Leaders Of Men: The Unlikely Rebirth Of Faith No More

Faith No More could feel their Las Vegas cabaret years looming. After reuniting in February 2009 for their first gigs in more than a decade, the most unclassifiable misfits of the late 80s and 90s had played numerous lucrative shows, but played only one new song. By early 2013, that reunion looked to be done. “If we weren’t going to go forward creatively,” recalls bassist Billy Gould, “it would have been. It just seemed such a shame to keep looking backwards. So for me, it was very frustrating.”

“It became more like a circus show,” keyboardist Roddy Bottum believes. “‘Faith No More, playing the hits!’ Not super-challenging. The edge of excitement did wear off. ‘Dishonest’, I guess, is a good term. I think we were able to pull it off in a really highbrow fashion, and we delivered constantly, and I never felt bad about it. But it did feel like, how long can we keep doing these reunion shows? You can only be reunited so many times. Before it got ugly, we had to shit or get off the pot.”

“We all thought, ‘How long can we do this before we become Tom Jones playing Reno?’” singer Mike Patton agrees. “I think it was at the back of everybody’s minds that, ‘Gee, are we going to do new music?’ But we didn’t talk about it. And maybe I was responsible for that. To me, it was business. ‘Let’s go back, let’s do this shit, it’s awesome to see you guys, but this is what we’re doing.’ We were cautious, because comebacks suck. I can’t name a great comeback record. We didn’t want to make a piece of shit under our name, just to do it.”

Since playing the last show of their original incarnation on April 7, 1998 Faith No More have been cited as vital influences by bands from Slipknot to System Of A Down, and named the crucial element in spawning nu metal. They were certainly among the first to splice rap and rock on their breakthrough third album The Real Thing (1989) and its MTV hit Epic.

But 1992’s follow-up Angel Dust landed at grunge’s peak from a planet with Faith No More as sole inhabitants. It pinballed between Shostakovich samples, speed-metal and Be Aggressive, a catchy tune about swallowing come they stuck on the B-side of a crooned, smash-hit cover of the Commodores’ Easy. Angel Dust killed their career in the US, where reunion bookings have been few. But on this side of the Atlantic, it made them adored.

Now they have finally got off the pot to risk that reputation with their first album since 1997, Sol Invictus, self-recorded in pressure-free secrecy over a year-and-a-half, at Gould’s instigation.

“I can understand why the others had misgivings,” the bassist says. “When you have a thing like Faith No More, that has this brand name and recognition, there’s always people telling you you should make a record, because you could capitalise on it right now. And there’s a resistance just to make a record because of that. I think when people heard the music, they all jumped in because they realised, you should make a record when you have a musical inspiration.”

“We all care about the legacy of what we’d done and we didn’t want to fuck it up,” Bottum says of Sol Invictus. “The worst possible scenario would have been the band re-forms, and writes a bunch of radio songs to make some money. But it was so clearly not about that. It was for ourselves. The tones of what we were creating were super-dark, unapologetic and bold.”

Sol Invictus is as jaggedly uncompromised a comeback album as any fan could wish for, filled with Patton’s trademark, impenetrably vicious lyrics. They have, though, included one song with radio-friendly, anthemic potential. They’ve called it Motherfucker.

Faith No More were never a natural band of brothers. Its five members remain very different people, these days including drummer Mike Bordin (co-founder with Gould of the band’s initial incarnation in the early 80s) and guitarist Jon Hudson (who joined for 1997’s then-swansong, Album Of The Year). Speaking to CR on the phone, Patton is spiky and confrontational, Bottum dreamily emotional, and Gould easygoing and open. All seem to have been burned by the 90s interviews where Patton – a callow 21-year-old from the Californian backwoods when he replaced Chuck Mosley as singer for The Real Thing – happily discussed his penchant for eating shit, among other harmlessly depraved yarns and dark, uncensored wit. The comeback tale they tell now is sometimes vague in its details, as if there’s been a pact not to tell outsiders too much. But its importance to them all is plain.

Bottum remembers clearly why they split in the first place. Burnt-out by the music industry, by 1997 he was allergic to the very thought of more Faith No More. “It was very taxing on our friendships,” he remembers. “We would do such long tours to sell product, to put it in crass terms. I felt we were taken advantage of. When I did the soundtrack for Hit So Hard recently [the documentary about ex-Hole drummer Patty Schemel], it made me remember that I was so susceptible at that time, and felt things so strongly, and how much drama was going on – like Kurt dying, and all of the drugs and the people that died at that point. It was an intense thing to go through at that age. Watching that movie brought it all up, like, ‘Wow. This is a fragile sort of place.’

“At the very end of the band, we just had some weird shows with Aerosmith left to do, and it felt like it wasn’t that important, so let’s stop now. And that was that. But I was in another band that I felt good about, everybody else had projects going, it wasn’t like we were so haggard and done. It was kind of nice to shut the door and walk away, and not have to deal with it any more.”

Bottum moved from the band’s old San Francisco Bay Area base back to Los Angeles to make TV and film soundtracks, Gould formed a crusading record label, Bordin became Ozzy’s drummer, and Patton dived into collaborations with everyone from Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo to jazz-noise maverick John Zorn. No one needed, or seemed to want, Faith No More. But a chance meeting at Bottum’s wedding in 2009 sowed the seed for their return.

“Look, I’m not good with facts,” Patton warns, “but I’ll tell you what I know. We reconnected at Roddy’s wedding, a few of us, and really enjoyed each other’s company. ‘Wow, haven’t seen you in a while, man, how you doing?’ It was very, very casual, no talk of music. But that to me was the start of the idea of us playing together again. It was more about relationships, and people that you’ve shared a pretty significant part of your life with.”

“I was in Europe and heard about it later, and it sounded like a strange thing to me,” Gould shudders. “My first reaction was, ‘Ooh, I don’t know if I would have enjoyed that.’ When the band split up, I was the last man standing. And when the band got back together, I was the last guy wanting to get back in, because I knew how it felt to be the last man standing.”

Gould and Bottum’s relationship was the most in need of repair. Friends since they were nine-year-olds riding bikes in a Hollywood suburb, Gould was offended when Bottum became hard rock’s first openly gay star via a 1993 magazine interview, instead of ever mentioning it to him. Bottum brooded over being similarly outed in the press as a smack addict by his bandmates the same year (his addiction ended soon afterwards). “I’ve known Billy for so long,” Bottum says, “and by the nature of what we went through, by the end we’d really lost respect for each other. Becoming friends again was a real achievement on both of our parts. It was an intense reunion, he and I.”

“We dealt with the personal things that happened in the past pretty quickly,” says Gould. “And I had a dysfunction twenty years ago. All the problems that we had, I contributed to as well. But the biggest obstacle is we had to learn how to trust one another, because in the past, a lot of trust was blown. And making music has a lot to do with trusting other people. When we first got back together, we didn’t throw contracts at each other. When we recorded we didn’t even use engineers.”

Their first gig back was at Brixton Academy in June 2009. “That was scary and crazy,” Bottum remembers. “We were all sitting backstage, and it felt surreal. I always had these crazy nightmares in later life, where I was going back on stage and we were playing again, and I didn’t know any of the songs. It was a nightmare that would come up, on dark days. So to be able to address that was crazy. Who gets that opportunity? I learned the songs. And I don’t have those dreams any more.”

“When we played Coachella in the States, this giant festival, and it was just us, and we had to walk out there and dominate it,” Gould says. “We pulled these crazy things off, and we were just this stupid band from San Francisco who once couldn’t get a gig anywhere. It made me realise how much I rely on these guys. It’s like you fight in a war together.”

Being ready to go to battle in the studio again, though, was a more delicate process. A band who were always infamously tight-lipped with each other about their feelings had to learn to communicate. “A lot of our past was about – I’m not going to say backstabbing,” Bottum says, “but there was a lot of passive-aggressive behaviour. But a lot of crazy personal growth happens in ten years.”

“A lot of it had to with addressing everybody’s comfort zones,” Gould believes. “Back in the day, it was majority rule. Three-fifths meant that was the direction we went in. We’d do a tour that two guys didn’t wanna do, but they’d be out-voted. Our old guitar player, Big Jim Martin, definitely ended up on the wrong side of votes a lot. Same with songs on the record. Now if one person isn’t happy, we don’t do it. It’s a little more work but a lot more stable.”

Gould’s patient cajoling of his bandmates to risk new music was partially rewarded when they began playing his song Matador live in 2011. “Bill brought in a new tune that he wrote, and said: ‘Shall we try this?’” Patton remembers. “And when we heard it, yep, we knew what to do exactly, boom boom boom. It’s like a secret society when you’re in a band, with your handshakes and your lingo, and even after all that time, you still understand it. It’s part of you. We started playing that one song live, and it felt good. So okay, let’s proceed.”

Gould kept writing music with Faith No More in mind. Patton was the last to hear it. “It wasn’t some grand presentation,” he recalls. “It was: ‘Hey, hey, whaddaya think of this?’ And I listened to it, and I really got emotional. We’re talking about a couple of decades where we hadn’t made music together, and it was the furthest thing from my mind. I was actually really – gosh, I guess honoured, and humbled, at the fact that the band had been working on this stuff, and they were thinking of me being a part of it. I was very moved by it. More importantly, the music was incredibly strong and pointed and focused. Maybe in ways that our records haven’t been in the past.”

At the end of 2012, Faith No More disappeared, to work on their new music away from the pressure of public expectation. Their return as one of the support acts for Black Sabbath at London’s Hyde Park on July 4, 2014, unveiled two new songs, Superhero and Motherfucker. Showing that the “chaos” which Gould says remains intrinsic to the band is alive and well, Bottum found the day memorable for very different reasons.

“I had an altercation with some Ozzy people on-stage,” he says. “I really was into watching Black Sabbath, who I’d never seen before, and never listened to in my life. I was kind of smitten. I thought, ‘Oh my God, this looks really cool,’ and I was on-stage, and then somehow got, for whatever reason,” he laughs, “asked to leave the stage. It’s high security. “I was like, ‘I am in Faith No More, I’ve got this special laminate.’ It wasn’t special enough, so I leapt in a cab to go to a gay bar in London. You know what’s crazy? I found, like, five hundred pounds on a seat – English money and dollars and Euros, all in rubber bands.”

The album that’s now called Sol Invictus was finished last autumn, and its existence announced in September. Asked if it feels different to their early work, Patton bridles angrily. “What does it feel like to you?” he snaps. “Does it feel like something we just threw together? It’s pretty different. And in a great way.”

“It is different than before,” Bottum says, more equably. “It sounds really stripped-down and simple. Mike’s singing from a more solitary voice this time around. It doesn’t feel as schizophrenic as it was on past records. It’s a lot darker than I thought we would have gone, very sombre. When we were super-young, we felt like we were always going to be this dark, hypnotic, Goth sort of band, and the tone’s come back around to that.”

Gould denies that the band’s new work, and new-found ability to talk to each other, is evidence of middle-aged maturity. “I don’t see this music we’re doing as a product of our maturity,” he says. “I think it’s trying to hold onto a spark that we had. The maturity comes in how we manage that.”

The music doesn’t matter to any of them, anyway, as much as their rekindled relationships. “We’re relating better to each other than we ever did,” says Patton. “Once you get older, you have fewer friends, but you appreciate them more. I don’t want to start meeting new people. I just want to cherish the people that I’ve been with.”

“It was about re-embracing my past,” Bottum says, “that had become this crazy, really sketchy memory, like some childhood thing that we did. There were a lot of burnt bridges, and going back to fix things is a crazy opportunity that isn’t given very often.”

“The only reason we’re still doing this,” Gould concludes, “is because there are certain experiences that we’ve shared together that make us like a family. We’re trying to really connect on a human level. Because it’s hard to really connect with other people, when you’ve been this many years together. We’ve done things we can’t explain to other people.”

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Nick Hasted

Nick Hasted writes about film, music, books and comics for Classic Rock, The Independent, Uncut, Jazzwise and The Arts Desk. He has published three books: The Dark Story of Eminem (2002), You Really Got Me: The Story of The Kinks (2011), and Jack White: How He Built An Empire From The Blues (2016).