There's versatility and then there's schizophrenia, and it's hard to tell where in the spectrum Mike Patton falls. You might remember the San Francisco singer as the voice behind 15 years of whacked-out projects like Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, Lovage, Fantômas, and Tomahawk. The sounds Patton makes just with his vocal chords add up to a roomful of personalities.
Cue Mr. Bungle's "The Bends": Patton's cracked doomsday roar squirts into a cartoony balloon creak and slacks down to randy showbiz schmaltz.
"Ultimately they're all me," Patton says from a tour stop in Boston, "but I guess I do wear different hats. The music dictates how a performance goes and the set of tools I need to bring to the job. In this band I'm a singer and an entertainer more than anything. I need to be a little bit Vegas and bring the party vibe."
"This band" is his latest endeavor, Peeping Tom—a band as well as an album and a concept of lurid voyeurism to frame it all in. Musically, it's a motley collection of steamy, unseemly electro hiphop tilted in a slightly poppish direction; the album features cameos from Norah Jones, Kool Keith, Bebel Gilberto, Massive Attack, and more. Patton is a magnet for cool—appearing with him adds a jolt of musical cred to any résumé. It's a fact he gets a kick out of.
Cue Peeping Tom's "Sucker": Patton's truck-driver growl is punctured by Jones's purring "the truth kinda hurts, don't it, motherfucker?" like a teenage sexpot, decidedly out of Starbucks-approved character.
"I must admit it does give me a bit of a charge," Patton says about Peeping Tom's eclectic roster. "It's about setting the bar really high for the recording and then trying to reproduce it somehow live."
To that end he's bringing an eight-piece band on Peeping Tom's U.S. tour, including Dub Trio as his primary backing band, über-producer Dan "the Automator" Nakamura on turntables and samples, a couple of vocalists, and a 21-year-old female beatboxer. "Ultimately it's about the music and the notes as opposed to the personalities," Patton says.
Or it's about both. Patton's career has been marked by a hunger for variety that borders on manic. His onstage personas veer from Fantômas's thrashing vaudeville vampire to the hairnetted white-trash lothario of Lovage. Each band requires Patton to assume a different name and a different face.
"It's like putting a frame around the picture before you have the picture," he says. "It's the only way I can make music. I can write all day long, but if I don't have a framework or a context around it, it's kind of meaningless to me."
Cue Fantômas's "04/10/05 Sunday": An exploding Nintendo spews shrapnel over tooting carnival organ pipes as a voice tremolos like a drunken opera star smashing his nose with a brick.
Perhaps because of its A-list guest stars, Peeping Tom has brought Patton a little closer to popularity, but he's still far from a household name. And despite the band's moderate success, there's no guarantee he'll stick with it.
"Some people can really create a body of work and make it happen with one band for 20 years," he says. "I really admire that. I could never do it. Three or four records into any project's lifetime and I'm kinda thinking, 'Well, that's probably about all I have to say.' Pretty much every one that's dead I wouldn't revive, but I don't regret any of them. They were all snapshots of a certain musical phase of my life, and each one opened up a lot of other doors and opened my eyes to a lot of other things."
Amid all the band hopping and genre humping, all the whirring of ideas in Patton's mind, the common thread is a singularly sinister vision: the need to rub the music's seedy underbelly and listen to the sound it makes. All of his projects have a devilish, demented vibe. Patton claims he doesn't hear them that way.
"One thing I've realized over the course of the years is that my ears hear things much differently than people in the real world," he says. "A lot of times I'll have something in the lab and I'll think wow, this sounds like an easy-listening record to me, or a perfectly palatable doo-wop song. And then you throw it out into the world and see the way it's perceived and you have to laugh."