A Series of interviews about Mr. Bungle's 'California'.
At the end of the 20th century the world was really crazy. Things have not changed much, but at least that madness gave us one of those strange records that enrich the history of alternative rock. It's name, California , the third studio album from Mr. Bungle and one of the most particular works of it's time. To discover more about it, Mondo Sonoro interviewed members of Dead Cross , The Dillinger Escape Plan and well as members of the band.
** This text was crudely translated from Spanish, therefore in parts there is phrasing that doesn'y make perfect sense, we apologise to those interviewed **
Words | Adriano Mazzeo
Originally published in Spanish on Mondo Sonoro
At the end of the 20th century a series of paranoia's settled in the terrestrial community. We were terrified by the possibility that computers, which were already beginning to dictate our vital twists and turns, did not understand the turn of the century and that the famous 'effect 2000' (known worldwide as the 'Y2K bug') would take away the progress that humans, with so much effort and very little empathy otherwise, had achieved. Not to mention the eternal frustration of those who grew up in the eighties, blindly believing that cars would fly. We felt like monumental fools when we realised, a few years before, that we would not even see that chaotic but attractive advance. While the insecurities and the excessive expectations molded our days, one of the most particular and less appreciated groups of the alternative boom was a timeless and difficult cataloguing masterpiece, almost the perfect soundtrack for the end of the century. We are talking about Mr. Bungle and California.
Mr. Bungle, the collective delirium based in San Francisco founded in 1985 by Trey Spruance (guitars, also leader of Secret Chiefs 3 and collaborator of John Zorn) , Mike Patton (vocals, also in Faith No More , Mondo Cane, Fantomas, Dead Cross, etc.) and Trevor Dunn (bass and member of Tomahawk , Melvins , Moonchild, etc.) released on July13 of the last year of the twentieth century album California and thus closed a brutally nurtured and multifaceted discography of only three albums ( Mr. Bungle of 1991 and Disco Volante of 1995, complete the series).
California , therefore, turns twenty and it is never too late to claim a work that meant nothing to many and almost everything for a few. At the end of a decade where different genres of the rock universe merged in an orgy with several happy endings (and many others controversial), Mr. Bungle delivered a manifesto of untainted originality, in which the huge talent of its members hit all their arrows on the target. A collection of songs that drew spaces of twisted beauty, wild delirium and threatening darkness, doing it with breaks at the edge of the precipice, but educating the listener, who with a little effort ended up feeling safe in that extreme environment.
Even so, California was the most pop album by Mr. Bungle. The influence of The Beach Boys in several tracks, atmospheres worthy of exotic music and the fact that several members of the group participated in the composition of the songs - with all the openness that this means in a band like Mr. Bungle - , nourishes him with a fine eclecticism that ends up marking his personality with fire.
(The Locust / Dead Cross)
What does Mr. Bungle mean to you?
They were an influential band for the things I was doing when I started in music. Mr. Bungle certainly helped The Locust in the idea of implementing the absurd to music and also in the way of writing songs.
In your opinion as a man of the DIY part of the music scene, what aspects that Mr. Bungle used to represent are necessary in the present?
I guess the most obvious aspect would be the idea that they embraced non-traditional music, they used strange structures, a rare use of instrumentation and also the fact that they are technically competent to play technical music and yet, just do what they get of the cojones avoiding so much to certain aspects of the musical theory as to the expectations of the musical industry.
What do you think of California? Is it your favorite Bungle album?
I really like that album. However, it's not my favorite, I prefer Disco Volante .
How was the experience of touring with Patton and Trey Spruance when Dead Cross and Secret Chiefs 3 shared the bill in 2017?
It was interesting to see them hanging out and remembering stories. With Bungle I saw them live once, many years ago, so I mainly thought about how old they are now.
Nowadays there are many people waiting for a reunion. Why do you think the band became a myth after their separation that happened more than fifteen years ago?
It seems that many myths are created by the mere passage of time, but this is probably one of the good ones.
(Frank Zappa / Sonic Youth / Mr. Bungle / Mondo Cane / John Zorn)
How do you remember your time as a collaborator with Mr. Bungle?
It was very challenging, exciting and everything very new to me. I learnt a lot working with these amazing and young musicians. It was the first time I worked with a band and went through the whole process of making a record, rehearsing and then presenting it.
California is an album in which percussion is a very important element. How did the percussion ideas come about?
The majority of the percussion parts were composed by the members of the band, they are excellent! They are creative arrangers and composers in their own right. Most of the time they were delivered to me in writing, and I had to react immediately to them. Danny (drums) was a great help to clean and adjust some of the most "open" parts, both in the recording and then on tours.
Do you think the band should reunite?
That is a question for the actual members of the band. I can say that I was very lucky and I felt honored to be a guest musician in Mr. Bungle. Also to make two wonderful recordings and to travel the world with these great guys.
(The Dillinger Escape Plan / Suicidal Tendencies)
How did you feel when Patton invited The Dillinger Escape Plan to tour with Mr. Bungle?
We were in the studio recording our first album when someone from our label, Relapse Records, called us and told us they offered to do the full tour with Mr. Bungle in the United States. It turns out that Mike had listened to our EP and really liked it. Trey of Bungle had seen us play, so I guess when they were looking for an opening act, they both thought of us. At that time it was incredible to us that any of those guys had heard our music. Mr. Bungle was a great inspiration for us and Patton is my favorite singer of all time.
You witnessed a lot of concerts of the California tour. How do you remember those shows?
I saw them play every night of that tour and I was amazed every time. Their attention to detail is next level. They recreated the music from the album with incredible precision. There were even nights when they made the room rent a new sound system because the speakers didn't sound good. Really impressive and a great learning experience.
What are your memories of the first time you heard California?
I remember that I was surprised by the amount of genres that were addressed in the same album. However, I think I was very impressed with the song Retrovertigo. It is an absolutely brilliant and accessible ballad that could have been on commercial radio. Later I wrote a song called Unretrofied that was a tribute to that song and the feeling I had when I heard it every night.
In what aspects of The Dillinger Escape Plan did Mr. Bungle have a greater influence?
In our thirst for diversity and in the irony in our music. We were also very influenced by the way they handled the administration of their tours. It became a model of how we would later lead things when we became a more important band.
As a fanatic, would you rather see the re-assembled band or the original members create a new project?
I think a reunion would be great ... while having fun doing it. I think everyone is a good person and I have kept in touch with most of them. In any case, I really like to see bands that do things for the love of playing music together, so what is good for them is great for me.
(Mr. Bungle, Secret Chiefs 3, ex Faith No More)
The band had just released Disco Volante, a very different album comparing it with California. How did you prepare for this record?
Yes, I think it was formed in a similar way to Disco Volante. In the years that separated the two albums, each of us developed our ideas separately. Of course we shared the progress of those ideas. Trevor, Mike and I, and then Bär as well, but especially the three of us, we, for some reason, wrote similar and complementary music, even though we were far from each other. When we put the ideas together, we felt that they were square. With Disco Volante it was more like a collage; in California the sense of collage was different, since in this record the different songs were written in their totality or almost, by indivdual of the members of the band.
Listening to the album today, do you still feel represented by it?
Yes! In Secret Chiefs 3 I still work with lyrics that are related to None Of Them Knew They Were Robots. When I hear that song, particularly the lyrics, I feel that it was well made at that time. And when I listen to the whole album, I'm not complaining. Some of the music we made with Mr. Bungle makes us proud. And I could also see that some songs that didn't excite me very much were inspiring for other people. I think California is a solid record in that sense. It inspired other people to make good music.
It is impossible to measure the influence of a work of art, but I believe that California is an album that opened the ears of many people, I would like to know how you feel to have been part of some unique records, not only with Mr. Bungle but with Faith No More and Secret Chiefs 3 as well.
It is a mixture of blessing and punishment (laughs). I must say that lately I feel better with that since I was meeting some brilliant musicians like Brian Marsala, the pianist, and other people who listened to our music as kids, like Craig Taborn or Raven Chacon, and who are doing things, and say: "man, I love that record". That's great, it's great to have that kind of feedback. I consider negative feedback when a band comes and says: "Dude! I made a record that is exactly the same as what you do! You'll love it! "(Laughs) That is a negative feeling, you have to be careful not to behave discourteously but, to be honest, I sometimes find this insulting. There are definitely two sides to this.
Someone who is a big fan of Bungle is Cheche Alara, the director of Mondo Cane.
Yeah sure! That guy is very serious. He is absolutely incredible. Those are the good stories. It's great to know that this type of musician like what you do. It is more common to hear this now that ten years ago for example, at that time I used to ask myself: "What have I done ?!" (laughs). Nobody showed us admiration.
Patton always insisted that he is not a lyricist, in which he uses his voice as an instrument. Beyond not writing all the lyrics of this album, what do you think of what he wrote?
Many times singers are credited as lyricists, not so much as musicians. And he, in everything he does, contributes brutally as a musician, but despite this, his work as a writer of words can not be minimized. In my opinion he is very cinematic, very visual. He really knows the feeling of music and how to express it verbally. He does it much better than Trevor or me. He is exceptionally good at that.
Speaking of the lyrics you wrote, None Of Them Knew They Were Robots is not easy to understand for someone who does not speak perfect English, but at the same time it can be fascinating. Was your vision of the world at the end of the 20th century?
Yes, not so much the end of the century, but rather ideas that were common in the nineties in certain circles, which are now everywhere. It was particularly interested not so much in the eschatological question of the end of the world, but that there were many people in San Francisco involved in proto-technology, people who spoke of the singularity of what we know today as the ideology of Silicon Valley. In that song I tried to gather some notions about where this singular idea really comes from and all its history, through the thoughts of ancient civilizations about the end of the world mixed with new ideas about it, which were in some way positive: they suggested that one day we would wake up and begin to live forever within the "brain" of a computer. They were projects in the beginning of the Silicon Valley and now all these executives are carrying them out. It was about the conversations in the different worlds that surround me.
How were the dynamics in the studio during the recording sessions?
Each record we made was fun and it took a lot of work. In this particular case aspirations were very great, more than we were able to do. We didn't have the availability of resources that we would have wanted to record infinite tracks, as we could do now, since we used analogue equipment, so we had to solve the enigma about how to record all those instruments and those layers in seventy-five tracks. At the same time, working with Mr. Bungle was always a very spiritual experience in each stage of the process. It is a balance between creativity and technical possibilities, challenges and problems of being creative. It's fun to work around those obstacles and make things work. It was about the adventure of combining our ideas with what the medium offered us.
On Disco Volante you began to implement your influences from the culture of the Middle East. How did your colleagues at Bungle receive these new ideas?
Yes, somehow that happened in Desert Search For Techno Allah on Disco Volante . Then on California in Ars Moriendi, which is a song written by Patton. Geographically it could perhaps be located in Romania, Bosnia or Serbia. They have the same spirit in the sense that it is about staging the instrumentation, basically. It's something we did in Mr. Bungle, bring the different types of melodies and put them on the table. The same as with the lyrics of Desert Search ... related to the work of Hafez, the famous Persian poet. As the lyrics of None Of Them ... are hard to understand even though English is your second language (laughs) nobody knows what Merry Go Bye Bye says either. I tend to make lyrics that not necessarily everyone should know what they're about.
It strikes me that despite the fact that the lyrics are deep and convoluted, the title of the album is very earthy.
It's interesting because it possibly means different things for each one of us. The seemingly earthly title, well it's something I need to explain ... You were commenting on the question of the end of the world before and for me, if you think about it in terms of the extension towards the West of European civilization, the manifest of destiny or the crossing of ideas in that direction across the North American continent, you will essentially reach a limit point, which is the Pacific Ocean, the coast of California. So California can represent that extreme West. It seems a common title for the image that people have of California, which is identical to the one that California wants to project: it encapsulates the smiling, healthy, the well-being, the meditative. But there is another reality. California has the largest prison industry on the face of the Earth. It has the greatest income disparity in the entire country. I can make a list with all the negative aspects. By the way, I'm working on a project that lists them. Most of the serial killers in the United States come from here, the vast majority of religious cults are from here, and it goes on. There is a lot of negative shit; It is a place to have problems and racial abuse. All that is projected in the bright golden American laughter (laughs). All that is for me California, that is the earthly part of California, in a way it is a psychological or metaphysical disturbance. I think it was a great title for the album as it goes to many places and themes. We never talked about this in a group, there were no philosophical discussions, we handled ourselves based on intuition.
Apart from being perhaps the easiest listening record of the band, California has its crazy moments. Where does this characteristic of the group come from surprising with twisted and violently changing ideas?
It comes naturally, one hundred percent. We never analyze our music in terms of "let's put this style after this other" or "let's be as crazy as possible", or whatever. And you make me think of the previous question: possibly this has to do with the place where we live and grew up, a great mix of many things. We come from a town redneckNorth of California, isolated and culturally monolithic and we were already making that music. I can't blame San Francisco or the Bay Area for this, but I think there is some of that, especially in the way we grew up and the hunger for certain information we had, as well as our influences. Let's say we put a lot of life into our creations.
Do you return to Eureka from time to time?
I live seven hundred kilometers away and I go once or twice a year. I love to go, it's amazing and they no longer really qualify as a redneck people . Now I would say that it is a town of marijuana plantations. Unfortunately half the population is happy with this and the other is not.
The cult around the band grew over the years and there is a legion of fans waiting for a new album or a reunion tour. Being musicians who always go towards new challenges, how does nostalgia work for you?
That is a big question, or a great way to ask the question. You know, Mike and I worked together after Mr. Bungle. Trevor and I, too, in different projects. And I think that nostalgia is not a motivator for any of us, at all. Anything we do together has to be something fresh and exciting. People usually ask us: "What about a reunion?" ... The word reunion, the nostalgia ... if we did something together again, that would not be the reason. We could do it, I am not saying that it is possible or impossible to do it, but considering how we are all currently working, there is no place to do it out of nostalgia. When with the Secret Chiefs 3 we did the Jacky Song with Patton as a guest, that was some kind of nostalgia, but we are not old enough to feel nostalgic for California (laughs). So for us the exciting thing is to create novelties.
Yes, but beyond the recent collaborations, I thought that perhaps, for the kinds of musicians that you are, it would be more convenient to develop a new project than a reunion as such.
Yes, it is an interesting thought because there is a kind of artificial barrier that always appears when we do some collaboration and the question arises "when is the reunion?" And we are supposed to be free to work among ourselves and do what we want to do. It wins, right? It is a good point.
Mr. Bungle used to tour on its own, but I remember there was a tour in 2000 called Sno-Core Tour with Incubus and System Of A Down . How was it to be part of a rock tour?
That's what destroyed the band! (laughs) No, no, just kidding. We didn't feel very comfortable, but it was good fun because it gave us the chance to be "contrarians" again. When we released the first album and went on tour it was a very confrontational moment with the audience that was a bit bigger than it was supposed to be, so there was a notion of departing from that. Then with Disco Volante, our music had changed. If before people were surprised now they thought: "fuck, what the fuck are you doing!", Which increased the interesting contrary character of the group. With California, we played this more "accessible" material, with less chance of causing a stir or something, but we did it anyway for the fact of being part of this rock tour with System Of A Down and Incubus that were huge at that time and they had an audience that knew nothing about us. For them it could have been weird, but for us it was what we were really used to that happened to us, that antagonism was something common. There were a couple of problems on that tour, but we also had some memorable moments. It was the first time we travelled in a bus and it did not go very well with that, many impositions of schedule, etcetera. We definitely liked more to go in a van with a trailer with the equipment.
It's funny what you say about the fans of the other bands on that tour since both System Of A Down and Incubus possibly would not have existed without Mr. Bungle, did you at least have the recognition of the members of those bands?
Yes Yes of course. In fact, the reason we were on that tour was that they asked us, especially SOAD. I was in contact with them for a while, one of them and his brothers are SC3 fans, and the guys in Incubus were very nice and innocent. Once, in the middle of a promo tour where we shared a bus, they told us that they gave their band their name from the lyrics of an unpublished song of ours that had an absolutely fucking, misogynistic and terrifying lyrics. Amazing! (laughs)
What was the reason for this constant defiance towards the public?
Three words: they started it (laughs). We never plan to be tricky with any kind of audience, but we were in that position, from the beginning. I think it's not something musicians do, we get used to the idea of pleasing the public, which we also did even if we did not want to. When they provoke you and you have the ability to respond, you do it. When you have Patton as a vocalist, you definitely have the ability to be able to respond. That became a feature that often generated funny moments. We nurtured the energy of the public and incorporated it into the show, that was the deal. I swear we never thought of "fuck" and shit. We just played our music and, depending on what happened, we reacted to that.
When the group finished the musical health of it was excellent. Then some of you continued collaborating, so the question is simple. Why did you leave Mr. Bungle?
They were many things. Imagine that you put a stew in a pressure cooker and you forget it in the fire ... it will surely explode. Something like that. We had a lot of things in the pressure cooker. We were immature, I was in that band since I was sixteen, since we founded it. Our first show was on November 30, 1985, playing The Raging Wrath Of The Easter Bunny. We developed all this together, and there were also some small resentments along the way. We didn't realize that they were growing through the next decade and a half. There were never fights or discussions in the studio, nor great conflicts. And that was possibly the problem: we spent a lot of time laughing, creating, doing many interesting things together, but we did not know how to develop a good way to resolve differences during all that time. It's something that you must learn in the process, you shouldn't let the pot explode before time. This is applicable to any group of friends, it is important.