Interview with Maynard James Keenan: Puscifer’s Alphabet Troupe

Maynard James Keenan is Puscifer. But that’s not the whole story.

As the sole constant of the performance troupe, Keenan, who is best known for his work as the singer of Tool and A Perfect Circle, started several years ago to realize on a large scale the art project he first started in the mid-‘90s. Rumblings of a Puscifer project existed for years prior, with a wide variety of hypothesized collaborators. Finally, a full-length of groovy, sexual and modern tunes titled “V” Is For Vagina, featuring contributions from Lustmord, Danny Lohner, Tim Alexander, Joe Barresi, et al., emerged, entirely funded by Keenan. Then another dozen or so characters showed up to put their own spin on “V” Is For Viagra: The Remixes.

And then there’s the live show, which involves yet another expanding circle of artists and filmmakers (video is a big part, as Keenan explains). Another variable—several different themes rotate as the tour continues, and the theme for each night isn’t revealed in advance.

There’s also a clothing line. No shit.

Organizing all of this is Keenan’s task. Not bad for a guy who already fronts a world-renowned rock act and owns and operates a vineyard which the subject of a new documentary, Blood Into Wine. Imagine him as the ringleader, the general (he dressed as a major, “Major Douche,” for a few tour promo videos), the frontman, or the master of ceremonies. Whatever you like. But be prepared for anything.

You had this show on the road last when the performance aspect of Puscifer was a work in progress. Is the live show something that’s still in a state of flux?

It’s always going to be that way pretty much, because it’s always going to be evolving. This next run, we’ve introduced a whole other night, a whole other theme, so every time we go out, we’re going to switch it up. Whenever there are two shows in one location, it’ll always be two different shows.

I saw that you had posted something about maybe three or four different themed performances.

We’re basically building a little arsenal of themes, so when we go out, depending on the venue, depending on the weather, depending on who’s there, we can kind of switch it up and be versatile enough to keep it relatively secret, what we’re going to do that night. That way it’s a fresh experience. [People] won’t roll in knowing exactly what to expect.

I was thinking about the TLA in Philly versus the Grand Ballroom versus the Apollo Theatre, and the show that you originally had seemed to require a certain space. So the venue you’re in effects the show you’re putting on?

Kind of. The footprint of the stage has to be consistent everywhere, we have to have a certain size stage just because of the way the show lays out. It just had to be that. We haven’t designed the presentation yet that fits on a small club stage. Right now, we’re doing more the elaborate, kind of coming out party, if you will.

It seems that you’re taking on something of preacher role, with the white suit and the television close-up. Is that the mindset that you’re in when you perform?

No, it’s more a matter of practicality. There’s a lot of utility that has to be in place to make the art happen, so some of that’s out of necessity as far as the kind of mics we’re using, isolation, but generally speaking, the sounds and the presentation has to come first, as far as how its laid out. It has to work seamlessly.

Is there a different feeling of danger or spontaneity with Puscifer in the live setting versus some of your other musical projects?

I think there’s a little more chaos involved just because there are so many elements that have to work together and there are so many things that could go wrong with it, because there are timing elements. It definitely keeps you on your toes, for us as performers, because there are different things happening. You know, there are no fireworks or anything, but it definitely is challenging.

So comparative to A Perfect Circle or Tool is it more difficult for you to do?

I would say it’s just different. Just different elements. A lot of the stuff is done way before the show occurs. A lot of the film bits we have to get together months before, edit, reshoot, shoot, fix it, start over, make it work and make sure the technology is caught up to be able to present it. This project couldn’t even happen back in ’95. The expense of it to do some of these animations and some of these videos, back then, a half million dollars. And now we can do it. And even if we could get it done back then, where do you show it? Even in ’95, MTV stopped showing videos.

There was no YouTube, so you couldn’t show them there. I think technology’s caught up with this project, that’s what this project needed. I mean, we’re independent, truly independent. There is no label backing, there are no underwriters, there is no publisher kicking down advances, we don’t have a promotions department banging on radio’s door to play the songs. We’re really on our own.

Is this the form that you envisioned this project when Puscifer was first mentioned in that brief Mr. Show skit years ago?

Well, that’s when it started was ’95. We were already doing stage stuff back then. It was much easier, as far as some of those earlier sketches back then, because we pretty much had to abandon the idea of doing videos. It was pretty much sketch comedy performances on stage, performed with whoever was doing their thing that night.

Laura Milligan would host a show, and she would have all these different people coming up and working on their bits. All the guys from Mr. Show, Kathy Griffin, Craig Anton, everyone was up their doing their bits. At the end of the night, it was either me doing something—as her boyfriend’s band that never shows up and finally does, or an improvisational hardcore band, or a country band—and on the opposite nights, a week later, it would be Tenacious D closing the show. That was the vibe back then, just working all these things out. But to take this one to the next level, I think it required the video aspect, which has kind of held it back.

Have you created video elements for each song?

In general, yeah. Some of the songs will have similar video elements or the same video elements, but for the most part each night is a different theme so there will be different stuff going on.

Did the original set of performances out on the west coast have different themes?

Yeah. Every night was different.

How much has the lineup changed from last year’s shows?

We don’t have Juliette Commagere this run. We don’t have Gil and Rani Sharone this time. This time it’s probably going to be Tim Alexander and Mat Mitchell, Jeff Friedl and Matt McJunkins from Ashes Divide, the rhythm sections. Johnny Polonski playing guitar and Carina Round doing some acoustic guitar, mandolin and vocals. Basic lineup. And of course, those rhythm sections will rotate depending on the show.

How flexible is this collective? I feel that it’s sort of labeled your solo project when there are obviously a lot of cast members involved.

That’s kind of why it has to be flexible, because if Carina Round comes up with a tour—that’s why Juliette’s not on, because she’s out on tour. We were going to have Juliette come back out on this run, but Carina had learned all the songs and kind of knew the flexibility of what’s going on, so we’re going to stick with her on this run. But when we have time to actually get back in there and re-cover old ground, we’ll probably get back to using Juliette for a little bit.

But it’s more important that they have their own projects. That’s almost as important for this project, that they have their own thing going on as well. Cause when Mat and Tim and I dig in and start looking at the next round of stuff, it’ll definitely be more soundstage, shooting things, and recording some music. It won’t require everybody to be there, so they’ll have to have something going on to sustain themselves. Like I said, I can’t put them on payroll.

Is it both invigorating and distracting to have so many creative individuals involved?

No, you just have to basically concentrate. It really does take a lot of organizing and you just focus on the things at hand. You focus on this set, and you figure out, ‘How are we going to do “Queen Bee” or “Undertaker” through this set?’ And we concentrate on that and then we rehearse the set that way with all the bits. So it’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of preparation. So when we’re on the road, there’s not a lot of flexibility in the actual show. There’s a little bit of improv, pieces that could be trainwrecks, but for the most part, we have an idea, 90 percent, of what we’re doing for each set.

Are you having comedians opening as well?

Yeah. We have opening acts that are kind of working with us. I think in New York we have Neil Hamburger on some of those shows and possibly Uncle Scratch’s Gospel Revival.

The EP that was recently released was only available digitally, as well as the Lustmord dub mixes. Do you expect to continue releasing physical records?

Not yet. As this project develops and as it gains a little more momentum, we might eventually do some CDs. We’ll definitely do vinyl. But I’m going to rely on the digital sales to fund the making, because once again, we’re independent, so writing a check for a bunch of coasters seems kind of silly at this point.

I think people like to have the CD in their hand, but I don’t think they realize that to have one CD in their hand, I had to make thousands to make it worth making them, and then you’re sitting on all these coasters. I’m not going to do that until the sales of the digital stuff catches up with it. Then we’ll do another collection, maybe make it a part of the DVD. But we’re going to make vinyl, for sure. Vinyl format I think is more fun, you can put more images on the 12-inch surfaces. It’s great.

So you are releasing a DVD?

Someday. If we release a DVD, it won’t be like Puscifer Live, it’ll be Season One, episode one through 12. Because it’s not a band. It’s a troupe. And it’s a performance, not a concert.

In terms of the music, your approach to composition with things such as Tool has been very analytical. Is it refreshing then to work on this material, which is almost carnal?

In a way, but if you start really listening to it and start dissecting it like most tweakers do, you’ll find that there is just as much going on here as there. It’s just a matter of the presentation. It’s all primal, everything we’ve done has been partly cerebral, mostly primal. It’s there.

Can you tell me a little bit about this documentary on your vineyard that’s coming out? Were you simply approached by the filmmakers?

I was in a documentary called Heart Of The Drum Machine where they went around and interviewed musicians and actors about what sounds mean to them, and how they affect them on what level, just that kind of communication. I was in the middle of working, so they kind of had to come to me in the middle of the vineyard, and they had to set up their little booth to record. That’s kind of how they saw the vineyard, and of course, when they saw the vineyard, they said ‘Ooh, I think we see our next documentary.’ So it took a little convincing from them to get us to agree to do it, but I just felt it was important to present the struggles going on here.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, the economy’s not doing well? I think I have a solution. Downsize, and get local. This documentary is definitely going to shed a little bit of light on that and make it so that the word sustainability isn’t just a buzzword on a sticker on some thing at Whole Foods. It’s for real. It’s something that you can do. So this documentary, in some ways, will hopefully lead people down the path of understanding that buying a Prius is going to save the environment. Reconnecting with where you are is what’s going to heal things, in a way.

Puscifer performs at the Grand Ballroom in NYC on March 11 and the Apollo Theatre on March 13.