Maynard James Keenan has built a career on playing with people’s expectations. His most notable band, Tool, has enjoyed decades of accolades and radio airplay despite being one of the most nontraditional hard rock acts of their time. He eschews the spotlight, both on stage and off. Just as the band began to taste fame, Keenan abandoned Los Angeles for Arizona where, over the last several years, he has successfully done the seemingly impossible—harvesting wine in the Verde Valley. And then there’s Puscifer, Keenan’s ever-evolving multimedia project. Part comedy troupe, part musical experiment, part performance art, part insert-your-own-description, to ask what it is also answers the question. And Keenan wouldn’t want it any other way.
In late October, Puscifer released Money Shot, the group’s third full-length album and possibly their most personal to date. While the music bears some familiar hallmarks of the Keenan canon—off-kilter rhythms anchoring lilting harmonies—lyrically, the collection takes a closer look at the current state of the human condition through the lens of Keenan’s sardonic wit. The band took their unique show on the road last month with the message of expecting the unexpected. On November 13, the concept hit extremely close to home for the group.
Puscifer bassist Matt McJunkins was on tour with the California-based band Eagles of Death Metal when the terrorist attacks on the Bataclan theatre in Paris unfolded. While the rest of EODM was able to escape, McJunkins was unfortunately trapped inside. Unable to reach him, Keenan and the band stayed up all night following the news along with the rest of the world. Even after police entered the theater, they still had not heard from McJunkins nor were they sure of his fate. Heavy hearted, Puscifer still took to the stage later that day. “You just do it; that’s your job,” Keenan says. “You suck it up and get through it.” Thankfully, McJunkins survived.
The band continues its North American run with two performances at The Theatre at Ace Hotel on December 10 and 11. We spoke with Keenan about Money Shot, shattering expectations, and getting back to the band’s roots.
With this third record, it seems as if you have established a bit of an identity, even in a musical universe that’s intentionally malleable. Would you agree?
It’s very forest-for-the-trees at this point. I’ve had moments where people have gone, “I don’t really like the first album; I kind of prefer the second full-length.” And I go, “Yeah, we’re working on some new stuff,” and then I’ll play them a song, and they’ll go, “See, like that! I really like that, you should do more stuff like that!” And I say, “That was from the first record.” I guess it’s really a testament to expectations: how they will cloud your judgment, how you can’t really pay attention to what you’re listening to based on what you’re thinking rather than what you’re feeling. If you enjoy this record, go back and listen to everything we’ve done. You’ll say, “Oh, they’ve been doing this from the beginning.”
What inspired you during the making of this album?
Time. We made the first one seven or eight years ago. We made the second one three or four years ago. You’re just older; you’re seeing things a little differently. Where you’re standing is going to influence where you’re looking.
Some have said this record is much darker than the first two, but I hear humor all over it.
Yeah, it’s all there. It’s maybe less tongue-in-cheek than the past ones, but the first ones are not all tongue-in-cheek, there’s some stuff on them. Go back and listen. Don’t be thrown off by the word “vagina.” Pretend you don’t speak English and just listen.
You’ve described your creative process in Puscifer as painting with broad strokes, a concept that may run counter to some people’s perceptions of you as carefully controlled. Is it difficult for you to let go and let the project take on a life of its own?
No, everything is broad strokes, you just kind of hone it in. Just like wine making. You have wine coming in, and eventually that particular batch of wine is going to find its home, and you can’t be specific about it while it’s sitting there. It’s fermenting, it’s awkward, it’s weird, it’s wonky. It’s not refined. By the time it actually settles into itself you have an idea of how to really look at it, where to place it.
What should a person seeing Puscifer for the first time expect, and what should they leave behind?
Leave your expectations behind in general. Just come and see the show, and don’t think of anything else you’ve ever seen. The goal for people who come to see Puscifer, who have signed on for the ride, would be that if we showed up one show out of the tour and did AC/DC’s Powerage and Let There Be Rock back to back in the manner that Puscifer would, rather than bitching about it, they would be the ones going home going, “We got to see the show; we got to see the one.” That’s the nature of this project. Anybody can go up and regurgitate their songs, but if you’re on for the entertainment aspect and the entertainment version of this band, if you get even an inkling of the thought process that goes into it and how it really is meant to be an entertaining, thought provoking multimedia project—that should be OK. Now if AC/DC went out and played somebody else’s music for a night, that would freak people out and they would be fucking angry. This isn’t that project.
Puscifer will perform December 10 and 11 at The Theatre at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Tickets are available here.