Faith No More revisit Angel Dust at 30: "Our label called it commercial suicide"

Faith No More
(Image credit: Paul Natkin/WireImage)

Axl Rose wasn’t angry, just disappointed.

“Why do you hate me?” Guns N’ Roses frontman asked, a note of genuine hurt in his voice. “It’s like I went away and came back home to find you guys fucked my wife.”

Standing beside the singer in GN’R’s backstage compound at Orlando’s Citrus Bowl stadium, the normally easy-going Slash was equally forthright. “If you don’t like it here, just fucking leave,” the guitarist told the three sheepish, shame-faced musicians standing before him. “It can’t be like this.”

Mike Patton, Bill Gould and Roddy Bottum knew this confrontation was coming, given that almost every day for the past three-and-a-half months the trio had been bad-mouthing the Los Angeles hard rock superstars both onstage and in the media. Most of their peers would have been thrilled to be hand-picked to open for Guns N’ Roses on the spring/summer 1992 European stadium tour booked to promote the quintet’s epic Use Your Illusion albums, and even more delighted when offered the opportunity to join Axl and Slash's band on their subsequent US co-headline tour with Metallica, but Faith No More had always been a particularly contrary, perverse and antagonistic unit. From day one of the trek, which launched at Slane Castle in Ireland on May 16, the San Francisco band had made no attempt whatsoever to disguise their disgust and disdain for the “circus” they had willingly signed up to.

“We just try to stir up as much shit as we can. We feel like that’s our job.”

Bill Gould

Just one month before the September 2 face-off with Axl and Slash in Florida, Select magazine had published Bill Gould’s scathing, scornful critique of the GN’R roadshow, a brutally honest assessment the bassist knew full well would soon enough come to the attention of the headline act.

“Every band in the world might think they want to open for Guns N’ Roses,” Bill told English journalist Mark Putterford, “but lemme tell you, it’s been a real ugly personal experience, having to deal with all the shit that surrounds this fuckin’ circus. I’ve always hated that aspect of rock music and I’ve never wanted to be part of it, so to find myself being associated with a tour this big kinda sucks.”

Just hours before their scheduled summit with their understandably pissed-off hosts, Faith No More had actually taken a group vote to determine whether or not they would walk away from the tour. Today, speaking from his home in San Francisco, Bill Gould won’t share exactly how that vote broke down, but does admit that his personal preference was to withdraw. Having been out-voted by his colleagues, being subjected to Axl and Slash’s hour-long dressing-down was as embarrassing as it was excruciating for the bassist.

Before dismissing the trio, Axl asked Bill directly what exactly he had hoped to achieve with his incendiary diatribe in Select.

“We just try to stir up as much shit as we can,” came the reply. “We feel like that’s our job.”

There was a beat of silence before the ridiculousness of the situation caused Axl and Slash to burst out laughing. The show would go on.

To be fair, Faith No More had never fitted in to any scene or movement. Formed soon after Bill and Roswell Christopher ‘Roddy’ Bottum, his best friend from childhood, and neighbour in the upscale Hancock Park district of Los Angeles, moved to San Francisco to attend college in Berkeley, the group drew inspiration from the Bay Area thrash scene, the city’s fecund punk community and its long-established psychedelic rock communes, but always had issues with the conventions and orthodoxies that defined each genre.

Such was their desire to avoid categorisation that, in their earliest incarnations, the group elected to step out with a different singer (among them a young Courtney Love) and different setlist for every show they played.

“We were having fun being stupid kids,” Bill told this writer in 2002. “It wasn’t so much music, as just expression. We just played whatever came into our heads. And that felt kinda good.”

By accident more than design, however, the mercurial, maverick quintet began to develop a loyal and diverse cult following, swelled in 1985 by the success of their sarky, signature anthem, We Care A Lot. Sacking charismatic frontman Chuck Mosley in 1988 following a rehearsal room fist-fight with Bill - “Having a working relationship with him became really impossible,” the bassist insisted - seemed suicidal at the time, but the group re-emerged the following year with a new vocalist, 21-year-old Mike Patton, and a slick, if subversive, third album, The Real Thing, with genuine crossover appeal.

It took well over a year for the record to connect at radio and MTV, but having sold just 45,000 copies in its initial six months on sale, in 1990 the album caught fire when rap-rock single Epic charted, going on to sell one million copies in America.

“The only way to really progress is to be ashamed of what you’ve just done”

Mike Patton

“It was like a sick joke,” Bill recalled. “For the past 12 months we’d worked our asses off and everyone had been telling us how great we were, but we weren’t selling any records and we were fucking broke. And then just as the label told us that the record was effectively dead, it all kicked off, and we had to start all over again. By the end we hated those songs so fucking much.”

Such was the group’s enhanced profile, that when they regrouped in San Francisco’s Coast Recorders studio in January 1992 to work on their fourth album, MTV sent a film crew along to document what was expected to be the decade’s next blockbuster hit. But when the frontman told an interviewer “The only way to really progress is to be ashamed of what you’ve just done”, it was evident that Faith No More had no intention of pandering to expectations.

“Patton spoke for all of us,” says drummer Mike Bordin today on a Zoom call from San Francisco. “Our attitude was: the past is the past, and we’re not going to live on it, and we’re not gonna fucking try to recreate it. Because that’s bullshit, it’s dishonest. We were never going to be a vending machine, serving up the same product. That’s just not what this band was built to do.

“Part of the mythology around Angel Dust is that we were trying to do this or that, trying to alienate people. We weren’t trying to do fuck-all except make a really fucking good record.”

As both Bill and Mike Bordin recall, their early weeks at Coast Recorders were spent jamming and “fooling around”, experimenting with sounds and samples and song structures. “We were united in wanting to do something different,” recalls Bill, “but everyone had their own ideas of what ‘different’ looked and sounded like.”

“And, remember, at this point, we still didn’t know Patton that well, so it took a while figuring each other out. And it was clear from early on that our guitarist, Jim [Martin], wasn’t gravitating to the new songs in the way the rest of us were.”

In Faith No More’s definitive biography, Small Victories, producer Matt Wallace recalls that Jim’s exact description of Faith No More’s new material was “gay disco”. Inevitably, tensions between the metal-loving guitarist and his bandmates grew.

“I respect Jim as a guitar player, and the stuff he added to the group has always been really good,” says Bill, “but we had a hard time communicating. It was a struggle, it was antagonistic, absolutely.”

“The feeling was that Jim was intentionally subverting the record,” Matt Wallace revealed.

For his part, Jim told one UK rock magazine that making the album was “very unpleasant”. Bill’s memory is that, even as he was coaxing/bullying contributions out of Jim, the guitarist was telling anyone who’d listen that his band’s new songs “sucked”.

“We knew we were making a challenging record,” says Bill. “And so we had to be really, really solid among ourselves, that what we were doing was the right thing to do. More than Angel Dust being a ‘fuck you’ to anyone, it was like, ‘If this is our shot, and it might not work,then let’s all feel good about it.’ And it was obvious that Jim didn’t. And by the end of the tour cycle, it was clear that Jim had to go for us to continue.

“But it was a complicated time. The Real Thing did really well, and that was the first time, personally, that I ever got any professional validation in my life for what I did. People were taking what we were doing somewhat seriously, and it meant a lot to me for us to really drive that home. So any kind of energy that diluted from that really got to me.”

Faith No More previewed their new album for their record company president Bob Biggs at the end of February 1992. Bob could not disguise his unease with what he heard. It’s now part of the mythology of the album that he delivered the brutal line “I hope nobody bought houses” when the playback ended, though the band’s manager is also credited, in some tellings of this anecdote, with this zinger.

Angel Dust was no one’s idea of a hit record. Dark and twisted, and occasionally almost unlistenable, it was shot through with self-loathing and disgust and paranoia and misanthropic spite.

Beneath its surface sheen, The Real Thing had its transgressive moments - the easy-listening Edge Of The World was written from a paedophile’s viewpoint, The Morning After outlined the aftermath of a murder - but there was a genuine sense of revulsion running right through its follow-up, from the mocking, viciously sarcastic opener Land Of Sunshine through to the white trash ramblings of RV, from the nightmarish screeches of Malpractice and the unhinged, edge-of-breakdown Caffeine through to the deceptively perky Be Aggressive, Roddy Bottum’s graphic take on sub/dom fellatio (‘You’re the master and I take it on my knees’) and on to Jim’s brutal composition, Jizzlobber.

There were moments of great beauty too - the melodic majesty of Midlife Crisis, the hooky Everything’s Ruined, a haunting take on John Barry’s Midnight Cowboy - but the pervading impression was that Angel Dust was a knowing, wilful act of self-sabotage.

“No one could understand why we were fucking with the formula”

Bill Gould

“No one could understand why we were fucking with the formula,” Bill told this writer in 2002. “The key phrase from the label was ‘commercial suicide’.”

“We were challenged at every turn,” recalls Mike Bordin. “Management were like, ‘Are you sure you wanna do this? This is weird.’ The label basically said, ‘What the fuck are you doing? This is not frat boy good-time music!’ And I want to say clearly, that yes, we were challenged at every turn, sometimes internally, sometimes externally, but we made the fucking record that we wanted to make.”

“One early review said, ‘This is possibly the least commercial follow-up to a hit record in the history of recorded music.’ And we took pride in that, 100%, everyone loved that shit. But also, deep down you knew, it wasn’t going to work for a mass market.”

Released on June 8, 1992, Angel Dust entered the UK album chart at No.2, and debuted at No.10 in America, where it racked up 500,000 sales in just three months. But the perception was that Faith No More had fucked up, big time.

“We over-compensated by saying we didn’t give a shit,” recalls Bill. “It was like, if we were gonna get shot in the face, we’ll pull the trigger ourselves. It was a bit of a juvenile way of going at it.”

Certainly, from the outside, pushing the record first to Guns N’ Roses’ mainstream hard rock audience seemed a typically perverse move. Today Mike Bordin point-blank refuses to see the GN’R tour in Europe as anything but a wonderful opportunity - “I love Guns N’ Roses, and I’m eternally fucking grateful to them for putting us on their stage, and allowing their audience to get a two by four right across the teeth every fucking day” - but admits that opening for GN’R and Metallica on their eventful co-headline US stadium tour was “difficult”.

"People tell me that Angel Dust changed their lives and opened their minds"

Bill Gould

“You had Metallica playing The Black Album, and Guns playing the hits from Appetite [For Destruction] and Use Your Illusion, and we’re out there playing Be Aggressive and it didn’t come across. People were like, ‘Get off, I wanna hear Enter Sandman!’ We were standing between these two massive redwood [and] sequoia trees, and they’re 300 feet tall and 1,000 years old, massive and eternal, and we were a tiny fern on the ground that needed some sunshine… and that may not have been forthcoming.

“But look, we didn’t expect to be Whitesnake or Bon Jovi, we didn’t go into this band wanting to own 15 houses and three Learjets and have 17 supermodels on speed dial,” he laughs. “We knew we were a challenge because we were selling something that people didn’t know. If you’re dealing with unknown quantities, it can be tricky. Maybe 30 million people didn’t buy that record, but it meant something to those who did.”

Bill sighs when asked to evaluate Angel Dust three decades on.

Angel Dust was always perceived at the time as us going in the wrong direction,” he says after some reflection. “On The Real Thing, it kinda felt like we were attractive to people, but on Angel Dust, it just didn’t feel that way. It felt like we had to take a beating for the way we ran our show, so it was never that gratifying.”

“We made a lot of stupid mistakes,” he admits. “But we were real, we were honest. I really like it and when we signed off on it, we were happy; I thought, I can live with this, however things go. And, you know, honestly, I can still live with it. People tell me that it’s a record that changed their lives, that opened their minds. I think we did well."

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.