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Restoring past glory: Mike Patton's pumped about Faith No More touring

This story is not about Mr Bungle. So you have to marvel at the old geezer's timing. As Mike Patton paces his home/studio in San Francisco, answering his phone to talk for the first time in five years about Faith No More, his older band is foremost on his mind.


"I'm prepping to leave on tour tomorrow … so I've kind of been in that weird state," he explains. "Complete chaos."


The very brief, US-only Bungle reunion is remarkable for a typically perverse reason. "We're only playing our first demo tape. Most of the fans who know Mr Bungle have not even heard this stuff. It's all very much pretty nasty thrash metal stuff. So it's going to be interesting."


Preparing to please and baffle his fans at the same time? Sounds like Patton. Some of us are still processing his Mondo Cane tour of 2012: an immensely orchestrated set of Italian pop songs from the 1950s and '60s delivered sans irony or translation by the biggest voice in the alt-rock universe.


But let’s leave those two suitcases half-packed in the hall, alongside a dozen other Patton projects including, but not limited to, Tomahawk, Fantomas, Moonchild Trio (with John Zorn), Dead Cross, and last year's Jean-Claude Vannier collaboration, Corpse Flower. The band that dwarfs them all, in commercial terms at least, is once more ready to rock.


Faith No More's five-year hiatus is "not a long time for a band that’s existed for 30 years. That's just a pause," Patton says of the 2020 reunion that kicks off in New Zealand in May. "When we finished our last run, we all said, 'Keep your ears open, keep your eyes open and … this isn't over yet'. It didn't feel final."


"When I first joined the band, I was the one that was really wound up tight." - Mike Patton

Far from it, if you lived in Australia. FNM joined the Soundwave Festival in early 2015, but that was before they sprang their surprise comeback album, Sol Invictus. And even then, it was almost 20 years since they'd played their own full-length shows here.


"That record has been out for a few years now, so this is us coming down to play on our own terms," Patton says. "We're gonna play all sorts of stuff. That record, a lot of other stuff too. We’re not promoting anything. There's nothing to sell."


Except for a legacy of course. Which, since they whacked John Barry's Midnight Cowboy theme at the end of their Angel Dust album in 1992, has revelled in delicate curveballs as much as their trademark full-metal racket. The Commodores' Easy, the Bee Gees' I Started A Joke and Burt Bachrach's This Guy's In Love With You were covers of choice on the Sol Invictus run.


"Because most of what we do is very, very loud and very abrasive," Patton reasons, "we feel our covers have to be on the other side of the teeter-totter and so usually we end up choosing, you know, more kind of easy listening or R&B kind of stuff."


There may also be a more wilful aspect to it, he concedes. "When we started out we were kind of pigeonholed into this funk-rap-metal genre, which was horrifying to us. We did everything we could to distance ourselves from that."


Looking way back, it was a certain contrariness of spirit that attracted the 18-year-old college student to the insurgent musical chemistry of bassist Billy Gould, drummer Mike Bordin and keyboard player Roddy Bottum. With singer Chuck Mosley, Faith No More was two albums old when they rolled through Patton's hometown of Eureka, California, in '86.


"There was a fierceness about them," says the singer who was fine-tuning a six-octave voice with Mr Bungle at the time. "There was a 'We don't give a f---' attitude that attracted me."


Within a few years, Mosley was out [he sadly died of drug-related causes in 2017]. With Patton out front, The Real Thing was among the definitive rock albums of 1989. Over four more, many things have changed — John Hudson is the first guitarist to have survived two in a row – but intensity is not one of them.


"When I first joined the band, I was the one who was really wound up tight," Patton says. "I was kind of serious and everything was like, monumental, and they were telling me, 'Don't worry about this, don't worry about that', so they really walked me through the whole experience.


"They're still my mentors, in a sense, and I still assume that role. I mean, I think we all learn from each other but still, when it comes down to decisions on serious stuff, I pretty much always try to be a team player and that [means] like, OK, respect to the elders," he says with a laugh.


It's hard to reconcile the soft-spoken conversationalist with the gale-force frontman of some 40 albums. Harder still to see the lost English literature student from Humboldt State University in the towering figure Patton has become on the modern music landscape.


"I didn't intend to write, believe me. I didn't know what I was doing," he says of those years. "I certainly wasn't very happy at that time, that's for sure. I hated college. I hated everything. I just felt like I didn't belong. And thank goodness music took me away from that."


The literature angle, by the way, is a red herring.


"When I write a song … the only agenda is to serve the music. It's not about telling a story, it's not about being a poet or pushing some grand point across. It's about Serving. The. Music. And I try to do that through words, and through my voice, which is my instrument, and I don't really look at it any deeper than that.


"I know people that are singer-songwriters and they will literally write out a poem, or five pages of stuff, and put that to music. I would never do that, ever. It has to come from sound. I need to hear notes and I like to hear progressions and moods and feelings before I can even put pen to paper."


And is that likely to happen again soon? Sol Invictus arrived after sustained denial of new album plans in 2015. But it seems necessary to ask.


"Ah, who knows?" Patton says. "I've put my foot in my mouth so many times in the past saying 'No, never, never', so I'm not gonna go there. You never know. We don't."


Michael Dwyer | The Sydney Morning Herald

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