Maynard James Keenan of Puscifer: "You can’t please everybody"
Don’t ask about Tool. Don’t ask about A Perfect Circle. Definitely don’t ask when Tool’s next album – their first since 2006’s 10,000 Days – is due. These are the publicist-stated rules of engagement when interviewing Maynard James Keenan (above, centre), frontman of those two bands and also Puscifer, a “multimedia project” that encompasses music, film, performance, wine and clothing, and has released two albums so far: 2007’s V Is For Vagina and 2011’s Conditions Of My Parole. Keenan is touring the Puscifer show outside of North America for the first time in February 2013, with three Australian theatre shows booked around his commitments with A Perfect Circle at Soundwave Festival.
These interview restrictions open up lines of questioning largely outside of Keenan’s music, which has enthralled millions of hard rock fans since Tool’s first LP, Undertow, was released nearly 20 years ago. The singer owns and operates Merkin Vineyards and Caduceus Cellars in Arizona, where he’s lived for 17 years. Winemaking would be a gimmick – a distraction from his enormously popular musical outlets – if only Keenan wasn’t so damn serious about it. Multi-million dollar start-up costs aside, the business was built with a view to be sustainable, and Keenan says he has met this goal. A remarkable achievement, considering that Arizona had no wine reputation to speak of prior to Keenan’s involvement. Such is the pulling power of the man, perhaps, but it also helps that the wine is fantastic.
Hello Maynard. Where are you calling from?
The bunker. [At the Caduceus winery]
Australia was the first country to import your wine: I’ve met the two guys behind [Caduceus wine importers] Sip & Listen here in Brisbane. I’m guessing that exporting was always on your list of goals, but were you surprised the Australian opportunity came up as soon as it did?
I guess so. We don’t really have a lot of volume, so that we had enough to actually export was a surprise. It was good timing; we had a little extra.
Australians will also be the first outside of North America to see Puscifer tour. Why is that?
The opportunity came up. It’s a tough project to get out of the country because of all the extra stuff we put into the performance. It had to be the right scenario, the right situation for us to be able to afford to do it.
You said in [2010 documentary] Blood Into Wine that touring becomes more gruelling on your body as you get older. How do you take care of yourself, and your voice, while on the road these days?
Just like anybody else would: just pace yourself, get good sleep.
Is that different to what you were doing when you were touring in your 20s and 30s?
Well, you know, back then you have a little more resilience, and you can kinda push it a little harder, move a little faster. You don’t necessarily have to pay attention to maintenance much.
I get the impression that all of your musical output these days – touring, releasing music – is done primarily to fund your wine business. Am I way off the mark?
Hmm... no. I think the touring is just because we like to play music and we like to perform. The wine business – it takes care of itself. Of course, there’s a lot of initial investment, from prior touring. I used a lot of that money to get it going, but that was instead of buying a Ferrari.
So after the initial start-up cost, the ongoing costs aren’t so great?
Yeah, I mean, it’s barely paying for itself, but it is sustaining itself. The point of even doing it was to establish a sustainable endeavour.
Do you feel that reorganising your life around the wine business has had a positive effect on your art so far?
I would think so, yeah. It’s in tune with where I am. So if your art is, in theory, you expressing your take on the world, or your place in it, or your interaction with it, then I guess, yeah, it’s more in tune.
Do you find it freeing to create music around the wine season, or restrictive?
I haven’t really found anything that was restrictive. I kinda schedule things as I schedule ‘em. There’s a timing involved with harvest, so a lot of stuff has to take a backseat during that period of time, but it’s not like I’m writing every day.
Which is more satisfying: completing a recording session, or finishing a wine harvest?
I think they both stroke you in a different spot.
I listened to your interview on Joe Rogan’s show, where you said that you like to write lyrics in your truck, with the music up loud.
In general, [it’s about] isolation and being able to focus on the process. The truck just ends up being a functional space for that. It could be anywhere: the shower, a small room, a large room - as long as there’s no distractions.
Is that a recent thing, writing in the truck, or have you used that approach to writing for a long time?
Yeah. It’s an isolated space without distraction, whether it’s the truck, or a room, or a closet.
I saw the news about the new Puscifer EP [due in February 2013]. I’m interested to know how you approach covering a song like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. Do you do it ‘straight’, with reverence, or do you try and have fun with it?
The name of the one we’re doing is called ‘OG Mix’, meaning it’s a straight cover. Absolute reverence.
You’re a Queen fan, I take it?
Uh, yeah. Mostly that song, but yeah.
You have a history of reinterpreting other artists’ work; the [A Perfect Circle] album eMOTIVe is a good example. I wonder: do you ever hear any feedback from the artists you’ve covered, either praising or dissing your take on their music?
Not so far. Not that I’m aware of. But, you know, it’d be nice to know [laughs]. You can’t really please everybody, especially if you’re going to do a cover of somebody’s song. They’re definitely going to be precious about it, because that’s not how they approached it [originally]. So you almost can’t win with that news.
You told Joe Rogan a story from your childhood, about a pastor at your church in Michigan, who asked you to explain KISS and Alice Cooper to him. He was the one who said “you should tell more stories”. As a result, you started writing poetry, and that set you on the path to music. I wonder - did you ever talk to that guy again?
Yes. Absolutely. We’re good friends.
So I take it he’s aware of what a huge influence that was on your life, and how that, in turn, influenced others?
I believe so, yeah.
Is he a fan of your music?
I wouldn’t say that! [laughs]
Did he turn out to be a fan of KISS or Alice Cooper?
No, not at all.
In Blood Into Wine you spoke about how you’re not a ‘people person’; you said you prefer working in TheVineyards and getting your hands dirty. Given that selling, touring and promoting both your music and wine require social interaction, do you find it exhausting to have to deal with people constantly?
In a way, yeah. It’s definitely exhausting in a way, because you’ve got to be ‘on’, and be there to answer a lot of those questions that people have. It’s kinda worth it, because this region is such a new region. There’s so much to talk about, so much to share. It kinda balances itself out. There’s quite a few winemakers in the area as well, and they all have their own voice and own take on what’s happening here, so they definitely share in that burden. It’s great.
What’s the first thing you do when you get back to Arizona after a tour?
Check the levels in the barrels. Depending on the length of the tour, the time away, there’s definitely things that need to be done in the cellar. The first thing you want to check on is making sure that nothing has gone sideways. You just check the basic numbers to begin with, and then begin going through the barrels, just tasting things, making sure something crazy or unexpected hasn’t happened.
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