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.