"We have food and wine, so I'm good." That's how Maynard James Keenan responds when Revolver asks how he's holding up during the global pandemic and lockdown. The Puscifer ringleader — not to mention Tool and A Perfect Circle vocalist, vintner, farmer, jiu-jitsu enthusiast and general polymath — is holed up in his Arizona compound, where the work being done by his Merkin Vineyards must go on. "The greenhouse is in full effect, and there's a lot of good people willing to actually do work," he explains. "So we're continuing on, keeping a social distance and trying to keep our finger on the pulse of what may or may not be happening — which is the hard part."
The information stream, paranoia and political climate surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic is at the center of "Apocalyptical," the first song released from Puscifer's forthcoming album — or at least it is in the video. The song itself was actually written long before the virus reared its ugly head. "Of course it took on a new meaning," says Keenan's Puscifer bandmate and co-vocalist Carina Round. "But his writing deals with such universal themes and human weakness, which are always relevant and poignant, and because of that you'll almost always be able to see prophecy in it, whether it's on a personal level or a more widespread one. It just so happened that he nailed it to the fucking cross this time."
Though the title for Puscifer's fourth album has yet to be revealed, we do know that programming wizard Mat Mitchell's production relies heavily on a Fairlight CMI IIx, an early musical computer that uses 8-bit samples. "The IIx sounds incredible and super lo-fi, but punchy and very musical," Mitchell explains. "It can initially sound a bit like an old video game, but as you start building it becomes very rich yet still aggressive."
With all of that in mind, we spoke at length with Keenan about what fans can expect from the album (which has been scheduled for a fall release), life during the pandemic, and — perhaps most importantly — what his toilet paper situation is.
OTHER THAN THE OBVIOUS STUFF LIKE FACEMASKS AND SOCIAL DISTANCING, HOW HAS THE PANDEMIC AFFECTED YOUR WINE BUSINESS?
MAYNARD JAMES KEENAN It's a black hole of expense because we haven't been able to stop — it's business as usual in the vineyards. We're making sure we're keeping distance from each other, but the work still has to go on if we're gonna have fruit in August and September. But as far as the tasting rooms, it's been pretty devastating. I think we're gonna see a lot of small producers and small restaurants that can't handle it. The suggestion from some of the governors has been to operate at 50 percent of your capacity to maintain social distancing. [Laughs] But most restaurants operate on a five percent margin, so that's impossible.
IT SEEMS LIKE A LOT OF RESTAURANTS ARE GOING TO GO OUT OF BUSINESS BEFORE THIS THING IS OVER.
Yeah. Last time I checked, anytime you're looking to buy or lease a space, it's based on square footage. Then you model your business around the square footage that you have and you maximize every single square foot. Now you're paying the same amount of money but you have to use half of it? In a place like New York City, you're dead — you're done. Nobody can withstand that, so I can completely understand the push to get things reopened. But it still feels like we're kind of in the dark. We don't really know what's real and what isn't. It's a strange age.
WHAT'S YOUR TAKE ON HOW THE PANDEMIC HAS BEEN POLITICIZED?
People can't help themselves. In conversations online, in social media — there'll be someone on Twitter just making a statement, like, "You know what? We're gonna make it through this. And if you don't think so, fuck you!" That's how everybody starts conversations now — you start with the fight, rather than, "Hey, what can we do to help each others?" We claim to be better human beings than we used to be several thousand years ago — let's prove it. Let's take the high road not just to be right, but to actually be better people and help each other. I don't know. Those are romantic words, but when it comes down to it, it's like, "Fuck you — I want that toilet paper!"
YOU'D THINK THAT A GLOBAL PANDEMIC — SOMETHING THAT AFFECTS EVERYONE REGARDLESS OF RACE, CREED, COLOR, SEXUAL ORIENTATION OR POLITICAL AFFILIATION — WOULD FORCE PEOPLE TO COME TOGETHER. BUT INSTEAD IT'S FRACTURING AN ALREADY HEAVILY FRACTURED SOCIETY.
The biggest curve ball in all of that is that there's a significant portion of the population who doesn't believe there's anything — or if there is, it's not enough to be reacting to. And again, you've spent the last decade liking and not liking feeds, so the only thing you're gonna see in your world is what you believe. If you're one of the people who think this is a problem, that's all you're gonna see. If you're one of the people who thinks there isn't a problem, that's all you're gonna see. It's so difficult to sort through facts or even partial truths so you can make an intelligent decision based on knowledge and science rather than gut and mob mentality. So I really couldn't tell you. We might find out in December that this is all a global hoax, but I can't imagine ... I mean, if you've ever had a task force put together for a focus group to do something ... or try to even manage 12 people ... have you ever done that?
IT'S LIKE HERDING CATS.
Yeah ... I mean, a global conspiracy? I can't even get a couple of chefs to try a recipe.
KINDA LIKE PLAYING IN A BAND ...
Oh, god. It's like a series of compromises, and hopefully you all end up being 60 to 70 percent OK with the decision. But just putting my hippie hat on here for a second, I think this is a dry run of nature just going through cycles. If you're paying attention, this is like your boot camp for what's really coming.
YOU MEAN LIKE NATURE DOING A RESET? THERE'S OBVIOUSLY BEEN FAR LESS POLLUTION SINCE PEOPLE HAVE BEEN ON LOCKDOWN ...
That's an active, caring consciousness you're talking about. I think it's accidental. We had people digging holes where they shouldn't be — or trying things like, "What happens when you combine a pterodactyl with an alien?" Why would you do that? You end up with something you can't control. But I feel like that's the world we're living in. We're dabbling in areas and digging up stuff — metaphorically and literally, like, "What's this cool syrup? Oh, it's black plague!" Don't put that on avocado toast, please.
WHAT ABOUT YOUR MARTIAL ARTS TRAINING? HAVE YOU BEEN ABLE TO DO MUCH SINCE CLASSES HAVE BEEN SHUT DOWN?
We're kinda screwed. I know there are some things that are opening. I was laughing the other day because I saw a protest outside of a gym where everyone was doing squats and pushups because the gym was closed. Of course David Cross had to jump on it, like, "Well, it looks like it all worked out! We don't have to open — you guys got your workout in." But yeah, we can't really open a gym where people are on each other grappling when we don't know that the antibody tests work and we don't know if the actual COVID tests are accurate. There's conflicting information on whether it's transmittable without symptoms ... we just don't know.
It sucks because I wanna do jiu-jitsu and I know there's a lot of people that wanna do it, but we can't really open our gym until we know more. A lot of us are doing stuff on our own or working out with just one training partner in our own homes. So I don't really have any answers — I wish I did. I mean, I'm working out, but I'm probably drinking more wine and eating more gelato than working out, so we're kinda walking in a circle here.
ARE YOU TRAINING WITH ANYBODY?
No. My training partner's ex-wife works as an X-ray tech. So she's on the front line before they even know if people have it or not. And then her exposure to him and their kids ... is it worth it? I don't know. Maybe work out on your own for a minute.
BEFORE WE TALK ABOUT PUSCIFER, I HAVE TO ASK: ARE YOU GOOD ON TOILET PAPER?
What is going on with that? The immediate hoarding of that ... what is the ground zero of that unconscious panic? Or even the understanding that if you just get a little bit, the manufacturing will continue and you won't fuck up the flow, and we'll get through this in a calm, collected manner. Instead, they just crushed everything. [Laughs] I mean, if you do the math — you see someone walk out of the store with this many rolls, that means they must have 25 buttholes in their house shitting 16 times a day each — for five months. That's the only way that makes sense. It's a strange phenomenon.
But because we have restaurants, we were able to get things through our wholesaler like toilet paper, paper towels and soap. When we had to shut everything down, we wanted to make sure we could do packs every week for our employees — I have 116 people on payroll out here with the various businesses — so we make sure everyone gets a bag with fresh pasta, some toilet paper, rice, cheese, meats, a little bit of wine and fresh-baked bread. So they at least have that once a week that they can just pick up which hopefully, in theory, will save them a trip to the store and some exposure, but it's such a small gesture. If you have a household of four people, that bag is not gonna go very far.
YEAH, BUT YOU'RE DOING MORE THAN MOST EMPLOYERS.
Well, that's kinda why we planted orchards and started greenhouses 20 years ago. This is kinda what we assumed was gonna happen eventually. The things you think as established and always gonna be there, they might not be there. What are you gonna default to? Food and water. So plant food near water.
SO YOU'VE BEEN ANTICIPATING SOMETHING LIKE THIS?
Kind of, but that makes me sound like a prepper. Really I just lived in Michigan and we had gardens. You always had the impending blizzard or snow coming that's gonna lock you in your house for a while, so that's something I've done with my family for my whole life — with the understanding that sometimes you get locked in your home for a solid week because of snow. I've always had that mentality, so to come out to a place like this [Arizona], where there's a lot more space, you can expand that idea and it just made sense. So it's not a paranoid, fear-based prepper kind of thing. It's more like, "Why would I rely on the grocery store for onions and carrots and lettuce?" It doesn't make any sense. You can plant it right there.
TOOL HAD TO POSTPONE A TOUR DUE TO THE PANDEMIC. DID THAT CONTRIBUTE TO THE TIMING OF PUSCIFER'S RETURN, OR WAS THIS ALBUM SCHEDULED FOR THIS TIME PERIOD ANYWAY?
Whenever we start getting on a roll with music with Mat or any of the projects, I always like to look ahead and plan so I'm not over-promising. I'd rather over-deliver than over-promise. That's always the better path. So we were penciling in 2021 because we'd be wrapping up with Tool and be able to get to work, but then things started getting strange. Once there's no touring, there's no reason to not release the music sooner, so we're pounding away at trying to get things done. It's not done now, but it's very close and we're planning for a fall release.
THERE'S PROBABLY NEVER BEEN A BETTER TIME FOR A SONG LIKE "APOCALYPTICAL" TO ARRIVE, BUT IT WAS ACTUALLY WRITTEN LONG BEFORE THE PANDEMIC, RIGHT?
Yeah, Mat has been having a lot of fun with some old-school keyboards and tech, so we had a bunch of stuff that we've been working on for the latter half of '19. Once we hit a certain threshold, like, maybe vocals, words and music at 75 percent on a lot of things, then we just have to do a little bit of a push so we can definitely get it done by X date and out into the world by X date. So that all pretty much came together around harvest last year, and we've been pushing hard to get the rest of it done this spring.
IN THE ABSENCE OF COVID-19, WHAT WAS THE INITIAL INSPIRATION FOR THE SONG?
I don't wanna get all religious on you, but I grew up in a Southern Baptist household and the whole accept-the-savior-and-go-to-heaven thing never really made sense to me. If you look at most religious practices that have a root in that kind of thinking, it makes more sense that it's about paying attention to what's around you — the signs and the changes and the shifting — and maybe you'll end up being the guy standing there having survived just because you paid attention. I'm boiling it down to base thought process here, but maybe some of that stuff had nothing to do with a guy that you stick into your body or eat parts of to then be able to go to some fictitious place and tell him how cool he is forever.
YEAH, I LIKE YOUR THEORY BETTER.
Maybe I'm wrong — I might find out someday — but I think it's more about paying attention to the changes and the patterns and being flexible enough to make adjustments to survive what's coming. It's as simple as seeing clouds gather and then not standing out in the middle of the fucking rain when it shows up. You can see it coming — get under cover. It's as simple as that. So part of the song is making fun of people who don't pay attention to anything, whether it's environmental or social or with your family or whatever. I mean, shut up for a second and just listen and see maybe if you can be part of the solution rather than a yapping face.
OBVIOUSLY THE VIDEO FOR "APOCALYPTICAL" WAS MADE WITH THE PANDEMIC IN MIND. I'M SURE THAT'S HAPPENED TO YOU BEFORE — WHERE A SONG TAKES ON A DIFFERENT MEANING OVER TIME — BUT HAS IT EVER HAPPENED SO QUICKLY?
[Laughs] I won't go into that, but there's quite a few examples in the past where a song has come back around like that. But that's gonna open up a can of worms and people will be coming at me like, "Can you find my keys?" I'm not a fucking psychic — there's no such thing — there's just awareness and watching patterns. I'm not predicting things. I'm just looking at things that have happened in the past and will probably happen again in the future. The timing just happened to be a great part of marketing a song.
DO YOU THINK THERE'S AN ELEMENT OF FATE AT WORK, THOUGH? YOU WROTE THIS SONG A WHILE AGO AND NOW IT'S DEAD-ON FOR OUR CURRENT SITUATION.
Well, I don't know that it's dead-on is the thing. I think you can interpret it that way. But you know what? Scratch that. I'll take credit. Me and Nostradamus, we're like this. [Laughs] But I don't think there's any magic answer for that. I suppose we could make one up.
VISUALLY SPEAKING, PARTS OF THE VIDEO HAVE A ROBERT PALMER VIBE — SPECIFICALLY HIS CLIP FOR "SIMPLY IRRESISTIBLE." WAS THAT A REFERENCE POINT?
Not really. I'm sure that just comes out of hours and hours in front of MTV as a kid. It sinks in and those things come back out. But on this new project, because we're going back to some of these older instruments, there's definitely a vibe from our past influences for Mat and Carina and I. Devo, Kraftwerk — it's all there. Palmer, I guess. B-52s, the old Talking Heads sensibilities — those are all written into our DNA at this point. So once you start hearing the sounds coming out of those old keyboards, it kind of brings out some of those visual sensibilities, as well.
THE ALBUM IS SCHEDULED TO ARRIVE IN THE FALL, BUT NOT MUCH HAS BEEN REVEALED BEYOND THE FIRST SINGLE. WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT IT IN TERMS OF LYRICAL THEMES? IS THERE ANYTHING THAT'S OF A PIECE WITH "APOCALYPTICAL"?
Yeah, there's a lot of bouncing back and forth with a lot of those themes. But again, that's just paying attention to the times and what's happening. You're acting or reacting to what you see in front of you. And then of course, how does that relate to what we've seen before and what do we think that has in store for us going forward? But a lot of it is really being driven by these sounds that Mat is coming up with. There's a lot of cool stuff happening.
I'M SURE YOU GET ASKED ALL THE TIME ABOUT WHAT YOU GET OUT OF PUSCIFER THAT YOU DON'T GET OUT OF TOOL OR A PERFECT CIRCLE, BUT IS THAT SENSATION HEIGHTENED DURING THE PANDEMIC? DOES THE FACT THAT YOU HAVE A RELEASE COMING OUT SERVE AS A LIFE RAFT IN UNCERTAIN TIMES?
No ... I don't think so. To be honest, I've gotten a lot of chores done. So it's not like my musical focus has changed. I write in between things. I never sit down and say, "I'm gonna write for a week straight." I never do that. I'm always doing something else. We've got a couple of new ducks that had to be integrated with the rest of the ducks — that took up half a day. Just dealing with the farm stuff and the vineyard and the winery… are we reopening or not? That part has taken up most of my days during this time, so the writing part is carved out of two hours here and there. And then at the end of those two hours, it's time to move on and walk the dogs.
DO YOU HAVE ANY RECOMMENDATIONS — READING, LISTENING, VIEWING — FOR YOUR FANS ON LOCKDOWN?
The last season of Ozark blew my mind. As far as reading, I was kind of revisiting Joseph Campbell's Myths to Live by, but I've been kinda digging in on Netflix more. We're homeschooling because school's out, so I'm making sure my daughter is doing the work she's supposed to do and then I did the winning parent thing and turned her on to Pee-wee's Playhouse. That's what you're supposed to do: Turn them on to the good things, like the insanity of Pee-wee.