If you've ever wanted a look inside Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan's head, his art rock ensemble Puscifer may be the band for you.
The theatrical group — which combines prog, rock and metal elements with a heavy electronic vibe — will drop into San Antonio's Tech Port Center + Arena on Saturday, October 22, for what promises to be not just a musical performance but a multi-media spectacle. The band's concerts give Keenan a chance to engage in the character-driven comedy that he's explored via acting appearances on TV programs including Mr. Show.
While Tool may be Keenan's marquee act, don't make the mistake of thinking of Puscifer and A Perfect Circle, which he also fronts, as side projects. He's a guy who puts his all into everything he does — as evidenced in the book he wrote about his life, influences and process, A Perfect Union of Contrary Things.
In addition to its San Antonio performance, Puscifer will premiere two on-demand concert films on Friday, October 28. These films — which highlight early Puscifer albums "V" Is for Vagina and Conditions of My Parole — will only be available for 72 hours from the band's website, puscifer.com.
The Current recently caught up with Keenan over Zoom. The singer, who notoriously hides in the shadows for Tool shows, kept the interview brand-consistent by joining via audio only. We expected no less.
The following talk has been edited for space and clarity.
San Antonio loves Tool. But for people who aren't familiar with Puscifer, how should their expectations differ going into the show?
I don't like to repeat myself. So, I wouldn't expect what you already expect. (Laughs.) It's a whole different vibe. There's more theatrics to it. The song structures are different. It's still gonna be my voice — combined with [multi-instrumentalist] Carina Round's — so it's still going to be somewhat familiar. There's no point in repeating Tool. There's no point in repeating A Perfect Circle. It's a whole different vibe. It's more. If you're used to hearing a very large wall of guitars and overwhelming rock music, you might come in thinking that's what we're doing. We have far more in common with Kraftwerk and Peaches than we do with Metallica. The best way I can describe it is that if you're a fan of Bauhaus, then Love & Rockets was nothing like Bauhaus. And Tones on Tail was nothing like those two. And I love all three. There were similar people involved in all three. But different.
You have a distinctive vocal style and phrasing. And it’s right there in a song like “UPGrade” from the most recent Puscifer album, Existential Reckoning. On the other hand, the overall sound of that song may challenge fans who only know you from Tool. Where’s the line in challenging fans, particularly since you’re still playing big venues? You’re not going to release an album of pure noise like Lou Reed’s infamous Metal Machine Music.
I don’t know that there is [a line] if you just trust that I’m not out to rip you off. That’s not what this is about. These are different conversations with different artists. We’re doing our best to solve puzzles in anything that we’re doing, whether it’s winemaking, culinary arts, music, theater, film. We’re going to try to push our own boundaries. It really is about me expanding my art and sharpening my tool.
No pun intended.
Not at all.
You’ve played here in San Antonio on a number of occasions. Do you have a particular San Antonio memory or a funny story you can share with our readers?
Nothing specific, though I really enjoy San Antonio in general. We have a lot of open-minded fans there. Tool gets a lot of attention when it comes through town, but I’ve found the very same for Puscifer. There’s a lot of people that get the vibe and enjoy the show. They bring friends who are reluctant, and then the friends bring friends next time.
Puscifer has a double-feature stream coming up on Halloween weekend. What can you tell me about those events?
During the pandemic, the lockdown — whatever you want to call it — we had a brand-new album coming out [2020's Existential Reckoning]. We realized we weren't going to be able to tour it. Like most bands, we put together a concert film to help with the release of the album. It seems like it's something that's right up Puscifer's alley in terms of expressing in that way. We have a lot of characters; we have a lot of theatrics. There's a lot of fun stuff that goes on with this project. That presentation and that process of putting together the presentation is something that resonated with [multi-instrumentalist Mat Mitchell], Carina and I.
Clearly, you put a lot of work and thought into your bands. How do you let go of all that prep and just get into the performance, be there for people who just want to rock out on a Saturday night?
There's a map, right? You've drawn an emotional map. You've rehearsed that process and those steps to capture that moment you were feeling, that thing. It's a nice combination of preparation and happy accidents. You're looking for those happy accidents onstage. But you're prepared to handle them.
It feels to me like your history of improvised sketch comedy helps.
You're absolutely correct. That's the idea of a jazz musician going full improvisation. It's not an accurate statement since they've spent their entire lives preparing for those options and those directions. It's like an Olympic athlete. I'm a practitioner of jiu-jitsu. I just recently watched all the [Abu Dhabi Combat Club] tournaments. There's a lot of things that come at those guys when they go up against each other. There's not a lot of accidents at that point. They've practiced, they've trained, they've drilled. A top-level jazz musician isn't making it up. You've trained and trained and trained. There will be crazy accidents and crazy moments that you didn't expect, that you're prepared to navigate to make it a special moment. That's what live music is about. You're trying to be alive in that moment, even though you've rehearsed the shit out of these songs. There's gonna be differences. There's gonna be a night where my throat or Carina's throat doesn't sound like it did the night before, because of the cold or a million reasons. Well, that's a unique night. Years ago on an A Perfect Circle tour, Josh Freese broke his kneecap before the show. We re-arranged the drums, and he played the entire show with his other foot. Was it as good a show as we've done before? Probably not. But it was a unique moment, a unique situation, and that's why you go to those shows.
I'm not sure that was a "happy accident."
Do you really watch NASCAR to watch the cars go around without any accidents?
How do you know when a moment in a show is a "happy accident" as opposed to an "unhappy accident" or a train wreck?
A lot of it ends up being hindsight, right? Looking back to see what happened. In some instances, we change entire songs based on noodling between rehearsal songs and going, "You know what, that riff would actually be pretty cool as a foundation for that song." Then you break it and rebuild it. Those little moments happen. Quite a few of those songs on the pay-per-view are complete reinventions of those songs.
That reminds me of what you said in your book about the process of putting Tool together, breaking structures down and taking a geometric approach to assembling the band and music.
No, it’s more about taking the existing structures that you’re so married to and actually reinventing them. With Puscifer, we might have five or six extremely different versions of the song. We break it down to a core piece and rebuild on that core piece or rebuild on that core vocal. It ends up being similar as far as the vibe — or similar subject matter — but a completely different interpretation of that story.
With all those options, do you ever change up what arrangement you play from night to night when you’re on tour?
We might switch some of them up. But, generally speaking, because there’s so many theatrical bits and films and timing involved in the show, those altered versions stay in for the duration.
When you first moved to LA, you worked in set design. We love our hair metal here in San Antonio, so our readers might be amused to learn you were on the set of a Cinderella video. You gained seat-of-the-pants skills on those shoots. How do those early experiences influence the staging of your shows, which are these massive spectacles?
It’s about the hope that technology — or process — would catch up with itself. Watching the money wasted on those early rock videos, those Cinderella videos… When you start hearing about the budgets in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it’s fucking absurd. Now, here we are, and people are making a living doing 30-second loops on TikTok with their phone. Somewhere in the middle is an actual pursuit of art and caring about the lighting and caring about the content and making it work with all the technology and tools available to you. With Puscifer — especially with these latest pay-per-views — we’ve figured out a way to get rid of the shit that doesn’t matter and focusing on the art, capturing what needs to be captured on camera, capturing what needs to be captured on an audio recording, to focus on what are the most important pieces of this thing. Catering for 20 grand a day is not an important thing! (Laughs.) All those things that come along with union gigs… We were able to do all four of these pay-per-views for less than it would cost to do a 20-minute short in Hollywood.
Wow, that’s crazy.
People are wearing multiple hats. We’re all involved; we’re pitching in. You have to have a vision, start to finish, of what you have in mind.
You like to develop characters and participate in sketch comedy. But which of your three bands gives fans the best look at the “real Maynard?”
It’d probably be Puscifer. It’s more character-driven. There’s more story. At the end of the day, I’m not a drummer, I’m not a guitar player, I’m a storyteller. When the main focus of the track or presentation has a lot more emphasis on story, then you probably want to look to the place where the stories are being told more clearly and with more emphasis. It’s not just songs, right? There’s also characters and comedy writing and filmmaking, and there’s also a lot of art involved. And that’s not to take away from any of the other projects. There’s a beautiful balance between Billy and I and A Perfect Circle and the gentlemen in Tool. There’s a balance there in what we’re doing. If you’re asking where the personality comes out more, I would have to say Puscifer. It’s all-encompassing, it’s not just songs.
Stories and storytelling are at the center of what you do as an artist.
Stories are at the core of Puscifer. We’re painting little pictures, big pictures, through words and sonic landscapes. It’s a headphone band. If you’re not sure what we’re up to, put some headphones on and listen to any one of the albums twice through. Sometimes you have to attune yourself to a thing. There’s so many bands that I wasn’t into as a kid because they weren’t represented in the correct light. And when I say “light,” I mean that the sonic space I was listening to those things in, wasn’t correct at the time. And then once I sat back and created the space to hear what was going on — rather than forcing my will on what was going on — there were a bunch of bands I came to appreciate.
What’s a band you enjoy that’s a grower, that maybe took even more than two listens to really sink in?
Pink Floyd took me a minute as a kid, because I was growing up in rural Michigan and was used to pop songs and whatnot. You hear “Another Brick In The Wall,” and that’s a catchy radio tune. When I actually sat down with headphones that I borrowed from my uncle and listened to Animals, it changed everything for me. I had to have the right space. If I had put that on at any time before that point, it wouldn’t have made any sense to me. Back at that point, I couldn’t tell the difference between AC/DC and Sex Pistols. There’s guitars, there’s a guy screaming, everything’s in 4/4. I didn’t know the difference until someone pointed it out. ‘Oh, these guys got arrested and these guys didn’t.’
Thinking back to the Lollapalooza era when Tool burst onto the scene, musical chops weren't celebrated like they are now. Were those prog rock elements that really grew to define Tool underappreciated?
I have no idea. I just know how I write. If you're a person who really dives into time signatures or if you're a drummer who tries to play some of the Puscifer tracks, you'll find they are not what they appear to be. There's a lot of prog. To answer your question, I don't know. It wasn't a conscious choice from me to sing in that cadence or tap my foot in that way. I just naturally sing and write that way. The trick is to get somebody to sing along to something that's in seven, and they don't realize it. And that's Puscifer.
$45.50-$71.50, 8:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 22, Tech Port Center + Arena, 3331 General Hudnell Drive, (210) 600-3699, techportcenter.com.
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