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A Quietus Interview

A Deathly Plague: Mike Patton Talks About Mondo Cane And Avant Metal
Robert Barry , May 5th, 2010 07:10

Mike Patton talks to Robert Barry about his days in Mr Bungle and his new operatic project Mondo Cane

About seven or eight years ago, Mike Patton and John Zorn were sitting side by side on an international flight, filling in their little green landing cards. Where it said 'Occupation', Patton wrote, 'musician,' same as always. Zorn wrote 'composer,' same as always. "So what's the difference here?" asked Patton, leaning over, kind of teasing the older man. "I dunno," said Zorn. "It's funny actually, I've never thought about it. It's just always what I've written and maybe I've always thought of myself this way." "Yeah, that's funny."

Patton was born in 1968 in Eureka, California to a strictly non-denominational household (religion, he says, "was just not an option"). He started his first band, Mr Bungle, in high school and at the age of 21 put one of their demo tapes into the hands of the band Faith No More who were playing a show in the area. They had been having some troubles with their singer, Chuck Mosley, and it wasn't long before they were making a call to that ballsy West Coast college kid they'd met.

Zorn was born 15 years earlier in New York City, the Jewish son of a hairdresser dad and a professor of education mum. He was schooled in the American maverick tradition of Charles Ives, Harry Partch and Elliot Carter at the UN School in Manhattan, followed by Webster College in St. Louis. Having been inspired by the music of the Black Artists Group and AACM, he dropped out of Webster and started playing improvised solo saxophone gigs, first on the West Coast, later at the heart of New York's downtown area, just as the neighbourhood was becoming a hub for experimental artists of all stripes.

The two first met during the Faith No More years. Patton used his newfound fame to get Mr Bungle signed to Warners and for their first major label album they chose Zorn as producer. "We'd really loved his Naked City project. We thought of it as almost a road map for what we were doing. Automatically when we heard that music it was such an excitement. It made everything else we were into at the time seem really lazy, really... boring."

Immediately these two guys from such different backgrounds hit it off, "as if we were related in another life time." Since that first Mr Bungle record, a frenetic jamboree of funk, death metal, lounge music and playful Zappa-esque strangeness, the pair have collaborated on countless projects from Patton's solo record Adult Themes for Voice on Zorn's Tzadik label to group improvisations, 'game' scores, and, more recently, Patton has begun singing with Naked City, the very band that inspired him to contact Zorn in the first place.

There was always, in a sense, a third man in John and Mike's relationship - a point of triangulation if you will. His name was Carl Stalling. John Zorn wrote his PhD thesis on Stalling. Mike Patton got hooked on Stalling's music when he was still a child, "drinking far too much coffee and watching far too many cartoons." Whether or not it was entirely wise for the Patton parents to give the pre-pubescent Mike coffee and sit him down, buzzing away on the caffeine, in front of the telly while Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote blew each other to smithereens and pummelled each other with steel anvils, it certainly had a formative impact. "Oddly enough, that is a musical memory for me. It wasn't like entertainment - I was actually listening to stuff."

Nowadays Stalling has a certain cache, thanks to albums of his Looney Tunes being released and books on cartoon music getting published. A former piano accompanist to silent films, Stalling met and befriended Walt Disney at the start of the 1920s, at a time when the latter was still making adverts for the Newman Theatre. When Disney started making Mickey Mouse cartoons with synchronised sound a few years later, it was Stalling who came in to write the score.

As musical director, first for Disney's Silly Symphonies and later Warner Brothers' Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies, Stalling scored countless animated shorts featuring the most famous cartoon characters of all time, jump-cutting manically between a few seconds of a popular showtune and a few seconds of a Rossini overture, a fragment of dixieland jazz and a fleeting snatch of a Strauss waltz. Half a century later it would be called 'post-modern' (a term Patton says he would cross the road to avoid), but Stalling was no academic. Nonetheless, over the course of nearly 40 years of writing for cartoons he developed a unique style, humourous yet strikingly original and complex, and enormously influential on the future of cartoon music.

Like most British music fans, I first encountered Mike Patton, leaping and gurning in a Mr Bungle t-shirt, in the video to Faith No More's breakthrough hit, 'Epic', as it crashed into the shallow end of the UK Top 40. Amidst Dali-esque imagery and an artificial electric storm, Patton's rubberised voice syncopates with Jim Martin's crunching thrash riffs, screaming about some ineffable, inexplicable It, "You want it all but you can't have it / It's in your face but you can't grab it / It's alive, afraid, a lie, a sin / It's magic, it's tragic, it's a loss, it's a win."

The lyrics present a near-perfect diagnosis of Freud's Das Ding, what Lacan calls the "true secret" of the unconscious. This Freudian Thing is the lost object, the obscure object of desire, that impossible, intractable element in the thing you desire which makes it irresistable. "What is it?" begs Patton, "It's It" the band yell in response, summoning the failure of language and logos to banish the feverish mystery of the Thing.

'Epic' made a star of Patton, and his years fronting FNM, a decade of his life he has always spoken highly of in interviews, grew him a cult following that have followed him through countless more arcane records since. In a sense, baiting and teasing that audience became a part of his project, even a motivating factor. "I've certainly done things like that in the past," he says, "in some of the earlier bands - and it wasn't just me! We would make musical choices like, oh yeah, this'll really fuck 'em up!" One side effect of which has been that even his most serious and avant garde work has faced accusations of piss-taking, to which Patton's response is typically sanguine: "You can only cry wolf so many times." Not that this necessarily bothers him - at least not all the time. "Sometimes it's nice to be understood - but sometimes maybe you don't want to be," he adds, in the style of a Nietzschean aphorism.

Patton describes his latest project, Mondo Cane, as a "period piece loveletter to Italy." It started life about a decade ago, when he was still living in Italy with his then wife, Titi Zuccatosta. But as the man says, "Some ideas just need to sit for a while and marinate."

Back then it was a chance discovery, stumbling upon old records of Italian crooners from the 1950s and '60s, "Just scouring record stores and messing around with the radio dial," that soon developed into "a long love affair". Early on, there was some thought to do something with this stuff, but nothing "so preposterous" as putting a forty-piece orchestra together. "It was more like I was talking to a quartet of guys in Rome and we were just going to do something in nightclubs around town and that would be it."

The quartet never got off the ground, but a few years later, a festival promoter friend in Bologna called up Patton saying, "Hey, I have this orchestra that's going to be working with my festival this year, do you want to write something for it? And I was like, wow! Y'know? Been waiting for that call for a long time."

"Mike Patton goes opera!" screamed the blogs on its first airing, but the songs on Mondo Cane are all of pure pop stock. Listening to Mina's original version of 'Il Cielo In Una Stanza', one of the biggest selling Italian records of 1962, one could almost mistake it for Darlene Love. The Blackmen, original performers of 'Urlo Negro', could have learnt their garage rock licks from The Ventures or The Trashmen. But if there is a soaring note of tremulous melodrama to the voices of Italian singers like Luigi Tenco and Gianni Pettenati that would be unusual amongst American counterparts Sinatra and Bobby Vinton, it may be testament, as much as references in the films of Visconti and Argento, to the sense in which grand opera never really ceased to be a part of Italian mass popular culture.

For Patton, opera remains something he is "still trying to learn about," claiming: "Most operatic pieces that I gravitate towards are things that are really not operas at all." He cites a fondness for Argentine composer, Mauricio Kagel, who claimed to have set his sights, not just on "The negation of opera, but of the whole tradition of music theatre."

"I don't have an operatic voice," Patton insists, "But I know how to fake it a little - and that's about as good as I can get!" Comparing Patton's arrangements (aided and abetted by Italian composer, Danielle Luppi, who started life working with exploitation auteur Jesus Franco) with their Italian originals, one is struck by the sharp force of Patton's vocals, the influence of a largely American avant-rock tradition creeping in through the drum beats and extended instrumental techniques, but perhaps more than anything, given what we know of his history, the restraint and delicacy with which the material is handled. Patton's personality is present, but it isn't allowed to completely overpower the songs and, watching the videos, you can see clearly how much he's enjoying himself, how much he really loves this stuff.

When Mike Patton says, "They were doing all sorts of shit: they'd do a soundtrack gig one day, run over and do a TV show, play a live concert, then the next day be in the studio with a pop diva, writing really complex, dense and playful arrangements," one is apt to fear he has developed that awkward knack of talking about himself in third person.

As I spoke to him he was in the midst of arranging a more portable, scaled down arrangement of Mondo Cane to take on tour, and embarking on a new film soundtrack (for Saverio Costanzo's forthcoming The Solitude of Prime Numbers, starring Isabella Rosselini). Recently, he has voiced characters in both feature films and computer games, performed new works by composer Eyvind Kang, and worked with Norah Jones for his Lovage project with Dan the Automator. In the next few months, he will be taking part in a performance of Italian modernist Luciano Berio's 'Laborintus II' in Amsterdam. But Patton is talking not about himself but of the great Italian soundtrack composers of the mid to late twentieth century, people like Riz Ortolani (who soundtracked the notorious documentary which gave Mondo Cane its name), Bruno Nicolai, and, of course, above all, Ennio Morricone.

He first came across Morricone's work as a teenager, falling in love with the wordless scream of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and the slurred harmonica of Once Upon a Time in the West, but it wasn't until his mid-twenties that he realised quite how "deep" was the maestro's oeuvre. It's Morricone's "fearlessness" that most fascinates Patton, "Certainly in terms of the films he has chosen." Many of which, as Patton says, were "really trashy movies - very very underground." The photographer's murder in Dario Argento's Cat O'Nine Tails, garroted in his studio and slashed with a scalpel, accompanied by a minimalist funk bass and drifting, searing electronic chords; the haunting refrain and swells of dissonance that accompany scenes of gang rape and genital mutilation in Aldo Lado's Night Train Murders; the angelic choirs and plaintive strings that follow a decapitation by dredger truck at the start of Tonino Valerii's My Dear Killer. "And the fact that he would align himself to projects like that was really fascinating. You'd have this really intelligent, forward thinking score and it may be over a scene where, y'know, a little girl is being raped on a beach!"

From Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote to Italian gialli and spaghetti westerns via thrash metal and improvised noise music, an abiding theme throughout Patton's obsessions and occupations, is violence. "It's a musical tool you can use, but I don't depend on that kind of thing," he insists, chalking Mr Bungle lyrics such as "I'll stab you / clumps of hair in the sink / Carve a smile on your face / Everything's great / Suffocate" or "Feel my heart beat / Off and your head in / Love is a fist" down to his "younger days". Par for the course when "the crux of what you're doing is to open someone's eyes and poke them with something - make them think."

Is he still poking people in the eye? These days, he says, it will depend on the project, but sometimes he is content to just "raise an eyebrow, or to help someone to maybe use their ears a little bit." Nonetheless he insists that "art should provoke you in some way," - even if such provocation is to remain apolitical. Patton won't "walk outside my doorstep and scream my political views, so I'm definitely not gonna do it in a musical context."

Patton's eclecticism, his restless searching for new forms and new ideas, should not be dismissed as superficial po-mo posturing. In fact it could be compared to that of Olivier Messiaen. Patton acknowledges the French composer as an influence and cites in particular the bird song transciptions of the Catalogue d'oiseaux as "unbelievable". Messiaen's pupil, Pierre Boulez, saw in his master what he called a "strict eclecticism" incorporating Stravinsky, Berg, Indian ragas, Gregorian chants, Greek poetry, and, of course, songbirds, whom Messiaen considered to be fine musicians.

"There is nothing superfical about Messiaen's eclecticism," said Boulez, and "Just as we can speak of eclecticism in his choice of composers, so his actual style of writing - juxtaposing and superimposing rather than developing and transforming - may be called eclectic." Words that could just as easily have been written about Patton. "It's nice to have tools in your woodshed," Patton says of his genre-defying output, "but in terms of classifying my own work, it's never really fit comfortably anyway, and over the years I've just become really cool with the fact that whatever I do is gonna have to exist on its own and be a little bit of a freak."

In the end, the difference between Patton and Messiaen is the same as that between Patton and Zorn: "He comes from an academic background. I don't." Though he feels no great regrets at his lack of formal training, and no jealousies towards those that have, he does occasionally wish he had the patience for such a course of study. But caffeinated hyperactivity is Patton's greatest gift, it's what allows him to be constantly working on seemingly endless apparenlty contradictory projects at once, often on things he barely understands himself, but picking it up as he goes along, learning on the job. "I'm not going to go down to the conservatory and learn about this stuff there - I've got to learn by doing, by diving into these things and peeking in a little bit and seeing if I can rise to the occasion." Nonetheless, it is far from unusual to find Patton referred to these days, not as a 'singer' or a 'musician', but as a 'composer' ("It's called getting old..." he jokes) and the world he moves in is occupied as much by academically-minded and conservatory-trained musicians as punks and freaks.

"Music", Mike Patton once said, "is like a disease." From the days of Mr Bungle, named after a character in a public information film about children's hygiene, to some of his latest work, giving voice to zombie-like humans infected with a mysterious virus in the Bio-Shock computer games, there's a strain of sickness and infection running through Patton's whole career ("You make it sound so appetising..." he told me). Thanks to the success of Faith No More, he has been able to open the minds and ears of an audience far broader than might ever have got into John Zorn's downtown avant-jazz or Ennio Morricone's more obscure film soundtracks, introducing some 'good' bacteria into the systems of mainstream rock fans. If music is a virus, Mike Patton is a plague. Let's not rush to find a vaccine ...