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Q&A with an avant-garde Swiss army knife

/ Source: contributor

I first encountered Mike Patton in the same way probably a lot of you did: in high school. As the newly-minted floppy-faced lead singer of Faith No More, he tossed Big Hair Rock a curveball with his erratic stage presence and undeniable voice. He also unwittingly helped give birth to compound genres like “Funk Metal” and “Rap Rock” after gumming up the MTV airwaves with the band’s mega hit “Epic.”

That was way back in 1989, right before the grunge cloud began raining down on pop culture and shoved Big Hair Rock aside for Big Hate Myself Rock. FNM got weirder, thanks to the growing influence of Patton’s long-running side project called Mr. Bungle. Working with pioneer saxophonist/composer John Zorn, Mr. Bungle unleashed a steady stream of multi-hyphenated music that bent genres into pretzels and got geeks (like me) worked up into a lather. Taking bits of ska, jazz, metal, doo wop and every other type of music imaginable (Balinese monkey chant, anyone?) they stirred a riveting stew, but eventually Mr. Bungle seemed to crash under its own weight. If you’ve been keeping score since then, Patton’s managed to set up camp in his own little experimental territory. He’s now one of rock music’s most wildly creative, intelligently sinister and most well-respected composers lurking in the avant-garde shadows. From redefining death metal with Fantomas, to putting on a hip hop cabaret with Dan The Automator in the forms of Lovage and Handsome Boy Modeling School, to lending his elastic pipes to Bjork's all- and even writing a chamber orchestra piece with Zorn, Patton never seems short of things to do. His output has been consistent not only in its frequency, but in its randomness.

His latest spate of releases comes in the forms of a beat-juggling turntable collaboration with Brooklyn DJ crew the X-Ecutioners (also known as the X-Men) in February, and, most recently, a mile-a-minute tribute to cartoon music (and to the month of April) with Fantomas, released, you guessed it, in April (Both on his label Ipecac Recordings). Before taking off for a Fantomas tour, Patton took some time to chat with Indie Study about his influences, the art of collaboration and his love affair with the turntable.

Independent Study: How did John Zorn come into your life and how did you guys start collaborating?

Mike Patton: I approached him with the idea of working together on one of the first Mr. Bungle recordings. I was a fan of him before that and had some of his records and thought, well this guy could bring something to the table and we'd never made a record before, so we were infinitely insecure about what to do in a studio and how to handle it.

IS: So that was the first time you guys had ever been in a studio to do anything?

MP: Yeah, exactly.

IS: He's a pretty big name to get for your first studio recording and it seemed like it would be kind of intimidating

MP: I guess I didn't know better (laughs). If I admire someone's music I'll walk up to 'em and tell 'em. That's basically how it started. I went to a show of his and cornered him and said “Listen to this, I think you might like it and I'd love for you to work with us.” And he got right back to me and it kind of went from there and we've been close friends ever since.

IS: I bring him up is because your new record is probably the closest or most realized version of some element of his, along the lines of Naked City. It's so complete for me. You stretch out quite a bit on it. How was it putting this together as far as the collaboration with the X-Ecutioners, and how did that start and how did you end up composing?

MP: Uh... let's see here... (laughs) You were telling me that you liked the record and I was scrambling trying to figure out which one you were talking about (laughs).

IS: I can't imagine what your life is like now. You've got so much going on that it's gotta be hard to keep up. But yeah, this Independent Study is about the X-Ecutioners record.

MP: Gotcha. Ok, thanks. (laughs) I was fakin' it before.

IS: So after working with Dan the Automator and with turntablism and all the dread and playfulness of death metal... How have these influences come into your compositional space over the last few years?

MP: Well, speaking about the X-Men in general, I had wanted to make a turntable record for probably six or seven years and just really didn't know who the hell to do it with. Over that span of time I played with a lot of different guys and that was my way of getting my feet wet. I was like, OK, I'm fascinated with the instrument and I know there are some guys that are masters of it. I've gotta go out there and learn a little bit about what's possible, what people do what people's comfort zones are and really whether or not I could write for it at all.

IS: Have you learned any turntable technique?

MP: God no! Myself? No no. I know better (laughs). I watch these guys do this s--- and I just back off and bow my head. So I played with a couple of different guys and I played with the X-Men individually and I really enjoyed their attitudes. A lot of guys were really great and really technical and really super proficient and really had a language, but were they open to necessarily trying, open to going outside of doing what they normally do? Not a lot of guys were. And there was really no reason for me to make a straight up turntable record. I couldn't do that.

IS: Well you don't want to force someone who isn't into the idea at all...

MP: These guys had that appetite. I could see it in their eyes. They were not necessarily sick of what they were doing but were really really ready to go somewhere, really open. Basically what I told them to do, I said, “Here's a crate of records.” I basically gave them a crate of records and said “Here's your palette. I want you to use this as your paintbrush and do your thing, but do it with a bunch of different sounds.” I think that first and foremost a lot of turntable artists end up using really the same sounds over and over and they really get recycled. There's a heavy turnover rate. So that was kind of my first instinct. It was “well I don't wanna hear any of that” or if so, very little. I want it to be mixed in with a bunch of stuff that you're not normally used to hearing them scratch and juggle.

IS: The record comes off as sort of a love letter to all of your influences, and handing them that crate, you're pretty much pre-selecting what they're going to be able to play with.

MP: Yeah, well, they were ... suggestions. They ended up obviously using a lot of their own stuff. But, as opposed to writing pieces for them, this is kind of like an improv record with a selected tone palette, really. I just said, “Do whatever you want. Give me a bunch of really short cut-up pieces, give me some groove pieces with song structure, give me some ambient pieces, give me a bunch of sound effects and I'll do the rest.” They sent me back a bunch of blocks of sound, basically, and they adhered to most of the requests that I put in and from there I sliced it and diced it, chopped it up, added a bunch of instruments and vocals and kind of did it really as something in my spare time.

For a spare time thing, “General Patton vs. The X-ecutioners” comes off mighty well. In the same vein as Mr. Bungle’s chopped up style twisting, Patton’s foray into turntable producing is a whopper of a sound feast. There are head-bobbing deep beats shoved right up against ’40s era ballroom jazz and kung-fu movie samples. Between the scrabbled bits of sounds there exists a dark universe held together by Patton’s bizarre vocal play and occasional croon.

IS: So what was the process of making this thing? It seems like it would be kind of a solitary collaboration.

MP: Well that was kind of the way I wanted to do it. it seemed like the most hassle-free approach to give us the best results. Getting all of the guys in a room with me and kind of directing them like a band, I realized might not work as well. I realized it would take much more time and I wouldn't have had all of the freedoms I had doing it this way.

IS: How different is that from working with Buzz (Osborne of The Melvins and Fantomas) and the other guys?

MP: It's completely different. They're a band, I get them in a room, I send them tapes, have them learn stuff, note-for-note, or noise-for-noise, and I get them in a room after they've had a chance to study it and get it under their belts and we hammer it out. I'm actually about to start that tomorrow.

IS: What are you guys doing?

MP: We're doing a tour for a new Fantomas record that's coming out in April.

“Suspended Animation” is a torrent of agitated quick-hit death metal mixed in with samples ripped right out of your favorite childhood cartoons. One listen and you’ll get sent back to sitting in front of the TV and feeling sorry for Droopy Dog. Only with Fantomas, Droopy Dog reaches out of the TV, grabs you by the neck and just keeps shaking.

IS: I was listening to the last Fantomas thing, “Delirium Cordia” (a giant 73-minute single composition), and I bring up Zorn again because you're taking sort of a similar path in a lot of ways because that reminded me a lot of his “Leng Tch'e” or “Grand Guignol” or those large pieces.

MP: Like "Elegy," yeah.

IS: Right. There's this combination that you and he share where there's a fascination with those little micro pieces like on this X-men record and then there are these really wide open creepy spaces like on “Delirium.” What is it about those two things that you love?

MP: Well, especially with Fantomas, i'm just trying to stretch out what the band can do. Figuring out, really on the job or on recordings, what I can or can't get away with. And it's really empowering to have musicians like that that can play anything. I realized a couple of records ago, wow, I'm gonna have to really bring something to the table cause these guys chew it up and spit it out they can really play anything and it's a great feeling to know that you have that sort of firepower behind you. Maybe even a few years ago, I knew we were going to have to make a very quiet, ambient wallpaper-style background record and then I thought, especially after a record of a bunch of really short pieces it seemed like a logical left turn. It makes a lot of sense to me. No two of our records are really going to sound too much alike and that is really an extension of the way I listen to music and the way I write. I'm fortunate to have guys like this behind me that an pull it off and bring it to life, y'know?

IS: You're pretty much the general on the X-Ecutioners record. But how does it work when you have three other musicians who are really talented and have ideas as well, like in Fantomas, in communicating what you want to do as a composition?

MP: In a way sometimes collaborating is more difficult because you have to listen (laughs). The composing is kind of done in advance. This is long before you go into the rehearsal room or the studio or any of that. All the real work is done. And that's done alone. My canvas is the studio. I'm not a trained musician, I can't write stuff down on paper, other than a few little pictures to trick my mind into remembering certain things. But basically, the only way of documenting my s--- is by pressing record. So I spend a lot of time in the studio and I really write a lot of the stuff in the studio, especially with the X-Men stuff. I knew vaguely what I wanted it to sound like.  I knew that I wanted four or five different approaches on there but I didn't really know how to execute it until I was in the studio and doing it and going “No that's wrong and yes this is right.” So in a way, a record like that, there's more than two cents, there's like six or eight cents. There's a lot more information to digest and process and a lot more egos to massage and a lot more visions to accommodate.

IS: That's the hard part, it seems to me. Accommodating people's visions. In a way, it's kind of like middle managing or something, where you have to kind of give them a little breathing room for what they want but then go “wait, no, I gotta do it like this.”

MP: Well, yeah, even in Fantomas, where I do write everything and tell them what to do and they do it, they always do it better than I tell them to! It's always better than I imagine. So in a way, they're really putting their own stamp on it no matter what. I try and write solos for everybody, keep everybody happy, not focus too much on one guy, you know. You gotta make sure that everyone's personality is accounted for. But you know, once I started getting to know these guys, I started writing for those personalities. Once I realized how great Dave's (Lombardo, formerly the drummer from Slayer) feet were, I wouldn't let 'em rest (laughs). There's constant double bass.

IS: I don't personally have a ton the X-Ecutioners’ records, but I can't tell where you start and they end and vice versa.

MP: That's great! Mission accomplished then. Because a lot of that stuff really is editing. Some of it's straight up samples. Some of that is entire tracks that they did and I just added some instruments to.

IS: Let's get specific, if you don't mind geeking out on this thing. The middle third of that record sounds like it's all you. It's all short bits and really interesting instrumentation and samples. There are a couple of tracks like “Vaqueros y Indio” and “Precision Guided Needle Dropping” and stuff like that where it is bump-and-grind, stop-start composition. What kind of role did they play on that?

MP: The "Vaqueros" one is actually pretty much a complete Latin tune that they scratched over. And it was not so filled out. I added a bunch of instruments to it and I processed the living hell out of it and added vocals, obviously, and the cut up pieces on either side of that. They sent me a bunch of sound effects that they were scratching. I used those, put them on top of other little ideas that I had. It was really kind of a musical yard sale, really. There's a lot of different things going on there.

IS: And conversely, there are tracks on there like “Kamikaze! (Take a Piece of Me)” where it sounds like they produced something for you and then you just went on top of it.

MP: For the most part I arranged it. It was only a couple of bars long and I kind of made a song out of it. Came up with a chorus and a verse, added some guitars and other instruments and that was it. But yeah that's their thing, that's them. I wanted to make sure there was a tune on there that was obviously beat juggling cause that's really their forte.

IS: With the direction you're going in, you're taking experimental music and then you're throwing it into that tangent of hip hop and turntable that hasn't been done, that nobody yet in the space of avant-garde has really messed around with.

MP: Or in the world of hip hop. I have been fascinated with the turntable for a long time because of the sheer speed they can work at. You can change genres and sounds as quickly as you can drop a needle. I really wanted to showcase that and highlight that because I don't think that side of it gets shown off enough. When it does it's more in a sporting context in those DJ battles. And no one's really listening to the music they're watching guys do backflips, basically.

IS: Breakdancing for each other...

MP: Yeah. They're watching technical aspects, instead of musical ones. I wanted to make music and really, like you said, this is a love affair with the turntable and I really wanted to really take what I do and weave it into that. There's times when I definitely take a backseat because I wanted to do what these things can do. It's really a powerful instrument and I think that it doesn't get exploited enough, you know?

IS: You see sort of this weak use of the turntable in some of the recent bands like Limp Bizkit and all that crap.

MP: It's like a f------ token.

IS: Right. They throw a guy back there who happens to have a couple of records, and he's Asian or something, and they just say "Ok, go ahead. You go be Mr. DJ."

MP: Just stand back there and look cool, yeah.

IS: You talked about the last Fantomas thing being one side, where you have extreme spaces, and then this record with these extreme small cuts. It seems to me like the middle ground is something like Tomahawk, where there's still that rock-oriented stuff.

MP: Yeah yeah, Tomahawk's a rock band...

IS: And stuff like Handsome Boy Modeling School and Lovage... it's more of a middle ground.

MP: All of those examples are really other people's projects that I try to add something to. Which is kind of a nice challenge in a way. I'm kind of a sideman. I try and maintain a balance in the things I do. Especially when Tomahawk came along, as well with Lovage, I think I was doing a lot of improv stuff and a lot of extreme noise stuff and I thought really I don't want the teeter-totter to go too much one way. I really have still a lot of pop music in me, I think. And I think you can hear it a little bit in everything I do. The idea of really having a visceral rock band to play with live that I didn't have to think about too much seemed really appealing to me. Same with Lovage. Lovage is really more of a cabaret show. It's fun stuff to do and really kind of like small vacations for me in context of what I normally do.

IS: Would you ever imagine doing a folk record? Like, sitting down with a guitar and recording songs and singing them as straight as possible as a departure because that would be the most odd thing for you to do, to me.

MP: Maybe if Mark Ribot was the guitarist (laughs)

IS: Yeah, you wouldn't be sitting up there alone.

MP: No. Y'know I've wanted to do a record of, like a piano bar record for a long time just me and a piano. And write for that. I think that'd be really fun. I mean, you know, obviously man, there's still a whole world out there, there's a million things left to do.

IS: I'm glad you're so excited about this still, about music.

MP: Gotta be.