When I saw San Francisco’s revenant Faith No More play Seattle for the first time in nearly 20 years, they closed their set with “Mark Bowen,” a song from their first album, named after their very first guitarist. Mark Bowen was there in the audience. It struck me as a classy move to reach back to the band’s first album, one that didn’t feature the band’s iconic vocalist, Mike Patton. It also struck me as a dick move, since the band didn’t let Bowen onstage to play his own song.
But that’s the story of Faith No More: They care a lot, but they need to take the piss out of their listeners and themselves.
To many, Faith No More is a band heard but not seen. Their lone top-10 radio hit in the United States, “Epic,” still receives regular play, but other than an excellent cover of “Easy” by Lionel Riche’s band the Commodores, that’s the sum total of their breakthrough success. It’s easy to forget, however, that when “Epic” was catching fire in 1990 (almost a year after its release), Faith No More were ascendant — one of the many West Coast rock bands that A&R reps thought might become a household name. For a minute there, it might have been them or Metallica, them or Nirvana.
After all, Faith No More were doing as much to undermine the mainstream rock idiom of the ’80s as anyone else, maybe even more so. Their lyrics, by turns emotional and perverse, frequently homoerotic, skewered West Coast machismo and then roasted it over an open flame. While MTV was trying to find a feather-haired young stud to become the perfect fusion of Eddie Van Halen and Keith Richards, Faith No More put bass, drums, and synthesizers in the spotlight, rendering the guitar sometimes perfunctory (in retrospect, maybe this is why the band changed guitarists so often). And most significantly, the band prized versatility. Jazz, funk, swing, metal, soul, new wave, hip-hop, and straightforward pop were all elements of the group’s sound to varying degrees from that point on, later joined by opera, cabaret, industrial, and film soundtracks as the group evolved. Their melding of rap verses and metal guitar was not completely original (Public Enemy had been sampling Slayer and teaming up with Anthrax before “Epic” came out), but it carried cultural significance, as if announcing that hard rock music could be urban, intelligent, sexual, and cosmopolitan all at once. The amount of diversity Faith No More crammed into 1989’s The Real Thing seemed to be a middle finger to arena rock, which dealt songs in two flavors: ballad and anthem.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see why Faith No More are almost fully independent now. The bands that killed hair metal were trying to find something sacred still alive in rock music, but Faith No More were trying to take the air out of everyone’s tires. They were chameleons, embracing irony before doing so was fashionable. Following “Epic,” the band didn’t so much fall out of the mainstream as swan dive.
Faith No More released three albums afterward, two of which were pretty good and one of which is a must-hear masterpiece, but never really took off, despite their adoring cult fan base. After the band’s initial breakup in 1998, the group was lionized as a rock nerd’s rock band. Among a certain subset of music lover, Faith No More could be used as a shorthand signifier of taste — instant evidence that someone had taken time to dig into semi-obscure rock music.
The first reason for this is that FNM’s zeal for music itself is one of their greatest strengths, as evidenced by the band’s love for offbeat and faithful covers. Their recorded output includes the aforementioned “Easy,” as well as Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” and, um, the theme from Midnight Cowboy. Live, the band is known for blending a few bars of contemporary radio hits into pre-existing songs. Their essential You Fat Bastards: Live At The Brixton Academy album includes snippets of “Pump Up The Jam” and “The Right Stuff,” and a cursory YouTube search yields gems like Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” Portishead’s “Glory Box,” and Jay Z & Kanye West’s “Niggas In Paris.”
Whether they come from affection, disdain, or (more likely) a mix of both, none of those covers would be possible without the band’s other tentpole of nerd credit, singer Mike Patton. Although not FNM’s original singer, Patton is easily the most visible member of the band, both for his larger-than-life personality and his vocal skill. His six-octave range makes Patton, by one particular measure, the best singer in pop music, but he excels in other ways as well. Whereas most signers express only in terms of notes and intonation, Patton began early on to see his voice as a tool for the creation of sound, which includes singing but also the generation of noise. Owing to his background in extreme heavy metal, he’s a singer and a sound-effects studio in one, not to mention a charismatic frontman. In his time away from Faith No More, Patton founded the experimental label Ipecac, and sang in less-known but still fascinating groups like Mr. Bungle, Fantomas, Tomahawk, and Lovage, each of which experimented in some way with niche music. In this way, Patton functions as a one-man gateway from rock music into esoteric and experimental music, so it’s no wonder that his fan base is legion. But he’s not actually the core of Faith No More’s sound.
Neither is guitarist Jim Martin, who played on the group’s most well known albums (after playing with Metallica’s Cliff Burton in Agents Of Misfortune, in a bit of odd shared heritage). While the band’s commercial hits would not sound the same without him, the band continued well enough past him, in the same way that the band existed prior to Patton.
The core of Faith No More is the trio of musicians that formed the band and who wrote the bulk of its classic material and reunion album: drummer Mike Bordin, bassist Billy Gould, and keyboardist Roddy Bottum. Each are distinct and essential in his own way. With his long dreadlocks and history of session work outside of Faith No More, Bordin is the most recognizable member of the band after Patton, and his penchant for snare cracks remains distinct, as does Gould’s fierce-but-clear bass tone. Together they’re a tight and inseparable rhythm section. Bottum, on the other hand, has an ear for melody, and an ability to work a hook into the various experimental tangents the band eventually took. He’s historical for a second reason: as one of the first openly gay musicians in metal music (he came out in 1993, beating Judas Priest’s Rob Halford by half a decade). It’s tempting to regard such facts as inconsequential or incidental, but considering the recurring theme of gay sex in the band’s music, it’s important to recognize how critical Bottum’s presence was in staking out a corner of guitar music as a safe space for celebrating gayness (even if Patton did most of the actual talking). Even without the brilliant guitarists and singers who have joined the band over the years (Courtney Love fronted briefly), the core Faith No More trio would have been a solid rock band.
With those people, however, Faith No More created probably the most well-known gateway from major label-backed radio rock into various forms of independent, nonwhite, queer, and non-English-speaking music. In other words, to a certain subsection of people they’re the band that ruined wholesome rock music, and wrote some indelible tunes doing it. They were missed when they were broken up, and now that the band is active as a touring and recording entity again, it’s time to recant their career up to this point with consideration and depth.
Start the Countdown here.