Maynard James Keenan is a successful guy: he's fronts two massive rock bands, Tool and A Perfect Circle, owns Merkin Vineyards and Caduceus Cellars in Jerome, Arizona, where he lives. Though ostensibly a "side-project," Keenan's band Puscifer seems to be increasingly be where Keenan's hear lies. He's released two full length albums with the group so far, 2007's V is For Vagina, and a brand new record, Conditions of My Parole, which explores the intersection between gothic folk sounds and the electronic progressive rock.
The new album finds Keenan stepping fully away from the music industry machine. The entire record is self-released. "That's a hard thing for people to wrap their heads around," Keenan says. "They've heard of larger acts saying 'Oh, we're independent.' Well, no, not really, because they might not have a label, but they definitely have a staff that's basically a label. They have all the same pieces in place, and then they go through a major distributor to make sure their records get out into the stores."
Keenan chatted with Up on the Sun over the phone to discuss the bluegrass influences on the new album, dispel the rumor that he owns a store in Tucson, and stress the importance of keeping it local.
Puscifer is scheduled to perform Friday, December 9, at Mesa Arts Center.
Up on the Sun: You guys recorded Conditions of My Parole in one of your wine cellars, right?
Maynard James Keenan: In the bunker, yeah, in the actual winery. Caduceus Winery.
I don't think I'm one of those people who can "hear" the environment in a record, but it sounds fantastic in terms of the tone. Were you guys playing live down there?
No. A lot of the pieces were put together as we went. The band got together for rehearsals while I was processing grapes for harvest, [and they had to] try and figure out -- kind of scratch their heads, how to figure this thing out live. That was happening after the fact. Not a lot of it was written in the same room. [We] kind of pieced it together.
There's obviously some country imagery with the cover, but I was surprised listening to it how deep the more gothic elements of country had influenced the record.
I wouldn't really call it country so much as some kind of marriage of old-time bluegrass-meets-digital-Autechre/Kraftwerk world. [That] meets maybe some classic rock.
Were there specific bluegrass sounds that influencing you?
Nothing that made a direct influence on the record, but definitely sitting for hours in the winery working on stuff listening to Ralph Stanley, the Stanley Brothers, Gillian Welch, that kind of stuff. Just letting it seep in.
I hear that, lyrically. Something like "The Green Valley" feels like a modern person observing the same things those classic songs would have been written about.
In some ways, too, some of these -- this is a stretch to kind of get your head around -- but [there's] some kind of commonality between Irish and Scottish folk songs and traditional Mexican folk songs. You know what I mean? There's a parallel; it's not really country or western, it's more folk, old-timey. I guess folk would be the best word to use. It has a local vibe, but not necessarily local-local.
If that makes any sense whatsoever [laughs].
In both cases you're talking about indigenous music. There are ties between those cantina songs and what you're talking about. There are ties between everything when it comes to "folk music" as music of common people. There's really only a couple of themes, and it draws from the same stuff.
There are moments that remind me of Pentangle or Fairport Convention, stuff that in its time was combining traditional folk elements with cutting edge rock sounds.
Yeah, I could see that. In hindsight, I've had a lot of friends say they hear early Pink Floyd in the work, as well. I don't draw direct parallels to that, but I can see what they mean.
Carina Round's vocals on the record really play beautifully against yours. The harmonies are haunting.
She does a really great job on it. Her influence is absolutely key.
I read an older interview where you discuss the state of the music industry. It seems you've increasingly taken things into your own hands, business wise. You've got your winery, your store in Jerome, and a store in Tucson, as well?
No, I don't know where that came from. No, I have nothing in Tucson.
I've heard that from multiple people; I hadn't read anything about it.
I've heard it a million times, too. I have nothing in Tucson [laughs]. There's the Puscifer Store is Jerome; the Caduceus Cellars Tasting Room is in Jerome; and soon I'll have a Merkin Orchards Market, a brick oven pizza tasting room in Cornville.
With all that, you're very busy beyond music, but you've integrated the music into it. You put Conditions of My Parole out yourself.
That's a hard thing for people to wrap their heads around. They've heard of larger acts saying "Oh, we're independent." Well, no, not really, because they might not have a label, but they definitely have a staff that's basically a label. They have all the same pieces in place, and then they go through a major distributor to make sure their records get out into the stores.
We don't even have that. We're going through - no label, no funding, no underwriting, no sponsors. We got through a independent distribution called Junketboy, which deals with local record stores, the Coalition of Independent Music Stores, [and gets the record to] places like Amoeba, and all the places around Phoenix where you can still get vinyl. Hot Topic won't even take Junketboy's calls to distribute records - that's how independent it is.
We're definitely on our own. So, it's funny to see when we're actually doing well. We don't get a lot of support out there. Radio doesn't really support us because they get money in whatever way, from record labels, some kind of support from labels. They don't really want to help us, because they don't stand to benefit. Every step along the way, all the pieces that might support us don't, because they don't really stand to benefit. We're really truly on our own. So any success we enjoy, we've truly earned it.
What influenced your decision to move that way? Other than the creative benefits?
Well, I guess the short answer would be "local first." Keep it local, keep it small, just do it yourself, live within your means. Don't try to take over the world with it, do what you do. Figure out what the word "sustainable" truly means, and I don't mean as it appears on the bottom of your menu. Truly sustainable. Survival. How do you live within your means and make this work so everyone benefits? Because you're not having to sell your short for a penny because you made too many shirts.
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That's the first reason why we would go our own way, but also because the vision. If you have an idea to do something, [it gets more difficult] the more you have all these other people in the middle of it. The vision starts with the band. And we've proven now with social networking that we can present this to people without anybody polluting the image, polluting the vision, polluting the message, polluting the art, and just be very patient with who discovers it. We're in no hurry, because it's sustainable. We don't have to immediately sell a million records to pay the bills because of all the marketing costs that were attached, and all the wasted money. We can actually take our time and find our own audience, and make sure that we focus on the most important part: we have a story to tell, and we're telling it properly without any kind of pollution.
I feel like there's an Arizona stamp on this record. More than any of your records, you have feel it in the lyrics, in the sounds.
As you know, this is an Arizona project. Its inception was in '95, when I was living in L.A. [but] when I turned on the engine to really get it going was in Jerome.