Best in Show: Catching Up with Mike Patton

Mike Patton
Mondo Cane

The sun is setting on the desert of Indio, CA, and the natives are getting restless. The Coachella 2010 Faith No More fans have mobbed the mainstage area, and this legion extends far beyond the soundboard. The mood is jubilant, yet bordering on hostile, as the wall of sweaty bodies pushes me closer to the stage. It’s hard not to get swept up in the enthusiasm, but I’m a casual fan at best. I always dug The Real Thing and ubiquitous single “Epic” like any semi hell-bent youth growing up in the early ‘90s. This performance is cause for celebration, as Coachella marks Faith No More’s official U.S. reunion and coming out party, and leader Mike Patton has dressed for the occasion. Clad in a blood-red leisure suit, austere cane and white sneakers, “The Second Coming” text flashes on the screens surrounding the stage. I’m wishing I’d brought earplugs as I prepare for the metal/thrash/funk onslaught, but suddenly, framed by crimson velvet curtains, Patton and Co. launch into a pitch perfect rendition of Peaches and Herb’s “Reunited.” I’m grinning and soon laughing, and throughout the set, I’m constantly amazed at the sheer musicianship and Patton’s amazing vocal range; part swarthy lounge crooner and part ultimate rock showman. Two days later on a plane back to Chicago, going over my wrinkled notes, I make one final notation: Faith No More. Best In Show.

With Faith No More and his numerous projects (Mr. Bungle, Fantomas, Tomahawk) Patton has played Willy Wonka to an industry he openly views with distrust and keeps at a distance. He is a wily jester, playing in whatever genre catches his fancy while maintaining a biting sense of humor. He is also a musical maestro and supreme craftsman whose latest project, Mondo Cane, finds Patton covering classic 50s and 60s Italian pop songs with a 40 piece backing orchestra. The WTF factor has long become irrelevant when it comes to Patton, and Mondo Cane, with its grandiose arrangements and over-the-top vocals simply shouldn’t work. Yet it does, and the sincerity and Patton’s mastery of the material is apparent from the first track. I recently spoke with Patton about the Faith No More reunion, his storied career, and massages from men in togas.

How long had the Mondo Cane project been percolating in your head before you actually started work on it?

God, probably eight years. Well, not all ideas are like a twinkling star in the sky and you get inspired to make a record the next day. I was living in Italy at the time, and at the highest point in my love affair with this classic Italian music and I realized, “Goddamnit, someday if I have a chance, if I’m brave enough at the moment, I’m gonna try and do something like this.” But it was always one of those “one day” type things. You know…what if? Many, many years later, I had the chance to work with an orchestra and a little light bulb went off, and I said to myself, “I’m not going to let this chance go.” There were many more phases and months of work after that, but that’s the life span of it right there.

Why classic Italian music? What about it speaks to you and why not some other type of world music?

I have a strong personal connection to it. My wife is Italian and I lived there for six years. Even more than music, it was a really exciting period in my life when a lot of things were new. I was learning a new language, and living in a place that was new to me, and I was surrounded by all this incredible music. I developed a real bond with, not only the place and the people, but the music of that region. But who’s to say? I could have moved to Turkey and had a similar experience!

So you didn’t grow up with this music. It was an acquired love?

Definitely. I was 24 or 25 when I was living in Italy, and whenever you’re in a place you want to get your feet wet and dive in, and that’s what I was doing with the music and a lot of things at that point. It was a very stimulating point in time.

Do you still call Italy home?

No, I’m back in the States. I loved being there, but I just found myself coming back and forth way too many times for work, so I put it on the shelf for awhile. I think I’ll definitely be back at some point. I think it’ll be a nice place to keel over and die, know what I mean?

Tell me about the song selection process for the album and assembling the orchestra. What was it about these songs that stood out for you?

After lots of record collecting, flipping the dial on the radio and recommendations from friends, I had this incredibly long wish list of things that I thought I could pull off. It was close to 150 or 200 tunes, and whittling that list down to 20 was a process unto itself. I had to get really nuts and bolts about it. I asked myself, “Ok, what is going to offer me the most freedom arrangement-wise? What can I change and what can I not? What’s absolutely perfect and untouchable and what isn’t?” So it really got down to boring technical stuff like that. All the songs I was considering had amazing arrangements, vocalists and sounds, but it just came down to the fact that I can only do so much in the context of one concert repertoire. When it came down to the decision that I want to record this stuff and make a record, the other consideration was developing some sort of variety. I couldn’t just pick “Top 10 Hits” if you will. I really wanted to have some underground stuff on there, and some really obscure garage band, beat stuff, some folk and some tunes from film scores. So, I didn’t just want it to be golden oldies.

Did you have a conductor for the orchestra?

Oh God yeah. Conducting is way over my head.

While the project’s sincerity shines through, have you encountered dissenters who think you’re taking the piss out of the music?

You know, I’m sure that those people are out there. I haven’t bumped into any of those people on the street thank God. But considering what I’ve done in the past, this was a preposterous, ambitious thing to undertake. It’s a very hard thing to pull off, like you said, with any level of sincerity, maturity or authenticity. All I could do was be as respectful to these pieces as possible, but I also approached it with a sense of curiosity and playfulness. It’s like going to a museum and seeing a perfect work of art and you don’t even want to touch it. But you have to get your hands dirty a little bit and create a likeness of it but with a little bit more of your own touch, and that’s what I was trying to do.

I had the opportunity to interview Ennio Morricone last year, and I asked him if he had a personal favorite out of his body of work, and his response was “They’re all my children.” Do you feel the same way about all your various projects throughout the years?

I think I just used that same phrase about a half hour ago in a different interview. Yeah, it’s like choosing your favorite pet or favorite child. Some projects affect you in different ways than others, and they all have different personalities, but I would wholeheartedly agree with Morricone on that one. In response, I would ask “What’s your favorite project?” They all look different and are raised in different ways. Once I’m finished with them and feel like I’ve raised them and it’s time to let them go, they go out into the big world and make a name for themselves. At that point, it really doesn’t have a lot to do with me. The only time I come back into contact with these children is during interviews.

You don’t ever revisit your back catalogue?

Not really. It gives me a bit of a queasy feeling . It’s not that I’m not proud of what I’ve done, it’s almost like looking through a photo album. I don’t get too much enjoyment out of sitting around the campfire and looking at old photos. That’s just not me. I don’t get the thrill of doing that. So, I don’t sit around listening to my old records. There’s too much great stuff to listen to ! There’s not enough hours in the day to listen to all the other things I want to hear, so why bother with that shit? I’m sure fans might take offense to that, but that’s because they didn’t create it. I have a different relationship to it. When you’re making a record, you’re having a really intimate, hot, passionate fling basically. It’s this really deep love affair, and then it kinda flames out to be honest. You have to be that involved with it to do your best work. But as soon as it’s done, that’s it. Hey, it’s been fun. Nice knowing ya!

Do you feel that the moment you repeat yourself you die a little as a musician?

Not necessarily. That sounds like a really easy thing to say, but we all repeat ourselves. A lot of times it’s completely ignorant, without knowing that you’re doing it. I know that I’ve been guilty of it, and I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think that sometimes if you have the luxury of repeating yourself, than you have your own signature. You have your own voice. Where I don’t like to make a habit of it, I don’t necessarily blame someone for doing it. You hear a lot of Morricone’s music that reminds you of other things that he’s done. A lot of people think it’s a really negative or lazy trait to have, and I don’t know if I agree with that. Especially if your level of activity is as high as someone like Morricone, inevitably you’re going to do a circle every now and then. As long as it leads you somewhere else then it’s fine. The Mondo Cane project, as much as I say that I don’t like to go back and listen to my old records, I do know that there’s a certain element that has led me to this point. Each record, no matter how I feel or what I think about it, has led me down a path. Each one is a small step, and this Mondo Cane one is a nice place to have arrived. Now that I’ve done this, it’s a nice plateau and I’ll rest here for a minute. But soon it’ll be time to take what I’ve learned from Mondo Cane and apply it to something else.

Speaking of full circle, I was curious what was going through your mind for the first Faith No More reunion show. Was it a feeling of exhilaration or was there some trepidation?

I guess the nervous moments were in the very beginning when we were in the early stages of rehearsal for the reunion. That’s when the real work is done. By the time you get on stage, you pretty much know what’s going to happen. At least for me, I have to feel so well-oiled, prepared and nonchalant to be able to comfortably walk out in front of 20,000 people. I have to know that it’s gonna work. It’s the private moments, when you’re in a studio and looking at each other and going, “Oh Jesus, that sounds like shit. What are we gonna do now?” I’m not saying that happened, but that does happen sometimes. But that’s why you rehearse. You try and figure out what’s gonna work and what isn’t. When we first started rehearsing, who knew? I remember sitting outside on the curb because I got locked out of the rehearsal space, and I just kinda listened to the band playing, and it sounded really, really good. That automatically gave me some assurance that this was gonna work.

Are you constantly thinking what’s left to conquer? Do you have the great rock opera in mind for somewhere down the road?

Right now, I’m coming up on touring season, so I’m working on a scaled-down version of Mondo Cane to tour with. It’s a difficult beast to manage and travel with. I’m working on a film score, and by the time I’m done with that, my summer will be over. I joined a new band, a kind of vocal trio, with Tunde Adebimpe from TV on the Radio.

What’s a perfect day for Mike Patton?

Umm, good question. Gosh. Waking up with some old cartoons, going to the Taco Truck for lunch, doing some record shopping, having a big steak and a couple martinis for dinner, and then a nice film noir after dinner, and then a massage from a man in a toga, and off to bed. How’s that sound?