Interview: Maynard James Keenan explains Puscifer ... sort of

  • Ron Newkirk photo
By Columbus Alive
From the June 21, 2012 edition

When a band publicist patched me through to Maynard James Keenan on the phone, I first asked him where he was calling from. “Unfortunately, Los Angeles,” he said dryly. This was the Maynard I was expecting, a man known for a song that openly wishes the West Coast would fall into the ocean with the refrain, “Learn to swim, see you down in Arizona Bay.”

I’ve followed his career closely over the years — I’ve seen Tool more times than I can count — and Keenan has always seemed like a tough interview subject. He’s not evasive, per se, but he’s definitely reluctant to place labels on his forms of expression — the possible exception being his winery, Caduceus Cellars (located in Arizona, of course).

I decided to just let Keenan label what he would. Here’s our conversation.

Over the years, Puscifer has sort of been an evolution as a project. How would you describe it in its current incarnation? Is the answer to “What is Puscifer?” different now than at its inception?

“No, it still is a moving target in a way, because it involves so many elements. It’s not just music; it’s kind of joined at the hip with winemaking, merchandise, performance, video, animation … eventually probably some sort of graphic novel. It’s always kind of been a moving target, and it continues to be. Although the one thing that now is more consistent with it is it’s grounded in a place (Arizona) rather than moving about.”

What is it about Arizona?

“In a way, it’s a return home for me. I grew up in very small towns and rural settings. I’ve been in Arizona now for 16 years. Clearly that’s where I’m supposed to be. I’ve spent more time there than almost anywhere else. It’s a small community, farming … very clear headspace. And the desert, in generally, is a very good place to find yourself. Or, you know, lose yourself.”

Similarly the live show is notoriously tough to define — I’ve seen it and I don’t know exactly what to call it. What do you call it?

“Now that you’ve seen it — and I’m sure you’ve seen interviews where I’m asked to describe it, now you have a little more empathy. I don’t know what to tell you that’s not going to give things away. But also if I was going to give things away, I don’t really know what to tell you. You just kind of have to see it … I’m not really being evasive, although I am being protective of certain surprises and certain elements. Even if I wanted to give it away, it’s kind of hard … It’s like describing a painting. Go look at it.”

Who should come to a Puscifer show and who should not?

“People with preconceived notions or expectations shouldn’t bother coming. If you’re closed-minded, we don’t really need you there. We’re looking for people who are willing to put down their camera phones and remember how to tell a story, because you can’t really retell that story if you’re not paying attention. You rely on your external devices to remember what happened. If you lose that external device, you can’t tell because you were too busy messing with it to actually be there with us, and to recount what happened. To be able to observe, interpret and report. We like people who are observers. And storytellers. We want people to be absorbed and inspired and just go do something.”

There was always kind of a purposeful enigma to this band. What was the reaction to the early tour when audiences didn’t know what to expect? How has that changed with the last tour?

“It will most likely be a different show in Ohio, because if we’ve done one of those shows, we tend to rotate them now. We’ll go back to some of the more tongue-in-cheek vaudevillian stuff that we’ve done before, just to kind of break it up in a different setting to kind of give people a different experience.”

Throughout your career there’s been almost a playful antagonism with certain segments of your audience. Kind of a “f--- you if you don’t get the joke.” Is that fair?

“Yeah. Are you familiar with Phil Hendrie? He does a radio show out of Los Angeles. He has a show where he does most of the voices, and he’ll have a topic that will come up and people that are driving around don’t realize when they start calling in, the ridiculous things when he’s arguing with some complete moron with some crazy platform that they’re trying to discuss on the air. The audience doesn’t realize that that’s him arguing with himself at two different places. So they call in and they get caught up in this afternoon talk show drama not even knowing that they’re the victims.

But he describes his audience as, he has his audience and he has his fans. And the show is for the fans. Because the people who know what’s going on are listing to these poor saps calling in thinking that they’re actually arguing with a real person. (laughs) It’s fantastic.

I guess I could say that is true of my projects. We have our audience, and we have our fans.”

What’s the difference?

“I have no idea. That’s the problem.”

Similarly you tend to perform live with some form of separation from the audience. Makeup, costume, video projection — what’s the reasoning?

“Because I think that every collective that you witness occurring on a stage, it’s not about any one of the individuals. There’s something that’s happened that’s kind of put all that stuff together into a much bigger result … some alchemy. It’s like saying the water is the most important part of pasta. What about the salt? What about the flour? What about the olive oil?

It’s not a separate event as far as an individual being responsible, so the more you can take the individual out of the picture and just witness the thing that’s happening I think is more important for you as a viewer. To not attach this energy to a particular individual.

It’s a collective experience. You know, I enjoy James Brown … but it’s James Brown.”

You’ve always had ties with the comedy world — your connection to Bill Hicks, involvement with Mr. Show, etc. Is the comedy aspect of Puscifer something you’ve always wanted to explore?

“Since the mid-’90s, really. Puscifer started in comedy clubs as multimedia presentations and kind of variety shows — before even Mr. Show occurred. Initially, when working with Green Jello, which ended up changing its name to Green Jelly with the ‘Three Little Pigs’ thing … Before I actually got started with Puscifer, Green Jello did ‘A History of Rock ‘n’ Roll According to Green Jello’ … It was a Halloween performance at Hollywood High with Tiny Time. I got to be Johnny Rotten that night.

So it kind of started way back then. ’92 …’91, and then it kind of evolved into those club settings where it was more of the comedy setting than the rock setting.”

Where do Puscifer songs come from? How is that place different from your other projects?

“Right from the start with Puscifer stuff, the music is important, but there’s other things to consider. But, generally speaking, the conversation I’m going to have with you is going to different from the conversation I am going to have with the next press person.

So there’s this idea that I have this big basket of ideas, and I decide where I’m going to take them and drop them off. That’s not what happens. I’m standing in a room with these other people and we have a conversation, and the idea comes out of that conversation with those people. I then go into a different space and have a different conversation. So it’s not like I’m coming up with ideas and deciding where I’m going to place them. The ideas come in that conversation, with those people, in that space.”

I notice later this month you'll be performing a festival with both Puscifer and Tool. Is that the first time you’ve had multiple projects performing that close together?

“The very first band ever to perform at Coachella was, in the morning on the main stage, was A Perfect Circle. And then I played with Rage Against the Machine at night and then the next night, Tool closed the show.”

Is there a different headspace for those?

“Absolutely. You don’t have to like actively switch them. It just happens naturally because you’ve already laid out the framework of where these rhythms take you. And you just fall into line. You do your part.”

Do you feel there’s a segment of your audience that wants you sort of frozen in time from your past work? People who want you to remain what you were, say, 15 years ago.

“Mm-hmm. And 15 pounds ago. Good luck … y’know, I’m almost 50. You can’t really expect that. And if you do, then that’s your problem, because expectations pave the road to hell.

Get with us. Find out who we are now. And good thing we recorded all that stuff for you. There you have it.”

Anything you’d like to add?

“Yeah, just let people know that no matter how weird things feel, keep in mind, take a deep breath and it’s all gonna work out.”