Puscifer: Can the world's most mysterious band really save us all?

As Maynard James Keenan and Carina Round unveil Puscifer's complex new album, the message is simple: “Be better people…”

Puscifer: Can the world's most mysterious band really save us all?
James Hickie
Travis Shinn

You’ve more than likely watched the infamous grainy live footage from a Tool show in 1997, of Maynard James Keenan hip tossing an overzealous fan that dared invade his stage, before sitting on him like a lion seizing its dazed prey. You’ve probably caught Maynard James Keenan playing the devil in the DIY comedy series Bikini Bandits, a leather thong confirming how thoroughly the red body paint covered him. You may have caught Maynard James Keenan swapping vocals for vino in the 2010 documentary Blood Into Wine, a Stetson atop his head, planting grapes in the unforgiving desert earth. You’ve seen these many unusual sights, and more, but have you ever witnessed Maynard James Keenan taking some ducks for a walk?

That’s the sight greeting K! on arrival at Maynard’s base of operations in the Arizonan town of Jerome, which accommodates the 56-year-old’s roles as husband, father of two, vintner, restaurateur and businessman – not to mention shepherd of fowl – and could be described as a compound given its size and elaborate set up. To do so, however, does it an injustice, inviting connotations of cults and military instillations at odds with the beauty of its rolling hills and orchards lush with fig and apricot trees.

It’s the kind of place that makes the prospect of lockdown a less gloomy one, which Maynard can attest to for the most part. “There have definitely been ups and downs. Some of our businesses have been struggling but we’re making it work,” he says of his ride on the corona-coaster, before pointing down at his feathered friends. “It helps to have your own wine and eggs.”

It’s not just food and drink that come from this land, either. Maynard cultivated his parts for Existential Reckoning here, too: the fourth full-length album from Puscifer, arguably his most mysterious musical project given that it’s yielded more music than his other bands Tool and A Perfect Circle over the past 13 years, while somehow remaining just as enigmatic.

The album fits in with that sense of wonder, with work starting in earnest before Tool’s fifth album, last year’s Fear Inoculum, was even mixed. In fact, 90 per cent of the graft on the album was completed by the beginning of this most terrible year, although its themes – the interactions between our emotion and digital lives in the face of trying circumstances – make it easy to view as a record in tune with the here and now.

Its artwork alone is dense with meaning, featuring an illustration of a bewigged and moustached Maynard flanked by two aliens, his ceremonial robes open to reveal a burning tower with a baby hovering above, pulled up by the tractor beam of a flying saucer. It brings to mind another iconic image of late, a meme that encapsulates 2020, in which a nervous looking group of extraterrestrials ready themselves to make this year even weirder. “We’re up next,” one of them is saying. “Fuck, I’m nervous.”

Maynard hoots at the idea. It appeals to his subversive sense of humour, and the sensibility of someone raised on TV shows like Star Trek and Lost In Space, and films like The Day The Earth Stood, that made him question whether mankind was engineered by another force in the universe, or accidental beings “just making shit up as we go”.

Which side is Maynard erring on given our current climate and that he’s less than 300 miles from Area 51?

“Even if we’re by intelligent design with a purpose, there’s always going to be some unexpected turn, like trying to pull off the perfect crime, like with every film there’s ever been a heist in, something always goes wrong.”

You can safely add ‘king of understatement’ to Maynard’s list of roles. His first line on opening track Bread And Circus confirms that status. ‘Here we are in the middle of our existential reckoning…’ he purrs over electronic beeps reminiscent of an '80s video game. It’s the sonic signature on an album yearning for the time before technology deepened divisions and expedited our doom.

“It came from watching things progress over the years,” he says of the lyric and the grander idea it birthed. “It’s us losing touch with things that I would consider as mattering. All this stuff happened before coronavirus. Western culture has lost the plot. I think there’s a way out, but we’ve got to remember how to talk to each other, and how to survive without destroying too much.”

Maynard breaks off suddenly, as if realising something.

“Uh oh,” he warns. “I’m starting to sound like a hippy.”

The last time this K! writer spoke to Maynard, at a swanky central London hotel in February 2018, he lamented having missed the latest series of The League Of Gentleman, the macabre cult comedy that’s among his favourite British TV exports, alongside The Office, Blackadder and Monty Python. It’s testament to how busy he’s been that more than two years later he still hasn’t managed to watch it.

“You’d think with all this time on [my] hands I’d have managed to do that,” he sighs. In lieu of catching up with the occupants of Royston Vasey, however, Maynard has managed to conjure his own colourful cast on Existential Reckoning. Chief among them is Billy D, whose mysterious disappearance provides the jumping off point for the album’s rather ‘out there’ storyline.

‘Billy D, rumoured to have been carrying nothing but a bottle of wine and a mysterious briefcase, [has] disappeared without a trace somewhere in the high deserts of the Southwestern United States’, we’re told in a supporting memo-cum-press release full of secretive redactions.

“I guess he’s the Ohio/Arizona version of The Dude,” says Maynard of the missing man’s similarities with Jeff Bridges’ character in The Big Lebowski. “He thinks he knows a lot but he doesn’t know much of anything, though he’s repeating a lot that he’s heard. He’s that accidentally insightful idiot.

“He’s representative of the people in the middle who remember that we’re not each other’s enemies. Of the divisive nature of the interweb, as it were, where every conversation starts with an argument. Anybody who wears that hat is Billy D. We exist; we co-exist, and are trying to figure out a way to navigate this whole thing. We know there are monsters in the world, but what does that have to do with this conversation I’m having with you right now? That’s the attitude.”

Maynard has some equally interesting characters as collaborators, too. In the aforementioned K! interview from 2018, Maynard was asked which musician he enjoyed the closest mental connection with. He chose two. “We all provide pieces that perhaps the others don’t have,” he explained of his choices, Puscifer co-vocalist and guitarist Carina Round and lead guitar player Mat Mitchell, having considered the “tough” question for some time. “We all feed off of those [differences].”

Such is Maynard’s respect for his bandmates, in fact, that the tongue-in-cheek press release for Existential Reckoning lists Mat and Carina as Special Agents in Charge – while he occupies the role of Special Agent in Training. And while Maynard is quick to clarify that, metaphorically, this refers to his role as the smuttily named alter ego Dick Merkin – “a lost soul who grew up on TMZ” – he concedes there’s real-world reasoning for his lower rank.

“As far as musicianship and vision for the music is concerned, [Mat and Carina are] far more knowledgeable than I am, especially in the studio. I’m second guessing and trying to fix things, while they have a lot more confidence, so I look to them for guidance.

“Mat is incredible at taking [technical] gear, programming and musicianship to create compositions,” continues Maynard, elaborating on the differing skill sets he alluded to in the past. “The piece he’s missing is where the story is going to go and how the melodies will lay in. Carina and I both provide him with the map that helps him go back and know where [Mat’s] going to take it because he can tweak for days. Carina, then, comes in after I’ve laid down a basic melody to help guide it. She’s a fixer.”

"You have to laugh at yourself"

Listen to Maynard discuss the role of humour in his work

“If I had to pick it apart and give you actual traits, I don’t think I could,” suggests Carina when we catch up later. “It’s like a good guacamole – you eyeball it and it turns out well, but on a bad day it doesn’t.

“I’m the opposite kind of artist to Maynard,” she continues, setting aside her avocado-based dip analogy. “I’m the kind of artist he wants to slap, who has to wait to be inspired, while he’ll say: ‘Now it’s time to write lyrics’ and go sit in his truck to do it.”

It’s fair to say Carina has a different attitude to unpacking the work than her bandmate, too, relishing the opportunity for some reflection. That may well be because it’s accompanied by a cup of coffee, a bar of chocolate and the chance to sit quietly, which, having spent lockdown with “a small tornado” – her boisterous three-year-old son – comes as something of a blessing.

“Thankfully we were making the record, otherwise I think I would have completely lost my marbles,” she admits, sat in a room in the Keenan family home. Despite doing the majority of her work on with Mat in his Los Angeles studio, this is the place where, in 2009, she successfully became a member of Puscifer.

The singer-songwriter – whose last solo album was 2012’s Tigermending – is curiosity, sweetness and self-deprecation personified. Her speech is measured and peppered with playful laughter, with an accent that veers between her native Wolverhampton and adoptive LA. Despite the friendly demeanour, however, Carina admits to adopting “a bull in a china shop” attitude to pursuing her dream of being a musician, and being a little sniffy at having to try-out for a band given that she’d never auditioned for anything before – or even had a job interview for that matter.

“The Britishness in me told me I was never going to get it,” she recalls now. “Plus, two weeks prior [to the audition] I’d done a show with my friend in Las Vegas. We were in this shitty hotel and I’d been devoured by bedbugs all over my body – my face, my hands, everywhere.”

So serious was the bout of feasting, in fact, that when Mat met Carina in Arizona there were still new bites appearing, which necessitated a trip to a shop en route to Maynard’s place to pick up any clothing high-necked and long-limbed enough to conceal the many nibbles. “I’d have worn a mask too if I could have.”

“The elephant woman”, as Carina describes herself at that point, needn’t have worried about being covered up, because when it came time to see what she could do on the track Mat and Maynard were working on in a bedroom-turned-studio, the latter’s sphinx cat wrapped itself around her shoulders as she sang. The feline’s similarly hairless owner, meanwhile, was a little less warm that day, distracted by a problem at the winery that made his feedback somewhat difficult to decipher.

“I thought ‘fuck it’ and did whatever because I didn’t know what the fuck he was talking about,” she says of Maynard’s instructions. “He came back in later and said, ‘That’s not what I said,’ of what I’d done, before poking his head around the door again and adding, ‘But it’s really beautiful.’”

"We wanted to get this out as fast possible"

Hear Maynard on Existential Reckoning becoming even more relevant since it was recorded

The track Carina worked on that day is indeed beautiful. The Humbling River – from 2009’s “C” Is For (Please Insert Sophomoric Genitalia Reference Here) EP – stands as one of the most staggering songs Maynard has put his name to, which, given the exquisiteness of his many works, is saying something.

“The rest is history,” laughs Carina, seemingly bringing things up to date.

Except, of course, it isn’t. There’s the small matter of what light Carina, as Puscifer’s “fixer”, can shed on the band’s latest, given that Maynard doesn’t readily précis his work for the sake of a natty soundbite.

“There’s the extraterrestrial whatever,” she starts before pausing, concerned about misrepresenting any meanings. “But that’s a metaphor for what [Maynard’s] trying to say. The message is about synthesising the digital with the intuitive to create something magical.”

These intriguing details point towards a continuation of ideas explored on the band’s last album, 2015’s Money Shot. Despite its suggestive title and denim clad cowboy cover art, it explored humanity’s approach to a precipice, while advocating a greater appreciation for the world around us. Its subtext suggested that acknowledging our insignificance in the grand scheme of things is no bad thing.

“We’re not getting out of this,” says Maynard of where we’ve arrived since. “You have to choose to make this an inclusive better place for everyone. Is everyone with any power trying to drive wedges between us? Fuck yeah, every day! We have to make the choice, as individuals, to be better people – to do no harm, treat your neighbour as you would yourself – all those things that down through the ages have been chiselled into stone as a way we have to be. Right now, more than ever, this is our existential reckoning!”

While Maynard has his role as Dick Merkin, he may well be Billy D, too. The clues are there. Having described the character as an Ohio/Arizona version of The Dude – Maynard was born in the Ohio city of Ravenna and as we know now resides in Arizona; Billy D having disappeared carrying a bottle of wine – given the rows of vines nearby, that one probably needs no further explanation; and Maynard calling himself an “optimistic pessimist” while Billy D is “trying to come from a place of compassion, but when you’ve had the rug pulled from underneath you, you’re a little more realistic about it”, which sounds mighty similar.

The answer to this question isn’t forthcoming, though, because offering direct explanations isn’t Maynard’s style – largely because, as he’s told K! before, when it comes to his music there’s never just one to be had.

Similarly, as the focus shifts to Puscifer’s place in relation to his other bands, the singer’s flow begins to dry. This hesitation seems less about reluctance and more about his inability to articulate how the many tendrils of his life interlink because he’s too busy operating at the heart of it all.

Ask, for example, whether he considers the band he’s previously described as his “creative subconscious” – to be his most personal band and there’s a lengthy pause and an apology.

“I don’t know how to answer that. Everything I’ve been involved with is very personal. Even if it’s being an observer from a distance, it’s still personal.

“I don’t think any one of these projects acts as home base,” he adds when pushed. “We all have our own home base. For me it’s my family. In terms of music, there’s time for all of those places to feel like home away from home.”

Inquire whether Puscifer having made four albums, plus various remix, live and EP releases since 2007 – a time frame resulting in just one album a piece from A Perfect Circle (2018’s Eat The Elephant) and Tool – is indicative of a less complicated working dynamic, and he alters the parameters of the question to something more manageable.

“How soon those pieces come to me, that might be what you’re asking… some of those pieces come more quickly than others in order for me to do my job. It’s all just conversations. Some conversations come more a little easier than others, but I don’t think in terms of any being an easier path.”

One thing’s for sure: none of us are on an easy path right now. While things are holding for Maynard’s businesses currently, it could be a very different story if the world’s difficulties continue for another couple of years. And what of the threat coronavirus poses to music? As a man who’s future-proofed himself with his non-band endeavours, and having weathered the storm of the industry’s many changes before, is Maynard hopeful of a way out?

“Whatever gravy train you think we’re on, it’s stopped several times in the past 15 years. Nothing is forever. The only constant is change.”

Maynard is certainly no stranger to being nudged by the fickle finger of fate, having entered the profession that’s made him famous “by accident” after moving to LA in the 1980s, assuming it would fall away at some point. More than 30 years on, then, with music such an established component in Maynard’s life, how would he feel if it were to stop as suddenly as it began?

“It would suck,” he asserts. “But I would find a way as I’m a resilient person. It’s not the end of life; it’s the end of that path. If that path is blocked, you fucking find a way around it!”

And with that Maynard distils his ethos and a key takeaway from Existential Reckoning, killing two birds – thankfully not ducks – with one stone.

Existential Reckoning is out October 30 via Alchemy Recordings/Puscifer Entertainment/BMG.

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