In 1989 or thereabouts, I became aware of a crossover band by the name of Faith No More. Like many who became aware of them at this time, it was through sight of a music video for a single called Epic. The video for Epic was (mostly) very simplistic in nature, with the majority of shots simply being the band in front of a very elaborate backdrop, playing their instruments. But one of the many details that stood out to me was a shirt worn by vocalist Mike Patton in at least one shot. That shirt noticeably featured the logo of the other band Patton was vocalist for at the time: Mr. Bungle.
I have stated elsewhere about how Faith No More‘s brief but noticeable success benefited Mr. Bungle. One of the benefits was a record deal with the record label that Faith No More were typically releasing their work, a Los Angeles label simply called Slash Records. And because Warner Bros. were so keen to get in on this whole Mike Patton thing, they lined up to pick up the tab for distributing Mr. Bungle‘s records. This, of course, meant that Mr. Bungle went from a really out-there high school band to a minor sensation. But by the time Mr. Bungle attracted Warner Bros.‘ attention, their membership was already tied up in numerous other projects. Although Mike Patton‘s involvement in Faith No More was probably the most time-consuming and difficult to work aorund commitment, it was certainly not the only one.
So, like a lot of projects that had great creativity, but limited commercial potential at least in a world where everything has to be all “happy happy la la” shit, Mr. Bungle got relegated to a backburner for much of the time that the band was signed to Warner Bros.. As I said, whilst Mike Patton was far from the only member of the band who had other projects in the works, Faith No More became a very valuable meal ticket for him, so one can hardly blame him for devoting more of his attention or priority to it than Mr. Bungle.
I will never forget the first time I read a review of Mr. Bungle‘s first, self-titled album. I would have been a wee lad of no more than thirteen years at the time, but I remember the gist of the opening statements well. Quoting from the song The Girls Of Porn, the reviewer states that it begins with Mike Patton singing, “The urge is too much to take… all I can think about is playing with myself”. Said reviewer continues by stating that for approximately seventy-four minutes, Mr. Bungle proceed to do exactly that. This is incorrect, and horribly unfair to the band and the album. But I can understand where this belief might arise. In between each song are numerous interludes comprised of samples from numerous sources, including films like Blue Velvet. Some of these sample interludes add substantially to the running length of songs. Indeed, before I transferred this album to my iPood, I converted all ten songs into an uncompressed format on my hard drive and edited each song, reducing them to just the song with only small fragments of the interludes remaining. Ones that added something to the song. In some cases, this meant that the song was reduced in running time by as much as three minutes. I cannot remember exactly what the original running length of the CD was. The Wikipedia entry for the album states a running time of 73 minutes, 19 seconds. I see no reason to dispute this. After shaving off all of the superfluous samples, I had an album that ran for 61 minutes, 56 seconds.
But when you remove the superfluous samples and leave the music, you also have an album with some great shit on it. The first time I actually heard the album, as opposed to reading someone else’s opinion of it, was at the urging of a music teacher. This music teacher urged me to listen to the band as an example of how different styles of music are structured and played. One moment, this music teacher told me, Mr. Bungle will be playing a big doom metal section, and then they will suddenly segue into carousel music. That is a bit of an extreme description, but it is not too far from the truth.
Aside from the opener, Quote Unquote (originally titled Travolta before he proved himself to be an even bigger asshole than Anthony Kiedis and threatened legal action), the best song on Mr. Bungle would have to be My Ass Is On Fire, a song with the subject matter that the title suggests, and a lot of turntable action by David Shea. Yes, you heard that right, turntable action. I do not know exactly what caused Mr. Bungle to decide that a song about an anal sex experience gone wrong needed the rhythmic deliberate scratch of a vinyl record, but it worked.
The Wikipedia has it that the four year gap between Mr. Bungle and Disco Volante was due to “artwork delays and the band members’ many side-projects”. Whatever the case, if you have just been bitten by the bug and want to get to know Mike Patton‘s work outside of Faith No More, then Disco Volante is not the place I recommend you start looking. (There are other Mike Patton projects that are even more… not a good place to start. But I will not go into them here because this article is supposed to be about Mr. Bungle.)
One valid criticism of Disco Volante is that it is loaded with technically impressive passages, but never seems to go anywhere. I am not sure which song on the album stands out to me the most, but it is probably a close race between Carry Stress In The Jaw and Merry Go Bye Bye. Worth noting is that these are by some margin the most “conventional” songs of the twelve that appear on the record.
Conventional. Heh. One thing that is worth noting here is that shortly after Mike Patton‘s big explosion to fame in 1989 with Faith No More, the Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ frontman began a big load of cock and pizzle about how Patton had copied his style and such. First of all, if being a lengthy-haired… whatever… is a unique style, especially during the 1980s, then I am David Bowie. Seriously. And if there is one thing that every single record that Michael Allan Patton has appeared on since 1989 has proven, it is that if there is anyone in this argument who lacks anything, it is said Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman. But I digress. The first bass pattern and rhythm of Carry Stress In The Jaw that I noticed on first listen was a mid-paced one-two string of notes followed by what I count as either six or eight very rapid notes that bring to my mind images similar to Dave Slave rapidly spidering his fingers against the strings during such Sadistik Exekution classics as Internal Klok. One thing that Patton has earned a well-deserved reputation for, whether he is playing/singing/vocalising for Mr. Bungle, Fantômas, or whatever project he happens to be with at a given time, it is defying expectation. For anyone who threw in their lot with the pseudo-alternative (or alternamercial as I like to mockingly refer to it) movement of the 1990s to have an unkind word to say about Patton‘s musical ability is just… it exposes the lack of grey-matter development, we will just say for now.
Also worthy of note is the credits list on Disco Volante. Half of the band are credited under variations or plain renderings of their actual names (Mike Patton is just credited as “Patton“, for example). But drummer Danny Heifetz is credited as I Quit, and guitarist Trey Spruance (who briefly joined Faith No More as a session guitarist around 1995 or so) is credited as Uncooked Meat Prior To State Vector Collapse. For those who are curious, the other three members of Mr. Bungle in 1995 were Trevor Dunn (bass, vile according to the liner notes), Clinton McKinnon (saxophone, clarinet, keyboards), and Theo Lengyel (alto saxophone). Unfortunately, artistic differences (specifically, the direction in which most of the band was growing) caused Lengyel to leave the band after Disco Volante.
The third, and so far last, album to bear the Mr. Bungle brand was simply titled California. According to things Mike Patton said in an interview with the Albuquerque Journal, to the members of Mr. Bungle, California was “pop-y”. His next remark was “but to some fucking No Doubt fan in Ohio, they’re not going to swallow that”. That is actually a good way to describe the content of the album. As many an author has stated, California is Mr. Bungle‘s “most accessible” record. Hence, if you are new to the wacky world of Patton, and seek an introduction to Mr. Bungle, that is the album I suggest going with first. But remember, this is Mr. Bungle we are talking about here. Given that Mr. Bungle and Disco Volante feature songs about a child with an Oedipus complex hanging himself and decompression sickness, being accessible by comparison still leaves a lot of room to be very twisted. The shifts in genre are less extreme and frequent, but as one of my favourite songs on the disc, the closer Goodbye Sober Day, proves, they are still present and accounted for.
I always say that the quality of an artist’s work can be measured by the art that they help inspire. Going on that scale, Mr. Bungle might not be Black Sabbath, but they do inspire things that are equally wonderful and (probably) bemusing to the Man From Mars to behold. One director by the name of Tom Kanschat made a pair of videos for the California songs Pink Cigarette and Retrovertigo. As luck and a bad script would have it, these also happen to be my favourite songs from California. (The Air-Conditioned Nightmare is also pretty awesome, but nobody has attempted to make a music video for it as yet.) I have no way to properly describe the awesomeness of these two videos, except to say that after my first viewing, I could never again listen to either song without picturing these videos in my head. They probably do not come within a mile of matching what Mr. Bungle had in mind when they wrote the songs, but that is okay. Tom Kanschat proves with these videos that he is a classic example of how the “everything online” culture is failing to deliver on its promises of a more creative and creatively open world. If the powers that be were as interested in opening things up and making a more creative, artistic world, as they like to present themselves as being to some, then Tom Kanschat would be working for whomever he pleased nowadays.
Sadly, Mr. Bungle is dead now. To hear it from comments by Mike Patton and Trevor Dunn, it died because of internal friction and band politics. Whether people like it or not, bands are a business arrangement just like a corporation or a film production, and when the group’s ability to work together has rotted away, trying to keep it together is a pointless exercise. The comments by Mike Patton hint that it was one person in particular whose inability to get along ended the band. As to whom that could be, we will likely never know. But given that Patton and Dunn have since worked together on no less than four Fantômas albums, I also kind of doubt that Dunn is the petty, jealous person that Patton was referring to. Trey Spruance‘s tenure with Faith No More ended because he told his new bandmates that he could not commit to a year-plus of touring to support the album, so he comes to mind as a prime suspect. But we will likely never know.
It would be nice if we could get the demos that Mr. Bungle distributed on tape before being signed to Warner Bros. during the 1980s as a compilation. They are available on YouChoob, but the standard audio compression on YouChoob, combined with the fact that demos recorded in the 1980s do not tend to sound that great at the best of times, makes me wish I could have an uncompressed source to transfer to my iPood for listening to or singing along with. Come on guys, how about it? I am sure people presently living around the Northern Brisbane area would be quite pleased to bear witness to my weird-looking visage sitting in public places, singing the words “evil Satan!” along with Mike Patton‘s voice. But anyway, for those who are curious, hop on YouChoob sometime and do a search for Mr. Bungle and the song Evil Satan. Or better yet, let me do it for you.
I hope that this quick meandering about one of the most underappreciated bands of the 1980s and 1990s has convinced you to check them out a little more thoroughly. If not, piss off.