The main thing we see when we look into an audience is people laughing at us. It’s perfect…. They just have this look on their faces like they’re watching a cartoon or something.
Trevor Dunn, Sounds interview, 1991
Formed: 1985, California, USA
Featured album: Disco Volante (1995)
LIKE MANY PEOPLE of my age who grew up with Faith No More’s adventurous alt-metal in the nineties, I eventually discovered their singer Mike Patton’s ‘other’ band and promptly had my quaint ideas about music exploded forever. Mr. Bungle gave new meaning to words like ‘eclectic,’ ‘alternative’ and ‘extreme,’ irrevocably corrupting my mind and opening my unsuspecting ears to a new dimension of musical possibilities.
Formed in 1985 by a group of Eureka High School students including Patton, guitarist Trey Spruance, bassist Trevor Dunn, saxophonist Theo Lengyel, and drummer Jedd Watts, Mr. Bungle was named after a 1950s educational film introduced to eighties audiences via a Pee-wee Herman Show HBO special. The band’s debut 1986 demo cassette, The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny, was an early example of thrash’s evolution into death metal – and probably the only one to feature bongos, Jew’s harp, kazoo, and a train whistle. Over subsequent demos – Bowel of Chiley (1987), Goddammit I Love America! (1988) and OU818 (1989) – their sound evolved into a ska-funk-metal hybrid reminiscent of Fishbone, but with an unpredictability that put them in league with Foetus, Cardiacs and Frank Zappa‘s Mothers of Invention. In 1988, Patton agreed to lend his adenoidal whine to Faith No More under the condition he could remain in Mr. Bungle, who had by then found a new drummer, Danny Heifetz, and second saxophonist, Clinton ‘Bär’ McKinnon.
With this core line-up in place, the band were ready to record their self-titled debut album. Thanks to the Faith No More connection, Mr. Bungle signed a deal with Warner Bros., who perhaps didn’t know what they’d gotten themselves into. Mr Bungle (1991) saw the band double down on their toilet humour (one between-song sequence captures Patton straining over a particularly sloppy shit) while their music grew grotesquely exaggerated with production help from avant-jazz composer and saxophonist John Zorn. The album is a carnivalesque horror-show of manic ska-funk reflected through a funhouse mirror of rapid genre-shifts, sinister atmospherics, and caustic metal, peppered with samples from video games, porn movies and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. In an attempt at Residents-like anonymity, some members assumed pseudonyms, like Vlad Drac (Patton) and Scummy (Spruance), while a disturbing video for lead track “Quote Unquote” showed the band in gimp and clown masks hanging lifelessly from an underpass; unsurprisingly, it was never played by MTV. But despite (or perhaps because of) their wilful weirdness and obscurity, Mr. Bungle was beginning to develop a sizeable cult following.
In 1995, the same year that Spruance briefly joined Faith No More as they followed up their masterpiece Angel Dust with the wide-ranging King for a Day… Fool for a Lifetime, Mr. Bungle recorded their own magnum opus: the self-produced Disco Volante. Gone were the nasal vocals along with the ska-funk and embarrassing juvenilia; in its place were a perplexing variety of genres and an even darker vibe. By this stage Patton had developed into a formidable singer, able to switch from a baritone croon to a death growl without breaking a sweat, while the rest of the band proved just as adept at hairpin tonal and stylistic shifts. I was lucky enough to witness this first-hand on the Australian leg of their worldwide tour, thanks to an all-ages show in Brisbane*. After the tour, they hit the studio and committed to tape a number of their infamous cover tunes including Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” the Dead Kennedys’ “Drug Me”, and Tom Jones’ theme to Thunderball, but the results have yet to be officially released. Lengyel left in 1996 over the customary ‘artistic differences’.
In 1999, Mr. Bungle made the most unexpected move of their career by recording a sunny pop album. With a tropical cocktail of influences ranging from the Beach Boys and Elton John to Hawaiian music, rockabilly and doo-wop, California included their most melodic and straightforward song-writing to date. Still, the album is rich with sound effects and out-of-the ordinary moments – check the high-pitched bleep that abruptly ends “Pink Cigarette”, and the formidable kacek, or Balinese ‘monkey chant’, in “Goodbye Sober Day”. Recorded at four different studios using 24-track equipment, California is a comparatively mature work that tempers its sophistication with just the right amount of bipolar unpleasantness.
Of course, the only sensible thing to do from here was to break up, and Mr. Bungle called it quits shortly after a worldwide tour for California. Patton began his Ipecac record label, collaborated with everyone from Merzbow to Björk, and started a couple of supergroups: Fantômas with Dunn, Buzz Osbourne of the Melvins and Slayer’s Dave Lombardo; and Tomahawk with The Jesus Lizard’s Duane Denison, the Cows’ Kevin Rutmanis and John Stanier of Battles. Spruance, meanwhile, heads up Mimicry Records and his multi-faceted musical project Secret Chiefs 3, to which Bungle alumni Dunn, Heifetz and McKinnon are regular contributors, as well as the Merzbow-meets-Burzum project Faxed Head.
Far from being a Mike Patton side-project, Mr. Bungle was very much a band, one that included an uncommon concentration of technically adept and creatively daring musicians, all of whom were vital to the mad chemistry of the band. Even more rare was their knack for composing material as entertaining as it was challenging. Mr. Bungle made difficult music seem fun, which is probably why they have plenty of imitators but no true successors. Still, while they may not have inspired a better breed of band, it’s safe to say Mr. Bungle inspired a generation of more adventurous music listeners.
* I was 16 years old and it was my first proper concert.
“Quote Unquote” video from Mr Bungle (1991)
Interview on Recovery, Australia (1996)
Live at Bizarre Festival, Germany (2000)