Being a Mr.Bungle

Clinton Bär McKinnon playing saxophone at Caulfield train station. Photo Tim Bottams.
An Australia Post worker is a core member of one of the strangest American bands of the nineties. 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 reading 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 were aware of McKinnon’s dabbling with the saxophone. “I was still trying to back away from the idea of [joining Mr. Bungle]… low self-esteem maybe… [but] saxophone wasn’t even my primary instrument, the clarinet was my primary instrument still at that point.” 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 the PA cut out at some point… 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 says he 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… It was like winning the lottery and not realising how much money you’ve got.” 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.”

Bär studying sheet music. Photo Tim Bottams.

Throughout the nineties, Mr. Bungle released two more studio albums, Disco Volante in 1995 and California in 1999, and 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.”

It was during the latter half of the decade that McKinnon developed an addiction to cocaine. “[I was] hanging out with the wrong people… coke is god’s way of telling you you have too much money, and I didn’t have too much money, I was just like 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 cocaine 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.” McKinnon balances his commitments with Umlaut by working as a ‘postie’ at Australia Post. On the upcoming Mr. Bungle reunion shows, which will feature Dave Lombardo (ex-Slayer) on drums and Scott Ian (Anthrax) on guitar, McKinnon says that, while they are not involved, he and ex-Mr. Bungle drummer Danny 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.” 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 takes a black case from underneath the couch in his living room, opening it almost prophetically to reveal his worn tenor saxophone. The instrument is marked with the signs of age, travel, abuse and, much like its owner, its experience is bare for all to see.