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The avant-garde all-stars of Fantômas push the bounds of music -- and good taste

Wednesday, Apr 21 2004
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Fantômas singer Mike Patton possesses the most versatile voice in all of music. The strain he puts on it as he shrieks, bellows, cackles, croons, and yelps must be unbelievable. (Skeptical? Check out Adult Themes for Voice, his 1996 solo album on Tzadik.) Surely Patton follows a special regimen to keep those golden cords in pristine, flexible shape.

"My favorite cocktail is Red Bull and semen," he deadpans during a phone interview. "It's got that thick, syrupy quality, but it also wakes me up, like a poor man's speedball." (Pause for hearty laughter.) "No, I don't do anything. Knock on wood, so far it's been working. I don't get sore very often. Sometimes the first week of a tour's a little rough, but after a while you don't hurt anymore, like with jogging or weightlifting. [The voice is] like a muscle, you know?"

If Patton's voice is a muscle, then it's Popeye-size and colorfully tattooed. The 36-year-old Bay Area native has used that bulging sinew to lend schizophrenic personalities to such rock bands as Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, Tomahawk, the Melvins, and, of course, Fantômas. He's also spit into mikes with a staggering number of experimental, electronic, and hip hop musicians, including Kronos Quartet, John Zorn's Naked City, Maldoror (with Merzbow), Lovage (led by Dan the Automator), X-ecutioners, and Björk.

Besides spreading his eccentric vocalese with promiscuous impunity and running the maverick Ipecac label, Patton recently finished acting in Steve Balderson's Firecracker, a film based on events surrounding a murder in small-town Kansas. Patton plays a dual lead role as an ornery alcoholic and a nefarious carnival owner. Balderson chose Patton over Dennis Hopper, who reportedly desired the part.

Anyone who's seen Patton onstage can attest to his innate thespian talent. The man radiates insane amounts of energy and charisma, and wields a quick wit, too. With Fantômas, he needs to project as outlandishly as possible to match his bandmates' firepower. When you have guitarist Buzz Osborne (Melvins), bassist Trevor Dunn (ex-Mr. Bungle, Secret Chiefs 3), and drummer Dave Lombardo (ex-Slayer, Grip Inc.) generating nuclear heat behind you, somber introversion won't fly.

"With each Fantômas record, I'm trying to challenge the musicians, all the while trying to be conscious of the record before it and what might come after it," Patton says. "When we first started, I had this specific idea of what I wanted the band to be. I thought it was just going to be a studio project. I thought I'd find the right four guys to bring this insane music to life and leave it at that. But as soon as we started playing this stuff, these guys were really playing it well and understanding it, [and] I realized I had a monster on my hands, and I had to write more for these guys. Not only that, I have to write more twisted, fucked-up stuff; I gotta bust their chops."

On Fantômas' self-titled 1999 debut, Patton's vocals contorted around an unpredictable flow of vignettes that flitted from doom-laden Sabbath sludge to staccato bursts of metal delirium to tense near-silences to dadaist soundsc(r)aping to Goblin-style horror-flick shtick. Supposedly the soundtrack to a comic book titled Fantômas, the disc projected most comics' melodramatic gestures. Patton showed that vocal cords could be as absurdly expressive as any software program tweaked by digital dorks. "The first record was working on our font, our handwriting, developing a language," Patton says.

With 2001's The Director's Cut, Fantômas indulged its love of film scores, maliciously rendering pieces by Henry Mancini, Krzysztof Komeda, John Barry, and others. "The covers record was a reward to them," Patton says of his belabored bandmates. "So that record was easy for them. [Delirium Cordia] was not."

To say the least. As difficult to describe as it must've been to record, Delirium Cordia, the band's new release, is a bizarre 55-minute collage that ranges from Tubular Bells-like eerieness to early Swans tar-black dirges, covering much creepy terrain in between. "It was us really stretching out," says Patton. "I didn't want us to sound like a band at all. I wanted them to come in and not know so much about structure and where I wanted them to go with it -- whereas before it was hyperrehearsed, ultraprecise. These poor guys put in 14-hour days for me. But out of that, we developed a language.

"I wanted to make an ambient record, a mood-music record," he continues. "I wanted it to be like wallpaper, and I wanted it to involve large chunks of sound as opposed to small, precise ones. I wanted it to be long and loose and real background as opposed to demanding foreground music. I'm really happy with the way it came out."

But will Fantômas' fans feel the same way?

"I've had people trying to make me worried about alienating some sort of mythical fan base my whole life," Patton retorts. "I wouldn't be so concerned with making records that are drastically different and using different bands and approaches if I weren't in this for fuckin' life. In order for me to keep going, these are the kind of records I have to make."

The music on Delirium seems meant to mirror the horrors to which the body is subject, as depicted in the CD artwork reproduced from photographer Max Aguilera-Hellweg's The Sacred Heart.

"That's part of it. In a larger sense, I wanted it to be a meditative record, an inside record. It was a challenge, because I don't usually write that way. I write in a dense, hyperactive style that's always going, 'Me me me me!' It was hard to put together a record like that that isn't boring, that has a lot of different ideas and ebbs and flows. To work that into a record like this and not make it sound forced and herky-jerky is difficult."

Difficult maybe, but Patton had help, as the list of obscure acknowledgments on the new album indicates.

"They helped me make this record," Patton admits, referring to people like Matmos and Hermann Nitsch. "Some of them influenced me personally as a writer or vocalist. With a record like this, where it's very difficult to navigate, the more signs I could put up to help people understand where I'm coming from, the better. Jesus, it's a giant mass of sound, and it lasts for a fuckin' hour. You need to help ease and seduce them into it."

Patton and company have already wrapped up Fantômas' next album, Suspended Animation, which is due out early in 2005. "It's a very happy-go-lucky children's record," Patton says. "It's really upbeat, bouncy, playful, and fun. ... The only downside is that some of this stuff is so comical, I don't know if we'll get away with playing nightclubs. We might have to play day-care centers."

About The Author

Dave Segal

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