Mr. Bungle’s Trevor Dunn: “We’re going back to our ’80s metal roots”

Mr. Bungle’s Trevor Dunn: “We’re going back to our ’80s metal roots”
Mr Bungle

(Image credit: Buzz Osborne)

Mr. Bungle has evolved through a wild variety of contrasting musical styles. Sometimes described as ‘circus ska’ or ‘weirdo funk’, their three major label studio records – including California, Disco Volante and their self-titled 1990 debut – are entirely different to what the group played when they formed as a death metal band in 1985. Their debut 1986 demo The Raging Wrath of The Easter Bunny shows the band dabbling in thrash and punk before it later expanded its influences to include the likes of Oingo Boingo and Camper Van Beethoven, while still retaining traces of Slayer and Anthrax.

Featuring the woozy, squeaky saxophone playing of past member Clinton ‘Bär’ McKinnon and the tribal-yet-jazzy playing of former Bungle drummer Danny Heifetz, the disorienting artistic elements preserved on Mr. Bungle’s three Warner Brothers albums are far removed from metal and punk, but they’re what solidified the group’s reputation as a famous cult band with a punkish spirit. So too did the success of co-founding member and lead vocalist Mike Patton, whose work with Faith No More helped get Mr. Bungle signed.

Patton’s prolificness is mirrored by that of his longtime collaborator, Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn. A solo artist and composer in his own right, Dunn played with Patton in Fantômas and Tomohawk, while his time in Melvins (Lite) had him work with the highly influential sludge metal/weird rock group in a new format between 2006 and 2016. Melvins’ co-founder, guitarist and lead vocalist Buzz Osbourne, is also listed as a past Fantômas member, and a member of The Fantômas Melvins Big Band (which included two drummers and two bassists). Third remaining original Bungle member Trey Spruance also played for a short time in Faith No More, but has spent a large amount of his long career as founding member of avant-garde collective Secret Chiefs 3, which has enlisted all other members of Mr. Bungle at various times.

Now, 24 years after their last Australian tour in 2000 and an ensuing hiatus of 19 years, Patton, Dunn and Spruance are returning to our shores to demonstrate Mr. Bungle’s current talents as the reincarnated metal band formed in 1980s California. Joining the trio as current Bungle members are two figures from the group’s formative metal years: drummer Dave Lombardo of Slayer fame, and Scott Ian, rhythm guitarist in Anthrax. They’re touring with the Melvins as part of The Raging Wrath Of Australia And New Zealand. Australian Guitar spoke to Trevor Dunn about his musical origins and the long-awaited wrath of Mr. Bungle.

Mr. Bungle and Scott Ian

(Image credit: Buzz Osborne)

For Mr. Bungle’s 2019 reunion, did the idea of working with Dave Lombardo and Scott Ian come first, or the decision to revisit The Raging Wrath Of The Easter Bunny demo from 1986?

The idea was prompted after meeting Dave Lombardo because [Mike] Patton put together this band Fantômas that I was involved in with Buzz Osborne and Dave. Me and Trey and Mike had been with the other guys in ‘Bungle proper’, as I like to call it, with Danny and Bär. We used to occasionally throw in some of those tunes into our set, but nobody knew what they were, because no one had heard the original demo from the ’80s. But after meeting Dave, it made sense. In a way, it was written with Slayer in mind, and all those ’80s thrash bands. I mean, they were huge influences for us in the ’80s. So after meeting Dave, we thought, well what if we did this, and he was down. I was actually kind of surprised that everyone was down for it. Then we decided to add Scott, because we figured it would be good to have a rhythm guitar player as well.

Was this because you needed more onstage musicians to make performing this music a reality again?

Yeah, but we re-recorded it with Dave and Scott, so this is the version you now know. Just the five of us, which is actually really simple. It’s kind of the simplest format that Bungle has ever operated in before. In the ’90s, when we were playing stuff from our Warner Brothers records, there were a lot of triggered samples and keyboard sounds and extra musicians, but this time we just have two guitars, bass, drums and vocals. Super simple.

We did a reunion, but of course we did it our way, which wasn’t what people were expecting, or wanting, but that’s always been the way that we’ve operated. To do whatever the hell we want.

Is that why most of the Warner Brothers catalogue hasn’t been revisited this time around?

To revisit that stuff is a whole other can of worms. It’s something that we’ve considered over the years, to do it with Danny and Bär, who were the guys who played that music on the records. But now we’re kind of going back to our roots, essentially, which was ’80s metal.

The revamping of that old demo was a great idea. I saw some of your recent set lists and ‘My Ass Is On Fire’ from the first album has made it in.

We worked up a truncated version of it. Partly because people have been asking us about whether we were going to reunite for years. We did a reunion, but of course we did it our way, which wasn’t what people were expecting, or wanting, but that’s always been the way that we’ve operated. To do whatever the hell we want. We thought, ‘well, what’s a song from the Warner Brothers era that we could work up to appease the audience’. But also, it’s fun for us. That’s one of the songs that we still like from that era, and it’s adaptable to guitars. A lot of that music from the ’90s era is not adaptable. It has to be done in a certain way. Now we’re a little bit slower and older, but we’re still proving that we can play thrash metal.

Did that perspective influence the re-recording of The Raging Wrath?

Yeah, because the original demo was pretty amateurishly produced. We were just learning how to play our instruments. We’d only been playing a couple of years, individually, and Mike had never sang before. So we just felt like the tunes were worth a more professional treatment. We took a lot of those ’80s influences and really stretched those ideas as far as we could when we were teenagers. We felt like our music deserved a little more recognition.

Do you remember when you first heard a piece of ‘weird’ music?

I used to listen to college radio a lot. It’s now defunct, but there was a university where I grew up, and they had a radio station called KSU. A lot of students had radio shows, so when I was 11 or 12 I would hear these kids who were probably in their 20s just play the weirdest punk rock and stuff. I remember hearing the band X from LA in the ’80s, and there was this song called ‘Nausea’ from their first record. It’s a really bizarre song. It’s hard to call it punk rock. It’s kind of slow and dirty, with weird chords. For some reason I was like, ‘what is this man, I have to know what this is’. I used to call in to the radio station and request it, and eventually I went out and bought the vinyl.

Did you get into metal before getting into jazz? Jazz is a big part of your musical career as well.

I kind of got into both genres at the same time. I mean, I started playing bass when I was 13, in 1981, when heavy metal was just starting to grow and expand. At the same time, I had music teachers who turned me on to jazz and fusion and all the great bass players that I’ve learned to appreciate, so I found it all interesting. While I was studying jazz and composition, I was also keeping up to date with whatever new metal was coming out.

I heard you even co-founded a Metallica covers band with Mike Patton before you co-founded Mr. Bungle?

Well, it was a metal band called Fiend, but all we did was cover songs. A lot of Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, Armored Saint and Motörhead. I was actually playing rhythm guitar in that band, and I was not a very good guitar player.

Your first instrument was clarinet, though, right?

Yeah, clarinet. I moved from clarinet to bass, added guitar and took piano lessons in college, along with vocal lessons.

I’ve heard that a lot of bassists in the ’80s decided to learn bass in order to join bands, because bassists were always in demand. A lot of people wanted to be like Eddie Van Halen or Randy Rhoads, so other kids were learning how to play bass so they could get into bands easier. Were you one of those kids too?

Sort of, because my older brother, who I mentioned, was playing guitar. We used to crank up KISS records in our bedroom, as we shared a bedroom, and I learned how to play along with the songs, KISS and the Scorpions and all this stuff. I looked up to him, so I wanted to do what he was doing, but I didn’t want to do exactly the same thing. To be honest, I’m not even sure if I knew the difference between a bass and a guitar. I just knew that every band had a bass player, so I decided I was going to do that. Just by chance, personality-wise, it ended up the perfect instrument for me.

Having grown up as an ’80s metal kid, does it still feel kind of surreal to look over to the other players in Mr. Bungle on stage and see Dave from Slayer or Scott from Anthrax?

Yeah, it’s bizarre. I remember the first time I rehearsed with Dave with Fantômas, and I was like, ‘what the hell’, you know? I’m just pinching myself, trying to keep it together so I can play the song, you know? It’s funny because Scott has kind of said the same thing. He said he was a fan of Bungle before we asked him to join. He’s having the time of his life. Both him and Dave are really serious about the music, you know, they really put a lot of energy into it.

Are you currently working on any new recordings?

I’m writing some music for some of my own projects. I have a septet that released a record in 2021, under my own name on this label, Pyroclastic. I’m working on new set of music for that right now.

Mr. Bungle will tour Australia with the Melvins in March as part of the Raging Wrath of Australia & New Zealand tour:

Wed, 6 March — Festival Hall, Melbourne
Thu, 7 March —
Hindley Street Music Hall, Adelaide
Sat, 9 March —
Hordern Pavilion, Sydney
Sun, 10 March —
Fortitude Music Hall, Brisbane
Tue, 12 March —
Metro City, Perth

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Corin Shearston is editor-at-large for Australian Guitar magazine. He has contributed to Happy Mag, Hot Metal and The Sydney Sentinel, while also working as a rock drummer for over sixteen years. Corin has additional experience as a radio presenter and small business owner.

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