Mike Patton - interview
Mike Patton has a reputation for restless innovation. He’s best known as singer of Faith No More – who toured Australia with the Soundwave Festival earlier this year – as well as his other experiment rock acts Fantomas, Peeping Tom, Tomahawk and Mr Bungle. Patton’s voice is one of the most distinctive of this era, and he’s also lent it to collaborations with artists like Dillinger Escape Plan, Dangermouse, Dan The Automator and Rahzel.
His latest project is named Mondo Cane (pronounced ‘Carn-ay’). The newly-released album sees Patton singing 1950s- and 60s-era Italian pop songs before a 65-piece orchestra. It’s effectively a love letter to his time spent living in Italy a decade ago. The Vine discussed this concept with Patton during our half-hour conversation, in addition to touching upon his fascination with Italian composer Ennio Morricone and whether his record label, Ipecac Recordings, could be considered a tastemaker among alternative and indie music fans.
Hi Mike. Had a thrilling day of press?
No, not really, it’s been pretty polite. I’ve done two prior to you and I have one after. It’s very manageable.
Firstly, I want to thank you for your treatment of “Deep Down”. I saw [1968 film adaption of the Italian comic book] Danger: Diabolik earlier this year for the first time, and it was a thrill to hear your take on that track.
Oh cool! It’s a great movie, right?
[If you've not seen it, here's the trailer - Ed.]
I know that you’ve been a fan of that movie for a while, given the artwork for the first Fantômas album. How did you come across Danger: Diabolik?
Gosh. I think it was when I was living in Italy. I became a fan because the film was based on a comic book character and when you kind of go to the news stand there they are. They’re still printing them and it kind of got me into the character so I went and bought a bunch of old editions and really was like “Wow, this is amazing.” A friend of mine said, “If you like these so much you should see the film. Have you ever seen the film?” I was like, “Oh my God!” so I sought it out, found some bootleg somewhere, recorded it on a late night TV show or something. Because there was no DVD of it and there certainly wasn’t a score of it. I didn’t know who did the score, what it sounded like, or anything.
I remember watching this on my clunky VCR and hearing the music going “That sounds like fucking [Italian composer Enrico] Morricone! I’ll bet you it is!” Sure enough, yeah. So then it became the mission to find the score, the soundtrack to it. Somewhere it had to be out. No, it turns out I made a bunch of phone calls to people who were kind of Morricone-philes and it turns out the rumour has it the tapes were lost in a fire somewhere. So there’s no real existing tapes of the soundtrack left.
Years later when I was back here in the States I saw one in the store, and it was on some dodgy looking label and I was like, “Okay, this is total bootleg, but I’m buying it”. So I got it and it was a horrible recording but it was good enough. That was my model. Years later I found a single of that song and when I was learning the tune, that was the one that I referred to.
It is such a striking part of the movie though, which already has a really strong visual aesthetic. The set design is really expansive and impressive, and then this song comes in and just blows you away.
It’s incredible. It’s funny; the singer that did that, her name was Christy, and a friend of mine who’s an arranger, who works a lot in Italy, who actually helped me with the arrangements on Mondo Cane, somehow came in contact with her and there was a chance that she could guest on the record. But it didn’t work out. That would’ve been amazing.
Mondo Cane - 'Deep Down' (live)
It would’ve! Were you referring to Daniele Luppi just then?
Daniele Luppi, yeah.
How did you come to work with him?
Gosh. I first discovered him – I believe I was playing a show with Mr. Bungle in some god-awful place where we didn’t really want to be. It could’ve been Boise, Idaho, for all I know. I remember sitting on the stage and waiting for the sound guy to get ready with the soundcheck and this guy comes over to me and says, “Hey, I got this CD for you. Can you check it out?” and I’m kind of rolling my eyes thinking “OK, what is this?” He handed it to me, and it was Daniele Luppi’s record. At that time I didn’t know who he was. I looked at it and he was like, “I think this is right up your alley.” I kind of looked at it and was like, “Hey, you might be right, this looks pretty cool man, thank you so much. How did you find out about this guy?” He’s like, “Don’t worry about it, I just wanted you to have it!” and walks away.
I listened to if after the show and was like, “This is really something special.” It could sound kitschy but he was doing a retro groove thing, and it was done in the most authentic manner. And reading the liner notes, he goes to great lengths explaining how he sought out the original musicians who did this stuff, worked with these great composers during that time. He met them in Rome; they’re all forgotten, they don’t work anymore, they’re retired, a bunch of old dudes that just hang out playing bocce ball. [laughs] He got them back in the studio reunited them, and they were this group called Marc 4, and they were basically the rhythm section and other elements behind a lot of those scores. So he wrote all this music for them and the original guys played it. I thought it was really hip.
I thought to myself, “I have to track this guy down someday”. I reached out to some friends who I thought might know him; I finally got an email address back, so I emailed [Luppi], and just basically sent him this really lovely sucking up to him email, saying, “Hey man, I love your stuff, and if there’s anything you need with a vocal I’d love to do it. At some point I’d love to cross paths with you and at least meet you.” I never got a response, so I kind of moved on and did a bunch of other things.
Many years later I saw his name on a Gnarls Barkley record that I bought. I’m like, “Motherfucker!” [laughs] So I knew Brian [Burton, better known as Dangermouse], because at that point in time I was touring with him, and I said, “What’s the deal with this guy?” He told me and said, “He’s amazing.” I said, “I know he’s amazing, but does he return emails? What the fuck?” He goes “No, here’s his email. Maybe you got it wrong.” Of course, it was a different address. I emailed him, got a response right back, and I told him what I was thinking for this project and that I thought he was perfect for it, and sure enough; it worked out great and we’ve been very good friends for a few years now.
That’s a really long distance connection, from a Mr. Bungle concert 20-something years ago.
It’s a completely random thing, and that’s the way life goes sometimes. I’d never even have heard this guy’s record if some random guy – who was probably working in the club – hadn’t had the generosity to give me this CD. Very strange.
That is amazing. I saw in another interview that when you first found Italian pop music you were struck by the dense musical arrangements, even though at that point you didn’t speak Italian. Now, I’m in that same position, as are a lot of new fans of Mondo Cane. I can’t relate on a lyrical level, but certainly can on a musical level. It’s interesting that we’re all going through that same process of discovery that you did.
It’s not to say that you need to know what I’m saying. I don’t think you need to know the meaning of the words; if the words sound good and if the vocals sound good, I think that’s enough. Me, I had very deep reasons for learning the language and felt like if I didn’t, why should I be there, why should I be living in a place as a complete gringo? I was learning both the music and the language at the same time. But it’s interesting you say that. I hope that not understanding it doesn’t affect your enjoyment of it.
Oh, it doesn’t. I can relate to it on many levels, just not through the words. It’s really interesting to analyse it without knowing what you’re saying. I appreciate that.
Well, in a general sense, I’m basically talking about guys getting their hearts ripped out of their chests and whining about it. That’s more or less what it’s about. [laughs] If I really had to boil it down, it’s about love and loss, heartbreak, and the triumph of suffering.
Beautiful. I read in another interview that you were immediately taken in my Italian locals purely because you were so willing to integrate yourself into their culture. By now, you’re certainly a fluent speaker of the language, but I wonder; can locals still pick up the fact that you’re American when you speak Italian?
Yeah, every now and then there are little hints, little things that I’ll say or maybe a certain inflection. It’s the same where if I moved down there [to Australia], eventually I’d develop your cadences. I have friends who’ve done it. They automatically say, “G’day” and stuff, and of course I tease them about it. That’s just the way it is. But there are certain things people say or do where they’ll give themselves away. It’s actually quite a fun game.
I took it as sort of a personal benchmark to not have an American accent. It’s the ugliest; it really is basically like pissing all over what’s great about the Italian language. We’re very hard, very fast, very staccato; theirs is long and flowing; it sounds like a curtain in the wind. So it’s a hard thing to adapt to, but the way I learned was by ear. I heard it as music. I didn’t buy any books or phrase books or DVDs or any of that kind of stuff. I realised that the only way really for me to do it was to live there, and not speak English. Trial by fire; I told all my friends, “No, speak to me in Italian, correct me when I’m wrong, and make a fool out of me. It’s the only way I’m going to learn.” I was lucky it worked.
On that note, how have Italian natives responded to Mondo Cane?
So far, from what I can tell, really well. I’ve given it to my friends, and obviously my entire band is Italian, so whenever I’m doing something totally inappropriate, they’ll tell me. We have that sort of connection and the conductor, especially, is great. There’s a song on the album called ‘Scalinatella’, which is sung not in Italian but in Neapolitan, which is… some say is a dialect; I say another language. It’s really difficult. If you listen to person who speaks straight Neapolitan, from Naples, and you’re from the north of Italy, you can’t understand a word he’s saying. It’s another language. So I had to really do a lot of legwork to even get close to pronouncing that right. But luckily enough, my conductor is from Naples, so he would stop me every 30 seconds, “No, no, start over. Here’s how you say it.” So I had a lot of great people around me. I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this shit without them.
Mondo Cane - 'Scalinatella' (live)
The way you’ve just described it leads me to think that the project itself is kind of a love letter to your experience in Italy.
In a sense, yeah. I think that’s where it started, for sure. It’s also an exercise for me in a lot of ways, learning about how to work with an orchestra. I’m also learning how to step out; I don’t think I’ve ever really been a vocalist per se – or a crooner if you want – like this before. I’ve hinted at it with a lot of my projects. I’ve always fantasised about doing it, but that’s different than actually doing it. So I crossed that barrier and I just remember thinking “Wow, doing something with an orchestra, that’s a black art. It’s mysterious, intimidating. I’m going to have to say my prayers before going into an adventure like that.” Now I’ve done it, so I feel really good about it, and hopefully an experience like this will lead me somewhere else. Now, I’m hopefully confident enough to use the orchestra as another tool in future endeavours.
You seem to have approached this project with a particular cultural sensitivity, given your history and understanding of the country, having lived there for some years. And authenticity seems to be at the forefront of your desires to capture on this record.
Yes and no. I felt a genuine sense of respect for the material that I was approaching. I did not want to interpret these things in a destructive manner. I didn’t want to deconstruct [what was] basically a perfect thing. Instead I wanted to use the same materials that the statue was built out of, but make a different curve here and different curve there, and maybe add a couple of materials of my own, but not to really assassinate what was already really great.
The recordings on the album were culled from your first three shows, and then you worked with them in the studio. Were those shows in Italy open to the public, or were they mostly guests?
Of the first three, one was a public free concert and the other two were in theatres so you had pay to get in, like a concert. But they were in old churches, really beautiful old theatres. It was really interesting; the crowds were all great, but the one that was the most entertaining was the one that was open to the public because it was in the middle of this very small town and we were playing in the town square. They set up this impromptu stage. On the day, it was raining and it had all the earmarks of a complete disaster.
I remember getting in arguments with the promoter, saying “Let’s cancel this, let’s move it inside, can you do something?” Blah, blah. This is a really good example of an American temperament versus an Italian sensibility. I’m freaking out because it’s raining and the concert’s in two hours, literally. And I’m getting really aggressive and really pissed off. I’m saying, “Can you do something? There’s a hall right over there, let’s move it inside this building. Let’s do it. Do you want the concert to happen?” Here I am just flipping, losing my wig.
The promoter is saying, “Don’t worry, it’ll be alright.” That’s all he would say, which of course made me even more angry, and finally I just realised that nothing good was going to come of it and I said, “OK, I’m going to my fucking hotel room. You fucking call me when it stops raining. Bye.” And I leave and I’m thinking to myself, “I can’t be-fucking-lieve this!” Sure enough, that fucker was right. About a half hour before the concert starts, the sky clears, no more rain, crowd’s still there, everybody’s happy. I get a phone call, “Hey, have you looked outside?” I’m like, “Yeah, fuck you.” [laughs] At this point, I’m mad that he’s right.
I come down from my hotel, we play a great concert. And I also thought it was really a special concert because it was in a public square, so it wasn’t just people that wanted to hear a certain kind of music, or knew a certain name, or anything else. It was like old ladies, little kids, people taking an evening stroll, mixed in with a bunch of people that knew exactly what was going on and wanted to hear the music. I thought it was a really good mix. Old ladies and old men waltzing to this stuff. It was great.
I’ve seen you state that your audience with Mondo Cane is “not just a bunch of smart-ass kids”. Do you hope that fans of your other projects will be open-minded enough to try the new stuff, or are you aiming at an entirely different crowd?
I’m not aiming anywhere. I’m aiming out into the world, and whoever happens to respond to it and think about it, I’m happy. That could be some church-burning black metal guy in Norway for all I care. I think it could be appreciated by anyone.
I saw you tell Spin that you didn’t expect to see any of these songs on any sales or radio charts, but the album just debuted at #2 on the [US] Billboard classical charts. Was that a nice surprise?
Do you think I expected that? [laughs] That was a real surprise, and I’ve had quite the hearty belly laugh over it. I’m proud. It’s funny, it’s a nice achievement but it also just proves that you never know. And the world is an absurd place.
To switch topics entirely, I understand you’re very fond of [Ennio] Morricone’s work, which inspired much of what you decided to do here. Have you actually met him?
No I haven’t, no. I had the chance to interview him a few years ago for Rolling Stone Italy. Someone called me and asked me to interview him but I had to fly to Rome from here. Of course, I was really excited about the prospect of doing it and already like a thousand questions were coming into my mind, but I was busy, he was busy, the timeframe didn’t work, and that was it. I guess I blew it.
Damn. Do you think he’s aware of your work?
I have no idea. I would venture a guess that he’s probably not.
I’ve read that you’re fascinated by Morricone’s fearlessness.
I love what the guy does. It speaks to me on a number of levels, and it’s just that I’d love for him to hear what I’m doing, of course, but we’re at different points in our lives. He’s got bigger fish to fry. He’s got other things to worry about [laughs] than listening to a whipper-snapper like me. So I completely understand, and I don’t have goals like that. I don’t need to meet my heroes. I don’t need to dissect their personalities. I don’t want to know what’s behind this or that. I see it differently. I can separate the person from the music.
Is it a matter of maintaining that mystery, in your mind?
I don’t fucking know. If I were to meet him it would be nice, it would be really exciting. That’s about it. Like I said, I have no idea whether he’d be conscious of what I’m doing or not. I do know that [American avant-garde composer, John] Zorn did a tribute record to Ennio a lot of years back, and met him. I don’t know if he gave him the record or not, but [Morricone] heard it and really enjoyed it. Zorn’s work was even a more of an outtake on his material than I did, and he loved it. He’s got ears. I think that he’s probably curious, as well.
I’ve read that you’re bored easily, and that you’d find it tortuous to do the same thing over and over within your music. Is it a matter of putting yourself outside your comfort zone, with projects like this?
Not necessarily. I’m sure you took that from some quote I told an interviewer. You have to realise that statements are at a certain, specific point in time, under a certain set of circumstances. And it doesn’t apply to everyday life [laugh] and it certainly doesn’t apply to the way that I make music from one project to another. This is another exploration, and I’m trying to learn, trying to get better, and trying to make good music while I do it. To me, it’s just not that complicated.
I wanted to ask you about the Mondo Cane album cover. What inspired the design decision?
It came from one of the posters that was made by the Angelica Festival for one of our first concerts in Italy. This great designer, Martin Kvamme, came up with a very different design. It was like, “Here’s a world”, and it kind of had a slice out of it, like something between a pizza pie and Pacman. [laughs] I liked it and I always remembered it.
When it came time to design for this record I knew I wanted something sort of playful and colourful. The die cut, when I remembered that design I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t that be cool if we could do a die cut.” I was afraid that it might be too expensive; we investigated it and wrestled with a whole lot of ideas and designs, and finally settled on this one. We got it to be more cost-effective and moved forward with it.
Is there significance behind the butterfly on the North Pole?
No, just looked beautiful. A tattoo on the world. [laughs]
I was speaking to Barry Hogan of All Tomorrow’s Parties last year when I was in Minehead for the 10th anniversary...
We were discussing the idea that the ATP name has become a tastemaker in itself. They’ve got thousands of fans across the world who trust their judgment because of the quality they’ve been associated with in the past. I wonder if I can draw a parallel to your work, where you’ve got fans who will check you out just because they respect the Mike Patton name?
That would be flattering if that was indeed the case, but I think that’s a slippery slope. I think a listener could maybe get himself in a little bit of trouble with that much trust. [laughs] I just think that people need to think for themselves and decide what is good and what isn’t. In a sense that’s one of the questions I think that I try to ask with some of my projects, “Hey, are you thinking, are you awake, are you listening to this, are your ears open, are you distracted, are you paying attention?” So like I said; if that is the case, that’s wonderful, but I would encourage people to really trust their own ears and their own sensibilities, and not someone else’s.
On a broader level, I think the same could be said for your label Ipecac, which I believe is in a similar position to ATP as a tastemaker. People seem to trust Ipecac’s judgment.
Well, I would. [laughs] I would at least be curious, if I was growing up and in that phase of my life where I was like “This label is cool, this one’s not, this one’s great, this is ugh,” I’d be really curious about what we were doing. We’re putting out things that we like, and they’re not huge sellers, but we’ve managed. We haven’t started a giant company with a huge office and a gigantic overhead that we have to cover. It’s a very simple operation, with very low budgets, and that allows us to be able to survive, especially in a climate like this where things are just selling less and less.
We’re surviving still, but in terms of making taste, I don’t know. I do get the sense that we’ve carved out a little niche for ourselves in this crazy world, and I think that’s a good thing. That’s only something to be proud of.
Nine Inch Nails headlined Soundwave Festival here in Australia the year before you played, and Trent Reznor said something at the end which has stayed with me since. He said to the crowd, “Thank you for your support and your respect” and I thought that was a really touching way to close a concert, to acknowledge that music moves people, and fosters respect towards the artists.
That’s nice, yeah. I think that’s well said. It takes a certain amount of respect to even go to a concert, especially a festival like that. It’s a thousand fucking degrees; they’re miserable conditions. I think that I could be an idealist here, but besides the obvious motivations in picking up members of the opposite sex and getting fucked up… Besides those two things, why else would you be going? It’d have to be for the music. You’d have to have a certain amount of respect for the concept, the idea of seeing live music, and that is worth commending.
Thank you very much for your time, Mike.
Thank you. That was a good interview. It’s probably the best one I’m going to have all day, so I appreciate it, man. [laughs] Take care.