A series of interviews about Mr. Bungle's 'California' PART 2

In the first instalment of this special interview for the twentieth anniversary of Mr. Bungle's "California" (read), Mondo Sonoro briefly reviewed the context in which the group released this latest album and how it influenced that time space and also how it left his mark on a whole generation of musicians and fans. 

** 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

Here they leave that to the Argentine conductor, arranger, composer and producer Cheche Alara - who has collaborated with names such as Lady Gaga , Caetano Veloso  and Stevie Wonder -  he also conducts Mondo Cane, the Italian ensemble of Mike Patton, a group which features other members of  Mr. Bungle such as Trey Spruance, Trevor Dunn and Willie Winant. 

"I think Bungle is one of the most important bands in history. Listening to them is always a master class on music, art, freedom ... a unique combination of attitude and deep knowledge. They were and will continue to be unique and great! When Mike called me to  be part of Mondo Cane, it was a very funny conversation because, as he did not know me personally, the talk started very formal and polite, I think he imagined someone rather rigid and formal, from another world until I told him that Bungle always blew my mind! After his surprise, we broke the ice and started a great conversation. All the Bungle musicians who went through Mondo Cane have blown my mind numerous times."

The first part of this special included the participation of musicians from the band like Willie Winant and co-founder Trey Spruance, as well as others related to the group such as Justin Pearson ( The Locust / Dead Cross ) and Ben Weinman ( The Dillinger Escape Plan / Suicidal Tendencies ). In this second chapter we have the words of the album cover designer, Mackie Osborne, the guest percussionist Ches Smith, the participant multi-instrumentalist of the "California" tour, James Rotondi; we also include the testimony of the saxophonist and keyboard player of Mr. Bungle Bär McKinnon and we give ourselves the luxury of a substantial round trip with the prestigious bassist and co-founder of the band Trevor Dunn, also a collaborator of Fantomas , Melvins , John Zorn and Qui, among others.

Mackie Osborne 
(cover designer, wife of Buzz Osborne of Melvins)

How did you get involved in the design of the "California" cover? 

I've been making album cover designs for Melvins for years. When they stopped working with Atlantic they moved to Ipecac Recordings, the label that Mike and Greg Werkman started together. I had done some cover designs for Melvins and Fantomas for Ipecac, so I had worked with them before.

How did the idea come about? 

Mike had a very specific idea of ​​the image he wanted for the cover and he gave me sketches to work with.

How do you remember the experience of working with the band? 

I really just worked with Mike. He gave me a lot of ideas to work with and had some particular images that he wanted to include. He had a very clear vision of what he wanted, which was really useful. In general, it has always been a very positive experience working with Mike and Greg. They have a realistic perspective of what is important in the packaging design of the discs, which makes it a pleasure to work for them.

Ches Smith 
(Mr. Bungle / Secret Chiefs 3 / John Zorn / Snakeoil)

How did you feel when you got the percussionist job in the band? 

I knew the records and had seen them a couple of times. I knew about them since my adolescence, since I'm also from northern California. When they asked me to replace Willie Winant, first I thought: "Shit! I have a lot of things to organize with instruments that I have barely touched. " However, Willie was excellent at getting me all the information I needed to learn his repertoire, it really helped me.

How do you remember the times you played live with Mr. Bungle?

It was really fun. They were moments of great action. There was so much to remember for me, I had to know what percussion instruments would be ready to play and how to move from one to another in time, who to watch and what sounds I needed on my monitor before the song started. I also remember that the attitude towards the audience was completely different when it came to your audience or a festival audience, as in Snocore 2000, for example. It was a testimony of how antagonistic the band was to the audience at that time. I was always very used to playing music that everyone hates, so it was a breath of fresh air to be with older and "successful" musicians who seemed to savor such a hostile environment. 

As a person who learnt to play the album, I assume you studied it and analysed it in depth. What can you say about "California" as a global work of art? 

Actually I can't say much, since I was only focused on the structures of the songs and at what times the percussion would come and go. I haven't listened to it since, although I would like to. I remember being surprised at how they reinvented themselves with each album, like they do in all their current projects. I always thought that was the idea of ​​the band: to continue creating and advancing. 

You shared projects with the three main members of Mr. Bungle over the years and I think you know them well, especially Spruance. Do you feel that they could still be compatible to collaborate again? 

I don't see why not. But those five guys, not just Patton, Spruance and Dunn, aren't motivated by rumors or gossip to do things, so there would probably have to be something concrete that drives them to create together again.

In your opinion, what aspects that the music or philosophy that Bungle used to represent are necessary in the current music scene? 

The fact of never getting to believe you have reached an limit. We need that.

James "Roto" Rotondi 
(Mr. Bungle / Air / Humble Pie / Billy Gibbons, former editor of the Guitar Player and Guitar World magazines and collaborator of Rolling Stone, Spin, Mojo, etc.)

The multi-instrumentalist of French origin James Rotondi gives us story about having been part of the tour of "California" , in 1999 and 2000.

"I joined Mr. Bungle on the recommendation of my friend Joe Gore, guitarist for Tom Waits. Before that I used to play in a jazz-hip hop band on the Verve label called The Grassy Knoll. John McLaughlin played guitar at the time he collaborated with Miles Davis. I was a DJ with that band and played keyboards, technically I had a Kurzweil K2000, which I got to know quite well. In 1999, Trevor Dunn asked Joe if he knew anyone who would cover that kind of show for Mr. Bungle, someone who could play guitar, keyboards, samples and who would also do vocals. Fortunately, Joe thought of me.
Trevor introduced me to Trey, who had developed a brilliant and unique system using the Kurzweil K2500 to shoot samples and also play several keyboard sounds at the same time. Now, Mr. Bungle could have done the easy thing, just by having "pre-recorded" accompaniment tracks, where everyone would be playing on a click, and the sound would be easy to resolve and identical every night. But I think Trey knew that would destroy the spontaneity and the level of explosion that made Mr. Bungle so big, and that could also limit Danny Heifetz as a drummer, a guy who has a great natural swing.

So. . . How do you do a record like "California" to three synchronized tape tracks of twenty-four tracks, with a lot of additional tracks, speakers, synthesizers, sound effects, ethnic instrumentation, Mellotron layers, Moog synthesizer, and so on, and you only have one band of five musicians?

Well, in part, you bring in a great percussionist, and we were lucky to have the great William Winant on the tour with us, and later his brilliant protégé, Ches Smith, who was a boy at the time, and now one of the most respected musicians in modern jazz. But that still left a lot more instrumentation to cover. Trey's system consisted of recording short samples of all the extra musical phrases in pieces like "Ars Moriendi" or "Air Conditioned Nightmare", among other things: a violin, two percussion sets, several sound effects, for example. I put them in sequence when they appeared in the song through the left half of the keyboard of eighty-eight Kurzweil keys, from left to right (the use of different areas of the keyboard for different sounds / samples is often referred to as the creation of "divisions"). They "touched" in real time, which is why they would always follow, they would not determine, the organic sensation and the rhythm of the band. The keys that are on the central, usually where the different keyboard sounds that should be played in the traditional way with my right hand were placed, that is: the bass of the Moog, those of the Hammond organ, synth sounds "tripis" , piano, whatever. So while I was activating the short samples with my left hand, I was also playing melodies and figures with my right hand. Yes, I needed a lot of practise! I would like to say that each sample fell in bar 1 at the beginning of each phrase ... but, oh no, they often needed to be activated with the "Y" of 3, or the "4-ee-Y-ah" (the third sixteenth note of the fourth time, for example) and so on. Some of the samples simply needed to be "sensed" correctly; and if I lacked a bit and did not touch it exactly, I always got a sharp look from Patton! I must stress that when Trey was not playing guitar, he was also playing a Kurzweil K2500 (!) And that Bär McKinnon also had a MIDI keyboard along with his saxophone. It was a great production, with no shortcuts. He also sang, both harmonies and "question and answer" things with Patton, which was very funny, especially because I had to make my voice sound close to his own. 

You were quite younger in those days ...

The tour with Mr. Bungle was immensely fun, and since we were all around thirty years old, life was quite carefree and unbridled, although I have to say that the band was quite adult about how we did the tours, and very professional about how to give the best shows and achieve the sound we wanted. For me, playing with Mr. Bungle is still one of my best memories. Everyone in that band were extremely unique and intelligent people; fun types to the fullest, and intensely advanced musically. One thing that caught my attention was how diligent the boys were to work in music all the time, even on the road. Sure, we went out together to bars in Munich, trattorias in Italy and English pubs and enjoyed great meals and drank foolishly, but I will always remember that, in the van or in the dressing room, Mike had a keyboard with which he used his space to work on Peeping Tom's material. Trevor analyzed Chopin's piano scores; and Trey had a laptop on which he edited the audio for the next Secret Chiefs album or another project he was producing. We played brutally, but we all worked very hard too. While we did a lot of great shows over a period of about two years, they still ask us a lot about the 1999 Halloween show near Detroit, where we dressed as Red Hot Chili Peppers and did a wonderfully terrible version of "Under The Bridge" and some other topics, just to cheer us up cheerfully about a band that had been quite unfair to us on several levels. I was given the responsibility to go to a couple of nearby shops for used clothing and costumes and bring some outfits. A great Halloween item I found was these little pens that looked like hypodermic needles, with red ink on them ... and, well, given the reputation of the Chili Peppers, I could not resist. You can see us "snapping" us with them in the video that is floating on YouTube. For that concert, I played the role of John Frusciante, I broke a string in the first song and did everything possible to keep the guitar tuned! 

After all these years, what really impresses me is how ambitious was the "California" tour , and how powerful and impressive were the band's performances; It's amazing to play incredibly complex music at that level of energy and aggression. I think that's part of Bungle's legacy in so many bands and a reason why bands like Incubus , System Of A Down , Limp Bizkit , Deftones , Korn and many others were always so respectful with us. Faith No More and Mr. Bungle are like a religion for guys like Wes Borland and Chino Moreno, and they were always very kind and gentle to us, and of course, almost reverent with Mike Patton, who I think I can say without fear of being wrong he is surely the most prolific, versatile and consummate rock singer of his generation. And there's a lot of good competition for that title, but he's just top-level, just like the whole band. Due to his Hungarian family roots, he used to call Trey the "Hungarian Jimmy Page"; for me he is a "great vision" artist, much more than a great guitarist.

I feel very fortunate to have been on the trip and to have done my part to bring the incredible music of Mr. Bungle to audiences around the world. After he split up, after our last tour show in Nottingham, Rock City in England, I started touring synthesizers and keyboards and making voices with the French band Air , from their album "10,000 Hz Legend" , and My work with Bungle is what prepared me for that great challenge as well. I will not forget the experience, nor the camaraderie and the company of those six excellent gentlemen. "California" is a true classic album, and I suspect it will never sound old-fashioned. It will be reproduced and enjoyed for a long time. "

Bär McKinnon 
(Mr. Bungle / Ümlaüt)

Twenty years have passed since the release of "California." How do you feel when you listen to the record today? 

Hmm ... I haven't really heard it lately. Mainly, it transports me a little to the time when we were doing it. San Francisco, its people, the places, my daily routine. It has a kind of watermark of where we were in our lives ... like a wood fire floating in the neighborhood air at sunset.

Was Mr. Bungle a band that promised never to be repetitive? 

Somehow, yes. I think we had short periods of attention and ambition at the time of incorporating influences into the music that moved us. As far as I'm concerned, I was still trying to figure out how to apply my ideas to the band, how to bring to life the song ideas I could have had at any time in my life and carry them out in the band. I was just investigating my superficial ideas at that point and beginning to fully enter into my musical personality. My best ideas were still to come. I was a hidden talent.

How do you remember the pressure of Warner in the "California" era? 

We didn't worry about that. Or rather, I don't remember many arguments for political disputes or whatever. Maybe I also had a bit of my head in the sand regarding this issue. I only cared about the music that we strive to do and provide the best possible way to help make that music happen.

What do you think: Mr. Bungle were better composers or arrangers? 

Probably arrangers, if I had to choose. The frustration is that I wanted to perfect my composition and then we left it without pain or glory ... There are so many "shoulds", "could", "would" ... Who knows, yeah?

What was the best thing about being in Mr. Bungle? 

Everything. The architectural genius of Trey and his incomprehensible sorcery in the studio, Danny's beard, the chaotic joy, the random historical curiosities, an expressionless face that confuses the soul, the integrity of Trevor and his well-formed forearms, raw power of Patton and his impossible natural talent. The fact that all these are, by far, the most interesting, strange and wonderful group of musicians I could hope to play with.

"California" is the album that has the easiest melodies to listen to in the discography of the band, but still has its disturbing moments, of course. Where does this element of twisting ideas come from? 

Umm ... I can't say definitively where that comes from. But I think we've always liked music a little fucked up or that surprises or frustrates expectations or takes sharp turns and maybe doesn't come back. In addition, there is the curiosity to incorporate the most great things with which we entered in contact at that time, or whatever. As always, we only pretended to have fun selfishly, but also to do the best we could.

What should happen for Mr. Bungle to come together again? 

Difficult to answer! It seems that everyone is busy with other things, not to mention that we are not all living in the same city. Who knows? It would have to be an organic, magnetic alignment, cosmic forces or also about ten million dollars.

Is Mr. Bungle a necessary band today? 

I can't answer that either. That will depend on who should discuss the idea. It seems that people loved us or hated us. Or if I can answer would say that the band should stop being a fussy and make new music. And in the same way, maybe we should live in peace each one by his side. But knowing ourselves, we never worry about what people would think in one way or another; perhaps wisdom or tradition compels us to hurry, record new music and deeply disappoint people (as would Tool or Guns N 'Roses) and finally end this farce! Right now!

Trevor Dunn 
(Mr. Bungle / Fantomas / Tomahawk / Melvins, etc.)

How was the communication of ideas between the members of the band in the process of writing "California"? 

At first we worked individually, recording demos of complete songs, parts of songs or riffs that we liked but we weren't sure what to do with it. Then we started to exchange demos and slowly we filtered out things that couldn't be used. Sometimes, one took the unfinished idea of ​​another and changed it completely. Other times, a demo song could be completely arranged and ready to record.

Where did the inspiration come from, both the lyrics and the music, in the songs you wrote on this album? 

The inspiration for "The Holy Filament" came from 
1) A cartoon by B. Kliban 
2) A book by Louis Aragón called "Paris Peasant" (from a specific paragraph) 
3) The movie "Paris, Texas" and the band sound of Ry Cooder
4) The new cybernetic revolution of the late nineties 
5) The desire to write a melody that was longer than four measures. 
"Retrovertigo" was inspired by Radiohead , Liz Phair , PJ Harvey, Willie Nelson, the revival of big bands, fedora hats and beige suits in San Francisco in the late nineties, as well as the price of vintage clothes. 
I wrote most of the music for "Vanity Fair", which was originally a sort of Marvin Gaye groove rebuilt.

Recently, Greg at Ipecac said that the demos sounded "much more Beach Boys " than the final version. Why did they finally make the album more complex? 

I'm not sure what that means, but the demos were pretty faithful to the core of each melody. As we have always worked in the studio, once we got there, we were like kids in a candy shop. We always took advantage of the ornamentation and color of the melodies as much as we could, either to hire additional musicians or to use a wider range of instruments. That is part of the magic of the study.

When you listen to the record today, do you feel there is something you would like to change? 

I don't listen to those records, partly for that reason. And I would say that happens in everything I write or play. I am quite self-critical, so listening to something that needs improvement when it has already been condemned to digital immortality is a bit tortuous. The simple answer to your question is "yes".

After all, do you feel that the defiant spirit of the band caused you to gain an audience or lose it? 

Both of them. There is a reason why we never had a great success and it is the same reason we have hardcore fans.

The popularity of Mr. Bungle grew from the moment the group disbanded. Why do you think the band is a kind of cult today? 

Everyone wants what they can not have. In addition, we stopped playing just before social networks exploded, so we are more like an anthropological relic of ancient times.

On Halloween of '99, you disguised yourself and laughed at Red Hot Chili Peppers and played several of their songs live. Were there rehearsals for that show? 

We had a member of the tour crew buy the most recent album of them ( "Californication" ) and then we proceeded to learn it in the back of the stage before the show. It wasn't hard. The hardest part was copying his tattoos with a permanent marker. I remember it was very funny to ridicule them without thinking about whether they would be aware or not. We were pretty pissed off for all the financial and personal damage that they caused to us based on their egos and freaks of power. We should probably have sued them.

What do you miss most about being in Mr. Bungle? 

Laughing till I cry.

Do you feel nostalgia for that time? 

Nostalgia is a complex emotion. In general, nothing is the same once you return to it and if it is, you are probably the different one. Mike, Trey and I have worked together since we dissolved Mr. Bungle. I doubt this will ever change. We will continue to have some aces under our sleeves. After all, we grew up breathing the same polluted air.

Let's suppose that the band is definitely finished. If you had to write an appointment on Mr. Bungle's gravestone, what would you write? 

Aim to confuse!


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