MIKE PATTON | January 2013 | Believer Interview
In an industry where artistic recognition hangs upon developing a specialized, signature style, Mike Patton has built a vehement listenership through a steadily unfocused career. As a singer, he produces strained screams, expressive croons, lyrical glossolalia, rappy chants, and uses the wide range of extended vocal techniques most often heard in contemporary classical music. His first band, Mr. Bungle, which he co-founded while still a high schooler in Eureka, California, combined all these elements, often within a single track. On all three of their records, the group virtuosically ploughed through a string of precise genre parodies—dissonant jazz, cartoon music, death metal, Middle Eastern and Hawaiian music, film scores, and more—each musical moment a surprise, even after multiple listens.
In the early ’90s, Patton achieved mainstream notoriety after he joined the peculiar hard-rock band Faith No More, whose pop-metal singles became staples of MTV during its music-video era. The group’s tortuous evolution inspired a generation of metalheads with omnivorous listening habits. Because of his work with FNM, Patton is sometimes cited as a founder of the rap-rock surge of the 2000s, a credit that incited his feud with the genre’s other progenitor, Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Patton has been a frequent collaborator with saxophonist/composer John Zorn, an equally eclectic musician who produced Mr. Bungle’s first record and has released several of Patton’s solo recordings on his Tzadik label. Together, Patton and Zorn worked with the brutally experimental groups Naked City and Moonchild, and in performances of COBRA, an improvisational game in which players conduct each other with hand signals and cue cards. Their collaborations have singularly bridged the cavernous gap between avant-garde and pop audiences.
In recent years, Patton’s projects have become increasingly adventurous, as has his choice in collaborators: Bjork, Norah Jones, Massive Attack, Rahzel, and Dave Lombardo of Slayer. His newest project, Mondo Cane, is an album of orchestral covers of Italian pop music from the 1950s and ’60s, sung and arranged with loving sensitivity. He has also voice-acted in video games (Left 4 Dead, The Darkness) and in the Hollywood film I Am Legend. In 1999, he helped to found the label Ipecac Recordings, through which he continues to release his own projects—Fantômas, Tomahawk—along with a roster of artists who reflect his unpredictable tastes.
Patton and I spoke in the basement of the Believer office in San Francisco, where he lives. At the time of our conversation, he was moving in to a new house and finishing a score for Derek Cianfrance’s upcoming film, The Place Beyond the Pines.
I. “WHAT DO I DO IF I DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M DOING?”
THE BELIEVER: Do you ever practice singing?
MIKE PATTON: Nope. Never have and probably never will.
BLVR: So you just make these sounds naturally?
MP: I started on a really basic level. I was just screaming. Then I realized, Yeah, well, I’m OK at that. Let’s try some other things. And I discovered this thing called singing. So I snuck it in every now and again. In Mr. Bungle, we easily got bored with what we were doing, which was, at that point, in the mid-’80s, death metal and hardcore, which has a very limited palate. It’s so isolated up there [in Eureka, California], but I was lucky enough to work at a record store, so I was able to hear different things. But it wasn’t like we could go to a concert every night and get our minds blown. And this is what I love about small-town bands or musicians. They gotta work hard to be inspired. There were no venues when I lived there. There was a bar and grill that played blues. There was a bowling alley for, like, five minutes. We would pool together money and rent out a grange hall, like an Elks Lodge type of place. We’d buy the insurance and put on a show. A few hundred people would show up and we’d be happy. So I guess the answer to your question is: I learned what I could do with my voice on stages and because of the people that I was around. It wasn’t me sitting in a room by myself. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was figuring it out on the fly. And I feel like I still am.
BLVR: Did some of your extended-singing techniques come from imitating sounds in the world?
MP: Well, from a young age I was definitely imitating birds, but I didn’t know it at the time. This is what my parents tell me. Once I started making these weird sounds with my voice, they gave me this little flexi-disc of mouth sounds, like guys that could make odd sounds. I don’t know why they gave it to me, but that was one of my favorite records. It all comes from what I’ve discovered and the things I’ve been able to try. Play with a saxophone player and a drummer, see what happens. I’m not a studied, learned, academic musician.
BLVR: You’ve played with a lot of musicians who are learned, though.
MP: Those are the people you learn from. I think that one of the things that really cracked my head open was starting to improvise, after I met John Zorn. He encouraged me. And when you come from a band- and song-based background, it’s like, How do you improvise? I mean, that’s literally the way that I thought: Well, what do I do if I don’t know what I’m doing? He’s like, “That’s the whole point.” And when you start to kind of immerse yourself in that improvisation culture, you gotta be comfortable enough with your instrument to throw yourself into a really potentially dangerous situation. Sometimes that’s not so kind for the audience, but, hey, I’m not sure that we’re really here for an audience.
BLVR: You’ve played in a bunch of his improv game pieces.
MP: Lots of ’em.
BLVR: How does it work to be a player in those?
MP: They’re basically guided improvisational pieces. So there is no planned music. There are just rules on when certain people play, what they play, and sometimes how they play. There’s a group of sixteen musicians, or twelve, or whatever—it’s usually ten plus—and the musicians are actually guiding the music. I don’t know if you’ve seen a “Cobra”—
BLVR: I have.
MP: A lot of people will raise their hand, and they make a call: “I want to hear the cello, violin, and electronics.” But you have to know the signals to tell him. And then what Zorn is, he’s just a signpost.
BLVR: He holds up a card.
MP: Yeah, he holds a card up. It’s actually a really brilliant way of conducting improvisation. I hate to say it, but a group of strangers left to their own devices will just play all the time and it won’t be as musical as it should be. So this is a really great way, I think, of controlling this chaotic cloud of everybody who wants to play all the time. [Pauses] Hey, I’ve gotta take a blazing leak. Is there a bathroom?
BLVR: Uh, yeah, the bathroom is—just walk upstairs and then go right, and then it’s just down the hall.
MP: Sorry, man, I should have done it on the way in.
BLVR: No, by all means, especially if it’s blazing.
II. NOW PICTURE THIS
MP: Where were we?
BLVR: We were talking about “Cobra.”
MP: It’s interesting when you do something like that. You can really find out very quickly about a player’s personality. Like if they’re constantly going, “Me! Me! Me! I want to play!” Because it’s a player-directed game. It’s sport. It’s all based on whatever that person—that particular player who’s playing—how they interact with the other people who are playing at that particular time.
BLVR: And then with a group like Moonchild, which is also with Zorn, is there written music?
MP: In theory, yes. But—
BLVR: But you’re not much of a music reader.
MP: No. Zero. I don’t read anything. But Moonchild is a specific thing. Normally, most of Zorn’s projects are very written and very structured—apart from this “Cobra” stuff—but Moonchild, when he started it, the way that he described it to me was that he wanted to use the oral tradition of rock music. He’s like, “I want to do it the way that you guys do it.” I’m like, “What do you mean, the way we do it?” He’s like, “The way you, like, hum each other a riff and then you jam it out for a while, and then you record it.” That’s normal for me. But for him that’s exotic.
BLVR: The live show I saw sounded almost exactly like the record. Was that the idea?
MP: Yeah. In a sense, they sound chaotic and maybe a little bit haphazard, but they’re not. That’s the funny thing, and I think the thing that is very easy to misconstrue. I get that all the time with Fantômas. “Wow, you guys just go up there and improvise.” And my response is always, “Wow, if we could improvise that well, it’d save me a hell of a lot of time and energy.” But no, it’s very well-constructed extreme elements. Fantômas is scripted 100 percent.
BLVR: And when you say “scripted”—
MP: With music like Fantômas, you kind of have to write it down, because it changes so quickly. Things are happening so fast that you have to always be thinking, What’s coming next? So I think it’s really important for that band—and all of us have learned to do this—we all write out our own notes. So, for instance, Trevor [Dunn], the bass player, who’s very musically learned, writes it out in traditional notation. I’ll do it in pictograms. [Dave] Lombardo [of Slayer] does it in sort of drum notation. Buzz [Osborne, of the Melvins], I don’t know what he… his notes are the most impossible to decipher.
BLVR: I mean, that’s how I would do it in bands growing up. You just, you learn the language—
MP: Of that situation. Totally. The great thing about Fantômas was that we got to a point where we didn’t need notes, and that’s amazing. Like we’re doing all this insane stuff, and it’s just natural.
BLVR: I find it’s easiest to get into that mode on tour, playing the same music every night. You stop thinking about it.
MP: That’s one of the great things about touring. It makes you machinelike in a way that you can re-create this music not only in the right way but even better than when it was conceived.
BLVR: So if you don’t write music in a traditional way, how have you been writing all the chamber music you’ve been doing for film in recent years?
MP: Well, I’ll hire a friend to do it for me, if necessary. But a lot of it I’ll just write on my own in the studio. The studio is my main compositional tool. And I used to be horrible in the studio. I didn’t know any kind of technical stuff. But when you have something in your head, you’ve gotta figure out a way of executing it.
BLVR: A lot of your recent music is specifically for film, but your whole career has cinematic influences, from direct references to covers to borrowing techniques from film scores. Would you say you think about music in a visual way?
MP: Absolutely. I mean, with pretty much every musical situation that I’ve been in, like Faith No More, especially, we always would say, “Picture Harry Dean Stanton in Paris, Texas.” And we’d use moments like that. Or the pistol-whipping scene in Goodfellas. I recorded just a few weeks ago with Zorn, and we were kind of trying to come up with a vocal approach to a certain piece, and I said to him, “I’m kind of hearing, like, the narrator in Alphaville.” You know that Godard movie where he’s had his throat blown out in war so he’s got one of those electronic ones? And Zorn’s like, “Perfect!” So it’s a point of reference that you can use. Instead of saying, “Hey, a quarter note here and an eighth note there and a minor seventh…” No. To me it works much better to say, “Now picture this.”
BLVR: Films can capture an atmosphere so well, and people can just instantly access it from sound or story or visuals.
MP: It’s true. There’s a lot of musicality in film. You’re, you know, in the studio and you’ve got to make a decision in five minutes. Think about Tarkovsky. Think about Lynch. Think about Maya Deren.
BLVR: It’s interesting to think there are generations of musicians now who are influenced by film more than music.
MP: It’s one more musical tool. One more part of the vocabulary.
III. SPRAYING DIARRHEA OVER AN ENTIRE BODY OF WORK
BLVR: How do you write your lyrics?
MP: I really don’t enjoy writing lyrics at all. I feel like I’m not very good at it. I’m not sure why. I think it comes from early band days where we’d have all the music written and I’d know I had a studio date the next day, so I’d put on a few pots of coffee and just try and write everything at that moment. I don’t know why, but there’s a certain element of panic in writing lyrics that I’m not sure I enjoy. I don’t write lyrics first, ever. I’ve never done that. So, in a sense, the lyrics are a bit of an afterthought—it’s music first. I haven’t found a way to make lyrics super musical. That’s one of the main reasons, like, especially with Fantômas, I wrote all this really complex music and I’m like, “I can’t write words to this.” It’s gotta be preverbal. I gotta just be making sounds. I gotta be, like, a second guitar player. That’s the only way that this is going to work. There’s already too much information. So in most cases, if I’m writing words, I’ll do a baby-talk version first to see if those sounds work. Then I’ll try and find words that fit those sounds.
BLVR: So the words are just mimicking sounds. They’re not trying to carry meaning.
MP: The idea, at least in rock or pop culture, that the singer is on some pedestal in Speaker’s Corner—I’ve just never subscribed to that. I’m not a poet. I’m not up onstage to get something off my chest. I’m making musical statements, or, most of the time, musical questions for people to figure out, and I’m not going to get in the way of that.
BLVR: You’ve done some voice work for films and video games. How did you approach those?
MP: I did a lot of voice-overs for this movie I Am Legend a few years ago, and they said, “How do you want to do it?” And I just walked into the room—they had a giant freakin’ movie screen in front of me and a microphone—and they would play me the scene once, so I could understand, more or less, what was happening. And then they’d say, “OK, concentrate on this character. That guy with the green eyes. That zombie.” And so I’d do a pass. And they’d say, “Yeah. Pretty good. Try it again.” I’d do it again. Like three or four times, I’d get it. And it’s really a natural way to record.
BLVR: Which film scores have been important to you?
MP: In general, the more subtle a score is, the more effective it is for me. I think The Conversation would be a good example of that. It’s literally a freakin’ solo piano. And The Third Man, obviously, because it’s one instrument. I really like that approach. I’ve always wanted to do something—just choose an instrument, stick with it. It’s very hard to do these days. But if The Conversation were made now, you know it would be a full orchestra.
BLVR: Like everything else in film scores.
MP: But then, you know, that’s not to say—I mean, look, obviously the [Sergio] Leone movies were incredible, and they were really overblown and quite orchestrated, but I think the genius in those—and maybe this is really an important thing—is that it’s not really about how good the music is or how good the film is, it’s about how they work together. And Leone was one of the guys, one of the few guys, who would cut scenes to the music. That’s why that shit works so well. He’d get a cue from [longtime collaborator Ennio] Morricone and he’d cut the scene around it, sometimes shoot a scene around it. Which is completely the opposite of how it works normally, especially now, where the music, unfortunately, is one of the last things that they think about. The music is thought of as—it’s almost like when they’re doing the typeface for the credits. “Oh yeah, the music! Oh yeah, I guess we gotta have some music. Wow. Just throw some shit in there.” So it’s not thought of as an integrated part of the fabric of the movie. I’m working on this film now where I’m really feeling good about working with the director. It’s called The Place Beyond the Pines.
BLVR: Often in films it will already be so clear from the scene what emotion they’re trying to evoke, and then they try to evoke the same emotion in the music, creating this head-bashing sentimentality.
MP: It’s like, I don’t need to feel sad. I’m looking at sad, motherfucker!
BLVR: Do you ever think about synesthesia when you work?
MP: Well, yeah. Like, if I were really strapped and I couldn’t find any other reference point, if someone said, “Blue,” I’d go, “OK, I think I can do blue.” I think that if you’re doing music for film, then you’re tapping into that stream somehow, at least in your own mind. Whether the people get it or not is another thing. And if that’s not synchronized, it’s super frustrating. And sometimes it’s really hard to articulate. Sometimes you just gotta let it go. Even if it sounds great and everybody’s happy, you’re just like, That’s not quite the way I wanted it. Ah, well, I failed.
BLVR: How often do you think you’ve failed?
MP: Oh, all the time.
BLVR: Looking back, do you see mistakes in the music you’ve made?
MP: I have a hard time listening to my own music. Like, if you put on my record I’d just start cringing right now. Not because, you know, I’m Mr. Shy or anything, it’s because if I really were to sit down and listen, I hear the mistakes. You don’t hear the good things. But that’s changed a little recently. When you get older, you let go a little more. When Faith No More did a reunion tour, I had to relearn all the stuff I wrote when I was nineteen. And I actually heard more good things than I remembered. It made the entire thing really pleasant, like a homecoming.
But all the mistakes are little tiny little technical things, anyway, like, I shouldn’t have sung that that way, or, Oh, I was flat there. It’s not like, Oh, I shouldn’t have made this record. Because I feel like even if maybe I don’t like a particular record, it was a step in the process and I must have learned something from it. I think that’s more of a mature viewpoint. If you’d asked me that ten years ago, I’d have gone, “Oh, this record sucks and that’s bullshit,” but it all had to happen.
BLVR: Is the Faith No More reunion still happening?
MP: It’s sort of petered out. We’re also maybe a little too conscious for our own good. Meaning there’s a lineage of bands that maybe did some nice things and then needed the cash and got back together and basically just sprayed diarrhea over their entire body of work. We’re very worried about that. We don’t want to overdo it.
BLVR: From what I’ve read in the past, you seem to have a bleak view of contemporary music. Do you feel that way still?
MP: Who doesn’t?
BLVR: I don’t.
MP: Well, that’s why I try not to get too excited about it. If you have the time and energy to find it, there’s people doing great things, whether in a basement like this or even some arena. I guess I’m not really so sensitive to musical climates. Let’s put it that way.
BLVR: But you run a label, so in some ways you must be engaged.
MP: One of the reasons I believe that our label has done OK and has survived for ten-plus years is because we don’t have a niche. When we started, turntablism was the shit, but I didn’t put out every turntablist known to man. The same thing with indie rock. It’s just, you see these things come in and out of fashion. Does it mean that they’re any less good before they were popular? No. There’s a continuum of great things. And we put out what we think is great, regardless of whether it’s relevant or speaks to the modern… you know, the modern man. We’ve done country records, techno records, spoken word, comedy, improv—you name it.
BLVR: With all the different forms of music you play, do you consider their respective cultures and contexts?
MP: I mean, take the psychology out of it, and still, all those musics have a certain set of parameters and rules, in a sense. And they need to be performed in a certain way, composed in a certain way, and, I think, seen in a certain way. That’s why at a Mondo Cane show I’m not going to go up there—
MP: —and spit all over myself. I think that would cheapen the music. I can do that in a different band, you know what I mean? If I wanna, you know, swallow someone’s vomit, I can do that with Tomahawk [Patton’s band with members of Jesus Lizard and Battles]. I guess one of the reasons I have all these different bands is because I like to contextualize them. I like to put them in different compartments. I think if you took most of my projects and put them into one band, put them in a blender, it would really sound like shit. It would not be fun.
BLVR: And you think this separation helps the appreciation of the music?
MP: Of that particular music? Yeah. Of me in general? Probably not. It’s actually not a wise career move, business move, because it’s confusing. No one knows what the hell I’m doing. It’s not like all the projects are even under my name. Some of them are band concepts. Some are collaborative efforts. Some are just me. Some are with an orchestra. If I were on a major label and wasn’t controlling my own destiny, so to speak, they would have cut my head off long ago.
BLVR: So if you were to play Mondo Cane in front of, say, a mosh pit—
MP: We’ve done it.
BLVR: And was it successful?
MP: I’ll tell you a story. This was an enlightening moment. We were on a tour with Mondo Cane, and we were playing theaters and churches and all the right places. And everything’s going great. Then we had a show in Finland, in the north of Finland, at a festival, which already was like, “Oh boy…” Festivals in general, for that stuff, with that setup and everything, are—I was worried about it. But then I found out it was a metal festival. And I was furious. I was like, “This is gonna bomb.” Not for me—I was worried about the rest of the musicians and about preserving the integrity of the music. I mean, we were playing all this quiet orchestral stuff in front of a bunch of pierced and tattooed Vikings? I don’t know. You tell me how wrong I was. So we played, and there were twenty thousand people or something—it was one of the bigger crowds we’d ever played to—and not only was it a success, people were stunned—quiet. So we got offstage, and stagehands who had been helping us all day were in tears. They said [in a Finnish accent], “This is the most beautiful music I ever heard.” So there really is no way of knowing.
BLVR: People I know who grew up listening to you, they ended up going so many directions musically, largely because your music was an entrance into so many other genres.
MP: That’s about as good a compliment as you can get. It’s amazing to me that people have paid enough attention to what I’ve done to even shake a stick at it. Especially because I haven’t made it easy. I haven’t made, let’s just say, typical decisions. As cynical as I can be, when people say, “Yeah, I love what you did with the [hip-hop collective] X-Ecutioners and also with that German doom band,” it always takes me aback.
BLVR: I think it’s getting increasingly that way, with iPods and the internet and constant shuffle-mode—people’s listening habits are less prejudiced.
MP: I mean, I would hope so. Shuffle—when I first discovered it, I was in heaven. Because that’s just the way I listen to music, and that’s the way it always comes out.