Interview: Maynard James Keenan of Puscifer
Wed, 01 Apr 2009 13:03:42
Maynard James Keenan's Puscifer is about to descend upon Los Angeles with two shows at Club Nokia April 4th and 5th respectively. Like a prophet of the apocalypse, Maynard once prayed for "rain" on the City of Angels during the most visceral moment from Tool's 1996 masterpiece, AEnima. Now, the A Perfect Circle/Puscifer/Tool vocalist is bringing his own sort of demented sunshine to SoCal—though it's something Travis Bickle would probably vibe with. Yes, the Reverend Maynard of the Undertow days is back, and, as usual, he's got a hell of a lot to say.
This time around, Puscifer will bring their entrancing noir-ish sonic carnival to L.A., and fun is the biggest item on the docket for Maynard. In this exclusive interview with ARTISTdirect.com, he discusses Puscifer's two big Los Angeles shows, creating an artist collective, making wine and a very, very bad word.
You've forged a true artist collective with Puscifer. What's most creatively gratifying for you about it?
Just hearing the different ideas come together is extremely gratifying, you know what I mean? There are all these different conversations that have the same core for a particular set of grooves or rhythms. When you put different people in a room, their personalities take over and you come up with a new vibe. It's very satisfying listening to this little seed grow into several separate fruit trees.
It seems like the project is so boundless that almost anyone who has something to say musically can fit into it.
How have the Puscifer songs translated to the live setting?
They've really taken on a whole new life. We've actually broken them down to their elements and built them back up from scratch rather than trying to recreate the album version or a programmed rendition. I think that's the trap that people get caught up in. They try to recreate what they did in Pro-Tools, which is kind of pointless. They're so busy trying to contain themselves to mimic something that was done on the computer by some other musician. I just don't think it translates as well. It doesn't breathe the same way when you try to pull that off.
You'll feed off the musicians on stage and the crowd as well.
Yeah. We basically open it up, and each musician has a chance to stretch his or her legs and learn something in the process. They're not just stretching their legs without listening to the other musicians. I'm really making sure that I put a little bit of a leash on them so they're really paying attention to what the other guys in the room are doing and everyone's creating something together.
Did you have any apprehension before the first Las Vegas Puscifier shows back in February?
Oh yeah, in general this project is a work in progress. All of these pieces are going to continue to morph. It's constantly growing and expanding. It's never going to be quite finished. It's like watching one of those chaos programs running on your computer screen. It's very liberating though.
Would you say there's a particularly Dionysian vibe to the music? It's espousing that classic Greek philosophy for people to be merry and enjoy life.
Yeah, for sure. There's definitely discipline involved though. There's definitely work, focus and a lot of thought that goes into it. It's like setting up a situation and allowing it to morph on its own having done the work. There's definitely a playful nature to the music, but there has to be a skill and an approach that are honed, tested and tried. We're not simply going to go up there and wing it. We have to deliver.
In some ways, it's almost like you've taken an entrepreneurial hip hop approach to crafting this Puscifer empire, in terms of the marketing and clothing line.
What an awful word! [Laughs] The "hip hop" part, not the "entrepreneurial." God bless Tommy Lee, I'm not going down that road.
More specifically, there's a correlation between the business and the music.
Yeah, in general I enjoy creating art forms. I have ideas and I want to express them. I'm a creative being. I feel compelled to push myself and explore all kinds of avenues. I think life is too short not to create something with every breath you draw. If that be a hoodie [laughs], an ashtray, a clever gadget, a song, a bottle of wine, a pair of shoes or a film piece, it's all a creative process.
How similar are the mindsets behind making wine and making music?
Well, the way that I make music and the way that I make wine are very similar. I think some of the best wines in the world are wines from regions where the winemaker is allowing the landscape to express itself. The winemaker gets out of the way—working with what he has, allowing the sun and the rain to direct his movements and allowing grapes to become the wine that they want to become. It's the same process for us with music. We're allowing the music to happen rather than force the agenda.
“I think life is too short not to create something with every breath you draw.”
Does that alien mascot pull everyone into the Puscifer world?
She's absolutely the hostess. Miss Puscifer's the core of this thing. It's kind of a takeoff on blending that extraterrestrial unknown with the fertility figure and the creative force. You get the earth energy and the Venus figures. That's what she's all about—that emotional, unpredictable force, like weather.
What does it take for someone to enter the collective you've created?
Relationship…We've formed a relationship within our core of people. We're very protective of our process, and we don't just let anybody in. They have to be people that we trust. We've done a lot of touring, so we've met a lot of people. You don't keep in contact with all of them, but there's a few that you do, and there's a reason for it. You have to honor that chance meeting—the ichi-go ichi-e Japanese tea ceremony kind of approach—and you go with it.
You collaborate with people you forged relationships with almost two decades ago in Los Angeles. Does working with them on Puscifer bring everything full circle?
In a way, yeah it does, especially to go back and have some of the comedian folk that I used to work with back in the day. It's refreshing to see where they've gone and where they've ended up. We address some of those cool ideas that we had back in the day that we never got around to doing. Nowadays, with technology, it seems like the resources are available to see these visions through. A site like Funnyordie.com is fantastic because you have all of these people that have these cool script ideas that never went anywhere because the executives didn't quite get it, and the filmmakers are in that position where they say, "Screw it, we'll shoot it ourselves." They film it and put it up on YouTube or Funnyordie on a budget.
It's great that everyone can put their art and voice out there, but do you feel like it deletes the quality filter? When you started Tool, you earned your right for that forum in the public consciousness as a band, whereas now it's almost too easy to be heard.
I think it's harder to reach more people. It's easier to reach a few people, which in my opinion is better. The idea of taking over the world and having some big, huge thing that's on the tips of everybody's tongue has been our undoing. Somebody who comes up with a fantastic recipe for cookies or jam, all of a sudden they think they've got to get into every grocery store. You don't. You can just sell it out of your little market in your localized area, make a good living and be happy. It's a lifestyle choice. It's a more fulfilling way of life, rather than being stressed out about trying to deal with all of the fingers in the pie and the distributors and everything that goes in with trying to take it global. Keep it localized.
It brings the focus back to the art.
Right, especially nowadays it's very difficult to make a living selling your music. It really does come down to people wanting to make music for the sake of making music, not because of wanting to become famous.
The James Brown quote on your web site is particularly intriguing. "I taught them everything they know, but not everything I know." Does that speak to a certain mystique that an artist should have?
I think so. You want to keep some of your magic tricks close to the chest.
What's next for Puscifer?
We'll probably record a few things, but most likely we'll do a few dates around the country. We're not really looking to go tour. We're more focused on going in and doing almost like an art installation where we do two nights in one city at a smaller, more intimate club—kind of like Club Nokia. We're looking at places in Texas that have really cool theaters like Austin and Houston. We do these things two nights in a row, and then we come home. It's not a tour.
Do you think L.A.'s a good place for something like that?
No, I don't [Laughs]. Honestly, I think Vegas is a better place because you already have your tongue in your cheek as soon as you say the word, "Vegas." Anything goes, it's fun, it's a weekend, it's a party and you can enjoy yourself. In L.A., you're under such a microscope and everyone's so jaded. It's a really difficult sell. I think it's going to be refreshing. There are lots of little theater groups and clubs around town that have given up trying to impress people, and they're just doing their own thing. It's great. You won't actually see them unless you stumble into their neighborhood, their club or their theater to see these things or taste these things, as it were. There are little bakers here and there doing their thing, which is fine. When it comes to something like this, there's such a focus on it because of my other projects that it ends up being under a microscope. If I wasn't involved in this thing and people just stumbled across it, they would probably love it more so just because they're not measuring it against some other dick on the table.
It's unfair because this is completely different from anything else that you've done.
Yeah, but you know, people respond to a marketing plan. We're Americans; it's shoved down our throats. It's conveniently packaged, everything, so to come up with something like this, it's hard for people to get their heads around it.
"V" is for Vagina conjures a lot of visual imagery, playing out more like a film noir than an album.
Yeah, and those tracks aren't the finished tracks. They're finished in that those versions are as finished as they're ever going to be, but the idea was to plant seeds. That was what Matt and I did on the road with a handful of musician friends in hotel rooms and in studios on days off on the tour. That's those versions. That's what happens out there when your throat's all messed up and you're tired and you haven't been in your own bed for two months, you've been on a plane or in a bus, and that's what came out of that. Stemming back from that, we did all the remix stuff. I guess we're calling them remixes, but those are actually just different versions of the songs. There is no actual "one version" of a song that we're doing here. It's always going to be changing.
How did you choose the remixers for "V" is for Viagra?
I reached out to whoever was available here in our little circle of friends. I said, "Hey, do you want to do this thing?" The answer was "Yes" or "No." There you go. We didn't reject any remixes that came in. Pretty much everybody we reached out to came up with a remix that went on the record. We didn't filter anything.
Is it great to simply put out music without worrying about the major label machine?
Of course when you go the indie route, you don't get the support you have from all of those other entities. Everyone's still convinced that you have to go through these major channels to make it, and it's basically just laziness on the part of managers, agents and labels and everything else in between. They just take the easy road, and artists don't generally have their bachelor's degree in business or marketing, so they don't realize that they could do it in different ways. They're either lazy, or they're drunk [Laughs].