“Things are going to fall into a place we hadn’t expected”: Maynard James Keenan on Puscifer, community, and the importance of whispering
It’s been a rough 24 hours for Maynard James Keenan. When we reach him in Jerome, Arizona, it’s the day after he topped up on the COVID vaccine.
“I just had my second shot, so I’m having aches and chills,” he explains from his home. “I had some weird, strange fever dreams. It’s not how I wanted to sleep.”
This, it should be noted, is coming from someone who has already wrestled with COVID before. Twice. Maynard recently revealed to Apple Music Hits that he ended up in hospital in December 2020…
“[I] couldn’t breathe,” he said. “I could barely put two words together without going into a coughing fit. It ended up kind of also progressing into pneumonia.”
But while Maynard’s body is recuperating from the jab, his mind is very much preoccupied with Puscifer. The band – completed by Mat Mitchell (guitar, production) and Carina Round (vocals, songwriting), as well as a host of other collaborators – have been teeming with ideas lately.
Last year they released their brilliant fourth album Existential Reckoning and played the album in full in the beautiful outdoors of Arcosanti, Arizona, for a livestream. And that was just for starters.
Earlier this month, Puscifer released the trippy extended video for Bullet Train To Iowa which features Billy Dee – one of a host of colourful characters alongside the likes of Hildy Berger and Major Douche that star in Puscifer’s visual clips – riding a flying caravan through the desert prior to being abducted by aliens. Is Maynard concerned that the video’s negative portrayal of vigorous alien probing may have set the UFO aviation industry back decades?
“Concern?” he muses for precisely one microsecond. “Nope.”
The video itself was a prelude for last weekend’s spectacular Billy D And The Hall Of Feathered Serpents Featuring Money $Hot By Puscifer livestream, which saw the group perform their third album in its entirety, replete with a cast of Luchador wresters.
Up next we have the release of Existential Reckoning as a beautiful European exclusive picture disc vinyl, so you can now revel in its beguiling artwork all over again (“Daniel Martin Diaz is an incredible artist,” praises Maynard, “I highly recommend you check out his work”).
Here, K! catches up with Maynard to find out what’s next for this most exciting and unpredictable of bands…
Let’s begin with the desert dwelling scamp Billy Dee in the Bullet Train To Iowa video. It’s hard to tell whether to feel sorry for him or revere him…
“He’s a total fuck-up. He’s just that selfish unconscious part of all of us that just keeps fucking up fast, and it’s picking up speed no matter what he does. He’s got an extremely patient wife named Hildy, but even she’s lost her patience at this point.”
Yet no matter what terrible things also happen to him, he just seems to roll with the punches…
“He’s our alcoholic Winnie The Pooh.”
People often talk about how music enhances the world of characters as they appear in films and TV. What have characters such as Billy Dee brought to Puscifer’s music?
“They bring pieces of us that are positive, pieces that are negative, and give them a way to vent. Quite a few of those characters are not really directly connected to the music; they’re more of a vibe for a perspective and point of view. In a positive way, and in a confusing way, it ends up opening up more possibilities – and sometimes you end up more confused than when you started. It ends up being a nice puzzle.”
It’s reassuring to hear that sometimes even you are confused by your own creations…
“Yeah (laughs), it’s absolutely baffling, like, ‘How the hell are we going to paint our way out of this [narratively]?’ But it’s a good puzzle to have, it keeps you sharp.”
Given the cast of characters in Puscifer and the fact you’re still pouring a lot of creativity into it, to what extent do you still see Existential Reckoning as a work in progress – that releasing an album is only ever part of the process?
“We’re actually working on a rework album, but I have no idea when it will come out because everything with COVID and holidays threw a wrench in some of it, but it is getting done. We don’t have anything scheduled yet for it to come out, but those are songs that are going to probably change direction, and when we go out and actually tour them, they’ll probably evolve as well.”
You often come across as someone who’s always driving forward, not wanting to spend much time revisiting what you’ve already done. With that in mind, it’s great that the Money $hot album got to have its moment again…
“Yeah, well, partly it’s because we did film it on the road, but the lighting was off, the audio wasn’t quite where it needed to be. We had a film, but it just wasn’t good enough to present, so I’ve been hounding Mat, like, ‘I want to do this again at some point.’ Mat’s the kind of person that says, ‘We’re not going to repeat it, we will change and improve it.’ And he did, he’s incredible. You can have video footage in a live show, but sometimes it’s hard to hear it depending on the setting – the story might get lost unless you have subtitles, and then you don’t really know or understand who Billy Dee, Major Douche or Hildy are. You’re kind of lost and don’t really understand what’s going on with that. So I think with these pay-per-views, we can actually bring all those stories right in front of you.”
With no disrespect to your in-the-flesh gigs, these pay-per-views do seem like they might be the ultimate Puscifer live experience in terms of presenting the music and visuals at the same time.
“I agree, just because we have a lot of creative people in our little pool for humans, and we all have various ideas on how to execute something like this that’s so visual and performance-oriented. There’s a level of flexibility that comes with it. There’s quite a bit we can do with a live show, and we do more than most but [with this] there are ways to, not really break the mould, but go back to a more theatre-like presentation of a band. We’re not going to reinvent theatre, but we can merge it in ways that you hadn’t seen for a while, and open up possibilities for other people. In this filming format, with the pay-per-views, there are ideas that we can now get done that we just can’t do live.”
Obviously a lot of the Money $hot songs are Puscifer set staples, but was revisiting the album in its entirety a gruelling process?
“I loved it because there were parts when we were actually rehearsing when Mat, Carina and I were like, ‘Hey, we should push this one a little farther,’ or, ‘We should give it a different vibe.’ And that way it ends up being a somewhat new version of it, but not so far out that you don’t recognise it. It is the same version but subtle, dynamic differences. It wasn’t gruelling.”
Often bands stress how there’s almost a torturous psychological aspect to delivering the whole atmosphere of an album live. How did you find that?
“If they’re waiting 20 years to do it, they might not be the same people they were when they wrote that song, so it might be hard for them to actually pull it off.”
Let’s wait for the 40th anniversary of Money $hot and see what you say, then…
What does performing at a beautiful outdoor location like Arcosanti, for example, bring out in you as a performer that maybe we don’t get when you’re playing a venue that reeks of stale beer and piss?
“I can give you an example: in our recording studio in Arizona, I can see the landscape, I can see the olive tree and the vineyard from the studio. I think a lot of people go into that studio setting and they think they have to lock themselves away in this beautiful closet – but it’s a closet. You don’t see the sun rise or set in the studio. The club is a club with four walls and you don’t see the outside, but when you’re playing in the middle of a field in Arizona? It’s another level of connection.”
The Arcosanti stream concluded with the image of a new day dawning and you singing ‘It’s going to be alright’. Yet there’s so many different meanings of a term like that – there’s the ‘It’ll get better’ interpretation and there’s the cosmic ‘We’ll all be dead one day, none of this matters’ one…
“(Laughs) Yeah. The double-sided coin. But it all works out, right?”
Well, right now, do you believe everything’s going to be alright?
“I honestly think things are going to fall into a place that we hadn’t expected. This is just a minor example, but just that tactile experience you get with vinyl instead of the digital space: just touching a thing, putting it on the turntable and having to babysit it and flip it over. There’s just something, a connection, a tactile connection to a thing like that, I think we had lost touch with. It’s really interesting to see things like that coming back; people are planting little gardens outside their house, and community gardens down the street. There are just little things where we’re connecting [again]. Because once people know the difference, they feel the difference.”
Was that part of the reason to reissue Existential Reckoning as a picture disc?
“Yeah, but just in general, it’s still just a thing, right? It’s not really the art – the music and the sound is the art, but to have it presented in this tactile form where you can look at the liner notes? I really miss that about music in the ’90s.”
Another thing you addressed in your recent Easter message was the power of community. What was interesting was also the way in which it was delivered almost like a digital journal entry. Why did that message find expression in a video rather than a song?
“That’s a story that I’ve tried to tell before, but I didn’t really feel like I had [the right way of doing it]… I shot it all on my iPhone and looking at the footage I had in my phone, I said, ‘I should tell that story’ and connected it with the ducks. Looking at these ducks and eggs, I could actually flag a connection with the story in real time – it’s not just storytelling. Sometimes with a song you get lost in the lyrics and the rhythm and you don’t necessarily actually hear the message, you don’t necessarily hear the words because they’re buried in rhythms and melodies. Sometimes people listen more when you’re whispering.”
Did battling COVID in any way change the way you think about life? It’s tough when your body gets shaken like that…
“It’s scary when you realise that one wrong turn, like if I might have made the wrong decision on the wrong day on what treatment I was going to get, it could have escalated in a way that there was no coming back [from]. It was pretty touch and go. Having had parents who grew up on a farm and who taught me how to get ahead of the flu – here’s what you don’t do, here’s what you do – helped me get through.”
So how much existential reckoning have you been doing this past year?
“It’s a very strange time to be alive, watching everything change in a weird, strange way, where the lines of reality are blurred and we’re not really sure what’s truth and lie. We’ve gone back and figured out what’s most important. When something that extreme comes along, you kind of start to go, ‘Shit, I might not know what I think I knew.’ It was a reality check.”
The European exclusive picture disc edition of Existential Reckoning is due out on April 30 and can be ordered here.
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