Joke's On Us

For 24 years, Tool has had a lot to say — much of it inspired by a stand-up comic

Tool is not a funny band. Well, at least that's what most people think.

For the past 24 years, Tool has sung of things that to most are the exact opposite of humorous: death and destruction and the deepest of depressions. From its earliest days, Tool has been a band that makes bold statements. Its first video, 1992's "Hush," shows the members stark naked with parental advisory stickers over their crotches and black duct-tape X's over their mouths. Out of the gates, Tool gave the impression they were just as much about message as they were about music.

At a time when alternative rock was storming radio airwaves, when punk rock's anti-establishment mentality was becoming more widely accepted, when teen angst seemed to be at an all-time high, Tool released its first full-length record, Undertow: an album with song titles like "Prison Sex." Inside, the liner notes featured imagery meant to make most people squirm: naked obese women, torturous contraptions, a human face covered in needles (that photo was an image of the band's original bass player Paul D'Amour, who grew up in Spokane). With a less talented band, we might laugh at the gimmickry and high drama of such a presentation — but with Tool, which was bold in its image and made scalding-hot rock songs, it worked.

It wasn't until Tool's second effort, Ænima, that it became apparent the band's world wasn't actually all dank, dreary and rat-infested. The title track featured enigmatic singer Maynard James Keenan chanting "learn to swim, learn to swim" as he sang a tale of Los Angeles sliding into the Pacific Ocean. It's a serious song, but also humorous social commentary.

The album saw the band nodding to the dark genius of late stand-up comedian and satirist Bill Hicks, who Tool first thanked in Undertow's liner notes. In an 1996 interview with the Austin Chronicle, Keenan — who at the time refused to talk to the reporter about anything but Hicks — spoke of the band's love for Hicks' work and how much it influenced Tool's perspective. Hicks liked Tool as well: he introduced the band before one show, and discussed a co-headlining Tool/Hicks tour before the comic succumbed at 32 to pancreatic cancer in 1994.

With Ænima, the band wanted its fans to know that this music was, by and large, a reaction and response to Hicks. To many, Hicks was entirely unfunny — his comedy as much a monologue and social critique as it was deep, dark humor. But for those it spoke to, like Keenan and his band, it was life-changing. In one breath, Hicks delivered the harsh truths we don't want to hear; in the next, he provided an incredible punch line. Tool sampled several of Hicks' bits on the song "Third Eye," including this:

"Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration. That we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves." Hicks pauses. "... Here's Tom with the weather!"

"[Tool's] music is a catalyst for the ideas," Keenan told the Chronicle of Hicks' influence on the band. "His ideas were what really resonated with us. I think that's what he really liked about us as well — that we were resonating similar concepts. Unity is the philosophical center. Evolution. Change. Internally and externally. Individually and globally. That's pretty much the gist of his comedy no matter what he was talking about — music, porno, smoking. Whatever it was, it came back to the idea of unity and evolution. Evolving ideas."

Though the band firmly planted its feet in loud, heavy rock from the beginning, with each album Tool has applied evolution and change — and a great sense of humor — to its music: 2001's Lateralus saw Tool veering into hilarious artistic wormholes. Drummer Danny Carey samples himself breathing into tubes on one track; on another, Keenan squeezes his cat to create the backbone sound for "Mantra."

Keenan has always said that the band's name has a simple explanation: the music is meant to serve as a sort of multipurpose tool to be used by listeners in whatever way they desire.

If you want Tool to be angry, so you can get your rage out, then use it for that. But if you want to laugh at the world and the ridiculousness of humanity — by all means, use Tool for that, too. ♦

Tool • Tue, March 4, at 8 pm • $49.50-$75 • All-ages • Spokane Arena • 720 W. Mallon • • (800) 325-SEAT