PUSCIFER
[Photo: Travis Shinn]

There’s a good chance that Maynard James Keenan would prefer to be a country gentleman farmer than a brooding rock vocalist. As the owner of the Caduceus Cellars winery, the frontman is busy tending to his children, his vines and his farm. Glued to his phone about how the world reacts to his bands Tool and A Perfect Circle? Not so much. That attitude is somewhat reflected on Existential Reckoning, the fourth album from his band Puscifer.

Sonically, Puscifer—Keenan, vocalist/keyboardist Carina Round, guitarist/keyboardist Mat Mitchell and bassist Greg Edwards (also of Failure)—immersed themselves into a nickel-plated retro futurism. Mitchell gathered a stack of vintage synthesizers both analog and digital to reproduce sounds that are quite familiar to people buying compact discs in the ’80s. The two vocalists reacted to Mitchell’s creations, and what they came up with was a record that sounds familiar but also remarkably contemporary. With lyrics that are optimistic but very guarded, they may have made the true soundtrack to the pandemic.

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Puscifer’s new music isn’t easily pigeonholed. It’s progressive but not busy; rocking but without the fist-pumping. Existential Reckoning is so varied in its execution, the thing that genuinely completes it is the listener’s psyche. Keenan and Round discussed the making of the album and the non-musical influences that informed it. At the end of the process, they asked themselves if the record was indeed “delicious,” and they agreed. When you hear Puscifer’s new retro-futurism, you will definitely want to give your compliments to the chefs. 

Existential Reckoning is a fascinating listen. There are certain types of sonic signifiers that cross genres and entire eras. It’s so vibrant and contemporary that what you think is familiar is actually very futuristic. It’s one of those records that needs a third party to complete it.

CARINA ROUND: I think that the big slant to this record comparatively to some other Puscifer records is that [Existential Reckoning] has that universality and has that blanket familiarity without handing you all the meaning on a plate. You’re right: It needs the listener to complete the story. Which, you know, Maynard has always been staggering writing those words. I’m blown away by his lyricism on this record.

It’s a record that makes me wonder what the intentions are. And I know better than to ask him about a particular lyric. The ambiguity is given to you, and it’s up to the listener to provide the clarity. A lot of records don’t do that.

ROUND: [Laughs.] I don’t want to be on any call where the interviewer asks him about his lyrics! To respond to that, so many people are afraid of being misunderstood. And I don’t think that’s an issue here. Afraid of being misunderstood is saying the wrong thing. 

MAYNARD JAMES KEENAN: [enters call.] Hi. Is she already telling stories?

ROUND: I tried not to. I was just responding to the very nice and seemingly educated things he was saying about the record. But I was trying not to tell any stories.

I was saying it needs a third party to complete it. Not everything is spelled out for you. The intentions are purposely obscured. You need another person to make that universe and put it through whatever prism they’re going through. There are a lot of things that sound familiar, but it’s also wonderfully contemporary.

KEENAN: [Five-second pause.] Awesome. Annnnd scene! 

ROUND: Maybe we should start over. [Laughs.]

It’s a Rock Journalism 101 question, but what the hell: How do you work? What were you aiming for on this record in terms of process?

KEENAN: Well, the way I’ve always worked—and Carina, you can jump in on your process—has been that I’m responding to sounds that I’m hearing. So when Mat goes down the rabbit hole of using all these old synths and keyboards, and he put some things together. I’m reacting to what I’m hearing. And unconsciously, of course, you start reacting in a way that reflects when you subconsciously heard that kind of keyboard, the kind of synth from songs from your childhood, adolescence, college and beyond. But there’s a progression when I react subconsciously to a thing. Then Carina’s reacting to what I’m reacting to. Before you know it, there’s this painting of a homogenized picture of a snapshot of our past looking forward.

People sit down on a guitar, and they write a song on a guitar or they’ll read a poem or write guitar chords to the poem. That’s just not how I’ve ever worked. I listen to rhythms and the sound, and then I react consciously or unconsciously. Carina, I’m not sure how you do it for your solo stuff…

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ROUND: My solo stuff is exactly what you were just talking about. That painful, slow process of trying to create every little thing and make a story out of it. I think the process with us three is more like a ricochet. It just keeps going like that until it’s made much more freeing.

You’ve worked together long enough that you have an intuition about what the other person will do. Or does that not matter? Because everything is just in the moment. It’s not improvisation, but you’re still reacting and trying to see where somebody is going to go. Moving the river, as it were.

KEENAN: Moving the river is a good analogy. If Mat has a series of rhythms and vocal melodies that he’s laid down, I’m trying to think of a vocal melody. I’m trying to think in terms of how Joni Mitchell rode in with an open chord to enter the mood of the day and try to come up with ways to beat what I’ve done before and try to come up with a chord I haven’t used. What usually happens is I paint myself into a corner, and I start to panic. Then I turn to Carina and say, “I’m going to go around the corner and get a coffee. You fix this.”

ROUND: [Laughs.] That’s not totally true. Maybe sometimes. The one thing I find constantly mind-blowing about being in this band is I can never guess what Maynard’s going to put on something. I’m constantly sideswiped by what he’s doing. I would hope that for the most part, he feels the same when I put on something. And Mat does. That’s the great synergy about us three, I think. We all have a certain amount of trust in what everyone’s strengths are. And we have a certain amount of quality control within ourselves. Maynard just said he’s constantly trying to better what he’s done before. I think we all have that. And none of us want it to be expected that way. The whole vibe of this band is to expect the unexpected. That’s not what we’re trying to do—it’s just what happens. [To Keenan] Right? Tell me if I’m talking shit, Maynard.

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KEENAN: No, no, you’re good. I think in a way, we all think like chefs, and we understand that salt and acid enhance the flavor of a medium, and pepper and things like that alter [it]. You’re changing the direction of the natural flavors being presented. So in writing, I think we’re trying to find that balance. We both understand that balance. So whenever she’s bringing something to what I’ve already done, she’s not trying to crush it with a big, bombastic flavor. She’s thinking in terms of acid or just another little bit of pepper to take it in a different direction. But not so far that all you taste is pepper. Are you hungry? 

Actually, I could go for a nice thin layer of prosciutto right now. There is a great Chinese curse that translates as “May you live in interesting times,” and 2020 is a very interesting time, to say the least.

ROUND: [Laughs.] Here it comes…

KEENAN: Good God…

Our fearless leader has come out of the hospital, whips off his mask in front of the television cameras as if to say “What’s wrong with you people?”

KEENAN: And you didn’t see that coming? Somebody needs to get these writers a raise or whatever. Whoever is writing 20/20 deserves a bonus.

Without asking about specific things in terms of actual lyrics, could Existential Reckoning have been made at any other time? Was there any kind of… “Malaise” is a word…

KEENAN: Not anytime, but probably in the last 30 years just because of human nature and the nature of the internet and social media. There’s definitely a different bent that’s happening.

As a farmer, I’m noticing extreme differences in weather patterns just from the time I started 20 years ago, planting grapes. Things are very different, this weather pattern of rainfall. It’s just all extremes now. So I think part of [Existential Reckoning is] maybe we adjusted a few adjectives here and there to be a little bit more topical, but I think a lot of [it] could have been written [in] the last three years. It’s just a connection that we’ve fallen into. 

I’m just trying to consider the personal aspect of it all. Both of you have children. In the back of your mind, you have to be thinking about the technology and all of this stuff. Raising a child in this world we live in is both honorable and the bravest thing right now. We talk about how the internet brings us together, but it doesn’t feel like it a lot of the time. Theoretically, anything can be a weapon.

KEENAN: We’re fairly successful musicians. We’re not completely isolated and insulated from the rest of the world, but we certainly aren’t standing in a soup line. I can only speak from my experience. I’m an empathetic person at what somebody is going through. But I couldn’t tell you what they’re actually going through. But I do know that I’ve been preparing since high school to plant food, to grow things, to tend [to] ducks. You understand that a lot of this stuff goes away. Because living in Michigan and you’re snowed in, you can’t get to the grocery store. And even if you get to the grocery store, it may not be open as it might be under three feet of snow. So you learn to survive in those hostile environments, [and] then you are a self-starter. In a way, I’ve always been that self-starter. So I feel like if it gets so bad, I am more than happy to unplug and raise more ducks and plant more food.

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ROUND: I think also, in terms of protecting your kids, it’s important to remember that that’s really not reality. And also teaching our kids to look at things through a skeptical lens and to arm themselves with information and to be aware of their growing up and having emotional reactions of their cognitive biases to look at this situation. Hopefully by the time they’re grown, they will be more informed on the internet and social media and how that affects us as a society. Because really we’re right in the middle of dealing with the consequences of it. Because we just embraced it and didn’t deal with how it might affect us. Hopefully we can teach our kids that while they can use it as a tool, we can let them enjoy it at the same time.

KEENAN: Balance is the key word. I think having my daughter be on the computer a lot, she’s doing school on the computer. Then, of course, she plays games on the computer. But to make her stop and help me rotate the eggs in the incubator and then watch from egg being collected to egg hatching and raising a duckling and then walking that duckling daily and feeding it, housing it… When you see a thing like that happen, it changes you. You can’t disconnect from that. Watching that life go from egg to adult to now laying eggs. So if you make sure you’re inserting something, maybe that’s [how] the pendulum swings. Maybe somehow [there] would be a surge of people unplugging or at least going out of the dopamine dumps in favor of gardening. 

There are just some things in life you don’t need a screen to witness. Right now, are we seeing the best in people or the worst in people?

KEENAN: I think we’re seeing all those things right now. It’s always going to be hammer time. People are going to use a hammer to destroy. They’re going to use a hammer to create, or they’re not going to recognize it as a hammer. There’s going to be all of those results happening with what the internet brings out. And people are just especially politically speaking right now. And just all the shit that’s going on as people are moving into this intentionally polarized consciousness. “Oh, you have to choose a side.” I don’t remember having to choose a side. I’m not sure where that came in. I don’t have to choose a side. One, two steps back, assess what I see and make a decision. But I think part of me agrees with you that we’re seeing the extremes of people, the extreme good and the extreme bad. 

How do you hope Existential Reckoning will be received? As a backdrop for people to soundtrack their lives’ accomplishments? Escapism? Brain-flexing? What do you hope people take away from this record?

KEENAN: I’d quote a friend of mine, Todd Bostock. In our whole winemaking realm, we have clever ideas. You want to try things. You want to do this, [or] you want to grow that grape. Try this process and try these vessels to age it in. Use natural ways to ferment or whatever. At the end of the day, his question is, “Is it delicious or not?” [If it’s] not delicious, what the fuck is the point? Your clever idea is cute and all, but is it delicious? So first and foremost, the album has to be delicious. If it’s not delicious, there’s no point in it. In my opinion, I’m very satisfied. I feel probably that second layer of stuff could be that it inspires somebody to go do stuff to it, whatever it is they do, whether it’s the backdrop for what they do or something that launches them to do something similar beyond. Carina?

ROUND: Yeah, I think all of them. It could be any one of those things. Personally, I think it’s an important record of its time. Make sure it’s loud and play it frequently.

KEENAN: Wear headphones. Not earbuds, not Bluetooth. A pair of analog headphones you’ve gotta plug in. 

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UPDATE: Puscifer have announced plans for a global livestreaming event. On Oct. 30, the band will be performing Existential Reckoning: Live at Arcosanti, an ambitious project in the Arizona desert. The location was described by Architectural Digest as a “utopian metropolis in the Arizona desert” that “looks like the sublime set of a big-budget sci-fi movie.” 

“Arcosanti is a small group of minimalist modern living spaces and common areas in the middle of the desert surrounded by canyons,” explains singer/keyboardist Carina Round. “It was the brainchild of Paolo Soleri who was an architectural student of Frank Lloyd Wright who then established his own philosophy of Arcology. The idea is that architecture and ecology should be married philosophically and humans should always build to limit sprawl and maximize community and awareness of the surroundings. It’s kind of like Luke’s uncle’s place in the first Star Wars. We think it’s a perfect location for Puscifer because it’s otherworldly and slightly alien but also very focused on human potential and creating a system that fosters that.”

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“It’s one of a long list of examples of architects, artists, actors, musicians, writers, and poets,” says Maynard James Keenan about the location. “People who are not necessarily from Arizona but came here and found that creative tick that burrows under your skin here, something that sets you in a motion to respond to this, what I consider to be equal parts inspirational and hostile environment. It’s not easy to survive here. There’s already been a dust devil that’s whipped through here, rattlesnakes and crazy red ants outside of my sleeping quarters which tried to consume my dog. Imagine if you were an extraterrestrial traveler and you landed in the Southwest and wanted to assume an identity here and blend in. This would probably be a good spot to do that.”

When asked about the band’s anticipation to play live again, Round is both philosophical and resigned. “It’s great to tackle a brand new set of songs and translate them in a live setting,” she says. “It’s even a little transcendent to perform in the middle of nowhere to the void. The void will never replace a human audience, but it was a nice experiment.”

Livestream tickets and limited-edition merchandise exclusive to attendees, are available via pusciferlive.com. The livestream commences Oct. 30 at 3:00 pm PT; 6:00 pm ET; 10:00 pm UK; and 11:00 pm EU. It will remain on-demand for 72 hours. Check out the trailer for the event below.