Puscifer Makes the Case for Embracing the Awkward
Mat Mitchell and Greg Edwards on how Maynard James Keenan (Tool, A Perfect Circle) pushed them to creative liberation on the supergroup’s new Existential Reckoning.
In 2018, Greg Edwards stepped out of his comfort zone. For the most part, his career up till then had been focused on his own projects—like his bands Failure and Autolux—not on being a journeyman. But A Perfect Circle was touring in support of Eat the Elephant, and guitarist James Iha was unable to come along due to prior commitments with Smashing Pumpkins. Edwards—who's known A Perfect Circle (and Tool) frontman Maynard James Keenan since 1994, when Failure opened for Tool and the Flaming Lips—agreed to help out.
During a break in the ensuing APC tour, Edwards got a mysterious call from Keenan. “He just said, 'Start practicing fretless,'" Edwards recalls. The suggestion wasn't completely insane. Edwards, who plays both bass and guitar, had already played fretless bass in the first incarnation of Failure (having been heavily influenced by early new wave band Japan's Mick Karn, and Brian Eno bassist Percy Jones). But it certainly hadn't been his focus in recent years.
“I love the feeling of playing fretless," he says. “I love what it does, sonically, and what it can achieve in a song. But it was a challenge to get back. It's a whole new set of concerns when you're playing fretless, especially with someone like Maynard singing. The intonation has to be spot on. But that appealed to me."
But “challenge" seems to be an operative word when it comes to Keenan's creative process, including with his supergroup Puscifer's new Existential Reckoning, where idiosyncratic instrumentation and outmoded/vintage technologies were key facilitators. Happy with Edwards' performance in APC, Keenan brought him along for the Existential ride, as well. He also brought back longtime production, songwriting, and guitar-playing/mad scientist collaborator Mat Mitchell.
For the Reckoning sessions, Mitchell (who, along with Keenan and vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Carina Round, forms the nucleus of the band) wanted something to disrupt his usual workflow and stimulate his imagination. His solution? State-of-the-art-circa-1980 computer-driven synthesizers like a Synclavier and a Fairlight CMI (famously used by Peter Gabriel on his eponymous 1980 release).
“Part of [the appeal]," says Mitchell of the quirky gear, “is the flow—the way that you work when you're using these tools. It forces you to do things differently. They are very limited, and being creative within very set boundaries is really good."
TIDBIT: Cumbersome vintage synth hardware was a key foil to the guitar and bass parts on Existential Reckoning.
But the instruments did more than just force Mitchell into a new headspace. “They sound very unique," he explains. “Of course, you can sample one and put it in a laptop, but it's different. The way that both of those instruments are is that all the voices are separate hardware. When you hit a note, it is bouncing around between [processor] cards, so you can hit a note five times and it may sound different all five times. There are all these little things that affect the way it sounds when you're performing on it, which is a very different sound from what you get when you sample."
Mitchell applied that same disorienting criteria when choosing his main guitar for Existential Reckoning. In the end, he settled on a headless Steinberger GL2T.
“I've always wanted one," he says. “When you get your hands on one, you realize it doesn't feel like a luthier-made instrument. It feels like an engineer or a clockmaker made it. It feels more like a watch than it does a guitar, and it seemed fitting for what we were doing. The whole record is this mix of organic and early electronics, and a wood guitar just didn't feel right."
When he's not learning almost-forgotten synth technology or wrangling sounds from his Steinberger, Mitchell focuses primarily on the creative process itself. He has a reference folder filled with everything from full arrangements of possible songs to keyboard sounds that strike his fancy. He shares that folder with Keenan, who goes through it when he has the time or when he's ready to start working on a new Puscifer album. When they find something that clicks, they play with it, develop it, and take the first tentative steps toward crafting a song.
Mitchell customized his Steinberger by replacing its humbuckers with single-coils. “When you play soft and you play hard on a single-coil, there is a bigger range than you get from a humbucker." Photo by Mitra Mehvar.jpg
“Typically, I'll build out the arrangements, and that's when Greg comes in," says Mitchell. “Most of the arrangements were already there, and then he interpreted on top of that. There were a few moments where he went in an unexpected direction, and I suggested we change the chord structure to match what he was doing. We're not precious about anything until it's done. We're all happy to let it be in flux and to let each person's decisions push it one way or another."
That openness played to Edwards' strengths. Left alone in a studio room with synths and roughly 20 different stringed instruments—including fretted and fretless basses, guitars, an electric sitar, and an electric violin—he was like a kid in a candy store.
Although much of Edwards' work with Keenan in both A Perfect Circle and Puscifer is on a fretless bass, he also puts in a fair amount of time on a Rickenbacker 4001. Photo by Mitra Mehvar
“I spent a few days with each song in there, with Mat—through the glass—working on his own thing in the control room," Edwards says. “I experimented, grabbed whatever I saw on the wall, made sounds, and got somewhere with it. Whatever seemed like it might elevate the song in some way—or potentially destroy the song in some way—I would grab and go for it. I had the lyric sheets in front of me. I had access to the whole emotional thematic landscape of the song, and I enjoyed that."
More to the point, the experience was liberating. “In my own band, with writing the songs and lyrics, it's a different thing when it comes time to commit to whatever bass line or guitar part I'm going to play—there are so many other things on your mind. It was really nice to just be an instrumentalist. I came in, added, and hopefully elevated the music that was already there. But it wasn't my responsibility to write anything."
Ah, but what about guitars? Existential Reckoning is chock-full of heavy guitar tones, but it's not a riff-oriented album. The guitars add texture, tension, and—despite the abundance of old school technology—give it a modern feel. Check out tracks like “Apocalyptical," “Theorem," or “Bullet Train to Iowa." This is not a retro, backward-looking album, and the guitars—maybe ironically—are a big part of that. But, ultimately, Puscifer is a guitar band.
“Historically, I start creating on guitar, because that's my primary instrument," Mitchell says. “On this record I decided to start with the synthesizers—the Fairlight and the Synclavier—mainly to break away from my comfort zone. The guitars, for the most part, came at the end. They were more of a thread, or a way to tie a lot of things together. There is a really unique sound to the guitar, and I didn't just want it to be a keyboard record. I wanted to make sure those signatures were on there."
For Mitchell, those “signatures" start with a single-coil pickup in the bridge position. “When you play soft and you play hard on a single-coil, there is a bigger range than you get from a humbucker." On his previous outing with Puscifer, he used a Fender Custom Shop Esquire built to 1950s specs. For Existential Reckoning, although he was committed to using the Steinberger, he still wanted that sound. Luckily, he isn't averse to mods.
“The Steinberger came with EMG humbuckers," explains Mitchell. “I put EMG single-coils in it. They look like humbuckers—that way you're not messing with the look of it. They're also extremely quiet. I was reading an article with David Gilmour about Pink Floyd's Momentary Lapse of Reason album. He had gotten his hands on a Steinberger and said he really loved it because you can use single-coils, but you're not getting any fuzz or noise or any sort of buzzing. You can really play delicate lines and not have to deal with any of that stuff. That was one of the driving things about it. It's crazy—there's literally no noise when you're playing that thing."
As for Edwards and his fretless work on Reckoning, he reminds us that Money Shot, the band's previous album, was also all fretless—only he wasn't the one playing it. “I played all the bass on that record," Mitchell confesses. “But that was me coming at it as a guitar player. So it's more a guitar player's version of what it sounds like to play fretless." With Edwards wielding the 4-string this time, the lines feel more like how a bona fide bassist would approach it—although he didn't necessarily rely on fretless conventions or try to mimic prominent stylists like Jaco Pastorius, Tony Franklin, Mick Karn, or Percy Jones.
“Take a song like 'The Underwhelming,'" says Edwards. “That chorus is fretless—and if you listen you can hear that it's fretless—but it doesn't jump out at you as being a fretless instrument. It's slightly more expressive, and the sustain is a little different. The way you can fall off and come into notes, it's just a different kind of vibe. It's almost like a portamento effect, where on a fretted bass, when you go over the hump of the fret you're into the next note, and that's it. It's a very abrupt, binary thing. Whereas with a fretless, you have this infinite continuum of microtones in between."
He also almost always went direct. “I had all these amps in that room, but really I just went through a classic Demeter VTBP-201 DI tube preamp that Mat has. It just has a few knobs on it, and it's tuned for bass in such a way that you get this really warm, deep fundamental. It's unique. It's fairly subtle, but it really does make a difference in a mix."
Of course, the goal for all the bandmates' gear choices, whether weird or conventional, is to find whatever helps them uncover moments of creative gold. In the end it's not so much about the gear as their attitude. Because, in addition to an appreciation for great songwriting and a seemingly endless fascination with outrageousness, what really unites Puscifer is its members' trust in each other and their willingness to be uncomfortable.
“Sometimes we are working together and sometimes we are working separately and staring at each other," Mitchell laughs. “You feel that energy of being part of something, but you're also isolated, so you can focus on what you're doing and not have other people's opinions getting in your way."