Doin' the Hitler rag

Rock ’n’ roll graveyards are littered with the corpses of departed supergroups, from Genesis (euthanized in 1996 by the departure of frontman Phil Collins) to the Traveling Wilburys (done in shortly after the 1988 death of founding member Roy Orbison). And though many established pop stars are reluctant to join forces with their peers – owing, perhaps, to an understanding that the whole rarely equals the sum of its parts, and that many so-called supergroups were never really super at all – there are always a few ambitious artists from every decade who team up, and sometimes succeed where so many others have failed. How else can one explain Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young? Emerson, Lake and Palmer? The Gorillaz? Or, for that matter, Tomahawk?

Although calling the members of Tomahawk established pop stars would be tantamount to indie-rock heresy, their prior brushes with fame cannot be overlooked: Guitarist Duane Denison made his reputation in the early ’90s as the co-founder of Jesus Lizard, while drummer John Stanier earned a name for himself during the brief heyday of Helmet. Bassist Kevin Rutmanis cut his teeth on the degenerate punk stylings of the Cows, and went on to enlist in the Melvins in 1998. And then there's vocalist Mike Patton, the former lead singer of Faith No More who is currently involved in a dizzying number of projects, including – but hardly limited to – Mr. Bungle, Fantomas, the Dillinger Escape Plan and Peeping Tom, his long-awaited collaboration with producer Dan “The Automator” Nakamura.

When he's not dedicating himself to full-time gigs and side projects with diverse outfits like Lovage, Team Sleep and the X-ecutioners, Patton presides over Ipecac Recordings, the California-based label that is home to Tomahawk, Fantomas and a stable of acts that don't count the eccentric vocalist as one of their members. (Mickey Melchiondo's Moistboyz, the rap-metal offshoot of Ween, will release their third album on the label later this month; at press time, there was no reason to believe that Patton would appear on the album.) And if all of his official commitments weren't enough, the singer is constantly being courted by members of his fanatical fan base -- among them, “nu-metal” gods like Fred Durst and Papa Roach frontman Coby Dick. (Dick has said that his band revs up for gigs by listening to Patton's Adult Themes for Voice, an album of dissonant, distorted vocals recorded in hotel rooms during a Faith No More tour. “It's one of the most fucked-up albums in the world,” Dick raves.)

Dick and Incubus leader Brandon Boyd are just two of the many flavor-of-the-month rock stars who worship at the altar of Patton, but they're hardly alone: Bungle and Faith No More fans have long held up the Ipecac CEO as a misunderstood genius, attaching to each of his latest recordings the kind of Artistic Significance that literary types reserve for people like Joyce and Salinger. Indeed, the Internet boasts dozens of Web sites dedicated to documenting Patton's every exploit, and even his most fastidious fans can barely keep up the pace; Patton, after all, has lent his name and voice to more than 30 projects since the 1998 demise of FNM.

All of which makes it that much more amusing that VH1 executives approached Patton a few years back, requesting an interview for an episode of Where Are They Now? (According to Patton's manager and Ipecac co-founder Greg Werckman, Patton agreed to participate, provided that he would be portrayed as a vagrant living in a cardboard box; the VH1 brass demurred.) Later, the MTV-owned network once again showed off its essentially clueless nature by awarding FNM a spot on its list of the 100 Greatest One Hit Wonders for their 1989 hit single, “Epic” – despite the fact that the band sold more than 10 million records during its 17-year existence.

Should any future VH1 producers suddenly desire an audience with Patton, he won't be hard to find. He and his Tomahawk bandmates will open for Tool at the Cobo Arena this Monday, playing all the modest hits from their eponymous 2001 debut album. (That one has sold more than 100,000 copies – no small feat for an indie release that couldn't rely on a major-label advertising campaign.)

Not that selling millions of records is necessarily the goal. Patton has tasted the life of a high-flying rock star, and he's not rushing back for seconds. During a March gig in London, he and ex-FNM bassist Billy Gould were cornered by a nu-metal posse (Boyd, Dick, Durst, Slipknot's Joey Jordison, Chino Moreno of Deftones and Gavin Rossdale of Bush) bent on organizing a Faith No More reunion tour in exchange for boatloads of cash. Patton resisted the idea, a security guard took exception to his stubbornness and a shoving match ensued. After the skirmish, Patton sought to restore some levity to the evening by prancing about the stage armed with an all-too-lifelike dildo that was mistaken for the real thing by the British press; naturally, the show became the stuff of instant legend.

Despite Patton’s reputation as a wild performer – a reputation fueled by his habit of depositing urine and fecal matter on theaters and arenas throughout the land – his latest jaunt with Tomahawk has been a relatively quiet affair. “This tour has been fairly uneventful,” Denison says. “We just get up there and play. We’ve had a couple of show where we’ve had large men in diapers flanking us on either side of the stage. Various members of Tool come out and sit in with us during improvised segments. We’ve had a couple of limited breakdowns, but there haven’t been many of those. It’s been uneventful, which is good.”

It is Denison, not Patton, who has emerged as the driving creative force behind Tomahawk, a band that formed the night Denison, then a guitarist for Hank Williams III, attended a Bungle show in Nashville. Is he worried that this latest project will one day take a back seat to a Bungle tour, a Melvins tour or even a Faith No More reunion?

“Kevin and John each only play with one other group, and Mike really isn’t doing that much. He’s got Fantomas, and he does little one-offs with other people. But this year alone, we have spent four months touring, and we’ll probably go in the studio in November and spend another three weeks there, so I’d say that a pretty good chunk of the year spent on Tomahawk.

“I write the bulk of the material for the band, and this is my main gig. This isn’t a side project. Plus, the other groups are like family, so whenever we need to play with them, it’s easy to arrange. If the Melvins go on tour and our bass player goes with them, that means I stay home and write new material. Or I play with other people for a while.”

For now, Denison is more than happy to play Tomahawk’s abrasive brand of “rock cinematique” – “music filled with images, colors and gestures,” he explains – in support of Tool. And he’s equally pleased to share the stage with Patton, whom Fantomas and Melvins guitarist Buzz Osbourne has called “a constantly menstruating Hitler.”

Denison’s assessment is more charitable. “Mike is great,” he says. “But a constantly menstruating Hitler? More like a slightly more benevolent Caligula. “I’ve only known Mike for a couple of years, but we seem to work together pretty well. We’re different, and sometimes different is good. If we shared all the same ideas, nothing interesting would happen.”

Rossiter Drake writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]

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