Perfect Sound Forever


Photo by Jay Blakesburg

The Unclassifiable and Ever-Evolving Music of Mr. Bungle
by Scott McGaughey
(Sept 1999)

In the liner notes for Film Music Volume II, an Ennio Morricone collection released in 1988, John Zorn discussed the new musician of the information century. Zorn noted that such a musician "felt comfortable in all genres, yet fits conveniently into none." Mr. Bungle is a group which exemplifies Zorn's sentiment perfectly. And it was Zorn who offered support early on, when he produced Mr. Bungle, their self-titled, Warner Bros. debut in 1991.

Bungle's debut was a sick affair brimming with artwork consisting of drunk and bloodied clowns and covering such lyrical topics as masturbation ("The Girls of Porn"), having sex with various foods ("Squeeze Me Macaroni") and a young boy hanging himself with his mother's underwear ("Dead Goon"). The album earned a "Parental Advisory" warning, but one quick listen proved that Bungle intended to do more than simply gross you out. Musically, Mr. Bungle mixed metal, funk, ska, carnival music, free jazz (including Zorn's solo on "Love is a Fist") and much more, usually earning them a "funk/metal" tag. Highlights included the insane "My Ass Is On Fire" and "Travolta," which subtlety included vocal quotations from Grease. Among non-musical highlights were Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial outtakes and recordings of the band on a train-hopping adventure. Mr. Bungle is an album so densely packed that one discovers new sounds on each listen, no matter how many times you've heard it. The album expanded Bungle's cult following which they had achieved from their previous demos, among them The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny and OU818. The album sold well despite a lack of radio airplay and MTV's decision to ban their video for "Travolta" (reportedly due to images of band members dangling on meat hooks). However, even at this point in their existence, Bungle didn't seem interested in sticking to one style. Written years before it reached the public, Mr. Bungle contained a sound that the group had already moved away from.

It wasn't until 1995 that Bungle's evolution was revealed with their second album, Disco Volante. Influenced by everything from Italian horror film soundtracks to lounge-y Sci-Fi music, DV remains one of the most eclectic albums in recent memory. Much was made of the album's "difficult" music and its lack of actual songs. Obviously, Mr. Bungle were not crafting three minute sing-alongs, but to dismiss DV as random noise is absurd. Each piece is precise, confrontational and varied. The band flawlessly mated alien genres resulting in the Morricone-Penderecki tango of "Violenza Domestica," the Middle Eastern Techno of "Desert Search for Techno Allah," and the Motown-ish Death Metal band of "Merry Go Bye Bye." Much of the album's lyrics were in foreign languages and at times from other worlds (the strangled, scat-singing of "Ma Meeshka Mow Skwoz"). The new sound of DV surely alienated some fans of Bungle's debut, while the label "funk/metal" was replaced by "avant-garde" or "experimental." But Bungle has no desire to be pigeonholed, regardless of how hip their current tag is. The band seems almost insistent on avoiding any predictions or expectations. With that in mind, Bungle's new album, California, is something completely different from DV.

California shows Bungle's ability to craft actual songs. This album is a welcome surprise for those who found DV too manic and wished that Bungle would expand on only a few ideas per track. Where DV quickly packed 15 sections into some songs, California takes its time developing 5 sections in greater depth. As usual, the album is consistently amazing as Bungle explores a Beach Boys surf rocker ("The Air-Conditioned Nightmare"), a sad ballad ("Pink Cigarette"), Rockabilly ("None Of Them Knew They Were Robots") and the musical marriage of P-Funk and Nino Rota ("Golem II: The Bionic Vapour Boy"). But the album's natural centerpiece is the techno-surf-metal-gypsy hoedown "Ars Moriendi," which combines DV's quick genre changes with California's catchy brevity. Quickly becoming known as Bungle's "pop" album, California is like no pop music you've heard before. Each song is packed with detailed layers of original samples, keyboards, percussion and blissful melodies. Even if their latest musical direction turns off some of their avant-garde fanbase, Bungle doesn't seem to care. With California ending the long wait after DV, this raises the obligatory question: What has Mr. Bungle been doing for nearly four years?

As a band, Mr. Bungle has been less than prolific. But as individuals, they are some of the busiest musicians around. Easily the most visible member of Mr. Bungle is vocalist Mike Patton. Known primarily as Faith No More’s frontman, Patton has been mostly involved in adventurous and experimental collaborations and projects. After contributing his voice to Zorn’s Elegy in 1992, he’s become increasingly identified with the Zorn/Downtown scene, though never becoming ubiquitous. His two solo albums on Zorn’s Tzadik label contain his most esoteric work yet. Adult Themes for Voice (1995) features Patton yelping and screaming into a four track, while Pranzo Oltranzista (1997) finds Patton adding sound effects and subdued vocals to the guitar of guest Marc Ribot. His most interesting activities have occurred since Faith No More split last spring. Patton has started up a new band, Fantomas, featuring the Melvins’ Buzz Osborne on guitar, ex-Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo and Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn. Patton suggests that the music of Fantomas is constructed like a comic book. Each track on their self-titled debut is referred to as a page, which are broken down in frames. Even more "experimental" than Disco Volante, the only musical comparisons one could make would be the spastic rock of Melt-Banana or the Boredoms. But Fantomas isn’t Patton’s greatest undertaking of the moment. Along with his friend and manager, Greg Werckman, Patton has launched Ipecac Records. In addition to releasing Fantomas, Ipecac intends on putting out three new albums by the Melvins in 1999 alone, not to mention Maldoror, Patton’s collaboration with Merzbow.

While Mike Patton’s activities have been well-documented, the other members of Mr. Bungle have been involved in similarly interesting projects. Guitarist/keyboardist Trey Spruance has been busy with various bands, including Faxed Head, a metal/grindcore group released through Amarillo Records. However, his most exciting work has been with the Secret Chiefs 3.

More straightforward than Mr. Bungle, the Secret Chiefs still explore numerous genres, while maintaining a heavy surf rock feel. Spruance’s interest in Indian and Middle Eastern music is consistently represented on both of their albums, First Grand Constitution & By-Laws and Second Grand Constitution & By-Laws. The Secret Chiefs’ music can be purchased at Spruance’s website, Web of Mimicry ( Not only does the Web of Mimicry sell Secret Chiefs and Mr. Bungle items but Spruance has constructed a musical museum known as the "Gallery of Essentials." An intimate online music store, the "Gallery" offers hard to find CD's at reasonable prices and includes no bullshit reviews telling you what to expect. The Gallery carries everything from Pierre Henry to Romanian gypsy ensembles, in addition to composer Iannis Xenakis. Other selections offer insight into what music has influenced Spruance and Mr. Bungle, namely Ennio Morricone and German composer Peter Thomas.

The activities of the other Mr. Bungle members have been seemingly less frequent, but exciting nonetheless. Bassist Trevor Dunn has become heavily involved in jazz. He is constantly playing around San Francisco and recording with pianist Graham Connah and members of the New Klezmer Trio, as well as adding bass to the Secret Chiefs 3. Details of his work can be found at "The Selected Discography of Trevor Dunn" (

Saxophonist/Keyboardist Clinton McKinnon hasn’t been quite as busy as his bandmates, although he has recorded and toured with the Secret Chiefs 3 (quickly becoming Bungle members’ home away from home).

Drummer Danny Heifetz has been busy with the country-ish rock band Dieselhed. They recently toured with and served as backup band for Link Wray, proving that Heifetz is just as comfortable playing stripped down garage rock as he is playing the complicated music of Mr. Bungle.

The members that make up Mr. Bungle have been on an odd journey since the release of their debut. Initially known to many as Mike Patton’s "other band," they’ve since become individually accomplished and respected musicians - almost naturally growing into a "supergroup" of sorts. They certainly have an unusual relationship with Warner Bros. Spruance stresses that the label does not pressure the band with release deadlines or creative constraints. Bungle and Warner Bros. are an unusual combination, and one wonders why Warners keeps them on board. It is hard to think of similar bands that are released through major labels. Only the Melvins during their short time on Atlantic seem a valid comparison. It is hard to know whether Bungle would change much if they were dropped by Warners. Could they afford to record the type of music they write without the funding of a major label? Perhaps the "pop" sound of California is an attempt to win new fans and keep Warners happy. The band insists that the sound of California felt natural and that making a Disco Volante 2 would have been too easy. It is pointless to predict the changes in the ever-evolving sound of Mr. Bungle. The only consistency being another dose of unclassifiable music, quietly unveiled to an eager and curious world.

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER