More than seven years in the making, Peeping Tom is Mike Patton’s Chinese Democracy; an album the versatile vocalist has been promising almost since the 1998 breakup of Faith No More. One big difference between he and Axl Rose, of course, is that the Guns N’ Roses loon has frittered away the years. Patton, on the other hand, has fronted multiple bands like Fantomas and Mr. Bungle, collaborated with the likes of Dillinger Escape Plan and guested on albums by the Melvins, Björk, Sepultura, and approximately 736 discs from avant-garde saxophonist and composer John Zorn.
Another difference? Peeping Tom (also the moniker of the band) is finally a reality, slated to hit stores this week. “It’s good to have it out of the idea stage and on paper, so to speak,” Patton said at his San Francisco home. “I’m happy to be talking about it and have some evidence that it actually exists.” The 38-year-old singer explains the project had its genesis in the year or two following FNM’s demise, when he was busy crafting all kinds of material but with no particular outlet in mind. A solid batch of those songs were written in “the pop mode,” as Patton calls it — a stark contrast to the primarily discordant, dark, and experimental music he’s become known for in recent years. By 2000 he’d recorded about fifteen pieces, playing all the instruments himself in his home studio.
“At that point I was thinking, ‘I’ll hire a band, guys who can really play, and they’ll bring the shit to life,'” he says. “But the longer I lived with the material, the more I got used to the way it sounded, and the more I liked it. So I decided, what are the weak links here? And the one thing that all of the tracks had in common was the beats — I’m a horrible programmer. So I realized, okay, instead of creating a new band per se, it’s gonna be my thing and I’ll just find a producer or programmer to spice things up.”
That same year, Patton hooked up with hotshot Bay Area beatmaker Dan “The Automator” Nakamura (Dr. Octagon, Gorillaz, Handsome Boy Modeling School, et al.), but shortly after the pair commenced work on Peeping Tom, Nakamura played him some tracks meant for his nascent Lovage project.
“I flipped, and we kinda took a little detour there,” Patton chuckles, referring to the many months of work that resulted in 2001’s fantastic, lascivious Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By. “And what happened was that even though when we started Peeping Tom I thought Dan would end up working on the whole record, as time passed and I wrote more songs, the more I realized that working with a bunch of different people would be the right way to go.”
And so Patton spent the ensuing four years roping in the likes of Kool Keith, Amon Tobin, Dub Trio, Rahzel, members of Massive Attack, Anticon rappers Jel, Odd Nosdam, and Doseone, and, perhaps most bizarrely, Norah Jones (Patton contacted her through a friend who’d engineered one of her albums) for guest appearances.
Logistics were the biggest obstacle to the disc’s timely completion. Except for Patton’s studio work with locals the Automator and the Anticon guys, all the tracks were hammered out long-distance by swapping computer files in between people’s hectic schedules. Patton provided direction via phone and e-mail, and says he still hasn’t met most of the artists who grace the album’s eleven tracks.
“There’s nothing worse than having someone ask you to do something and then having them go, ‘Ehhh, do whatever you want!'” he says. “There has to be some arrow pointing in some sort of direction, but you also have to find the balance between doing that and giving them the freedom to voice their own opinion or concerns.”
It’s a testament to Patton’s artistic vision (and project management skills) that Peeping Tom is consistently crazy, fun, and inspired despite the dearth of actual physical collaborations. “Mojo” plays like the darker, more hedonistic cousin of Faith No More’s “Midlife Crisis,” draping Middle Eastern melodies, G-funk textures, and Rahzel’s beatboxing over the Automator’s grimy rhythms while Patton growls, pants, and croons I can’t believe I did it again. “Caipirinha,” featuring Bebel Gilberto, gooses its lazy tropicalia vibe with a thick, distorted bass bleat, and “Sucker” — certain to be the most talked-about track — provides a filthy groove for Norah Jones to stand tall against Patton’s creepy come-ons: What makes you think you’re my only lover?/The truth kinda hurts, don’t it, motherfucker? she snarls.
After a lengthy flirtation with several major labels held up the disc’s release for an additional eight months, Patton put out Peeping Tom on his own Ipecac label. Why the corporate interest? Because the album is being touted as his most appealing, melodically satisfying (i.e. commercially viable) offering in a decade.
“Do I think it’s accessible?” responds Patton when asked if that’s a fair characterization. “I dunno. … in terms of what I do, yeah, this is probably pop. Does it sound like Kylie Minogue? No. Is it pop-ular? Fuck if I know. It could be true that people are looking at this record like that. And it could be that people are like ‘Oh, another noisy, dumb, fuckin’ bangin’-on-the-trash-cans record.’
“All I can say is what I say for all of my projects — I hope a lot of people like it, I want a lot of people to hear it, and I’m not making it for one specific type of person or some clique or group or anything. I just do it. I say that about Fantomas too, even though I know that that’s specialized music that’s not for everyone. I think Peeping Tom is less specialized, and maybe a little bit easier on the ears, but it’s still dense and challenging in its own way, and it was definitely a challenge for me to make it.”