Q&A with Maynard James Keenan of Puscifer and Tool
"My name is Maynard James Keenan -- and I think you've got a purty mouth."
Maynard James Keenan is tough to pin down. Over the years, he's fronted a variety of different bands -- most famously Tool, but also A Perfect Circle and, currently, Puscifer, a wild and sometimes wacky ensemble that headlines on November 20 and 21 at the Paramount Theatre.
But Keenan's interests off-stage range from sketch comedy to winemaking. He owns his own vineyard in Arizona, and is considering branching out into cuisine that would make a perfect match with his particular brand of intoxicating beverage.
Keenan talked about all these subjects and more in an interview conducted for our Puscifer profile. Read the entire Q&A below:
Keenan begins by offering details on the men and women who make up the 2009 version of Puscifer, as well as his belief that the band has more in common with his other projects than is often acknowledged. From there, he discusses Puscifer's origins; the ways technology has allowed him to realize in-concert ideas that had previously been either impractical or too expensive; the influence of Mr. Show-style comedy on the group; the fun of risk-taking, even when everything comes undone; the thin (and sometimes nonexistent) line between Tool songs and Puscifer material; background about his wine-making operation; correlations between music and vino; and his focus on creativity, which supersedes the particular medium in which he's working at any given moment.
Art for art's sake -- Maynard James Keenan-style.
Westword (Michael Roberts): Who will be the members of the band accompanying you in Denver?
Maynard James Keenan: Most likely it'll be Tim Alexander, Jonny Polonski, Mat Mitchell, Matt McJunkins, Jeff Friedl and Carina Round.
WW: Will this musicians form a basic core for Puscifer? Or is the idea not to have a basic core?
MJK: There'll be a basic core, I would imagine, but that's all flexible, depending on people's availability.
WW: Is there a specific skill set you need to have as a member of Puscifer?
MJK: I'm not sure. I suppose it's more about relationships than anything. People that we know, people we have fun with. Being able to present some of these ideas that's a result of those particular people on any given day, when they're on stage or in the same room.
WW: Your mention of the word "fun" seems key to me. Is a sense of humor a requirement? Or at least a sense of the theatrical?
MJK: Absolutely. That's definitely a part of it.
WW: So shrinking violets aren't invited?
MJK: I guess not.
WW: There have been times during your musical career when you didn't seem that into theatricality - shows with Tool where you stayed out of the spotlight. Does your approach with Puscifer represent an evolution? Or is it more than this approach is right for this group?
MJK: I think your observation about the sense of the theatrical would be incorrect. I think all projects that I've done have always had a sense of the theatrical. If you do a little Google search on photos, you'll find me with a Peg Bundy wig and fake tits. And a long wig for another project. It's always been there. Just because you can't see me doesn't mean the presentation isn't of a theatrical nature.
Keenan in action with Puscifer.
Photo by Isaac Brekken
WW: I guess I'm talking about you personally. Times when you weren't at the front of the stage, where you played with your back to the audience, things like that.
MJK: If you went to see Inglorious Basterds, you didn't always see Brad Pitt on the screen. But he was still a part of that.
WW: Is that one of the common misperceptions about projects you've been involved in? That it's all about you, when it's never been all about you?
MJK: We're not politicians. We're entertainers. So in some way, we're entertaining you. But if it doesn't in some way involve us at that particular moment, we're artists, and we're still expressing ourselves.
WW: The first mention of Puscifer that most people know about came during an appearance you made on Mr. Show. Was that earliest time the group's name was checked in public?
MJK: Well, it would be the first national public mention of the group's name. The group actually did some small performances a year or so prior to that around the Los Angeles area.
WW: At that point, was the concept of the band pretty much the way it is now? Or has that changed over time?
MJK: In terms of on paper, it's been pretty similar.
WW: You obviously could be playing bigger members with Tool. So what makes the time for a Puscifer tour right? What makes the concept most enjoyable for you now?
MJK: It's hard to describe without seeing the show. It's more than just a band. There's a lot more going on. I think it's just taken a while for us to have enough focus to put time into it and really present it. It's not just like four guys jumping on a stage and presenting songs. There's a lot more to it. And I think now is the time to present it just financially. It makes more sense, because ten years ago, you couldn't possibly do some of the animation we've done for the band for any reasonable budget. Because of the digital age, the costs have come down so much. You can record yourself really well, good and solid recordings, in your bedroom. You can present films and animation that you've recorded and edited on your laptop. You couldn't do that ten years ago.
It wasn't really financially feasible. The technology wasn't there. And now with all the record labels and the industry basically failing overall, in the big picture, it's allowed more independent people to kind of sink their teeth into doing things on their own. Really getting back to what matters to them rather than being seduced by the big record deal or the idea of getting famous. Kind of getting back to what's really important, which is creating the art.
Maynard shows off his Tool.
WW: How long did it take you to come up with the presentation you'll be touring? Has it been months or even longer in the works?
MJK: Definitely years. We've really just kind of pieced the ideas together over time. The people we're working with, and who we're involved with, some of them have day jobs and other projects, so we've kind of let it evolve naturally. As far as really getting a show together, just little pieces, it's been over the last two or three years. But the biggest push has been more recently, where we've tried to organize the ideas and find a way to present them.
WW: Do you have an idea of what element of the show has been in your head the longest? The piece that you've been thinking about the longest that you're finally getting the chance to realize?
MJK: I'm sure there's pieces of this show that go back twenty years. For sure.
WW: And now you finally have the opportunity to present them as a whole?
WW: You've been involved in a lot of widely varied kinds of performances, and I've even read that you've done some standup comedy. Is that right?
MJK: That's kind of a misconception as well. I've never done standup. I'm not that funny. But I've done sketch stuff. It's a lot easier to put on a fake mustache and kind of work in a character-driven scenario rather than actually being up there and trying to get laughs.
WW: Standup is one of the loneliest kinds of performances. You're up there all alone. Is that one of the appeals of a sketch format? That much like a band, you have some support?
MJK: Absolutely. For sketch, you can just be laughed at. Because you can put on a character that's funny or presents some movement within a scene, with different characters, and create a dynamic. But with standup, you pretty much just have to be funny. Unless, of course, it's another approach, where you're doing a character who's doing standup, like an Andy Kaufman-style character. That's different.
WW: How recently have you done sketch work, then?
MJK: We've been doing it this whole time, with Puscifer.
WW: Do you see a Puscifer show of an extension of the kind of thing that, for example, Mr. Show specialized in?
MJK: Absolutely. This project is definitely some awkward position located somewhere Mr. Show and Tim and Eric Awesome Show and an actual band. "Is that character in that movie the fat guy or the skinny guy?" He's in between. It's very hard to nail it down.
WW: Does your show have a narrative? Or do you like the idea of having a number of set pieces?
MJK: I don't know. I'm not sure yet. It definitely evolves as it goes. We record some pieces, we rehearse some pieces, film some pieces. But there's definitely a percentage of until we wait until the day of the show to really work out the details. We want to make sure that some stuff is solid, some stuff's rehearsed, but there's also this element of risk. When we do the show, we're not quite sure how it's going to go, because we intentionally didn't rehearse this part.
WW: So there's a potential for either huge success or absolute disaster?
MJK: Oh, yeah. It can be absolutely disastrous. Which is fine, because if you're coming to the show, you're not coming to see Lord of the Rings V. You're coming for the experience, for the volatility of it. It has to be volatile, or otherwise it's not exciting. It could go either way. It could go all ways. There can be great moments of success or great moments of failure throughout it.
But if you're a fan of just art in general and you want to be part of this, the stages of this thing that's going to continue, now's the time to get involved. So you can see if it's something that's for you. I've been doing it forever, and I'm definitely going to keep doing it. It's definitely going to be fun, this whole tour.
WW: Artists obviously have to be prepared for failure if they're risking anything. But is there a way to actually enjoy the failure while it's happening?
MJK: Absolutely. You have to embrace it. I think some of the best moments in Saturday Night Live, if you're watching it, aren't necessarily the successes. It's watching the artists cracking up in the middle of the scene because they screwed it up. That's always funny for me.
WW: So you've had moments on stage where you're almost able to stand back from yourself and think, "This is going to hell in a huge way, but it's really fun to watch"?
MJK: Totally. It's like watching the scene of an accident. It's fascinating. And then you just try to get the train back on the rails. Or you just go, "I meant to do that," and you move on. And it's no longer a train, now it's a plane.
WW: You've talked about there being elements of humor in Tool's music that people didn't perceive. Can you point to a song in the Tool canon that had humor in it no one ever got?
MJK: What's the first Tool video you remember seeing? Most people are going to say "Sober," which wasn't actually the first Tool video. The first Tool video was for a song called "Hush," and the video consisted of a black-and-white set with, basically, four naked guys foaming at the mouth. If you go back to that video, the humor was already there to begin with.
WW: Did the fact that so few people noticed the humor in Tool make it, in some ways, funnier for you?
MJK: Yeah. Absolutely.
WW: People have suggested that Puscifer is a huge departure for you. Given what we've just been talking about, do you feel like that's overstated?
MJK: Very overstated. All these things are an extension of me, and it all depends on the conversations that are occurring between what group of people. This is the result of these four people getting together, and this is a result of these other four or five people getting together. And the elements are all there.
WW: So the songs from V is For Vagina could potentially have been Tool songs if the members of Tool had played them, as opposed to the people who actually played them on the album?
MJK: Yeah, it's possible.
WW: Would it be interesting to try these things in different configurations? Or do you feel they are what they are?
MJK: Perhaps there are songs that are those.
WW: Things that you may have considered for one project that wound up in another, and they turned out more interesting that way?
MJK: Yep. Or just different. Or fit better. It's all about Tetris. It's all about where it kind of fits and how it inspires the other people in the room. There's other goals in mind for different pieces. Some of these things are experiments, and that's kind of the goal of Puscifer. As an artist, to observe, interpret and report a particular idea. And sometimes, if you've ever been to art school, you might have a teacher who's instructing you in a certain way, and where there's a particular goal for the project.
We're not looking for a piece that's going to be displayed in the museum. We're looking at what is the goal for this particular project, this particular piece. If it's just to explore the temperature of color, it doesn't matter what you're painting as long as you're successfully showing the temperature of color. So many pieces over the years have been what it is. A goal in mind to express a particular idea.
WW: It sounds as if, for you, it's just as satisfying when you achieve a goal that's not meant to be all things for all people. That it's very specific and focused.
Maynard will sell no wine before its time.
WW: Another medium you've gotten into over the years has been winemaking, and I understand that's something of a family tradition. Is that right?
MJK: As it turns out, yeah.
WW: At first age, did you first start drinking wine. Is it something your family always had on the dinner table?
MJK: Not at all. It was something I ended up discovering many years later. I was never really into wine until I was living in Boston, around 1987.
WW: Did you immediately become a connoisseur?
MJK: No, it took years.
WW: At what point did you feel you'd developed your palate to the degree that you could tell with just a sniff what was good and what wasn't good?
MJK: I think that was relatively early on. But I think my palate developed to the point where I'm just sniffing and identifying and not having too much judgment about what I'm tasting. It's more a process of identifying what's in this glass and appreciating it for what it is, and recognizing the process.
WW: Your description there sounds similar to your description of music earlier. Do you see the art in wine very much the same way you see the art in music?
WW: And a certain wine needn't be something that everyone likes? That if it accomplishes its goal, it, too can be a success?
MJK: I guess so. For me, it's more a matter of people being conscious of their own senses. For the lack of a better term, being a sensualist. Just expressing themselves and understanding how they see the world. How they perceive the world and expanding and stretching their ability to see things through all senses. To be able to sit down with a glass of wine, even if it technically sucks, that you can recognize why it sucks. But then you can take that same glass of wine and have it with something else, with some other type of food, and then your senses kick in and you realize, "Oh, actually, what I thought sucks actually goes really well with this." It's all a matter of perspective. There's not some kind of pinnacle of the pyramid. Like, a wine should taste like this and this alone. There's not one point on the scale, like a pyramid. It's more a matter of relationships. If you're in a situation that's like no other situation you've ever been in, and you're what might be considered a cheap, crappy bottle of wine, but it's with the perfect people in the perfect setting and it's memorable, then that was a great bottle of wine.
WW: Do you make a variety of wines, or do you have a specialty?
MJK: Well, we're experimenting a lot here in Northern Arizona. For the most part, it seems like this area is very suited for Spanish and Italian varietals. Some Bordeaux. But our goal here is just to allow the landscape to speak for itself. If we're planting a particular grape and it's not really doing very well, but others are, then we've been educated by our environment and we'll shift our direction to what the landscape wants to present.
WW: Again, is there any way to equate that to music? For instance, perhaps a smaller venue will lend itself to a certain kind of music, and that will work better organically in that setting than it would in a larger venue?
MJK: I think so. It's definitely environmental.
WW: Your interest in wine: Is it something you look at as a focus after your music career is over? Or is it something you want to participate in regardless of how long you're making music?
MJK: I think just as long as I'm drawing breath, I'll be creating in some way.
WW: You have so many different interests. But do you feel that most people would be just as varied in their interests if they were in your position, and had the opportunity to explore everything that strikes their fancy?
MJK: I couldn't tell you. I think I'm my own flavor of crazy. I don't know. I'm just kind of wrapped up in my own thing, so I don't know how other people would do it. I can tell you that I've seen artists that have taken off in different directions and explored things. Bowie. Peter Gabriel, definitely. They've stretched their legs, spread their wings and done things other than stand on stage with a mike. But I've also witnessed people who've taken the success and it's killed them. It all depends on the person, I suppose.
WW: Are there other dream projects on the horizon that you've been itching to try but haven't had the chance yet?
MJK: We're still working on developing our orchards and some of our gardens here. Most likely I'll be getting into more cuisine to go along with the tasting room. Presenting various dishes to pair with the wines and studying a little bit with some chefs to kind of see that vision through. But that'll be more of a side note. It's not going to be the focus. I'm not going to go on the Cooking Channel and do a show.
WW: Do you see yourself as primarily a musician? Or are you an artist in general who just happens to practice his art in different areas at different times?
MJK: I think that's the best way to put it. I'm just, in general, an artist. At one point of my life, music ended up being the element most people are aware of. I mean, Joni Mitchell is a painter primarily. She'll tell you that. She thinks of herself as an artist and a painter, but music ended up being the thing that was easier to convey and went further, more quickly. But predominately, she's a painter. And I'm a lot of different things.
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