Faith No More's Mike Patton talks about new side project tētēma: 'It’s very, very tricky'

Anthony Pateras and his co-conspirator don’t get together often, which makes their performance at Mona Foma nerve-racking

The Berlin-based Australian composer and pianist Anthony Pateras doesn’t get a chance to speak to multi-instrumentalist, renowned vocal prodigy and Faith No More frontman Mike Patton very often.

Patton admits this makes him feel “nervous and scared”, given the pair will be performing together, as duo, tētēma, in less than two months time in a one-off show at the Mona Festival of Music and Art (Mona Foma) in Hobart, Australia.

When they speak to each other during an interview with Guardian Australia, there is catching up to be done first. They last time they spoke was in June.

“Where the fuck are you, Anthony?” Patton asks. “You’re in fucking Sydney? Get the fuck out of here. I’m surprised. Usually you’re like, in Berlin.”

Patton explains that between now and their performance together in January, “there’s no way we’re going to be on the same piece of the Earth together”. Patton is renowned for being a workaholic and taking on multiple projects at once, such as touring with his multitude of bands that include Fantomas and Tomahawk, writing film scores, or collaborating with artists ranging from genre-defying multi-instrumentalist John Zorn to Norwegian singer-songwriter John Kaada.

Pateras, too, is constantly on the move, touring with various bands and improvisational groups, writing concert works for orchestras, ensembles and soloists, and running the text and music project, Immediata.

“My relationship with Anthony is always very intercontinental, you know?” Patton says. “But I love this guy. I love him.”

Pateras, the more considered of the pair, explains that much of their collaboration as tētēma is done over email. In 2014 tētēma released their album, Geocidal – an other-worldly mix of exotic percussion, strings, symphonic winds and rock synths, punctuated by Patton’s vocals – which took about four years to complete.

“That was years of swapping stuff back and forth over email and building on it over an extended period,” Pateras says. “It took a long time. The drums were recorded in Paris, clarinets in Santiago, the brass in Berlin. And eventually we met together in San Francisco for three days to do the rest, and we mixed it in Brussels.”

Pateras needed Patton to do the vocals because “there were not really any other options,” he says. Patton, with a vocal range of six octaves, has appeared at the top of lists like world’s most versatile vocalist and world’s best vocalist, ahead of Guns N’ Roses’ Axl Rose and avant garde soprano Diamanda Galás.

Album cover for Geocidal by tētēma
tētēma’s album, Geocidal, took four years to complete, mostly over email. Photograph:

While Patton laughs dismissively at such descriptors, the fact remains, Pateras says, that “in terms of the arrangements and orchestration for tētēma, there’s not many singers qualified to actually handle it”.

“Mike has the avant garde sensibility, the orchestral sensibility, the rock sensibility and the electro-acoustic sensibility to deal with this kind of material, and those are all angles and histories I like to address in the music.

“A key thing which I feel Mike can actually do is have that compositional logic while remaining free and open to the moment. So we work around our respective schedules and make it work because we both love the work so much.”

It’s this versatility that has seen Patton croon 1950s and 60s Italian pop under the moniker Mondo Cane, use his voice as both an instrument and a noise machine with experimental rock band Mr Bungle, and beatbox for Björk on her Medúlla album.

Pateras describes Patton as the rare type of artist who can perform a complex song all the way through in one take.

“Musicians today kind of piece things together gradually, and then a take is put together in an edited way,” he says. “But Mike is part of a generation of musicians who can do the take all the way through and there’s a certain feel and discipline to that, which a lot of musicians today are not aware of. That discipline and focus in a take is increasingly rare and is a privilege to witness, and that’s what I really admire in Mike.”

Patton responds that while his first takes are “usually pretty fucking good”, he is more than happy to take advantage of technology to clean up a messed-up rhythm or redo parts.

Despite his vocal prowess, Patton says the idea of performing live with tētēma is challenging. The Geocidal album, which explored the concept of “the murder of place” and which Patton had wrongly assumed would be a piano and vocals record, is full of foreboding landscapes fuelled by an array of erratic instrumentals.

“It’s very, very tricky. It’s the kind of music that makes me go, ‘Sheesh … there’s no easy way of doing this,’” Patton says. “So you have to figure out a way. You make a record and the record is beautiful but when you want to present it live, it’s a whole other mindset.”

The pair are also producing new material separate to Geocidal to perform for Mona Foma, which will, by necessity, be slightly more contained.

“The notion of a traditional band doesn’t really function for us,” Pateras says. “So for Mona we had quite a long conversation about how we could do this live and that took a while to establish … a year and a half or something. It’s a little less spiralling outwards.”

• tētēma is performing on the Mona main stage at Mona Foma on 21 January


Melissa Davey

The GuardianTramp

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