Maynard James Keenan is pretty excited to finally tour on “Existential Reckoning,” the album Puscifer released in late October 2020 when concerts weren’t happening due to the pandemic.
“I’m just excited for the chance to develop these songs in a live setting,” Keenan says.
“Because the more you play them live, the more they evolve. And I think it’s important to keep breathing life into these things, to never be static, just kind of repeating yourself. Or parroting yourself.”
He and his bandmates did perform the album live without an audience in the experimental desert community of Arcosanti, Arizona — a pay-per-view performance filmed to stream online at Puscifer TV the day the album hit the streets.
They obviously can’t take Arcosanti on the road but there are elements of that performance that they’ve modified to travel better and use in different settings.
As Keenan says, “It’s similar but different.”
Why ‘Existential Reckoning’ lyrics are still relevant
Puscifer won’t be performing the album in full the way they did at Arcosanti, just most of the songs in addition to highlights of their other albums.
“Existential Reckoning” was built on synth tracks Puscifer’s Mat Mitchell started working on five years before the album saw the light of day, with most of the recording done in mid- to late 2019.
But the overall tone of the album could be easily interpreted as the band responding to the isolation and uncertainty most listeners experienced as humanity fumbled its way through COVID-19.
“Well, you know, I am psychic,” Keenan jokes. “Or psycho. Which one is the one that predicts stuff?”
More synth tracks: Stevie Nicks’ 20 greatest songs of all time, ranked
From the first line of an opening track called “Bread and Circus” (“Here we are in the middle of our existential reckoning”) to “Apocalyptical” (“Go on, moron, ignore the evidence/ Skid in to Armageddon”), it’s clear that Keenan is sharing his views on the state of a world gone mad.
But he sidesteps the “ripped from the headlines” approach that so often makes topical music feel instantly dated.
“The way I write is not very specific to a thing or place or person,” Keenan says. “I tend to keep it all a little wider open.”
That’s why, nearly two years later, Keenan says, “I think the subject matter is still relevant. I mean, the pendulum is still swinging.”
‘Maybe we should be cool to each other’
One recurring theme in Keenan’s lyrics is the sense that we’re not getting any smarter or more civilized.
“I don’t want to be the old dude blaming the new stuff,” Keenan says.
“But that really is part of the issue. Social media technology. And the isolation of being able to voice every uninformed opinion that you’ve ever had or come across. I don’t know if there’s any way out until somehow it all gets unplugged for a reset.”
Part of the problem is the anonymity of online culture, he says.
“It’s very comfortable from your living room to run your mouth,” he says. “But when you actually have to see the situations in real time or have to talk to the person across from you, we tend to be a bit more civil.”
There are consequences for being an abrasive troll in face-to-face discussions.
“You might be the big tough guy, but eventually there’s a bigger tougher guy who doesn’t agree with you,” he says.
“So at some point, you’re sort of going, ‘OK, maybe we should be cool to each other instead of running our mouths.'”
The early days of Puscifer
Keenan was already famous as the voice of Tool and A Perfect Circle when he started Puscifer, whose latest album was tracked between the barrels at his winery, a studio he likes to call the Bunker, during harvest.
That’s when Keenan tends to get a lot of work done since he launched a second career as a winemaker with Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards from his home in the central Arizona town of Jerome, where he also has a retail business, Puscifer the Store. Keenan has lived in Jerome since 1995.
At first, the concept was to take ideas and just run with them.
“That was kind of the whole foundation,” he says.
“If I had an idea for a shirt or a song or a video, no holds barred, just kind of go for it. And I found that working with Mat and Carina (Round), that ends up being kind of the cornerstone of their approach to things, too.”
The arrival of Round, who made her first appearance on 2009’s “‘C’ Is for (Please Insert Sophomoric Genitalia Reference Here),” is when he feels they really started getting somewhere.
Now, Keenan says, “It’s no holds barred. It’s bigger. It’s more. And more in tune with the original idea than the original idea, honestly.”
That’s why their songs are constantly evolving.
“Even an earlier song, we do it and go, ‘Wow, I really like that song. Hey, what if we completely broke it and started over and did four different versions?’ ‘Sure, why not?'”
Why Keenan needs Puscifer, Tool and A Perfect Circle
Having multiple musical projects works for Keenan.
“It’s just a matter of I do a thing,” he says. “And I just need to do this thing. And if one of the projects isn’t moving very quickly, I can’t sit still. I have to do this thing. So that’s why the multiple projects. Because some of them just don’t move fast enough.”
It’s not a matter of each different project filling different needs in Keenan’s life.
“I don’t really look at them that way,” he says. “They’re just things we do. They all kind of have their own little space and exist in their own world. They have room for each other. They can all coexist because they’re different processes and different people.”
‘I’m just more wired for a small town’
It’s not about the fame for Keenan.
“There are people in our industry who need the attention,” he says.
“They need to be upfront. They need to dance around. They like to be on the red carpet. They’ve just gotta be out there and be seen. And that’s no disrespect to them. That’s what they love. They love being the celebrity. Being the rock star. That’s not really how I’m wired.”
This is part of why he left LA and settled in Jerome.
“I’m just more wired for a small town,” he says. “I operate better.”
Compared to those rock stars who thrive in Los Angeles, Keenan feels more like a kid in his underwear dancing around the bedroom.
“And then the unfortunate part is you look up and realize you’re in your underwear in front of a bunch of people,” he says. “But I don’t need you in the room. I just need to do this thing.”
At some point, Keenan had to come to terms with the idea that he’s in an industry that needs him to do something more than dance around his bedroom in his underwear for no one.
And that’s fine. He doesn’t mind performing.
“You end up embracing that part,” Keenan says. “You have fun with it. And it gives me an opportunity to step outside of the one person and become the other.”
More live music: Your complete June guide to the top concerts playing metro Phoenix
How making wine adds to the mix
Keenan’s other other person is a winemaker, a passion that requires him relinquishing control to Mother Nature.
“There’s only so much control you have when it comes to agriculture and winemaking,” Keenan says. “So it really is kind of a grounding event. And then you appreciate the things that you do actually have a little bit of control over.”
When asked if tracking records in the winery has an impact on the music, Keenan answers, “Sonically it does, for sure. The different spaces that we end up recording in definitely has an effect on it.”
It’s also a different environment in which to explore his creative side than, say, the LA studios where Tool made their most recent album, “Fear Inoculum.”
As Keenan says, “In LA, if you’re in a studio, you walk outside and it’s a much different sensory overload than it would be here with a view of the Verde Valley. That’s a different kind of sensory overload.”
Although October marks two years since the release of “Existential Reckoning,” there’s been no talk of getting back between the barrels to record the next one.
“We don’t really have the bandwidth right now,” Keenan says.
“We’ve got to focus on all these other things. We filmed two more pay-per-views. We’re in the process of editing both of those together and trying to figure out when to release them. We got a lot done. We just didn’t get a lot of writing done.”
She was the ‘Female Elvis.’ Now this Phoenix rocker is on the cover of new Bob Dylan new book
On learning to live with COVID-19
He also spent some portion of the past two years recovering from COVID-19.
“I just had it the fourth time,” he says. “I got the European-flavored one. That was fun.”
He’s better now.
“It was a flu,” he says. “It’s done.”
At this point, as he’s getting ready to go back on tour, he sees it as another cost of doing business.
“I mean, when you’re in a room full of thousands of people, it’s being passed around,” he says.
“You get into a tube and you fly 10 hours in a contained environment, you’re gonna get it. If somebody has it and you’re gonna get it, you can get it. That’s just the nature of what it is now. We need to embrace that and stop freaking the (expletive) out.”
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, June 11.
Where: Arizona Federal Theatre, 400 W. Washington St., Phoenix.
Admission: $39.50 and up.
Details: 800-745-300, ticketmaster.com.
Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Musician Maynard James Keenan talks Puscifer tour, wine and COVID-19