Tool frontman Maynard Keenan: The US is long overdue for a fall

Ahead of his headline gig at Mona Foma, Puscifer frontman and Tool vocalist Maynard Keenan talks merkins, winemaking and preparing for Trump

To untrained ears, Puscifer’s music sounds very serious – a blend of hard rock and electronics, equal parts atmospheric and assertive. And yet, when the US group toured Australia in 2013, their show commenced with a darkly humorous in-flight safety video belonging to the fictional “Vagina Airlines”. Hosted by Maynard James Keenan – the group’s vaunted frontman, perhaps more well-known as vocalist for Tool and A Perfect Circle – the skit encouraged viewers to choke themselves in case of an emergency. Members of the group tossed little bags of peanuts at the audience, too.

Having spent most of my teenage years picking apart Tool albums, I was nervous about speaking to Keenan. The singer, sometime actor and enthusiastic winemaker doesn’t suffer idiots, and sometimes I’m an idiot. For example: it took me 10 years to realise Keenan was sometimes funny – that a streak of arch humour ran through this seemingly severe vocalist. For some people, that realisation never occurs at all.

“I think that’s true of every project that I’ve done,” Keenan says over the phone from Hobart, ahead of his headline performance tonight with Puscifer at Mona’s Festival of Music and Art (Mofo). “There’s always a disconnect between the humour and playfulness, and the seriousness that [the listeners] perceive. It’s through everything I’ve done: even with the wine. I mean shit, my tasting room is called Merkin Vineyard. That’s a pubic wig. People are eating a very serious pasta dish below a big fucking merkin.”

Still, he doesn’t want to reverse that ambiguity. He laughs when I suggest it, and then mentions the legendary prankster comedian Andy Kaufman.

“We should have elected him,” Keenan says. “Fuck, I think we just did [elect him]. I’m waiting for him to pull the mask off and say ‘haha, I’m just kidding’. That’s the problem with Andy Kaufman though. He won’t pull the mask off. He’ll fucking run us into the ground before he reveals it’s actually him, so we’re kinda fucked no matter what.”

With Donald Trump’s inauguration looming, Keenan admits that he is frightened for the future but doubts that it will change the way he approaches his work. “As an artist, what we do is observe, interpret and report,” he says. “I won’t change anything that we’re doing, though I might be a little louder about it. Great art comes from friction, but I think at some point there is such a thing as too much friction.”

During a period in which it’s hard to avoid a sense of imminent doom – when media pundits and analysts are announcing its inevitability – how does one create worthy political art that doesn’t just echo that noise?

Keenan believes you balance it out with action – prepare yourself and your neighbours to weather the storm. “Everything we’re doing in Arizona [with Merkin Vineyards, Caduceus Cellars] we’re doing from the ground up ... reconnecting people with soil, with sun, with rain, with wind.

“We’re explaining to them how most small areas throughout any era survived dictators, kings, queens, presidents, fascists. Small rural areas survived a lot of that crap because they know how to feed themselves, they know how to get out of the rain.”

The winemaking project, he says, is part of an attempt to revive independent community living.

“Nobody’s coming to your rescue,” Keenan says. “If these things are true, all [the things] the doomsayers and all the naysayers are saying in the press about this presidency … you have to default back to what really matters, what truly keeps you connected, and learn how to not only survive yourself, but to help your neighbours survive.”

US rock band Puscifer fronted by Maynard James Keenan of Tool fame, credit Tim Cadiente
Puscifer’s Maynard James Keenan: ‘Nobody’s coming to your rescue.’ Photograph: Tim Cadiente

For Keenan, self-sufficiency is something he’s been preparing since the 1980s. That’s why he moved from Los Angeles to Jerome, Arizona – because it has its own water source, a high elevation, and a large mix of agriculture.

“I love the city, I love to enjoy life, I love to breathe in and enjoy the moment with friends and family, but I also have to have my feet on the ground in terms of farming,” he says. “That’s where I come from in Michigan. We had our own garden, I worked in the orchards.

“If you study history at all, the US is long overdue for a fall. So you know, just keeping that in mind … I’m not being a doomsayer, it’s just that changes occur, it’s what happens. If you want to enter the proverbial, metaphorical kingdom of heaven – which to me just means ‘survive’ – if you want to survive this storm, [you need to] understand what a storm is. You need to understand how to survive it. It’s simple. Grow your own fucking food. Don’t rely on someone else to make it for you. Don’t rely on somebody else to build your house for you, don’t rely on someone else to bring water to you.”

In addition to touring with Puscifer to support their 2015 album Money Shot, Keenan has just opened a new restaurant in Cottonwood, Arizona. Last year he also released a semi-autobiography called A Perfect Union of Contrary Things, co-authored with Sarah Jensen.

Keenan says he might want to write fiction in the future. He’s written it all his life as a lyricist, but wants to try his hand at prose. “It will be a difficult transition but not an insurmountable one,” he says.

As for this tour, it’s the most logistically demanding Puscifer show to date, featuring a wrestling ring and luchadores – Mexican wrestlers. Hopefully, it will also be funny. “I highly encourage people to come out and witness this thing, because it’s just not your average show.”

• Puscifer is performing on 20 January at Mona’s Festival of Music and Art, which runs in Hobart until 22 January. Puscifer’s Australian tour runs until 29 January
• This article was edited on 23 January to make mention of the band’s ongoing tour


Shaun Prescott

The GuardianTramp

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