An interview with Mike Patton
By Tim Den
The last time we spoke – when Tomahawk played Boston over a year ago – you were already talking about your collaboration with The X-ecutioners. How did the whole thing come about?
We did a few improv shows together, struck up a friendship, and basically did this as a way of documenting the live sets that we did. I sent them chunks of sound from my record collection, told them what I had in mind – noisy parts here, sound samples there, rhythmic ideas – and they sent back huge blocks for me to mangle and insert into my computer. (laughs)
You arranged, manipulated, engineered, and produced this record all by yourself… I had no idea you were such a techie!
I’m not! (laughs) I fake it. I mean, I’ve been doing it forever: It’s my way of writing music. I record everything – on tape, computer, whatever – just so I remember the ideas. Cuz otherwise, they’re totally gone if I don’t put them down.
I’m not classically trained, I don’t know how to read or write music. I do everything by ear. I’ve learned by experience, and I’ve been recording – however makeshift and amateur – for quite a while.
The record sounds fantastic. You sure you never took any engineering classes? Cuz there’s “this sounds good,” and then there’s “this sounds like someone who knows how a sound wave bends at a certain frequency” good.
I think people who overemphasize such knowledge are putting a little too much into what they do for a living. (laughs) YOU TWIST KNOBS! (laughs)
You’ve recently been working with a lot of hip hop artists. Which makes sense, cuz your music and vocal style(s) have always been very rhythmically based. What are your thoughts on the genre?
Well, I supposed it’s the same with every genre, in that it has become very fashionized and certain clichés are pretty rampant. But if you look hard enough – again, as with everything – you can find a lot of great artists doing their own thing. I’ve actually been dabbling in it, to some degree, for about 10 years now. I’ve performed with turntablists a few times, and to be honest, I think I’ve been searching for the right people to do this project with for the last five, six years. The performances were, for me, a way to get a feel for who were “right” to do this record.
Is it true that you might take General Patton Vs. The X-ecutioners on the road?
Yes, it’s true, although we’re probably not gonna do a giant tour. I kinda want to keep it special, you know? But yeah, we’re talking about doing something toward the end of the year. Maybe a New Year’s gig of some sort.
You touring with a million other bands doesn’t leave you much time.
Yyyyyyyyeah, that doesn’t help.
I also remember you mentioning a Massive Attack collaboration the last time we spoke. I guess 3D made public statements about it.
(laughs) Oh yeah!? What did he say?
That you either already laid down a vocal track for them or that you’re going to: Either way, it’s happening.
Here’s the deal: We’ve been talking about working together for a number of years. What we’re trying to do now is kind of a trade. (cackles) He’s going to produce a Peeping Tom track, and I’m going to guest on one of his.
Is it going to be under the name Massive Attack? Cuz, you know, there were speculations that 3D was gonna start releasing stuff under a different name, now that the other two guys are gone.
Uh… I think so. Unless… maybe Miniscule Attack? (laughs)
How does one get Patton to collaborate?
Pick up the phone, man! (laughs) “I’ll be there in half a note or your money back, guaranteed!”
You should NOT make that joke, dude, cuz about the entire world would take you up on it.
(laughs) Well… I do what I can and when time permits. There were definitely times when I said “mmmm… no thanks.” There were also definitely other occasions when the music was great and I would’ve loved to do something, but I had no time. It all depends. Kaada (of the recent Romances collaboration) was easy: He records for my label and needed a vocal on one of the tracks. I said sure, laid it down, and it just happened to grow into a whole album.
Were there ever any plans for you and Björk to perform live together?
There were never any concrete plans, but for a while, she had these dates that she wanted to do, but cancelled to go and do something else. We were kind of waiting to see what was going to happen, but, you know…
There have been varying accounts over the years, ever since it was revealed that you wrote “Malpractice” (on Angel Dust) all by yourself. Okay, just to set the record straight: How many instruments do you play? People have said everything from “nothing” to “everything under the sun.”
Uuuuhhh… nothing! (laughs) Well, I’m proficient at a few in that I can get what I want out of them and onto a recording. Guitar, bass, keyboards, certainly drums… but nothing I’d do in front of people. (laughs) Behind closed doors, when I’m recording, I can do a hundred takes if I want, slow down/speed up the tape to make the part easier to play, but I wouldn’t say I’m “good” at any of them.
I’ve always wondered if the people who claim you don’t know how to play ANY instruments bothered to check the numerous websites out there that very obviously list – on the first Mr. Bungle demo when you were 15 – you on the bass for one song. Obviously you DO play!
Well, when you’re young, you’re more willing to stand out and make a fool of yourself. (chuckles)
Another case of Mike Patton de-mythified: What languages are you fluent in?
English, baby! It’s all you need! It’s the language of love! (laughs) No, English and Italian (Mike’s wife is Italian), that’s it. I got a good start on Spanish, but after I learned Italian, my Spanish just disintegrated. I open my mouth and… bbbbllllaaaggghhhhh.
Okay, it’s Bubble-Bursting City here… There’ve been rumors for years now that there are quite a few leftover songs from Angel Dust waiting to be finished/released. Some have said that they are missing vocals, some have said that Jim Martin’s guitar playing is too poor to use. True or false?
You know, I seriously don’t remember. We were never one of those bands that recorded 20 songs and then picked from them, so there couldn’t be that many leftovers… But put it this way: They call them “outtakes” for a reason, okay? (laughs) If it’s not out, it’s probably not good enough for people to hear.
“The Cowboy Song” is one of my absolute favorites and, in my opinion, an underrated gem.
You know, I don’t think we ever played that one live. We recorded it around the same time as The Real Thing, but it was a b-side, wasn’t it? Back when there were b-sides? (cackles) We threw it away on a soundtrack or something… (It’s actually on Live at Brixton Academy.)
If you had to chose a record/project/band from your back catalog to list as your proudest/favorite/most perfect, which one would you pick?
None of them, honestly. It’s why I keep doing this, right? Everything was only as good as it was going to get up until that point. I record it, I get it to be where it should be, and then I put it out. Cuz putting it out is basically flushing it out of your system, you know? But, I don’t know, it’s not like I wake up Christmas morning and take all my records from off the shelf and go through them naked. (laughs) I’m nowhere near as morbid these days.
But certainly there are ones that are more “special” and closer to your heart?
Well, I think it’s true for everybody that you never forget your first record. It’s where you started, your “roots,” so to speak, right? The first time you step into a studio, you have no fucking idea what you’re doing. You’re going on adrenaline alone. There’s just something raw about the first record. I mean, when I go into a record store, I always get the first record of a band to see where/how they started. And then there’s a whole lot of crap in between, and you pick up the latest record to see where they’ve gone, right? (laughs)
Speaking of firsts: Mr. Bungle, your first band… I know you’ve been asked to death if the break up is official, despite the fact that some members disagree…
(conservative, serious tone) “I disagree that we’ve broken up!” I love that one. (laughs)
Well, you guys grew up together and were each other’s first creative partners. Has it been hard to watch the band split up? How are the friendships? You still play with Trevor (Dunn, in Fantômas) so I take it things are okay with him…
For the most part, the friendships are okay. We grew up together and were in a band together for almost 20 years, but friends grow apart, whether you’re in a band together or not. You don’t talk as much as you use to, and observing that and respecting that is a lot better than pointing fingers: “the band broke up because of you!” It was a highly dysfunctional situation and we made the best of it for as long as we could. I’m surprised it lasted as long as it did!