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The Tool-fan Ethnography Project: Who, What, and Really, Why?

Today I am going to tell you a little bit about this project, what exactly this project is, and what these Vagabond write-ups are and are not, so that you can know what to expect. Then, I’ll share just how we got started on it.

Welcome to the series, friends. (What are we even doing with our lives?). Today I am going to tell you a little bit about this project and how we got started on it. (Is this the royal “we” or a futurally-oriented “we” who is yet to join, we don’t know!)

First, a little bit about what exactly this project is and what these Vagabond write-ups are and are not, so that you can know what to expect.

The Source Project

The source-project itself is an ongoing academic study of Tool fans as a distinct cultural group of humans. With any ethnography, the initial guiding inquiries typically change as the ethnographer immerses herself in the field and finds a reality on the ground that she had not imagined previously. This project started out as an inquiry into the connections between Tool fans and their spiritually-transformative experiences, or STE’s as we call them in the formal field of Religious Studies, but it has necessarily evolved to include much more, because Tool fans are, like, totally complex, man.

This happened with my Master’s thesis, which started out as a study of the City God Festival on Jinmen island in Taiwan, and turned into a minor exegesis on how time is structured by the calendars we culturally create, and how those calendars ultimately shape our (very different) worldviews.

For now, what I will not be posting up on Vagabond is the academic study itself, and this is for a few reasons. Firstly, I am still in the research phase, so any conclusions drawn now are interim at best, and premature regardless.

Bright red Chinese New Year festival decoration

New Year festival decorations were still up when I arrived in Jinmen to do my thesis fieldwork. Looks a bit like Devil-Maynard, doesn’t it?

Secondly, the project is in the process of being submitted for consideration to be presented at an academic conference, and I do not want to sully the peer-review process once they begin sorting out their decisions. For anyone unfamiliar with the strange world of academia, these conferences are places for scholars to pitch ideas and share ongoing or freshly completed projects. We do this in order to get feedback from academic peers as to whether the research is solid or interesting enough to seek publication or to otherwise pursue it further. Sometimes, it yields opportunities to team up with other researchers for future projects.

Thirdly, to leave open the possibility that this project may morph into something larger or something altogether different than what I originally planned. Indeed, this is already happening, as this blog itself represents.

The Vagabond Journey Posts

Instead, what I will be posting here on Vagabond Journey are:

  • road-warrior tips and lessons-learned;
  • noteworthy interactions with Tool fans and others at Tool concerts;
  • reflections from the road as a sort of travelogue, remarking on the hidden peculiarities of the outwardly banal along the way;
  • impressions and experiences at the unique Tool shows in different cities, which each have their own flavor of crowds, lines, and lore;
  • cultural and social patterns I’ve identified and hope you also find interesting;
  • and lastly, personal reflections on the transformative effects of the project itself.

That last one is, in a sense, “the ethnographer’s journal,” which is a tool (ha) used by ethnographers to record and release their personal thoughts about the project in a way that doesn’t interfere with the strictly ethnographic record. What is ethnography, by the way? See here for the undergrad answer; or see here if you think this is a method you’d like to employ yourself.

Being a trained nerd and fiend for solving puzzles, I will also delight fellow treasure-hunters with links to interesting interweb fodder and academic studies relevant to what we are discussing throughout each post.

Next, this project and this blog are not affiliated with the band Tool itself. Although I quickly found out that we are only separated, through a Religion, Experience, and Mind Lab Group colleague, by two degrees of Kevin Bacon and not six, this is purely happenstance. There is zero formal connection between me and Tool.

Nope friends, this is on my own dime and I’m on my own ride with the divine, but more importantly, this project is about the fans, not the band.

No handouts and no sponsorships from the band, not for tickets, not for nuthin’, despite what some folks in my encounters have suspected. I have a forthcoming post that will dive into this set of remarkably gendered interactions that occurred at the Orlando show. Nope friends, this is my own dime and I’m on my own ride with the divine, but more importantly, this project is about the fans, not the band.

Finally, if you haven’t already noticed, the project and especially this blog about it are just a little bit tongue-in-cheek, “keep that in mind at all times, OK?”. If you don’t know about the fans of Tool, many of us truly are obnoxious. The very fact that I am studying us as a group is in itself, frankly, obnoxious. However, I stand by my decision, because it was born out of a genuine attempt to meld some of my favorite things about life together, and to scratch that stark-raving-mad itch: traveling, live music, and the study of human behavior.

Whose Idea Was This, Anyway?

So, how did we find ourselves here, you and me? Studying, or in your case reading about the study of, Tool fans?

When the idea for this project was born, I was reflecting on my completely awesome job and wondering why I found myself nonetheless only partially fulfilled by it. Some post-hoc introspection yielded at least a couple problems with this line of thinking:

  1. A job cannot fulfill all of your Earthly desires to self-actualize, in the same way that a partner cannot fulfill all of your Earthly desires to feel loved; and,
  2. Wanderlusters and vagabonds are rarely satisfied with sitting still, even if the project at-hand is exciting and fulfilling in itself (and they are; I love my day job).

…with both domestic and international job-travel getting pulled out from under me and the disappointment of that sitting heavy, I decided I needed to choose my own adventure. But how?

But with both domestic and international job-travel getting pulled out from under me and the disappointment of that sitting heavy, I decided I needed to choose my own adventure. But how?

I went about my nerdy business, letting the query take richer form in my subconscious, researching this and that, when a last-minute opportunity came up to see Tool at one of their tour-opening shows, the Tacoma Dome.

Despite being a Tool fan since I was a middle-schooler—when I was both creeped out and drawn in by the band’s claymation videos of tracks from their Undertow album playing on MTV—theirs had always been the show that escaped me.

I got to see some truly great concerts in my teenage years and early adulthood. But every time I went to see Tool, something happened that kept me from pulling the trigger. That, and I was in a furious state of Protestant-ethic-inspired frenzy to work my life away throughout most of my 20’s. I was very successful at doing so; in fact, I’m not totally sure I ever even was a 20-something-year-old, at least not after 21.

But Vagabond Journey’s home title is apropos of the ever-voyaging spirit I am animated by. I took a leap and planned for the Tacoma Dome, scoring a ridiculous last-minute ticket that was quite literally front-and-center: less than 20 rows directly in front of Danny Carey, one of the greatest drummers we humans have a record of.

After attending that show, my mind was, as the sophisticated poets say, blown, and stumbling out of the Tacoma Dome at midnight on a school night I looked a bit like one of the most hotly-valued Tool posters out there:

Green troll face with third eyes exploding out of the top of its head.

This is Melbourne 2020’s Tool concert poster which recently sold for $350USD on eBay. Don’t get me f*%&ing started on “the posters.”

Even though I went to work and on about my business the next morning at 0600, simply put, I had experienced some kind of creative break that could not be stopped. I was ravenous for more creation and more adventure, and was bolstered by the recent anniversary of my brother’s passing, who left this world at only 25 and who never got to live out so many of his mad-genius plans. ‘What do we have but today?’ goes the reasonably wise cliché.

The idea came to me in a round of prayers and meditation, and I jumped on it. If I pulled this off, I would not only get to see this kick-ass live performance a few more times, but I would also seize the opportunity to turn the journey into something wholly creative, without the traditional confines of a limiting academic-project sponsorship. This meant I could study whatever I wanted about this community, however I wanted, and leave some of it up to brutal/gentle chance along the way.

I made the decision, submitted for vacation-time from work, and began planning my next moves.




(See you again for the next post soon! Yours truly, the Anthropologist)

P.s. I would love to hear from you! You can reach me through Instagram at: @anthrobymoto or through the contact form below:


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Filed under: Adventure, Anthropology, Art and Music, Music, Uncategorized

About the Author:

Alexis Michaels is an award-winning anthropologist and writer trained in a diverse set of field methods and interview techniques. She has a Master of Arts in Religious Studies with a focus on cognitive science. Everywhere she travels she observes the humans around her with the aim of facilitating understanding across deep divides. Once in a while, she can be found riding a motorcycle in the backcountry. has written 5 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

4 comments… add one

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  • VBJ February 20, 2022, 10:42 am

    I love the inspiration for this project. The realization that time is slipping away … even if you are doing well and enjoying it .. and the drive to complete and stack these little bricks of life. This site isn’t really about travel but making the most of the time that we have … and I think you’ve always done this … even when you were a not-so-twenty-something-twenty-something … when we were students together in China.

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    • Julia McClenon March 5, 2022, 1:16 pm

      Truly, truly Wade. Now is all we have. My tattoo guy just created a beautiful piece for me exemplifying this. We must be present, or we are sort of no where at all.

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      • VBJ March 7, 2022, 6:54 pm

        Well put!

        Send me a pic of that tattoo!

  • Daniel April 6, 2022, 1:27 am

    The aggregation of identities within the group of tool fans creates a culture that is almost impossible to describe.

    Your journey sounds noteworthy. Your inspiration is genuine. It feels similar to how I felt during the 12 minutes that Pneuma was played. Prana.

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