Rock-A-Rolla | Issue 55 | Summer 2015
Words | Matt Evans
Photo | Dustin Rabin
THERE'S SOMETHING REASSURINGLY FAITH NO MORE-ISH ABOUT RODDY BOTTUM'S CHARMINGLY acidic opening salvo. In a previous life, this was a band renowned for awkwardness and conflict, both internally and with the wider world. Given the tensions at its core, culminating in the expulsion of founding member Jim Martin in 1993 - succeeded by another three guitarists over the next five years - it's amazing that the band held together as long as it did. Even more remarkable is the fact that in 2009, 11 years after they split up, Faith No More announced a return to the stage. Surely, if ever there was a band that would never return from the dead to play the cynical cash-grab nostalgia circuit, it was this one.
Yet, as anyone who saw the reunion gigs will attest, there was a real fire to them, which was just as scorching as their 90s peak. Mike Patton in particular, not a man exactly lacking projects to keep him busy, seemed to relish the experience. Let loose from his samplers and electronics and band-leader roles, free to be a pure frontman again, he was on extraordinarily mischievous, devilish form - vocally impeccable, but also delighting in harassing security guards, crowd surfing, dragging audience members on stage to sing local folk tunes, and, in one incident reminiscent of the band's Angel Dust-era perversity and body horror, swallowing and regurgitating a shoelace.
However, for all the excitement of the live gigs, the tours were, ultimately, little more than an exercise in revisiting the past. Colossal amounts of fun for a while, but for the band at least, the novelty began to wear thin.
"I think we just did more shows than we thought we were going to do," says Bottum. "At one point, it just felt too cheap and easy to keep doing the old songs. We'd agreed to do a new show in South America and we were like, 'Ugh,no. We've been doing this too long. It's not that exciting.' And someone said, 'Well, what if we try and do a new song for it?' In other shows, when we were getting a bit tired and bored, we'd do another cover song. We did that a couple of times and that fixed things for a while, but this seemed like the next logical step. It was a way to quell the issue of stunted creativity. Doing a new song and presenting it just fixed everything, it was a breath of fresh air."
That song. Matador, a powerful, multi-part epic that gradually evolves from whisper to roar, made its live debut in Buenos Aires in November 2011. There was no warning, no announcement, just a new goddamn Faith No More track, the first in 14 years, slipped in mid-set like it was no big deal. The fan community virtually soiled themselves. Confusion bloomed and rumours whirled - it's an old Chuck Mosley-era demo, it's a cover of a Portuguese band, it's an unreleased B-side from King For A Day. The band were, of course, characteristically evasive about what this song was, and what it might mean.
"There were a lot of questions," says Bottum. "It's not my instinct to do things that way, but collectively as a band, we like to present things without any fanfare. It's not shrouded
in secrecy, but we like to put things out without any attention being brought to it. Kids would ask us and we'd intentionally not say, like we didn't know what they were talking about. I think it was a way of protecting us. The whole process of making a record was so insular, just us behind closed doors. It was a way of protecting the integrity of that, not being affected by people's expectations. I think if people knew we were making a record, we would have made a different record. The expectations would have changed the outcome. It was nice to be behind closed doors, where no one knew what we were doing and we could create something on our own, rather than having to think about what people might want or might say."
FNM remained tight-lipped for another three years before semi confirming, via a cryptic Tweet ("The reunion thing was fun, but now it's time to get a little creative"), that a new album was indeed on the way, 18 years after the last.
"We didn't share anything until everything was pretty much finished," says Bottum. "I think to the world it looks like this thing that was like suddenly 'Boom! A record!' But we've been working on this record for a year, planning it out, strategising. We've been doing it in fits and starts, so it's something we've been living with for a long time. It's nothing sudden or surprising, it's something that's very gradual that I think we're all prepared for."
AND SO 2015 SEES THE RELEASE OF SOL INVICTUS. THAT BRINGS WITH IT A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF trepidation for fans although evidently not the band themselves, who are so relaxed about the situation that you'd think they released a new album every Thursday.
The big question when any band resurrects itself is, 'Will it be like it used to be?' Most bands' fans would dread the answer 'No, it won't'. With Faith No More, it would be disappointing if it was. These ten songs, while unmistakably FNM-ish, are quite unlike anything they've done before. It doesn't pick up where they left off. This is not an album that could have been made directly after Album Of The Year, only to be trapped in stasis and lost in time. Rather, it weaves in the five members' life experiences of the past nigh-on two decades.
"This record makes sense to us now," says Bill Gould. "There was a gap of 18 years. We've changed, the world's changed, our approach has changed. What seems exciting to us has to do with the world we're living in, really. A lot of how this record sounds is to do with what I didn't want it to feel like. I wanted to avoid a lot of overproduction, where it doesn't sound like a band playing together. I wanted to keep the feeling of four or five guys playing, keep things focused on music and songs, not so much into tricks. I didn't want to record in a real nice studio that sounds perfect and scientifically correct and sterile and surgical. One of the cool things about the rehearsal room is that it has a corrugated wall. It sounds funky,
actually, but you can make that work. It gives it a personality, made it more like our record. You can hear some songs where if you just solo the drums, you can hear trucks driving by.
That's part of it. We were just doing this ourselves. It's a hand-grown project."
What was it like being back in the studio again after so long?
"It was pretty similar, really," says Bottum. "It's mostly people in their home studios, sharing stuff. Billy started writing a bunch of songs and shared stuff with the band, I wrote a bunch of songs and shared stuff with the band. Mike chose a bunch of songs and sang on them, then everyone came in and did their parts. We were actually in the same studio that we were in way back when, so it felt pretty close to the way we did it before. The difference being technology - it's a lot easier to share stuff, which made it a teeny bit different. But for the most part, it was like we'd always done it."
"There was some hesitation on everybody's part because of our experiences in the past and what we'd gone through making those other albums," says Gould.
"None of our albums were ever easy to make, and I think we all knew that making a new one wouldn't be easy either. It was OK. It was still a challenging record to make, but once we got into it, it was fine. The biggest hesitation was jumping in to start doing it in earnest."
IN THE 90S,THE PREVAILING NARRATIVE ABOUT THE PECULIAR CHEMISTRY OF FAITH NO MORE WAS THAT, unlike their more homogeneous peers, this was a group of very distinct individuals pulling in different directions, and it was this five-way tension that gave birth to the magic. If indeed that was true then, is it still the case now?
"That's the myth, yeah," says Gould. "I don't know if that makes the magic, but that's what you get when you get us in a room together. It's the nature of us as a working unit. It's built into our DNA. We are very different people and we will always be very different people. It's great when we come together, and that's when stuff gets powerful, when we can find a way that we're all happy. But it takes a lot of negotiation and work to find spot where everyone's feeling it."
These disparate members were not idle in the intervening couple of decades. Mike Patton released an album under a different identity every 20 minutes. Mike Bordin, journeyman
drummer, hit things with his customary bestial force for the likes of Korn, Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osborne, and even appeared on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Gould recorded with Jello Biafra, House Of Hayduk and sound artist Jared Blum (on The Talking Book), and released all manner of interesting bands, including Kultur Shock, Harmful and Flattbush, on his Koolarrow label.
At one point, Bordin and Gould hooked up with guitarist Jon Hudson and began writing songs together under the name Castro Sinatra, though their efforts came to naught.
"We scrapped it," says Gould. "It had a lot of potential and some interesting parts, but no. We had to walk away. It was a really good exercise for me to learn about what I wanted and what I didn't want. "
For his part, Bottum was occupied with his pop band Imperial Teen and various film scores, and at the time of this interview, he was preparing to move into a more refined sphere with
the opening night of his debut opera, Sasquatch.
"I really like the poetic character of Sasquatch," explains Bottum. "He's a tortured, big, scary monster, but also has this crazy, unpredictable vulnerability. There's a yin and a yang to him. It's really effective whenever I see it, it makes me cry. Like Frankenstein or the Elephant Man. It brings out the imagination in the world in a collective way. Everybody's on board to experience this thing that might not exist. That's really a hopeful place for the world to be."
ON FIRST LISTEN, WHAT'S STARTLING ABOUT SOL INVICTUS TO ANYONE FAMILIAR WITH FNM IS HOW it starts, how it announces itself. Much like the debut of Matador, or the slow-burn first single Motherfucker, the album's title track slinks in, all sultry and shimmering. It's a significant break with FNM's previous working model, in which every single previous album's opening seconds came charging in and kicked you square in the gut. Why the change of approach?
"lt just felt right with the flow of the record," says Gould. "This record has a different colour to the others. You have to treat the whole piece like its own entity. The way it's assembled, the whole flow, had to do with how the music feels."
"I think it's where the group collectively is at this point," says Bottum. "As young people we definitely had a point to make. We were so obnoxious, y'know? The first thing that you were going to have to listen to when a record was new was like a really loud slap to the face. I guess it's a little bit more mature and seductive and subtle of an intro, it's more where we happen to be now. The new songs in some way form a theme in a way that our other albums didn't. The first song really just serves the theme, to creep in and knock on the door rather than be this extreme slap in the face. There's a little more confidence in approaching something in that way. It was a stretch for us, and it felt good."
While Sol Invictus hits as hard as FNM ever have, and covers just as much genre-spanning terrain, it's also possibly their most cohesive-sounding record, with an earthy, grimy immediacy born out of unfamiliar genre touchstones and a sound palette that leans more towards the acoustic than ever before.
"I don't want it to sound mature the way that some bands do when they get older," says Gould. "There's a very fine line there. But at the same time there's a way that you can express yourself that's a little more sophisticated. That's not by using more tricks and devices, but the way you express yourself. We are older, and we have been playing for a lot of years. You should be able to bring that into it as well."
While never derivative, there are hints and suggestions of musical reference points here that you'd never expect from a FNM record - tiny touches of Nick Cave, Dylan, Waits, Oxbow, The Cramps, The Flaming Lips. Two songs even display a vibe that recalls Scott Walker's late 1960s period, with Gould's wiry bass attack on Black Friday evoking the strident lines of Scott 4's The Old Man's Back Again.
"That wasn't intentional," he says, "but it does have a feeling that goes back to that era, for sure. It's not what inspired me, but it's what I felt while I was doing it - the acoustic guitars, the tone of them, it reminds me of Neil Diamond. That was kind of a surprise. It's weird when you come up with something and then you listen to it and you didn't have that
intention but it does have that element to it. It's one of the cooler things about writing material, when you can surprise yourself."
For his part, Bottum opted for an acoustic approach, writing and recording most of his parts on piano rather than using synths.
"Personally, I think it was a safer and more comfortable route to go," he explains. "We certainly weren't going to jump into any newfangled youth-oriented synthesiser sounds, you know? The piano felt timeless, like an elegant way to address the instrumentation of the record. It was all real piano in our studio. But at the same time, I remember thinking when we jumped into the record that I really liked that sequencer arpeggio on the first Killing Joke record, and I thought we really should employ that. I've always wanted to use it. But then I forgot about it."
At the album's dark centre is Separation Anxiety, one of the most immediate and yet most unsettling and claustrophobic songs in the band's history. Ever-ascending and piling on the intensity, it's driven by an astonishingly violent and relentless bassline from Gould that makes it an instant classic.
"When we first started recording these songs, we were just working out beats and rhythms. Mike Bordin was over at the studio. We hadn't really thought about making a record this way yet, we were just fooling around. It came very quickly. It's an offbeat rhythm. It's very similar to a song like Land Of Sunshine, where you're attacking it from behind. It's very circular. It's very hard to play, actually. It's physically very simple, but its easy to get lost. You start
daydreaming and if you're not careful it could get pretty ugly. It's one of those trance-inducing things."
"It's cheesy and corny to say so," says Bottum, "but I really like this record. I love the unorthodox things, they're intriguing to me. Like Cone Of Shame is such a weird song, I like that one. I really like From The Dead, and Mike's lyrics on Sunny Side Up, I think they're real cute. I like Matador for the scope of it, the different ways that it goes. Motherfucker's so different to the other songs, and I sing on that one, so that's weird and interesting to me."
MOTHERFUCKER, THE FIRST SINGLE TO BE RELEASED IN ADVANCE OF
SOL INVICTUS ,WAS received with a certain amount of head scratching - a slow-burn, piano-based trudge with martial snare drums, a baritone rap/spoken word from Bottum, and a mariachi-surf outro. To reiterate a recurring theme, it wasn't at all what you'd expect from Faith No More, which, beautifully perversely, made it very Faith No More indeed.
"That was intentional," says Bottum. "We wanted to put something out there that was clearly us doing something in an uncompromising way, to let people know that we weren't doing this for radio attention or to make money. We were clearly just doing something that felt right to us in an artistic way, and that set that tone. A song called Motherfucker is not going to be on the radio. We wanted to let people know that that's where we were."
Bottum also wrote the song's lyrics ("Bloated, promoted in an ode to pomp and style/Moistening the feed while we choke upon the bile"), which encapsulate the way in which Faith No More were manipulated and taken advantage of as young musicians adrift in the corporate music industry - not a scenario that the 21st-century incarnation of FNM is willing to repeat.
"It's a lot like Motown. The music is the property of the artists, right? We all know this, but big industries take advantage and take ownership of these properties that are not theirs. It's really crass and over-the-top. The song is about that, and the consequential reclaiming of what's ours, taking ownership and retaining it."
Hence the release of Sol Invictus - meaning the unconquered Sun, a dawn breaking through the darkness to blaze away, aptly enough - on FNM's own label, Reclamation Recordings.
"That's why it's the name of our record company," says Bottum. "Nice poetic package, isn't it? I've practically written your article for you."
"One thing led to another and it just seemed to make more sense," says Gould. "When we were recording, we weren't really even thinking about how we were going to release it. We were first focused on whether we were doing stuff that was good enough to release, if we would be happy about it. Once we got there, and it got as far as it did, and we still hadn't told anybody about it, it just seemed like a natural course to take charge at the other end as well."
This newfound state of independence makes perfect, long-overdue sense for a band renowned for swimming against the raging current and doing things their own way. With the album out, promotion duties in full swing, and a world tour looming, the FNM machine is once again operating at max. Intensity, but this time maybe for the first time - on its own, suitably defiant terms.