published: 22 /
First formed in the mid 1980's, Mr Bungle are possibly the most controversial of Faith No More front man's Mike Patton's many bands. In the first of a three part profile Jamie Rowland looks at their early beginnings and initial impact
When I was ten years old, the first album I ever bought was 'Album of the Year', Faith No More’s final record. From this point on, I was sold on rock music, and within a couple of months I was listening to metal bands like Coal Chamber (oh, come on, I was 10!), increasing the number of people at my school who thought I was a bit weird tenfold in the process.
But by the time I reached 15, I had got bored with the mainstream rock and metal bands I had been listening to for five years. The only metal label that really made any impact on people my age was Roadrunner, and unfortunately most of the bands on that label sounded like…well, a bit like Coal Chamber.
One thing, however, remained the same: I still thought Faith No More were a great band. Knowing this, it was my older brother who came to the rescue, as it was he that bought me the self-titled debut album of one of Faith No More singer Mike Patton’s other bands: Mr Bungle. What I heard on that record changed the way I thought about music completely, setting me up for what the late-great John Peel would introduce me to when I discovered his show only a couple of months later. I had soon got my hands on all of Mr Bungle’s albums, and became more and more captivated by them. They remain one of my favourite bands to this day, and, one of the most controversial, eclectic and thoroughly original bands of the ‘90s, are an enlightening experience.
Part 1: “All Behold The Spectacle…”
Born and raised in small-town Eureka, California, Mike Patton’s first steps into the music world were as the vocalist in a high-school death-metal band called Turd, in which Trevor Dunn played bass. After being kicked out of the group, Patton and Dunn decided to form a new band with guitarist Trey Spruance, sax player Theo Lengyel and drummer Jed Watts. Spruance explained in a 1991 interview with Kim Edwards, “We were in rival death metal bands. Jed and I were rivals with Mike and Trevor. Trevor and Mike got kicked out of their death metal band…so we just sort of merged into this one band and we called it Mr Bungle.”
The name comes from a 1950's educational film designed to teach children to be hygienic, the main character in which was a puppet called Mr Bungle.
“As friends, we devised certain names for different people around school,” explained Spruance. “There was this one particular guy who was a total goober that we called Mr. Bungle. That name was inspired by the Pee Wee Herman special where they show footage of the little kid who was the amoral bastard, who didn't clean his belly button or whatever."
The band’s songs at this point were pure death-metal, much closer to the music being made by Dunn and Patton in Turd than the Mr Bungle we would come to know and love (or hate). The dark and sleazy imagery of their lyrics, however, was already living up to their name-sake, the “amoral bastard”. Some explanation for the darker elements of Mr Bungle’s music may be found in the town they grew up in.
“The highest [statistics on child molestation, domestic violence and corporal injury] come from Eureka and they have for years and years. A place like Santa Cruz probably has more sexual repression that ends up in fist fights at bars, but Eureka thrives on, not exactly inbreeding, but unspoken sexual tensions that come out behind closed doors”.
Perhaps even more revealing was Patton, when asked about his lyrics, explaining “You have to understand, my parents are the type that own porn”.
During Easter 1986, Mr Bungle recorded their first demo, 'The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny', on cassette. The songs had influences of hardcore and ska, infused with a sense of humour, but the group were still primarily a death metal band.
“We still are a death metal band,” said Patton in 1991. “That's very important to know. No one ever notes it.”
After recording this first demo, however, the band found that they were branching out more and more from their death-metal roots.
“We started getting way more into Fishbone and stuff,” Spruance explained. “We all listened to all sorts of different stuff.”
Patton changed his hardcore bark to a high-pitch croon. Watts, a “death metal head”, was kicked out and replaced by Hans Wagner on the drums, and Scott Fritz was brought in on trumpet to further expand the band’s sound.
With this line-up they released their second demo, 'Bowel of Chiley' (1987). The hardcore and death metal sounds had almost completely disappeared, the band’s ska influences taking over. Very soon after it was made, the band went totally off the recording, seeing it simply as a Fishbone copy-cat, and decided to once again change the line-up, replacing Scott Fritz with Luke Miller.
Although the band didn’t like this demo, the ska/funk sound of the songs would certainly influence their later recordings.
In 1988, the third demo was released, this time with much better production values, and much closer to the sound the Bungle boys were looking for. Given the title 'Goddammit I love America!', it was mixed and engineered by Jeff Landen. After this release came the final line-up change, with Wagner replaced by Danny Heifetz on drums and Miller replaced by Clinton "Bär" (pronounced ‘bear’) McKinnon on trumpets.
“We kicked Hans out, because he was a flaky mother,” Spruance told Kim Edwards. “Flakiness is the reason we kicked those guys out…[We] got this drummer named Danny who played in a local band who had a big influence on us too, Eggly Bagelface. He has a degree and his grandpa was Jascha Heifetz (the famous violinist).”
This line-up (with the exception of Theo Lengyel) would remain for the rest of Mr Bungle’s life-span.
By this point, accounts of the band’s electrifying and freakish live performances were spreading all around California. The band was known to wear a number of different Halloween masks on stage, dance around like crazy men and, occasionally, lick each other.
The reaction to the Bungle live experience was, according to Spruance, “over-whelmingly stupid positive”, despite the apparent danger the audience might face. “Mike broke a girl's teeth out and broke her nose at one show,” said Spruance. “He dove on top of this girl. He was wearing a football hat. He breaks cameras all the time.”
The band was also known for the number of covers they would throw into their shows, songs ranging from Van Halen’s ‘Dirty Movies’, Queen’s ‘We Are the Champions’ (changed for Bungle-fans to ‘B Are the Champions’), and whatever the top ten tunes off of MTV were that week.
It was around this time that Faith No More’s Jim Martin, having heard one of the earlier Bungle demos, suggested Patton audition as a replacement for Faith No More’s vocalist, Chuck Mosely, who had just been fired Patton didn’t exactly jump at the chance, as he was studying for an English major at the time, and really wanted to stay as vocalist for Mr Bungle. Eventually, however, he changed his mind and tried out for the job, on the condition that he could remain a part of Mr Bungle. He impressed the band, and joined at the beginning of 1989.
Mr Bungle’s last demo, 'OU818', was recorded at Dancing Dog Recording Studio during June of 1989 and was engineered by David Bryson. The six-track, cassette-only demo featured 5 songs which would ultimately end up on the band's self-titled debut. The aggressive, jazzy, ska-tinged metal-pop-rock found in the band’s songs, along with their rapidly-spreading reputation, meant that Mr Bungle soon had numerous record labels knocking on their door. By this point, Patton himself had become something of a celebrity after the success of 'The Real Thing', his first album with Faith No More, and in particular the single ‘Epic’. This no doubt added to the major label interest in Patton’s “side-project”, Mr Bungle; interest which the band would very soon take advantage of.
The second part of this feature will follow next month.