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Rock No More

Mike Patton chops through traditional song forms with a mighty Tomahawk

Mike Patton has had it with his microphone. After 90 minutes of screwing around with the sound system in the Colorado club where his band Tomahawk is due to play in a few hours, the singer is ready to talk about anything just to get his mind off sound levels and feedback. "It's about what I'd expect," he laughs, "because every day of my life is a fucking technical difficulty!"

Techno-glitches aside, Patton is pretty stoked right now -- not to mention busy. Tomahawk has just released its second record, Mit Gas, and is touring, with a bunch of live dates and many hours of studio time on several continents on the horizon. His side band, Fantomas, and his continued collaboration with avant-garde musician John Zorn both also have similar schedules looming. "Man," Patton says in genuine wonder as the rattles off his schedule. "I'm fucked!"

At least Tomahawk had a bit more time to work on Mit Gas (German for "carbonated") than it did for its 2001 self-titled debut. That album was recorded after Tomahawk had all of three rehearsals together.

Patton (left) goes buck wild with Tomahawk's boys in blue.
Patton (left) goes buck wild with Tomahawk's boys in blue.

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"For this one, we'd already sniffed each other's tails out, and we knew collectively what we wanted to do," Patton says. "And everyone plays their asses off and shows up on time and does their job. If we had some greenhorn, we'd have to put up with some Cub Scout, Animal House, Belushi-style bullshit."

It helped that all four members were already friends, and even more that they each came from some fairly well known previous units: guitarist Duane Denison from Jesus Lizard, drummer John Stanier from Helmet and bassist Kevin Rutmanis from both Melvins and the Cows. Patton is the most recognizable face as the former belter for Faith No More, the rap-metal pioneers whose 1989 hit "Epic" made them an MTV staple -- not to mention the bane of PETA activists. (Remember the fish out of water slowly flopping its life away?)

But FNM disbanded five years ago, and Tomahawk's set list includes no material from the members' previous bands ("That's a whole nother beast, and it should remain that way," Patton says). That's just as well, because Tomahawk is more of an experimental sonic collagist outfit than a hard or alternative rock band. Most of the tracks on Mit Gas have little in the way of traditional song structure, either musically or in Patton's voice, which goes from girlish squeals to deep-throated growls to hepcat crooning throughout. Ominous reverb, piercing noises, distorted guitar and time signature shifts are also threaded within, not to mention bird calls and a sample of someone dryly reciting "The Basic Principles of Hand to Hand Combat."

"I've been in bands that flirted with rock, and this one flirts a little less. It's more exotic to me," Patton says, readily admitting that the record takes some concentration to appreciate.

That's why Patton feels that it's at the live shows that Tomahawk can really gel as a band and present its music. "The awesome thing about a live show is that you've got a captive audience," he says. "When someone is listening to a record, they might be doing the laundry or driving to work."

But he will admit that, even in a live setting, it's impossible to have an Orwellian hold on everyone's attention. "You might have some guy picking up a chick or reciting poetry in the corner. Who knows what the hell is going on? But even a negative reaction in a live situation could be to your advantage."

It's a theory that Patton had a chance to test when opening shows last year for Tool, whose fans are known for their near-obsessive dedication to a guy named Maynard. "Most of the crowd didn't know who we were and didn't give a shit, but the small percentage that got into us made it worthwhile."

Still, don't look to the band to shed any light on the meaning behind the tracks. Patton says there isn't any that he can or will discern. "I don't concern myself with that stuff; it doesn't do me or my music any good," he says. "We're not going to explain anything. If you can make some sense out of it, that's great. But we're really here to put problems on people's plates."

Patton's unique and wildly varying Ritalin-kid vocal style, he adds, is not affected. Quite the opposite, he says -- it's the result of fearless improvisation. "It's literally trial and error, and you've got to trust your instincts, no matter how much of a fool it makes you look like," he says. "That's how I've gotten along all these years. There's nothing wrong in trying anything."

That "try anything" mantra has led Patton to the doors of some offbeat musical collaborators, including Zorn, Oakland electronica whiz Kid606, underground rap producer Dan the Automator (the pair's Peeping Tom project may see the light of day this year), esoteric sampler Bob Ostertag and Japanese noise musician Merzbow, none of which is exactly like sitting in the studio with, say, Pantera.

"I don't know if I could get anything out of working with Pantera, other than getting laid!" Patton laughs. "But when I'm playing and working with those [experimental] guys, I'm studying and learning all the time. Putting yourself in an unfamiliar environment makes you improve a little bit."

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