Faith No More are native sons of a San Fransisco Bay scene that has always been too eclectic to accept anything but irony. J.H. Tompkins works past the smirks.
Roddy Bottum and Mike Bordin - the keyboardist and drummer for FNM, respectively - are patiently sitting in a room on the 5th floor of the Triton Hotel in downtown San Fransisco. It's mid-february, and the release of the band's third (yes, 3rd -Chris) album, King For A Day Fool For A Lifetime is imminent. This is Day One of the stateside pre-release, pre-tour publicity cavalcade.
The band has already warmed up for the work ahead. Sort of. Last week their label had them doing interviews throughout Europe, where their roadshow will begin later in the month. "It was really nice," Bottum says in a quiet, sincere voice. But hard, dry sarcasm is so much a part of the collective FNM persona that it's tough to tell whether or not Bottum knows if he's on the level. "We were busy, but they flew us over there, and put us up in really nice hotels and everything."
"Everything" is part of the territory when you're a band that's sold a few million copies of your first two albums (1989's Real Thing, and 1992's Angel Dust). Still, talking with FNM in the Triton, right across the street from the gates to Chinatown, is a weird experience. And it's odd since FNM is a local band in this town - well, a band that still lives locally - and everyone had to plow through crazy traffic from the same neighborhood to reach the hotel.
Singer Mike Patton arrives a few minutes later - it took him longer to find a place to park - just as Bordin is hauled out of the room to do a phone interview. Patton, dressed in baggy khaki's and sporting black, old school Cons, sprawls out on the bed. Bottum, wearing a furry turquoise sweater that look like a worn shag rug, is parked in a chair across the room. After a moment of silence, Bottum shrugs his shoulders and chuckles. "It seems sort of strange to come all the way down here to talk."
"The strangeness is just beginning," Patton interjects with a smirk. As anyone who's bumped into him around town (or seen him perform with FNM or his other band Mr. Bungle) can attest, Patton is generally found with a slightly malevolent smirk on his face. It's as if he knows something you don't know, and is about to use against you somehow.
In this case, however, Patton's making reference to the rigors of life on the road, something FNM knows a thing or two about.
"You have no idea how weird it can get," Bottum agrees. "You wouldn't believe some of the crap that we run into. We were in London last week doing this press stuff, and met a video director and, well, I can't believe some of the people that you meet in this business. This guy was really respected, and he couldn't even get a comprehensible sentence out. It's like Spinal Tap. You wish that you had a video to film it. It's just so incredible that you can't believe it happening."
The non-stop oddities of life as a rock star haven't changed since their last album, but musical fashion has. If FNM once proved a scewed and entertaining alternative to G'n'R, their niche seems less obvious this time around. KFAD, like AD, is a schizoid rush through a predictably (for them) unpredictable assortment of styles, anchored by crunching, staccato hard rock and featuring Patton the growler (as opposed to his Bowie-crooner and Latin balladeer selves). Check out the titles and you get a taste of the diversity: "Digging The Grave" (the first single), "The Gentle Art Of Making Enemies," "Cuckoo For Caca," "Ugly In The Morning," and "Get Out," the cut that kicks the album off.
Lyrically speaking, "Get Out" is a peculiar choice for a record opener, given that FNM has been out of the game for the past couple of years. The first verse goes like this: "What if there's no more fun to have?/And all I've got is what I've had/What if have forgotten how?/Cut my losses and get out now."
Is the song an autobiographical shrugging of the shoulders weary from the load? It seems a decent place to begin talking. Patton, however, doesn't buy it.
"It's just a good first song," he snaps, rolling his eyeballs. "Doesn't mean anything. Nothing."
Bottum is a peacemaker. "It wasn't conscious," he says, "but unconsciously those things happen." Patton shakes his head disapprovingly. "No way," he says, lying back on the bed, smirk firmly in place. It's enough to make a person think that the band might be worried. And it's enough to get the conversation off to a rocky start.
Finding the Faith.
In 1989, at the front end of the FNM joyride, the band released Real Thing. Signed by Slash/Warner on the strength of a song called "We Care A Lot" (their jaundiced response to life in the "We Are The World" era, culled from the release on the hardcore label Mordam), FNM set out on what amounted to 18 consecutive months on the road. Eight or so months into it, they return from a carry-yer-own equipment, load-up-the-van stretch in Europe, to find that "Epic" from Real Thing, had climbed to #5 on the pop charts and MTV was all over the video. FNM were rock stars.
"At the time, we were just happy to be making Real Thing," Patton says, exploding into his characteristic mirthless laughter while adding, "then a lot of success happened and suddenly our peers were people like Whitesnake and Poison. I mean, wouldn't you find that strange?"
The strangeness of FNM's musical mix really depends on your own ears, but it's indeed hard to picture FNM spending much time with these metal monsters upon whose turf they were stomping. Culturally, they came from different worlds. FNM has a passion for huge arena rock power and theatrics, but the band's style and sensibility - which has been labeled, among many other things, neo-metal, smart metal, and asshole rock - was the first wave of a Bay Area music scene that eventually included groups like Primus, Fungo Mungo, and Limbomaniacs. It's arguable whether these bands shared anything musically beyond a taste for guitar pyrotechnics and big noise; but all, in varying degrees, displayed a take no prisoners ethic fueled by public displays of awesomely bad taste and an acute sense of the absurd.
FNM early live shows were epic onslaughts led by Patton, who jumped, dove, yelled, and screamed with little regard to his health or any rules of conventional behavior. Offstage he was renowned for his tendency to express hostility by defecating in public places. At one Mr. Bungle gig, he pissed in his shoe on stage, and proceeded to drink it down, to the amazement and delight of the audience. It's no accident that FNM's career soared when Patton signed on - only a few weeks before the Real Thing was finished, and just in time to write the lyrics and sing on it.
When Real Thing blew up, FNM headed back on the road to milk their success, and then set about making Angel Dust. It was, as Bottum explains, "a strange, esoteric album" - even by FM standards - especially from a group that had just hit pay dirt.
"We've always been a bit defensive of being taken advantage of," he says. "Because if you want to get taken advantage of in this business, there are plenty of people who will do it. When we got off the road after touring Real Thing for so long there was some pressure from the record company: 'Where's this, where's that?' We put up our hands and said, 'We'll get it to you when we're done.' After that it was cool, because no one told us what we could and couldn't do. And Angel Dust was pretty successful."
Bottum qualifies his assessment of the follow-up's sales - some 800,000 - only because they were lower than the figures for Real Thing. But the chaotically eclectic album, which veered wildly through an assortment of sounds and musical styles, was the album that the band wanted to make.
"Before, we were absolute sell-outs," says Bottum (the ironic posture again?). "We would've done anything. Now, well, we've been really fortunate to have been involved with the people we've been involved with, from our first record label, Mordam, all the way to Warner Bros. It's been almost too ideal a world. We basically do exactly what we want to do and have a giant corporation helping to put our product out there."
"We've got nothing to be ashamed of," Patton adds. "If it starts to get inside us, or change the way we make music, then it's a problem. Besides, when you hear some guys telling you to write a chorus this way or that way and you know it's because they want you to sell a lot of albums so that they'll keep their jobs and be able to make their house payments, what are you supposed to do?"
In the Mike Patton scheme of things, this is an observation, not a question. He adds this, after a brief pause: "And, of course, we've been lucky."
With the album Angel Dust, that luck included not being thrown off the opening slot on the G'n'R tour. Bored and alienated by the headliner's star complex, they spent a lot of time engaging in very public criticism of Axl Rose - much of it reaching the rock press during the tour. "We just couldn't help it," Patton offers - an explanation that explains nothing in particular about FNM at the same time.
Only four days before FNM went on the road for the first time in two years, you could find Bottum on stage at the Paradise Lounge, a small popular SF night club, playing guitar and directing traffic with a pop-rock band called Star69. The occasion was a quarterly battle of the bands sponsored by the Bay Guardian, a SF weekly newspaper.
It was a really odd place to find Bottum - really odd, comsidering FNM played in front of 70,000 at Wembley on the Guns'n'Roses tour; or considering his recent public junket in Europe. The unlikely scenario began when he and Lynne Perko, drummer for SF's much loved Sister Double Happiness, sent a demo tape to the paper's music editor for review consideration, accompanied by a note that read: "Hi my name's Roddy. This is my band Star69 on tape, a demo if you will, a demo tape, that's what this is about. We're from SF. I sing and play guitar...and Lynne plays drums. The tape's for consideration for demo tape of the week, hope you enjoy it. All our best, Roddy and Star69."
"Maybe I was a bit too modest," Bottum explains, almost certainly - but not definitely - without irony. "In LA, if I had that tape, then maybe I would have sent it out to a publicist. But in SF, everyone's always checking each other's attitudes and no one's really letting each other get too snooty. And as a band, FNM is very much like that. We're always on each others backs if we get too big headed - like Puffy (Bordin) going out to dinner with that writer from the SF Chronicle, Micheal Snyder. It's like: 'you kiss ass mother fucker.' But if we lived in LA, maybe I'd be different. I went to a club with my friend Jennifer from L7, and she said to the bouncer, 'Don't you know who I am? I'm Jennifer from L7. I'd like to get in free.'"
Patton interrupts, "I think a person will be an asshole no matter where you live."
Bottum responds, "I think you're more prone to be an asshole some places. I love LA, so does Billy. We grew up down there. But being an asshole is LA is rewarded."
Onstage at the Paradise, Bottum wears a cowboy hat and sheepskin jacket and struggles to lead a band that is musically off-balance, given Bottum's and Perko's weighty resume and the obvious lack of the other two members. Alternating between nervous stage managing and standing at the lip of the stage delivering guitar licks with a body language that is decidedly arena-esque, Bottum seems less like a slumming rock star that a musician having a slightly disorienting out of body experience.
Despite having contributed songs to Star69, including "Butch," a simple catchy rocker that seems to be a kind of love song to Kurt Cobain (Bottum said it's a tribute to a "very androgynous friend"), Bottum brought no songs with him to the studio for KFAD.
"There was plenty of drama during the past couple of years that we aren't going to tell you about," he says with a grin. "Horrible things went on in my life. I had the worst year of my life. Like drugs, death, and broken relationships. And I'm not going to tell you about it."
Beyond that, Bottum keeps his word. It's the kind of thing that makes you wonder exactly what's going on as FNM get ready to go out on tour.
Who's Fooling Who?
KFADFFAL features a new guitarist, Trey Spruance (who's since been replaced by one-time FNM keyboard tech Dean Menta), and a new producer, Andy Wallace.
"I think that shedding some skin was the predominant theme," Bottum explains. "Like we got rid of our guitar player, Jim Martin. That was a relief for everybody. It was coming for a long time and that felt good. And we used a new producer to get a new set of ears. He's worked with Slayer, Sonic Youth, and Nirvana, and we knew what we wanted from him - a simpler, more acoustic, more punctuated sound than we'd had in the past. The most important thing was that he was really a dry fellow. Dry as a fucking bone. That really helped."
Bottum and Patton are connoisseurs of things dry, which is apparent when trying to engage either of them in substantive of the music on their new album. They really can't remember what music they've listened to in the past year, although Patton does remember the past few days. "In the last week, I've been listening to this singer Demetrious Stratos," he offers. Stratos is a singer who makes Diamanda Galas sound like Karen Carpenter. "It's solo vocal stuff with no words, lots of weird sounds. 45 minutes of choking noises."
Bottum has a tough time mustering the energy to comment on KFAD. "I enjoy the stuff that wanders, that isn't straight ahead rock," he allows, "like the bossa-nova tune, 'Caralho Voador.'" He's a little more forthcoming when it comes to the young Turks from across the Bay - bands whose position in the pop market place roughly parallels FNM's in 1989.
"Right now the music being made seems a little bit more real to me," he says. "There's more there than with some Bay Area successes in the past. I like Green Day, and I think Jawbreaker is amazing and even Rancid is interesting. I think these bands are a lot more interesting than 4 Non Blondes or that Crow...that Crow band. At least this new stuff is young and vibrant."
Hearing this Patton rolls his eyeballs. "I don't know," he says, in a way that makes you think he certainly does know. "The music could be good or bad, I don't care about this shitty fucking area."
They Care A Lot. Maybe.
Nine Inch Nails played SF's Warfield Theater last year, and most of the city's combat boot and baggy shorts glitterati showed up. It was quite a scene backstage after the show, and Mike Patton was in the thick of it. He had a young woman on his arm so striking that it would take someone of rare intensity and presence to avoid disappearing in her glow. Patton was up to the occasion.
It was the kind of moment that makes you think maybe Patton, Bottum, and the rest of the band really do care about what happens with their new album. Success - rock stardom and what comes with it - can be addictive.
Of course, there are some things that FNM probably doesn't give a shit about: making their video, for instance. An attitude that seems remarkably reckless, given the role video plays in shaping image and clout in the marketplace.
"The video is something you shit out at the last minute," Patton says, and the highly personal metaphor makes you think this is really Mike talking. "That's how tied into our egos a video is. I think the most important part of projecting an image is the music. Playing live is the most important means of communication with people. That's where we do it best anyway. I think it's all chaos out there, so I do my best not to worry."
"Besides," Bottum adds, "just being on stage will be refreshing, but the dynamics are going to be different. We hated Jim. We've all been hated, but we get along better than we did in the past."
Patton warms up to the subject: "That's true," he says. "There was a period of time on the Angel Dust tour when Jim was on one side, and Roddy on the other and I didn't want to look at either of them. So at least now I can look one way now."
Bottum continues: "We're going to play 'We Care A Lot' and all those old songs, as well as the new stuff. It;s the live performance that's really important to us. If what we're doing is good, then it will be okay. We're not out to hustle people. We;re promoting something I think is interesting, entertaining. And we've got a lot of money behind us and I think it'll do real well."
Both men laugh briefly, and as the conversation winds up, Patton stands and - with a big, nearly-friendly smirk on his face - extends his hand. Bottum siting back in the corner says: "I hope you got everything you needed. Good luck with the article.'
He smiles, and gives a wave. "Thanks for coming."
Bottum sounded sincere - a nice touch, whether he meant it or not.