When you think of prog metal giants Tool, the word ‘comedy’ probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But the way frontman Maynard James Keenan sees it, it’s essential not only to that band, but to just about every band he’s ever had a hand in – most notably his solo-project-turned- full-band, Puscifer. “It’s always been the case,” he contests. “It just so happens that Puscifer embodies more of that up-front than the other projects – though, [1996 Tool single] Stinkfist... come on!”
Puscifer started life as a gag, a punch- line to a joke that only Maynard fully appreciated. The band’s first public ‘appearance’ was on November 3, 1995, when they popped up on the first episode of the Bob Odenkirk and David Cross comedy sketch show, Mr. Show. In a rockumentary-style skit, a wig-and-trucker-hat-sporting Maynard appears as ‘Ronnie Dobbs’, frontman of the hardcore punk group Puscifer (which also featured Tool guitarist Adam Jones). At that point, ‘Puscifer’ existed only as the vehicle for comedy sketches and was more a workshop of ideas than an actual musical project.
“The name ‘Puscifer’ came up even before we did Mr. Show, when I was working with [comedian] Laura Milligan in a comedy club in Los Angeles,” Maynard explains. “Puscifer was one of the fake bands we’d get to play at shows. There were lots of little things happening behind the scenes long before the first full-length – we even printed t-shirts and stuff. Puscifer didn’t really fully realise itself as a project until I started working on the Underworld soundtrack with Danny Lohner.”
A sometime live member of Nine Inch Nails, Danny had collaborated with Maynard on A Perfect Circle’s debut album, Mer De Noms, as well as the ultimately unrealised supergroup Tapeworm. The pair had become a closely knit creative force, Maynard even inviting Danny to help develop ideas for the long-mooted Puscifer project. In turn, when Danny was appointed as the musical supervisor on the 2003 vampire/werewolf action film Underworld, he suggested the pair finally release a fully fledged Puscifer song. The finished product, Rev 22:20, was Puscifer’s first ‘official’ release, but it still took another four years for the band to release a debut album.
“Part of [the reason it took so long to record a debut album] was logistics,” Maynard admits. “These days, you can go onto a bunch of AI programmes, give them a bunch of lyrical and visual prompts, and within five minutes you’ve got the whole thing done while sitting in your underwear drinking coffee. When I was trying to do Puscifer as an independent band, you didn’t really have things like Pro Tools, Final Cut Pro or even iMovie, so everything took budget and I didn’t have a budget.”
Puscifer’s development reached a major turning point when Maynard began working with engineer Mat Mitchell on A Perfect Circle’s 2004 release, eMOTIVe. Recognising that he had again found a kindred creative spirit, Maynard enlisted Mat to help him realise his vision for Puscifer. One of the first songs they worked on became Vagina Mine, based around a riff Maynard had been tinkering with for “a fuck of a long time”.
“We worked really well together, complementing each other in strange ways,” Maynard says. “I came up with the riff [to Vagina Mine] back when I was living in Grand Rapids, pre-Tool. It was an acoustic riff, but when I tried to explain it, [the people I showed it to] couldn’t wrap their heads around it. I just kept shelving it, but I showed it to Mat and he was like, ‘Let’s record it!’ It all spiralled out from there.”
With Mat’s help, Puscifer’s sound truly began to take shape. While A Perfect Circle had largely inhabited the same alt metal/prog crossover sphere that he had become famous for with Tool, Maynard knew this new project was going to be something entirely different.
“Trying to reinvent yourself is not an easy task when you have a lot of pressure from an existing, successful thing,” he admits. “With Puscifer, it was hard to find a way to still be ourselves and bring something unique to the table while trying to also force yourself into another box. We really turned on our creative juices to find our way through that minefield and, for the end product, I’d point to the likes of Tom Waits and Kraftwerk. If they had a baby, that bastard child would be Puscifer. There are weird analogue, acoustic instruments mixed with synths and drums.”
Over the next three years, Maynard and Mat worked together on Puscifer’s debut album, recording bits in the brief windows of downtime the pair had while Maynard juggled the massive success of both Tool and A Perfect Circle. Maynard freely admits he has no idea how many different sessions and recordings it took to finally pull together Puscifer’s debut album, “V” Is For Vagina.
“It’s hard to track when you’re almost 60 and used a lot of aluminium deodorant back in the day!” he offers with a chuckle. “It literally ended up being a Frankenstein creation, because we were forced to record it in hotel rooms and various studios on our days off, in boiler rooms and dressing rooms. On the original Vagina Mine track there were some tom hits and snare hits that were recorded in a big arena somewhere, alongside acoustic guitar we’d recorded in a closet, and keyboard stuff Mat brought from I don’t even know where. He could have done it at Starbucks for all I know!”
As the songs came together, humour remained a key element, Maynard creating a cast of colourful characters who would crop up in Puscifer song lyrics, music videos and recorded skits online. “Some successful bands get caught in that trap of being afraid to go off brand”, says Maynard. “AC/DC is one of my favourite bands, but you will never catch them dead going off brand. With Puscifer, there’s no such thing – just go.”
The approach was undoubtedly bizarre, but became more prevalent in subsequent years as emerging bands constructed their own fictional narratives to great success. Which raises the question: did Puscifer pave the way for Ghost?
“Somebody always has to be first, but I don’t think there’s one person that specifically invented it and then everyone else followed,” Maynard says dismissively. “The ideas of having characters associated with your music was where music was always heading. Our exposure to [Canadian sketch comedy shows] Kids In The Hall, Second City and other things like Monty Python while we were kids all seeped into our subconscious, and shows like Saturday Night Live helped cement this connection between music and comedy. We connected those dots and those characters just started coming out. I’d love to take credit for that... So in fact, starting over, yeah, we did that!”
Released on October 30, 2007, “V” Is For Vagina marked the moment Puscifer officially graduated from Maynard’s gag group into a fully realised creative enterprise. Along the way they had been a comedy country-punk group, subjects of short films and even a clothing line (consisting mostly of novelty t-shirts). The next logical step was to play shows. In February 2009, they hosted a multi-night residency at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, mixing comedy skits and live performances of their songs.
“We were scratching our heads and going, ‘How the fuck do we do this?’ because we had all this movement onstage and all these modified sets,” Maynard recalls. “I still remember the butterflies, because I was so used to just going out and singing my songs, but there was all this improv dialogue and that was nerve-racking. Some of it fell 100% flat, but other bits were fucking awesome.”
Puscifer’s debut album peaked at No.25 on the Billboard 200 in the US and, by autumn 2009, Maynard was ready to take the project properly on the road. There, they picked up the final ingredient to turn Puscifer into a fully-fledged band, British singer- songwriter Carina Round. Carina initially joined as a live member, but soon became a key creative force at the heart of Puscifer – and remains so today. Much like Mat Mitchell before her, Carina’s first contribution was helping them re-interpret Vagina Mine for live performances.
“We didn’t want to be one of those bands that wrote a great song that would sound awful live and be too afraid to actually change it,” Maynard explains. “If you have all three of myself, Mat and Carina working on a song, even if we go off in wildly different directions, you have a frame of reference for what those three people can do. Nine times out of 10 Carina’s decisions are going to be smarter than mine, and the same goes for Mat. Combine that with the insanity that my brain goes through with those two people, and those three creative forces are more than the sum of their parts.”
But with Maynard having so much experience playing characters, who would he like to play in a film of his life?
“I keep getting calls from Brad Pitt, but I keep muting him. Ha!”
Published in Metal Hammer #375