When the Present is the Past: Carina Round Talks the World of Puscifer and Existential Reckoning

Carina Round of Puscifer tells us all about making the new album and putting on an elaborate live concert for an audience of none.

Photo: Travis Shinn

As the colossal disaster that is 2020 starts to wind down, frantic members of the public gather in socially distanced huddled masses, lined up to place their vote in the U.S. election as they stand under shadowy fears of doubt and uncertainty. Yet, these final months of this confusing time have a steady pipeline of great new music to help quell those worries and take our minds to a more peaceful plane of existence. 

One of these treasures about to hit the market is the new album from the musical collective started by Tool’s Maynard James Keenan; Puscifer. Though originally devised more as a solo project for Keenan with a rotating cast of musicians to help pave the way, in recent years, Puscifer has become more of a trio powerhouse at its core, with Mat Mitchell and Carina Round solidifying the line-up of talented songwriters.

With the release of the new record, Existential Reckoning, on Oct. 30 and a livestream of a special performance of the album from famed prototype city of Arcosanti in Arizona; we spoke with Carina Round about releasing music in this strange time and what her time with Puscifer has meant to her musical journey.

Beyond the lyrical content, would you consider Existential Reckoning a concept album?

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Not really, I think it doesn’t really start out like that… it’s just stemming from the sonic bed that Mat [Mitchell] put down at the very beginning. All the ideas and the characters and the stories are kind of inspired by that. So, it’s less of a concept album and more just an album that develops naturally based on the seeds that were planted early on.

People are already talking about and will continue to talk about how timely this record is, but unless you’re rushing to make something like Borat 2 in a few months, all of this starts years in advance. With that being the case, has the album taken on a new meaning for you, now that it is coming out in our current climate?

Yeah, I think one thing that Maynard does–and without talking about the lyrics too much because he never talks about it so it would be remiss for me to do that but–I think he has a way of writing these lyrics and making the stories without laying it all out too clearly. He leaves enough room for the listener to to add their own point of view and make their own story.

But while the music has been written for like five years before; whatever he manages synthesizing is just, taking it from the world around to him, I guess. So when it came out.. this is what it came out, into.

You know, there’s no escaping this stuff. It’s in your everyday life especially if you own a smartphone and you ever want to do anything on it, there’s just no way of actually getting something done without being assaulted by the political world right now or, just the polarization of social media and…I don’t even want to get into it. But yeah, I think it’s hard to escape.

I mean that’s the thing though,even though the world is more polarized than ever before and it is becoming more outrageous; these are the kind of things we’ve been dealing with all the time, just on a new level.

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It’s funny, I just watched The Candidate with Robert Redford like two weeks ago, and it was just, kind of the same thing. I was amazed. It just makes me realize that it’s always been the same. It’s just that right now we have a magnifying glass, with the sun coming through the glass and burning us up, because we’re all a little tiny ants…just wondering what the story is.

So, jumping back into the music…obviously anything you write is yours. But does the music carry a different weight for you when you first joined Puscifer to make music–for lack of a better term–as a hired gun, compared to now, where Puscifer has become more of the trio of you, Mat, and Maynard?

Personally for me, it does. I mean my first audition– if you want to call it that–was a humbling river. I was basically just stuck in a room with Mat, while Maynard was doing something with the winery, he was in some weird mood…and it was just basically saying, “Here, do something with what you hear in this.” So it was very clear from the beginning that my sensibility was what I was there for. I wasn’t just being–I’m not just a voice that they can tell to sing something because my voice sounds different to theirs.

It was, “Oh, you’re here because of what you do. You’re here because of the sounds you create and the ideas that you have and the things that you do.” So that was, that was clear from the beginning that nobody was really trying to control my, my input.

But as the years passed, I think my place within the sphere became more apparent, and I think that my confidence within the sphere built-up, and it just magically emerged into this…alchemy, really. So it does feel different that I was involved a lot earlier on with this record and had a lot more to do with how the songs were formed in terms of my stuff being on there earlier, and decisions being based on the stuff that I had done. It feels different, but it’s not a million miles away.

Do you find that your solo work has been influenced by what you do with Puscifer, or vice/versa?

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I think I am. Before I started to work with Puscifer, I found it a more torturous experience for me to write solo. I’m distilling it down a bit for the sake of an interview…but I used to think of it like that old cliche of, “the artist is tortured,” and you wait for the inspiration to hit. It didn’t always feel like a fun, joyous experience making music, even though I do experience extreme joy and relief when I am writing, myself.

But with these people, it’s like you fucking show up, and you work, and that part of the process…being present is what brings your sub-conscious to the forefront, lets you access that area of your brain. Which in turn, lets your creativity flow. Then you get into that mindspace which in a sense feels like you’re disappearing; which is realistically, where I think all creators want to be when they’re in the middle of creating something. It’s taught me a lot. I think it does inform my own creative process, for sure.

Do you find that you’re also contributing elsewhere in the projects? Earlier you spoke about Mat laying down ideas and characters. Do you have input there, or in regards to what the live experience with who these characters are and how they’re presented?

I don’t really have input in the overall live show. I give my ideas, but the crux of it is created by Mat and Maynard’s ideas, and Mat putting it into practice and making it happen. Technically, he’s a genius. For the most part, my ideas are just entertained [laughter] and if something sticks, it sticks. 

With the livestream coming up of your performance at Arcosanti; should fans expect something even more outrageous than what they’ve become accustomed to from the live Puscifer experience?

Yeah, I think so. I think what most Puscifer fans have learned over the years is to expect the unexpected…and then don’t expect that, either.

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The reason we chose Arcosanti was because it’s a mysterious and interesting place. It’s out in the middle of the hostile, Arizona desert. It feels like these concrete buildings just mushroomed up in the middle of the desert, and it’s beautiful. It feels a bit like you woke up on Mars or something. You’re in a sci-fi movie and instead of doing the show in a venue, or a theater, or some kind of sterile environment; we chose to do it in a place that would add another dimension to the already multi-dimensional, and mysterious music.

Then on top of that, we have the set. The set-up that Mat came up with and the team we have doing all this stuff, are just brilliant. So yeah, it is going to be special.

It must have also been nice to be able to perform in some capacity.

It’s great to sing and perform music, but there’s no audience as it was right in the middle of the pandemic…as we still are, of course. It was a very different environment to playing live, but it did give you a taste of what it is going to be like to play live again. It did make me nostalgic for that. 

Well, for when you do have shows again, I think you guys should add in a cover of Peter Gabriel’s, “No Self Control.” It fits in perfectly with this album.

I love that song. Kate Bush actually sings backing vocals on that.

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…oh yes, and when she comes in, it’s so ridiculously amazing.

That kind of backing vocal, that kind of…turn of phrase…that audible turn of phrase for a song like that; that’s what I’m aiming for, shit like that. 

I was listening to the album earlier and The Underwhelming was on, and it’s not like they sound exactly alike, but it reminded me of it, and I immediately had to put on No Self Control right after.

Peter Gabriel had heavy use of the Fairlight CMI and the Synclavier throughout the making of those records, and that’s the instrument that Mat fell in love with and bought for the making of this record. Sonically, there is some similarity.