Mike Patton and the Essential Distinction
“Thirty or forty years from now, do you want to be celebrated as a rock star or as a musician?”
That question has long been a crossroads for music icons and is more layered than one might think. Axl Rose made his choice. Madonna hers. Gene Simmons of Kiss, as well. Yet, they may not have realized how they actually answered it.
Many years ago, the legendary Mike Patton also answered this career-defining question, and the music world has never been the same since. Not only did Mr. Patton zealously choose the path of musician over rock star, but he has since become one of the most groundbreaking artists of his time.
To say Patton is a chameleon or genre-bender is a gross oversimplification. His body of work and artistry transcend any limitations on style. His bat- belt of vocal abilities includes Vic Damone-style balladeering (“Ashes to Ashes”), sonic-speed rapping (“Squeeze Me Macaroni”), pop hook choruses (“Mojo”), whistle-register vocal gymnastics (“Litany IV”) and sultry, French nonchalance (“Ford Mustang”). On a journey from crooning to Cannibal Corpse, he can easily take exits at beatboxing, falsetto, opera or swing. Don’t be surprised if a death metal/barbershop quartet is in his plans. And with a new Tomahawk record coming out on March 26th (pre-order LP) along with a new Dead Cross record in the works, it is only fitting that yet another retrospective of his career is attempted. It won’t be the last.
By way of non-musical comparison, take the career of Johnny Depp. Mr. Depp, who is roughly Mr. Patton’s age, has embodied some of film’s most iconic characters. It is hard to believe that Captain Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands, and Raoul Duke could all come from one actor.
While Depp is an incredible talent in his own right, Mr. Patton has a list of musical personas that rivals Mr. Depp’s portfolio. In a musical sense, describing Mr. Patton as a "Renaissance Man" might be a bit of an insult.
Skipping past the massive success of Faith No More in the 90s, consider Patton’s latest contribution to the aforementioned Dead Cross, spearheaded by Dave Lombardo. How many singers can return to music of such intensity and not embarrass themselves? Patton proved to be quite the opposite of embarrassment. With a stripped-down lineup of Lombardo on drums, Patton on vocals, Justin Pearson on bass and Michael Crain on guitar, they attack riffs in an old fashioned and relentless way with minimal studio trickery. The song "My Perfect Prisoner" alone proves that Dead Cross is as fast and raw as it can get, and the band is as vibrant and legitimate as any new hardcore act today. The same could be said for the reboot of the Mr. Bungle demo The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny, originally recorded in the eighties.
On the other hand, he has also collaborated with French composer Jean Claude Vanner; the two having met for the Serge Gainsburg retrospective at the Hollywood Bowl in 2011. A friendship sparked along with an agreement to someday collaborate and the result is the stunning Corpse Flower with the lower register of Mr. Patton’s voice as the ideal vector for the multilingual, misty storytelling. Who would think—while listening to the authentic jazz number on that record—that it was coming from the guy who once severed a tendon in his hand during a gig and–that’s right–still finished the show?
All this is to say that Mike Patton has one of the most artistically diverse repertoires out there. Hard to believe? OK, get a pencil.
For Al Green-style serenading, try Lovage. This collaboration with uber emotive singer, Jennifer Charles and tech stylist Dan the Automator creates a velvet-and-martini mood for fireside romance. There is even help from the Bronx rap legend Afrika Bambaataa.
For angular and stabbing rock, try Tomahawk. Along with Patton, Duane Dennison (Jesus Lizard), John Stanier (Helmet) and Trevor Dunn (every frickin’ band ever, apparently) the group combines driving, two-bar drum phrases with haunting melodies that serve more as a fuse for volatile choruses. The single “Business Casual” from the new release is probably the best example of how this group succeeds as a sort of cagey juggernaut.
If one wants soul-infused pop, download some Peeping Tom. For this project, Patton brought together another collection of his favorite musicians and terminates the notion that he only prefers edgy outsiders. The song “Sucker” features the solidly mainstream Nora Jones and the record as a whole is decidedly radio-ready.
If a dominatrix is not available for punishment, strap-in for some Fantomas. Written completely by Patton in demo form and then taught to Buzz Osbourne (Melvins) on guitar, Dave Lombardo (Slayer) on drums and Tevor Dunn (again, every band ever) on bass, the music is almost impossible to describe. If one could conjure Bugs Bunny getting all his mates together to jam while they all refuse to admit a growing amphetamine problem, that might be a good place to open the discussion.
And there’s this other project entitled Tetema. Uh, let’s just say, proceed with caution on that one (you have been warned).
Yet, perhaps the most impressive of Mr. Patton’s talents is his ability to take the oblique melodies and unanticipated chords in his head and create luscious soundtracks out of them. His film score for Stephen King’s 1922 easily holds up against giants like Lalo Schifrin or Barry Goldsmith as unnerving creaks and drip-drops build tension without blasting trumpets to indicate when one needs to be frightened. Rather, the textures Patton generates fester in one’s conscience as the unsavory tale unfolds. And it finally undoes the notion that he should stick to the assigned identity of a rock star.
Patton is, annoyingly, one of those people who happen to be good (nay, great) at everything he touches. So, it makes sense that rock stardom was merely a stepping-stone to loftier projects. But make no mistake: Mike Patton was no slouch when it came to the perfunctory antics that grab rock and roll headlines.
It would be easy to recount Mr. Patton’s escapades of rock and roll excess if one wanted to put him in a class with G.G. Allin or Johnny Rotten. But those two would not ultimately be accompanied by a forty-piece orchestra, singing Italian-language pop songs to sold-out crowds as did Mr. Patton on the wonderfully sumptuous Mondo Cane project. Yes, he was a wild man in his younger years, but then he grew up and unleashed all of his energy on as many projects as possible.
Perhaps singer Storm Large (a big Patton fan) said it best when she suggested that being a true musician isn't really a choice. One must get that creative notion, whatever it is, out of her system, or it will chafe until it does. And notably, like Ms. Large, being a workaholic helps.
“What,” one might ask, “is the point of lionizing one particular artist thirty years after he dominated MTV as a fresh new face?” The answer is in the question. It’s the word “artist.” He is one who will produce as many ideas as possible and, predictably, he merely needed an outlet with no inspirations.
With cluster bombs of ideas in his head, the 90s MTV regular teamed-up with manager and friend Greg Werckman to form Ipecac Recordings in 1999. 22 years later, they are not only releasing Patton's music but happily paying (on-time!) royalties to more than one hundred artists on their roster.
All that time and work have now placed Mr. Patton on a list of very few musicians. Ones who could be considered visionaries. In Patton's case, he is… over and over again.
One kindred spirit of Mr. Patton’s that comes to mind is Miles Davis. Widely considered the most prolific and ingenious musician of the 20th Century, Mr. Davis recorded 51 studio albums before his death in 1991 at the age of 65. He single-handedly recreated the very genre of jazz no less than six times. At 53 years old, Mr. Patton has 32 records—well on pace with Mr. Davis. But more importantly, although he may not have re-invented as many of them, Mr. Patton is also untethered from any bothersome notion of "genre."
Sure, all those numbers could represent some sort of “output” pissing contest, but it really is the quality of the work that matters. After all, 18th Century composer Joseph Hayden wrote 106 symphonies. Beethoven wrote nine. Well, which one of those composers's 250th birthday continues to be celebrated all over the world?
For what it's worth, Mr. Rose has six albums, and Kiss still wears make-up.
It makes sense why top-tier musicians worldwide revere Mr. Patton in addition to his fans. Being a perfectionist might not sound very rock and roll, but those who matter know his bona fides. Perhaps Patton said it best himself stating, “It’s important, really, to be open to every musical stimulus that you have.” Thus, endless possibilities.
Still not convinced? Time for a homework lesson (if one’s ears are open enough). Here’s your assignment: Drop a pin anywhere on Mr. Patton’s career, close your eyes and just listen. The results will be anywhere from delight, horror, confusion, and joy. But as you complete your assignment, do so with the same reverence one might reserve for Dizzy, Sinatra, Morricone, Stravinsky, Diamanda Galás, Pavarotti, or any other example of cultural excellence.
Now, get to work. Ipecac Recordings is a good place to start.
We also have a selection of Mike Patton records -- Mr. Bungle, Dead Cross, Faith No More, and the forthcoming Tomahawk record included -- in the BV/IO shop.
photo by James Richards IV (via)