A small shadow is cast from an opera box inside an empty Pearl Theater. As we approach, a soft muttering comes from the figure that fails to take shape until I’m nearly 10 feet away. “I’ve got to call you back,” he says rather firmly before hastily hanging up his phone. I’ve just been escorted in to meet the elusive Maynard James Keenan, lead singer for successful hard-rock acts Tool and A Perfect Circle, and now also known for his latest musical endeavor, Puscifer.
He’s just signed on for a weekend of music-based Puscifer shows injected with his dry and somewhat twisted sense of humor. Sin City, surely a perfect fit to unveil a live application of his latest project, will debut what he has termed a “cabaret-style show” at the Pearl on February 13 and 14.
As I walk up the stairs to meet Keenan, I realize he’s placed himself in a spot so dark I won’t be able to see my notes. My first question: “Can we move?” He’s happy to oblige, and we begin the interview in the dimly lit next box over. Keenan stands perhaps only 5-foot-7 and is very soft-spoken and unassuming. There’s a lot on his mind, and I’m here to extract.
You’re here today announcing two shows over Valentine’s weekend. Why that weekend?
Because of the nature of this project, because it’s going to be a revolving door of people involved, and because it’s going to be somewhat one-off performances that may be here mostly. I have other friends in the industry and they can’t turn down a touring job with … you know, Janet Jackson, for three months just to do my piddly little two-night, three-night gig. So we did it at the front end of the year, that way most likely they’re not quite working yet.
And why Las Vegas?
A lot of the people that will be coming in to perform are coming from San Fran, Arizona, L.A., so it’s a drive. The economy is crap right now, so the idea of taking a thing on the road … This way they get to drive out. They get to bring their cars with them. It’s more convenient. I did Vegas because they’ll pick up the rooms, so there’s more help in putting together this whole thing that will work and get it off the ground properly and have it relatively sustainable. As you know, taking things on the road can be very expensive; you can be in the hole for many years. The economy the way it is, you can’t do that.
What should fans expect?
We don’t really know how to describe it yet. We don’t know what we’re doing. We’re going to call it cabaret, because most people don’t know what cabaret is, so when we present it they’ll go, “So that’s cabaret. Oh!” There’s so many ideas that we wanted to explore that we’re just going to leave it open-ended.
What are all the different facets of Puscifer, and what aspects do you see making their way into the live show?
It’s definitely chaos, and it’s definitely a cornucopia of chaos. So if we can get the cornucopia to go the other way and spit out the butt end, we can focus it more. But I’m not really sure what it is. It definitely has to do with exploring performance and expressing. It’s basically all-encompassing. The all-encompassing part of it is creative energy. What are we going to do with all this creative energy? We’re going to do whatever we want with it. We’re gonna come up with recipes, we’re gonna come up with dog toys, mainly, we’re going to get together with a bunch of performing artists and do a thing that’s a performance. Now what that performance is, sketch comedy or music … most likely it will mainly be music, ’cause that’s mostly my background. But we also have other people that do other things, and we bring them all in and do this thing.
Your press release also mentions snacks. What kind of snacks go well with a Puscifer show?
Depending on the legality of what we can do in this building—I mean, what if we turn this thing into an airplane? You’ve gotta hand out snacks.
So you’re working on this show, you have two other musical projects, you’re promoting your wine, which is now available at Whole Foods across the country. Are you just the type of guy who has to have 15 different things going on at once?
I just find that over the years I’ve had a lot of ideas, and I just kind of force myself into a particular endeavor to try to express a bunch of them all at once to see if I collapse.
How is the winery going these days?
It’s going really well. It’s definitely a challenge financially to try and start a whole new industry and a whole new endeavor in Northern Arizona. There actually was one back at the turn of the century, but Prohibition came in and pretty much wiped it out. It’s so cost-prohibitive.
If you’re not drinking your own wine, whose?
Depends. I drink a lot of Spanish wines, a lot of Italian wines. These days I’m focused on tasting grapes I can’t pronounce. You know, just finding something I’ve never had before and just trying it.
As a winemaker in training, how’s your palate development coming along?
It’s a long, long process. It’s very involved. It’s a long road, and it really requires a lot of work and a good memory. You have to have a good sense memory. You have to call that stuff back up in your mind and remember that bottle you had.
The obligatory question: future plans for your other projects?
Nothing yet. We keep getting that question on Tool all the time, and if you guys are fans of that band, surely you know that I don’t know the answer to that question. We don’t even know. Until we absolutely are looking backwards and going, “Oh, we’re past the stop sign? Okay, I think we have an album coming out next week!” We don’t know. Until we’re actually writing a record and in the rehearsal space for months, we can’t turn around and go, “We’re now actually, officially in the space and doing that.” When we know, you know, because we don’t know.
Going back to Puscifer: You’ve released a proper record and a remix album. Are there plans for new music or possibly a new album in the works?
That’s kinda the hard part to get our heads around in this project. I’ve spent so much time with my other projects. We go into a space and really dissect and re-dissect and break it down to come up with this finished thing. That’s how we present it. There’s some flexibility with it, but it’s pretty much a precious baby, and that’s how it is. With this project, I’m more dropping little grains of sand in the oysters, allowing different-shaped and different-colored pearls to develop depending on which climate it’s in. That’s a stupid metaphor [laughs]. We have different sets of musicians, so in theory, the idea is that there’s no actual, real version of the song. There are core ideas—there’s a set of core lyrics and rhythms—but even the rhythms and the tempos and the time signatures can change. There will be some remnant of what it was, but the idea is for it to spiral out in different directions. So writing more material? For sure. I don’t know that we’re gonna do another CD, because why? You know, CDs, they’re dinosaurs. We’ll probably do 7-inch and 12-inch vinyls and then just do downloads. More music is coming, but we’re reluctant to put out new music, because we want to make sure that we have at least two if not three different versions of that song with no indication of which one is the real one.
So your personal M.O. is more focused on exuding artistic energy than on a strategy to try and develop a band or project and introduce it to the public?
It’s a work in progress, and it will always be a work in progress without necessarily saying, “We put it all together; now we’re gonna do the movie.” We’re going to do this thing, and it’s gonna be coming and going and exploring different ideas. The art of it is you living in the moment, watching it. Something that could be a complete disaster or have moments that will never be able to be replicated because it’s all improvisational, in-the-moment stuff. It’s certainly rehearsed. We’re trying to get some stuff together, but it’s like, if we leave it just scary enough—of not having all the blanks filled in—it could be awesome, or it could be absolutely disastrous. Showing your ass on stage is always great!
Do you have performers and musicians confirmed as of yet?
Not confirmed, because that’s also the nature of this thing. It’s going to be a revolving door of availability. I’m gonna be working with a bunch of different people, getting all these little bits and bobs and jams going. So that if at any moment someone says, “I can’t make it,” we’ve got a whole other set of guys that can come in with a different version of those songs to keep it flowing. We’ve got guys from the band Stolen Babies, Gil and Rani Sharone. Billy Howerdel’s guys from Ashes Divide; his rhythm section have expressed interest. Pat Mastelotto and Trey Gunn from King Crimson have been working on some stuff. Tim Alexander from Primus is committed, loosely. Jonny Polonsky is one of the key people. And of course my producer friend Mat Mitchell is doing a lot of the programming, a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff. We have tentative commitments from Laura Milligan, the woman from the “Country Boner” video. Bob Odenkirk and David Cross have expressed interest depending on scheduling, Tom Kenny and Jill Talley. Tom Kenny was Binky the Clown; he’s the voice of Spongebob.
I’m going to reach out to all of my friends from that time. Jeaneane Garofalo, Brian Posehn, Patton Oswalt, all these guys are eventually gonna want to come put their two cents in.
Any plans to make this a Somali Pirate musical?
Not yet, but can I write that down? (laughs) It could be anything. It could be a cooking show. We could turn this whole place into an airplane. We’re going just pull out all the stops and try and be flexible with it. I guess the best way to describe it would be kind of like Mr. Show meets Tom Waits’ Big Time meets … if you were to reverse the whole process of Saturday Night Live — more about the music and less about the comedy. Does that make sense? What else? Who knows? Once again it could be something where we say it, and then when you see it you say, “That was nothing like what he said,” and it’s a disaster. Then I’ll just go, “We were just kidding!” and then go home.