Maynard James Keenan: Going Postal | Revolver

Maynard James Keenan: Going Postal

Tool, A Perfect Circle and Puscifer frontman loses his mind answering your letters
maynard going postal sean murphy, sean murphy
photograph by sean murphy

Maynard James Keenan has a reputation as a hard man to pin down. Over the course of his more than 20 years in music, as the frontman for Tool, A Perfect Circle and, more recently, the multimedia venture Puscifer, his public persona has veered between extremes, from quiet and aloof to effusive and engaging, darkly enigmatic to flamboyantly theatrical, gravely serious to whimsically bawdy.

When it comes to his private life, he seems to be a man of similarly varied character. "I'm a farmer and I'm also an artist," Keenan says. "I believe in emotional outbursts and the power of art—and I also own guns. So where the hell do I go?"

Apparently, he goes to Arizona, which is where the 48-year-old singer has resided for years, and also where Revolver catches up with him on an afternoon in early December. In addition to making his home here, Keenan owns and operates the Jerome, Arizona-based Caduseus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards. And when he's not out harvesting and crushing grapes, he also uses the winery as a place to play and record music. His newest endeavor on that front is Puscifer's Donkey Punch the Night, an EP centered around two new tracks and two cover songs—an impressively straightforward reading of Queen's opera-rock epic, "Bohemian Rhapsody," and a hypnotic and atmospheric reworking of Accept's early 80's Teutonic-metal classic, "Balls to the Wall."

"It was quite a lot to bite off," admits Keenan of tackling tunes originally sung by Freddie Mercury and Udo Dirkschneider, two men with equally unique, if wildly dissimilar, voices. But he proved up to the task. "Actually, Freddie's vocal turned out to be even a little easier than Udo's," Keenan says, "because Udo's has such a specific character. Freddie voice might have been operatic, but at least he was singing. But in general, you just have to take what's there and almost just invent your own character within that framework."

Character, of course, is something Keenan has in spades, as was revealed in both the questions and answers that came courtesy of the Revolver mailbag. Readers grilled the singer on various colorful topics, from his many musical endeavors, to his time as a serviceman in the U.S. Army, to his love for Canadian folkie Joni Mitchell. Though Keenan, as would be expected, was both engaging and, at times, aloof, in his responses, he was always game—to a point. One reader's question, requesting that the singer tell a joke, was met with dead silence. "Was that funny?" Keenan finally asked. Perhaps. Though he sounded gravely serious.

What are you able to do in Puscifer that you feel you can't do in Tool or A Perfect Circle? —Michael Olszewski
I don't really approach different projects thinking in terms of what I can do in one that I can't do in another. I come at them individually and then just do things. That may sound vague, but it's the way to go. When you walk into a room filled with one group of friends, you don't necessarily think about all the things you couldn't have talked about with your other friends down the street. You just engage the friends in front of you and you have a conversation. In the case of Puscifer, one thing that does make it different is it's a little bit more about me bringing a lot to the table in terms of visuals, ideas for animation, sketches, all kinds of things from music to wine to art. So there tends to be a little more flexibility there because I'm not dealing with a committee. But other than that, these projects are all just conversations with the people I'm working with.

In addition to recording "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Balls to the Wall" on Donkey Punch the Night, you did a bunch of covers with A Perfect Circle on the eMOTIVe album, as well as an awesome version of Led Zeppelin's "No Quarter" with Tool. What are you looking to achieve when interpreting someone else's song? —Kim Rennet
Well, really, when you're doing a cover of a song, in a way you're chasing farts. Because you hear these songs when you're a kid, and there's a particular feeling that you get from that. And I think the younger you are when you hear something, the more that feeling really sinks in and resonates. So when you do that song later on in your life, the trick is to chase that fart in such a way that it doesn't just sound like an old fart. And if you're writing your own song and it's the right kind of song that resonates with someone else, then you become the old fart that's being chased after.

I saw you cover "Bohemian Rhapsody" with A Perfect Circle guitarist Billy Howerdel at the Activision E3 preview event in 2010, which was a great performance. How come did you record and release the cover with Puscifer rather than APC? And is it true that Queen's Brian May was originally supposed to play guitar for that? —Jonathan Mater
I did the song with Puscifer because Puscifer is the active band. It's the band that is alive and working right now. And the song also happens to lend itself far more to this project than other projects. Secondly, yes, Brian May was supposed to be doing the guitar part. But the whole performance was a very last minute situation that came up. Within days, I was rehearsing it and having to do it live. And apparently something happened with May that he couldn't make it. So there was some scrambling to find somebody else. I knew Billy was in the area so I made a quick call to see if he could pull it together. And he did.

Why do you choose to release Puscifer's music independently? And would you ever consider releasing music from other artists? —Harrison Roth
For me, it's about flexibility—the freedom to not have to have some douche in a ponytail and a bad Winger shirt telling you how you're supposed to do your art, and giving you limits on budgets and approving direction. This is our thing, and it's completely independent. That's how the personality shines. You can see what it is rather than having it filtered and manipulated by the time it gets to you. As far as becoming my own label, no thanks. Screw that. There are enough outlets out there for people to do these things on their own. I don't know why people think they need a label at all, unless the goal is not music, but just becoming famous. But that's a whole other equation. Because if you want to be a famous annoying person, there are a lot of ways to do that. Shit, think of all the douchebags you have to deal with on a daily basis that haven't written any songs. The Paris Hiltons of the world. Like, why? What did you do? So I guess it all comes down to knowing yourself and deciding what you want. And not letting anyone else get in the way of that.

Will Puscifer do a full tour behind Donkey Punch the Night? —Byron Alpert
We have some stuff coming up in Australia and South America, but other than that probably not. There might be just a handful of dates in the U.S. People always ask why Puscifer hasn't done any extensive touring, especially outside of America, and it's because we can't afford it. The project has to pay for itself, and until we're popular enough in another foreign territory we can't bring this entire cabaret to your doorstep. We can't afford to. Otherwise I'm paying you to watch it. And there's no longer that free money laying around to do that for you.

Have any of the dudes you namecheck in Puscifer's 2007 single "Cuntry Boner" ever called you out on it? Any threatening emails from the Judds? —Brian Aridocious 
No, but I did have a dream that Dwight Yoakam raped me wearing a chicken costume. So I've been closely monitoring his credit card receipts to see if he purchases a chicken outfit. In the meantime I'm arming myself and hiding.

I've heard you talk about being a big Joni Mitchell fan. What's that about? —Jens Roule
Going back to what I was saying about chasing farts, there was a particular element to her music when I was growing up that resonated with me on some level. As a poet alone, she's fantastic. Another part of it is that in her day, Joni Mitchell was someone who not only wrote her own songs but also handled the recording, the engineering, and the mixing. She was one of the few artists doing all of that. And on top of that, she was a woman in a rock-band world. That's a tough thing to pull off. So she also resonates with me as an entrepreneur. But I get how some people might not understand her appeal now. It's like when there's an old movie you're really into, but then you watch it again and the haircuts and the soundtrack just bum you out. You can't really get into it anymore because there's an '80s keyboard synthesizer soundtrack or something going on. When younger people listen to an old Joni Mitchell record, I realize the first things they might hear are the old sounds or the way she sings and they get bummed out. But if you just strip that all away and just listen to the lyrics and the music, there's some pretty intense stuff there.

What's the shittiest day job you've ever had? —Joe Presson
Baling hay. This was in Michigan. It just sucked. I'm a short guy, and so in order to get the hay bales up on the trailer, I would use my knee to kind of shift them and get them up onto the stack. The straw was like sandpaper and it would immediately wear through the knees of my jeans. So whatever I was making in wages, I would go out and have to spend on new pants.

I know that early in life you spent some time in the army. What were your duties? —Doak Hudson
I was trained as a surveyor. In order for an artillery battery to know where a target is, they have to know where they are in reference to where they need to be shooting. So I was part of a team that would be way out ahead of the artillery guys, getting specific grid coordinates and tagging points. We'd be three to four in a jeep, just kind of hit-and-run style. You put a tag in and then drive to another location. And I remember we used this huge gyroscope system where you needed a forklift in order to mount it on the back of the jeep. And it would take, like, an hour-and-a-half to wind up and get the gyros going, and then you would drive around and it would give you specific points. Now you can do that kind of thing with your cell phone. You just need one guy with GPS. So my job is completely gone for the military. It's obsolete.

How is being in the army different from being in a rock band? —Martin Segel
In a way, being in the army is poison for dealing with life in a rock band. Because you learn how to be on time and responsible, which are skills that are not really conducive to hanging around with band guys. When someone says, "I gotta get up early tomorrow—make sure you set the alarm for 11," it's like, "11? That's getting up early?" Because I'm up at 7. I get shit done. There's definitely a prevailing attitude out in the world that in some way I'm procrastinating on things. But do I strike you as a lazy person?

Do you get tired of people asking you about when you're going to do a new Tool album? Also, when are you going to do a new Tool album? —Tomas Long
And I'll just respond to that question like the last one: Do I strike you as a lazy person?