The shroud of mystery surrounding experimental rock outfit Puscifer is fitting for the uncertain and unsettling times of a pandemic crossed with mass civil unrest. The band, whose core is made up of Maynard James Keenan (Tool, A Perfect Circle), Carina Round and Mat Mitchell, is a living, breathing organism. Beyond the trio, the band’s configuration is fluid and ever-changing, allowing the music to develop and evolve with Keenan as the creative lyrical conduit.
“Nothing is ever really forced to be a certain way; it’s always based on however it naturally falls within the circumstances,” vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Carina Round said.
Mitchell writes all of the band’s music, sharing his creations with the others band to add their own contributions.
“He just keeps collecting and collecting until Maynard has a minute to listen to it,” Round said.
For the new album, Round said Mitchell was inspired by vintage equipment. He realized that most of the music he loved was created on two pieces of gear—so he went on an extended journey to track them down.
“He wrote most of the record using those two really old analog synthesizers and samplers within the constraints of what they provide,” she said. “They make just beautiful sounds with an analog warmth. Everything on this record comes from his ability to manipulate technology in the way that he does.”
Once Mitchell put his touch on a track, it was Keenan’s turn. Round said the Tool frontman took a deep dive into the material, making emotional connections with the sonic landscape of the tracks.
“All of the sudden, characters … or these ideas are being born based on the emotion that is caused by hearing Mat’s soundscape,” Round said. “He will put down ideas—sometimes whole vocals, sometimes it’s some rhythms, sometimes it’s a melody and some words—I will in turn react to that. It just becomes this emotion ricochet of the three of us.”
Puscifer rarely writes with the core trio in the same room together. Round compared each musician’s contributions to the way atoms collide until there is enough material for a complete record.
The band’s latest, Existential Reckoning, is in many ways a creative response to the uncertainty of these times. Round said that the band was already in the early stages of recording when COVID-19 lockdowns began. As for many, it created a personal and professional uncertainty of what exactly the path forward looked like. For Round, her new reality meant having a child around the house at all times while writing for her solo record and the Puscifer album.
“It became quickly apparently that I’m actually more overwhelmed than at any point in the past five years, just having a little tornado around me all the time,” she said. “If it weren’t for making the Puscifer record, my mind would have completely escaped from my earhole.”
The COVID cloud is present in the mood of the new songs. It’s materialized in the video for “Apocalyptical,” which has COVID-19 cells throughout. The track and video are very different from what Maynard James Keenan’s fans are accustomed to hearing from him. Both take on a sort of dystopian Talking Heads feel. Round said that the urgency of the pandemic didn’t truly hit her until just recently.
“Until now, it’s been easy to just kind of take it as it comes and roll with the punches as they say,” she said, sighing. “But I feel like in the past week it’s really set in, personally.”
A tense election makes things even more dire.
“Psychologically, where is the fucking light at the end of the tunnel?” she said. “I don’t know if it’s willfully being hidden just because it’s so close to the election, and it’s better everyone feels like they’re trapped with no end in sight, so they can grapple with some kind of savior, but I really cannot wait for this year to be over.”
Aside from the chaos of the outside world impacting the band’s ability to write and record, the birth of Round’s child three years ago had just as much of an impact on her work.
“It certainly made me appreciate the time more that I do get when I’m in-studio and be a lot more efficient,” Round said. “I would have like two or three hours in the studio a day instead of 12 hours to do whatever the fuck I wanted or nothing at all.”
The band has also plotted a mysterious livestream concert on the day of the album’s release; set in the Arizona desert. Without large gatherings for concerts, the livestream seems well-suited for Puscifer. Few details have been revealed about the performance and Round didn’t want to give away the surprises. She did say the unique architecture of the locale—the town of Arcosanti—should provide a compelling backdrop for the performance.
“The architect was very much trying to combine the architecture and ecology—he actually coined the term ‘arcology’—the architecture that evolved through an evolution of the city and the urban environment,” Round said. “He wanted to take an urban environment and build up and make it really complex and kinda futuristic and weird—weird buildings, insane shapes, and a little bit space age—but it’s plopped right in the middle of thousand of acres in central Arizona.”
Follow writer Mike DeWald at Twitter.com/mike_dewald.