Maynard James Keenan Says It's Time for Americans to Choose Compassion or Fear

Puscifer, with Jerome resident Maynard James Keenan front and center.EXPAND
Puscifer, with Jerome resident Maynard James Keenan front and center.
Tim Cadiente

Maynard James Keenan sure doesn't like to be idle. Not that he has a choice at this point in his life.
Any of Keenan's chief preoccupations — touring musician, winemaker, grape-grower — would be a full-time job in the hands of lesser men, but Keenan somehow manages to balance them all, selling thousands of concert tickets nationwide while steadily producing high-caliber wine that doesn't just impress wine palates but has helped put the tiny mountain town of Jerome on the map as an off-the-beaten-path viticultural destination. Keenan and the other winemakers and growers in Jerome (many of whom got their start working at his winery) have helped grow the sleepy area into a haven for artisans and creatives.

"Artisanal growers and chefs can definitely place their stake in the ground in an area that is planting vines," Keenan says. "Anybody who's planting vines, they've already shown you or told you without saying it that they believe in their community."

The last time New Times spoke with Keenan, for our October cover story on the latest Puscifer album, Money Shot, a sprawling conversation eventually turned towards the topic of Keenan's other band, the one that made him famous. We were talking about how many Tool fans seemed to miss a lot of the humor present in the band's discography, when Keenan, perhaps sensing he was on dangerous ground, began speaking in clipped sentences.

"Insufferable people ... It's just ridiculous, retards. I'm sorry. Can't help them. Way too serious. Too much. Lighten up," he said, shaking his head.

The quote went viral, forcing Keenan to do some damage control after clickbait headlines like "Maynard James Keenan wants nothing to do with Tool or their fans." Keenan posted a picture of him with his arm around Tool drummer Danny Carey to illustrate their lack of animosity. 

After the perfunctory outrage that lasted a few days, the furor died down and seemed to be all but forgotten by the time Tool announced some limited tour dates earlier this year. The promise of the long-awaited next Tool album is that powerful, apparently. 

Keenan's publicist asked that we not bring up the topic of Tool during the interview we conducted with Keenan this month. We agreed, since the purpose of the interview was to talk about the Puscifer show happening at Comerica Theatre on Friday, March 18. Instead, we talked about his upcoming biography, lucha libre, and America's lost connection with the earth.

Puscifer performs at Monster Mash on Sunday, November 1, 2015 in Tempe.EXPAND
Puscifer performs at Monster Mash on Sunday, November 1, 2015 in Tempe.

On this second leg of the tour you guys are stopping through Phoenix — last time you played Metro Phoenix you were playing [Monster Mash festival in September]. What's going to be different this time around?

Well, it's our theater show. You can't do the theater show at the festival; it doesn't translate. So, those who saw the Tempe festival, it will be completely different.

What elements in particular were you not able to bring to the Tempe show?

Well, stuff that goes indoors for the most part. Just a different vibe. Inside a theater, you actually have control of the lights, so you can actually do an entire stage presentation.

I hear you guys have a wrestling ring as part of the stage show.

Could be, possible.

Wrestling has been a big visual component of what you guys have done for years now. When was the first time you saw lucha libre — do you remember?

It was awhile ago. It's been awhile. The first introduction of luchadores was in the "Toma" video long after the Conditions album had come out.

And you guys continued that theme through your music videos for this album as well. What is it about lucha libre that speaks to you artistically?

It's that theatrical presentation. There's a lot of character development; if you've ever spent any time going to those matches, it's very theatrical. there's the push-pull, there is the good and evil. All classic, archetypal approaches to storytelling.

Did you ever spend a lot of time at any point in your life going to matches like that?

Um, no. Not necessarily. It's just in general. Just literature. Reading Joseph Campbell, watching Jack Black strut around. All those things.

What's the status of the autobiography you were going to write with Sarah Jensen?

It's coming out this fall.

How involved were you in the writing of this book? Did you do interviews with Sarah and then let the writing sit in her hands? Were you giving her suggestions on how to write? How did that process work?

I would speak with her for maybe a couple hours on a Sunday, on a Wednesday, maybe just go over some stories or points, and she would write them from an observer's perspective. In her voice but from an onlooker's perspective, almost like a story. 

Is there a point in the Puscifer show where you're really looking forward to doing this one particular song?

They all present their challenges. there's always that moment where you get a little nervous where you're approaching a particular point in the song, trying to get it right and trying to do it better than you did last night, and to try something different tonight, what that sounds like, what that result is. So each one of them kind of has their little hurdles, their bumps. 

At the same time though, Puscifer looks like you're having a ton of fun on stage. You've been doing this for a long time; how do you balance the need to have fun and put on a show with the need to keep the music at a high level of presentation as well?

Well, the music comes first, the entertainment comes second, always. So trying to make sure everything's constructed properly, that the music is erected properly, that that music is presented properly, then you have to work the entertainment in.

Upcoming Events

About a month after we spoke in September, I believe that was, I got to see Eagles of Death Metal live in Phoenix ... and a month later they were in [the terrorist attacks in] Paris. I know you and [bassist Matt McJunkins, who has toured with both A Perfect Circle and Puscifer] go back a long way, and I was wondering, where were you when you heard what was going on that day, and what was going through your head?

Well, we were in Boston playing a show the next day, so it was a little nerve-wracking, but luckily they got through it and we're all happy that they made it through that.

Were you able to talk to Matt in those days?

Well, he was locked down. He was in Paris and we were in Boston and he didn't have his phone. So no, we were just like you. We were just watching the TV trying to figure it out.

Maynard James Keenan
Maynard James Keenan

Last time you talked, I asked you about the song "Simultaneous" and you said that you kind of felt like the world is coming apart. Terrible tragedies like that — how does that impact that belief that you have?

Well, you know, since the beginning of time we've had both monsters and angels within us, so it's just a matter of which one you see, I suppose. That's just pretty much across the board throughout history. There are always going to be people who are entertaining their dark side and people who are entertaining their angel. That's the reality of us as humans.

Is there something different about the time we're going through right now compared to other periods of history?

I mean, I didn't of course, I'm only living in this one that I know of, but I'd imagine that people weren't super excited about living in the inquisition or living under Pol Pot, Nazi Germany, a whole list of places. Even in the world right now, there's a lot of insanity right now. The election going on right now is certainly bringing out the best in everybody. I think it's just our time, our moment to choose what we're gonna embrace ... What are you going to choose? Compassion or fear? It's up to you.

Do you follow politics super closely?

Not super close, no. Little bit. For local politics, yeah. I pay attention to who is representing our best interests locally. I feel like that's all I have the bandwidth to really pay attention to. When it gets to the much larger federal level, it's hard to say who's really working for who at that point.

Who do you like in the primaries?

I can't. I'm not going to discuss that, that's private.

Do you vote in the primaries?

I have to write it in, it's Jimi Hendrix.

[Laughs]

To answer your question, I do vote. Yes.

Yeah, I'm just wondering if you vote in the primaries, specifically. I assume you're going to vote in the general, but a lot fewer people vote in the primaries.

Oh no, I vote every step of the way.

Going back — you said you have to choose between compassion and fear. That's a really interesting idea. When you see stuff on the news about politics these days, do you worry that people are not choosing compassion?

Because I'm not walking in their shoes, I'm not really sure what's going through their minds, but it seems like it's a telephone game, and half the people are at the end of the line. They're not really getting all the facts from anybody, really. It's disappointing to know that the communication has broken down between what matters and what the reactionary headlines are.

Yeah, it's kind of interesting that communication still gets so muddled along the way despite the fact that we have the best communication technology available.

It's really unnerving, isn't it?

It's almost as if shoddy storytelling and adding elements to stories and filling in gaps with false information is almost a part of the human condition.

Yeah, I guess. But you know, you can't worry about it. Right now there's no obvious direct threat against our food, clothing, and shelter. Not obvious. So most people are either kind of caught up in that drama, but it's easy nowadays because there's no threat against your food, shelter, clothing, to say, "You know what? I'm just going to try to focus on the positive, focus on building rather than destroying, focus on nurturing rather than starving." You just kind of have to choose that path, honestly.

Right. Do you think we take for granted as a country, maybe, that we have no threats to our food clothing, and shelter? That these things are such a given in our everyday lives?

Yeah, you start to get into a place of entitlement. That's unfortunate. I think it's not healthy to feel as entitled as we seem to feel.

It's not healthy, but what results from that unhealthy state of mind? How does that play out?

I think that entitlement, in some way, of course, you get there because you have no sense of responsibility, no accountability, and a lot it — I'm not sure about the chicken and the egg, horse and the cart, I don't know, whatever metaphor you want to use is fine — I'm not sure where it comes from. The breakdown of family? The introduction of industrialized food and labor around World War II? I don't know what butterfly effect we're talking about, but here we are. Not sure how we got here and how to get out of it.

I feel like with your winery, that's a direct link back to the ground, back to what it means to be responsible for your own food production — not growing food for consumption in your case but kind of the same principle.

It definitely leads to that understanding. Artisanal growers and chefs can definitely place their stake in the ground in an area that's planting vines. Anybody who's planting vines, they've already shown you or told you without saying it that they believe in their community, they believe in their area. if you're gonna put vines in the ground, they're not going to see a return on their investment for a minimum seven to eight years, maybe 10 years. So it's definitely a statement of the long play. So anybody who is doing that thing, you can put your stake in the ground and start some kind of collateral business around their commitment.

Interesting. It seems like in Jerome specifically, in the years since you've put your stake in the ground, the area kind of has seen that blooming of artisanal shops and people going there to live an artistic life.

I don't know if that's my efforts or just in general, the global consciousness. The whole local food movement, the whole Local First movement, the sustainable movements, all of those things are all kind of tied to our consciousness in an attempt to reconnect with the things that matter, with sustainable activities. I can't really take credit for that, although I'm really running with the torches for sure.

Is music an artisanal craft like that? Does music fall into that realm?

It has to nowadays, since there's no music industry like there used to be.

There's a huge Grand Canyon between the huge Super Bowl-Walmart bands and those guys trying to make music in their garage because they have that desire, that need to. The good news is that if they are making their music in their garage and they don't care about being famous or getting paid, they just need to make music, those who hear it will benefit greatly.

Correction,  9 a.m., 3-17-2016: This article originally called Puscifer's latest album by the wrong name.

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Comerica Theatre

400 W. Washington St.
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602-514-2919

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