Mike Patton: A Singer With Energy

The Associated Press Wednesday, October 13 1999 01:11 PM EDT

NEW YORK (AP) - A grin spreads across singer Mike Patton's face as he considers the notion of someone remixing the latest musical creation by his band Mr. Bungle.

Patton, whose devilish countenance is accentuated by a scruffy goatee and hair that is greased and slicked back, dismisses the rumor as ``a bunch of hot air'' meant to stir publicity for ``California,'' Mr. Bungle's third record in nearly 10 years.

There was speculation that the producer for Grammy Award-winning singer Lauryn Hill had expressed interest.

It might have helped ``if we would've paid him half-a-million,'' Patton cracks as he sits tucked away inside a wooden booth at a downtown club.

The idea of someone trying to decode the album's labyrinthine track sheets is mind-boggling. On one track is a bongo, tom-tom, three guitar notes and backward cymbal. ``Seriously, it's ridiculous,'' the 31-year-old musician said. ``You need a dictionary to decipher what's going on in that music.''

Mr. Bungle's music exists on the outer limits of the avant-garde. Its place on the musical spectrum is surrounded by the likes of Frank Zappa, film composer Ennio Morricone and 20th-century composer Iannis Xenakis. The band has been together 15 years, since Patton was a teen-ager in Eureka, Calif. Yet Patton is most recognizable as the vocalist for Faith No More, which disbanded earlier this year.

Patton joined Faith No More 10 years ago, while continuing his association with Mr. Bungle. He brought talent and inventiveness into the wearisome realm of alternative music, armed with a brash attitude and a dynamic voice capable of bellowing out a death metal growl or a lilting angelic whisper.

While Mr. Bungle is known only in limited circles, Faith No More was more closely aligned with mainstream rock radio and MTV. The band's popularity grew after Patton's arrival, but the newcomer was unimpressed and bored by the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. He agitated the situation by offering candid and controversial drivel about his curious habits, ideas and obsessions. His onstage antics, some befitting a freak show, didn't help and bestowed upon him the mystique of a mad genius.

``I think the press picked up so much on it because there was no other angle to grab on to, meaning I don't think they understood the music,'' he said.

But being connected to the mainstream had its advantages. On the 1990 video for ``Epic,'' Faith No More's biggest song, Patton seized the opportunity to promote Mr. Bungle by donning one of the band's T-shirts. A record contract with Warner Bros. followed.

Mr. Bungle's first album was a genre-hopping roller coaster ride littered with plenty of raw humor and a variety of snippets taken from many sources, including porn films, field recordings of the band hopping trains and a 1950s educational skit featuring a puppet, from which the band took its name. The album was a collision of jazz, speed metal and carnival music.

``California'' is a surprisingly linear album, even by mainstream standards. Though it covers just as much ground as its predecessors - from Romanian gypsy music to '50s doo-wop - it works best as a cohesive album rather than a disjointed crash course in musicology.

That the band has remained on a major label for so many years is ``really kind of an achievement and pretty surprising,'' Patton said.

Could Ipecac Recordings, his new independent record label, ever sustain Mr. Bungle?

``At this point, we've learned to live on a major label and we're used to that kind of diet,'' he said. ``Bungle is a pain. Bungle demands a lot.''

The recording process for ``California'' at times required several 24-track machines and more than 50 analog tracks. The backbone of the band's current live show is a medley of synthesizers and electronic accessories. ``It's pretty new for most of us - learning that whole language, sampling, editing, programming,'' he said.

Absent from the band's current tour are its trademark masks and outfits, due to the increased demands of the music. Patton, who once hid behind bondage masks, wears a floral-print shirt and khaki pants to match the tour's California-tourist theme.

Band members had to surrender their personal and social lives for a few months to prepare for the tour. For Patton, the sacrifice was a labor of love. ``I don't really live anywhere. San Francisco is my home, but I go back and forth to Italy because my wife lives there.''

He also divides his time among various musical projects.

Fantomas, an avant-garde group, evolved out of what Patton said is his frustration with the unimaginative state of death metal music. Fantomas' debut album is difficult to digest in one sitting. But taken individually, its 30 tracks - some only several seconds long - provide a refreshing take on the genre.

For another project, Patton is blending the sounds of a small choir, live strings, a DJ and plenty of his laudable crooning.

Both will be released on Ipecac, whose eclectic roster includes grunge godfathers the Melvins, Japanese noise artist Merzbow and The Kids From Widney High, a group of mentally challenged youngsters who opened Mr. Bungle's first two shows on the recent tour.

``It was like a really emotional experience because what's coming off the stage is ... 100 percent real and that's a pretty precious commodity. Ninety percent of the bands you see in nightclubs these days don't have that and these guys did, and it was pretty deep, a really beautiful thing. They were smoking.''

Patton wants to take his ideas, energy and obsessions and give them structure and a viable medium. ``When I was in Faith No More, people assumed it was the real deal and I was joking around with all the rest of it. ... And now people will assume that Mr. Bungle is where I'm sincere. I have to dedicate a little more time to Mr. Bungle, absolutely, it's a touring band. A lot of my other projects are studio projects, you do the record and it's over.

``To me, it's all important.''