Maynard James Keenan: Humanity Is Like a Toddler, Sometimes You Have to Let Them Hit Their Head
To delve deeper into A Perfect Circle's first album of original songs in 15 years, Eat the Elephant, we jumped on the phone with vocalist Maynard James Keenan. Along with standout songs like "The Doomed," "Disillusioned" and the album's title track, we discussed how Keenan's view of today's societal landscape shaped Eat the Elephant.
Like much of Maynard's work, personal philosophy played a large role throughout APC's newest album. From reconnecting with people, facing the existential terror of achieving your own goals, or humanity's tendency to ram its head into the corner of the proverbial coffee table, Keenan has a lot of ideas to convey.
With A Perfect Circle’s live show, is there a type of submission you're looking for from your fans? I know you want A Perfect Circle’s show to be a guided experience, so is there a level of submission necessary to take a crowd on this journey?
I don’t know if submission would be the right word, but acknowledging a wider experience, maybe. If you go to see Roger Waters and The Wall, there is definitely a whole presentation to take in, so it is a guided experience. I don’t know about the word submission.
“Eat the Elephant” is my personal favorite song from the album. Even with the many successes that you've had with music, wine, your new tasting room, the book that just came out… you still experience the crippling gravity of beginning a time and labor-intensive project. Is that song about making the album specifically or is it more broad?
It is definitely a broad track just about any endeavor. I think a lot of my friends hear me mention something about an idea that I have, then they are absolutely surprised when two years, four years, five years later it shows up. They wonder how that happens. Well, you just focus on it and you take one step at a time and you walk toward it, run toward it or crawl toward it. Take the time, have a plan, but of course, plans change. Chaos happens and you have to be able to adapt to that chaos but it’s still all about that forward lateral movement.
You deconstructed “Eat the Elephant” quite a bit after Billy [Howerdel] gave you that first draft of his instrumentals. What can you tell me about what you took away from the song to make it what it is right now?
Well, just like anything, breaking things down to their core. The base elements to really truly hear what they are. That’s always the challenge for any painter, is knowing when to put the paint brush down, right? Getting out of your own way, letting the purity come through. The beauty of old-school Italian traditional cooking, you know? It's not about flair, it's more about focusing on the thing in front of you rather than adding too many things to it. Just letting it shine for what it is.
I read that Billy wrote the song shortly after two close friends of his committed suicide in one week. Was that something that you were aware of when he sent you the instrumentals?
No, he didn’t tell me any of that. In general, if you’re able to translate some of the emotions into notes, they should, in theory, come through in the music.
Going deeper into the album, themes that keep popping up are both reconnecting with people as a whole, but also the importance of accepting that in this life you are alone. You sing, “You were never an island,” in “Disillusioned,” but do you think that sometimes it’s important to be an island?
That's a broad question. I think that it's important for you to be able to be comfortable in your own skin and know who you are, but also understand that you are a piece of a larger puzzle and be able to operate within that paradigm, that machinery, that community. It’s of more benefit to your community if you know who you are, if you acknowledge who you are. I don’t know, I think it goes both ways. You have to understand all of those things or at least attempt to.
It made me think of when I heard you on Joe Rogan's podcast talking about moving to Arizona largely to get away from giant masses of people. Did that move give you a healthier sense of human connection since you were no longer swarmed?
It just reminded me of my upbringing. I'm from a small town, so that's where you were wired to begin with. You're gonna resonate better in a situation like that. Of course, the busyness of a big city can be inspiring too, as long as you understand your role within it and what your limitations are and what your strengths are, and you can navigate that.
I feel like the album puts more of an emphasis on a beautiful soundscape than any other A Perfect Circle release. Something I've noticed in your work with Puscifer is that it’s often inspired by the majesty of nature. Did your surroundings in Arizona play a part in this album’s sound?
Yeah, if you're writing from where you are, your environment is going to be what impacts you. The third album from most bands in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s; you're forced to do it from your record label. They're mostly from touring — they're road albums, they're bus albums, hotel albums. They're struggles with management, lawyers, press, because that's all they know. It's all they've seen for the last few years.
Would you say “The Doomed” is a reflection of today’s climate?
I think everything I've ever put out has been about where I'm standing and what I've seen and about the climate of the time. Politics is basically a relationship between people, the origin of the word is polis — “people.” So your interactions, both personal and social, distant, all of those relationships should come into play when it comes to stories between one person and another, one person and a group of people. All of those interactions, all of those relationships with where you're standing, with who you're seeing, what pressures are being inflicted on you and what pressures you're inflicting on someone else, all songs, I would think, come from those places. Places of friction.
"So Long and Thanks For All the Fish” feels like a strange celebration of the end of humanity through things like vanity and self-destruction. The word “crescendo” keeps coming up also. Can you tell me about those things possibly becoming louder and louder in our world?
I think just as history goes on there's always a trend for tragedy taking a front seat. I think its part of human nature, especially as far as age is concerned. You start to look back, like when you have a kid, you warn them about the corner of the table when they're toddlers and they’re about to stumble and hit it. You can see it coming. Sometimes it’s justified, sometimes it isn't. Sometimes you have to let them hit their head.
Your singing style is pretty dynamic throughout the album. You seem to never use the same exact techniques two songs in a row.
A lot of times when working with Mat Mitchell [Puscifer], Billy Howerdel or the guys in Tool, they have particular pieces that are in rough states or developed states. A lot of it is just finding your role within the pieces. It’s like feng shui; it’s about placement. It’s about recognizing space and allowing some things to come through and some things that are going to take a back seat. Most of the stuff on this album ended up requiring me to go slightly out of what you're used to hearing in A Perfect Circle, but used to hearing in Puscifer.
Did you strip down “Feathers” in a similar way that you stripped down “Eat the Elephant”?
Billy usually has a lot of pieces that, at their core, there's a melody. There's a piano piece, there's a drum track of some sort to give it some rhythm, maybe some bass on there. That's what he starts with on a lot of things. In my absence, he'll start adding things back on, so a lot of times it’s me coming in and saying, ‘Hey, can we just go back to let me hear it at the core? Let me hear it the way you started it.’ That's what ends up happening with a lot of the pieces on the album, it's more a process of erasing.
The way you weave songs together sometimes reminds me of the way that Bill Hicks would sometimes string his bits together with these beautiful interludes. Did that ever influence you at all?
No, not really. I think film, in general, is a big influence when you think of all the pieces of a particular release as characters in a play or a setting in a film. Each character has to be developed for the film to really portray an overall spoken or unspoken vibe. So you think about them in that way and of course, you're going to cross over characters that have pieces of each other presented.
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