Awkward Interview With Bär McKinnon of Mr. Bungle

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I recently drank some coffee. It put me in a “not bad mood.”

I thought to myself: “why don’t I email Bär McKinnon and ask him if he’d consider being in a documentary about Mr. Bungle someday?” Seems few of the members are willing to talk about the band. Not sure what the big deal is. They haven’t performed in something like 15 years, and still it’s somehow a touchy subject. I had gotten the impression that Bar is a normal dude that’s willing to talk, so why not?

After my initial inquiry, he seemed friendly and willing to respond, so I figured I’d at least get him to type some answers right away. (Since he lives on the other side of the planet, there’s very little chance of me pointing a video camera at him any time soon.)

As the Italian photographer Francesco Desmaele says, “It’s terrible… but it’s OK.”

Thanks, coffee.

One more thing before we get to the questions: Bär has a creative band / project called Umlaut. Go give them them listen. While most Mr. Bungle fans have followed what Mike Patton and Trey Spruance are doing these days, Umlaut adds that other mysterious and creepy saxophone-y flavor that you’re going to need.

http://umlautbarmckinnon.bandcamp.com/album/the-solo-demo-ep
https://www.facebook.com/UmlautBarMcKinnon/

Here we go…

1.) I’m assuming you were around when the Warner Brothers Deal first happened in 1990 or so. Can you describe your (and the band’s) reaction to that, at the time? You were just kids, early 20s — was it a big deal? What did your parents think?

I’m not sure what our parents thought, but I’m sure they were impressed..It seemed like a pretty big deal, yes, but we were a little cynical and guarded, i think because we were aware that–despite existing on our own merits– we were able to do it in part due to Patton’s success with FNM’s The Real Thing.. I can only speak for myself, but i had the sense that the (relative) mainstream appeal of FNM was actually instrumental in opening that door for us.. I also remember thinking to myself: a major label deal and I’m only 21-pretty cool. Little did I know then, that it merely sounds good on paper and didn’t mean shit. But yeah, of course it was a source of pride at the time.

2.) When you guys went out on the U.S. Tour for the debut album (1991?), do you remember having any expectations for the audience reactions, before you hit the road? What were the band’s conversations about the performances like?

again, I can only speak for myself…but i was aware that the audiences were star-struck with Patton after seeing him on MTV in the “Epic” video, and if you took a photo from stage you could see the bulk of th audience entranced, hypnotised with watching Patton. I’m sure the FNM guys could still vouch for the same feeling and experience… I also remember the wearing of masks to be Patton’s way of dispersing that rabid attention, of down-playing his celebrity and we were sorta playing along (although we weren’t famous or dealing with the same cult-of-personality stuff that he was..)
We knew people liked the funky, groovy and catchy tunes but also had our own short attention spans to attend to.. It could be argued that Bungle was an outlet to indulge Patton’s aversion to giving the people too much of what they wanted (for hyperactively talented experimentalists like Patton, Spruance and Dunn).. We didn’t set out to confound our audience..it just sort of happened that way; maybe we didn’t want to become bored, maybe we wanted to rail against mainstream conformity and just playing the music exactly as it was on the album… At the end of the day, we were amusing ourselves and kinda seeing what we could get away with.. For the most part, the audience came along with us bravely or left angrily.. We weren’t too fussed–people kept coming

3.) Five years later, Disco Volante tour (1995) — the band’s repertoire was so eclectic: Italian movie soundtracks, obscure lounge, metal covers, pranks, long white noise segments. Being in the San Francisco area, you guys had been exposed to a lot. All sorts of avant garde and experimental theater, performance art. Your US audience probably had not! What was the collective intent of the band and what were you guys hoping to achieve by playing that stuff to unsuspecting rock audiences? Were you trying to expose people to more interesting music?

there was never really a collective intent. Discussions would be merely descriptive: ” hey man, I’ve got this effed-up thing for you to play..” We’d write music or form collections of riffs/ideas and bring them to each other. It’s such a cliché, but we’d just be following our individual muses (with the band instrumentation in mind-to a point) and amusing ourselves or each other. To think we were trying to “achieve” something is really missing the point, or over-analysing it.. We did enjoy making people uncomfortable (the way young men are known to do) but even more we enjoyed cool sounds and music that wasn’t either easily digested or understood.. We didn’t have some manifesto on: How To Destroy a Career in Music. The fact that we were coming into contact with obscure pop-music or forms of music, techniques of recording, etc was all just inevitably going to seep into our stuff and spur us along and out into the ears of whomever was brave enough to come along with us

4.) There seemed to be, from my point of view, an attitude that Mr. Bungle audiences had no choice, and were subjected to whatever musical whims the band felt that day. Whether that was 30 minutes of feedback, or Welcome Back Kotter in Spanish. Was that something you guys talked about or agreed to consciously? Was it a sort of “ethic” to force the music on the listener?

you’re right. “Welcome Back, Kotter” in Spanish was another amusing accident, nearly.. But it was also a reflection of Patton’s growing elasticity with language… I think there was a perhaps sub-conscious thing happening where… if you mix Patton’s [reluctance with his new-found celebrity] with Trevor and Trey’s love of musique-concrete, Danny’s gleeful belligerence, Theo’s love of chaos and my love of trying to glue it all together..then you start to get the idea.. But was it discussed intellectually? Planned..? No. Not really. And yes, you’re absolutely right that audiences had no choice but to be subjected to the whims of the band.. First of all, it wasn’t a rave where the DJ plays to the audience’s whims and we weren’t trying to “succeed.” We were just trying to keep ourselves interested and play (what we thought) was interesting (or funny).

5.) You were all educated musicians, it seems. The capabilities were above average, both as performers and composers, at such a young age. You probably could have moved to LA and been successful studio session musicians for TV jingles or something. Yet some of the musical choices seemed to be a rebellion against formal structure and traditional harmony. Did you guys feel rebellious playing “noise” sometimes, or did you genuinely enjoy listening to that “noise?”

yes. to a point, we may have felt rebellious about it; we were young and scrappy.. And yes, we did enjoy experimental music and noise too.. We always got a kick out of what we could get away with..and also loved noisey aspects of modern music and pushing those boundaries as players and listeners

6.) Did you feel that California (1999) was an effort to systematize the band, so that it would somehow be more functional and cooperative with the audience? I say “cooperative” because it seemed to be more focused on doing a good job and playing all the songs well and having a good time, rather than causing confusion / alienating the actual supporters. What would you or the other guys have thought of that idea at the time? What do you think of it now?

No. It wasn’t some attempt at reconciling how much we’d previously tortured our audiences with white-noise..No, it wasn’t some conscious attempt to normalise our music or make it all the more palatable for our weary listeners.. It just poured out the way it did and reflected the sophistication we’d cultivated up to that point. We were perhaps more careful to get ‘better’ performances on record, yes. We had every intention of doing our best.
We wouldn’t have over-thought the reception of whatever we were doing; if we were into it, that was enough

7.) Most kids (early 20s) from a small town (you guys were in Eureka at the time?) probably would not have dealt with having a record deal with WB and a popular lead singer in the same way Mr. Bungle did. Right out of the gate, it seemed to be a negative reaction against the apparent career opportunity? Or to go out of the way to not take it seriously / maybe even sabotage it for the first couple of albums / tours. Most bands would have automatically played the game, gotten the cool haircuts, and would do anything to “make it.” At the time, did you guys feel like you were doing the right thing? Were there any doubts or lack of confidence? Or even going against better judgement? Did all 6 of you maybe agree to say “we are going to mess this up?”

Hahahaha
I’m not even sure how to answer this! Here’s the best i can do:
we didn’t really have any game-plan
we just wanted to make interesting/challenging/good music
we knew we’d confound and upset people one way or another and delight others
we kinda didn’t care
…but yeah, maybe we should have taken it all more seriously and not squandered what we had going to what extent we did..hard to say

8.) As an adult, how do you look back at the experience? Would you have done anything differently?
[No reply.]

9.) All of you guys are over 40 years old now, and you yourself seem to even have started a family. In your opinion, would you guess a future incarnation of the band would (following the California trajectory) possibly be even more focused on “composing and performing the music well” and less on the “torture the audience” factor? Is audience torture a young man’s sport?

Yes, and yes.. Having said that, there is great fun to be had in confounding expectations with sound.. But yes, when you’re young, there’s less learned fear, less conformity, more attitude to expend.. But even now, i enjoy sloppy demos MUCH more than super-slick, polished final drafts..

10.) The fidelity difference between the Debut and Disco Volante was day and night. Whereas the first record was very precise and clear and “pro” — Disco Volante sounded very sloppy and maybe even recorded on crappy gear at times. It sounded muffled and amateur by commercial standards, as if it wasn’t even the same band 4 years later. While it was a spectacular example of 20th century and avant garde composition, it could have been mistaken for lack of experience. In fact, I was angry when I bought it because I thought it was a horrible joke. I couldn’t even hear any “songs” — just random banging on instruments. It took me many listens to hear any structure in it, and months before I enjoyed it. Was there a conversation about that “unlistenable-ness” and “low fidelity” at the time? Or were you guys all sincerely loving the material and recording quality?

I love that you were angry and thought it a horrible joke, no offense! Careful that you don’t give too much away : )
Of course we loved it at the time. As with a child, the moment you tell him he ‘can’t’ do something, he’ll want to all the more. Mr Bungle was just never going to tick all the boxes that the record company wanted ticked. I was recently charmed/shocked listening to some of the performances on the first album; i thought some choice bits were often sloppy and/or off-key and thought: nowadays that’d never be acceptable! Nowadays, we often Pro-Tool the shit out of takes so they’re often pitch or metronomically-perfect, so they’re ‘cleaner’ etc.. Little do we know, we’re draining them of their soul, of their life. Life isn’t perfect or clean; it’s sloppy, messy, dirty and it’s fucking MEANT to be.

• • •

Find out more about this talented young man at:
http://umlautbarmckinnon.bandcamp.com/album/the-solo-demo-ep
https://www.facebook.com/UmlautBarMcKinnon/

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