It might have taken 18 years, yet Faith No More are finally on the eve of releasing their stunning new album, Sol Invictus. But then rock's freakiest band have never done things by the book. In a UK exclusive Ian Winwood delves into their ever weird and wonderful world.
Little Chop of Horrors
Words by Ian Winwood
Photos by Daniel Boud
At a few minutes past seven on a midweek evening in March, Mike Patton's voice breaks the silence of a transatlantic telephone line and promptly breaks a heart. In a voice that sounds as if it's batteries are running low, and with what sounds like a scarcely stifled yawn, one of modern rock music's most unpredictable, creative and enigmatic talents announces that, following a busy day, "if I've got no energy [left], then you know why".
Then again, it's possibly difficult to imagine quite what Mike Patton might say that could adequately encapsulate the significance of Faith No More's return, not just playing songs in a live arena, but also - finally - with a brand-new album, their first for 18 years. The members of the band may now be well into their middle years, but much of the music they have made is as timeless as it is influential. If you're not sure of this, then consider what modern rock music might sound like if this always-odd San Franciscan quintet - with their fearless flashes of colour and panache that helped tear down the crap of 1980s mainstream rock music and replace it with something bolder, and altogether weirder had never existed.
But Mike Patton is unlikely to put it quite like that. As it is, he proceeds to tell a story, in a roundabout kind of a way, about how Faith No More dragged themselves out of what seemed like permanent hibernation in order to grace European festivals in 2009. Following their break-up in 1998, the once-warring musicians were brought together for the occasion of keyboardist Roddy Bottum's wedding, where they, "I don't know, started enjoying each other's company again... started telling stories again, like old men do... we were like old buddies sitting down playing backgammon."
This is good, you think, the idea of middle-aged men sharing war stories at the wedding of one of their number who just happens to be one of the first openly-gay musicians in modern rock music (a revelation that, when it came in 1993, caused no upset among rock fans whatsoever).
So, Mike Patton is asked to describe the scene at Roddy Bottum's wedding.
Pause. "I'm sorry, man, I'm not understanding you. Can you repeat the question?"
Roddy's wedding, what was it like? Was it a nice day? Were you all wearing tuxedos? Did you get drunk? Was there a band playing? Little details, so I can set a scene.
Pause. "No, sorry, I'm still not getting this."
Mike, can you describe for me what Roddy's wedding looked like, please?
Pause, "it was in his parents' house. And he was getting married. And I don't know."
I promise, I'll be out of your hair before long. No pause at all. "I hope so, motherfucker."
Into the silence that hangs between London and San Francisco, Mike Patton laughs. It seems he wasn't entirely pissed off after all. He just wanted to keep us guessing. This is what Mike Patton does. Mike Patton keeps you guessing.
This, too, is what Faith No More do, even today. They keep you guessing and they keep themselves guessing. For one thing, they kept themselves guessing as to what kind of band Faith No More 2.0 was destined to be. At first it seemed as if this most unlikely of reunions was, like Rage Against The Machine, destined to take the form of the 'nostalgia turn', where a once revolutionary band puts its legacy into mothballs by dragging its songs around the world without feeling the need to record any new material.
For bassist Bill Gould, this approach was fine for a time, but soon enough "just getting together to play the old songs and only the old songs felt like going to work", felt like something "that wasn't always the easiest thing to do".
"That kind of [nostalgic] mentality is probably what's getting us our gigs," he admits, probably correctly. "But I don't know how that helps us as a band, really. Because just going out and playing the old songs is not something that I want. I feel that there are places for us to go [musically] that are interesting and cool."
As it turned out, the other members of Faith No More's musical base - a base cemented by drummer Mike 'Puffy' Bordin and guitarist Jon Hudson - agreed, and the musicians set to work recording a song "unbeknownst to me", says Mike Patton, before adding, "Well, sort of."
The musicians then presented Mike with their first new song of the 21st century, a point from which a new album would eventually blossom. "I flipped out when I heard the new collection of music," reveals the singer. "I didn't know what it was going to sound like, and it totally took my head off. I thought, 'Well, I'm gonna at least try to contribute to this."
"There were times in the past 10 years when I definitely thought that would never be the case," he continues. "I'm sure you could pull up all sorts of quotes from me where I'm saying, 'We'll never make another record again, I never want to be a part of that ever again.' But, you know, circumstances change. And it's nice to be wrong; it's nice to admit when you're wrong. And I was wrong! I did not know that this band had more statements in them. Believe me, I was as surprised as anyone when I heard this music and realised that I wanted to be a part of it."
Faith No More's first studio album in a generation - the first since 1997's Album Of The Year - is sensational. Released next month, Sol Invictus takes all that was good about the band's musical high points from the past -the power, the combustibility, the sense of constant pressure and tension - and reframes them in a manner befitting both 2015 and a quintet in their late-40s and early-50s.
Along with Soundgarden, if any group were able to successfully wrestle their former selves from the 1990s into the present day, then it seems obvious that Faith No More were that band. Odd, then, that while enthusiastic, the early word on Sol Invictus from those who heard it came drenched in a sense of relief.
"A lot of people are afraid of us making a new record, and I get that," says Bill Gould. "There's a template to this, I think: You were a good band, you break up, you get back together and you put out a shitty album. But we tried really, really hard to resist that template. We kept our minds sharp and we still have a lot to offer.But people like the stuff we did in the past," he adds. "We're older now and they're afraid of what we might put out as an older band. They're worried that the music we might make today might not hold up. But even if this new record fails, I'm still a lot happier doing something creative and productive than I am just going to work and playing the old songs."
What Bill Gould is referring to is what he and Mike Patton would never dream of describing as their band's 'legacy' - a legacy that as seen in the pages of this magazine is truly profound. It is a legacy that also stretches back more than a generation, and has its roots in an entirely different musical age.
The first time that Faith No More appeared in the British press was an appearance in the pages of Kerrang. The band themselves were not interviewed or reviewed; rather, their name appeared on a T-shirt worn by James Hetfield of Metallica. At the time Metallica were not the biggest name in metal, but they were definitely the most influential, and in the pre-internet age even a passing endorsement from them was itself sufficient to start a buzz. In 1986, however, there wasn't a great deal to report. Faith No More featured on
guitar James Hetfield's friend Jim Martin - who had played alongside the then-Metallica n bassist Cliff Burton, in the group Trauma - and were at the time fronted by the flat-voiced Chuck Mosley. They had a debut album titled We Care A Lot (1985), the titular track of which flirted deliciously between irony and sincerity, pop and rock. Unbeknownst to everyone, in four minutes and eight seconds it lit a slow-burning fuse that would help explode much that was rubbish in modern rock and metal at the tail end of the 1980s.
But it wasn't until Faith No More's third album, 1989's The Real Thing, that things began to get serious. Now fronted by, the impossibly cherubic, not to mention young, Mike Patton, The Real Thing would eventually explode like a cherry bomb in a sewage factory. The Matt Wallace produced set may have taken more than six months to appear on even the lowest rungs of the U.S. Billboard Hot 200 album chart, but when it did - propelled by such singles as From Out Nowhere, Epic and Falling To Pieces - the album would, by the end of its initial life cycle, be certified platinum with sales in excess of a million copies in the United States alone.
From here, the path was straight and true. All Faith No More had to do in order to elevate themselves to the levels of the multi-platinum Jet set was to play the game and to keep their mouths shut. This, the group defiantly declined to do. Supporting Guns N' Roses on a tour of European stadiums in 1992, Bill Gould described the caravan to Britain's Select magazine as being "a real ugly personal experience, having to deal with all the shit that surrounds this fucking circus"
When it came to releasing new music, Faith No More had an even nastier surprise in store. Today the band's fourth studio album, Angel Dust, is widely viewed as a timeless classic the influence of which was nothing less than pre-ordained. So pivotal is the music contained within, in fact, that today it sounds almost like a mainstream album. But in 1992, the year of its release, Angel Dust's sheer unpredictability horrified all but the band's most hardcore constituents, as well as causing bemusement among the press corps. In commercial terms at least - at least at the time the album was a failure.
"That album kind of fell flat on its face!" laughs Bill Gould today. "Actually, we've had a few of those. And, in a way, that's kind of helped us, because things that fell flat on their face in the short term have proven to have been successful in the long term. So, I think we realise that we can trust our own instincts and that things will be okay in the long run."
In the short term, however, in 1992 and 1993 Faith No More were suddenly deprived of the music industry's helping hands. Radio stations no longer played their music, and Music Television -this being a time when MTV actually played music videos - ignored their latest album in a manner that was the polar opposite of the ubiquity with which it had aired the videos for the singles from The Real Thing. Armed with no alternative, the San Franciscans toured themselves into the around. Come the end of the tour in support of Angel Dust - an appearance at the inaugural Phoenix Festival in Stratford Upon Avon in 1993 - the band were physically and visibly exhausted.
"At the time, you have to think of it in its context." recalls Bill Gould. "At the time. our music really wasn't very radio-friendly. So, we toured a lot; just to survive we had to tour. And we toured a lot everywhere, and for a long time. And if you don't start putting limits on how long you tour and what is healthy for the band long-term, you get exhausted."
"One of the things that poisoned us in the past was feeling that we had to take every single thing that was offered to us," harmonises Mike Patton. "So, to retain some measure of sanity, and your peace of mind, you have to learn to say 'No'. I know that's not sexy, but it
promotes a good feeling, and a feeling of being grounded and having some power... I want the band to be happy. I want a good environment."
How are you going to achieve that? "We're still figuring that out, my man."
In conversation for this cover story, both Mike Patton and Bill Gould are keen to stress the near-miracle that is the advent of a brand-new album from Faith No More. It's not just the music, you understand - it's the whole commitment to the cause.
You see, when the group simply operated as a touring caravan that pulled up at the backstage areas of European festivals, the group could exist solely as a part-time 'friends with benefits' concern. They didn't have to deal with each other on a creative basis, at least not really. They didn't have to awaken dogs that had long been allowed to lie. And they certainly didn't have to talk with journalists. They just had to take the money, play the old songs, and run.
And now... "I haven't made a Faith No More album that hasn't been extremely difficult for me personally," says Bill Gould. "It's like a birth-giving process... When you decide you go down that path there's a lot of baggage that goes with it. You're taking on more than making a record. We're doing press now, whereas we went for a few years without having to do interviews; we're touring now, and we're trying to keep from burning out of other things that you have to judge, too, when you go through that decision of making a record. And so we all had to feel 100 per cent cool with that. It has to feel right,"
So, are Faith No More a harmonious outfit these days? "We're focused," says the bassist. And what's the difference between focus and harmony? "Well, we are harmonious, I suppose," he supposes. "Right now we're very solid."
All of which is just as well, because next month, with the release of Sol Invictus, Faith No More will once more do what they do best: they will put themselves at risk. They will put their new music up against the old. By heading out on a two-month American tour, prior to their Download Donington stop-visit, they will put their new selves up against the dysfunctional gang of the 1990s. And in stretching their limbs into the present tense, they wilt with great panache smash the glass under which they had allowed themselves to be pinned.
"You're behind glass when you're dead," says Mike Patton, dismissing the very idea. "I don't think any of us are interested in being in a museum. Especially not now."
What would rock music sound like if Faith No More had never existed?
Mike Patton considers the question and answers: "The same."
Come on, you can do better than that. "I'm not acknowledging our presence in this world."
Why not? "Because we're irrelevant. We're dead. We're dinosaurs. We don't consider ourselves... I don't know... We don't consider ourselves period. It's just nice to be here. When I'm dead, you can ask my grandkids [about our legacy]."
For now, all Mike Patton wants is for Sol Invictus "to be heard", for Faith No More "to play a bunch of shows", and that's "pretty much it" It all sounds quite unremarkable, and in one sense it is: rock band makes record and tours record. Stop the press.
But in another sense, it is nothing but remarkable. For while Bill Gould is right to say that there are a number of people who don't want Faith No More to make a new album, there were also those of us that didn't want the band to reform without having done so.
In this, it's a case of better late than never. The nostalgia scene never suited this band, and even had their seventh studio album, their first in so many years, been a dismal failure it would still have been better than nothing. But a dismal failure it is not. It's as stirring, as impacting and as unsettling as anything to which Faith No More have put their name.
Welcome back. Awkward Squad.