Why Tool Gets to Headline Governors Ball (To the Possible Shock of Lorde Fans)

Maynard James Keenan of Tool
Paul Bergen/Redferns

Maynard James Keenan of Tool performs in the Netherlands.

The act placements and font sizes on Coachella’s annual poster are typically the source of industry “ranking” debates, but Governors Ball might have stolen the spotlight Wednesday (Jan. 4) by giving hard-rock mystagogues Tool the very top spot on the lineup for their seventh annual festival this year. You know, Tool, whose fourth album, appropriately titled 10,000 Days, came out in 2006, just over 10 years ago. It was the last thing they released.

Younger attendees, such as many fans of fellow marquee topliners Chance the Rapper, Lorde and Childish Gambino, might be especially puzzled by Tool’s festival-topping stature. Past Gov Ball headliners from the rock sphere, like The Strokes, The Killers and Vampire Weekend, have all stayed relatively near the public eye during the last decade, in part because they actually released records. And your parents know Guns N' Roses; maybe they’ve even foolishly attempted “Paradise City” at karaoke.

But Tool? They don’t feel small exactly, but they do feel specialized -- the mean length of a 10,000 Days track is seven minutes, and that isn’t exactly because Deadmau5 remixed them. A prog-metal band headlining a pop-and-stuff-to-its-left festival in 2017 is some kind of throwback indeed. But this lineup also shows how difficult it is to truly pinpoint the largesse of contemporary star power.

Take Lorde, for instance: A somewhat geeky outlier in the pop stratosphere, who was 16 when she released her first and only album, which had several successful singles but only one iconic smash -- and this was still three years ago. She was a surprise star to begin with, and the people behind Gov Ball might put her up against Tool on a side stage for the fest’s big finale, where the crowd will be huge. But her crowd isn’t necessarily old or rich enough to purchase whole-weekend tickets on their own. A few SNL performances from now, we might be saying different. Today, you can’t crack your knuckles without accidentally elbowing someone with 10 million YouTube views; Pharrell-watering sensation Maggie Rogers could be in the Lorde slot next year.

The extraordinarily affable Chance has now had a few SNL performances himself, and he’s a huge festival draw, but as far as the decision to anoint him the No. 1 Grand Poobah of a several-day summer event, his record sales probably come into play: zero. It can’t be that easy for festival organizers to agree he’s the top billing when the dude himself maintains that he hasn’t even put out his first album yet (despite unprecedented acclaim and awareness of his “mixtapes”). Chance’s bankability is proven, his ability to be the bank itself not quite. With so many friends in high places, his ascent during the 2010s has been swift but very carefully plotted; when it’s time for him to headline everyone and everything, we’ll know.

If Lorde represents ground-floor fluke success in the 2010s and Chance represents the full scope of internet outreach, Donald Glover exemplifies what we might as well call the Trump factor. In his Childish Gambino guise, he’s the rare 2010s rapper to succeed with a rabid online fan base without the critics’ approval, which puts him in a trio with Macklemore and J. Cole -- though that may be changing with his newest opus, Awaken, My Love!, a psychedelic funkfest that earned the best reviews of his career. But he was already rapturously beloved by his faithful, thanks likely in no small part to his TV career, where his own rabid legions spawned from his role on the ultimate cult comedy Community, and he now enjoys more universal praise for his starring turn on Atlanta.

Still, for all this fabulous résumé, he’s never even been featured on anything close to a standalone smash hit. Admittedly, trap-pop scrappies Rae Sremmurd’s fifth-line placement on the poster is puzzling, considering they’ve already had a handful of those, and they are contemporaneous as this fall’s Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 “Black Beatles." But as with Lorde, Gov Ball organizers just might not be convinced their fans are old enough to spend.

So it’s Tool, ultimately, the once-fringe MTV and Lollapalooza stalwarts of '90s past, who carry the day for a big finish. They can perform for upwards of two hours, they probably aren’t as expensive a booking as, say, Kanye West in 2013, they have just enough actual rock-radio airplay staples (“Sober,” “Prison Sex”) to qualify as an arena band, though to their extremely devoted cohort of zealots these might as well be “Creep” to the latter albums’ OK Computer and Kid A ambitions. Their waits between albums have grown longer and longer, but like reclusive R&B auteurs Maxwell and D’Angelo, keeping fans hungry has only benefited Tool -- try and think of one consensus failure among these three hiatus-prone artists.

Meanwhile, Tool's commercial streak has remained unbroken -- their two albums this century, 2001's Lateralus and 2006's 100,000 Days, both topped the Billboard 200 and went platinum -- and this year, they've headlined at impressively sized sports arenas like Denver's Pepsi Center and Houston's Toyota Center. The measure itself of under-saturating their market keeps Tool out of the typical disappointment/comeback cycle with fans. If Wu-Tang Clan’s seventh-billed placement surprises you in comparison, well, they’ve put out loads more material than Tool since '06 and it hasn’t gotten them anywhere special commercially or spiritually -- longtime fans didn’t exactly rejoice for A Better Tomorrow.

Like it or not, this time-signature-juggling quartet have reached that vaunted plane alongside Radiohead, Phish or their spiritual forebears Pink Floyd, where the size of their cult overshadows that of most mainstream audiences. Tool can do whatever they want, including commandeer a truckload of paying die-hards all the way to Randall’s Island to spelunk through 11 minutes of “Rosetta Stoned” -- particularly because it’ll also be the band’s first New York-area date in 11 years, which dates to when they released their last record.

But it’s also a signal that there will almost certainly be a new Tool album this year, and they’ll almost certainly be performing new songs from it. Their residency might be left-field for the more posi-vibed, dancier principles Governors Ball was built on, but if multi-platinum artists (much less multi-platinum rockers) are in short supply these days, it might be time to scoop up what remains -- even if that ends up bringing in 10,000 red-eyed college roommates who tried to explain why 2001’s Lateralus was a spiral.