By Jennie Orton
CALGARY — Out in the Arizona desert, in the warm yet unforgiving bosom of the Verde River Valley, Puscifer slithers and snarls and licks its wounds, spitting honeyed venomous truths and all-knowing punch lines that will rock your existential foundation to smithereens if you are listening with both ears. This sunburned beast is the self-actualizing solo project of Tool front man and all around titan of musical outlaw behaviour, Maynard James Keenan; it will stomp on your excuses as if they were grapes.
Keenan is a tough nut to crack, prone to standing on pyres but uninterested in showing his hand. He’s a lone wolf philosopher with a green thumb and a sharp tongue. A believer in teaching a man to fish rather than selling him one already filleted, he won’t make it easy to suss out the gist of his shape-shifting and chameleonic existential tale that is Puscifer. If you ask him to detail the turning points in what has thus far been a three-act exploration of the messy minefield that is the adoption of self-awareness and accountability, he will not leave you any breadcrumbs.
“Those are pieces you have to absorb yourself listening to the record,” he counters. “They are subjective; you have to find your own way through it.”
Puscifer burst out of the womb, flipping the bird and licking its lips, billing itself as “a premiere improvisational hardcore band” in 2007. Its comedic roots were most people’s first glimpse into what is essentially Keenan’s subconscious. Always at the helm of some kind of large band with some kind of large thing to say, Keenan began to nurture the idea of getting his hands dirty with some real personal growth. And it is within the punch lines of Puscifer, which become less and less broad as the project grows, that Keenan’s hard lessons smirk and bruise and fire shotguns into the skies as a fleeting but bright beacon through the desert for those willing to follow it.
“I think it is more about that self-examination; if you’re the type of person who is going to do that, you’re gonna do it anywhere,” Keenan says of this exploration.
“It happens, depending on who you are and where you are, with quite a few people. It could happen in the snow, in the heat, it could happen everywhere.”
For Maynard James Keenan, it happened out in the Arizona desert; a place where he not only writes and records most of the Puscifer project but also grows and harvests his award winning wine with Merkin Vineyards and Caduceus Cellars. Both projects have bore fruit that is both tasty and hard to pin down, bringing a new audience to a seemingly barren terrain.
Out amongst the vines, within Keenan’s outlaw existence well off the pop culture radar, the writing and production schedule must bow to the grape-harvesting season, creating an open-door policy for the collaborators and musicians who lend their talents to the Puscifer project. Contributors include the swaggering wail of Mila Jovovich in “The Mission,” the distinctive polyrhythmic backbone of Primus drummer Tim Alexander who has appeared across the Puscifer timeline on tracks such as “Queen B” and Maynard’s ode to his new daughter on the new album “Agostina,” and the mean ol’ pluck of Rage Against the Machine alumnus Tim Commerford’s bass on “Momma Sed,” among others. But it’s the house band that really brings the flavour to the project; Mat Mitchell, Josh Eustis, Matt McJunkins and the increasingly indelible Carina Round have had their names all over most of the material over the last few years, most of them touring despite the seasonal schedule. Though the harvest has cost Puscifer a name or two.
Matt McJunkins recently went on the road with Eagles of Death Metal and will be missing the Puscifer tour to do so, leaving Ministry’s Paul Barker to pick up the bass. This is Puscifer’s open door policy in action.
“Junk really jived with those guys, and I could kind of see that coming. And I think that’s great and he is of course welcome to come back,” says Keenan. “It’s music and emotion and you kind of have to follow your nose on that.”
Keenan’s nose has led him to a much more certain and perspective-laden third album, October’s studio release Money Shot. Coming on to the scene with the soaring and prolific single “Grand Canyon,” the album already is laying its much bigger balls on the table.
In the creator’s own words: “It’s more, for lack of a better word. It’s just more. It’s wider, its deeper, it’s taller. It’s just more.”
The album is throbbing with signature Puscifer R&B and electronic influences swelling around Keenan and Round’s sometimes-ethereal harmonies. It aggressive call-outs to the audience and is less confessional and introspective than previous records. Money Shot dares the audience to be uncomfortable in their own skin as a measure of finding truth.
“There is a comfort zone that we have kind of settled into: food, shelter, clothing, very available even at the worst of times. We never really have to fight for our life to secure any of those things. So sometimes you need a slap in the head to reconnect with some of that.”
Keenan advocates the testing of oneself to anyone who has the stones to do so.
“Travel, get outside of your comfort zone, go places that are comfortable and uncomfortable, just travel. See other people, see other areas, give yourself some perspective,” he says.
“I think we’re better off when there is a little struggle and you recognize it.”
It is human nature to explore, but so many of us are afraid of what we will find. Puscifer has always been the project with that well-earned dust on its boots and a story to tell. But the project is by no means a road map, more of a constellation in the sky of a cowboy in a clown suit with a serpent’s smile; one you can use to find your way but the destination is up to you.
“If you’re kind of blindly following, there are people who will gladly lead you,” Keenan says. It is not his goal to do so; he is just the messenger. Armed with an “open mind and no expectations” you may be able to “weigh your worth before her majesty the Verde River,” or whatever your version of that may be.
Until then, there is always the occasional “Cuntry Boner” and a nice glass of Malvasia Bianca to lubricate the ol’ courage.
See Puscifer on Monday, November 30th at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary. Also catch them in Vancouver at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Wednesday, December 2nd.AB, Alberta, BC, British Columbia, Maynard James Keenan, Puscifer, Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium