October 30th will be a big day for Puscifer, the gleefully inscrutable performance-art-and-music collective led by Tool and A Perfect Circle vocalist Maynard James Keenan. Not only will the group release their fourth full-length album, Existential Reckoning, on that date, but they will also orchestrate a just-announced livestream concert experience, dubbed "Existential Reckoning: Live at Arcosanti," 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. Ahead of the big day, we spoke with Round about Existential Reckoning, our "apocalyptical" times and how she works the "passé or just extremely uncool" sounds of the Eighties into Puscifer's songs.
LOOKING BACK ON THE WRITING SESSIONS FOR EXISTENTIAL RECKONING, WHAT WAS YOUR APPROACH TO YOUR VOCALS — AND HOW DO YOU THINK THEY COMPLEMENT MAYNARD'S?
CARINA ROUND I steep in the music a lot initially but mostly I wait for at least a sketch of [Maynard's] lead vocal before I commit in order to avoid having to remove superfluous nonsense down the line. That being said, I collect any ideas privately that are inspired by the music alone, and these rhythms and sensibilities might work against the final lead vocal in a good way. Sometimes the song just needs a simple harmony to make it bloom, like "A Singularity," for instance. I worked in isolation on the vocals for the most part so I had the freedom to add and remove the kitchen sink, the spare room daybed and next-doors vehicular lawnmower If I wanted to, before coming to the conclusion that I was right the first time and I should just back the fuck off. Any lead vocal lines of mine are added after his, if needed.
THERE ARE A LOT OF AMAZING, INTRICATE VOCAL MOMENTS ON EXISTENTIAL RECKONING — WERE THERE ANY SONGS THAT PROVED TO BE MORE CHALLENGING VOCAL PUZZLES TO COMPLETE?
"Personal Prometheus" was tricky. Maynard laid down the lead vocal and the beautiful verse and chorus harmony but I felt it needed to build and change throughout the song. I wanted to avoid adding a ton of distracting rhythmic counterpoints. After a week of wrestling with it, the answer actually came in a moment of improvisation, which turned into a Bulgarian-style stack on the last chorus. It's not something I've studied yet so it's really just a nod to the real thing, but I eventually nailed the fucker really fast and that allowed me to address the rest of the song and make each section unique without disturbing the simplicity and the space.
MAYNARD HAS DESCRIBED PUSCIFER'S CORE QUESTION AS "HOW DO WE CONNECT THE HUMANITY WITH THE DIGITAL?" MAT WAS EMPLOYING EARLY DIGITAL MUSIC TOOLS LIKE FARILIGHT IIX AND SYNCLAVIER II THIS TIME AROUND. AS FAR AS VOCALS, CAN YOU TALK ABOUT HOW YOUR APPROACH ADDS HUMANITY OR HOW YOU PLAY AROUND WITH, OR ACCENTUATE, THE DIGITAL ASPECT THROUGH VOCAL EFFECTS OR PHRASING?
My initial response to the music is almost always what I end up using. In fact, a lot of what's on the record are demo vocals because when we tried to replace them, it just didn't feel right or I was overthinking rhythm or phrasing or some other aspect. Or the different mic changed my brain's response to what I was hearing.
I also utilized the Eventide 4000 all over the record and it was a great tool for unlocking little doors. I love that thing. I ended up buying it. I'd run my vocal though it while I was writing and it completely changed my intuition. Like the difference between writing on an acoustic or an electric guitar.
MAYNARD ALSO TALKED ABOUT HOW THE SOUNDS MAT PRESENTS HELP INSPIRE HIM TO DEVELOP "CHARACTERS" FOR EACH SONG. DO YOU ALSO USE THAT CHARACTER-BASED TECHNIQUE WITHIN PUSCIFER?
Yeah, I can get behind that theory. For me, it's not so much developing a different character but just accessing and/or discovering a different part of myself. It's not something I think about. It's more of a feeling.
WHAT WERE SOME MUSICAL TOUCHSTONES OR REFERENCE POINTS FOR YOU THIS TIME AROUND?
Some but not all are Peter Gabriel, Roxy Music, Kate Bush. Japan, Bowie, of course. These are all artists who inspire me and can change your entire day with a vocal styling. A turn of phrase or choice of harmony. A record that came out at the time that caught my attention was FKA Twigs' Magdalene.
I was an Eighties child so much of my early life, I was imbued with the vocal stylings of the likes of Duran Duran, Fine Young Cannibals, Tears for Fears, Yazoo, INXS. 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. I enjoyed that juxtaposition with Maynard's vocals.
MAYNARD WROTE THE LYRICS FOR "APOCALYPTICAL" BEFORE THE CURRENT PANDEMIC … BUT THEY ARE EERILY PRESCIENT CONSIDERING WHAT'S GOING ON IN AMERICA RIGHT NOW: "IGNORE THE EVIDENCE … DUMB BE DAMNED." FROM YOUR VANTAGE POINT, DOES THE OMINOUS SUBJECT MATTER TRANSLATE TO A HEAVY VIBE IN THE STUDIO?
No. Not at all. All three of us tend to take what we have and create something out of it or to take an uncomfortable situation and make fun of it. That's how we process things.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE KIND OF CREATIVE ENERGY AND COLLABORATIVE SPIRIT THAT MAYNARD BRINGS TO PUSCIFER?
Maynard leaves people to do their own thing. It's a mysteriously symbiotic group.