A side project is already a difficult subject, since artists take them a lot more seriously than anybody else does. The whole reason for doing a side project, after all, is to give shape to something more personal than what's allowed by your main, generally more collaborative band. So Puscifer, the third band fronted by Maynard James Keenan, after the multiplatinum post-grunge art rockers Tool and the singularly platinum A Perfect Circle, is even more complicated—a side side project, you might call it.
And when you title the first album by your side side project "V" Is for Vagina, as Keenan did with Puscifer's 2007 debut, you have to know that some people might think the whole thing is a joke. And when you dress up in a fake mustache and a bright orange jumpsuit (with "BR549" as the ID number, even) for the cover of your next side side album, and you call that album Conditions of My Parole, you know what you're going to get. You're going to be considered a novelty band.
"Being dismissed, it's not really up to me," Keenan says. "I do what I do. I can't really be concerned too much about that. When you're concerned too much about what the masses might think about it, you just end up catering to Wal-Mart. I can't really concern myself too much with that. It will find an audience. The trap people fall into when they have a little bit of success with something is then they try to appeal to more people, rather than just try to appeal to those people that get what you're doing and establish that connection. You do what you do."
For Keenan, Puscifer is way more than just a band. The whole experience, from the music and artwork to the vague, abstract storyline running through the concept and all the possible licensing deals that follow from that, is what the project is about. (There is even a Puscifer clothing store in Jerome, Ariz., the tiny wine-and-art enclave where Keenan lives.) The first official Puscifer recordings appeared in 2007, but the idea of the band dates back to a reference on the mid-'90s HBO comedy sketch series Mr. Show, and that's when Keenan pinpoints the project's beginnings.
"I think it always has been a multimedia project," Keenan says. "It's been a multimedia project since its inception in '95. ... Currently there's animation, there's film pieces, there's music, there's performance, there's merchandise—I don't think you could call it a fashion line, we certainly don't have a runway. I don't think there's really any limits in terms of expression. We could get into graphic novels, we could get into video games. But that will all come with time, if that stuff presents itself in the right way. For the moment we're concentrating on the visuals and the music."
Still, despite this broad conception, and despite the band's reputation as an oddball millionaire indulgence, Conditions of My Parole is a relatively straightforward, coherent disc with moments of bilious, near-Tool-quality art rock and real emotional power in its mix of New Age-influenced soundscapes, '90s hard rock, and throbbing electro-industrial beats.
A key difference is that the new disc, unlike "V" Is for Vagina, was written and recorded entirely at Keenan's winery in central Arizona.
"The first record, we did a lot of traveling," Keenan says. "We recorded in basically every studio we could think of and recorded in hotel rooms. So there's a little bit of schizophrenia attached to the first record, because we were just trying to get it done in whatever space and setting we could get it done in. But this one is a lot more cohesive as far as where it's from, because we were in one place."
In addition, Puscifer has started to look like an actual band. The ever-rotating lineup has gelled around Keenan, singer Carina Round, drummer Jon Theodore, and multi-instrumentalists Mat Mitchell and Josh Eustis, with Keenan taking on the role of producer or artistic director—the Rick Rubin of his own band.
"I'm more about the overall picture," he says. "‘This is the general direction we're going to go,' and see how it plays out."
One other problem with side projects: They take time away from everything else. Tool fans have been restless since the band's last album, 10,000 days, was released in 2006. Last month, Keenan said in an interview with Loudwire that Tool-mates Adam Jones and Danny Carey are writing new material; he downplayed the news, but the announcement only aggravated fan anxiety. But nobody has ever rushed Keenan; each of the last three Tool albums have been separated by five years, and for now he's only thinking about Puscifer—at least in public.