In a classic case of endurance, Mike Patton has turned his music around, quietly phasing out the bloated and obsolete Faith No More and replacing it with the artier, less predictable rock of Mr. Bungle, a wild assortment of clashing styles, contradictory goals, and occasionally spectacular results. It's taken Patton and his cohorts eight years to make three erratic albums, but on the new California, it feels like Mr. Bungle is on the right track. Its fans need no convincing, while the band is enjoying newfound respect, avant-jazz credibility through a connection to John Zorn, and sold-out performances this summer and fall. Patton recently spoke to The Onion about his audience, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and more.
The Onion: The new Mr. Bungle album sounds saner and less profane than its predecessors. Does that mean you're getting mellow in your old age?
Mike Patton: I don't know. The only thing I can really say about it is that there are more songs on this record than we've ever written together in the past. When we started writing for this record, it became apparent that we were all writing in the song form more than we ever had, and we said, "Hey, it would be fun to do a record of songs." As opposed to operettas or jazz improvs or, you know, noise pieces—whatever the hell you want to call them. We thought the stuff seemed really strong, so we stuck with it. It felt natural. An electro-acoustic noise piece or whatever just wouldn't fit on this record. I don't know if you'd agree with that or not, but every record is its own universe; we don't think about whether or not it fits into the grand scheme of what Mr. Bungle is, or, "Oh, gee, we didn't represent with the chaos!" Basically, that stuff doesn't matter to us. Each record is its own little world and requires its own little special things, and you use special tools to get those things. And that's pretty much it. Another thing that ties this together is that there's a shitload of vocals, way more than I'd ever done before with Mr. Bungle. The layering and stuff like that, not just with the vocals, but all the instruments… Like, if someone were going to try and remix "Sweet Charity," I'd pray for them. One track alone is a harmony vocal, then all of a sudden it's a glockenspiel for two notes, then it turns into a hand drum, and then it turns into a guitar part that lasts for 30 seconds. It's a disaster.
O: Do you feel that Mr. Bungle is in a position to uphold some of the ideals of Frank Zappa?
MP: I don't know. I haven't really got a good answer for the Zappa question yet. And, boy, we get that question a lot. The funny thing is, I mean, I like Frank Zappa—I like some of his records—but he never really blew my head off when I was young, or even now. I'll listen to certain records and they're really great, but none of us are really huge Zappa fans. I don't think we're anywhere near where that guy got; I mean, he worked with everybody in a thousand different genres, and he had his own thing going. I don't really know if what we're doing is like what he did or what. I don't really have a good answer for that.
O: Well, it feels like you've developed a more compositional style in your music, instead of a simple rock-band format.
MP: Yeah, that feels natural. I don't think we've ever sat down and said, "Hey, let's try to be composers." You realize that it's not as simple as four rock 'n' roll guys going into a room and jamming out and emerging with a golden egg; it just doesn't happen like that for us anymore, at least for me. I can't do it. I prefer to sit down with a cup of coffee on my own and work out a shitload of ideas, and then over-layer and over-orchestrate them. That feels right to me. We all did that on this record. There's something akin to being a soundtrack composer, definitely more than, like, say, No Doubt or something.
O: You guys have sold out nearly every concert you've played this summer.
MP: It's funny, because we've put this record out and gone on some tours, but we're going to play some festivals in Europe and it'll be nice to get in front of some new people. Which means opening for a bigger band. Gee, who the fuck are we gonna open for? We talked about doing the Warped Tour over there, playing in front of a bunch of kids. Think about it: Ice-T, Suicidal Tendencies, Blink 182, us… It's three in the afternoon and kids just want to slam their heads against the wall and fuckin' drink warm beer. They don't want to listen to our shit!
O: What about California were you trying to address with this record?
MP: Oh, well… It's dangerous to over-think that kind of shit, I would say. More than anything, that title really sums up sonically what's going on on the record. It's very pleasant at times, and then there are a lot of little disasters that come up and present themselves, then blow over and go away like a storm. I would tend to explain it more like that, rather than, "Oh, California is this very deceptive place; it's bright on the outside and a really dark place on the inside." I mean, let's let the Chili Peppers do that.
O: Are you aware of the discussion groups on the Internet devoted to you and your work?
MP: I am. It's a little spooky, to tell you the truth. I don't enjoy it. I've been on there with my wife, who's said, "Oh, look at this!" We've had a laugh for a minute, and then I've got to turn it off.
O: Some of those groups are boring—they're just fans trading guitar tablatures, and so on—but alt.music.faithnomore and alt.music.mr-bungle are fairly contentious, with people getting embroiled in heated debates…
MP: About really important things like, "Gee, does Mike wash his hair? What kind of gel does he use?" [Laughs.]
O: Well, there's a big debate about whether you can play an instrument or not…
O: There are about 30 people discussing the meaning of your lyrics…
O: …and there are a few fans who accuse you of using too much re-recorded stuff in concert, comparing Mr. Bungle to Milli Vanilli.
MP: Mm-hmm. Well, we use samplers a lot. For the new material, we're using samplers more than we ever have. There are a lot of instruments. We have four keyboards triggering samples on stage, and there are definitely some Jan & Dean moments. If one cord comes unplugged, certain songs can't be played. When we write music, we don't think about playing it live because that's a no-no. I totally am not into that. So what you do is make a great record, then figure out how you're going to play it live. And certain songs you can't play live; it's better to just leave them alone. With other ones, we did extensive sampling to recreate those sounds, and others we rearranged for a live context. We had to take out things like 30 vocal overdubs. Parts that would be Milli Vanilli we cut out of the songs.
O: Is your audience all male, or does it just appear that way?
MP: Seems to be. I don't like to think about who's out there. It scares me.
MP: Really. [Laughs.] Sometimes I would just rather look the other way. I think sometimes the more you know, the more it can really influence what you do, and I'd rather not know. I know from years of playing with Faith No More that it was a teenage-dude thing. And I know there's a significant amount of that in the Mr. Bungle audience, too. I just hope there are a lot of different people out there who all like it for their own reasons. That's the most I can hope for. But I think you're probably right; I think our audience is mostly sweaty, pimply-faced guys.
O: What about the fans on the Internet who speculate about your sexual preference, your children, your private life?
MP: It's pretty odd, snooping around and seeing what people are saying about me. I get spooked really easily doing that. It's kind of like bad voodoo for me, reading that shit.
O: There was actually more activity in the Faith No More news group. Are you proud that there's still that much interest in the band?
MP: I think it's strange, because we've been defunct for nearly two years now. It's funny. But I'm definitely glad it's over: It was a great thing while it lasted, but it really had to end. I think if it had continued it would have gotten really ugly. No fistfights or bloody noses or anything like that, but the music would have been substandard. So the line must be drawn there.
O: Does this Mr. Bungle album signify a clean slate?
MP: Hopefully. That's the idea. My twenties were spent with Faith No More; that was a fuckin' decade of my life, so that was not an easy page to turn musically, personally, socially, whatever. There were a lot of different levels going on there. I really think that having a band like Mr. Bungle… I feel real lucky to be playing with these guys, and I'm lucky that I can write anything and they'll fuckin' play it. I can write a fuckin' crossword puzzle, some Rubik's Cube music, and they can transcribe it, write it down, and play it. That's a therapeutic, liberating kind of thing. It's a good thing. Being around people like that helps you turn the page and get over it. That's what this year has been about for me, and probably next year, too. I'm releasing a bunch of stuff on my label [Ipecac Records, which is putting out three Melvins albums in 1999], and that's been a great new exciting thing for me. The page has definitely turned for me at this point, and I'm glad. I mean, we hadn't made a record in four years or toured in five, and we're still selling out shows. It's like, "How the hell is this happening?" I ask that question, but I don't know if I really want to know. I just want to keep doing it. I just don't know where these fans are coming from, really, but it seems like they're getting it, and that's what's important.
O: Were you concerned that they wouldn't?
MP: No. That's definitely the last thing I worry about. That's the most dangerous thing of all, worrying about what people will think. It's really nice to be appreciated and have people at your show, but when you start letting that control what you do, you're in fuckin' trouble. You're in deep trouble. It sounds like a crass artistic thing, but we make music for ourselves first, then record it onto a record, and then hope it makes sense to other people. But it's really just what we do naturally. It feels right. If that can communicate something and people can translate it into whatever their own language is, translate it into their own lives, hopefully it'll make sense to them.
O: You mentioned Red Hot Chili Peppers earlier. Are you satisfied that they've kind of become a shallow self-parody…
MP: [Laughs.] Not me! [Laughs.]
O: …and that, for the most part, you've retained your integrity?
MP: I don't feel happy thinking about them, period. [Laughs.] But we've had some recent, well, not really run-ins, but encounters with them. Strange encounters. I mean, the Chili Peppers is something I hadn't really thought of in years. And I'll go ahead and tell you this. Why not? I haven't told anybody else yet. We were looking at booking some Mr. Bungle shows in Europe this past summer, some big festivals, which is something we'd never done before. We figured it'd be a good thing: We'd get to play in front of a lot of people who wouldn't otherwise hear us. Our agent was in the process of booking these festivals, and it was becoming apparent that we'd landed some pretty good ones—one in France, another one in Holland, some big-name festivals. Turns out someone's holding a grudge! [Laughs.] We were booted off several bills, including a really big festival in Australia, specifically because Anthony Kiedis did not want us on the bill. He threatened to pull the Chili Peppers if Mr. Bungle was on the bill. Now, rationalize that one! That's so fucking pathetic! I mean, this guy's selling a million records! We are not even a speck of dust on this guy's ass! What's the fucking problem? It's unbelievable.
O: You must have lost a lot of money.
MP: Absolutely! When it happened once, we kind of shrugged it off and laughed and said, "That's really sad. Let's get on with our lives, no big deal." But with the one in Australia, they basically reached into our pockets and robbed us. It's a pretty pathetic thing.
O: That would spur me to do some investigation and get to the bottom of this feud. What's it about?
MP: I guess. But there's nothing I can do about it. All I can really do is laugh. Or talk shit in the press, I suppose, which I guess is what I'm doing right now.
O: Well, initially, a lot of listeners thought of Faith No More as a cut-rate Red Hot Chili Peppers knock-off. You suffered through that label for a while, but now it seems the tide has turned.
MP: It's a funny thing. It's a very strange thing. Like I said, whatever problems there are—and there obviously are some—they couldn't be further from my frame of reference, from my reality.
O: Well, what do you think it is? Have you met Kiedis before?
MP: Uh, yeah, I know what it is. It's exactly what you said before. It's basically some kind of old grudge. I think what happened was that 10 years ago, Faith No More was really big in Europe and enjoying a lot more notoriety than the Chili Peppers were. That pissed them off, or him, or whatever, and they started talking shit about us in the press way, way back then. And we laughed it off—"What's this guy's problem?"—and it went away. Then, lo and behold, there's still poison in the air! Well, now you've got some dirt.