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“Extra-terrestrials are kind of a new religion”: a strange conversation with Maynard James Keenan

Puscifer 2020
(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

Puscifer just get weirder. As well as releasing their Billy D And The Hall Of Feathered Serpents livestream, which revisited 2015’s Money $hot album, Maynard James Keenan‘s art-pranksters have put out a batshit insane video for Bullet Train To Iowa from last year’s Existential Reckoning album.

Acting like a bridge between their first livestream at Arcosanti and Feathered Serpents…, it depicts Billy D – the character played by Maynard – having another (mis)adventure, getting wasted in a bar and ending up in a mysterious situation involving aliens and an 'Espactáculo De Unburro’ – a sex show with a donkey.

They’re also releasing a limited-edition picture disc vinyl for Existential Reckoning, so you can see the artwork larger than ever, which shows a pregnant Billy D beside his extra-terrestrial pals.

We grilled singer Maynard James Keenan about exactly what’s been going on in Puscifer’s world. We didn’t uncover much intel about Billy D, but we did chat about Muppets, wig maintenance, and why aliens are the new religion.

Metal Hammer line break

In the video for Bullet Train To Iowa, you drink a red shot called 'manstruation'. What does 'manstruation' taste like?

Cherry snot.

Snot?!

[Laughs] It was one of those, they kind of got me, 'cos they handed it to me, and I wasn't sure what I was gonna be drinking, and it was nasty.

Was it actual alcohol?

Yeah. That I didn’t know was gonna happen, either. I thought it would be water and cherry.

And it had to be red because menstruation is red… but what is 'manstruation'?

No idea, that's Jacob [Vargas, actor] just riffing, and I went with it. Jacob and the bartender were just putting stuff together, and he handed it to me. So, it wasn't in the script, he just did it.

So, for the uninitiated, what is an 'Espactáculo De Unburro?'

What?

What is a donkey show?

Oh, the Donkey Show, that's a dark part of human history, that's what that is.

I've seen Kevin Smith's movies, and he referenced the donkey show one time in Clerks II. But for people who don’t know what it is, can you describe it?

Yeah, no.

Why not?

Cos I've never seen one, but I've been told what one might be. I guess you can Google ‘bestiality’ and see where it goes from there.

Okay, let’s leave people to work it out. Where does your obsession with aliens come from? Because there's so much alien imagery in the stuff you do.

It's kind of a new religion, isn’t it? Mysterious, you know, the extra-terrestrials are coming, things that you aren't totally aware of, and might scare you a little bit. I feel like that's kind of a new religion, in a way.

Really? What makes you think it's sort of like a new religion?

Well, we go through cycles, and things that are mysterious and have a hold on you with some sort of fear and curiosity of the unknown. And fear of the unknown, organised religion lost that steam a while ago; heavy metal lost that steam a long time ago; the original gangster rap is no longer scary, so people are always looking for that thing, maybe it's extra-terrestrials.

Wow, people are gonna be more committed to extra-terrestrials than heavy metal? That’s quite a claim

Sure.

Puscifer

(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

On the new picture disc, it looks like Billy D is pregnant

Yes. It was on the original art as well. That's artwork by Daniel Martin Diaz, he's an artist out of the south-west, he has some amazing, amazing work. If you haven’t checked out his work. I'd recommend it. Very meticulous drawings, really amazing.

What can you tell us about Billy D's pregnancy?

Nothing yet, it's all a part of the story.

Is he going to give birth?

Couldn’t tell you.

And how, logistically, will that happen?

If he gives birth, I have no idea, we haven’t written that part yet.

Interesting. Well, what do you think of the vinyl trend in general? It’s become more popular in the last decade

Yeah, I think there's a connection between vinyl, and just being able to open up that larger format thing that has images in it, and just the physical act of flipping that vinyl over on a turntable, there's more involved. For some people that might be annoying, but I would argue that those people don’t really like music, they like having something in the background. I'm embracing it, we have a full-on new and used vinyl store, in Jerome, that we run, and it's fun.

Some people would say it's a cynical way of fleecing people who have already bought the record. Why would they pay money for something they can listen to on Spotify? What would you say to that?

You don't have to buy it.

You're basically saying if you don't like the physical product, you’re not really a music fan. Is that the way that you feel?

No, I just feel that there's less connection if there's something that comes easy. You know, the difference between someone who struggles through college, and the trust fund baby who has everything paid for. It's different, right? You actually have respect for what it took to get where you got.

So, it's about honouring the artist, and connecting to something you can touch?

Yeah. You could hear every song ever without making any effort. You can just Google it on Spotify, it's not as much effort. I just really enjoyed going to the record store, back in the day, and flipping through vinyl, and making discoveries.

What's the rarest record you personally?

Rarest, I don’t know. Probably an original issue Beatles White Album that my aunt owned when it first came out. The original Rolling Stones with the lenticular cover on it, that kind of 3D cover [1967’s Their Satanic Majesties Request]; most of it was from my aunt on my mum’s side. She turned me on to a lot of cool things.

Well, you’re revisited an old album with your Money $hot stream. Have you ever seen any classic album gigs by bands you like? Would you go and see bands play albums in full that you were really into?

Oh yeah, absolutely. I feel like they wait too long to do it. I think they should go out soon after the album's out, maybe not right away when they do their basic show, but maybe have them go out a year or so later, and do the full album, is kind of fun. Not waiting twenty years or waiting thirty years; their bodies don’t hold up that well, and they maybe won’t sound as good after thirty years [laughs].

Have you seen any of those album shows in full?

I can't recall having done one, nothing comes to mind.

Do you plan celebrating any more of your anniversaries in the future with Puscifer or your other bands?

I think we're really just enjoying this one, doing the filming and being able to introduce characters, and develop those characters more fully. We’re definitely gonna do the Vagina album and Conditions Of My Parole at some point, for sure, 'cos we're really enjoying this process.

Do you enjoy performing your music, or it is it just part of the job for you?

I enjoy the live setting, but now that we're doing pay-per-views I'm realising we were trying to do things live that didn’t necessarily translate with some of these characters. So, this is nice, because we’re able to present those in a film setting, and now, in a live show, we don’t have to jam a lot of that in there. We can still have the theatrics, but you don't necessarily need to hear the dialogue, so that'll be fun, to be able to fix things, in a way. I'm looking forward to, eventually, getting out there with Existential Reckoning.

Do you remember the first time you performed on stage?

Yeah, it was in high school, and I was with the choir singing baritone, playing in the high school gym.

Amazing. What did you used to sing in the choir?

We did a lot of medleys, so we would get The Byrds, or Joni Mitchell. At one point, we got a hold of the whole Muppet Show, we did a full Muppet Show medley.

That is the best thing ever. What songs were in it?

It was all the songs from the original Muppet Movie. It was fun because we had a pretty strong men's section; there was only four of us versus the twenty women that were in the soprano and alto section. We were always having to lower our voices 'cos we were such a strong section; we were drowning out the ladies.

What's your take on The Muppets? I know you're quite into comedy, so I can imagine you would be quite into The Muppets!

Well, I grew up watching Sesame Street 'cos I had some younger neighbours, and so the kids would always watch the Sesame Street characters. So for that to actually progress into a very comical, entertaining film was very nostalgic, to see that film having watched that show as a kid.

Up in the choir, did you feel confident when you were performing? Or did it take a little while for you to settle into things

Well, we rehearsed so much, five days a week, going over scales, and drilling, drilling, drilling. So, by the time we were actually doing the songs, it was almost second nature. Then you can just enjoy the moment 'cos you're not panicking, you know what you're doing. You know what your partners are doing, and what they need to do, and you can enjoy the moment.

Maynard James Keenan

(Image credit: Travis Shinn)

Do you have a special place in your house where you store your wigs and outfits and things?

Maybe.

Maybe, yes?

Maybe.

Well, I know that wigs have to be stored properly, so you must have to have some storage area to keep them in good condition…

Yeah, some of the wigs are very well done by a woman named Brooke, and she studied under Erwin Kupitz who's done amazing, full lace wigs forever, so you need to take care of 'em.

Was he a famous wigmaker or costumier?

I think so, in that circle he's definitely well-known. A lot of celebrities you see walking around with a wig on, he did their wigs.

Obviously, the last year has been quite shit for a lot of people, but have there been any upsides for you?

Spending more time with the family, that's definitely a good thing. Otherwise, I would have been on the road the whole year. I'm enjoying this, and I'm going to take advantage of it while I can.

In the UK the schools were shut, and a lot of parents were home-schooling, is that something you've been doing as well?

Yeah, for a while we did the home-schooling, but they're back in school now. Home-schooling was actually kind of fun.

Did you have set subjects you had to school on, or could you pick your own?

They had a full agenda, so we were going through the curriculum put down to us. The hardest part is getting your six-year-old to actually do it.

A taser – not really, that's not funny.

I imagine you had to develop some teacher skills that you didn’t have before?

Oh yeah; bribery. You can't have the iPad, can't have the candy until you finish the work.

What have you been consuming recently? Is there anything that you've listened to, watched, or read that you've been really impressed with?

I think like everybody else I put my day's work in the cellar, and I put my day's work in with the music, and you just sort of tune out to whatever's streaming on Netflix or Hulu; you just pick a series and dive in, whether it sucks or not, but nothing specifically.

What's your latest one you've watched on Netflix or Hulu?

I'm excited for the new season of A Handmaid's Tale.

Oh yeah. I'm not sure where they're up to with the books and the TV show now. Are they going into new waters, or are they still on the books?

I have no idea, but I'm hoping they don't drop the ball 'cos I feel like the ending of the last season was perfect, just leave it there. June had been shot, and she was able to get the kids out, so it was a nice stopping point.

Obviously, a lot's been happening in the music world. People are discussing NFTs – is that something you'd consider with any of your bands?

I'm looking into it, but it seems like there's a lot of controversy surrounding the blockchain and the carbon footprint it leaves, but I really don’t know enough about it to say. To be honest if you're living, you're killing, so I don't know. Someone would really have to explain to me why it would be a bad idea. 

There's so many people doing crazy things. Are you aware of Lil Nas X and all the controversy he stirred up?

No.

He's a rapper, and he's released trainers that have blood in them, and he's gay, so he's done a music video where he's having sex with the Devil, so the conservative people are really kicking off with him

I remember the photos of Kiss putting out their comic book and dumping a vial of blood into the ink; same shit.

Does it make you feel old to know that it's still coming around, and it's new artists doing the things Kiss did?

Yeah, what's old is new again.

Well, what else have you got coming up?

We're probably gonna work on another pay-per-view at some point. Of course, I've got harvest coming up in July, August, September, so if we're gonna do another streaming event we’ll have to film it in June.

Obviously, you have to work around the harvest, that's pretty hardcore. Is there anything you're particularly excited about for harvest this year? Is there anything you're growing that is new?

No, it's just watching these vines develop, and getting them all the way from bud break to clusters in the cellar, so that's always equally scary and inspiring.

Can we expect anything else beyond the Puscifer stuff and the harvest?

No, that's quite a full plate so we're just marinating that for a minute.

Existential Reckoning is released as an exclusive European picture disc  on April 30.