Sunday, September 13, 2009

Clinton “Bar” McKinnon (UMLAUT/Mr Bungle) interview

With so few true eccentrics still operating in music, Clinton "Bar" McKinnon (or just Bar - pronounced 'bear') is in danger of becoming a study subject. The lively Mr Bungle saxophonist and co-lead writer, left his San Franciscan home for Melbourne and fell in with a new group of misfits willing to assist in his off-the-wall musical creations. Embracing his Bungle roots in new project, Umlaut, McKinnon is feeding his feverish musical habit unabashed. However, with much to discuss in the field of mysterious man-beasts and flying saucers, I try and get the more obvious questions of his prodigious musical background out of the way first.

“I didn’t get into the saxophone until high school, so way before that I taught myself to play the drums, which I found really simple. My first kit was one I had made from Tupperware containers and an old banjo with no strings!” (he laughs at the memory) “I just sat in my room playing that thing all the time, and you know drumming just made so much sense to me – you hit this and it makes that sound and then you make a few more sounds and put it all together.” A natural gift for percussion had Bar picking up piano as well; “I actually had piano lessons, but also at the time my sister had just given up learning clarinet so I picked that up as well. It’s such a fine instrument and you needed a lot more discipline to play that than the drums.” Clarinet lead Bar onto his signature instrument - the sax - which ultimately landed him in the crazy world of Mr Bungle… “In my high school, there was a really cool jazz quartet that everyone wanted to be in but it was just, you know, the really good players, well (Mr Bungle's guitarist and bassist respectively) Trey (Spruance) and Trevor (Dunn) were in it and they asked me to join because they were losing a horn player, and I actually just went, “Yeah, I’ll think about it guys”, and people were like ‘Come on! You have to do this’. So that’s how we met and I think everyone was expecting us to do like the jazz standards and be the new young lions, but we weren’t really interested in that.”

Around this time, San Franciscan metal band Faith No More were about to drop the hugely influential album The Real Thing, the band’s first album with ‘new’ lead singer Mike Patton. The single, Epic, featured Patton in the video wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with an unknown band named Mr Bungle. “Until then almost nobody knew what Mr Bungle was. (Bar continues) It was just a bedroom project in the beginning, and Trevor and Trey had already been recording with Mike - who we knew from college - on the demo tapes." It was 1989 and while Faith No More's album went globally massive, that same year McKinnon played sax for the first time on obscure Mr Bungle tape, OU818. It would be over two years before the first proper Bungle album came out. Far removed from Patton's 'straight rock band' Faith No More, Mr Bungle was a Las Vegas cabaret on acid colliding with a circus freak-show. I wonder how much of this seemingly unhinged music came from simply experimenting in the studio opposed to fully rehearsed tracks? "People tend to think of jazz as being all free-form but apart from solos it's all really structured. It has to be or you'd just have a mess, with one guy playing his thing and another playing something else. If we had accidents in the studio, you know like squeaking doors or any unexpected horn blasts I’d be trying to recreate that! (he enthuses) I'd be going 'we gotta get a mic there and have that door squeak, that's staying in!'”

Recording only two more albums, Mr Bungle unofficially split in 2003 after being dropped by their label. In that uncertain time, Bar never considered quitting completely; "No, it wasn't like 'oh all my dreams are out to pasture, better go off and do something else'. It wasn't as if the (Mr Bungle) guys were consistently working together anyway, they all had other bands and I was doing the Secret Chiefs album in that time. So it was difficult to see it as being the actual end" Bar's fellow band mates scattered around the globe to pursue their respective projects, while McKinnon made Melbourne his home and continued to write music privately and assemble a new band. The resulting work has emerged under the name Umlaut – whose self-titled album sees the surprising return of an familiar voice. New track Atlas Face - features Mike Patton in fine, and very Bungle-ish form; “I wrote that a few years ago and sent it to Mike to do the vocal on – it was all by correspondence. He took a year-and-a-half to actually get around to doing it, but we’re pretty happy with the result.”

Was the intention to get Mike interested in getting Bungle happening again? “Well, (sighs) It was either going to be a new Mr Bungle track or I would just do something else with it. I’m always sending the other guys tapes of stuff I’m working on and nobody’s yet gone “OK Bar, it’s over. Stop sending us your stupid tapes!” (he laughs) Bar doesn't completely rule out a reunion, he confesses if it happens he'll be first one on board. "Mr Bungle had something special - I just wish the other guys would see that!" In the meantime, he has the task of getting his current work out and into a few ears. "You know what's funny? (Bar interjects) I can't get my song on the radio (Atlas Face), even on Triple J. I mean it's got Mike Patton singing on it, it's played by mostly Melbourne musicians (The other members of Umlaut are local) and I keep hearing about how Melbourne has this pride in it's music and musical history but instead it's like the whole place has gone crazy for Pink. She's just everywhere, and then you get certain newspapers going 'Oh Pink, she's an honorary Australian' (referring to Pink's donation to the Black Saturday fund), but if your local, it seems you get kind of overlooked." Bar's comments are far from bitter. It seems as though he’s trying to grasp the reasoning behind the worship of overblown and over-hyped acts.

It’s yet to be seen if Melbourne embraces Umlaut in the manner they have Pink. So what was Bar’s first impression of his adopted home? "I found that Melbourne had a huge variety of willing and able musicians and I was able to generate a bit of interest because of my past, basically. People actually sort me out which was a nice change from me not hearing from the Mr Bungle guys at all. You know, I also realised that after you hit your mid 20s, every year is like a lifetime and I got restless waiting for something to happen back in the US. Starting fresh with the band I formed in Melbourne made me not want to waste time and just get on and do something with all these songs I had."

There isn’t much further talk of music. Instead McKinnon cheekily jumps from subject to subject and the interview becomes a fun game with me trying to keep him on track, but enjoying the thrill of his spirited digressions. Our talk eventually turns to Bar growing up in a small town, and the culture shock of moving to the Big Apple during the crazy 80s.

"New York was a really exciting place, but it was always so tense though. I mean everybody had a gun, but you know, nobody would really fuck with you because it would be, ‘OK, I have a gun and, well, you probably have a gun too and I don't wanna get shot, so I'm just gonna walk over here...’ Plus everyone was either loaded or drunk all of the time!"
McKinnon was attracted to the explosive music scene in NY - more so than the freakbeat and psychedelic music synonymous with the West Coast. "A lot of people ask me or assume that I was into Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart and that stuff, and yeah to a degree, but I didn't really get the whole Zappa thing, with that silly little high-pitched girly voice he did. I guess I couldn't really take anything he did seriously enough to get right into it."

McKinnon confesses a love of Ween and, somewhat surprisingly, Cocteau Twins. On Umlaut's debut album, Ween's influence has either crept in, or Bar is simply plucking the same funny mushrooms from the roadside as Dean and Gene. Just like the giggling glee of a Ween album, McKinnon and his band have created a truly infectious set of cartoon/horror songs on Umlaut that have the nagging ability to get stuck in your head although they ignore any traditional 'pop' structure. The songs' inspirations and instrumentations are diverse at the very least - one track Kitty Puppy (complete with synthesised harp) was written about one of Bar's favourite points of amusement - Chingrish - slightly wrong interpretations of English phrases with humorous results. However it's an instrumental called Bigfoot Is Real, that opens up a feverish discussion on another of Bar’s most loved subjects.

“I was so fascinated with the bigfoot as a kid, man! I used to read all about actual accounts by people who said they'd seen it. It scared the shit out of me just the idea of this huge hairy man-monster living in the forest. My parents used to take us camping as kids and we'd go to the northern California woodlands (near, incidentally, the region where the famous Roger Patterson ‘Bigfoot’ footage was taken in 1967) and I would just sit in a clearing and wait for one to emerge from the trees and try and snatch me up! (he laughs) I wanted so badly to see it for myself I would spend hours just looking at the trees hoping it was there, just out of sight.” I ask Bar what his thoughts were on the recent Georgia bigfoot hoax - which for a time - had the world believing again; “The monkey suit in the freezer?! Come on that was hilarious! (we’re both cracking up now) One of those guys was an ex-cop too, so you’d think he would have had some credibility, but that was such an obvious fake.” I suggest that with a cop involved, they should’ve at least been better at faking evidence. (laughing) “Exactly! I don’t see the whole hoax thing as being so bad, I just wish that somebody would capture a real live one, but then again the mystery would be kinda gone from it.” McKinnon’s excitement on the subject propels our discussion into how film has largely ignored the potential of a bigfoot horror spectacular. “Hollywood has never made a horror movie about bigfoot, and that’s a huge shame. People always go and see horror films, no matter how bad, because we like to be scared. Bigfoot would make the best horror monster because it works on the base fear of ‘what if this thing really is out there’, and people don’t know much about it so it could be a human-stalking blood-thirsty thing.” The subject of the mysterious bigfoot changes to UFOs – I have given up trying to get us back to music. “You know, I just think that there has to be life other than our own. People have always been looking to the sky and fantasising that we're not alone in the universe. If UFOs are real - which I really think they are - then it must be so obvious we aren't the smartest, most advanced creatures out there.”

Talking with Bar about cryptozology and space beings, it’s clear his strong imagination has helped him creatively - much more so than simply learning to play music. His undeniable abilities as a musician are incidental to his need to question and be stimulated by the grand possibilities in life. His album with Umlaut is finished and the need to discuss it at great length is not on his agenda. Clinton “Bar” McKinnon is just looking for the next thrill.


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