After an 18-year silence, last week saw the return of mercurial rock group Faith No More with the group’s seventh full length, Sol Invictus. Though appropriate enough, using the word “rock” as a descriptor for the band is a bit misleading, if for no other reason than the fact that throughout its 34 years of existence (36 if you want to include the group’s original inception named Sharp Young Men), Faith No More has never remained still. Ranging from the likes of rap-rock to funk to alternative to just flat out strange, the band’s audience reach was remarkably and ingeniously broad. Just as unpredictable as the creative bent of their music was the band’s return, in 2009, with The Second Coming Tour, and with last year’s announcement of a new album, it became clear that volatility remains Faith No More’s strongest suit.
Like any good “comeback” or “return” album, Sol Invictus was shrouded in mystery and intrigue, with the band members, especially bassist Billy Gould, offering small hints here and there, much to the frustration of eager fans who, to be fair, had waited almost two decades for new music from the band. And despite the group’s fundamental unpredictability, the album that finally arrived saw the Faith No More returning full force, its proclivity for the deliberately confrontational paired along with an acerbic wit intact.
Much of what’s provided the group with that distinctively provocative aesthetic has come by way of vocalist Mike Patton. Though not an original member, Patton, who joined in 1989, proved to be the creative linchpin for Faith No More, an eccentric and commanding front man bringing the music’s chaos into razor sharp and relentlessly acerbic focus. During the band’s hiatus, Patton remained as creative as ever, contributing a number of guest artist spots, serving as the vocalist for The Dillinger Escape Plan, working with Björk, forming no less than three other groups and scoring the film The Place Beyond the Pines.
Much of what’s propelled Patton’s success and nearly universal acclaim has been a sort of removed self-awareness. While the incredibly versatile vocalist is well aware of what he does, he’s utterly unconcerned with how his creations fit within societal contexts. As the 47-year old musician revealed in our interview, he pays very little attention to expectation or even order for that matter. These are the results of instinct and not distraction. It’s an attitude that undoubtedly landed Patton his first gig with Mr. Bungle while still in high school and what’s earned him continual respect from artists old and new.
In a recent conversation, Patton made quick work of even the slightest hint of romanticized interpretations of his work. But it’s clear that perspective comes not from self-loathing or “rock star” egomania. The moments were rare where Patton didn’t laugh at himself or the idea of some “mystery” to his or anyone else’s success; he sounded genuinely happy and excited to be back in the familiar and humbling place where it all began. For Patton, his work is simply his work and nothing more, and in an appropriate sense, that disarming self-awareness is just as unpredictable as you’d expect from the vocalist for Faith No More.
I think I’m supposed to ask you some questions you haven’t already answered, so let’s start with Sol Invictus.
I haven’t been asked anything about it so don’t worry. [laughs]
Oh, well good, good. It’s fresh then.
It’s very fresh.
Well, it’s been eighteen years since Album of the Year, and you’ve certainly been busy with several other things in the meantime. What led you back after all that time to make this happen with Faith No More?
Good question. I think it came from a point of friendship — a point of companionship more than anything. Before music. I think it stemmed from a point of friendship as opposed to music. We hooked up at a wedding of our keyboard player, some of us, and realized that — goddamn, we still really like each other. So that, to me, was the impetus. Little did I know that the band had been working on a bunch of stuff without telling me. I didn’t know that they had been rehearsing all this stuff. I’ve kept up with our bass player Bill, and we went out one night and had a meal and had some drinks, and he said, “Hey, would you like to listen to some stuff I’ve been working on?” And I didn’t think it was Faith No More at all. I really didn’t. I’m listening to it, though, and I’m like, “Oh my god. Okay, I see where you’re going here and … oh boy.” It kinda put me on the spot a little bit, but I said, “Hey man, I’m down. Let’s do it. Whatever it takes. It’s gonna take a while because all of us are busy, and there’s no time limit here.” That was part of the reason I wanted to do it also, because there wasn’t this black cloud hanging over our heads, meaning a label going, “Hey, deliver this by then.” We had no deadlines. I can say it really was something that was open-ended and beautiful and genuine — a genuine, creative endeavor. That’s how this all started.
Was there a kind of immediate return to form for the group with the new record where everything clicked again just like it always had?
Oh no, we did a gang of reunion shows where we kind of got to know each other again, and that was really, really nice. I think, starting in 2009 or 2010, we did a month of shows where we just played. We played our old s*** and, look, that was really, really fun. But there’s a shelf life on that, at least to us, and at one point we looked at each other, and we literally collectively said: “Okay … is this it?” You know, we could go on playing that stuff maybe in Macedonia or whatever until the end of time. But we just looked at each other and said, “Nah. You know what? I think this is it unless we do new s***.” That’s when the surprise came to me that there actually was new s*** and stuff that I could chew on, but I was very skeptical. Once I heard it, though, I was just like, “Yes, yes! Absolutely. I know what to do with this.” It makes sense, and in some ways we’re all kind of getting it right. We’re trying to right some wrongs, if you can say that. Meaning the way s***’s recorded, the way it’s presented, and basically just us taking control of our name, of our music, and everything that that contained.
You’ve always been fairly open and honest when it comes to the music industry, and obviously a great deal has changed on almost every level for how bands operate, how they’re marketed, and so on. In that regard, do you see that culture of creativity having changed for the better if for the simple fact that more opportunities are available?
No. No. No. I think you create your own freedom. I think you create your own boundaries, and you work within them. To us? Yeah, we had a certain paradigm where we were active and now, eighteen years later, hey, we’re doing it again. And I’ve been doing s*** since then for ten years on my own, and it’s no big deal, but to us, doing it yourself is like a very novel concept for a bunch of old men. It’s a novel concept, and I totally get it, and I’m into it. I’m really loving watching us go through this process, and it’s not the way it was. The way it was was: You make a record, fight off the guys, and then you let everybody else do everything else. We were on a major label, and it was like, “The artwork guy? Yeah, he’ll deal with it. It’s fine.” Every little part of your existence as a band is sort of handled by someone else, and I would think that this is the first time that we, collectively as a band, have done it ourselves, and it’s empowering. It’s great. It’s exciting.
I wanted to talk for a moment about your other projects — be it Tomahawk or your film scoring with The Place Beyond the Pines. Is there a creative obstacle for you just in terms of going from one sound dynamic to what’s a distinctively different sound dynamic? Do you see those things coming from different places within your creative self as an artist?
Not at all. I feel it all comes from the same place, and that is coming from the art and a sense of genuine creative fire. I’ll just tell ya’, I write stuff all the time. All the time. I don’t know where it’s gonna go, or where it’s gonna end up. I think you kinda figure that out afterwards. That’s one thing I’ve learned after doing this for thirty years: Keep writing, keep doing it, but the process is the most important thing. Where it ends up or how you end up arranging it where it ends up where it ends up is just an afterthought. To me, the most important part is keeping busy and containing that fire.
What does that process look like now as opposed to 1985 or 1995?
Well, I appreciate it now. Before, I thought it was just — well, I didn’t really even think about it. It was just an instinct like going to the bathroom or wiping your ass or something really fundamental and instinctual like a bodily function. Now? I feel like — okay, I can actually control it a little bit, so what I’ll do on a day-to-day is I’ll wake up and try and write whether I feel like it or not. I’ll go to the studio and try and write for like six, seven, eight hours a day, and whatever happens, happens and then you close it off. By the same token, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and have an idea. And thank god I have a home studio. It’s one of the great things in modern human history. Being able to have a home studio is the greatest thing ever. You can articulate your s*** at like four in the morning. If you want to. I’ve got that option now, and I’m really thankful for it.
Speaking of those changes and specifically regarding you growing older, though I wouldn’t say you’re old, Mike.
Well, no. I’m old. Let’s just get it out there. I’m forty-seven and the other guys are like in their fifties so that’s old. Let’s just draw the line in the sand now.
Well, what I wanted to ask concerned your lyrics and that kind of self-aware cynicism you’ve employed that seems kind of removed from you as the vocalist but also as an active participant within the music.
Yeah. I might be reading too much into it, though. We can keep talking about age if you’d like.
No, no, no. That’s great. That’s great.
What I wanted to ask you is whether or not you’ve seen your experiences and your growing up and maturing causing your own perspectives to change and by proxy having an effect on how you approach your lyrics?
Nah. Not at all. I hate to be unromantic here, but the lyrics to me are just another instrument. I see them as such, and there’s a reason we don’t really print them on our records. I don’t think we ever have. Maybe we did once or twice and that was just under duress. [laughs] I feel that the words are really up to you. I’m giving them to the public, and I think that, you know, whoever’s listening should be able to interpret them the way they want. From word to word and sentence to sentence, if there’s a grand meaning, you come up with it, because I certainly can’t. I don’t have one. I’ll tell you. I don’t have a grand plan. I write lyrics based on music, on a musical flow, and what sounds good at the time. If I can fit a them into that, then hey, I’m lucky. If not? I don’t care. They’re just words. If they’re political, if they’re antisocial or god knows what — if they were, then that’s not my problem. I just write them, and it’s up to the world to decide what they are. That’s my position.
That kind of naturally lends itself to the question of your vocal stylization — something that’s always been a point of distinction for any of your projects. It makes sense that the lyrics would work as a sort of conduit.
Yes! They’re a conduit. Exactly.
Is there a specific kind of origin point for you as far as your vocal versatility and how you developed it?
I don’t really see myself as having a style. That’s first and foremost. I just do what’s necessary. If I have a style, all it is is I’m like a plumber. I’m someone that comes to your house to fix the s***, and that’s the way I see myself. That’s my role as a vocalist. Here’s what it needs, and here’s what I can do. I’ve got a certain toolbelt, and for certain projects it’s not the right one, so I gotta figure it out. For other ones it’s like I’ve got this wrench, I’ve got this screwdriver, and I can make that happen. Style is something that happens after many, many years, and it should be something that you’re unconscious of. If I have a style, then I applaud people like you that would credit me for that. I’ve been working on it. [laughs]
As far as your relationship to music and those artists or the music that initially sparked that creative instinct, was there a specific moment for you where that happened in the very beginning?
Of course not.
I know that’s not sexy. I know people want me to go, “Oh yeah, it was this record. I heard Michael Jackson‘s Thriller and that made me wanna be a singer,” but no, man. I never had that moment. I didn’t. I’m sorry. To me, it was a gradual collection of failures that led me to realize that maybe I could do this. I mean, sing. My first gig as a singer was because the singer didn’t show up. A friend of mine’s band, so there you go. It’s not like I thought about it. It just happened, and so I was there, and I became the singer. To me, that’s kind of fundamental. Understanding that you don’t have to have a plan. For kids out there or whatever, you don’t have to have a plan. You can make it work. I didn’t wanna be a singer. I thought I was gonna be a f****** poet or something, you know? I was studying English literature. I would never, ever have the balls to do what you’re doing. I mean, my point is we don’t ever really know, and we don’t ever really have a plan, and it’s okay. It’s okay to ride the waves here and there and then kind of figure it out. That’s what I did. That’s all.