on when there isn’t, take that money, buy the radio station, drive people nuts with music they didn’t like, and somehow, I don’t know how but again there’s drugs involved, but somehow that ended up us paving the entire town, and putting a Taco Bell in the center with a basketball hoop on the back and a lot of parking meters, all of which we would profit from. I don’t know if that’s a villain’s plan, but it was a pretty good night.


AVC: It seems effective at least, and it offers benefits like sports and food.

MJK: [Laughs.] I don’t even play basketball or eat Taco Bell. I don’t care about either, but just the idea of seeing that town completely paved and way off in the distance there’s all these parking meters and a Taco Bell with just one basketball hoop, not an actual full court.


AVC: So almost like a meta-villain.

MJK: [Laughs.] Right. Like a super prick.

4. What were you like as a kid?

MJK: I think I was a supervillain. We were always thinking outside the box. I had my neighborhood friends, and we’d always kind of push each other. We’d always play army or superheroes and stuff like that, but we always had an entire weekend to do that, so we’d team up and be fighting each other in whatever way. We wouldn’t go directly at each other. Our team would go all the way down the street, double back through the woods, and do weird stuff. We had an entire world going on before we actually attacked our friends. There were all these storylines going on, almost like we had a Kelly’s Heroes type thing going on. But if I had to sum it up, I was very creative I guess. I had my own little world.


AVC: It’s hard not to make the connection between those early days of you diversifying this bizarre kind of creative impulses and what you do now, specifically with the latest Puscifer record.

MJK: Yeah, I guess so. I always got accused by the stepfather of ruining the family photo. We have a differing opinion on that, because I think I did not ruin it. I made it better. Whatever it was, whether I was making a face, or all the plastic fruit from the bowl was in my shorts, or dressing up like Billy Jack and using a whip to try and crack whoever’s taking the photo, so the camera’s all awkward because I actually snapped their leg as they were taking the photo. You know, stuff like that.


5. Who was your celebrity crush when you were younger?

MJK: It changed quite a bit. I was always a fan of The Jackson 5, but I don’t think that was really a celebrity crush. Probably Cher. I used to watch The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour all the time, and I remember, and this is all in hindsight, but I watched it every week along with all the other crap that was on like Hee Haw, Porter Wagoner, and all those kinds of things. But I remember years later seeing Cher in a movie, and when I saw her in the movie I thought, oh, I know her, and then it was like, wait, no I don’t. That’s Cher. It was like I thought I knew her because I’d grown up with her, but of course I didn’t. I just saw her on a TV show. I guess it’s that feeling of a celebrity crush where I felt like I knew somebody because I’d stared at their head for so many years in a row.


AVC: It’s strange how that kind of celebrity culture can create the illusion of companionship or a connection to someone who you haven’t even met much less know personally.

MJK: Well yeah, to go back on that question, I’ve never found myself in a situation where I felt compelled to walk up and talk to somebody who was a famous musician, a famous actor, or somebody recognizable. I was a big KISS fan in high school, and I had a couple of opportunities after high school where I was standing somewhere in arm’s reach of them, and it didn’t even occur to me to walk over and talk to them and bug them. I’d just think well, I’m an idiot. What am I going to say? There’s nothing I’m going to say, but even that thought didn’t cross my mind. I just didn’t run toward the light. It didn’t even occur to me.


AVC: Would there be an exception if it were Cher and not Gene Simmons?

MJK: No. Not at all. No way. I just don’t think of people that way. There’s a thing you’re doing, and you might be that thing, or you might be pretending to be that thing, but you don’t know me. If somebody introduces us, you have that moment of “Big fan of your work,” and then you move on.


6. If you had entrance music, what would it be?

MJK: Okay, so now we’re going to take a detour. I want to find a genie in a bottle that can grant me three wishes. Never mind the other two wishes, the one wish that I would want would be to be an unbeatable UFC competitor. You can’t beat me. I don’t lose. I always win, so that every time I walked out to fight it would be something like Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?” or [The Weather Girls’] “It’s Raining Men.” Just some walkout song that would be so counter to all of it, and they couldn’t not let me do it because I’m winning. But the only reason I’d want to have that wish is so I could use that walkout music.


7. What have you done so far today?

MJK: I processed three-and-a-half tons of fruit today for a rosé. It’ll be a Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre Rosé which is probably going into the Merkin Vineyards wines. I actually racked off some Sangiovese Cabernet from the Marzo block here, so that’ll be a Caduceus wine. That was about two tons of wine. It was already fermented and is now pressed. I rearranged all the barrels, and in the morning I’ll be getting up around 6:30 to barrel down stuff that’s been pressed, so there’s been a lot of Tetris today with logistics. All of that to the sound of Joni Mitchell. Almost her whole catalog. Yesterday was The Chemical Brothers. There’s so much we had to deal with today, and it’s basically just me and my friend in the cellar doing all this, so we have to pick a soundtrack based on what we consider our puzzle level. If there’s a lot of logistics involved with moving the pumps back and forth and just trying not to get in our way or do things out of order which will just cause us more delays, we sometimes just put on Joni to keep us on track.


AVC: Is your work maintaining and operating your vineyards and making your wine something you find to be the most personally fulfilling creative outlet for you now?

MJK: I feel like with music there’s so much ego rooted in expressing your thoughts on the thing and your experiences with it. I feel like there’s no real innovation in having some music. It’s more just unique personalities and unique expressions, and you being able to tell your story, and I think I’ve done very well with that. I’ve done it three times where I’ve actually been able to change my perspective and come up with three completely different versions of me. With the wine it’s far more about getting out of the way and letting this place express itself, and I’ve done that well enough to where it’s changed the economic landscape for the state. So all the weird shit we hear coming out of Arizona, I hope what we’re doing is essentially changing a lot of that with our dollars and our votes, our economic impact, and our dissecting of how politics is done in Arizona. The art part of it, being able to express a place and establish something that over time will be passed on through generations, kind of takes it outside of the woe is me dude sitting in his corner boo-hoo lyrics. It’s less about me than it is about this area and that reconnection with food and shelter and clothing and things that matter and transcend time and ego.


8. Have you ever been mistaken for another celebrity? If so, who?

MJK: Oh, this is awesome. Ritz Carlton. Cleveland. There’s a mall attached to it, and I think back in the day there was a Sam Goody in it. I was in there, and this little woman kept following me around the store, and I started thinking, did she think I stole something? I’m getting nervous because this woman is following me around, and I’m wondering if I accidentally stuck a small TV in my pocket unconsciously just from being so tired from the bus ride. Why is she stalking me? Finally I went down an aisle that didn’t have an opening, and it’s like oh, I’m fucked. She comes up behind me, and I turn around and go: [In an apprehensive voice.] “Hey,” expecting her to say, “I need you to open up your bag,” but instead she asks me, “Are you Moby?” She thought I was Moby. I’m like, “You mean the 7-foot-tall dude who’s all energetic? No. I’m not that guy.”


9. If you had to find another line of work, what skills would you put on your resume?

MJK: First thing I would put is: “I’m not Moby, and any skills that you feel would be detrimental to this job that he might have, I’m not that guy.” I am 51. I’m not Ant-Man, so I’m not going lift shit that’s bigger than me. [Laughs.] Let’s go back to the genie in the bottle. I want to be able to speak, read, write, and understand any language ever written or spoken, just any language throughout the history of man. That would be one of my wishes from the genie, so I would have to put “multilingual” on the resume, should I ever find the genie. I think the genie’s going solve a lot of the problems.


AVC: It seems like the genie and the baling of the hay are sort of converging into one narrative.

MJK: [Laughs.] Yeah, there’s me angry and sweating with my jeans torn to shit and thinking, if I just had a genie in a fucking bottle. Then it all comes together.


10. Do you collect anything? If so, what and why?

MJK: I think most people fall victim to this, and I don’t know if this is collecting rather than hoarding, but I just opened up a box the other day, and I have all these cables, adapters, and shit. I guess I just collect old cables, I guess. I still have a box of that crap in case they decide to shoot Terminator 7 at my house and just happen to need some crazy cables to make the world better.


11. What would your last meal be?

MJK: Does wine count as food?

AVC: Sure. Wine comes from food. You’re good.

MJK: Okay. Good. Well, my last meal I would hope would be with my family, but I have some crazy old bottles of wine that I had before I owned a winery and there was an actual music industry, and I had money, and of course now I no longer have it. But I’ve got shit like that in my cellar where if we saw a mushroom cloud, we’d most likely say something like, “Quick! Get the fucking corkscrews! Fuck glasses! We’re coming right out of the bottle on this one!” I don’t know. Are we talking about death row with this last meal?


AVC: Since you brought it up, yes.

MJK: [Laughs.] Okay. Death row. It would need to be comfort food. I fucking love Golden Grahams, so I’d probably have some of those and rice milk, so I can just fucking blow up. Fucking rice milk and Golden Graham goo everywhere. I’ve had a lot of crazy meals around the world, and I’ve had sushi in the craziest places in Japan that you only hear about in hushed tones in weird backrooms. I’ve had those things, but I think if I was on death row, I just don’t know. Is the chef going to be able to pull off these things that I would be asking? I don’t think they’re going to be able to recreate that, but you know what? You can’t fuck up a box of Golden Grahams and some rice milk, so let’s just go with that.


Bonus 12th Question from Anthony Jeselnik: If your house is on fire and you can only escape with your life and one thing, what one thing would you take out of your house?

MJK: Since this is hypothetical, I would grab my magic genie bottle and use my third wish to go back in time and complete my Rainy Day To Do list. Number three on the list was “Make house inflammable.” If hypothetical is off the table, I would grab my very strong wife who is part ant and can lift five times her own weight and is very fast. She will already have grabbed our favorite wines, the baby, some coffee—it’s going to be a long night—the dogs, more wine, a nice assortment of charcuterie, cheese, crackers, and olives, my Italian suits, and some wine.


AVC: All right, now it’s your turn to come up with a question for the next 11 Questions victim.

MJK: If you don’t have a womb, pretend you do. What superhero’s child would you bear, what superhero’s child would you prefer not to bear? Same question but supervillains. Side question: Home school, charter, or public?


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