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Maynard James Keenan Talks Puscifer, A Perfect Circle and the Latest on Tool

Maynard James Keenan
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

Multimedia renaissance maverick Maynard James Keenan doesn’t care about meeting expectations or adhering to any sort of formula. He’s not the kind of guy you’ll see at a Hollywood after-hours party or vivaciously plugging his music on radio stations across the nation.

When he’s not working specifically with Tool, he hates being asked about the band that brought him most of his fame. And even when he’s promoting his elusive project Puscifer, he prefers not to lay down all his cards, avoiding answering questions about aesthetic decisions or the meanings of his lyrics.

Basically, Puscifer is his new baby, and one he has invested with plenty of his own cash. And it’s not just a band, it’s a nebulous amalgam of ideas, expressions and mediums that involves comedy, absurd theatrics, obscenity, confrontation and countless styles of music, including electronic, crashing rock, blues and atmospheric alternative.

Puscifer’s 2007 debut ‘”V” is for Vagina’ (the title of which came from an episode of HBO’s genius sketch comedy program ‘Mr. Show’) was all seedy groove and throbbing trip-hop beats, courtesy of Primus’ Tim Alexander and Rage Against the Machine’s Brad Wilk and a Macbook full of electronics. Their new album, ‘Conditions of My Parole,’ is more developed, structured and edgy, filled with abrupt musical contrasts and striking, melancholy vocals. (Read Loudwire’s stellar review of the disc here.)

During a surprisingly amiable conversation with Keenan, the singer discussed the creation of ‘Conditions of My Parole,’ the freedom of being independent, the advantages of collaboration and the limitations of conventional bands, as well as the recent A Perfect Circle tour. Keenan also talked about his inability to tour for extended periods of time, apocalyptic predictions and the current status of his other little band, Tool.

Originally, the new Puscifer album ‘Conditions of My Parole’ was supposed to be an EP.

It accidentally ended up being a full album. We got into the writing process and had a lot more ideas than we thought we did. We liked of idea of sticking to an EP or single format, but we were on a roll so we just went with it.

When did you start working on the songs?

We’ve had ideas kicking around for the last couple years. And then we turned the heat up on it in March and did our 10-hour days to put the time in and focus. We gathered at my place in [Northern] Arizona (where Keenan owns a vineyard he uses to create wine for his line of Caduceus wines). So there was no distraction and we got a lot done.

How did you want this album to differ from ‘”V” is for Vagina’?

We went with what we were working on and let it speak for itself and came up with a collection of songs. It’s different, but it has some similarities. I wouldn’t say it will appeal any more to Tool fans or metal fans than the last one. I’ve never been really metal, so I’m not sure how that’s gonna work. Basically, [Slayer' guitarist] Kerry King’s gonna hate it.

The last one had trip-hop influences and took some unexpected musical turns. This one does, as well.

Yes, it does. Musically, it’s like ‘Twin Peaks’ in the desert. That’s all I’m going to say. I think listeners need to discover the music for themselves without having me tell them what they’ll be listening to. I think that just kind of ruins it.

You’re putting it out yourself?

Yes, we are. We’re a fully independent project. When you hear of people who say they have independent projects they’re usually full of shit. This is actually an independent project. I’m the guy who writes the checks for the CD duplication and we send it off to our distribution house that handles fulfilling stuff to stores. I’m the guy who uploads it online so it goes to iTunes and those places, so we’re fully in-house.

How many people are a part of Puscifer Entertainment?

We have a project manager and then there are the core group of people who work on the music, which is myself, Matt Mitchell and Josh Eustis (Telefon Tel Aviv). We have a lot of musicians coming thorough and playing on different tracks. But as far as the core, my fiancée handles the online stuff and the physical stores in Jerome, Ariz., and I handle all the business stuff along with my project manager, Chris.

Did you have encore appearances from guys like Alain Johannes (Eleven), Tim Alexander (Primus) and Jonny Polonsky, who were on ‘”V” is for Vagina’?

Polonsky played a little bit. Josh and Matt played quite a bit. It was a similar lineup from before. Jon Theodore played some drums on a couple of the tracks. Tim Alexander wasn’t involved because he’s having a baby and is very wrapped up in family life at the moment. He will definitely be back when the dust settles. Jeff Freidl, who’s in Ashes Divide [A Perfect Circle frontman Billy Howerdel’s other band] played with us, too.

The album guest credits include Freidl, Carina Round, Juliette Commagere, Matt McJunkins, Gil and Rani Sharone, Devo Keenan, Alessandro Cortini, Sarah Jones, and Jon Theodore. Are you no longer a fan of the structured band format?

I’ve outgrown the idea of touring eight months out of the year, so the idea of having people hanging around to go do a five-week tour doesn’t make any sense. You have to have relationships with a lot of guys just so you can go out when the schedule allows. So its good to have competent players and just make sure the core people are there that are presenting the personality of the band.

You’ve done select dates with Puscifer. This time you’re doing a more extensive tour. I guess you were satisfied with the month-long run in 2009.

We did great, considering it’s a brand new project and the amount of tickets that we sold, I was very happy. We took a huge show out that was a big theatrical performance with comedy and video clips and all these things that you don’t see when you go to your standard rock show. We didn’t make any money, but we didn’t lose any money, which says a lot for a new project.

When you did ‘”V” is for Vagina,’ you said Puscifer was a multimedia concept fans wouldn’t even understand until your fourth album or so. Do you feel like audiences have bonded more with your artistic vision than you previously thought?

No, I still think there’s that seven-year turnaround, so we’re still a few years out. I would imagine that by 2013 people will start to get it more.

The Mayan calendar ends in 2012 so hopefully they’ll be ahead of schedule and they’ll be able to enter Armageddon with a smile on their faces.

We’re all about Armageddon, that’s why they’ll get it. We could be the merchants of death. The Rapture was supposed to happen May 21, 2011, and that was disappointing.

Right, there were no earthquakes or blood from the skies. But the guy who predicted the Rapture, Harold Camping, revised his prediction, saying, “No, the world will end Oct. 21 this time for real!” There were also reports that he suffered a stroke and some radio stations reported he died.

He died or was shot?

Radio stations reported he had a heart attack.

Was it a heart attack or did his heart stop? Because when you run over a person with a car, their heart will stop.

Actually, neither is the case. The guy’s still alive at age 90, though not as vocal as he was in the beginning of 2011. Moving on, you recently completed a month of shows with A Perfect Circle.

We never actually toured ‘Emotive.’ We wanted to get that out right before the 2004 [U.S. presidential election], but then I had to go back to the day job so we didn’t get a chance to tour that record. We did a bunch of shows last fall on the West Coast where we did one album each night, and of course the album people were not super excited about was the covers album, ‘Emotive.’ But that ended up being the show that people talked about the most once they saw it ‘cause we reinterpreted all those songs.

If I’d have just put new lyrics on it, it would have been a new album because the music is completely different than the originals. They’re not the originals. But the point was to revoice stories that had been told before us and be a catalyst for issues that we’d faced in the past and just reiterate those. That was the whole thrust of the album. When we performed those songs live it was quite a challenge because a lot of it has subtle nuances and shades and changes. To actually present that stuff in a restrained way – to be very emotional, yet very quiet is a tough delivery – but we managed to pull it off, which was great. We still played songs from the other record, but the focus was on the ‘Emotive’ tracks.

Have you and A Perfect Circle’s Billy Howerdel worked on any new material?

We’ve been kicking around some stuff. Nothing’s ready. Until it’s really solid it doesn’t make any sense to present it, and right now he’s busy with Ashes Divide and I’m doing Puscifer.

Tool are reportedly working on a new album, as well. In the past, you’ve expressed frustration with sitting around in the studio with guitarist Adam Jones and drummer Danny Carey’s aesthetic of going over endless combinations of song structures before committing to anything.

I’m allowing them their space to do what they do, so we’re still in that mode. Even if they told me how close they are to being done, I couldn’t tell you because if I say 60 percent people will start counting down. When it’s done everyone will know. But I haven’t done anything yet. They write forever and then we go in and knock it all out. We’re writing. We’re writing vocals. But nothing’s solid. With Puscifer, there’s ideas and then we’ll record stuff. Then we’ll go back and change stuff and fix stuff and record new stuff before we finally put it all together. But with Tool, we practice jams, but there’s no actual recording going on until it’s time to record.

Are you prepared to tour for a year for the next Tool record whenever it’s ready or have you put your foot down and said, “I don’t want to spend my life on the road.”

It has nothing to do with putting my foot down. Physically, I can’t do it, so that’s not gonna happen. We will tour, but it won’t be the old school dog and pony show of eight months of beating yourself to death.

For most bands now, staying out on the road for a year-plus and selling lots of tickets and merch is the only way to make money because their albums are being downloaded for free by file-sharers.

How much do you need, really? If we can make a living going out for a few weeks a year and keep people satisfied by making sure we play the locations we need to hit, I’m not Kirk Hammett. I don’t need to buy $10,000 guitars every day. That’s not my lifestyle. I love Kirk, but that’s not me. I have a very sustainable vineyard industry in the Valley which will eventually start to pay its own bills.

I love to go on the road and play music for people and express myself, but for it to be something where I’m out there to make money, that’s depressing to me. You end up beating yourself up. Who gives a s–t how much money you have if your back hurts so much you can’t stand up. Money’s not the goal. Having fun making the art, that’s the goal. Finding a nice, happy medium. Being healthy and still expressing what you need to express in an effective way, that’s the ideal.

Watch the Puscifer ‘Conditions of My Parole’ Video

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