Musical Improv

"Embrace the chaos," he says by way of goodbye.

He delivers the line with the sly, knowing grin of a man hoping to unleash that of which he speaks.

Maynard James Keenan sits in the wings of The Pearl at the Palms early one weekday morning, venue empty, rows of seats waiting to be filled, wondering if he’ll be able to do just that.

He contemplates the confusion, the disarray that he’s plunged himself into like a kid pulling his knees to his chest and cannonballing hard and deep into the depths of some dark lake.

Keenan’s best known as the singer for progressive, Byzantine, cards-to-the-vest hard-rockers Tool and the equally dusky and dramatic A Perfect Circle, where he’s sold millions of albums fronting bands known for their meticulousness and attention to detail, which manifest themselves in painstakingly arranged tunes that can take years to gestate.

It’s this preoccupation with nuance and structure that Keenan largely has abandoned in his latest project, Puscifer, a loosely defined music/performance art collective akin to a series of dots that can be connected in any number of ways.

"With Tool and A Perfect Circle, we get in a space, we write and write and write, we jam, we dissect, ‘here’s the finished piece,’ and for the most part, it always sounds like this," Keenan says, gazing off into the distance, eyes wandering around the hall where Puscifer will make its live debut this weekend with a trio of shows. "With this project, there is no actual original version of a tune. We put out a record, but that’s not necessarily the original version of a song — there’s versions other than that. This is improvisational interpretations of these tracks that are directly related to the moment, directly related to the personalities coming together like different ingredients."

Spontaneity is not something that one readily associates with Keenan’s other bands. Their albums are like large, elaborate landscapes where every blade of grass is in its proper place, every shadow accounted for.

"My partners in those projects have far more of the forest-for-the-trees tendencies," notes Keenan, who, with his shaved head, sinewy frame and martial arts background could pass for a well-heeled villain in some old kung fu flick. "I tend to be running through the forest, I get to the other side, and I go, ‘Where’d the forest go?’ They’re the guys who reel me back in. I’m the in-the-moment, go-for-it guy, the guy who, when they’re getting caught up in the details, goes, ‘Hey, let’s move along. You’re forgetting the fun part.’ "

And fun is the operative word here.

Puscifer’s origins are in the free-wheeling L.A. improv comedy scene in the early ’90s, where Keenan would collaborate with comedian/writer Laura Milligan, who later could be seen on the HBO comedy series "Mr. Show with Bob and David" portraying different characters and fronting impromptu punk band Umlaut.

Years later, Keenan would revive Puscifer with a rotating cast of musicians such as Primus drummer Tim "Herb" Alexander, ambient musician Lustmord, former Nine Inch Nails/A Perfect Circle member Danny Lohner and many others.

Puscifer’s debut, 2007’s "V is for Vagina," is a shifty, near-formless foray into dense dub, electronica and various beat-driven sounds overlain with a puerile sense of humor, all of it imbued with the levity that, say, the most recent Tool album, has lacked.

Singing in a deep, near-basso profundo mumble over seismic, body-rockin’ rhythms, Keenan gives voice to what could be called subversive dance music — but then again, it could be called just about anything, really.

"For me, it’s about reaction — reacting to sounds, reacting to rhythms, just having a different, fresh set of eyes and ears expressing something that they’ve taken a tract on," Keenan says of Puscifer’s more expansive take on songwriting. "It’s really a matter of growing up, expanding my ability to not be so precious about all the work done on a song. It’s about being able to let go, let this thing take a different direction and not covet it so much that I choke it to death and it never gets to evolve on its own because I’m the overprotective mother."

And so Keenan is loosening the artistic reins in Puscifer, not sure where the journey will take him.

This goes double for the band’s cabaret-style live show, which Keenan doesn’t even attempt to encapsulate.

Here are a few adjectives to throw around, instead: ridiculous, absurd, over-the-top, carnal, id-approved — just like the city in which it will make its premiere.

"I don’t want to become a Vegas act, but at the same time, it lends itself to being a Vegas act," Keenan says of Puscifer, noting that the group’s stint at The Pearl could become a standing engagement and even branch out to other cities at some point. "We could completely embrace the polyester lifestyle and make this thing exactly that, if that’s what it feels like, if that’s where it needs to live," he adds with a wry chuckle. "It could be very tongue-in-cheek."

Shortly thereafter, he bids farewell — to a reporter, to restraint, to any sort of expectations at all.

Contact reporter Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476.

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