San Francisco musical collage absurdists Mr. Bungle have a penchant for magnifying the eerie in the normal and the normal in the eerie. But while the quintet's first two releases offered manic music for attention-deficient musicians, California, the band's most recent album, is in fact even more traditional pop than much of the output of songwriter/vocalist Mike Patton's former "day job," Faith No More.
On its new album, Mr. Bungle seems to yearn for sweeter pastures. But considering the group's cut-up juxtaposition of music styles, even its most catchy and melodic work continues to plow the fields of the absurd. Bungle's mad-scientist recombinant music sounds like a collective of child prodigies who have refused to grow up. The band's standard composition is something like the work of avant-noise-jazz saxophonist John Zorn and avant-flashback songmeister Frank Zappa merged in a supercollider. That is, the masterful group of well-trained musicians is not afraid to get goofy with music, even if only to throw in a jarring shift of genre to deflate any part that might otherwise be taken too seriously. And, like a giddy pre-teen, Patton continues to exercise his apparent fixation upon bodily functions: Nearly everything he says or sings somehow includes terms for physical excretions.
Speaking from his San Francisco home between rehearsals for Mr. Bungle's current U.S. tour, Patton is perky and proud, describing his current projects like a child discovering the beautiful art of smearing his food across the table. In this case, the group's smeared masterpiece is the classic-sounding tour-de-farce, California, which heaps layers of traditional world folk music atop a solid base of phenomenal American pop on par with the predecessors the group references within -- including such national treasures as the Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, Dick Dale, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Dion, and Elvis Presley.
As the self-effacing Patton suggests, Mr. Bungle's idea of a beautiful work of art may be a label's maddening mess. During recording, Patton explains, "we were chuckling to ourselves that this was probably about as linear-sounding, about as song-oriented as this band gets. As soon as the record company people heard we were doing the three-letter-word, "pop,' they got hard-ons and were probably thinking, like, No Doubt or Korn, or God only knows what they were thinking."
But even when the band tries to sound more commercial, Mr. Bungle proves itself irredeemable. "I realized that there was a huge gap between what the label people were thinking and what we were thinking when they heard the record. Because it's not pop; it's not shit that people can digest or want to hear. At least not on the radio."
However, the album opener, "Sweet Charity," might have been a monstrous debut single for a band without the "freak" stigma associated with Mr. Bungle. More like a merging of Trouble Man-era Marvin Gaye with the spacey echo-wash and multi-part harmonies of the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations," the song is a perfectly crafted, swaying, bombastic hit.
Next, the lounge jazz of "None of Them Knew They Were Robots" assaults Trey Spruance's reverbed surf guitars (à la Dick Dale), while ominous synth hovers in the distance. The chorus shifts into a swing blast, with Trevor Dunn's spirited walking bass and Danny Heifetz's crackling drums beneath Patton's harmonies and a wall of squealing horns, thunderous timpani rolls, cartoon sounds, and violent synths. Elsewhere, "Ars Moriendi" spits out a more traditional style of Bunglism by pitching together the ballistic 2/2 rhythms and minor-chord melancholia of Romanian Gypsy music with the grunting guitars of hardcore punk. Then, at seemingly random intervals, the musicians lunge and leap between genres, giving the song a disorienting yet somehow logically schizophrenic slant. "Vanity Fair" pits a diseased doo-wop tune against a slithering horror-movie organ as Patton bursts out an elated croon.
Patton insists there was no conceptual master plan behind the album's title and related sounds -- he was simply impressed with the word "California" for its evocative power. "It means a lot of things to a lot of people," the singer explains. "Say that word to someone in New York, and it makes them want to puke. Say it to some surfer boy down in Santa Cruz, and he creams his jeans."
Not only was the title a loaded reference point, the slightly laid-back music itself proved equally accommodating to such a moniker. "The title seemed to fit really well with the music," says Patton, "but it's not like we sat down and said, "Wow, we live in California. There's so many dualities here; it's such a dark place, but it seems so nice; let's write a bunch of songs about that.'
"We point fingers and make references in songs," Patton elaborates, "rather than calculate and emulate other sounds. Sometimes, yeah, we nod our heads to the Beach Boys for a minute, then maybe to a little Romanian Gypsy thing . . . but you know, our songs aren't really so much of an inside joke as people would think."
Mr. Bungle was born in 1985 in a small northern California town named Eureka. The group (Dunn, Heifetz, Patton, Spruance, and tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Clinton McKinnon) met while in high school and took their name from a children's educational film about bad habits. Mr. Bungle's initial sound was rather straightforward speed metal and hardcore punk, but the easily distracted musicians soon swirled in elements of ska, funk, cartoon music, and anything else they could cram into their abbreviated musical circus.
When Patton catapulted to MTV stardom in the late '80s upon joining San Francisco's funk-metal hybrid Faith No More, the singer remained dedicated to continuing his esoteric outfit on the side. Although FNM's brief chart-topping success and intensive touring kept him from contributing much of his time to Bungle, Patton and his high school chums eventually released their highly uncommercial debut album with the seemingly unlikely support of Warner Brothers. With its twisted carnage of styles, the self-titled album was an unlikely candidate for mainstream success. However, combining Bungle's impeccable musicianship with the attention Patton had garnered in Faith No More as both a wild frontman and extremely talented singer, the band toured and quickly developed a rabid cult following, which today includes, incredibly enough, a Mr. Bungle religion (not sanctioned by the band, however).
Four years elapsed before the group was able to complete its next album, the aggressively noisy and obtuse Disco Volante. The album's less playful songwriting proved the band was not simply a novelty act. And, perhaps more importantly, it proved Mr. Bungle didn't aim to please the mainstream, or even its own fans -- Bungle is as Bungle does.
So, is the music of Mr. Bungle a subconscious attempt to juxtapose various musical genres for the purpose of finding their common threads? No, according to Patton, the group's surrealist music just materializes coincidentally within their collective minds. "I wish I could write like that," he chuckles. "It'd be easier -- you pick out four or five CDs, you put 'em on a tape, and you emulate it. But that's not what this is about."
Then what fuels Mr. Bungle's esoteric pop?
"I can't really tell you where the ideas for this stuff comes from," Patton laments, "because if I knew that, man, I'd be there drinking from that well right now."
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.