Fantomas singer Mike Patton possesses the most versatile voice in all of music. The strain he must put on it as he shrieks, bellows, cackles, croons, and yelps must be unbelievable. (Don't believe us? 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-sized and colorfully tattooed. The 36-year-old Californian 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, Fantomas. He's also spit into mics 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 role.
The director told Film Threat, "[Patton] has a rare energy about him Firecracker needed. It wasn't until the second week of filming I realized how clear and perfect his performances are. Just to look at him embody one of his characters . . . it's breathtaking. Then to realize he's playing two totally different people . . . amazing."
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 Fantomas, 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. (Patton quips that he wasn't able to get Steve Vai and Neil Peart to join Fantomas, so these shlubs had to do.)
"With each Fantomas 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, 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 Fantomas's self-titled 1999 debut, Patton's vocals contort around an unpredictable flow of vignettes that flit 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 Fantomas, the disc projects most comics' melodramatic gestures. Patton shows that vocal cords can 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, Fantomas 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 concisely as it must've been to record, Delirium Cordia 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 hyper-rehearsed, 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 Fantomas's 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 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."
The list of acknowledgments in the new album is really obscure and interesting.
"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 Fantomas's 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. It makes perfect sense to me, turning the page and waking up on a nice sunny morning. 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."
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