On the Money: Maynard James Keenan interviewed

As Puscifer set sail for their European debut, founder Maynard James Keenan meditates on the influence of surrealist British comedy and the lingering threat of a Trumpian dystopia

Feature by Dave Kerr | 16 May 2016

The rock pages have firmly established one way to draw Maynard James Keenan’s ire over the last decade: ask about every other group he's in besides the one at hand. It’s at a point where you could picture the man struggling to navigate the Aldi toiletry aisle without some joker derailing his quest for bog roll by inquiring into the whereabouts of that next Tool record. 

The writing and recording of the Los Angeles’ post-metallers’ long-anticipated fifth LP is a subject perhaps best left exclusively to its authors until it’s ready; Keenan’s current focus is Puscifer, a shape-shifting multimedia project that started life as a sketch in David Cross and Bob Odenkirk's mid-90s comedy serial Mr Show.

An inside joke, first pitched as "a premiere improvisational hardcore band", that morphed into a clothing range and a series of surrealist collages torn from the Terry Gilliam playbook, Puscifer was finally made flesh by 2007 album V is For Vagina. Latest (and third) release Money $hot has lent the project a more serious status, acutely aware of the very present threats of climate change, rampant egomania and a Trump-led America. But Puscifer's enduring message remains simple: Let's not lose our sense of humour about all this.

Puscifer has been around in one form or another for two decades now. This is your first European excursion – what held you up?

We started messing around with it in '96. But as far as an actual full-length album being released, that didn’t come until 2007, after ten years going. So yeah, Europe – finally! It’s an independent project, travelling overseas. We knew we’d lose money coming over there, especially because people don’t really buy albums anymore. So we had to wait for the audience to convince the promoters to bring us over. We’ve always had an audience over there but until you can get the promoter to foot the bill, we couldn’t risk losing our ass. I’d probably just come for a lovely vacation, honestly.

One of your recent gigs in Vegas was described as 'comedy cabaret show meets guerilla theatre.' Is that a fair summary of what we can expect over here? 

We change it up quite a bit, but as far as this particular tour goes, we’re probably going to stick with what we’ve been doing in the States recently. We’re on a roll with it, there’s no reason to change it up right now, but I can guarantee that if we circle back to the UK again it’ll be a different thing. That’s just the nature of Puscifer; it’s a show, not just a band regurgitating its songs at you.

There’s definitely adjustments we make night to night – like any band, I’d hope – but when you have the vision of what we have in mind, it’s almost like a play in a way. There’s a lot of things that can’t change because every moment hinges on the one before. I don’t want to call it choreographed, but we’re definitely conscious of what we have to do and where we have to be because of the show.

There's a lot of attack and a few very literal blows on Money $hot ['You speak like someone who has never been knocked the fuck on out' – The Remedy]. Was the objective to get under the listener's skin more on this album, beyond entertaining them?

That’s an hour conversation we could be having right here. In general, I live in a much quieter space now than when I did when I lived in Los Angeles, so I feel like a lot more of the music has less to do with being angry about driving in traffic than it does to just look into the future. Y’know, you have to have the rub. Part of good literature is that there has to be some kind of rub and then some kind of hope for a resolve, right? I think this album has that.

Every project you do and every challenge you accept, that’s part of the contract; you’re trying to figure out how to make that work. Every time you do it again, you’re hoping to do it better. Sometimes you take risks – take a right or a left turn – to experiment in some way. I don’t ever think that those experiments are failures, they’re all a learning experience where you build. You’re correct in assuming that there’s a little bit more of a focused vision on this compared to the earlier records; we’re always finding our way.

You’re dealing with lofty themes but a sense of humour has been one of Puscifer’s defining characteristics from the start. Is it a fine line to walk without becoming the guy shaking his fist at the sky?

My favourite films and TV shows are always the ones that have a little bit of a message or there’s a little bit of tearjerk in there somewhere, but it’s basically comedy. The social commentary made by projects like League of Gentlemen, Little Britain, Monty Python, there’s always some kind of poking fun at humanity in general, but in a way they can be constructive in that they’re shining a light on our idiocy. I think it’s an important balance to have the humour in there too. 

Social responsibility has been a recurring theme throughout the lyrics of both Puscifer and Tool over the years. What was feeding your muse for this particular album?

I just think – I don’t know if you agree – but there’s a sense of entitlement that’s actually amplified by social media and the access people have to expressing their shit, uninformed opinions on everything. Then they’re leaning on those opinions as if their opinions have foundation. Like, ‘I won that debate because my opinion is there.’ Well no, that’s not a debate. Anyone who has ever been involved in any kind of a debating class or course will tell you that you’re not allowed to be up on that stage unless you actually have an educated or informed foundation. Your opinion alone does not cut it.

Puscifer has involved a rotating cast of terrific musicians over the years that must be hard to keep hold of – whether it's Danny Lohner, Alain Johannes, or Gil Sharone. Is it fair to say you've found a bit more permanence with the current band?

Yeah, I think we’ve all somehow found our rhythm between working on other projects and the availability to work on this. If Jeff Friedl, the drummer, were to call me in six months and say, ‘I’m going to be working with this band for the next 18 months; I won’t be available,’ he’s totally OK with me and Matt having somebody else come in and play drums in his place because he understands that’s the flexibility we’re affording him as an independent musician. We’ve settled into a particular core group of people that work well. We can have guests come on for the recordings rather than necessarily become a part of the live group.

Paul Barker [Industrial metal don, formerly of Ministry] has recently joined for this tour. I imagine you must have a lot of shared history; how’s that working out? 

He’s great – he’s kind of like the Godfather. He’s the new guy and yet he’s the old guy. It’s fun to have him out here with us because his personality’s awesome – he doesn’t take any shit. I mean, you wouldn’t – the dude was in Ministry! So we love having him.

How has it been to collaborate with your son Devo on this music?
He’s been on several records – a couple of Perfect Circle songs and most of the Puscifer releases. He’s an insane cello player, has been for years. It’s great to have him be a part of the process.

What keeps you on the right side of sanity when you’re on tour?
Just keeping my eye on the ball; I’ve been training in Brazilian jujitsu for a long time. Also being able to reconnect with friends of mine I’ve made on the road over the years. To have that in the middle of the chaos of touring – a workout, catching up with familiar faces in a productive manner that helps rather than hinders touring. Y’know, what I’d love to do is go out with a bunch of friends and drink a bottle of wine but that’s not gonna get me back on the bus the next day. Understanding the balance of what needs to happen and what can’t happen on the road, while watching this thing grow, that is grounding and it helps you keep your sanity.

We’re all on the bus together so we get to talk about what happened that day and work through any hurdles that we’re trying to overcome. As vocalist, you have to have your isolation because you don’t want to be meandering too much on the road and find yourself screaming over music while you’re talking in a bar. Your show the next day is gonna suffer. There is a structure to it that I actually enjoy. It’s about getting the job done properly without it becoming a chore.

What do you get out of Puscifer that you perhaps haven’t from your other creative outlets?

I think in general, once you’ve established yourself in what used to be the record industry, you’re kind of locked in to what people’s perceptions are of you in those projects. I’m a big fan of AC/DC, and you know what to expect from AC/DC. If they suddenly came out with a jazz record, you’d probably fuckin’ shoot yourself. With Puscifer, there’s a lot more flexibility, We’re not just a band, we’re a multimedia project. We could take a right turn completely into animation, and nothing you see from us is anything but a show on Adult Swim. We have that flexibility.

Finally, what's your prediction for the US Presidential race?

Here’s the thing, I’m Italian and I’m Irish. The Italian side of me is the wine and food making family man; the Irish side is the shit-talking, ‘comedy first, always’ side. So I’m very divided. Because all the fuckin’ awesome jokes that are gonna come out if Trump leads the US – the humour, the tragedy and the awful stuff that’s gonna happen – is gonna be fodder for comedians for decades. And the end of the United States. Of course, the practical side of me thinks, ‘I’ve seen this before; I think it’s called Germany, 1938.’ Idiocracy is no longer a comedy, it’s a documentary. Idiocracy is where we are.

Puscifer play Manchester Bridgewater Hall on 30 May. Money $hot is out now. http://puscifer.com