It’s hard to describe Maynard James Keenan as an artist and human. Ultimately, he is what is left of faithful creatives in a business driven by commercialism.
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Keenan has used his vision to create narratives time and time again with Tool, A Perfect Circle and arguably the most authentic of all his projects, Puscifer- which serves as more of a passion project and creative outlet for him, with current bandmates Carina Round and Mat Mitchell. Three records into the venture marked by the 2007 debut ‘V’ is for Vagina and then Money Shot in 2015, Keenan with an evolving cast of creative counterparts presents a one-of a kind plot with quintessential characters, Agent Round, Billy D, Agent Mitchell and Dick Merkin for Puscifer’s third release, Existential Reckoning, out today.
Keenan prepared a storyline for the record that was somewhat convoluted and open ended. But with Keenan steering the story, that was undoubtedly the idea and the best way to garner attention for the release. The album consists of a lengthy tracklist, with many songs over the four-minute radio-play threshold, which is no surprise for such visionaries. Guitarist Mat Mitchell admits, the narrative is hard to explain even for him, and most of the stories for their records are simply Keenan’s ingenious mind that Mitchell and Round seamlessly roll with. And though Keenan may manifest the storyline and lyrics, Round and Mitchell remain lofty songwriters.
“When we set out to make a new record, it’s not necessarily ‘we’re going to make this kind of record’, it’s more influenced by our lives,” Mitchell told American Songwriter. “And it usually starts with ideas I bring in, either a sound or a melody from loops and sometime a full arrangement. I just fill Drobox full of that stuff for Maynard and Carina then Maynard decides when he wants to focus on those ideas and sees what resonates with him. Once he’s got a concept for the story Carina will build around it. Sometimes Maynard comes with a melody from a piano or guitar but usually it’s from the folder of ideas.”
Mitchell says he is always contributing to the pool of ideas even when Keenan is away on tour with Tool. Without a conceived plot to guide him like Keenan, Mitchell used the music he listened to everyday to elicit new ideas and inspiration for Puscifer’s material. And during writing for Existential Reckoning he was hitting repeat on a lot of Ministry, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Art of Noise, all of whom used a Fairlight CMI II synthesizer.
“A lot of bands I gravitated towards growing up, I didn’t know until years later that it was equipment or a producer that connected those things,” Mitchell said. “And I realized later that there was a Fairlight in those (Ministry, Art of Noise) recordings. When we were touring on Money Shot, I really wanted to find a Fairlight and use it as a catalyst for songwriting on the next record. I didn’t go into it with intention of nostalgia or trying to do what everyone else was doing with it. It was more about using the voice of the instrument to work with what I’m doing. There’s hints and characters to it but the intention was not to recreate with it.”
And although synth may not be a traditional songwriting tool to begin a song with at a foundational level, Mitchell did just that. Pushing his own limitations, Mitchell stepped outside the comfortability and familiarity of guitar driven songwriting. The album opener “Bread and Circus” was one instance where Mitchell wrote in this way and used only an 8-track sequencer initially. It was only after the bones of the song became evident, that he brought in a laptop to lay down a bass line. And the near completed song instantly resonated with Round and Keenan.
“I believe that whatever the catalyst is should direct or influence the songs,” Mitchell said about writing on synths. “If I pick up a guitar there’s familiarity and I know how to be safe and in that comes laziness, so things take on a similar feel. I try to get away from that and force myself to pick up something I don’t know, and then I end up picking different melodies because the intervals are different. With a synth I’m not looking for the obvious sounds. And the Fairlight is limited with only 8 mono sounds on the sequencer. Those limitations are creative. Sometimes we get spoiled into thinking creativity is unlimited plug-ins or track bundles when sometimes creativity comes from taking things away.”
Another song radiating with synths is the single “Apocalyptical,” one of the catchiest from the record and is highlighted once more by Round’s call-and-response style vocals that pan from left to right and Keenan’s seductive, alluring whispered words that exist only for listener interpretation. And though blatant lyrics like, Go on, moron, ignore the evidence, skid in to Armageddon, tango apocalyptical, may resonate with current events, we know the song is probably not at all about what it seems, considering the way Keenan writes.
“The lyrics are all Maynard and I know that he likes to leave that stuff open for interpretation because the messages are stronger when you put your own experiences into the lyrics,” Mitchell said about Puscifer’s lyrics. “There has been a lot of discussion about that (‘Apocalyptical’) and the pandemic, and we decided to release it because it seemed poignant to the world but it was written lyrically last year so it wasn’t directly written for that. It was just a bigger picture of where we are as a society.”
As a visionary and solo lyricist, Keenan is usually lax about the music and the band seldom has disagreements over songs, but that was not the same case for Mitchell’s favorite tune, “Prometheus,” the only song Keenan had a firm stance against, at first.
“When you’re writing some stuff comes naturally and others you must force and that was one Maynard put his foot down on,” Mitchell said about ‘Prometheus’. He just wasn’t feeling the drums. And it doesn’t happen often but when it does, we let each other do our thing. We all have a lot of respect for each other and our musical abilities and tastes. So, it’s an anything goes thing and if we know someone is on a journey, we don’t interject with opinions we just know it’s going to be better. That’s one of the strengths in what we do, we all kind of have freedom to do what we want and we’re not getting in each other’s way.”
With the narrative and synth sounds paramount to the record, the only way to present it to fans that would do it justice, was with a PPV show live from Arcosanti, Arizona- hopefully providing some clarity to Keenan’s inspired history of the album, but not too much of course. “I could tell you what you’re going to see, but that would ruin it, that’s a personal experience for you,” Keenan said in the show’s trailer clip. “But just imagine you are an extraterrestrial traveler and landed somewhere in the southwest and wanted to assume an identity…”
Existential Reckoning is out everywhere today, and you can catch the PPV show, Existential Reckoning: Live at Arcosanti tonight here at 6PM ET.