Mike Patton's Progress From Faith No More to Fantômas
Published Dec 01, 2001"I think it goes in a lot of different directions and it's not really easy to sum up in any little nutshell; I wouldn't try to anyway. I would say listen to it, you might like it and you might hate it, it's just the way it goes. I'm not in the business of serving people music on a silver platter. I'm here to put questions in front of people and hopefully make them think; give them something to fucking think about." Mike Patton has inadvertently summed up his musical career in his own words, despite the fact that he's only talking about the latest in an endless string of collaborative projects, Tomahawk comprised of former Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison, former Helmet drummer John Stanier and Melvin's bassist Kevin Rutmanis. His 15-year musical legacy of eccentricity, insanity and genius spans four studio releases with Faith No More, three with Mr. Bungle, two with Fantômas, two solo albums, countless collaborations, and the co-founding of a record label, Ipecac. It's a career that has been dedicated to confronting, challenging and, most significantly, contradicting the expectations of fans, musicians, the record industry and even himself.
Mike Patton is study in contradictions, both musically and personally. He has sold millions of albums, had his image plastered on magazines and music video channels the world over, yet now at the age of 33 and at his most musically prolific, avoids most press. He is an artist who, at the very beginning of his musical career, literally achieved "the dream" of fame and fortune with Faith No More, a band whose influence can still be felt in the realm of rap rock and nu metal. Now he finds himself doing everything in his power to escape that legacy, even as he reaches the peak of his creative career. He is an artist who tours incessantly, either with Mr. Bungle, Fantômas, Tomahawk or solo, breaking only long enough to record and release his next project. He is an artist who will serve up pop music to challenge fans of his aggressive and weird work, and aggressive music to challenge his pop fans. And he is an artist who believes his musical vision to be no more important than anyone else's, even as he builds a legacy that warrants comparisons to great American composer Frank Zappa.
"I think that Mike is extremely talented," says former Alternative Tentacles label manager, Greg Werckman, who manages Mr. Bungle, Patton and Ipecac Records, "but he is way humbler than just about any artist of any magnitude that I have ever worked with. I think he should be that humble, it's good that he doesn't look at himself that way, because I think of the musicians that are so full of crap that their eyes are completely brown. Who can take Anthony Kiedis or Billy Corgan seriously?"
At the tender age of 18, Mike Patton replaced Chuck Mosley in a commercially floundering but innovative rap, rock, metal, funk hybrid band from San Francisco named Faith No More, after members of the band heard a demo of Mike's high-school band, Mr. Bungle. Spurned on by the unexpected success of the video/single "Epic," an eclectic mixture of metal and rap that featured the catchy but confusing chorus of "It's it, what is it?" and a fish out of water flapping around during the song's ending piano notes, The Real Thing would bring Faith No More and Mike Patton into the spotlight. They sold millions of records, landing arena tours with the biggest bands of the days (Metallic, Guns'n'Roses) and gaining the band limitless public exposure in magazines and video airplay.
"The whole thing was really a rollarcoaster-ish kind of experience," recalls Mike, "but really fun. The way I look at it is that it was a decade of my life, it was my 20s. It started out really strangely, on a high note. The first record we did went platinum, and no one certainly expected that. It was a series of small revelations. First was going into a studio and making a record. Second was going out and playing it on tour. Third of all, wait a minute, how are we selling all these records?"
"It's scary," comments the Melvins Buzz Osborne, who plays guitar in Patton's "metal" band, Fantômas, on Patton's rapid ascent to fame. "Patton was the poster boy.' He's got a lot of rock star karma to live down."
It is during this initial period of fame that Mike Patton developed his penchant for contradictions and challenges that would follow him to do this day, serving up the exact opposite of what is expected from a rock star, in terms of both music and personality. There were the bizarre stage antics and commentary dousing himself in urine, or flopping around like the fish during an MTV Video Award appearance. Then there was the "shit terrorist," where Patton coped with the pressures and demands of fame by terrorising hotel rooms while on tour with his faecal matter, hiding it in air vents or blow dryers for the unlucky to find. "That was just my way of deflecting a lot of that attention, by throwing it back in peoples' faces in sort of a grotesque light," Patton explains. "Sometimes it didn't work, it just made things worse, but nonetheless that was my way and it got me through what I needed to get through." Greg Werckman sees it differently. "Whenever he's got in trouble, like playing in front of Guns n' Roses and mouthing off on stage, it's just to entertain himself, he doesn't think of himself as being clever or funny or interesting, he's just like let's start something here.' Or Alright, I'll scare an interviewer, I'll tell them I'm eating my poo, or I'll freak some interviewer out just to make it fun for me.'"
Musically, Patton also crossed boundaries of what was expected, unleashing Mr. Bungle's self-titled debut album on Warner, an ominous porno funk metal freak-out that left many Faith No More fans scratching their heads in confusion, a trend that would continue.
Throughout Mike Patton's tenure with Faith No More, he continued to write and tour with Mr. Bungle (who, with Patton as one of the core writers, would grow increasingly strange, embarking on experimental noise crusades before turning into pop perfectionists), making guest appearances and releasing solo albums, all the while touring almost constantly. But after achieving rock stardom, Mike Patton was content to let it slip away, a process he himself would hasten with unlistenable solo albums of vocal noise, and the increasingly dark work of Faith No More, which had long ago moved beyond its rap-rock mainstream success. A daunting and eclectic path designed to dismantle his fame saw the formation of his label, Ipecac, a new band, Fantômas, and some of his best, most creative work. Patton's fame-derived insanity diminished after Faith No More's demise, but continued to taint his music, which became increasingly eccentric. "Mike is a strange being," comments Buzz Osborne. "Most people start out and work their way to the top; Mike started at the top and worked his way down. Most people who were in his position go on to have hideous solo music careers, have it not work out and end up back in the same band in some reunion tour. He's a strange bird that's never happened to him. He's continued to do things that were far left of centre."
In 1999, after the fall of Faith No More, Mike Patton recruited ex-Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo, Melvin's guitarist Osborne and Mr. Bungle alumni Trevor Dunn to form his metal band, Fantômas. Their debut, Amenaza al Mundo, pushed the extremity, eccentricity and genius of Mike's previous projects to unparalleled limits. Offering a melange of death metal, grindcore, jazz, noise and ambience inter-cut with a stop-start, jump-cut brevity, the album featured no song titles, only "chapters, one to 30" and no lyrics, just Mike's incredible range and vocal insanity supplying the sounds.
"It's a very sad disease, the way people hear music," comments Patton. "That's why when I started Fantômas, I didn't want the vocals. That's why I chose not to have lyrics or anything else. It's very hard to grab onto and I wanted the music to be the only sort of ladder or escape route."
While Fantômas would initially be labelled unlistenable by fans of Faith No More who were aghast at its lack of structure and lyrics, it slowly garnered a following in the aggressive underground. While many fans of Patton's mainstream work labelled it a piss-take as many of his solo records, Mr. Bungle's pop work and his noise collaboration with Merzbow (Maldoror) were perceived Werckman maintains that everything Patton embarks upon, no matter its musical style, is serious.
"Many people think He's doing this to piss someone off, or to be funny,' but he isn't. Mike is so serious about what he does; he just has different things going through his head. He just keeps evolving, or the things in his head keep changing. I know that he doesn't sit and wonder about how this is going to fit, or people's expectations those don't come in at all. It's just personal for him."
After finding a niche in the underground, and even with various older fans, with the unrestrained chaos of Fantômas, Patton again offered up something completely different. Fantômas' follow-up, The Director's Cut, was an interpretation of 16 vintage movie themes, challenging fans to accept melody and actual singing instead of frantic vocal sounds and spilt-second runs.
"It's our voice coming through someone else's music," according to Patton. "It was a different kind of exercise. What we were trying to do was aggressively interpret some really cool themes. By that I mean stealing and reworking them. The first record was us figuring out the blueprint, or really putting it down on paper, what it is we do. Learning to speak our own little languages, which is what we have now."
With a spate of recent releases from Fantômas, Tomahawk, a collaboration with Dan the Automator called Lovage, and upcoming work with Peeping Tom (his "pop" band that will also feature the Automator), an EP collaboration with the Dillinger Escape Plan, and a host of other projects on the horizon, coupled with his seemingly endless touring, the question is, what fuels his tireless work ethic, his need to challenge his fans and his disparate musical interests?
"It's not that big a deal. If you care about what you're doing you find a way to make it happen," he says. "You make certain sacrifices and you don't even think about them; it feels really natural to me, it feels comfortable. I don't have any choice in the matter anyway. It's not like I could do x, y and z and come up with some magic formula where everyone would like what I am doing. I've come to the realisation that whatever it is that I'm involved in is never really going to fit perfectly anywhere. It'll be some kind of mutation or freak occurrence and I'm really okay with that. A lot of people still aren't, which is funny because you'd think people might be starting to get it, but they probably never will"
"It all goes to his sense of the art," comments Werckman. "He likes so many different types of music. He's got projects in the works, in the idea stages, it's just like a laundry list, I would really like to work with this guy, I would really like to do this or that.' Why limit yourself? Maybe I wouldn't do it to the extreme that Mike does it, but I couldn't sing We Care A Lot' every night for 20 years either."
Down With the Kids
"A lot of people warned us early on that not having a direction, not having any focus as a label, or a sound, would come back to haunt us, but they're all completely wrong," comments Ipecac co-founder/label manager Greg Werckman. "We've developed a really great label identity and that's what I'm prouder of than any of the records we've put out." When Mike Patton and Greg Werckman formed Ipecac Records in 1999, named after the vomit-inducing root Ipecacuanha, there was a legitimate fear that the label would end up as merely a dumping ground for Mike Patton's side projects.
After a formation that, according to Werckman was "a bit accidental and a bit panicked by not having a place to put out Fantômas, and we had to do something." But after two-and-a-half years and some 17 releases, spanning the likes of twisted metallic chaos (Melvins and Fantômas), eclectic techno (Kid 606), harsh noise (Maldoror), country and western (the Lucky Stars), hip-hop (Sensational), and a prank phone call record (Neil Hamburger), Ipecac has emerged as an independent label as successful, musically diverse and challenging as Patton himself. However, it is not one of Patton's own releases, or the higher profile Melvins, that Werckman and Patton believe encapsulates everything that Ipecac stands for. It was the release of the Let's Get Busy CD by the Kids of Widney High, a group of special education students from Widney High in Los Angeles, California. "I'm really into pretty much everything we've put out," says Patton, "but that's one of our greatest achievements. They are Ipecac. They're troopers on the highest level and I totally tip my hat to them."
"The Kids of Widney High are the most real music ever," enthuses Werckman. "These kids have everything going against them from birth, yet they find joy in the art that is music. These teachers at Widney High created a music program where kids could express themselves. They lay down a bed of music and let each student write lyrics and come up with a theme. It's really the spirit of what music is about. Everyone should see the Kids of Widney High, and every band should make music that is as real and as honest as the Kids of Widney High."
Hits and Misses: Selected Discography
Faith No More
Angel Dust (Slash/Reprise, 1992)
The darker, more disturbing follow up to Faith No More's breakthrough hit The Real Thing, Angel Dust eschewed any of the rap, funk, rock tendencies of its predecessor, focussing on a more metallic, varied, layered and ominous sound. Incorporating Mr. Bungle's experimentalism, here Patton expands and challenges his vocal range beyond previously defined limits.
Disco Volante (Warner, 1995)
One of the strangest, most challenging and rewarding releases, Disco Volante defies categorisation. Spanning death metal, cinematic weirdness, world music influences, ambient soundscapes and free jazz, driven by Patton's ability to conform to and surpass whatever musical style is being tortured, Disco Volante is as amazing as it is bizarre.
Adult Themes For Voice (Tzadik, 1996)
At best eclectic and confusing, unlistenable noise at worst, Adult Themes For Voice is simply Patton, a four-track recorder, and his formidable vocal range. No instruments, no structure, just 33 tracks of unbelievable vocal noise that confronts and confuses without any semblance of reason.
California (Warner, 1999)
In a totally unexpected turn of events, Mr. Bungle followed up their most experimental and challenging release with a pop record. Of course, being Bungle, California's pop influence is filtered through their penchant for the bizarre, which lends this an unnerving quality that taints all of its catchy choruses and hooks.
She (Ipecac, 1999)
The debut collaboration from Mike Patton and Masami Akita (Merzbow) lived up to their reputation for noisy peaks and valleys. Featuring squalls of feedback-drenched electronic noisescapes that build, subside and build again, coupled with Patton's absurd yelps, noise, wails and strangulated screams. Less a record than soundtrack of abuse.
Amenaza al Mundo (Ipecac, 1999)
Patton's "metal" band, comprised of no vocals or lyrics, just an eclectic range of screams, sounds and singing, musically unleashed a frantic affair for short attention spans. The most metallic and extreme endeavour Patton has created yet.
Not the "Jesus Lizard with Mike Patton singing" album many were expecting, Tomahawk is nevertheless a more "rock" album than Patton has made in years. Recruited to sing by the Jesus Lizard's Duane Denison, Patton helps flush out Tomahawk's unorthodox rock attack with electronics, atmospheric flourishes and a sometimes restrained, occasionally manic vocal performance.