Puscifer’s ambitious and complicated Maynard James Keenan sees himself as both an entertainer and an educator
Even if you don’t know much about Maynard James Keenan’s personal history—like his stint in the U.S. army, the winery he runs in the Arizona desert, or his fondness for dressing like a cop—it’s clear that he is, to put it mildly, a complicated character. For proof, consider that he needs three bands just to express the different aspects of his musical creativity—and that’s not taking into account his work as a filmmaker, actor, and standup comedian, his locavore grocery store, or his Los Angeles restaurant.
In Tool, he plays the role of lead screamer in an act that combines musical sophistication with a brutally harsh sonic assault. A Perfect Circle offers a more accessible take on loud, with pop moves leavening the thrash. And now, with Puscifer, he’s moving into an idiom somewhere between performance art and cabaret, exploring the world of the senses to a semi-improvised soundtrack that manages to be both funky and unpredictable.
But there’s no overarching game plan here. Asked what keeps him going, Keenan compares himself to a rat in a cage, pushing buttons in order to get a reward.
“If, as a band, you’re validated by being the Rolling Stones, then that’s what you’ll do,” he explains, on the line from a Las Vegas hotel. “But I think for some people that might be limiting. There’s so much more to discover if you don’t stop at that validation, if you go on to see what else you can do.
“I’m not saying that’s necessarily the better path,” he continues. “I’m just saying that I want to discover things. I want to push the boundaries of what my perceptions are of things—what I can handle, what I can’t handle. So I keep pushing the button to get my treat, and I keep getting rewarded.”
Of course, Keenan’s not content with pushing his own buttons. He wants to push yours, too, and Puscifer is one way for him to gleefully exploit what little shock can still be wrung from rock. There’s the band’s name, for example, which rhymes with “Lucifer” and also carries a less-than-coincidental link to his Merkin Vineyards winery. And then there are CD titles like “V” Is for Vagina and “C” Is for (Please Insert Sophomoric Genitalia Reference HERE), which compete for attention with Keenan-created cover images of Jesus Christ and voluptuous she-devils.
Grabbing an audience’s focus, Keenan says, is a trick he learned during his post-army days at the Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, Michigan. There, he led a campaign to improve safety standards in the art school’s spray booth—“We were all getting cancer,” he claims—that was going nowhere until he stirred up a different kind of outrage.
“One day I did a quick drawing of Sid Vicious with a swastika T-shirt, like ”˜It’s time to rebel. Come to the student council meeting!’ ” he recalls. “And we had 20 times more people at that meeting than we ever did, most of them pissed off about the flyer. So I said, ”˜Pay attention. We’ve been putting flyers up for months; the time you come is when I put a swastika on a flyer, and here you are. Now let’s talk about the spray booth.’
“The point is, I had to poke them and I had to pinch them to get them to look,” he continues. “So some of those images, I think, are well-suited to poke and prod and get people awake.”
Keenan is, at times, frustratingly opaque about what to expect from Puscifer’s upcoming Vancouver appearance. He politely declines to discuss the as-yet-unreleased “C” Is for (Please Insert Sophomoric Genitalia Reference HERE), and doesn’t want to give too many specifics about who, from Puscifer’s rotating cast, will be on-stage. The evidence visible on YouTube, however, suggests that Puscifer’s music ranges from frankly idiotic Nashville send-ups (“Cuntry Boner”) to moody, keyboard-driven environmental laments (“Polar Bear”). Keenan hints that there’ll be a theatrical dimension to the show as well—at least in the form of video projections and the occasional venture into comedy.
He’s considerably more forthcoming about what he hopes exposure to Puscifer will achieve.
“I come from a long line of educators,” Keenan reveals. “My dad was a high-school teacher of science, biology, and environmental studies. And so I guess my ambitions are to entertain, but also to educate—primarily to inspire people to explore, and to really hone their senses, I guess. For lack of a better word, I want them to be sensualists, to be aware of who they are and the space that they occupy, and what’s going on in the world around them.
“It’s a huge world, when you start exploring all those elements,” he adds. “I like to do that with sound, with sight, with taste, with smell. I’m tactile; I’m exploring all those things. So I guess entertainment is only a part of it. The growing and the searching and the inquisitive nature is what I’m really selling. It’s the creative force—and you are the creative force, too.”
Puscifer plays the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts next Friday (November 13).