On an afternoon in early April, in a chilly warehouse space in a Cottonwood commercial park, Maynard James Keenan steps into the restroom. But he doesn’t come out.
The man who emerges is Agent Dick Merkin, an unsettling personage with bad newscaster helmet hair — black streaked with white — dark glasses, and bold red lipstick. And he’s ready for his photo shoot.
Merkin’s just one of the characters Keenan portrays as part of his band Puscifer. And after five years of no live performances, Puscifer is finally getting back on the road.
The Existential Reckoning Tour (named after the band’s 2020 album) kicks off on Thursday, June 9, in Las Vegas. It’ll stop in Phoenix, at Arizona Federal Theatre downtown, on Saturday, June 11.
Keenan, who’s lived in Jerome in central Arizona for more than 25 years, says hometown crowds hit differently.
It “for sure” feels different to perform in his adopted home state, he notes. “It’s not so much pressure as just you know you have friends out there. So it can be as distracting as it is inspiring, because you want to do well for them.”
Keenan only had about two weeks for rehearsals for the Puscifer tour; the European leg of Tool’s tour just ended in late May. But he says switching from project to project isn’t the problem — if anything, scheduling is the bigger challenge.
Changing from a Tool mindset to a Puscifer mindset “is easy,” he says. “Different set of people, different conversations. Put a different wig on, different outfit, and it ends up just changing your perspective. They’re different songs and you’re approaching them differently.”
But finding time to tour with two different bands? That’s trickier.
“You’re trying to cram three years of touring into one year, and you just have to do it. So you just figure it out. Of course, all the bands have to compromise and figure out how to work around each other, because that’s just it. Even if you want to do 60 shows, I’m sorry – you’re going to get 45. There’s going to be a compromise back and forth just because we’re trying to catch up.”
Fans who caught Puscifer’s “Existential Reckoning: Live at Arcosanti” livestream performance in October 2020 will see a lot of similarities in the shows on the tour, although the band will be playing more than just the songs from their latest album.
The visuals in the livestream were the brainchild of Puscifer guitarist Mat Mitchell, Keenan says, so for the tour, “a lot of the stage design is Mat and working with Sarah Landau, our [lighting designer], coming up with various things.”
The point is to design a visually striking show that can work in the many different venues of the tour.
“That way, we can present it in various places. If we do it right, we can put it on a small theater stage, we can put it in a festival, we can put it in the middle of a field, we can stick it in a barn,” he says.
During the Tool tour that just ended, nearly all the reviews noted that, despite being the band’s frontman, Keenan stationed himself at the back of the stage for the shows clad in a mohawk wig and dramatic eye makeup.
It remains to be seen where Keenan will place himself for the Puscifer shows, but according to him, his purpose for performing isn’t to be front and center — it’s to express himself creatively.
“When I’m doing the shows, all the expression and the fun shit we’re doing, it’s for us, it’s for me. I just want to do it. I just need to do it. If you’re in the room or not, I don’t care.
“In the business that you work with, you see a lot of fucked up, fevered egos. And they want to be there, they want to be in front, they want to be the guy. When there’s a tragedy, they’re the first one on the scene to do a benefit and make it about them. That’s just how they’re wired, and at the end of the day, they can be very entertaining, so I get it. It’s just not how I’m wired.”
Keenan didn’t just have to make the Puscifer tour work with the Tool tour — he timed the end of the Puscifer run to the beginning of the grape harvest.
For all of his passion for music, Keenan is just as dedicated to winemaking, and just as he’s not resting on his laurels in his music life, he’s busy taking his Verde Valley wine business to the next level.
He’s in the middle of developing eight acres in Old Town Cottonwood for his Merkin Vineyards and Caduceus Cellars. The plan is to move his second wine-processing facility from Camp Verde to the new property. About four or five acres will be taken up by grapevines that are already in their second year, Keenan says. Merkin Osteria, the eatery just down the hill, will relocate to the new spot.
“Attached to that will be a full greenhouse and another processing facility, a barrel-aging spot, right next to Merkin,” he explains. “So we’ll make all the Merkin wines on-site.”
Keenan produces red wines, white wines, and roses under both the Merkin Vineyards and Caduceus Cellars labels.
Construction costs are slowing the process, but he hopes to have the winemaking facilities up and running by the end of the year, and the restaurant in its new home by spring 2023.
One bright spot is that the tasting rooms are actually open again. Like every other retail
business, the establishments in Jerome, Scottsdale, and Cottonwood took a major hit during the COVID-19 shutdown.
“The pandemic was crazy for shipping. It went up because everyone is raging alcoholics now. That’s kind of good — good for business, bad for livers. But of course, the on-site, the tasting room suffered because of all the lockdown and everything. So it was a weird balance — people were buying more wine online, but they weren’t going out really, even though we did some switch-ups on how we approached the tasting rooms, so it was good.”
In a 2021 Esquire article, Keenan said, “My quality of life is finding puzzles and seeing them through.”
Music is a puzzle to be solved. So is Brazilian jiu-jitsu, another one of Keenan’s interests (he’s a brown belt and co-founded Verde Valley Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Cottonwood). So is wine.
The key to the wine puzzle is grapes first, Keenan says, “but people think it’s what sells, what’s the label going to look like, rather than starting with the grapes and the soil and figuring out what the region wants to present, how you can get out of the way and let it happen. … In the vineyard, there’s some things you have to do, but you’re just the steward, in a way. Then, you’ve figured out your way to approach winemaking, and now every year is going to give you a slightly different puzzle.”
The water crisis in the Southwest is all over the news, but Keenan isn’t worried about it — yet.
“If it gets to the point where I have to worry about it, we’re all fucked. So just continue with what you’re gonna do.”
Maynard onstage with Puscifer at 2015’s Monster Mash outdoor festival in Tempe.
That “do what you want” philosophy carries over into all aspects of Keenan’s creative life. When he made the short film “An Easter Story” in early 2021 about the ducks on his property, spring, and the cycle of life, he didn’t read the comments. (You can watch it, and other videos, on Puscifer TV on the band’s website.)
The comments “aren’t really relevant. Again, I’m just going to do what I want to do, and I saw inspiration in the ducks, I find inspiration in the story of Easter, and the full moon and the sun — all those things are very inspiring to me, so I’m going to tell that story, because I just assume that there’s going to be somebody out there who resonates with it.
“But I don’t want somebody who misunderstands it, latches onto one single word, and misses the rest of the point. I don’t want to end up having my process be affected by that person who grew up under a rock. There’s definitely more of that now with social media, and everybody has a voice and an opinion, as uninformed as it might be. It’s even worse now, so it’s best not to read that shit if you can, because it’s just mashed potatoes.”
The Puscifer tour will take Keenan away from home for another month. In a 2012 column he wrote for Phoenix New Times, he explained why he moved here and why he loves Arizona so much.
And a decade after the piece, Keenan says he still loves his adopted home just as much, “and probably more, because I’ve seen things grow and shift in positive ways. Since that article, Local First [Arizona] is far more present and people are getting into those movements more. I feel like people are getting back to their cottage industry roots. They’re getting back into growing and understanding that connection with community.”
After the tour, he’ll be back home, watching Marvel movies with his 7-year-old daughter, playing with his dogs, harvesting grapes, and gearing up for the release of more Puscifer pay-per-view livestreams (two are already done and waiting to be released). But now, he’s looking forward to the return of live Puscifer shows.
“If all you’ve seen is a video here and there or photos on an album, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to you. But this is a live band. This is a performance piece. There’s a lot of moving parts, a lot of moving and evolving characters. So the live show is where you’re really going to catch all of the stuff.”
Puscifer. With Moodie Black. 8 p.m. Saturday, June 11. Arizona Federal Theatre, 400 West Washington Street. Cost is $25 and up. Visit ticketmaster.com.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE...
Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.