Maynard James Keenan is at it again. The iconic singer who drew attention fronting Tool and A Perfect Circle has spent the past year showcasing his side project Puscifer in theaters rather than typical rock venues. Similar to Tool, who have received as much attention for their imaginative videos as for their progressive hard rock, Puscifer are a multimedia experience that subverts expectations and pushes boundaries.
"It has music involved, but it's not a band," says Keenan. "That's the hardest thing for people to wrap their head around. Although there's lots of music involved, it's not a band. It's a troupe. It's a performance, not a concert. It has more in common with Saturday Night Live and Hee Haw than it does Led Zeppelin or Tool."
The band's origins go back to the '90s, when it was conceived and featured as a fictional band in the first episode of the sketch-comedy program Mr. Show. Puscifer didn't truly come to fruition until 2007 with the release of their debut, "V" Is for Vagina. But even that was just a taste of what former art-school grad Keenan envisioned. According to him, Puscifer have always been about performance, but the animated and visual aspects of his ideas weren't financially viable until the past few years.
Keenan surrounds himself with a gaggle of guest collaborators he's met over the years, including filmmakers Laura Milligan and Mike King (whom he met on Mr. Show) and musicians Tim Alexander (Primus), Danny Lohner (Nine Inch Nails), Trey Gunn (King Crimson), and singer-songwriters Carina Round and Jonny Polonsky.
The membership, like the show, changes frequently. Indeed, live performances maintain a looseness and improvisational tone that ensures that multi-date engagements in some cities offer a different show each night. The use of theaters provides a better fit for the visual spectacle and shakes audience members' preconceptions, says Keenan.
"We're kind of erasing or blurring some of those lines compartmentalizing ideas or roles," he says. "You make them come to a theater to see this thing, and they're walking through the doors of a place they haven't been. So they don't really know how to act. Already you've given them a new experience."
The Ravenna native, who now lives in Arizona, sees a connection with Akron favorite sons Devo, who also mixed film, music and wit. Keenan's wry sensibility can be glimpsed in the title of Puscifer's latest release, "C" Is For (Please Insert Sophomoric Genitalia Reference HERE) EP, and on tracks like "Rev 22:20" and "Cuntry Boner," which heralds his conquest of Nashville royalty Barbara Mandrell and Dolly Parton.
"There's definitely something in the water where we're from," says Keenan. "Humor's just as important in music as it is in literature. Comedy and tragedy are integral. I know that quite a bit of the humor has been missed over the years with A Perfect Circle and Tool. It's definitely much more present in this current project."
Musically, Puscifer are different than Keenan's other projects. They slink over skittering percussion and the slow throb of bass, exuding the kind of dark atmosphere you'd expect from a horror-movie soundtrack. Synths percolate in the background like blood pooling from an underground well, and thin serrated guitar cuts through the mix, contributing to the music's understated mid-tempo amble.
For now, Puscifer is Keenan's primary focus, although they're just another stop in his ongoing evolution.
"Having reinvented myself easily three times, it's hopefully demonstrating that anybody can do it," he says. "You just have to start over. Whatever it is you think you have, you have to understand that life is change. So if you can just get your head around that, you'll survive."