Puscifer

Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan chats about side projects, film crews and his traveling variety show.

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“My son is called 'Mr. Keenan,’ ” says Maynard James Keenan, faux-menacingly, after being addressed in a formal manner. You brace yourself for either a punch line or the verbal equivalent of a punch; after a well-timed comic pause on the other end of the phone line, he opts for the second choice. “But you may call me 'Master Keenan, sir!’ ” As the singer of prog-metal stalwarts Tool and the somewhat kinder, gentler A Perfect Circle, the 45-year-old musician has fostered a stage persona that suggests someone enduring endless primal-scream sessions. But fans can attest to Keenan’s sense of humor—he did title a song “Stinkfist”—which he brings to the forefront with his latest endeavor: Puscifer, a loosely defined collective that encompasses both musical collaborations and a...touring sketch-comedy revue? He spoke to TONY from Los Angeles, on the eve of Puscifer’s first East Coast tour.

What should someone expect when they come to a Puscifer show?
First of all, expectations pave the road to hell, so they should just come willing to have a good time. [Pause] That was pretty evasive, wasn’t it?

Yeah, well done.
Sorry. Well, they shouldn’t expect a standard rock concert, for starters. We’re playing three shows in the general area—two in New York and one in Stamford, Connecticut—and each show will be different. The goal going into this tour was to have at six or seven completely unique shows that we could just sort of pull out of our hat at will...all involving animation, video bits, sketch comedy and different versions of our songs. [Pause] Much like Hee Haw.

It sounds like a ’70s TV variety show.
Exactly. Imagine a modern-day Sonny and Cher show, on stage. [Pause] I’m much more of a Sonny than a Cher, by the way. Be sure you write that down.

I’d have said that you’re much more of a Shields than a Yarnell.
Ouch.

Was that part of the reason you choose to play venues like the Apollo Theater, which doesn’t exactly scream headbanging?
That was definitely part of it, yeah. There were a number of reasons. I’d say Puscifer is much more of a troupe than a band, just in terms of what we’re trying to present. I mean, there is music, but it’s almost like we’re the musicians who are the backing band for this other thing going on...and we’re also the other thing as well. The best example of what we’re doing would be an episode of Saturday Night Live, although that doesn’t even quite nail it. There’s more filmed bits and live music incorporated into the comedy; it’s hard to describe.

But like you said, the purpose of staging these shows at a place like the Apollo was to get people out of the I’m-going-to-see-a-band mindset from the very start. We could have easily taken this thing on the road simply as a band, and just played clubs...a lot easier, in fact. But it just isn’t going to have the same impact. You know, you go to a club that’s the same rock club you’ve gone to once, twice, three times a week for years. You know what you’re getting, you know how to act and react when you get there; the only thing that’s different is who is on stage in front of you. Now, if I pull you out of that environment and put you into a place like the Apollo, then you don’t know how to behave or what to expect. So already you’re having a different experience.

And none of these shows are super elaborate, really. But they are different than just four guys with instruments standing on a 12-by-12 stage. There’s more going on than that.

Although I’d argue that your old band has proven that there’s a lot you can do with just four guys and a 12-by-12 stage. And a video screen or two, naturally.
Right, I mean, we still have that; we have recordings and documents of that, and no one is knocking what you can accomplish with something as simple as a rock group. That is still going on. But this is indeed something completely outside of a traditional band just playing music. And honestly, I don’t want to just repeat myself in terms of what I’ve done in the past.

So how did this musical project end up evolving into a full-blown vaudeville-style show?
The interesting thing is that Puscifer actually started as that, really. It dates back to the mid-’90s, when I would do performances with Laura Milligan, who owned a Los Angeles club called Tantrum. A lot of the alternative-comedy scene that spawned things like Mr. Show actually came from there; a bunch of those early Bob-and-Dave sketches got worked out in clubs around town, including hers. If you think of any of the comedians who were part of that—Brian Posehn, Patton Oswalt, even Will Ferrell, who had this avant-garde thing called Simpatico that was fucking hilarious—they did stuff in this variety-show thing that Laura would do at Tantrum. She played this former child star named Tawny Port, who was trying to stage a comeback after being in rehab; there was a running joke that her boyfriend, “Vince,” and his band was going to close the show. He’d never arrive in time. So she’d inevitably have to get these two Dungeons and Dragons hesher geeks to close the show—that was the birth of Tenacious D. Then Vince and his band would come in right as everybody was leaving the stage—we were called Puscifer. That’s how it began. Even now, it’s less about the music—though we take that seriously—then it is about just having fun with it.

Since you brought up the music, it’s interesting to hear how the live versions of older Puscifer songs that are on the new EP [C is for (Please Insert Sophomoric Genitalia Reference HERE)] sound radically different. Take the live “Vagina Mine,” which sounds a lot less dystopic than its original version.
Right, but keep in mind that the initial take on a song that you hear may not be the first, or even second, version of that song. The goal is always to basically say, “Okay, here’s the core seed of a song.” Once you’ve got that, you can take it in a million different directions. There are at least three different versions of “Vagina Mine,” six different versions of “The Undertaker,” five different versions of “Rev 22:20,” and these aren’t remixes. These are full-on new mixes of these songs that are radically different from each other. Then you start performing these songs live as well; you’re almost undoubtedly going to get another version. Nothing is static or sacred. It’s an ever-evolving process.

You’re a performer who’s spent a good deal of your career keeping your personal life very, very personal...is that fair to say?
[Hesitatingly] Yeah.

So what the hell possessed you to let a documentary film crew follow you around?
I was clearly very drunk at the time. [Laughs]

You shouldn’t get high on your own supply, man.
Now you tell me. The reason that I signed on to do Blood Into Wine [a documentary on Keenan’s independent winemaking business in Jerome, Arizona]—it’s a long story. I come from a small town in Michigan, where you’d see a lot of farms around and for example, we cut our own wood for the winter. So when I was living in L.A. in the early '90s, I found myself getting really, really agitated over the fact that most people didn’t know where their water came from, didn’t know how to grow anything. By the end of 1995, I’d moved to Arizona. I still had an apartment in Los Angeles, because that’s where we [Tool] were writing music, but I basically lived full time in Jerome, AZ. My intention was to get back to that small-town mentality wherein you’re essentially self-sustaining. Not in the buzzword-y “keep it local” sense that you get in urban areas, but actually self-sustaining and communal. It’s like the old Italian neighborhoods: You know your neighbors. Everyone helps each other out.

So by allowing a camera crew to follow me around and invade my privacy, I felt like I was drawing attention not only to what I’m doing in the region—making wine in Arizona—but to how people in Jerome are putting a lot of this self-sustaining thing into practice. I felt like this gesture of letting people film what we’re doing here was my way of giving back, of helping my community live to fight another day.

Right, but then you’ve got a scene where you’re opening up about your mother (Maynard’s mother, Judith, spent decades dealing with the repercussions of an aneuryism she suffered from in her 20s; she passed away in 2003).
That is an important scene, but I think the reasons I’m talking about my mother doesn’t necessarily come across enough in the movie. The point of the story was that, here was a woman who for years was unable to do anything at all. So really, if you can do something—if you have the ability to do something with your life, and you’re not doing it—fucking shame on you! Lazy people—they fucking infuriate me. I mean, if you have an ability to do something like be good at your job, or be a good parent, then I’m sorry, but you have no excuse. If you have the chance to, say, teach your child how to plant something and let him or her watch something grow—or more importantly, watch it die—it profoundly affects you. If you have the chance to take pride in having accomplished something, or to nurture something out of the ground and benefit people around you, fucking do it already. Establish a future for yourself and don’t waste your life.

There’s a number of scenes of Tool fans buying bottles of your wine simply for the chance to get you to autograph it. Does this sort of rabid fan projection freak you out?
Are you kidding me?!? It’s so incredibly weird; it makes no sense to me whatsoever. I mean, if someone being able to stare at my head for a few seconds means that they’ll buy a bottle of wine, then I’ll do it, but... I don’t want to sound callous, I just think that there’s a Life of Brian aspect to all of it. A hand points to something, and people get so focused on the hand that’s pointing, they ignore the message itself. Hopefully, eventually, they forget about me and just open up the wine and experience that for themselves. Ideally, that’s what will happen.

In the film, you talk about coming back from a few weeks on the road with Tool and being physically wrecked. Could you see yourself, in the nearish future, only doing tours like this Puscifer thing, or at least something that wouldn’t force you to, say, scream the last half of “Bottom” five nights a week?
Yeah, I mean, that just doesn’t feel healthy to me at this point at all. But I do think there’s a happy medium; I think there’s a way to express the things that are in those songs, but to do it in a different way. Just like we talked about with Puscifer: You take the basic elements of a song and take it whatever direction you need to say what you have to say with it. The bottom line is, I can rest easy knowing that I’ve put myself out there. And if I have to stop doing things that are damaging or unhealthy to me in order to function, I won’t lose one night of sleep over it. I mean, having that release and expressing the things we get to express in that forum is great, but if in the end of the day something is taking away more than it provides, then nope. Sorry. Can’t do it.

Puscifer happens on Thu 11 at the Grand Ballroom at Manhattan Center and Sat 13 at the Apollo Theater.

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