On a recent Saturday, Mike Patton, the former frontman for platinum-selling rock band Faith No More, is indulging his inner collector-nerd. Record stores are Patton's home away from home, and he mows through this one's CD racks with zealous concentration, occasionally bursting out with an excited, "Oh, have you seen this?" or "Man, what is this?" At the moment, the singer is flipping through the World Music section, expounding on Indian bowl players, Greek funeral singers, and Vietnamese street buskers. He knows the section like a mother knows the contours of her baby. "This," says the 34-year-old singer, pulling out a record bedecked with smiling, toothless gypsy fiddlers, "is amazing." It's a word he uses a lot -- "amazing" -- perhaps to avoid saying "awesome." Mike Patton does not want to be like everyone else.
He doesn't want to be a rock star either. Not to crush the dreams of a zillion teenagers, but that shit is tedious. Sure, that was indeed him tossing his long hair and prancing in front of the cameras amid splashing water and flapping fish for Faith No More's "Epic" video, back when the band's 1989 album The Real Thing was flying off the shelves. And yes, he enjoyed most of the decade he spent as the band's lead nutcase. But being a rock star? Well, that sucked. "VH1 called up a few years ago for a 'Where Are They Now?' episode," says Patton's manager, Greg Werckman. "Mike came up with an interesting concept: 'I'll let you interview me only if we can film it in the Tenderloin, with me living in a cardboard box -- make it a real down-and-out story.'"
While this tidbit reflects Patton's conviction that the only thing in life that should be taken seriously is music, there's actually some truth to it, at least as far as the record industry is concerned. Patton is a genuine rarity: someone who started at the top and willingly worked his way down. Most VH1 viewers would probably consider what he's doing today the musical equivalent of living in his own filth.
To the mainstream, Patton's forays into noise and New Music are virtually unlistenable. To his colleagues and fervently loyal fans, however, Patton is a brilliant and versatile musician with a gifted voice who constantly throws himself into new, wildly different projects, doffing and donning new masks, reinventing himself with each undertaking.
In his brief but prodigious career, Patton has been involved in more than thirty different projects. After Faith No More called it quits in 1998, he continued with his very first band, the warped Mr. Bungle, and began juggling new enterprises and collaborations like a madman. He composed the music for what would become his most critically acclaimed group, Fantomas, a genre-busting foursome that brought together members of Bungle, Slayer, and the Melvins. In '99, Patton teamed up with Werckman to form Ipecac Recordings, an Alameda label that has nurtured groups such as X-Girl, the Melvins, and Kid606.
Last year, he joined forces with Dan the Automator and Jennifer Charles from the Elysian Fields for the project Lovage, whose release, Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By, was roundly praised by electronic and hip-hop heads. And this year Patton has collaborated with the Dillinger Escape Plan and the X-ecutioners, and has worked on another project with Dan the Automator called Peeping Tom. He's also currently on the road with his band Tomahawk -- the closest thing to true "rock music" the singer has done in awhile, combining the talents of classically trained ex-Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison with Patton's affected vocals. All this from a guy who can't actually read or write music, and has never mastered any instrument except his voice.
Patton is now all but idolized by trendy bands such as System of a Down and Papa Roach for his work in Mr. Bungle and Faith No More, and holds the esteem of experimental and New Music practitioners for his composition skills and finely trained ear. "I don't know of too many singers coming from the area that he's come out of, lead rock singers, who do what he has done," says William Winant, a Patton collaborator and artist in residence at Mills College. "I can't see David Lee Roth or Fred Durst doing anything other than what they do, unlike with Mike, who's got a whole wide range of things that he does. He didn't let the whole 'rock' thing get in his way."
The singer tries not to let fame get in his way either, but it's hard to avoid. He arrives at the record store dressed in a tasteful vintage Hawaiian shirt and dark slacks, and has the upbeat yet guarded demeanor of someone who has had one too many run-ins with freaky fans. His look has remained pretty constant through the years, though he seems to always be wrestling with some sort of suppressed Guido. Patton stands about five-foot-eight, with a mantle of trimmed, pomaded hair and delicate grooming that places him just a hop, skip, and a jump away from those dudes with pencil thin mustaches, do-rags, and ribbed white undershirts. (He actually did go through a phase of dressing like that a few years ago -- one fan described it as his "gay pimp look.") Other incarnations have included long hair with the sides shaved a bit: that's right, a mullet.
He's undeniably striking, with piercing Italian good looks and that inexplicable aura shared by first crushes, high-profile criminals, and celebrities -- the kind of vibe that makes strangers wonder: Who is that guy?
As he wanders contentedly from one section to the next, a small cotillion of hip, bespectacled indie types -- just the sorts who are Bungle and Fantomas fans -- slowly begin to circle. The singer appears not to notice. Patton has a mixed relationship with fame, and with his sometimes-fanatical fan base. On one hand, he needs them to sustain his record company and finance his addiction to jumping from one project to the next. On the other, he's a private person who'd much rather shuffle through Burt Bacharach and Joe Meek CDs than talk about himself or his work. Though polite, he seems averse to interviews. And he's definitely, well, a little weird.