It's been a decade since Mike Patton parted ways with Faith No More, the influential rock act he fronted through most of the '90s. Since the band's break-up, the versatile singer has continued to explore pop and experimental music. A serial collaborator, Patton has logged studio time with contemporaries as diverse as Björk, The Melvins, and Bebel Gilberto. Patton's affection for noise (his record Adult Themes For Voice is a harrowing 34-track collection of screams, squeals, and grunts) has drawn attention from unpredictable sources; the singer was tapped by the producers of I Am Legend to provide the sound effects for the movie's nocturnal beasties. As part of The A.V. Club's four-part interview series exploring the intersection of music and videogames, Patton talks about his work in Portal and Bionic Commando and questions why anyone would want to listen to Mr. Bungle—video game samples or no.
The A.V. Club: In February you recorded a voice session for Bionic Commando. You play the game's lead Nathan Spencer. Could you talk a little bit about how that came about?
Mike Patton: To be honest, I don't know! The phone rang. I'd done a couple other voiceover sessions for other games, and I think that the Capcom people heard what I did and liked it. That was basically it. I remember the original game, and I was like, "Oh, man, this could be fun." It was pretty intense. Previously my videogame work was more sound effect-oriented or less character, less script-oriented. This was much more voice acting.
AVC: The guy's basically a bionic human. Though Grin, the developer, did hint that you might utilize some of your other talents.
MP: Yeah, I did some sound effects stuff. Actually, about a week ago, I did a make-up session where, basically… The first couple sessions I did was just reading lines, and a little bit of screaming here and there. But I just did a make-up session where they were getting into the latter stages of the game, and lines have changed and things like that. It was much more sound effect type work. Like, "Imagine yourself falling from a 30-story building. Now imagine yourself tripping. Now imagine yourself getting hit by a lead pipe in the head." And, you know, kind of improvising on the fly. That was pretty fun.
AVC: How does working on videogame voiceovers differ from, say, your work on I Am Legend?
MP: Well, I Am Legend was basically me screaming my balls off for four hours and not knowing what they were going to do with it. There was no script, no lines I had to read. It was basically a big screen in front of me, and they'd play a scene once, and I'd kind of memorize the action and then improvise. So in some ways, that was more like doing a vocal improv. The other stuff I've done has been much more scripted. You'd say one line, like, "I'm going to the store," and you'd say it 10 different ways. With I Am Legend basically I was doing much more sound design type of work.
AVC: You also had a brief appearance in Portal, the Valve game, and there's talk about you perhaps appearing in their game Left 4 Dead.
MP: I think what they did is they took some material that I'd already recorded for Portal—maybe it was vice versa. Basically that came out of the same session of work.
AVC: How did that come about? Is that another situation where you got a call out of the blue?
MP: Sort of. I knew someone who worked for the company that was working on the music there. He mentioned me to the producers, and I guess their eyes lit up and they thought, "What the hell?" I think that most of this work that we've been talking about came from the first videogame I did, called The Darkness, where I was just doing, well, the darkness! Imagine what that sounds like! And it was a semi-high-profile game and I guess there was enough publicity behind it that people knew I was involved. Basically the Valve stuff came from—it was an inside job. A friend of mine recommended me. Same with I Am Legend. I don't have many contacts in that world. I guess I'm getting to the age where a lot of other people my age have real jobs, and when they're hard-up they refer to an old-timer like me.
AVC: A lot of your work has shown an interest in film soundtracks, and it's been said that you're an avid gamer. How do you compare the kind of soundtracks that are happening in films versus the kind that are happening in games right now? Do you think games are matching movies?
MP: Not at all. I think that much more could be done with game soundtracks. I think that, for the most part… I'm not a real authority on the matter. From what I've heard, videogame soundtracks—obviously there's less budget and all of that—it just seems like game soundtracks are farmed out among friends. And it seems like more of an afterthought. It's a videogame. It's much more background. To me, a lot of that stuff seems much more derivative. "Do a John Williams. Do an Elmer Bernstein." That kind of approach. Whatever's happening at the moment. But obviously, I'm sure there are exceptions. That's not to say it doesn't happen in film, either. I just think that there's more of a margin for error in videogame scoring.
AVC: You've been doing a couple of scores for some films and some shorts. Is that something you're hoping to do more often?
MP: I'd love to. It's a new challenge and something that's been a part of my musical language for a while, so I think that I can handle it. Again, it's all about finding a director who might want to take a chance on someone like me, and those are pretty few and far between. So far what little scoring work I've gotten has been through friends. And that's wonderful because so far I've been able to do exactly what I've wanted. Who knows where it'll lead? But it is definitely something that I'd like to do more of. I'm getting up there. I'm, like, 40 now, and I definitely see a light at the end of my touring tunnel, so to speak. And right now, my livelihood is kind of going out and playing a show in Serbia or playing a festival in Amsterdam—I'm going in a couple days. So, looking in the crystal ball, film's going to be a really nice way of getting to stay at home a little more and still be very creative and busy.
AVC: Would you prefer to do more experimental music in soundtracks for a game or a movie? Or is your interest in whatever kind of music is suitable for a film, if the movie calls for more traditional music? Is that the kind of thing that you're interested in?
MP: I'm interested in trying anything at this point. I don't have any agendas. If someone were to hire me for a film they'd be getting a certain kind of package, that's for sure, a certain set of tools. But I would listen to the director. I would ask what they want, and if they said, "Make me a rap-metal track," I'd probably say, "Hey, you got the wrong guy!" But beyond that, I would be all ears and try to do my best. That's not say I'd be perfect for every job. I think that you have to choose wisely. I know where my bread is buttered, and for the most part, I'm better off doing my own thing. This is just kind of a bonus and a detour and a new challenge for me.
AVC: There an Ennio Morricone project at Ipecac, a compilation.
MP: Yeah, maybe two, three years ago we did a two-CD set called Crime and Dissonance. It's great. You gotta hear it. It's more, for lack of a better word, "out" kind of stuff. It's really not the western stuff, not the stuff that everybody knows. The guy is so incredibly prolific. There's stuff on this comp from TV things that he did. He did pop arrangements for very popular singers in the '60s and '70s, really colorful arrangements. The guy was really multi-faceted, and this comp kind of shows a little more of his hidden side. This is, like, psychedelic guitars, sitars, distorted electronic stuff. I think that a lot of people would put it on and go, "Who is this? Is this Os Mutantes or something?" It's a lesser-known side of his work.
AVC: Was that a matter of you going through your collection and picking out the stuff that you thought expressed a different side of him that people weren't familiar with?
MP: A little bit. I'm a big fan of his. And let's just say you walk into a record store—it's daunting when you look in his section, so many fucking releases, and then re-releases and compilations. Basically I felt that most of them culled from similar sources. When the opportunity presented itself to do a Morricone comp, I was really excited, but then I thought, "I don't want to do another one of those." This guy Alan Bishop from the Sun City Girls, he's a big Morricone scholar. He put together a big list of things, and we went through them together and basically chose what to put on there. And it was a matter of licensing and some of it was kind of difficult, and it took awhile to put together. But ultimately, it's one of the releases we've put out that I'm most proud of.
AVC: Going back and listening to that first Mr. Bungle record on Warner Bros…
AVC: Well, there's a bunch of field recordings in there; there's a bunch of videogame samples or just clips of videogames being played and vocal quotes. Were games just kind of part of your pop-culture soundscape at the time?
MP: Yeah, definitely. I've always been a big pinball guy, and I think there's at least four or five pinball sequences in there. "Ride the Ferris wheel" from [pinball game] Earth-shaker. We were all into that at that point and playing that stuff. It all came into the record. That was our first record, but we'd been a band probably seven years before that. And every time Mr. Bungle made a record there were several years in between, and there were a lot of things going into that. Obviously it was whatever we were into at the time.
AVC: There are live bootlegs of Mr. Bungle out there, from around '91, where you guys play a medley of Super Mario Bros. songs.
MP: Our first record was kind of a culmination of our teenage years. It's all in there: pornography, videogames, death metal, and then some other leanings that came to us later, like some sound design stuff and a little bit of improv, some more compositional chops. Every record we made basically summed up five or 10 years of frustration.
AVC: Cartoons were the focus of the Fantômas album Suspended Animation. It's been said the record features uncredited samples from game soundtracks. Do those pop in there or is it purely sounds from animation?
MP: No, there's a gazillion samples, but none of them are from games. They're almost all from cartoons, mostly Warner Bros. or Hanna-Barbera stuff. And it was hours and hours of going through sound effects records and different sound effects libraries trying to find the right "boing" or the right squeak. But none of that came from videogames. That was more my take on the golden age of animation—cutting and pasting and cells and pages turning really quickly.
AVC: Do you commonly find yourself in the studio going through catalogs and catalogs of sounds, looking for just the right thing?
MP: Happens every time I go into the studio. You may hear a sound in your head and it'll take you a couple hours to find it, whether it's a sample or goofing around on the guitar through, like, six pedals. To me, finding sounds, or even recording, is a compositional process. The studio is kind of an instrument. I don't write things down on paper. I don't read or write music in the traditional sense, so I have to figure it out on the fly while I'm in the studio. Thank God technology has advanced to the point where you don't have to be paying by the hour to figure those things out, whereas in the past, everything was composed when you went into the studio because it was costing you money. Now everyone has a home studio and you can kind of figure it out in your pajamas.
AVC: Are there other projects right now that center on those kinds of themes, like soundtracks or animation? Does Crudo fall into that category?
MP: Yeah, that has a little to do with what we're talking about. It's more of a pretty straight-up groove, party project.
AVC: That's with Dan The Automator. And you were up in Seattle working on that?
MP: No, we recorded here in San Francisco. The record's probably three-quarters of the way done. We got offered to play a festival up in Seattle. We played the warm-up show here in San Francisco, and then went up there and played the festival, and that was that.
AVC: How different is this record from the one you made with Automator as Lovage?
MP: The only real similarity is that me and Dan are involved. I would say that there's less of a kitsch angle to it. It's much harder. It's not sleazy listening or anything like that. It's much more in the pocket, kind of pop, rock, with some hip-hop stuff thrown in there. The only other thing that I can really mention is a project called Mondo Cane, which is something I'm doing. It's an Italian repertoire—my arrangements of '50s and '60s Italian pop tunes, a lot of which were arranged by people like Morricone, like I was saying before, some very cool, interesting arrangements. I've done four concerts—about to leave in a couple days to do another one. And the record should be out in early '09.
AVC: Is this similar to the Morricone project in that you'd found a bunch of artists that you were interested in and thought that they should be brought to light?
MP: Yeah, I lived in Italy for a number of years and I was really digging around trying to get my hands dirty, trying to learn about Italian music. And what I ended up gravitating towards was this stuff from the '50s and '60s and maybe early '70s, where there were these incredibly talented pop singers that weren't using pop bands. They were using orchestras. It was really a creative time, and the results were really amazing. These records are timeless. Really incredible voices working with maestros, like film composers and really great arrangers, in some sense, kind of like what was happening with Tony Bennett or Sinatra: incredible arrangers and just a really exciting mixture or clashes of worlds. I was really into that music for a long time and I just thought, well, at some point in my life I want to add my spin to this. A couple years ago an opportunity presented itself to work with an orchestra over in Italy, and I jumped on it. I figured this would be the time to do it, and so far I've been really happy with it.
AVC: Were these folks who were really familiar with this music? Had they grown up on it?
MP: Yeah. What I did was I put a band together, like a 10-piece band, and I rehearsed them to death. Most of them are people my age, and yeah, they know this music very well or at least they know of it. What I did was I twisted the arrangements up to kind of make them my own. This stuff in some ways is kind of sacred and you don't just wanna karaoke it. You don't want to just play it A to Z. It's an exciting prospect. So I did that and then we found an orchestra there in central Italy. I had some friends write some string arrangements and orchestral parts out for me. We did several shows there, and now it's kind of growing beyond that. We're working with local orchestras in different countries.
AVC: Do you think we'll see this project or Crudo appearing at the All Tomorrow's Parties that you're curating?
MP: Doubtful. The thing about Mondo Cane is that it's incredibly expensive. When I got asked to curate All Tomorrow's Parties with The Melvins, it was like, well, I can do this, this, this, and that, but I don't want to suck up the budget. I don't want to shoot myself in the foot. But to me it was more about putting something together as opposed to showcasing my stuff. I thought of it more as an opportunity to hire people and present people who may not have a chance. Or at least in a festival like that, which kind of tends to lean on the experimental/indie rock side, for lack of a better word. I really strove to put together a list of people that were coming from a completely different perspective, like some modern classical composers, a lot of world music, obviously some stuff from Ipecac, and one or two projects of mine, and leave it at that.
AVC: Is that locked down?
MP: Not yet. I submitted a list and they're still chasing everybody down. There's been a few people confirmed so far, but I'm not really sure who they are. It still remains to be seen who is going to materialize and who isn't.
AVC: Did you and Buzz [Osborne of Melvins] talk about that and hash it out together, or did you create your lists separately?
MP: We did two separate lists and then compared them because there were some repeats. I'm not worried about the two sides not meshing. I think that the more variation the merrier.
AVC: That's been a long, healthy relationship, between you and the Melvins.
MP: We've known each other for a number of years, but I think that the real first time we joined forces was when I started Ipecac. It was just kind of a crazy idea at the time because I had few releases that I didn't know what to do with. I was very nervous about starting a new label. I didn't want to go over my head. At the time me and my partner Greg started asking friends, associates, coworkers, "If we did something like this, would you be on board? What do you think?" We started putting out feelers and one of the first people we called was Buzz. He said, "Oh my god. This is like a dream come true. If you do this, we'll give you three records in your first year." And, well, that was that. Who am I to say no?
AVC: Fantômas is coming up on its 10-year anniversary. Is there still action with those guys?
MP: It's slowed down a little bit because we've gotten distracted with other things, but I've started writing a new record. It's gonna be a bit of a stretch for us. I want to try to make an all-electronic record. I'm trying to figure out how to do that, the practicalities of doing that. So I don't think it will be out probably for another year, but the band is still very much in my mind.
AVC: Faith No More appeared in Rock Band. Do you have any kind of input on those kind of decisions when you're picked for a game like that?
MP: Well, if we do, I certainly didn't know about it. I didn't know about it until it was in the game. Some friends told me.
AVC: So it's one of those situations where the label's just making these deals and they don't even check with you guys.
MP: Yeah, when you're on a major, basically they own the music and they can kind of farm it out however they want. And I do think there was probably a courtesy call or something like that at some point in the process, but I wasn't involved in it. You learn very early on just to step back and put your hands up and say, "Whatever, whatever." There's nothing I can do.
AVC: Would you have picked a different song to be in Rock Band?
MP: No, it doesn't matter to me. I had no agendas in that regard. I mean I'm glad they used anything in the first place. Fine by me.
AVC: Many regard music games as kind of silly. Do you see the appeal of those kinds of games?
MP: Sure. It's hard not to. Any idiot, any stockbroker can get out there and live out a fantasy and pretend like he's playing music. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I just recently did an interview with a videogame magazine in which I walked into the room and they had a whole Rock Band set-up and wanted me to play. I'd never really done that. And I realized how un-musical it really is. You play that guitar or that bass, and it has nothing to do with music. But nonetheless, it was pretty fun. It made me wonder if, at some point down the line, you could compose that way, because there's obviously a whole generation of kids who have grown up on these games and using that method to make music. What if you weren't just doing it for karaoke? If I was 11-years-old and I wanted to start a band using that technology, with screens and that weird push-button, press the X here… It just made me wonder if there's a whole generation of kids who couldn't do something like that.
AVC: MPC samplers would make great videogame controllers. They could translate directly into that kind of gameplay.
MP: Absolutely. All it is is pressing a pad here and there. I mean this guy's making music on the fucking iPhone now. There's these programs if you jail-break your iPhone where you can use drum machine programs, all this kind of stuff. I don't know what this stuff sounds like, but the idea definitely hits me in the geek nerve, and I love it.
AVC: Eventually there's going to be that kid who learned to play drums because he played Rock Band.
MP: Yeah, absolutely. But there should be a way for him to actually not just play a Led Zeppelin song, to make music doing that.
AVC: Guitar Hero IV, the new game, is going to integrate some kind of music creation tool.
MP: I knew it. It had to happen. I'm all for it, man. I think it's great. I am no one to be a purist. I didn't go to school to learn how to do this. I taught myself. If these kids are teaching themselves by looking at a TV or doing it through a videogame, yeah, it's pretty sick, but who am I to argue? If someone can do something creative with it, I'd buy it in a second. I mean, would you go see a band of 10-year-old kids playing original music on Rock Band? I would. I'm not saying I'll like it, but I definitely would go see it.