2020 is already a full-on dumpster fire — but Maynard James Keenan is preparing for even more flames. "I think we're going to head toward more chaos," says the Tool, A Perfect Circle and Puscifer singer when Revolver reaches him in late August.
He's just wrapped the fall harvest at Merkin Vineyards, one of the many enterprises that he's launched around his home in Jerome, Arizona. Keenan's previously spoken at length about how this extra-musical work helps him achieve balance and fuels his creativity. He's also spent a lot of time reflecting on what happens to a person, or a society, when they lose touch with the fundamental, hands-on skills that have enabled humanity to make it this far. And he suspects we're watching the real-time results of this disconnection, in part, as the United States reckons with the COVID-19 pandemic.
"What happens when you're so comfortable in a particular way [and] it's taken away from you and you have no backup plan … people are going to panic," he continues. "And I think it's going to get worse. [But] it doesn't have to get worse …"
It would be easy to dismiss these statements as empty ivory-tower platitudes — if you totally ignore the decades Keenan's spent practicing what he preaches: do the work at hand, so you're prepared for what's around the corner.
Throughout the years he's applied this practical, scalable approach to his musical pursuits, as well as his roles as a winemaker, restaurateur, Brazilian jiu-jitsu enthusiast, farmer and father. So, when COVID-19 hit, he continued to do as he has done: work the solution. When the schools shut down, he helped tutor his young daughter as she transitioned to online studies. When the government mandated his businesses should temporarily close, he stepped up to support his 100-plus person staff with weekly care packages of home-grown food.
And when the touring industry ground to a halt and Tool were forced to cancel their Spring run in support of 2019's Fear Inoculum, Keenan switched his creative focus to finalizing the aptly titled Existential Reckoning, the new and fourth record from his eclectic music-and-performance outfit Puscifer.
The first taste of the new material arrived in May with the eerie, groove-heavy track, "Apocalyptical." Puscifer — whose core team also includes singer Carina Round and guitarist and co-producer Mat Mitchell — wrote the song well before COVID-19 spread through America and somehow ignited a politicized culture war around masks. But Keenan's lyrics, of a world destroyed by ignorance and denial, were eerily prescient.
"I think there's a level of arrogance and confidence … with being a U.S. citizen," he says. "I don't know if this is an engineered attack on us … but if it was, what do you attack? You attack our stubborn arrogance by introducing a virus and us refusing to put on a mask and help out our brother … out of [gruff voice] freedoms. We lose. That's how you got us."
Themes of disinformation and willful stupidity, as well as personal responsibility and hopefulness, are peppered throughout Existential Reckoning's 12 tracks. Keenan still avoids sharing many details about his lyrics, but he is explicit about one chief element of Puscifer's mission: figuring out "how do we connect the humanity with the digital."
Mitchell and Round are key players in solving that puzzle. This time out, Mitchell made the first move — by creating a collection of sonic building blocks using vintage digital-music technology, namely the Fairlight CMI IIx and Synclavier.
"Mat presents a sound, and you go, Oh, the voice of that sound is this character," says Keenan. "If I can't pull that character off, I have to hand it over to Carina to see if she can pull it off … She'll go off on her own tangent and come back and say, Did I go too far? [To] which the answer is never."
"It's like a three-way game of chess," Mitchell adds, "each move inspiring the next."
Existential Reckoning brims with this intricate interplay, as Keenan and Round weave their hypnotic vocal lines into Mitchell's rich sounds and propulsive grooves. It's a dark, gripping mix that at times recalls digital pioneers such as DEVO and Kraftwerk, and includes, Round reveals, a few hints of pop hitmakers like Duran Duran and Fine Young Cannibals.
"I tried to take some aspects of the Eighties vibe that could be considered passé or just extremely uncool and to lay them lovingly into these songs," she says. "I enjoyed that juxtaposition with Maynard's vocals."
Puscifer's unique dynamic — which Round classifies as "mysteriously symbiotic" — allows the musicians the freedom to indulge their own weird, wild creativity on Existential Reckoning, and the structure to collectively turn that into "something that still appeals to your listening core," says Keenan.
For the singer, this sense of duality — accessible and experimental, sincere and absurd, humane and digital, orderly and chaotic — aren't just restricted to art. While Keenan's clearly bracing for increased turmoil as the pandemic continues, it's balanced by the hope he still holds for humankind.
"I see a light at the end of this tunnel," he says. "I see a silver lining in the ugly cloud, there is a way out … first and foremost I think we need to rediscover compassion."
HOW'S LIFE IN JEROME? HAS THE PANDEMIC DISRUPTED THIS YEAR'S HARVEST?
MAYNARD JAMES KEENAN It's good … We still have some stuff lingering and fermenting. We're through the bulk of it. … With the pandemic, and with other politics, you have picking crews … that are afraid of COVID and also afraid of the government. Even if they're legal … they're still afraid. So a lot of picking crews were at 30 percent capacity. … That definitely affected us.
WERE YOU ABLE TO KEEP YOUR MERKIN VINEYARDS TASTING ROOM & OSTERIA OPEN?
Yeah, within whatever the legal bounds were, we basically baby-stepped along … Then backed off when they told us to back off …. But the harder part was getting the public to just, uh, help us out and do the right thing and just put on a mask. [Laughs] It's insane.
My wife is half Taiwanese and hearing the numbers in Taiwan versus here is pretty … embarrassing. [Laughs] They had, like, 500 confirmed cases and, like, 10 deaths. And they didn't shut anything down. They just washed their fucking hands and used masks and took temperatures and were smart about everything. … All the citizens were on the same page, like, Yeah, let's look out for each other. Because that's freedom. Freedom also includes you looking out for your neighbor.
WHICH IS A DIFFERENT TAKE ON FREEDOM THAN THE FUCK-COVID FRAT PARTIES.
[Laughs] One of my favorite memes that's come out of this was God saying, "Hey, so you know why you're here?" And the kid going, "Uh, what?" And God says, "Come on. You know why you're here. Tell me why you're here." [And the kid says] "Because I was eating ass at a pool party during a pandemic?" God: "Yes, because you were eating ass at a pool party during a pandemic." [Laughs]
YOU CAN'T DENY AMERICA'S RIGHT TO EAT ASS.
[Laughs] Yeah. [But] we've been through this a couple times. You watched the entire world change during the Black Plague. ... We've even been through it a 100 years ago. You can dig up a bunch of old newspaper articles and publications saying exactly the same thing we're saying now: Wear a mask. Stay inside. And they got through it. But apparently, we haven't read that part of history.
"APOCALYPTICAL" SEEMS TO CHANNEL SOME OF THAT FRUSTRATION WITH PEOPLE'S IGNORANCE, WILLFUL OR OTHERWISE.
"Apocalyptical" was written before this stuff happened, but I'm not a science denier. … You have to trust some people who know. And with the advent of the internet and all the disinformation that comes along with it, I can see how people are suspect of supposed people in the know. So it's a really weird time to be living.
"GREY AREA 5.1" — WITH ITS LINES "AGE OF CONFUSION … NOTHING FACTUAL … NOTHING FICTIONAL" — ALSO DEALS WITH THE EXHAUSTING AMOUNT OF DISINFORMATION IN THE DIGITAL STREAMS…
Yeah … the disinformation … where the lie ends and the truth begins … I wonder if the COVID thing would have helped us take a step back and evaluate what we actually think is important. Get back to some connection with your neighbors, yourself … Not necessarily in a selfish way with what you want, but what's good for us. What's good for everybody. I think we kinda failed at it. And part of it could be the disinformation, when you're looking in the wrong spot. And the nature of things like Facebook, where you like this, like that, don't like this … and all the information you get is all going to be geared toward your mirror. You're just staring in a mirror. And you have no idea what's going on outside, what's going on around you. You have no idea of what compassion even begins to look like after a while.
COMPASSION ISN'T REALLY THE TOP-LEVEL DISCOURSE IN THIS COUNTRY RIGHT NOW.
Yeah, it's pretty ugly. Straight-up ugly. The division is being fed … it's being nurtured, the division and the hate. To what end, I don't understand. I can't step far enough back to get that big picture. I'm hoping it's not just narcissism. Fuck. [Laughs] I'm hoping it's not just that.