INTERVIEW: Mike Patton

The existence of Mike Patton’s Mondo Cane should be no surprise to anyone. Even Patton’s most commercial musical endeavour – Faith No More – was pretty damn uncommercial, a few big hits notwithstanding. Mr. Bungle were always the musical equivalent of a sophisticated sugar high, Fantomas is like soundtrack music for a fever dream, and there are plenty of other non-obvious, non-pop entries dotted throughout Patton’s musical resume. Yet still Mondo Cane stands out as one of his most surprising yet most ‘that totally makes sense’ musical endeavours: sweeping versions of 1950s and 60s Italian pop music, rendered with respect and creativity rather than as a joke. Faith No More fans might have seen hints to this in that band’s occasional Burt Bacharach covers or some of Bungle’s more leisurely moments on California, but Mondo Cane is the fully-realised expression of this side of Patton’s musical personality. Fans in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane will be able to experience the splendour first-hand when Mike Patton’s Mondo Cane performs at the Harvest Festival and at a sideshow in Melbourne this month. 

What are the logistics of pulling something like this together? 

Well, it’s a lot of phases, a lot of steps. To go back to the beginning it’s selecting the songs. In the beginning I probably had about 150 tunes that I was in love with and thought that maybe I could do some justice to. Then you whittle them down, whittle them down and keep whittling them down. Then you want variety, you want this composer and that composer, and you try to paint the kind of brush strokes that you envision. So you have to eliminate certain things that are fantastic but could maybe be saved for later or something like that. And once you decide that, it’s ‘Okay… who am I gonna get to help me?’ And I was very, very lucky to find Daniele Luppi, who has since become a very, very dear friend. He helped me transcribe all of this stuff. I had the arrangements in my head how I wanted to change each tune and the sort of instrumentation I wanted, and he helped me put it down on paper and make it intelligible to the rest of the world.

And then from that point you start finding a band, putting together a band, and that’s a whole other set of dramas and phone calls. There’s a selection process: what about this guy? What about that guy? And there are so many great musicians out there. That was kind of an eye-opening part of the whole process: how many choices I actually had. And once you make those choices, hey, there’s peoples’ schedules. Maybe he’s the perfect person to play Theremin but he’s not available so you’ve got to go to plan B. There’s literally sinkholes at every division. Every single time we do this, you don’t know what’s going to happen. On this tour I feel very fortunate that I’ve kept the band pretty much intact except for a couple of positions from the last time we were there.

It must be quite the travelling party!

Yeah. Three quarters of the band are from Italy but then there’s people coming from the (American) east coast, west coast, and it’s quite the airport pickup, put it that way!

Now, I don’t understand Italian, apart from the food… 

That’s good enough, my friend, that’s good enough

…But there’s something about hearing a song in another language where you find yourself drawn to the emotion in the vocals, stripped of the meaning of the words, which makes it very pure.

Well good, I’m glad you think that way. I think that way. I listen to, say, Indian music and of course I don’t understand a word they’re saying. It’s still music, and music does not really have to include a language that you understand. It doesn’t need to be words. Words can sometimes be a hindrance, in my opinion. I have another band, Fantomas, where I chose not to use words at all because I thought they’d get in the way. So I’m glad you hear it that way, and honestly that’s the way I hear it. Even though I understand what I’m saying, I fall in love with the lyricism of it and the sound of the voice, as opposed to the message it may be conveying.

A great thing about the Mondo Cane album is that it has plenty of that great 50s/60s reverb sound, which is so evocative.

I love that sound! It’s something that I’ve probably used and tried to recreate on many, many records, and maybe on this one I think I actually kinda got it!

Do you plan to do any more of these albums? 

Yes! Yes. There’s another one that’s kind of half done and I just need to clear some space and finish it. When we play live it’s about 25 tunes, 22, something like that, and on the record there’s like 10, so you’ll hear basically the whole second record if you come and see the show. And I kind of planned it that way. On the first record I chose it based on our live set, which was basically the length of two records. So I chose the first record knowing there was going to be a second.

You’ve built up a kind of trust with your audience where they seem happy to follow you wherever you take them.

I do feel fortunate that people will lend an ear to something like this. A lot of close friends of mine even said ‘Man, you really wanna do that? Okay…’ And in the beginning, I’ll be honest with you, it was just a one-off concert in Italy. It was something that I got invited to do for a festival for a friend, and I always said to him – he runs a festival in Bologna in Italy, where I used to live – and he’s always asking every year, ‘Do you have any new projects? What should we do this year?’ And I said ‘Man, if you ever have a chance to work with an orchestra, I’m in. Let’s just figure out something.’ And so the opportunity came, and then it was ‘Now what the hell am I gonna do?’ I had a few ideas and this was one of them, and he really gravitated towards it and brought it to life. So we did it, we recorded it and I realised, ‘Wow, this is amazing and it’s gonna make a record.’ It just kinda snowballed.

Do you have any plans to release any live stuff from the Faith No More reunion tours?

Right now we have no plans whatsoever. Live, recording or anything. We’ve done what we set out to do with the reunion, and it’s all great, but it’s just ‘Let’s see what happens next.’ And I think you need to take a pause to actually reflect on something like that, because otherwise we could just keep playing, and we’re very conscious of overdoing it, y’know, milking material that’s so old. You can only do that for so long, and I feel that we’ve done pretty well. The whole band’s naturally came to this conclusion, so now we’re just sitting tight.

Well the reunion managed to avoid feeling like a nostalgia thing – it just felt like ‘Here’s Faith No More again.’ 

Well that’s good! I’m glad to hear that. I think we’d all be happy to hear that, and that’s why we did it. One of the reasons we didn’t do it sooner was we didn’t feel like we could make it feel that way. We wanted it to feel fresh and still somehow vital.

Whether there’s more in the future or not, the fact that you did it meant a lot to a lot of people. 

That’s cool! And also for us. It wasn’t a money grab. It’s funny to say, but we all kind of reconnected, and after quite a long time we all kinda looked at each other and were like, “Man! We actually spent half of our lives together!” It’s interesting to see it through that set of glasses as opposed to the ones you wore back then. I suppose at least personally speaking I’ve grown up a lot since then, and I think I approach the music differently, and I felt better about the music than I did then.”

Since this interview is for a musician audience, I feel I should ask about vocal technique, and my question is: “How the hell, man?”

I don’t know! That’s my honest answer! I found a little thing inside of me and figured out a way of using it, and sometimes faking certain things and imitating other things, and then I did it for a really long time, and I think just de facto when you do something for a long period of time, if there is a God up there, you’re going to get better at it. And y’know, that’s what I still feel like I’m trying to do. I still feel like a chump in a lot of ways. There are singers who can put me under the table, and there’s always shit to learn. And I feel like that’s what I’m here for. It’s not really to do this or do that: I just want to get better.

In terms of always being something to learn, one of my favourite singers is Robert Plant, and I don’t mean ‘Led Zeppelin Robert Plant,’ I mean ‘Old Robert Plant.’ There’s just something about his voice with that benefit of years…

Yeah! He was the one thing that I did not like about Led Zeppelin, and one thing as a singer is you learn to tune out other singers. It’s really funny, like you’ve got this little knob in your mind. Maybe it’s growing up with hardcore and death metal and stuff like that. You don’t even care what the singer’s doing. You just listen to the rest of it. And Led Zeppelin was like that for me. Whatever, that’s just me. But then, after the fact, I’ve heard stuff that he’s done with Alison Kraus and it’s really nice. It’s really great. So maybe I was wrong. Who knows.

Mike Patton’s Mondo Cane plays at the Regent Theatre, Melbourne on Monday November 12, and at Harvest Festival in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.

Harvest Festival 

Sat 10th Nov – Melbourne, Werribee Park

Sun 11th Nov – Melbourne, Werribee Park

Sat 17th Nov – Sydney, Parramatta Park

Sun 18th Nov – Brisbane, City Botanic Gardens

[geo-in country=”Australia” note=””]This is an extended version of an interview originally published in Mixdown magazine.[/geo-in]

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