“You Have To Capture The Moment You’re In, Not The One You Were In” – Maynard James Keenan
When Puscifer emerged in 2007 with a single called C*ntry Boner and a debut album named V Is For Vagina, a lot of people thought Tool/A Perfect Circle frontman Maynard James Keenan’s latest band was just a project for him to exercise his comedic impulses. But the joke’s on you if you think Puscifer are just a joke: over three brilliant albums, they’ve released some extremely powerful, not to mention moving, music. Recently, in K!1621, we caught up with Maynard ahead of Puscifer’s first UK tour to find out all about how the band has evolved and how it continues to inspire and challenge him. Still, there’s more to Puscifer than that. Much more. Reaching him at his home in Arizona, it’s time to find out more about rock’s most mysterious frontman and one of the world’s most enigmatic bands…
Hello, Maynard. It had been a long time coming, but what finally made the UK tour happen?
Maynard James Keenan: “I used to be in the military, I was a surveyor, so whenever you’re trying to establish a point of reference, three points kind of end up establishing it for you. I think having these three full records out – and the EPs – has given us the seven years needed for people to kind of digest what this is and be vocal enough about it, and have promoters catch up with the interest. Just because there’s a bunch of people interested doesn’t mean the promoters know about it. They’re looking at K‑Rock and wondering, ‘They’re not on K‑Rock they might not be popular.’ Welcome to the tar pit, dinosaur!”
Oddly enough, I recently visited a tar pit…
“Did you see a bunch of DJs? Was there a record company executive sort of slowly sinking in it?”
There were a lot of bubbles. So, one of your goals seems to be to make the Puscifer live shows a unique experience – was that a reaction to the fact that all gigs are up on YouTube almost immediately these days and there’s few surprises left?
“I think partly. But I just think in general, even with bands that I love, I find myself bored with, ‘We’re all standing out here staring at you, and the four of you are up there strumming and jumping around, and shaking your hips a little and regurgitating your songs back at us.’ There’s not really a show. There’s something to be said about live music if Nick Cave gets up on stage with a piano in a single spotlight – I’m going to be mesmerised because that’s a show. There’s something about him you want to watch. But not everybody can do that. So just four ding-dongs jumping around there with their new songs just seems boring to me. There’s your basic light show: the lights blink, we clap, they do another one. It seems boring. That was a challenge for me to see how I could integrate more theatrical elements to the show without it taking away from the show, but rather adding to the show. Years ago with Tool we tried to bring out Bill Hicks to see if we could do, like, an opening: he does a set, we do a set, he does a set, we do a set – I dabbled in it a little bit, it never worked out, of course, because he passed away. But later on we had David Cross come out and do stuff, we had Tenacious D open for us and the audience was absolutely rude. They were violent. So, I kind of abandoned it. But I thought, ‘Puscifer’s not that band, so maybe I can get away with it here,’ and we’ve been able to.”
Alongside the unique shows, humour has always been a key part of Puscifer. On your latest record Money $hot you address your love of Monty Python with the song The Life Of Brian (Apparently You Haven’t Seen) – what went through your mind when you wrote that?
“Well, honestly, that was a rough one. We just kept chasing our tails around and around on how to approach that song. We had various versions of it that just weren’t working at all. It’s one of those ones on the album that when it clicked it was like, ‘Aaaaah, it’s awesome it finally worked.’ From a writing perspective, it was such a relief when we finally broke through that one. But just in general, I feel there’s a lot of people that get obsessed over things that they shouldn’t – there’s a lot of amazing philosophers and really intelligent people that have written extensive books and collections on the idea of metaphor and how a lot of cultures get caught up on the metaphor, rather than the thing that the metaphor’s kind of pointing towards. That kind of blind worship, that’s distracting. As you get older you go, ‘Maybe they’ll figure it out’ and clearly they just haven’t. So, humour, when you bring in something like a film like The Life Of Brian, anybody who’s seen the film and enjoys the film immediately get it. They don’t even have to hear the song; they know exactly what I’m taking about. So in that respect, in a way, I’m paying a bit of an homage to the Monty Python crew to inspire a whole new generation of people to watch that film. Maybe it’ll help nudge something in them. The song is a gateway drug to Monty Python.”
As well as Monty Python, Puscifer have also really embraced remixes. What do you get out of handing your music over to other people – have you learned anything about yourself in the process?
“I’m not sure if I can even articulate this, I’m not that bright, but I’ll try. When you think of Pink Floyd, The Dark Side Of The Moon, that’s a finished piece. And bands tend to think that when they’re doing the records. Historically it’s the way we’re taught or we’ve grown up listening to music – when it comes out, that’s it, there’s going to be nothing different about that thing. As time’s gone on, I think Puscifer’s embraced the idea that, ‘We’ve had this idea for this song, and now we’re going to explore a completely different idea for this song.’ So, rather than it being a fixed object, it’s actually a moving target. For The Undertaker, we had five different versions and I don’t think there’s any one of them that I like more than the other one. I think they’re all very interesting directions for the song.”
Considering you said how hard it can be to just make one song, is that not torturous? Like, when does a song ever end?
“Yeah, but it can also be liberating. Why not just get that song to where we feel like it’s 100 per cent done for now, for this day, where we are right now? We can always come back because we’re going to be in a different spot in a year and re-release that song.”
You’ve said in the past that films and books are not only a great source of inspiration to you but also a means to convey the emotional pitch of a song you’re writing to your band mates. What’s been inspiring you lately?
“Man, that’s a tough one. Lately, I’ve not been doing much reading at all, I’ve been working with my friend Sarah Jensen, she’s the one that’s been drawing my life story out of me for a biography. It’s really interesting to go back and go, ‘Really that was my life? I did that?’ or ‘I didn’t do that?’”
What stage are you at?
“It’s delivered, we’re just arguing about the cover.”
You don’t want to lose that battle…
“I already did! I don’t like the cover, I don’t like the font. But you know what? Fuck it. I don’t put books at airports or at whatever bookstores are left; I don’t know how that works. I know with Puscifer, we’re an independent band so the cover of a Puscifer CD… I don’t care! I’m not trying to bring you in the door. The covers tend to be completely contrary and goofy compared to what’s inside the CD. If we need a cover that’s going to sell from across the room – I have that background; I can do that for you. I’m totally good at that. But I didn’t do it with Puscifer, I was more about, ‘This is how I’m feeling today, let’s put that one out there!’”
It’s interesting to think how you must have been feeling for the cover of Conditions Of My Parole?
“Oh God, yeah. I mean, Conditions was like four or five years past MySpace, and I just remembered some of the photos that were circulating on it – some of the funniest crap! I was just like, ‘Wow, we’re a mess as a culture!’ (Laughs) I had to capture that somehow, so that was the cover.”
Going back to the book, what made you feel it was the right time to release it?
“I turned 50. I thought we’d be able to get it done by the time I turned 50, but it was a lot more laborious process. Sarah’s really good at doing research so she went above and beyond the call of duty on picking up details outside of the story and bringing them into the book for absolute structure. It took a lot longer than we thought it would.”
Did you give her all your private papers?
“No, I gave her a lot of photos and, basically, just every Sunday we’d speak for an hour or two hours and just try and go through era by era.”
Did you learn anything about yourself in the process?
“Yeah, I’m a prick. Are you sitting down?”
Yes, I’m sitting down…
“Turns out I’m a prick. The end. (Laughs) I did not know that. It was a very rewarding experience seeing some of the crossroads and choices made and how a lot of it ended up coming down to intuition. By just trusting your instincts. I think people that are raised as an only child kind of have a little bit more of that than most people, because we don’t have siblings to correct our path or tell us what’s acceptable, or not acceptable. We just have the voice in our head, which is our own, you know?”
Have you always stayed true to that?
“I feel so, yeah. And even when you’re not, if you’re not learning something… are you a fan of the UFC at all? Conor McGregor? I wasn’t a huge fan of him and then I just love that guy now. He was so true to his own self; running his mouth, getting his ass kicked. In my mind you either win, or you learn, or you’re a loser. Those are the three. I feel like he learned, it was great. To answer your question, I think you make choices and then you learn from the choices. That’s what it really comes down to. If you’re just a negative person in general, I guess you consider yourself a loser if you made the wrong choices. I don’t think of that. I know the choices I’ve made with every band I’ve ever been in – and the approaches we’ve made for songs – I don’t ever think of anything as a failure. It was just a learning process. You can go back and get a bit of 20/20 hindsight on a piece and go, ‘Ok, I would have done that differently.’ They’re not all gonna be winners, there are going to be learners.”
In terms of inspiration, what has been inspiring you lately?
“Going back to inspiration in films and books, the self-indulgent biography aside, I’ve just been watching anything and everything. Even if it’s a crap show, I really like trying to puzzle out, ‘What the hell was the writer thinking with this story?’ Like, where are they going with this? I’m so curious! You’ve managed to put 12 episodes together for a TV show and it’s still on – I’m so curious to figure out how this train-wreck happened. I’ll just watch them all. Of course, I’m inspired by the better-made films and Breaking Bad, things like that. I just really like dissecting shit TV. Even in those awful programmes there are archetypes – there’s myth and metaphor contained in those things that some people are responding to. What is the architecture of that script that’s captivating an audience to have them watch these shit, awful actors with stupid fucking hairdos for 12 episodes. How did that happen? What’s the story that’s captivating people? I’m fascinated by those things.”
So, who is inspiring you in the music world right now?
“I’m always a huge fan of Greg Edwards. Autolux is really a fantastic band. Definitely an example of guys who need their feet on the ground, because they’re so out in the ether, and so indie, and very Portlandia in their approach to things. God bless ’em, they’re a mess, but their fucking music is incredible. So I can’t fault them for that – they deliver. I’m always listening to Failure’s stuff, then there’s Tricky working with Massive Attack again and PJ Harvey. All those things excite me because when I go into the cellar to work on the wine come the last week of July, we have soundtracks. Whatever fruit comes in, my friend Tim and I pick the soundtrack for the day and we process whatever fruit’s coming in that day to a particular soundtrack and write it down. Now, starting 2014, when our vintages start coming out, along with the tasting notes, at the very bottom there will be the soundtrack for that day when we actually processed it. That’s really exciting to me to have all this new music coming out for harvest. That’s always great. We have the Pink Floyd day, one where we have Steve Martin comedy going along with Earl Scruggs. So as far as new music, I’m trying to keep my eyes peeled. I need that person handing me the music to be inspired by.”
“I think so. I think everyone’s wired for a certain area. If you’re born in the London area and your parents were eating Marmite as a kid, there’s something in you that resonates with that area – that chaos seems harmonious to you. And when you have Marmite on toast you don’t retch. It was in your mother when you were in the womb, so somehow it’s part of you. I wasn’t in that. I was in a small town, low-income family. I had a harder time writing more balanced songs in LA because I was out of balance. I was more aggressive and angry about being there, I guess. So being in a quieter setting, I can let some form of elegance shine through more – because there’s no noise.”
You’ve seen dozens of changes in the music industry throughout your career. Do you ever worry about the present state of the music business into which you’re releasing music that you’ve laboured over?
“I think what happened with us is that we managed to be right on that cusp. When Mat [Mitchell, Puscifer guitarist] and I were in hotel rooms, dressing rooms, local studios, travelling around the country recording the V Is For Vagina album, the music industry had, let’s just call it, 1,000 record stores, and by the time we actually released that record there were only 200 record stores. It went down to one fifth of the stores remaining from the time we were mixing to the time we released. I thought we still had a little bit of time; if we could just get it out right before the wave crashed, I felt like we were going to be ok. But we didn’t. We weren’t. Comparatively, it was gone. But, more than a silver lining, that made us really dig our heels in on being independent and self-sufficient. I think that’s what came out of that in a positive way. We were able to go, ‘Okay, there isn’t an industry, so we’re going to build this’. That gave us all this time to slowly develop who we were. If there was a huge industry in place still, I’m not sure where Puscifer would be. If we were shoved down people’s throats right away, before we actually got to the point where we are right now? I don’t know. So, addressing your question, I think the current state now is we’re in a weird spot. There’s almost a generation and a half of people who don’t understand why you paid for Jimi Hendrix or David Bowie. I’m sure there’s a bunch of awesome stuff out there, but because there’s no industry to really present it to you, you really have to dig – and most people are lazy as fuck. They’re not going to find those amazing bands that exist in their back yard. And most bands that are existing in the backyard must be crazy – because if they’re actually trying to pursue a music career in their garage: to what end? There’s no place to go (laughs) – no-one’s buying anything. How do you make your living doing that? You must be out of your mind!”
I feel depressed now…
“Well, you know, it doesn’t matter because art will prevail. Those songs are going to come out and eventually there’s going to be some major shift where it all comes back in a beautiful way. Independent, let’s call it more balanced, artists. Because most artists get caught up because they’re just trying to emote and it’s, ‘I’m just trying to feel, maaaaan’ and they hand the reins to some douchebag manager or record company person that ruins their path and career, or coddles them so all they are is emotion – and it’s like a drunk child with a weapon steering the ship. You are now in charge of your own destiny. There’s nobody else to do it for you, so you have to figure out somehow, in you, the balance between balancing the books, looking forward for your career and getting in that emotional space to write those songs.”
So there might be a positive outcome after all…
“You can decide your own destiny on your own terms by not just living out in the ether. You have to have your feet on the ground, too. That’s good. I think that’s a good thing.”
“The harmonies. Recording a harmony in the studio and going back and fixing the pitch issues and going back and re-singing it and paying attention to a particular spot where there’s a rub, to being onstage live and doing three part harmonies and having to be connected with the other two people on the stage with those harmonies – that’s a wonderful challenge.”
What kind of preparation do you have to do for touring?
“It’s really been taking a lot more warming up before the show, paying attention to diet – everything you wouldn’t think goes into touring. You know you’re going through Kansas City and you’ve got all the various awesome barbeque places? You can’t eat them.”
Not even a bit?
“Nope. Because then you get on the bus, your stomach is upset, you get reflux and you can’t sing the next day. When we step out the door, well, two weeks before the tour, I’m preparing, just getting ready. It’s an, ‘All in’. The most important part of your body now is the two little pieces of flesh in your throat. And you have to pay attention to everything – everything – that affects them.”
Thinking of the voice as an instrument – do you still feel you’re learning how to use it?
“I’m always learning, man. I always feel that at any minute my voice is going to break and it’s going to be a train-wreck or someone’s going to go, ‘Did he mean to hit that note?’ or where the character of the note doesn’t make sense. I’m always fighting the spots in every song that I almost dread every night because I don’t know how I’m going to make it through them. So, no, I don’t have total control.”
Do you ever think you’re making life too hard on yourself in the studio, then?
“Well, you paint yourself into the corner, like that song needs that note to make it make sense. You try and reproduce that every night live and that’s a huge challenge. As long as you’re writing new material and coming out every couple of years then that’s great because you’re singing and writing where you are right now, rather than recreating something you did when you were 25. I mean, 25 and 51 are not the same age.”
How have you coped with that?
“You adjust the way you approach the song and singing. Everything has to be adjusted to where you are now – we’re capturing moments, you have to capture the moment you’re in, not the one you were in.”
You’ve previously stated that you experimented with Bulgarian choir style on Grand Canyon on Money $hot – are there any other vocal mountains still left for you to climb?
“Yeah, we kind of hit a little bit of that on Grand Canyon. I have a hard time with singing falsetto live and maintaining any kind of integrity to the note. I would like to figure out some way to be comfortable and confident enough live to be able to do a full song live in falsetto without feeling like I’m boring the fuck out of people.”
They probably wouldn’t get bored…
“Well, if I’m wearing a dress with a fucking bra then, no, they’d be completely entertained while I did that. Like, ‘Look over here while I do this awful falsetto.’”
Earlier on you said that you find film engaging, and you’ve obviously acted in films and made your documentary, Blood Into Wine. Do you see yourself making another documentary – are there any other subjects you want to tackle?
“I think I need to remake that film because I no longer remember the guy that was in that film. We had so little to talk about at the point that film was actually made, there’s been so much more – so many developments in Arizona since that film was made. I feel like, not really a follow-up, but a new film. There’s a lot of people that really enjoy what I’m doing with the Arizona fruit and there’s easily a dozen guys in the state that are knocking my dick in the dirt – they’re doing such great work, but nobody really knows about them outside the state. I feel like another documentary would be important to show, ‘no, it’s not just some rock douchebag with deep pockets with a vanity project in the middle of the desert and nothing else is happening’. No, I’m one of dozens making wine here.”
So: Puscifer, Tool, A Perfect Circle, Winemaking, book-writing… how are you juggling all of this?
All things considered, you’re doing it well…
“The trick is that I’m not doing it all. If I was some kind of egomaniac and tried to do it all I would fail. You have to be ok with trusting other people around you to carry the weight and load and share the credit. I could not have done this biography without Sarah. It just would not have happened with Sarah. You need the right people around you.”
Finally, Puscifer have been very prolific; do you anticipate another record or EP sooner rather than later?
“We’re still within that year of release – we released in November so we’re still focused on this album, but I think Mat is already compiling all the remixes from various artists. We’re going to shoot for a remix release either fall or spring.”