Maynard James Keenan says the music of his band Puscifer emerges from his subconscious and his surroundings. At first, I was hesitant to dive into the subconscious mind of the man who wrote the song “Sober.” I saw that video when I was 10 years old, and remember feeling both disturbed and fascinated.
Maynard James Keenan is often annoyed that hardcore Tool fans miss the humor in the band’s music. Admittedly, I’m not a hardcore Tool fan, so I might have missed the dark humor during the videos for Tool’s hard-driving prog rock, which often feature distressed humanoid creatures enduring traumatic experiences.
With Keenan’s other band, Puscifer, the playfulness is a bit more apparent. Just say the name. The band actually began as a joke during a variety show in a Los Angeles alt-comedy club called Tantrum, which spawned Tenacious D and the David Cross and Bob Odenkirk cult sketch comedy series “Mr. Show.”
“Money $hot,” Puscifer’s most recent album was released on October 30, 2015. Dark but humorous lyrics are definitely all over “Money $hot.” The music is a blend of prog rock, atmospheric ambient music and hardcore electro. It’s more groove-based, and not as mathy as other Keenan’s other prog rock projects. Perhaps that’s where the subconcious element comes from. It’s tribal. You can dance to it. It doesn’t sound like any of Keenan’s other projects – which is the point. The music reflects the space where it was created – the sun-scorched desert of Arizona. A place of crepuscular creatures, spiky cacti, immense canyons, tiny terrifying insects, sleeping snakes and tranquil psychedelic sunrises.
A Puscifer show is a multimedia experience featuring animation, video, comedy routines and of course the music. Images of masked Mexican wrestler known as luchadores pop up all over the various videos and stage shows. Keenan, a former wrestler, who occasionally trains with Brazilian jiu-jitsu workouts, appreciates the acrobatic performances of luchadores and compares them to what Puscifer does on stage.
Besides being a singer, guitarist, writer, filmmaker, performer and jiu-jitsu enthusiast, Keenan is also a vinter. He produces wine out of his Caduceus Cellars winery.
Mike Andrelczyk: I’m going to use a wine term to talk about music now, so hopefully it makes sense. Do you think there is a sense of terroir to Puscifer’s music? It seems very atmospheric.
Maynard James Keenan: Well, terroir is a very general term.
MA: I guess I was using it in the sense that a certain aspect of the land where the grapes are grown gives the wine its specific characteristics.
MJK: Terroir is basically a sum of everything that you couldn’t possibly calculate. A wide variety of variables. Most people exclude the winemaker’s hand from terroir, but that actually should be included. But in general, what you’re talking about, weather patterns, soils, daylight, average sunlight, that’s what terroir is, a broad stroke of an infinite number of variables. You could look at a hundred years of data in places like Diamante, Alba or Barbaresco and you’ll start to get a sense of what terroir might mean. For a new wine region like Arizona, we can’t even use the word terroir. We haven’t even had those patterns that we could even follow yet. To apply it to music though, I think the broad strokes that you’re using for terms, it would be the same as if you pick any six bands and you hand them “Stairway to Heaven” to perform and I don’t mean like a cover band at a bar, I mean an established band, and you have that band play that song and their terroir will shine through in their version of that song.
MA: I remember seeing the video for “Sober” by Tool when I was like 10 and feeling really uneasy but kind of fascinated, but the video for “Grand Canyon” [from “Money $hot”] is basically the exact opposite. It’s really calming and peaceful. What kind of inspiration do you draw from natural phenomenon like the Grand Canyon?
MJK: Every state has beautiful places, but I just feel like the Grand Canyon is so impressive on a large scale, the depth, the width, just the intensity of extremes. I was the producer and director, but all the shots I left up to the guys who actually shot the film. I think we captured a small piece of it in that film. To truly experience it you have to touch it, you have to go in it. You can take a photo of it, but unless you’re actually standing there or walking and you feel those living monuments moving, you just don’t really understand it.
MA: Do you have any thoughts on climate change and its effect on all this natural beauty?
MJK: Things are just gonna change. I think the hard part for humans to wrap their head around is that we may not be a part of the endgame. If we can embrace that and understand that we may just be a piece along the way, things will probably go a little easier for you.
MA: I wanted to talk about “Simulataneous” – another song on “Money $hot.” It has this, kind of like, Tom Waits-style narration in the beginning about an outsider among outsiders. Are you drawn to people like that?
MJK: Well, we all are. That’s what drives any kind of films, books, stories, music. The problem nowadays with the internet and the media latching onto whatever trainwreck – they love the trainwreck – they’ve lost touch with whatever the artist might express. They gravitate towards some idiot trainwreck, because that just fills newspapers and gets them more Google clicks or whatever has been monetized for you to be drawn to this trainwreck, rather than focusing on anyone who has actually put time in and has presented some art and who has actually been through some struggles. So, I think in general, we are all drawn to someone who is actually standing out in some way. But I think I’m drawn to the person who has actually done the work. And there’s a story to be told tragic or beautiful
MA: So Puscifer started as a joke band on “Mr. Show?”
MJK: Puscifer was already in existence before “Mr. Show.” I was actually doing a lot of stuff at Tantrum – Laura Milligan’s variety show and comedy presentation – it was in a little backroom at the Diamond Club back in the mid-90s and Puscifer was one of the names for the band that would show up at the end. The story goes that Laura Milligan – her character’s name is Tony Port – her boyfriend always promises he’s going to come and play and he never does and every now and then he actually does show up and I was Vince and I would show up with a band. One week we’re glitter, one week we’d show up in flannel and combat boots, one week we’re skinheads that do improvisational hardcore. And Puscifer was one of those incarnations. So we just kinda continued with Puscifer as a band from there.
MA: Can you talk about the collaboration with Carina Round on “Money $hot”?
MJK: We’ve been working with Carina for several records now, and because I have several other projects, it was really important for me to do a lot more with other people’s voices rather than just layering my own. It gives it a different feel, a different vibe. I’ll normally get as far as I can on something and if I hit a wall in a spot and need help or just an outside perspective, then I hand it to Carina and she’ll come up with a solution, or an idea that I feel like, that’s not the solution, but it inspired me to resolve it. I bounce a lot of ideas off of her to get it to the next level. But the actual driving force with [Puscifer] is actually all Mat Mitchell, he’s definitely the man behind the scenes who does it all. I’m completely reliant on him to do these things – so Carina and I just kinda sit back while Mat says, “OK, now go.”
MA: Do you kind of like taking a little bit, of a – I don’t want to say backseat role, but being a little bit out of the spotlight? Even in your press photos you’re kind of peeking over someone’s shoulder – like a bit in the background.
MJK: I really enjoy films that use actors that you’ve never seen. Because then you’re not distracted by the fact that, like, that’s Harrison Ford, and I like what he does and those actors have gotten where they’ve gotten for a reason – they’re able to express those characters and that’s fine. But, I think, sometimes when you know the person, it’s distracting. I’m a huge fan of James Spader, but I felt like he was distracting in “The Avengers” because I know his voice. He’s not even there and I know his voice. So in my mind, I’m watching James Spader read all those lines. So I kinda like it when the specific recognizable personalities are removed from the equation. You can get into the story more.
Puscifer performs at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 10 at the Santander Performing Arts Center in Reading. Purchase tickets here.