Mike Patton: “With a real artist you don’t say shit”
For a guy that hates doing press Mike Patton sure gives a good interview, as SARAH SMITH discovered ahead of Mondo Cane’s appearance at Harvest.
I have 15 minutes to interview Mike Patton: that’s roughly 30 seconds for every project he has worked on this year. A bad line adds insult to injury and by the time the conferencing company interjects with “you have one minute left” we have breezed over the new Tomahawk material, discussed Mondo Cane’s future and barely started unravelling his most recent project, Laborintus II – a re-imagining of an obscure 1965 classical piece by Italian composer Luciano Berio.
On the brightside, for a guy that hates doing press Mike Patton sure gives a good interview. When I reach him in New Orleans – where he has joined Duane Denison, John Stainer and Trevor Dunn to play Tomahawk’s first shows in nearly a decade – the Faith No More frontman is in an exceedingly good mood. He’s wise cracking, polite, gracious under compliment and – when engaged in conversation about music that matters to him – hard to slow down.
Hello Mike, where are you today?
Wow, we got a crazy delay! I’m in Texas on tour with Tomahawk.
How have the first few shows gone – it must feel great to be back playing in that formation again?
They are going really well; surprisingly well after not playing for nine years or something like that. There is new material that we are all really excited about and also just being together again and playing.
Have you been doing the shows with [bassist] Trevor Dunn as I know he has been on this huge “51 dates in 51 states” tour with The Melvins?
He actually just finished in Hawaii and he flew to the US on the day of our first gig. We are working him like a mule [laughs].
Mark Of Cain release their new album in Australia today, so John will also be working double time when Tomahawk is here for Soundwave.
Interesting, is Stainer on that one? That’s cool! He doesn’t talk to me. [Laughs]
Duane has described the new Tomahawk album Oddfellows as “really heavy Beach Boys”, would you agree with that?
Well, you know, let’s not take that to the bank [laughs]. It’s a good record, what can I tell you? It’s maybe a little bit more melodic than other ones we’ve done. In some ways more intricate and in some ways, way more straightforward. Definitely compared to our last record it’s a more linear song-based record; these are songs and it’s a rock record. Personally speaking I’m singing a lot more, there is a lot less electronic and lot more harmony. So, if the shoe fits.
Obviously you’ve spent the last couple of years working and performing this beautiful Italian pop music in Mondo Cane – did working with this sound influence what you wanted to do with the new Tomahawk music, this poppier turn?
No, not really. Well maybe subconsciously. But Duane and I actually spoke about doing another record quite a while ago and we said, “Let’s do something that is really stripped down and really straightforward, something that is very direct.” And I think that’s what we got.
I noticed that US cartoonist Ivan Brunetti has done the artwork for the ‘Stone Letter’ “7 that you’re releasing for Record Store Day, which is really cool – how did that come about?
Do you know his stuff? Cool! Well, yeah that’s how it came about – I’m a fan too. Actually we’re all fans and a few years ago I reached out to him and I thought it would be cool to work together sometime. Every now and again I do that to people I admire – and sometimes you hear back, sometimes you don’t. And he wrote me back like immediately and was a really sweet guy. I met him and hung out a little bit and we said, “Someday let’s do something together.” And when it came time to do the artwork for this record it seemed to make sense, and he did great. We were all really flattered and amazed by what he did.
Did you have much input or did you just let him do his thing?
No, no we let him go. With a real artist you don’t say shit. You say, “I trust you!” It’s like a good chef. You show up at a restaurant and you say “Bring it to me.” Chef’s table, I don’t give a fuck, we trust you, I love you. And that’s what we did to him. And the only sort of restriction I gave him was, “No coat hanger abortions, we have to sell this goddamn thing” [laughs], and it hurt my feelings to even give him those restrictions. But he understood immediately. We gave him the album title and he just ran with it.
You’re coming to Australia with Mondo Cane only eight months since your last visit. Why did you want to bring the project back so soon?
I didn’t [laughs]. AJ [Maddah] – the promoter – the last time we were down there, mentioned it. And I said, “Yeah, I want to do it but I think you’re kind of crazy for inviting us back so soon.” And he said, “No, no I want to do it.” So we talked about it and it seemed to make sense. And I’m happy. I’m glad there is enough interest in it to be able to do something like that. Because it [Mondo Cane] is a little extreme for a concert like this.
You obviously have a good relationship with him.
Yeah, he seems like a good dude. On a business and creative level I’ve got nothing but good things to say about this guy. He’s been really, really supportive and kind of adventurous. I mean, let’s be honest, we don’t belong on this bill. You know what I mean? [Laughs] What I’m saying is that musically and popularity wise we don’t belong on this bill. But he likes the project and he took a chance and that takes balls and I give him a lot of credit.
He has taken a chance with Dexys Midnight Runners as well.
[Laughs] Wow, maybe his balls are a little too big on that one. Joke, joke, joke!
“I just feel lucky that people listen.”
I found it quite interesting that your Sydney Festival Mondo Cane shows were full of people wearing various Patton project t-shirts – be it FantÃ´mas,or Peeping Tom. Were you surprised that Mondo Cane has resonated so strongly with fans of your other work?
Well, it’s not something I take note of. I’m happy that people listened. Ideally, Mondo Cane would be an over-50 crowd; and FantÃ´mas would be a bunch of cyber-tweaking metal head hardcore guys; and Tomahawk would be a bunch of whiskey-swilling rednecks. You don’t choose your audience, they are who they are and I just feel lucky that people listen.
I understand that there is a second Mondo Cane album in the works, will it just be made up of the songs in your live set that didn’t make it onto the last album or have you been exploring new songs?
There is basically a record that is half done, three quarters done, but I’ve just got to get off my arse and finish it [laughs]. It’s stuff that you will hear live, and stuff we’ve been playing and stuff that wasn’t on the first record. But that’s not to say it is a throwaway. Basically, what I did was learn one block [of songs] – about 25 – and I took the first record and sort of chose [songs for that]. I blocked them into two records from the beginning. So there was the first record and then a second – hopefully sometime next year.
You have spoken at length about this project before, and it is obvious it resonates with you in a very unique way – do you see you a future for Mondo Cane, or will you eventually let it be?
This one actually feels like something I could do until I fall into the grave [laughs]. It’s just good, it’s comfortable and it is something that – unlike a lot of stuff that I do which is maybe a little bit more momentary – has, a sort of a feel to it. It feels to me, like I can listen to it in the morning, at night, when I’m a good mood, in a bad mood – it’s just a little more applicable to the human condition. How do you like that?
Um, I love that?
[Laughs] No, that is horrible, sorry! Let me think, I guess what I mean to say is that it has a timelessness about it. It is music from the freaking ‘50s and ‘60s and here we are talking about it now. So I don’t think this shit is going anywhere anytime soon. And all I’m doing is just kind of passing it along. I’m doing stuff with it, I’m trying to warp it in interesting ways but also in respectful ways, and also pass it on to people who wouldn’t have encountered it.
“This feels like something I could do until I fall into the grave.”
Are you interested in Italian music from other eras or is there just something about this time and sound that caught you?
I’m interested in lots of different stuff but that era…it was like a spear through my torso. It just flawed me. I was like “wow”. I just enjoyed it, I enjoyed it a lot. And after speaking to a few friends I thought, “We should really do something like this.” And initially it was a four-piece band with some friends from Rome, and the more I got into it the more I thought, “No, no, no I don’t want to butcher this shit!” I really wanted to do it in a nice way, and that idea kind of intersected to work with an orchestra and those two things came together. Budda bing!
You’ve also just completed work on the recording of Laborintus II [a re-imagining of a 1965 classical piece by Italian composer Luciano Berio featuring the writing of Dante scholar Edoardo Sanguineti] which is a really fascinating piece of work, and I’d imagine a fairly intimating one to tackle. What made you decide to take it on?
Well, thank you. Again that one was kind of a combination of opportunity and sitting around talking with friends. I was at this festival in Amsterdam called The Holland Festival and this friend of mine, who runs it, hired me to do something else and then said, “Would you be interested [in performing Laborintus]?”
A lot of these projects start as a hypothetical, “What if, this/would you be interest in that?”, and in my case I like to be challenged. This was a big challenge for me. Working with a serious composer and I mean that – not in classical way [laughs] – in a difficult way. Like on a level of one to 10 this is like a nine and someone I really respect. And I didn’t want to be part of some kind of tragedy, so I was a little sceptical. And then I realised it’s only narration and then I thought, “No, I can handle this.” And then I spoke to a conductor on Skype and he was showing me how he’d conduct me until I was comfortable and I decided to it. And I’m really happy I did. This guy’s music I think is incredible and I’m honoured to be a part of it.
Given this work on Laborintus, your love of film composition and your recent work on the soundtrack for Place Beyond The Pines, would you ever consider live scoring a film as a performance piece?
Yeah, yeah. I mean it’s an interesting idea. I’ve seen a lot of people do it, and I guess I’ve never been totally blown away, but I think that it is something I would entertain for sure. I’ve just never been asked. And I guess I’ve been doing that in my own way for a long time. [Laughs, sheepishly] I used to tape VCR tapes, and I had this VCR that had an audio input and I would record stuff to scenes of movies that I liked. I’d throw in my own music to practice, like I’d take a fight scene in Goodfellas, and I’d loop it and I’d put my own music over it.
I think you need to release some of that for us. Looking forward to seeing you in Australia, yet again.
Maybe I should just get an apartment right? [Laughs]
Mondo Cane play their only Australian sideshow on Monday, November 12 – Regent Theatre, Melbourne. Tickets on sale now
Harvest Festival dates:
Saturday, November 10 – Werribee Park, Melbourne
Sunday, November 11 – Werribee Park, Melbourne
Saturday, November 17 – Parramatta Park, Sydney
Sunday, November 18 – Riverstage, Brisbane