Man of a Million Masks

Mike Patton dips into pop on his latest foray.

Peeping Tom The Agora, 5000 Euclid Avenue 8 p.m., Saturday, April 14, $20, 216-881-6700
Mike Patton: From painters' caps to pinstripes.
Mike Patton: From painters' caps to pinstripes.
Most of us first encountered Mike Patton in 1989, thanks to Faith No More's particularly ubiquitous video involving a flopping fish. Over the last 20 years, however, he's been involved in a wide variety of projects, ranging from experimental excursions with John Zorn and Ikue Mori to the avant-metal of Fantômas and Tomahawk, with plenty of stops in between. And while the multiplatinum success of The Real Thing -- and that video, "Epic" -- doesn't define him, it did shape the then-20-year-old singer.

"I was forced to figure some things out pretty quickly," says Patton from his California home. "By the time we made our second record, I was in a bit more of a defensive position and realized that our music was something that we had to hold dear and sacred, and protect. That may have been the first thing I learned about the business: that if you leave it to someone else, God help you."

Since then, Patton's been in passionate pursuit of his nomadic muse, following it from the MOR of early Faith No More into a thicket of activity outside the mainstream for his own label, Ipecac. "I've gotten used to doing things on my own, knowing that you don't need a lot of money," he says. Yet despite a pedigree worthy of such experimental artists as Kramer and Elliott Sharp, Patton continues to tease broader appeal, having already established himself as an artist capable of -- if not always interested in -- courting the crowd.

His latest project, Peeping Tom, takes its name from a 1960 British psychological thriller. It's an offbeat, voyeuristic take on pop, and perhaps "his most accessible album in years." That's how it's billed on the album's press release, and indeed, the sample-driven project works in a dizzying array of midtempo, pop-based styles. But this is Patton we're talking about, and calling it pop music might be a stretch.

"You can't control what people are going to say, even though it's my label," Patton says, acknowledging his flack's hyperbole with a laugh. He has a warm, open manner as he expands on his idea of pop music. "I am having fun with some of those clichés and notions. I'm working within a pop context, meaning I'm using the song form, but is it popular music? I doubt it."

With so many projects going at once, it's important for Patton to compartmentalize his inspirations. Not only does he separate things mentally, but in a practical manner as well. "I'll leave little messages for myself," Patton explains, referring to his answering machine. "It's a machine with all these different memory banks, and one's for one project, one's for another. Sometimes there are a lot of ideas that really don't belong anywhere, and those sit around until you find an appropriate context for them. Unless I can contextualize my ideas, to me, they are meaningless."

Peeping Tom began in just this way, as a growing number of songs that hadn't quite coalesced into a cohesive identity. "Here I was -- I'd written a bunch of tunes that didn't belong anywhere," he says. "And I kept writing them. All of a sudden I realized they did belong somewhere, in that they belonged together with a new name and a new universe, a new set of rules and regulations."

The only way for Patton to learn anything is simply by doing it, and this hands-on process greatly dictated the sound. He realized fairly early on that Peeping Tom would be driven by samples and electronic percussion, something he'd never done before. Patton dove in, exploring sample libraries, playing with loops, and soliciting contributions from a wide variety of artists, including Norah Jones, Amon Tobin, Dan the Automator, Bebel Gilberto, Kool Keith, and Anticon's Odd Nosdam.

Instead of writing linearly from start to finish on a piano or guitar, he built songs piece by piece from the bottom up, using samples of chord progressions that he liked and the occasional drum loop.

"I'd write a piece and say, 'That's a cool loop,' then leave it," Patton recalls. "I think anytime you put down your instruments of choice -- the things you normally write with and with which you're comfortable -- you're going to write different things, and you're going to sound different."

He certainly succeeds on those counts, presenting a disparate sonic array, from the buzzing, dub-inflected hip-hop bounce of "Celebrity Death Match" to the slinky bossa nova of "Caipirinha" and the funky, haunted "Mojo," with its Eastern-toned guitar line.

Of course, Patton hasn't forgotten his other projects. Fantômas has begun work on their fifth album, which is supposed to be an all-electronic affair. Tomahawk -- his collaboration with Duane Dennison (the Jesus Lizard) and John Stanier (Battles, Helmet) -- also has a new album due in June: Anonymous, based on Native American music.

"[Dennison] basically took some public domain material from the late 19th century and reworked it into a sort of rock-band context," Patton says. "I haven't heard anything quite like it. It's pretty tribal, pretty aggressive -- but it's also very ambient and creepy in spots."

With his Energizer-bunny schedule, Patton is hard to pin down. But you can believe there's always something in the pipe, and more Peeping Tom to boot.

"There will be at least a couple more Peeping Tom records that I could project at this point in time. And then probably some other things," he says. "There's a couple other ideas that are loose at this moment and people that I'm talking with. We'll see where it leads, but I think there is still more to do in this little phase."

As talented and creative as he is, it'd be foolish to get caught up in any expectations for Patton. Still, given his ability to cross-pollinate musical forms, it's hard not to imagine his signature voice emerging from the thicket and, once again, verging onto the main road.

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