Carnival barkers

Seen by most as a curious side project of Faith No More frontman Mike Patton, Mr. Bungle has always lurked in the shadows of mainstream rock music. It hasn't helped that the three Bungle releases -- including the band's latest, the schizophrenic pop surprise "California" -- don't fall neatly into any particular category of music, leaving many listeners scratching their heads. Now, with Faith No More gone belly-up, the carnivalesque compositions of Mr. Bungle can finally move into the spotlight.

"It's not perceived as a FNM-derivative thing anymore, which is sort of nice," says Mr. Bungle guitarist/keyboardist Trey Spruance, adding that the Faith No More association is "inescapable." "I feel a lot better about our audience now, like we actually have our own fans. Our last record kind of cut off the fat a little bit ... `it` was pretty weird, pretty extreme. People who were just sort of marginally interested because of the Mike Patton thing sort of dropped off on that record."

He's speaking of album No. 2 -- the jazz-, techno- and tango-heavy "Disco Volante" (1995) -- which was even more out there, throwing casual listeners off the group's trail (except maybe for a few diehard fans).

Those who have hung on have been rewarded with "California," Mr. Bungle's most polished (and most listenable) recording to date. The title sums up perfectly the inauthentic positiveness that pours from the disc. Spruance, Trevor Dunn (bass/keys), Danny Heifetz (percussion/keys) and Bär McKinnon (horns/keys) even inject a little Beach Boys-esque pop into their already over-the-top sound.

"We were probably a little bit more conscience of what the overall vibe of the song should be," says Spruance, dissecting the songwriting process "behind California." "In the past we had shifted gears quite often and played with a lot of juxtapositions. This time we were trying to hold the songs to their own identities, and then juxtapose them against each other."

Mr. Bungle formed in 1985 in Eureka, Calif., using a name lifted from a short film segment that was part of "The Pee-Wee Herman Show." They built a sizeable cult following through a series of genre-busting demos -- each one more musically daring than the last. When Patton got the call to join Faith No More, he continued on with Mr. Bungle.

The runaway success of FNM's "The Real Thing" (1989) prompted Warner Bros. to sign Patton's "other" project. Maybe the label didn't realize what it was getting into. On Bungle's 1991 eponymous debut -- a glorious melting pot of rock, metal, funk, ska and general weirdness -- the band used wacky aliases (and even took to wearing masks onstage), possibly in an attempt to downplay the Patton connection. Not surprisingly, the hard-to-market Mr. Bungle was put on the back burner by the record label, while Faith No More played its hand. They've been on the back burner ever since.

But that hasn't stopped Patton, who's still mixing it up these days with a bevy of curious projects, including the crushing self-titled Fantômas debut and several voice-only solo records.

The already sold-out 9:30 p.m. performance Saturday, Aug. 14, at Sapphire indicates how popular the so-called "unmarketable" band remains. (A second 6:30 p.m. show has been added.) According to Spruance, who also handles much of the band's pretour programming duties, Orlando will get to hear "something off of the first two `albums`, a little bit of each, and then the third record -- I think we're doing pretty much the whole album."

This will be no small feat, given the complexities of Mr. Bungle's music. "We want to get a lot of our ideas in there," says Spruance. "We'll just do it and worry about how the hell we are going to play it later."


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