Sunday, 6 September 2015

Mike Patton: Music’s Unsung Renaissance Man

August 1990, Melbourne, Australia: It was a typical Saturday morning, where one of my first actions upon waking up was switch on the TV to watch ‘Video Hits’ (a music show similar to MTV). However this particular morning was different. Amongst the usual generic pop hits was a song, accompanied by an equally standout video clip, that would become an important part of my life to this day. An artificial rainstorm thundered around a colourfully-attired band performing amongst the chaos of the ‘storm’ and vivid surreal imagery on a flooded soundstage. The music was a stunningly unique combination of alternative metal and lyrics sung in a style alternating between rap and melodic. The powerhouse drumming of Mike Bordin; Billy Gould’s signature deep bass rhythms; graceful, soaring keyboards and classical piano care of Roddy Bottum, guitarist Jim Martin’s killer riffs and indeed ‘epic’ solos; and last but most certainly not least the inimitable vocal stylings of the lead singer, Mike Patton. The song was called ‘Epic’ and the band Faith No More. ‘Epic’ would be the band’s breakthrough hit, rapidly climbing to the top of the charts in Australia and reaching a respectable number 9 in North America.

Little-known within his home country apart from his contribution to ‘Epic’, San Francisco native Mike Patton is arguably one of the most talented, innovate and creative artists of his generation. Also a multi-instrumentalist, producer, songwriter, composer, actor and record label co-owner, Patton is often vastly and unfairly underrated due to being judged as a ‘one-hit wonder’, “that guy who sung ‘Epic’”. Not that that bothers him at all, being sharp and cynical enough from the beginning of his career to avoid the pitfalls of fame. Patton has chosen to follow his own path, living his dream of being able to perform and produce the music he wants to rather than being moulded into a corporate puppet. An accomplished vocalist of the highest tier, Patton’s mind-blowingly versatile repertoire consists of intense screams, soulful crooning, falsetto, rapping, death growls and opera, amongst many other techniques. Vintage Vinyl News website noted Patton’s 6 octave, 1/2 note range (Eb1 to E7), declaring him “the greatest singer of all time”. So who exactly is this – often misunderstood -  ‘Man of 1000 Voices’, once described as “one of the most enigmatic and unpredictable personalities in rock music”? (Drever 2003). And what drives him to continually build his wildly experimental, prolific and intimidating discography?
Born in Eureka, California on 27 January 1968 to a high-school PE teacher father and social worker mother, Michael Allan Patton was raised in a considerably isolated environment. His childhood home was in the midst of a forest 20 minutes away from Eureka, with no nearby neighbours.  What is exceptionally remarkable about Patton’s phenomenal talent is that he never received any formal musical training growing up, save high school music lessons. “From a young age I was definitely imitating birds, but I didn’t know it at the time. This is what my parents tell me. Once I started making these weird sounds with my voice, they gave me this little flexi-disc of mouth sounds, like guys that could make odd sounds. I don’t know why they gave it to me, but that was one of my favorite records. It all comes from what I’ve discovered and the things I’ve been able to try. Play with a saxophone player and a drummer, see what happens. I’m not a studied, learned, academic musician.” (Simonini 2013).
A rabid music fan from a young age, Patton formed the band Mr Bungle in 1984 with some Eureka High School classmates. Initially beginning as a death metal act, Mr Bungle were to later diversify their sound, branching out into genres from everything to ska to jazz to techno  - often in the course of a single track. 
Patton further whetted his musical appetite by frequently helping himself to records from the music store where he worked part-time (as revenge to his underpaying boss), and driving 200 miles to San Francisco on school nights to see a myriad of alternative and metal shows (Godley 1990). Patton become a familiar face at local act Faith No More’s regular gigs; soon becoming notorious for loudly blasting demo tapes of Mr Bungle within earshot of everyone and anyone. This soon caught the attention of FNM guitarist Jim Martin. “He’d heard a death metal demo of Mr Bungle and assumed Mike was some big, fat, bearded guy who drunk Guinness and whiskey 24 hours a day. Needless to say, he was quite surprised to find an all-out, clean-living, untainted American boy.” (Morris 1995). Martin played the tape to other band members (who were fed up with then-lead singer Chuck Mosley’s drug-induced erratic behaviour; the last straw being Mosley falling asleep on stage during the release party for their 1987 album ‘Introduce Yourself’). Impressed by the precocious metal growls of the still-teenaged Patton, the band soon fired Mosley, replacing him in January 1989 with the energetic, vocally-superior Patton, who abandoned his English studies at Humboldt State University for the golden opportunity to up his status as Faith No More supergroupie to lead singer. Designated the task of writing the lyrics for the band’s upcoming album The Real Thing, Patton completed this in a mere two weeks. The Real Thing was to become Faith No More’s breakthrough album upon its release in mid-1989, thanks to the worldwide success of its single ‘Epic’. An unforgettably unique, yet ‘mainstream’ and catchy enough for the masses, masterpiece of alternative metal, the equally striking music video received frequent airplay on MTV.

Embarking on a gruelling 18-month long world tour with the band, it was the first time the young musician had moved out of home or travelled outside of the country. It should be noted that Patton coped remarkably well with his whirlwind success, considering he was of a completely non-showbiz connected family and had no previous media coaching. His heightened level of cynicism and extreme disdain for the banalities of mainstream popular culture kept him away from becoming entangled in the heady rock star world of sex, drugs and the usual overindulgences that often tempt newly-minted stars. Remarked Billy Gould in 1995, “I have to say I didn’t like Mike the first couple of years he was in the band, I thought some of the things he did were pretty immature. But he’s done really well. When he joined the band he was a fucking brat, an arrogant little baby, a child. He looked awful but he was the only guy we tried that really worked, but he had to take a fucking lot on. Here was this unsophisticated kid who’d never sipped alcohol before, never been in a bar, and we were all these crusty fucking guys. I felt pretty responsible for bringing this nice happy kid into this band, but he sang well.” (Morris 1995).Though some of his coping mechanisms were unorthodox – his most notorious being a series of gross-out ‘pranks’ such as pissing in his own boot then drinking the contents on stage, allegedly defecating in an orange juice carton, sealing it and returning it to Axl Rose’s tour bus vending machine, pouring a bottle of urine over his head during a South American show, stunning the audience into shocked silence,  and at a particularly raucous concert in Chile, encouraging the crowd to spit on him and to try and aim at his mouth – the obliging masses enthusiastically creating a wave of phlegm that went crashing on Patton. Then there was the ‘mythical’ Video Macumba compilation tape he edited together on the road – inspired by shockumentaries, Patton cobbled together a series of gruesome clips including coprophagia, BDSM, disgraced politician R. Budd Dwyer's on-camera suicide as well as footage from various Italian Mondo movies. Only two other copies were produced apart from the master tape – one for Sepultura’s founding singer Max Cavalera and another for João Gordo of Ratos de Porão, both whom Patton had become friends with during FMN’s Brazilian leg of their world tour. Inevitably dupes leaked out, becoming highly coveted bootleg items. “Mike had embarked on a frenzied expedition, wanting to experience as many extremes as he could, as quickly as possible, in his own inimitable style. His low-rent, unpredictable antics, shit terrorism and seedy obsessions with sado-masochism to narcissistic pornography, soon became infamous, if not eventually all too predictable.” (Morris 1995).

Though this may not be considered the most mature and dignified way of ‘letting off steam’ from the pressures of unexpected stardom, these extreme pranks were Patton’s adrenaline rush in place of the traditional sex and drugs route which he loathed to be pigeonholed in. The unexpected success of Faith No More enabled Patton to secure a record deal with Warner Brothers with his other band, Mr Bungle, releasing their debut album of the same name in 1991.

Faith No More’s image and sound drastically changed for the follow-up to The Real Thing, 1992’s Angel Dust. Gone were the bright colours of The Real Thing era, making way for an overall more grungier look and far more expansive sound, even venturing into offbeat Tom Waits territory at one point. Including Patton, whose image overhaul included cutting his long locks and trading in the spandex bike shorts, hi-top sneakers and lurid T-shirts for air force jackets, combat boots and dark jeans. His most other notable change was vocally – he incorporated a wider, more impressive range of vocal techniques, branching out from his nasal (but still outstanding) vocals of The Real Thing. This transformation was not received well in America, where hair metal was still very popular and there was a general expectation for the band to continue with the old sound and image. As well as for Patton to play up to his ‘teen hunk’ good looks, which was NOT going to happen. The rest of the band also refused to become corporate-approved crowd pleasers, happily preferring to remain outsiders on the U.S. hard rock circuit. During their tour supporting Guns N’ Roses, Patton remarked “Our job is just to be ourselves and not to suck corporate dick. But I’m looking forward to playing the smaller venues on our own tour after this. I just can’t imagine this band becoming as big as Metallica. I don’t think I’d enjoy it.” (Watts 1992, p.51).
Although Angel Dust achieved gold status in the States, it was still considered a commercial failure there, especially as all of its singles failed to chart on the Billboard Top 100 singles charts (with the exception of the radio-friendly Commodores cover ‘Easy’, which scraped in at 58). However, Angel Dust went on to become Faith No More's best-selling album outside the United States, selling an estimated 3 million copies and the band and Patton accumulating huge fanbases in Australia, South America and all around Europe.

In late 1994, Patton surprised everybody by marrying his Italian girlfriend of two years, artist and interior designer Cristina Zuccatosta at a small family reception.  Enamoured with Italian culture, Patton eventually went on to become fluent in the language. He bought a house in his wife’s home town, Bologna. Patton had seemly ‘grown up’. His love of Italy has always been apparent in his music and movie choices, having long admired the prodigious body of work of composer Ennio Morricone (Mr Bungle performed near-perfect renditions of Morricone tracks ‘Citta Violenta’, ‘La Lucertola’ and ‘Metti, Una Sera Cera’ live; Fantomas covered ‘Investigation of A Citizen Above Suspicion’ on The Director’s Cut; and for Mondo Cane Patton sung ‘Deep Down’ and ‘Quello che conta’). Also a vocal fan of Italian horror and exploitation cinema – Mondo Cane is named after the notorious 1962 shockumentary from that country – Patton once named amongst his five favourite films at the time Black Sunday, Cannibal Holocaust and Slave of the Cannibal God (Chainsaw 2001, p.46). Even his look since 1997, comprising of jet-black slicked hair and immaculately sharp suits, is akin to that of a Godfather-like Mafia don or old-school Italian movie producer. Notoriously guarded about his personal life, particularly in regards to relationships and family, his usual replies to these questions are “None of your goddamn business”, or an outrageously fictitious response. Patton has no interest in making his private life a 24-hour Kardashian-like media circus – he is happy to share his music with the world, but not at the expense of the privacy of his family.

With the newlywed Patton and band tensions simmering after Jim Martin’s demise from Faith No More (though some are of the opinion that Patton engineered the firing of Martin in 1994, there had already been constant squabbles and infighting between the guitarist and the other members long since Patton joined the band), 1995’s King for a Day, Fool for a Lifetime - a more guitar-based album than its predecessor - noticeably had a more ‘relaxed’ air to it. Whilst even more of a commercial failure in the band’s home country than Angel Dust, the album was once again a smash hit around Europe and Australasia. Faith No More would release one final album – the ironically-titled Album of the Year   before announcing their breakup in April 1998, with Billy Gould issuing the press statements “The decision among the members is mutual" and "...the split will now enable each member to pursue his individual projects unhindered." (Faith No More, 2014, para. 18).

Patton seemingly did not devote any of his newly freed-up time post-FNM to idle pursuits, immediately throwing himself into what many would consider a workaholic schedule to this day. While still frontman of Faith No More, Patton had already completed two solo works – Adult Themes for Voice (composed entirely of vocal effects with tracks titled ‘Porno Holocaust’, ‘Red Mouth, Black Orgasm’ and ‘A Lizard with the Skin of Woman’) and Pranzo Oltranzista. Also in 1995 he and his Mr Bungle bandmates released the tremendous Disco Volante, a volcanic cocktail of death metal, jazz, techno and Middle Eastern and Italian horror soundtrack influences.  Patton went to release one more album with Bungle, 1999’s California (a more ‘poppier’ effort than its predecessor but still extraordinarily innovate and in no way mainstream) before their eventual split. 

Patton continued to collaborate on and release a staggering, incredibly eclectic output of music. Also in 1998 he formed the ‘supergroup’ Fantomas with Slayer’s Dave Lombardo, Buzz Osborne from The Melvins and his old colleague Trevor Dunn from Mr Bungle. Influenced by hardcore/death metal, film soundtracks and cartoon music, it is almost offensive to simply describe the music of Fantomas as ‘unique’.

The following year he co-founded the record label Ipecac Recordings with Greg Werkman, the former label manager of Alternative Tentacles. The pair, already good friends, had been wanting to set up a record label together for some time, and with their new venture vowed to be a honest, artist-friendly label run at a low cost, with no outrageous promotional or production costs. Ipecac became the new home of Patton’s many varied musical collaborations and also a place where bands he and Werkman admired could release music they wouldn’t necessarily have to chance to on other labels.  Patton stated that his goals for the label were: “To put out interesting releases that we enjoy. To treat artists with the utmost respect, to be unique and of course to have a proper home for my music.” (Sheaffe 2003, p.27.) And, as Patton indeed clarified in a more blunt manner to Kerrang: “Would this work on a major label with hundred thousand dollar budgets? Probably not. It’s a different world. That world’s not about doing what you can do to make the artist happy, it’s not about music, it’s about spend spend spend and get the band in debt and keep them drunk and happy and that’s that. We keep the costs low, pay the band a reasonable amount; how much do you need to record, they get in there, they do it cheap. One of the things you realise is, it’s your money! So don’t go to some expensive studio and hire some guy to hold your golf clubs, just make your fucking record and get the fuck out of there! You’ll be happier for it in the long run because you’ll get paid for what you do. [Whispering] You might make some money on your records! It’s a totally different way of thinking, but it works.” (Yates 2003, p.30).
The Mike Patton of the new millennium continues to astound, surprise and exceed expectations with each of his projects, effortlessly genre-hopping and mining a seemingly endless pit of creativity. Amongst a myriad of other jaw-dropping aural endeavours, Patton has performed in experimental alt rock act Tomahawk (another supergroup comprising of ex-The Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison, former Helmet drummer John Stanier, and Melvins bassist Kevin Rutmanis) and Peeping Tom, best described as an alternative rock/electronica/trip hop outfit comprising of a wishlist of collaborators whom Patton hoped would perform on the tracks, including Massive Attack, Norah Jones and Rahzel. Considered his long-awaited ‘pop’ project (or as close to the genre as he’ll get), Patton quipped upon release of Peeping Tom in 2007: “I don't listen to the radio, but if I did, this is what I'd want it to sound like. This is my version of pop music. In a way, this is an exercise for me: taking all these things I've learned over the years and putting them into a pop format. I've worked with many people who have said to me, 'oh you have a pop record in you, eventually you'll find it,' and I always laughed at them. I guess I owe them an apology.” (Peeping Tom, 2014, para. 10).
2010’s Mondo Cane was Patton’s love letter to 1950’s and 1960’s Italian pop music, a genre he became acquainted with when living in Bologna and hearing songs from the era repeatedly played on the radio there. Featuring a forty-member orchestra, fifteen-piece backing band, and a choir, Patton’s passionate, emotive vocals are a perfect match and the combination makes for a remarkable tribute to the songs covered. Vowing to avoid simply mimicking the original recordings, he stated "...this is a record of covers, and I believe firmly that you have to make them your own. There is a very fine line to tread. You have to treat a song with respect, yet twist it up, fuck it up and somehow make it a part of your own voice". (Mondo Cane, 2014, para. 6).
In his post Faith No More years Patton has also ventured into other fields outside of music. An avid video game player, he has completed voiceovers for several game characters. His vocal skills have also been utilised in cinema, providing the demonic roar of the creature of the 2007 blockbuster I Am Legend. Patton has even tried his hand at acting in the 2005 indie thriller Firecracker, starring alongside Karen Black and giving a credible performance as not one but two characters – an abusive, repulsive, white trash alcoholic, and as a demented carnival owner who torments the hapless Black.
Much to the surprise and shock of fans, Faith No More unexpectedly reformed again in early 2009 for a series of successful worldwide reunion tours throughout that year and occasional spots in 2011 and 2012. Notably during a 2012 concert in Moscow, the band, enraged at the arrest of members of the all-female punk activist group/collective Pussy Riot, insisted as a precondition that the other members of Pussy Riot appear on stage in support of their cause. During their set, whist Mike Patton and co took a break, the Pussy Riot women took to the stage wearing knit masks, holding up signal flares and chanting anti-government slogans and calling for the release of their jailed colleagues.  FNM then returned after the break, clad in the same headwear and Pussy Riot T-shirts, belting out ‘We Care a Lot’.
In relation to his support of Pussy Riot, Mike Patton has long championed and collaborated with creative, innovative and intelligent women in the arts. He made a guest appearance on Bjork’s 2004 album Medulla  – the two had been mutual fans of each other’s work for years. Though Patton separated from Cristina Zuccatosta in 2001, they remain friends. A chic and striking, vividly tattooed, raven-haired beauty, Cristina has been an obvious inspiration for Patton throughout his discography and she has also provided graphic design work for some of his projects (including the pop-art cover design for Fantomas’ debut album). He has expressed open disdain at the sexual objectification of women in the music world, a notable example when he stormed out in disgust after witnessing Guns ‘N Roses notorious backstage ‘antics’. FMN keyboardist Roddy Bottum recalls “We went into this trailer, which was filled with guys. Everyone was dead silent. Everyone was looking at something going on in the back. Lying on a bench were these two really out-of-it women, stark naked. One was eating the other out, but it was anything but sexy. The girl who was being eaten out looked like she was dead. It was so creepy. All you could hear was the whir of the video camera. My lead singer started yelling, “Oh my God! I cannot believe you people would do this!” Everyone just shushed us, and we all left immediately.” (Loud 1993). Tellingly, Patton stated during his 90’s FMN years in relation to groupies and why he’d rather masturbate than sleep with one: “It’s got nothing to do with sex. It’s like vampirism. I’m their transfusion”. (Scanlon 1992, p.36).
Rather than being worshipped by female fans for his looks and them throwing themselves to him as ‘offerings’, Patton prefers and is much more comfortable interacting with them as equals, chatting about common interests.  I had the honour of meeting Mike Patton in 2007 during a CD signing session in Melbourne, and though I only had limited time with him due to the length of the queue eagerly awaiting autographs, I was able to ask him what his favourite Italian horror/thriller movies were (a nerd question I’d been dying to know the answer to for ages). Clearly not expecting that sort of a question, I managed to stump the usually ultra quick-witted Patton for a few moments while he said “Oh man there’s so many, it’s hard for me to think of some.” After some umming and errrring, he named Argento’s giallos up to Profondo Rosso as his top choices, as well as Elio Petri’s Investigations of a Citizen Above Suspicion (a cover version of the title track can be found on Fantomas’ The Director’s Cut.

People often misconstrue Patton’s appalling social skills as arrogance, or the usual, tedious self-destructive desire to make his gloriously wealthy rock n’ roll star existence as depressing as possible. Patton’s self-destructive nature is not part of a marketable personality. Seemingly, there are no ulterior motives other than to satisfy his own limitless curiosity and, if he’s lucky, maybe shock a few people in the process.” Billy Gould offered a revealing insight into Patton’s persona in 1995: “Mike feels self-conscious about having someone care about what he’s thinking. It’s almost like he’s ashamed or something. He doesn’t think he’s very interesting, and I think he feels insulted that there’s an industry that would care what he thinks when he feels like he’s just some regular guy.” (Morris 1995).
For someone who has garnered much critical and fan-based praise throughout his career, Patton does not appear to have outwardly developed any sort of ego. Rather his reaction has been of modesty, surprise and even anger when his contribution to music is acknowledged. Notoriously guarded when questioned about the ‘meaning’ of his lyrics, Patton openly despises  any attempt to intellectualise his music, stating “The idea, at least in rock and pop culture, that the singer is on some pedestal in Speaker’s Corner – I’ve just never subscribed to that. I’m not a poet. I’m not up onstage to get something off my chest. I’m making musical statements, or, most of the time, musical questions for people to figure out, and I’m not going to get in the way of that.” (Simonini 2013). This could simply be a honest dislike of pretension and desire to “keep it real”. Or perhaps, a deep-rooted fear of his perceived ‘failures’ and ‘mistakes’ being pointed out and highlighted. The more interviews one reads and hears from Patton, the more apparent the almost impossibly high standards of perfection he sets for himself are. What on the surface appears to be light-hearted  self-deprecation is actually harsh self-criticism – he has admitted to only seeing the ‘flaws’ in his work and that listening to his own music is unbearable as he always finds areas where he could have improved himself. “For the most part that can kind of be an uncomfortable experience. Rather than, wow, man, that’s incredible, it’s more like, damn it, that guitar should have been louder, or I’m so flat on that note or this is mixed so bad...These are the things that you hear. Usually what I hear are mistakes.”  (Yates 2003, p.30). However, in more recent years, Patton has began to take a more – slightly – relaxed – approach. “I have a hard time listening to my music. Like if you put on my record I’d just start cringing right now...because if I really were to sit down and listen, I hear the mistakes. You don’t hear the good things. But that’s changed a little recently. When you get older, you let go a little more...all the mistakes are little tiny technical things, anyway, like I shouldn’t have sung that that way, or, Oh I was flat there. It’s not like, Oh, I shouldn’t have made this record. Because I feel like even if maybe I don’t like a particular record, it was a step in the process and I must have learned something from it. I think that’s more of a mature viewpoint.” (Simonini 2013). Likewise, Patton is baffled at the lengths some of his fans go to in their reverence of him. “If I can affect somebody with something I doing in some way, that’s fantastic, but you don’t have to go out and start a fucking website or do any of that fucking shit.” (Yates 2003, p.30). “It’s amazing to me that people have paid enough attention to what I’ve done to even shake a stick at it. Especially as I haven’t made it easy...As cynical as I can be, when people say, ‘Yeah, I love what you did with the X-Ecutioners and also with that German doom band’, it always takes me aback.” Rather than arrogance, it’s more likely that Patton sees himself as ‘just a man’ and honestly can’t figure out why someone would put him on a higher plane. Though he immensely enjoys his career, he also sees it as a job – he goes to work just like everyone else. “My music has no cultural ramification. It is entertainment for others, work for me. I’m not recreating the wheel or curing a disease.” (Sheaffe 2003, p.27).

There are certainly no signs of Mike Patton slowing down in future. The announcement by Billy Gould in September 2014 that Faith No More were officially recording material for a new album after an 18 year hiatus (titled ‘Sol Invictus’; to be released in April 2015), as well as preparing for an accompanying world tour, was much welcomed by ecstatic Patton fans worldwide. Not only are most talented and innovative hard rock bands in music history releasing a new album, a new generation will have the chance to discover and become inspired by Patton the way I was back in the winter of 1990.

Blessed with good looks, charisma and extraordinarily diverse talent, there is little doubt that Patton could have become an A-list, mainstream superstar had he wanted to. But he has chosen to live his own life, creating and working with friends and collaborators on whatever, undoubtedly, interesting and unusual project HE wants to embark on, without being choked by the stranglehold of a mainstream label.  One just has to watch a clip of any of Patton’s music performances to see that the man TRULY loves music and performing music. He is the real deal – not an artificial PR creation happy to sell his soul to the highest bidder for the cold hard cash.  “I don’t really know why it’s the way it is”, he says of his lack of mainstream success, “but I’ve become very comfortable with it. I know that whatever I put out, whether people think it’s pop or noise or whatever, it’s always going to be some kind of a freak or mutation. It’s not going to be anything pure that a lot of people with relate to. And that’s fine.” (Drever 2003). It appears that no matter what Mike Patton does, no matter how far he ventures into the avant-garde arena, he will never alienate his passionately loyal fanbase, thus cementing his future longevity and success for many more years to come. And in the current world of quickly, artificially processed McDonalds music, designed for fast, throwaway consumption,  the ‘slow-cooker’, organic genius of Patton is indeed a breath of fresh air.


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  1. Very good work! I enjoyed reading it!

    1. Many thanks for your kind comment! Glad you enjoyed the article :)

  2. This is very well written. Thank you for writing & posting it!

    1. You're welcome Megan :) Many thanks for your kind comment!!!