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A Quietus Interview

Abominable Show, Man! Faith No More's Roddy Bottum Interviewed
Jeremy Allen , July 17th, 2017 09:02

Jeremy Allen talks to Roddy Bottum about smuggling gay sex up the charts, as well as tragedy, comedy, and his new Edinburgh show Sasquatch: The Opera which he’s expecting to be taken “very seriously”

Photographs by Jonathan Grassi

There are outliers in heavy rock and then there’s Roswell Christopher Bottum III. The musician made his name as the keyboardist in Faith No More, an instrument antithetical in metal in the post-prog late 80s if you weren’t Whitesnake. That vague incongruity was nothing compared to what happened in 1993, when Roddy Bottum told The Advocate he was gay, an unprecedented move back in the pre-internet age from a member of a stadium filling alternative rock outfit. It’s really difficult now to remember how mettlesome that was in the circumscribed circles of metal during the early 90s, but take a similarly macho sphere like the Premier League and remember that no footballer has come out to this day (Bottum would be a whole five years ahead of Rob Halford of Judas Priest).

It’s this openness that makes him a pleasure to interview. In the 50 minutes I talk to Bottum on Skype from New York, he asks me about my three-week-old son, my home in Paris, my sobriety status, my sexuality, what the camera etiquette is when doing a Skype interview (mine is usually switched off) and a number of questions that cut through the bullshit hinterland of smalltalk. At one point I attempt to make it less conversational. “This interview isn’t about me,” I say. “I don’t want to dwell on you either because clearly I’m so much more interesting,” he retorts.

Like many new fathers, I can’t resist having my baby’s face poking out of my profile picture under mine. “Who’s that?” he asks within seconds of us introducing ourselves. “Wow, he doesn’t look like he’s three weeks. His eyes are like really on. Newborns are usually really out of it, but he’s got a real focus in his eyes.” It’s a rare treat coming from someone whose records I grew up emphatically listening to.

After Faith No More broke up in 1998, Roddy continued writing and performing with his indie pop trio Imperial Teen, and in the last decade or so he’s been scoring music for films and soundtracks. Faith No More returned for some shows in the late naughties, and then the band rose again majestically like a new day when Sol Invictus was released in 2015. Perhaps most unexpectedly of all (apart from the coming out thing), the San Franciscan has taken to writing opera. That’s avant garde opera in its contemporary form; “crazy, modern-day, all-over-the-map, experimental” are some of the adjectives Bottum uses to describe it, as opposed to the Giuseppe Verdi-style opera one might be familiar with. His latest, Sasquatch: The Opera, will play at the Edinburgh Festival throughout August.

So Sasquatch is definitely an opera and not a musical then?

Roddy Bottum: Yeah, that was a real determination on my part when I started the project, as I’d got really into opera. But really at the end of the day it sounds so much more bombastic and preposterous to me than Sasquatch: The Musical. It’s kind of gothy, it’s very dark, there are timpanis, two synthesisers, a drum machine and two trumpets. It’s a really sparse sound. I know it sounds like a comedy because it sounds ridiculous - I get that a lot - [but] it’s actually very dark and macabre and serious.

So there’s no stopping for dialogue that’s only there to flag up another song coming around the corner?

RB: Opera is just storytelling. Certain stories work really well in an operatic form. It’s so much about extreme storytelling, highs and lows, and high high high drama! I dunno if you ever saw it but these English people made the Anna Nicole Smith story (Anna Nicole)?

I heard about it.

RB: It’s perfect, because her life had so many highs and lows, a crazy, crazy high drama topic. And I saw an opera in New York last year that was so perfect, a modern day story, the Milli Vanilli story (WOW). Such dramatic highs and lows for them: their career, winning a Grammy, the Grammy taken away from them, suicide. Opera works well with really high dramatic elements, and that was a reason too that I sort of tagged it as that. It had a lot of intense highs and lows like that. That’s the way I aimed it anyway.

Is the Sasquatch in the narrative a kind of roman à clef?

RB: I relate to the Sasquatch as a character and his struggle. Quite honestly the story of a tortured monster, a Frankenstein or a King Kong or even an Elephant Man - who on the outside is intimidating but once you get into the core of the character there’s a fragility and even an intellectualism and passion - that always gets me. Every time a character comes up like that I’m just moved to tears. I’m not sure how roman à clef that is for me. It’s not so autobiographical - for one I’m so handsome and attractive already, I’m not monstrous. Maybe what I’ve done in my past, touring, being in a band like Faith No More, the face of that band is monstrous you could argue. But at the heart of it you have keyboards and that's [laughs] a lot more sensitive than we initially would have thought. So yeah, it’s a good angle. As a journalist I think you should run with that little nugget right there, it’s a good one.

Don’t worry, it’s all going down. Also, and I don’t know this for certain, I don’t expect your life story is as tragic as, say, Anna Nicole Smith’s was?

RB: Oh no, my life has been so fucking tragic you have no idea. Even lately finishing the opera was a real struggle. And moving to New York about four years ago. And some months ago I had a crazy fire in my apartment building and my whole building got destroyed. And I kind of lost everything. Everyone in the building had to evacuate, we all had to move out. That really changed my game, that was really intense. I’m not saying that’s a storyline that takes place in the opera or anything, but it really set me on a crazy course of having to find my footing in a really intense, dramatic timeline. Really intense. Like literally lost everything.

Oh no.

RB: Oh yes.

Shit, sorry to hear that.

RB: Yeah.

I guess in these situations it’s customary to point out - and I’m sure people have said this to you and you feel like telling them to ‘fuck off’ - that at least you’re alive.

RB: That’s usually how the conversation ends, with that sentence, yes. And I say “uh huh, you’re right. No one got hurt!” I mean fuck that, it was really devastating. But it’s fine. But yes, there have been crazy highs and lows in my life. I’ve duelled with drug addiction and [watched people] dying… like everybody. I’m not saying it’s an exceptionally dramatic peaks-and-valleys kind of life but there’s a lot of it, honestly.

Are you clean now?

RB: Uhh yeah... not really, I’m not. Like I don’t have problems right now, I don’t have a drug problem. I did at one point and that was hard to get through. And I was sober for a lot of years. Now I don’t really pay a lot of attention to it, I’m stable and stuff and I feel great. In some instances that’s seen as failed sobriety. Are you a sober person?

I am. Seven years.

RB: Fantastic. Seven years sober is a long time. That’s how long I was sober, seven years, and then I smoked pot and I didn’t really care. I don’t spend a lot of time with drugs and alcohol anymore. I’m one of the statistics where they say “no one really makes it”, one out of 10 people stay sober and the other nine go out. So I’m one of the other nine, even though really, I dunno, these cases are very sort of rare but I feel great.

Have you been to Edinburgh before?

RB: Sure I have. I went there last year as I was working on the opera and I met up with a producer who’d talked me into coming over, working out a strategy to try and do it this year, and meet people and try and find a venue that would be appropriate for the Sasquatch. So I went last year to explore a little bit. It’s great.

I’ve never been to the festival. I hear it’s a good buzz.

RB: It’s really a lot to take in. Are you a music person? Something like South by Southwest is this big music industry thing. That phenomenon can be very tense. So add to that a load of actors and actresses and theatre people and it’s like ‘wow’, that’s mind blowing. The intensity of those people is beyond anything I’ve experienced before. Drama people are crazy.

They’re a bit much aren’t they?

RB: God they’re insane. I mean to their credit it comes from a place from them being so fucking talented. They can’t help it, they’re just busting at the seams from all of this crazy energy they have inside themselves. They have perfect pitch, they can play the saxophone and tap dance, they do ballet, they sing vaudeville, they can act. Whatever it is they do they do really really well. They do jazz! They’re so crazy talented that they’re out of their minds.

You have to be of a certain disposition. I did Theatre Studies A level and I retreated into myself due to this explosion of showoffs.

RB: There’s a lot of showing off. I don’t think my ego could handle the rejection of competing and not getting jobs. I don’t like to not get things I go after - it freaks me out. To be on that constant treadmill of auditioning for things and only getting a small percentage of them, that sounds horrible [laughs].

Is it a desperate need for attention? I’ll take unemployment and no money if I can go and show off in Edinburgh for a few weeks and turn up on The Bill occasionally?

RB: It’s people who’ve grown up like it and have that inner core of all that talent and a need to share it. I’ve got a little bit of it you know - I’m not that talented but I love attention. And also at the festival there’s this whole dynamic of “oh, there’s so much going on”, so there’s this whole different level of competition. A lot of those people take to the street, and they’re busking and giving out flyers for their shows, and working the street because they have to, and that’s another level of attention seeking. So just like in the air Edinburgh is really chaotic; that kind of energy around you is insane. There’s a fun makeshift environment I relate to and it’s inspiring.

Is it a world you feel comfortable in?

RB: You know, that’s a really good question. It’s a little bit weird to me and a little bit corny. I dunno if that word translates to your English vernacular. Theatre people in general- I’m doing that gesture where you take your forefinger and put it into your cheek and you make this funny expression as you go back and forth, do you know what I mean? I dunno what that expression is called. A lot of theatre is really ridiculous and makes me feel silly. A whole a lot of it misses the mark for me personally as an artform, and I don’t feel super comfortable around it. Sasquatch has been about finding a place I do feel comfortable in that world, and pushing it in that direction. This is serious. I kind of expect it to be taken very seriously. In some way that sort of differentiates my take on theatre from the rest of what I see in theatre. I’m sort of sarcastic and a little bit bitter and it’s difficult to be completely accepting of that world.

You wrote another opera didn’t you?

RB: I presented one last year (The Ride) that was sort of a short-form opera about the AIDS/LifeCycle, which is a charity ride. 2,000 people cycle from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which is super far and you camp along the way, and it takes about a week. It’s to raise money for AIDS and I’ve done it a couple of times. I thought it would be an interesting prospect for a musical because for me it was a very multi-generational experience. There are old men who went through the first wave of AIDS coming into the world who lost friends, who lost lovers, who were sort of on the ground floor of fighting that disease. It’s changed so much - these days they’re all on drugs like PrEP, so AIDS is not such a life-threatening disease to kids. There’s a really crazy multi-generational disconnect and that was interesting to me on that bike ride. So I did an opera on stationary bicycles and there was an older man representing that generation, and a tweaky young kid who never had the need for condoms, who sort of takes TRUVADA, and doesn’t need to deal with AIDS the way the older generation has to. And they’re on stage riding on bikes, and that was the opera. It’s just about them going back and forth and their mindsets on that ride.

What was it like being the first gay heavy metal musician to come out? It was a different world wasn’t it?

RB: Yeah, it really was. It was a crazy different world. It was so different for gay kids. It’s funny to think of me in that timeframe being so frightened of that declaration. It wasn’t that long ago, like 25 years ago or something like that. It’s hard to think of the world in that way. For kids these days it’s so not a question. The kids that I’m around, they can’t imagine what it would have been like. It was an intense time for a young gay man, especially in that environment. Coming out in that world, it was very intimidating. Heavy metal is a stretch because I never really considered the band that way, but at some point we started being associated with Guns N’ Roses and Metallica who we toured with, and the mindset of the fanbase of those bands was not very accepting of anyone who was gay.

And neither was Axl Rose.

RB: Yeah, he specifically wrote something about “faggots”, remember that line? And that was specifically the time we were touring with them, and it was a weird environment to be touring in, and a weird place to make that declaration. And at the same time it was empowering be able to say I’m gay. That felt really good at the end of the day. But going into it was an intimidating situation.

You were talking about young people, and young people now seem to be more sexually fluid and unbothered by labelling and it’s amazing. But then you also have this element that you find in places online like Twitter if you go looking for it. The darkside. If you delve there there’s just horror and hatred. Did you experience any of that back then?

RB: Not so much. I never really got any backlash from it. Across the board all I really got was kids who were grateful, which is so touching and rewarding for me. So grateful that I came out, that I could serve as someone in their world that was gay and helped them feel comfortable about being gay themselves. I mean what a super flattering thing to hear! [The hatred aspect] happens typically behind closed doors, so yeah, the Twitter situation is probably a good place for a person like that to put their thoughts out into the world, because they’re invisible and it’s like writing on a bathroom wall. You don’t have to take credit for what you’ve written. So there was stuff I didn’t really hear because people were chicken shit and didn’t feel like they could say that to my face.

And you also smuggled gay sex into the charts with ‘Be Aggressive’, so hats off!

RB: Hahaha, I don’t know if I would really call that the charts, but yeah. I mean that was the really cool thing about Faith No More. It was a really weird mix of people, and I’m glad everyone sorta got their say. So I was able to smuggle blowjobs into storytelling.

I didn’t realise when Courtney Love was in the band in the early 80s that you had a relationship with her.

RB: Yeah, we did.

Were in you in denial at the time?

RB: Denial about her? Truly? Like as a gay man about my sexuality? We had a really intense relationship. I talked to her yesterday - we’re still sort of like really intense. I think it transcended whatever I was at that point. We were thrown into this situation where we were really intensely in each other’s lives, which crossed boundaries that other gay men probably don’t cross. She’s a very intense person. I can be very much the same I guess.

The last record, Sol Invictus, had no right to be as great as it was. Were you surprised?

RB: Yeah, that was surprising actually. It was surprising to go back to something all those years later. We hadn’t really spoken for a while - we’d been kind of in touch, but to all get back together and work on something that we all felt connected to was surprising. Yeah, on so many levels it was such a great thing to be able to do, to recreate with those people and reconnect with that band and make art in a powerful new way. It was really intense, and one of the luckiest things to happen in my life.

Sasquatch: The Opera runs at the Edinburgh Festival from 2nd - 27th August