The Bär Sound of Mr. Bungle

Clinton Bär McKinnon playing saxophone at Caulfield train station. Photo Tim Bottams.
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Saxophonist Bär McKinnon reflects on his music, experiences and his role in one America’s strangest bands. Timothy Bottams reports

A warm, metallic howling snakes around the pillars beneath the overpass of Carnegie station. A cacophony of notes ring out as Bär McKinnon blows into the mouthpiece of his tenor saxophone, fingering the keys to fragments of myriad songs, his dark hat and sunglasses partially obscuring his identity. The irony of it pervades these open-air practice sessions as passersby remain ignorant to the free performance taking place in front of them by a core member of one of the strangest American acts of the nineties; Mr. Bungle. Perhaps the wooden-bear statuette at McKinnon’s feet is a little too subtle a hint.

Clinton Andrew McKinnon was born on December 24 1969, the fifth child in a Catholic family of nine kids in a small four-bedroom house in Crescent City, California. At a young age, McKinnon was handed down a clarinet by one of his older sisters, igniting in him a fervent passion for playing music. “I tried it and I was able to get a nice note right off the bat… I remember having this thought of “Oh I’m good at this” cause I was able to get a sound out of it quickly.”

McKinnon soon discovered an inclination towards drums alongside the clarinet, crafting a DIY drum kit of Tupperware toms and a shoe-tied wooden spoon beater. His mother eventually bought him a drum kit “because she saw this kind of musical little spark… [and she] really nurtured that in me,” McKinnon says.

McKinnon continued to pursue an interest in music and enrolled at Humboldt State University at 18 studying a music major. It was here that McKinnon was put in a jazz ensemble playing drums with bassist Trevor Dunn and guitarist Trey Spruance, founding members of Mr. Bungle, which McKinnon describes as “total serendipity.” Dunn and Spruance approached McKinnon to join the group, having recently fired their horn player, Luke Miller, and being aware of McKinnon’s dabbling with the saxophone. “The idea of having a multi-instrumentalist in the band basically sealed the deal.  We knew that would help us further the direction of our music and being able to pull it off live,” says Dunn.

Bär studying sheet music. Photo Tim Bottams.

“I was still trying to back away from the idea of [joining Mr. Bungle]… instead of like either playing it cool or just being really keen about it I was just like “I’ll give it a try”, low self-esteem maybe… [But] saxophone wasn’t even my primary instrument; the clarinet was my primary instrument still at that point.” Despite McKinnon’s reticence, Dunn says that “he fit right in” with the band, playing alongside alto-saxophonist Theo Lengyel in Bungle’s brass and reed section, christened ‘The Horns of The Cuckold’.

Phased into the band during the writing of their 1989 demo OU818, McKinnon says that “there was plenty of time to catch up [on saxophone]…during one of many… hiatuses” as lead singer Mike Patton was beginning to play with Faith No More. “I was like ‘who are these fucking people?’ Just so weird and sweet and lovely… If I’d seen them live, I might’ve been impressed but also probably would’ve been a little shocked… scared maybe a little.”

Despite being “astounded” at the band’s talent, McKinnon refers to his first gig with Mr. Bungle, at an on-campus festival called Lumberjack Days, as “a catastrophe, I remember like the PA cut out at some point and the crowd was getting so raucous… and then the stage was sort of collapsing… it just sort of devolved into this chaos.” McKinnon was so “upset” with the first gig that he almost quit the band but was persuaded to stay. “It just sort of shows you how delicate or precious that I was about wanting things to be really good,” McKinnon says.

With Patton’s success with Faith No More, Mr. Bungle were signed by Warner Bros. in 1990 which McKinnon describes as “a dream… I felt like I’d won the music lottery.” Through Warner Bros. the band was able to record their eponymous debut album in 1991 whose producer, legendary experimental composer John Zorn, McKinnon found “intimidating.” McKinnon says of his solo for the recording of ‘Squeeze Me Macaroni’, “I went in there just like shitting myself but it was that adrenaline and that fear actually got a better performance out of me.”

Throughout the nineties, Mr. Bungle released two more studio albums, Disco Volante in 1995 and California in 1999, the former of which allowed McKinnon his sole drumming credit for the track ‘Secret Song’. “It came together that way because [Mr. Bungle drummer] Danny [Heifetz] had a Dieselhead gig on a certain night and he couldn’t be there at the studio… and so they were like ‘Oh we need some drums, Bär’s here!’ So, I just sort of filled into this thing.” McKinnon’s song writing contributions also increased during this period. “Musically it took him a while to start introducing his own musical ideas [but] his writing contributions on Goodbye Sober Day and Air-Conditioned Nightmare continue to be my favourite.  He’s got a real sense of melody and hook that is different from the rest of us,” says Dunn.

Mr. Bungle soon gained a dedicated cult following with their abstract arrangements and penchant for costumes and chaos embedded in their live performances. “It either really resonated with the person or they really hated it,” says McKinnon, who recalls the band’s practice of subverting audience expectations and an occasional need to ‘punish’ the crowd, citing an example in which the band took particular umbrage at an audience’s response to the Melvins’ opening set. “Mr. Bungle had like an ADD kind of thing where it was like jumping around, or not going onto one thing, or even if an audience was chanting like ‘Girls of Porn’—because they’re at a gig and they want to have fun and it’s a fun song. We’d punish them and go ‘No, fuck you’. [That] mindset I didn’t agree with.”

Outside of Mr. Bungle, McKinnon also played in the group Secret Chiefs 3; a Bungle offshoot formed by Spruance with a large cast of musicians. Tim Smolens, of the band Estradasphere and who played with McKinnon while on tour with SC3, says “I remember [Bär] and I would gravitate towards each other a bit… Having had a chance to ask Trey about certain parts [of Mr. Bungle] it [is] pretty clear that Bär is sort of a “secret sauce” type of thing… whose input was indispensable to the spirit of that band.”

It was during the latter half of the decade that McKinnon developed a substance addiction. “[I was] hanging out with the wrong people… [drugs are] god’s way of telling you [that] you have too much money, and I didn’t have too much money; I was just being stupid.” McKinnon met his wife Zoe while on the California tour in Sydney and the pair gave birth to sons Kyle and Edan. The “poor, young family” bounced between San Francisco and Australia before finally settling in Melbourne in 2002. The move helped McKinnon get clean from his habit. “Getting the fuck away from it was all I needed”, McKinnon says. “It kind of saved my life at that point.”

McKinnon spent the early 2000s focusing on his new life as a father and husband while the state of Mr. Bungle lay uncertain after escalating tension following the California tour. The band officially dissolved in 2004 after a heated email correspondence. “I was so used to having Bungle as this thing to fall back on… and I was always putting all those eggs into that basket,” McKinnon says.

While settling into Melbourne, McKinnon had developed a stockpile of ideas intended for Mr. Bungle, which he describes as “[his] most fertile era of ideas.” Those songs eventually went into the eponymous Umlaut album, released in 2009 around when McKinnon’s marriage ended. The group began when McKinnon was approached by guitarist Mark Turner and other newly-graduated VCA students. “He basically assembled a band…[of] “young guys being super stoked about a Bungle… person.” Former Umlaut drummer Adam King says of the early renditions of the group that “it didn’t feel like an ongoing band. We did a recording; we did a gig; and that seemed to be perhaps the scope of the project at that point… it seemed as though with Mark, he was directing a lot of the things certainly in consultation with Bär.” Turner eventually left for Europe, and McKinnon’s role in Umlaut was moved to the forefront as he became “more active in guiding things. McKinnon has served as the sole bandleader of Umlaut ever since.

Balancing his commitments with Umlaut, McKinnon works as a ‘postie’ at Australia Post. On the Mr. Bungle reunion shows, which features Dave Lombardo (ex-Slayer) on drums and Scott Ian (Anthrax) on guitar, McKinnon says that, while they are not involved, he and Heifetz both gave their blessings.

McKinnon sits in his Caulfield apartment; his buzzing, scattered exterior an inverse to the workings of his creative mind. He speaks consistently yet fitfully, often tripping over himself attempting to convey complex notions of creativity and spirituality. Angus Leslie, guitarist in Umlaut since 2007, says “[McKinnon is] neurotic, hilarious, occasionally completely self-involved but also giving as well…he’s got a lot of wisdom to impart both musically and otherwise.”

“Bär has always been really good at self-depreciation, but the truth is, he’s a great musician with a great sense of humour… Always willing to face a challenge, change instruments, partake in some insane antics, or whatever,” says Dunn, “He’s the type of guy who can pick up just about any instrument and make something cool happen with it.”

“Bär has this amazing child-like innocence. Super nice guy, great sense of humour. He’s the kind of guy you couldn’t picture having an argument with,” says Smolens. “Most Bungle fans are pretty aware of Mike, Trevor, and Trey’s influence in the band and what they bring to the table. Bär’s contribution is a bit more mysterious”

“I think sometimes with… musicians that have had a certain level of popularity, that can develop into some sort of ego… Bär didn’t have that at all… I think he was a little bit hard on his music at times and… maybe was quite critical of his ideas as well,” says King.

“He gets a little overwrought, his anxiety can make him a bit on edge at times which can be a little bit difficult to deal with… [but] he’s a very wise person when it comes dealing with the minefield of life… it’s good to have a friend like that,” says Leslie.

Leslie says that he owes a lot to his experiences with Umlaut, noting McKinnon’s encouragement towards his playing as “validating.”

“[Violinist] Eyvind Kang once said to me ‘Bär is the best composer in Mr. Bungle’… and there’s some merit to that…there’s a harmonic style that he has that I’ve never heard anyone really capture… I think it’s pretty singular and eclectic too,” says Leslie.

McKinnon’s cadence steadies as he articulates his ideas further, with an assuredness that appears to affirm that wisdom. He claims his latest effort, Arunachala, to be an exploration of the self, “the spiritual home of Ramana Maharshi.” McKinnon compounds his “snail” pace of production with a DIY approach, believing that “shitty is pretty”, a conviction based on years of experience. “For me, stuff is always gonna be a little bit wonky and a little bit fucked up… I mean that’s what makes us human, that’s what makes things interesting, the fact that there’s flaws to it.”

McKinnon pulls out a black case from underneath the couch in his living room, opening it almost prophetically to reveal his worn tenor saxophone. He’s had the particular instrument in question for around thirty years. The saxophone is marked with the signs of age, travel, abuse and, much like its owner, its experience is bare for all to see.