Tool's Remarkable Vocalist Maynard Keenan Interviews an icon: Joni Mitchell
Tool has emerged as one of the most remarkable bands of our generation in the same decade in which Joni Mitchell is finally receiving the respect she deserves. Both Maynard and Joni share many interests, including a fascinating insight into music and art. Put together in the same room, they share thoughts and ideas that will make any reader think for hours on end.
My friend Ramiro, Kjiirt and I are always exchanging compilation tapes. We take songs from different time periods and categories and string them together in an effort to show the similarities as opposed to the differences in music. If done correctly, pieces written decades, if not centuries apart, flow one into the other as if they were written for each other. One such tape began with the intro to the Bach cello suites and went immediately into "Porcelain" by the Pretenders, then came "Black Crow" by Joni Mitchell, "Driven to Tears" by the Police, "Crossroads" by Ahmad Jamal, "Movin' Out" by Aerosmith, "Coward" by the SWANS, "Lacrimosa" the 8th movement in Mozart's "Requiem," etc. I like to call these tapes Bridgework.
"We (Tool) were having this back-of-the-bus argument in Europe," begins Maynard. "It went something like this: Danny had bought a book of collected works and philosophies by the artist Malevich. Paul was stating that the paintings didn't really do anything for him. Danny in turn was explaining that much, if not all of Malevich's work was based on Suprematism (expressing figures passing into the fourth dimension, non-dimensional geometry). So if you understand the way he thinks, the pieces make more sense. Paul argued that he shouldn't have to read an introduction to be inspired by a visual medium. So there was this big dichotomy of opinions, and I'm sitting in the middle thinking that I kind of see it both ways. I don't know if there's a line you can draw between those things. What do you think?
"I think sometimes things need something of an explanation," Joni responds. "I'll give you an example: "Ethiopia," which was on the Dog Eat Dog album, drew down a lot of strange comment. People loved it, or people hated it. I had a girlfriend, who's a musician, and she really hated it. I mean, when she said, 'I HATE IT!' her whole face squeezed up and she made fists. 'I HATE IT.' 'Oh, interesting, why did you hate it?' 'Ethiopia' was a kind of a tome poem. There's a lot of illustrative overdubs on it. There were Ethiopian women's voices on it (sings to illustrate), like the Arabs, making their sheeny statement in some places.
Ethiopia dosen't have a very rich musical culture. They're agriculture and beautiful silversmiths, but their music had this one Arab element but was not as rich, for instance, as the province of Burundi, with the Burundi drummers (sings drums to illustrate). They really were a grooving people, and the Ethiopians were more northern and graceful and less equatorial or something. But their music didn't develop in the same manner. But their grief!! The backgrounds I've got… I'm not sure what technically, but I know I have at least one parallel second in the line 'Ethiopia, Ethiopia.' The way I stack the voices, it had to have abrasion. It had to have a dissonance. In color that would be colors of the same intensity vibrating against their edges. Red of the same intensity against a green is equivalent to a second. To me, it creates the same thing. A rub that irritates some and interests others.
Debbie had more of a musical education than I did. 'Well, that's a parallel second and blah blah blah,' and she gave me all of these technical reasons she'd been taught why you can't do it, and that's why she hated it. I said, 'Debbie, picture it!' This is where the painter's instinct seems to be different than the musical instinct. 'Imagine these women are waling along. These handsome women, all beautifully confirmed people with long limbs with flies crawling all over them, carrying these three year olds that are cadaverous. Marching to God knows where. Just on a trek to SOMEWHERE. On some blind optimism, not knowing where or why, just knowing that where they are, they'll die if they don't get out. And they're marching along this scorching horizon line. Do you think they're going to be singing in Everly Brothers' harmony?' You can't depict them in that way. You have to deal with their angst.
"Now, a painter's instinct would know that. You can't paint that in Hallmark pastels. You've got to get in the burn of the sun, and you've got to get some black into it, and some red into it, and you've got to get powerful colors in that kind of way. I think sometimes, some people, in order to appreciate need a hint. They may not need a lecture, but they need something to get in. I'd have to ask Debbie after all of this time… put it on and see if she's able to look at this without cringing now. There's all these funny no-no's that people get into, be they harmony of color or harmony of music."
"I think it pretty much does come down to how you're feeling when you write a piece," Maynard remarks. "So, relating it back to the artwork, if that's what you're feeling, and it's coming from the heart, I would consider that a valid piece, whether it needed explanation or not. As long as you're really listening and digging and responding with marks on a surface or sounds on a tape."
"I genuinely like wide modern chords which depict more complicated emotional situations," continues Joni. "You can have pure major experiences, but since we've been standing under the shadow of the bomb, it seems to me we're all emotionally complex. That to me is why these modern chords are the chords of our spirits. You'd almost have to be blessedly an idiot to be cruising along on a pure major chord from day to day to day."
"I think we're evolving at a rate that we need to move on to the more complicated structures anyway," Maynard says. "Simplistic stuff is a good starting point, but you need to hear those things. You really do. They're like software upgrades for the psyche."
"That's why," says Joni, "I wish I knew the name of that piece of Mozart's music that had been historically backseated. Called difficult and personal and all those names. Because the music of that time was so mathematical. Symphonies are not really interesting to me, in that they all stay in one key. I couldn't make an album all in one key. All my tunings have a C on the bottom, so you could say, 'Okay, she's playing in the key of C because the bass is rooted in C,' but it's not really just in C. The chords are too hybrid. It would be wavering back and forth. You may be rooting it with a C, but playing something against the top, which also drives people crazy because they say, "You can't do that.' Why? You're playing in the key of A against the root of C on the bass. The bass should drop down to the A. Well, WHY? Again, it's playing intuitively, not necessarily intellectually. But as a painter you go, 'Oh, I like those colors together,' and then someone tells you that they're wrong. It's like saying you can't wear purple with red."
"I've read some articles recently," Maynard comments, "where you've talked about painting with sound or composing with color. Do you actually see colors? Is it a process where you actually have mathematically determined the patterns and frequencies or…?"
"No," Joni responds, "I use my intellect, but I don't live there. I would say my learning process is an osmosis. I've improved my alertness so that I am generally more alert, but as a kid it was very selective. Sometimes I was bored. I don't think I'm ever really bored now. So that means I'm taking in more - the good, the bad, and the ugly as I go along. But as a kid I was more selective. If something rang my bells, VOOM!, I'd get very alert, and I think I opened all the channels and it went in and it became a part of me and sooner or later came out a part of me. As a painter, I like greyed-down colors, French colors: aubergene, chartreuse, all of those colors. Major chords to me are like the primary colors, and the minors are just a darkening of those colors in a way. So when you get into hybrid chords, like mixing orange with indigo and then white to get green … those are the colors I like harmonically. I always like odd colors in my ear."
"That makes sense," Maynard adds. "Like in the song 'Black Crow,' it has a lot of half-step, minor key melodies over major chord structures.
"Well," says Joni, "I think that's because of the open tunings… I tune to a pretty modern chord. All of my tunings are not major tunings. The old blues guys used to play open G, open D, open C… major chords."
"So when you say 'open D,' asks Maynard, "you mean the top string being tuned down to D?"
"D Major chord, C Major chord," Joni answers. "All the old blues' tunings were major chords. There was D Modal, that's with both your E's down to D's. That was a tuning that was floating around the coffee houses. So I don't use any of those tunings. The tunings that I'm using are more like… the guitar instead of being tuned to a Major… (sits and plays at piano), you're in a muted tone… do you hear the greys in there? You're starting to take complimentary colors and create a third color out of them. My tunings have seconds in them - parallel seconds. So emotionally, they're more ambiguous. That's the main thing. A Major is a clear statement that's pure happiness. A Minor is pure tragedy. So before I even start the song, I'm in a chord that is both happy and sad. At least.
Then there's degrees of how sad it is. So when a lyric starts to come, if there's a melody accompanying it, I may run through some of the modalities I have. So there's fifty different color schemes that I have, and if I don't find one in scanning through them that suits the text, then I invent one that suits the text. So each in one of them, the words are kind of emotionally supported by chords that share the same emotional context. And usually they're mostly complex. That's why I like the Forbidden Chord Change (Devil's Interval), because it depicts … it's like 'My Big But.' I'm going to write a song called 'My Big But' cause every time I think something, 'Ah, what a beautiful day … but' (laughs). I have to do this and that and that before tomorrow night. There's always a dissonance in it. Maybe it's a little dissonance or maybe you can reverse it, like, 'My favorite cat died today, but …"
"So when you're writing the music," Maynard inquiries, "are you generally writing music and then finding ideas for lyrics that come out of the sounds?"
"Sometimes," Joni answers. "Because I'm more prolific musically than I am lyrically, many times I'll have melodies, sometimes even fleshed out down to a track that has no text. 'Two Gray Rooms,' from the last album, for instance, was a jam. A one-take jam, and I don't even think anyone knew the changes in it. I played it through once, and everybody was still itching to play, and we jammed it up, and it sat in the can for seven years waiting for the words. I finally got them. I've got another one like that called 'Spanish Boots' because it's got forty Flamenco dancers on a hardwood floor for the rhythm track and sixteen guitars stacked up, and it's really interesting. But it wants words that end in 'O' (sings). Diego in Spanish, or even in Italian, there's a lot of words that end in O, but in English, there aren't, and most of them are borrowed, like 'Picasso.' You can get into proper nouns, but that's been really hard to parquet.
But a lot of times, hopefully, ideally, they come fairly close together. Your modality, or your mood. Say the music comes first, and you're developing the architecture of it, so you're repeating it and you're honing it and you're looking and saying, 'No, no, it needs to open up here,' and you're playing it and you're playing it and you're playing it. So you're immersed in those colors and in that mood. Words can start coming in that reflection period. Especially when it's new, because the chords are triggering against feelings which are triggering thought processes, and sometimes you can capture the text pretty close."
"That's what we usually do," Maynard comments. "The music is always evolving first, and I'm coming up with vocal melodies and vocal rhythms along with what they're doing, and all of a sudden I'll hear, like you said, 'This has to end in a W-A-Y.' It just has to end that way."
"Yeah," Joni agrees, "some vowels are just better. You need a long 'A' going out there, or an 'E.' Depending on the singer's range, like the same note, whether it's an 'E' or an 'A' or an 'I' or an 'O,' you may or may not be able to even hit it, with the wrong vowel."
"In most of the stuff that we're writing now," says Maynard, "I'm actually having to ask them all to tune down to an open B-E tuning … top string B and the second string E, so that I can get to that note that I need to get to. I hear when it's in regular E or open D tuning, but I can't get to that note it needs. It just needs to go to that note."
"It needs a bit of sheen on it," Joni adds, "so you've got to take it down."
"Otherwise, it's just not going to happen," Maynard remarks. "There's no sense in doing the song if you can't go where it wants to go."
"Exactly," Joni concludes.