Inside Puscifer's "Three-Way Game of Chess": Mat Mitchell Talks 'Existential Reckoning' | Revolver

Inside Puscifer's "Three-Way Game of Chess": Mat Mitchell Talks 'Existential Reckoning'

Guitarist-producer describes "creative space" with Maynard James Keenan, Carina Round
puscifer theater 2020 SHINN trio, Travis Shinn
photograph by Travis Shinn

It's been a big year for Puscifer, the prankster-philosopher art-rock collective helmed by Tool and A Perfect Circle vocalist Maynard James Keenan. In May, as the COVID-19 pandemic was taking hold around the globe, the band released its first new song in five years, the eerily relevant "Apocalyptical." Five months later, in October, Puscifer dropped their fourth full-length album, Existential Reckoning, ushering it into the world with an innovative livestream concert experience, dubbed "Existential Reckoning: Live at Arcosanti," broadcasted from the high desert of Keenan's home state of Arizona.

Puscifer's core trio — which appears on one of the covers of Revolver's Fall 2020 Issue — is rounded out by singer Carina Round and guitarist-producer Mat Mitchell. Shortly before Existential Reckoning's release, we spoke with the latter about the making of the album, working with Keenan and Round, and why the vibe never got heavy in the studio even when the lyrics got dark.

MOST OF THE PUSCIFER NEW MATERIAL ORIGINATED WITH YOU AND IS BUILT AROUND THE SOUNDS OF CLASSIC GEAR LIKE THE SYNCLAVIER AND FAIRLIGHT. WHAT DREW YOU TO THOSE INSTRUMENTS?
MAT MITCHELL
For me, the instrument chosen at the initial songwriting phase can have a significant impact on the direction and character of the song. Growing up listening to so much music that was created using Fairlight and Synclavier, I wanted to step away from my fallback methods and force myself to learn these systems and build foundations using these instruments.

MAYNARD HAS DESCRIBED ONE OF PUSCIFER'S CORE CREATIVE PURSUITS IS FIGURING OUT "HOW DO WE CONNECT THE HUMANITY WITH THE DIGITAL?" HOW DOES THAT QUESTION COME IN TO PLAY FOR YOU WHEN WRITING A SONG?
For me, it's finding the balance of elements, some sonic chooses are deliberately lacking variation in feel or expression, which is always countered with something equally human to pull it back to center.

EARLY IN THE PROCESS, YOU WOULD CREATE FOLDERS FULL OF SOUNDS FOR MAYNARD TO PLAY AROUND WITH. WHAT IS IT LIKE COLLABORATING WITH HIM IN THIS WAY, AND WHAT IS THE THOUGHT PROCESS AROUND PULLING SOUNDS THAT WILL WORK FOR HIS AND CARINA'S VOCALS?
The early phases for me are stream-of-a-conscious kind of efforts, an anything goes part of the process. There's a lot of trust and respect amongst the three of us, so we're comfortable going down whatever avenue feels natural without worrying about judgment. The folders will contain anything from a loop of a unique sound, to a simple melody, to a formed arrangement. From that point, Maynard will start adding counter elements to tracks that resonate with him. It's kinda like a tennis match or game of chess.

THERE ARE A LOT OF AMAZING, INTRICATE VOCAL MOMENTS ON EXISTENTIAL RECKONING. HOW DO YOU THINK MAYNARD AND CARINA'S VOCALS COMPLEMENT EACH OTHER.
Maynard and Carina are super powerful and controlled singers. They have the ability to intertwine in a way that it's hard to tell who's singing which part sometimes.

WERE THERE ANY SONGS ON THE ALBUM THAT PROVED TO BE MORE CHALLENGING PUZZLES TO COMPLETE?
There's always songs that seem to write themselves and others that feel like we're making a puzzle but someone's hidden a few pieces. "Personal Prometheus" was one of these puzzles. The arrangement was together but the feel just wasn't right. We ultimately removed all the rhythm elements and rebuilt the groove from scratch. Lots of banging heads on walls over that one, but I feel the end result is a way better song and worth taking the time.

MAYNARD TOLD US THAT THE SOUNDS YOU PRESENT HELP INSPIRE HIM TO DEVELOP "CHARACTERS" FOR EACH SONG. AFTER HE FINDS THE "CHARACTER," IS THAT SOMETHING HE DISCUSSES WITH YOU? AND IF SO, DOES THAT CHARACTER-BASED METHOD THEN INFLUENCE YOUR APPROACH TO REFINING THE TRACK?
Totally. Once he develops a character, the direction becomes clear. I always try to leave the music very open-ended early on to allow him the space to develop the voice of the song. Like I said, it's like a three-way game of chess — each move inspiring the next move.

MAYNARD WROTE THE LYRICS FOR "APOCALYPTICAL" BEFORE THE CURRENT PANDEMIC, BUT THEY'RE EERILY PRESCIENT. IN YOUR EXPERIENCE, DID OMINOUS SUBJECT MATTER LIKE THAT TRANSLATE TO A HEAVY VIBE IN THE STUDIO?
Never a heavy vibe in the studio. I think the lyrics reflect people's disregard for facts and unacceptable that actions have reactions.

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR, CARINA AND MAYNARD'S ROLES WITHIN PUSCIFER?
It's a very creative space where we can feel free to challenge ourselves and each other without risk of judgement, trusting the process, knowing we will each bring it.