Puscifer interview with Maynard James Keenan: ‘The live show is a modern blend of Saturday Night Live and Monty Python's Flying Circus’

Maynard James Keenan brings his eclectic post-industrial music/comedy extravaganza to the UK and Europe for the first time

Maynard James Keenan, centre, and his Puscifer cohorts in 2016, from left to right, Carina Round, Mat Mitchell, Paul Barker, Jeff Friedl and Mahsa Zargaran
Maynard James Keenan, centre, and his Puscifer cohorts in 2016, from left to right, Carina Round, Mat Mitchell, Paul Barker, Jeff Friedl and Mahsa Zargaran

Maynard James Keenan is an enigma and speaking to him down a transatlantic phone line, one gets the sense that’s exactly how he wishes to remain. As frontman for Tool and A Perfect Circle, he has captured the hearts and particularly the minds of millions of rock and metal fans from around the world. But his third musical project, Puscifer, is an often misunderstood and undervalued hybrid of music and comedy that provides the most vivid portrait of the man that we are ever likely to see. If any insights into the man behind some of the most experimental, cryptic and down-right brilliant music of the past 25 years are to be offered, they are to be found in this bizarre and twisted comedy cabaret.

Puscifer’s origins date back to the mid-nineties, with the name and the band, as it was then, first appearing in HBO’s Mr. Show, a riotous fourth-wall breaking comedy sketch series that provided an early vehicle for Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul) and David Cross (Arrested Development). Appearing in the show’s first ever episode, comedy has been an intricate and integral part of the Puscifer puzzle ever since.

Since then, Puscifer has metamorphosed into many things, amongst them a clothing line and a distinct, bold live multimedia extravaganza that combines music with comedy and tragedy. Keenan references bands such as The Flaming Lips and Primus who have similarly turbulent live shows but Puscifer add a cast of deranged characters that drive a narrative that runs through-out. ‘I think, for lack of a better descriptor, the live show is a modern blend of Saturday Night Live and Monty Python's Flying Circus,' Keenan says 'but with more music rather than comedy. We have our Terry Gilliam side, where we add filmed segments but it's very character driven in-between songs and we like to add a completely chaotic element to the stage-show. As musicians, we’re very serious about presenting the songs, which messes with people's heads when they're hearing a pretty sincere song whilst seeing God dressed like a baboon juggling a f**king beach ball on his nose.’

Keenan has form when it comes to live shows, with both of his other bands having a spectacular eye for visual flair in a live environment, but even so, integrating all these eccentric elements and presenting a cohesive show must be a difficult feat to pull off? ‘Well the material is easy enough’ says Keenan. ‘Once you've recorded a song, there is an awkward couple of weeks in the rehearsal space where you're re-envisioning it live and making sure it will translate in front of an audience but we're competent musicians, so it's never that difficult. The hard part is when I have some crazy stage idea and figuring out how to dovetail that into a set and jerk an audience around through all that.’

If there is a through-line that links Keenan’s various musical projects, it is that they all demand a lot of the listener, something he brushes off as merely ‘the nature of the way I write.’ The initial challenge when Puscifer released their first album, V is for Vagina in 2007, was trying to establish a sound that was distinct from Keenan’s work in Tool and A Perfect Circle. ‘The basic marching orders from myself to (long-time Puscifer collaborator) Mat Mitchell was that it needed to sound different from anything else I was doing. We weren’t even sure what it was supposed to sound like, it just needed to sound different. It was recorded in studios all across the country, we were basically recording whilst travelling, in the bus, in hotels, closets, just anywhere we could find. That particular first approach was a little chaotic and scary for us because we were trying to discover our identity, who we were going to be. That's why Money $hot has settled a bit, I have an idea of what I'm decent at, I have an idea at how I can improve those things and now it's just time to get out of the way and let it happen rather than manipulate it too much.’

With Money $hot, we hear Keenan in more familiar voice, possibly satisfied that he has now thoroughly established yet another identity away from Tool and A Perfect Circle. Whilst Tool fans in particular are clamouring for a follow-up to that band’s last record (2006’s 10,000 Days, in which time Keenan has released three Puscifer studio albums and a whole bunch of remix albums and Eps) Puscifer allows us a more definitive peek into Keenan’s creative subconscious. With that in mind, is Money $hot the most personal album of Keenan’s career? ‘I wouldn't say it’s a personal record as such, just clearer’ he says. ‘I could put this in terms of wine-making just because I've been buried in that over the last 15 years; I feel like really good winemakers are able to let the grapes express themselves. Early on, you tend to get in the way a little bit, you have your signature and you want the wine to be good and maybe you second-guess things. And that's the nature of almost any musical project, you tend to be less fearful by the second or third record, and so if you have no fear, the third record ends up being a much clearer picture of who you actually are.’

Carina Round and Maynard James Keenan perform at Riviera Theatre in Chicago, Illinois

It would be inaccurate to define Puscifer merely as Keenan’s highfalutin solo project, with collaboration playing a major part in every record the band have released. A procession of eminent musicians have passed through the pudendum of Puscifer’s hallowed halls, including Tim ‘Herb’ Alexander (Primus), Jon Theodore (Queens of the Stone Age, ex-The Mars Volta), Josh Eustis (Telefon Tel Aviv, The Black Queen), Gil Sharone (Stolen Babies, ex-The Dillinger Escape Plan), Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk (ex-Rage Against the Machine). Money $hot has its fair share of collaborators too, but the songs were written by a core writing team of Keenan, Mitchell and Wolverhampton-born singer/songwriter Carina Round. The interplay between Keenan and Round acts as a vocal yin and yang, their voices interrelating and coalescing to form one viscous whole. ‘As soon as you add a different person with a different voice singing the same harmony, it then makes it much more of a rounded vocal ... no pun intended. It makes it wider, deeper and for lack of a better descriptor, it becomes more Fleetwood Mac and that's kind of the goal, to give it that angelic choir feel. Carina's an incredible musician and she gets my insanity, we're almost like the male and female versions of the same asshole, we work really well together. And then Mat Mitchell provides the anchor that grounds us, he’s appropriately stubborn in the centre of all that chaos; it makes for a great trinity.’

Maynard James Keenan, enigmatic vocalist with Puscifer, Tool and A Perfect Circle

Keenan has a number of other non-musical projects on the go as well, co-authoring his authorised biography (titled A Perfect Union of Contrary Things) as well as having a successful career as a vintner. Much has been made of his passion for wine; some think it adds a charming eccentricity to his character, whilst others are dismayed by the time it takes away from his music. What’s undeniable is that he’s prospered in the field, owning a winery in Jerome, Arizona called Caduceus Cellars and scheduling the recording, promoting and touring of his musical projects around the optimal harvesting season. ‘I don’t think people realise that there were vines in Arizona at the turn of the century before prohibition ruined everything and set us back 50 years’ he says. ‘As soon as prohibition hit, all those vines had to be pulled out and if you've ever planted a vine, you'll know that it takes a minimum of 4 - 5 years to see any decent fruit off it. Trying to catch up with that poor decision, from a culinary wine-making point of view, took a lot of time for us. Farm-to-table was standard practise before prohibition but with the dawn of World War 1 and 2, food was canned or frozen and there was more factory work as opposed to individual farms supporting a community. We're taking a long time to get back to that farm-to-table approach; it's a long and very cost-prohibitive process and people often don't appreciate fine wine on their table. It wasn’t until the mid-seventies that people started re-planting and there's not a lot of support or understanding for how much effort that takes and how it changes the economy.’

As with much of his work, Money $hot holds up a mirror towards humanity’s dark underbelly, and views these weaknesses through a wry satirical lens. It feels as if Keenan is trying to wake people from their vicarious existence by talking to them in a language they’ll understand; comedy. ‘I feel like there are so many things that have changed environmentally on a global scale that are affecting us, I think it's time for people to get back to basics and understand the consequences of their actions. In England, World War 2 was really the last cataclysmic event that hardened people up; with the constant bombing and the things you had to endure and witness as a culture, it really did put a nice thick shell on the people and I think in a good way. I feel like, as a species, you need those things that harden your armour a little bit and give you perspective and right now, there's nothing really giving anybody any perspective. Food, clothing and shelter are all very readily available in rural America and you're life isn't necessarily threatened on a daily basis. The only threat you have is being trampled on Black Friday trying to get a f**king Playstation at Wallmart.’

Puscifer begin their UK and European tour in Manchester on 30th May at Bridgewater Hall. Money $hot is available now through Puscifer Entertainment

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