These are strange times. It’s somewhat fitting then, that 2020 sees the return of Puscifer, the band that Maynard James Keenan (of Tool and A Perfect Circle fame, as well as running Arizona-based Caduceus Cellars wine company) considers his “creative subconscious”.
With fourth album ‘Existential Reckoning’ due to be released on October 30, in tandem with a globally streamed performance from the desert, what better time to put some questions to the band’s creative core: Maynard, Carina Round and Mat Mitchell.
Hello Puscifer. What can you tell us about the writing process when it came to this album?
Maynard: “Well, this time round, we selected the instruments we were going to use – so maybe a banjo, a synthesizer, a fretless bass – and worked within those perimeters…”
Carina: “I think Mat realised there were certain sounds and records he’d been inspired by all his life, and a common theme with these records was the use of the [retro synthesizer] Fairlight CMI. ‘Hounds Of Love’ by Kate Bush, early Peter Gabriel records, Pet Shop Boys… Mat’s incredibly technically-minded, and with the right technology at his fingertips can do just about anything.”
Maynard: “Technically speaking, Mat doesn’t play the banjo. I have friends that can play the shit out of a banjo. But usually the way they’re playing is the way they’ve been taught, so they’re going to deliver what you normally hear from a banjo. Somebody like Matt is not going to play what you normally hear from a banjo. Same with the Fairlight…”
Mat: “The Fairlight is such an interesting instrument. Its limitations are almost the key to its brilliance. You have to work within the boundaries the machine sets for you. I like the focus that provides. Sometimes you can have too much freedom.”
For a lot of Puscifer’s history, it’s often felt like Maynard and a revolving cast of characters. From what you’re saying, it really feels like a band solidified this time?
Carina: “It feels like that to me. A lot of the strength of this band, and the fun of it, was about it never being the same people bringing the same thoughts and feelings. It wasn’t set up to be that. On this record, Greg Edwards from Autolux played bass and Sarah Jones, who has played with Bat For Lashes and Hot Chip, played drums. People get chosen because of what they naturally bring to situations. Right at the beginning of the process Maynard was talking about fretless bass and so that led us to Greg, who I’m in a relationship with. But to answer the question, yes it feels like that for me. I’ve been in this band for 10 years and finally the three of us feel like the foundation… at the moment… for this record…”
Mat: “I think Puscifer are always going to shift and evolve depending on what’s required.”
Carina: “Expect the unexpected…”
Puscifer always seemed like a holiday from reality, but do you think anything about these crazy times crept into the writing and recording?
Carina: “I think lyrically, Maynard is really great at absorbing whatever is going on situationally and putting it together in a way that doesn’t completely give you the full story. You have to be present with the record to really get it. He won’t talk about it, so it would be wrong for me to talk about it.”
But more in terms of feel, this record doesn’t sound like one made for happy times…
Carina: “That’s really interesting. I think making a record like this, and how we made it, there is a lot of our subconscious that goes into it. There’s a lot of freedom to explore, but it’s all to a really intense timeline. It’s a bit like speed dating. I think that kind of process opens you up to what’s going on around you.”
Maynard: “I think it might seep in a little bit. You’re trying to hang on to that glimmer of hope and you’re trying to hang on to that light. But then some new bullshit piece of information gets shoved down your throat from the internet and that kind of derails your positive vibe. It often feels like there’s no way out, but you know, it is going to work out.”
Maynard: “Sure. Eventually we’ll go the way of the dinosaurs and it will be OK. I know that sounds dark and gloomy, but if you can get to the mindset that we are insignificant in the process of this beautiful blue marble we stand upon, it’s liberating. The pressure is off.”
The themes of the record appear to be about technology, particularly the way that it silos us or affects our thinking. Do you personally find yourself ‘doom scrolling’?
Maynard: “Absolutely. I want to go to a pet store and I want to buy an aquarium, get some fish, come home, set it up, get the fish in there, get them fed, and then in the morning when I wake up, reach for my iPhone and drop it in the aquarium and then feed the fish. Just as a distraction. If I don’t look at the news, I don’t get depressed. I could just throw the phone out, but that’s not nearly as fun as building an aquarium.”
There’s been so much turmoil in your country this year. How much has that impacted on you?
Maynard: “Well, most of the people that I work with, especially in the wine industry – mechanics, farmers, equipment distributors, sales staff – all these different people that we work with in this expanded retail, restaurant, hospitality, agricultural endeavour, they represent a wide, wide range of political, religious economic strada. It’s all over the map, and we can talk, and we can get along. It’s when you get into the digital realm where the polarisation is more prevalent. We do have idiots driving around in town with their Trump flags on their truck trying to start a fight. Like, are you guys really so fucking bored with your lives? They should try farming. You can’t be bored farming.”
Finally, you’re performing a globally, steamed show at Arcosanti – an experimental, environmentally minded ‘city’ in Yavapai County, Arizona on Friday…
Maynard: “We were looking around for landscapes and natural settings that we could do things in and Arcosanti seemed to be the right fit for this particular project. It’s just beautiful. It’s hard to explain Arizona unless you’ve been. There’s beauty. There’s hostility. It’s not easy to survive here but it’s worth it. So many architects and artists and writers and painters that aren’t from here end up here and never go home. And the show? I think the show is going to be an interesting escape from reality. It should at least take your mind off all the other crap.”