Cock Rock Virtuoso Roddy Bottum Had a Drink in a Gay Bar with Robert Plant

Interview by Alex Needham

Versatile Roddy Bottum is currently in the middle of a fifty-nine date tour, tinkling the ivories with MTV Generation rockers Faith No More. Of course West Coast indie pop kids know him on guitar/vox in bubblegum group, Imperial Teen. Recently, he previewed his first opera (about Bigfoot) in New York where he’s been hanging out for the last couple years, threatening to take his music to a more theatrical place. But Roddy grew up in Los Angeles, near the Wilshire Country Club, in a stimulating environs where no one ever went to a dinner party without at least three topics for conversation.

Alex: Have you ever been teased about your name?
Roddy: All my life. Can you imagine? It’s not bad, it’s great. A lot of people ask me, ‘Is that your real name?’
When did it start?
When I was little. That name, saying out loud is really funny. It sounds like a comic book sort of thing. Robby Bottom. People just laugh when they hear it. I just sort of roll with it.
And when you came out, did people go on about it even more?
I don’t think the term bottom was in the vernacular at the time. It wasn’t like top and bottom. It wasn’t like now, when it’s such a given. We all use that to sort of like describe ourselves in that realm or wherever it is that you’re looking for sex. But back then, it didn’t feel like such a term. So it didn’t really come up in that light. Back then maybe in a community of gay dudes… If I have sex with a guy and he asks me my last name, it’s always a joke for sure.
But it’s a source of pride as well, I guess.
Yeah, for sure. There’s something about owning that goofy of a name… it’s definitely character building.
For ‘Sasquatch: The Opera’, you’ve recruited a who’s who of avant-garde gay performance art.
Pretty much, yeah. You’ve heard of those people? Christeene… Paul Soileau is really great. Paul is playing a man’s role in that performance actually. He’s playing the brother. Colin Self is a really fantastic singer involved in opera, but weird, progressive music experimentation. He’s really super talented, super pretty. He plays the female love interest of Sasquatch, Faye.
Is there a love affair between Sasquatch and Faye?
Yeah. It’s really about a family that takes tourists on a tour of Sasquatch country. And, uh, it’s kind of a scam. Like the brother in the family just dresses up like the monster to scare the tourists. But a fight breaks out in the family, and the daughter and the son both leave. The daughter goes into the wild, meets the real Sasquatch, and they fall in love.
Are you drawn to that image — the beast with a heart of gold?
Aren’t you? Like in the last King Kong movie, the one with Naomi Watts. For a brief spell, they escape all the helicopters and the fire hoses and all the people who were after King Kong, and they end up in Central Park on an ice skating rink. The big monster is tickled ’cause he’s playing around. A scene like that really gets to me. So it kind of came from that. The Elephant Man is also a big reference point.
What’s ‘Sasquatch: The Opera’ like musically?
It’s sort of weird instrumentation. There are two synthesizers. There are timpani drums, two trumpets, and an analog drum machine.
This week you’re staging just three scenes, but have you written a full opera?
Yeah. It’s a full opera, but this is like the abridged version.
So will there be a Roddy Bottom opera opening at Covent Garden or the Met?
Hopefully, yeah.
Is it your genuine aspiration to become a composer?
Yeah, for sure. I was going to say not in the traditional way, but yeah. I mean, what’s tradition at this point? There’s crazy operas in the world. New York’s a good city for it. Really crazy things are really well attended here. Like really weird art shows are super well attended. The opera is really well attended, and that says a lot about a city. I grew up in Los Angeles — and people are stimulated by art there, for sure — but in sort of different formats. Like television is a big part of what flies in Los Angeles.
You don’t watch too much TV?
I don’t. I worked in television when I was there. And I did a lot of TV and film scores. For a long time, I was just doing kids television. And that’s fun, it’s just not that rewarding intellectually. It sort of fell short of what I felt I was capable of.
How do you go about scoring a children’s film or TV program?
Super, super easy — I can’t even tell you how easy it is. For a person like me, that’s one of the only things I’m like capable of doing, like little musical interludes. And for TV, they need it in like ten minutes. You really have to act fast. It’s just like, sit down at the keyboard and make goofy sounds, really fast. Just noodling and sort of like addressing the action on the screen — it’s super easy.
Is it lucrative?
Yeah, for sure.
You’re certainly not the first rock musician to have gotten into opera.
Oh, ‘The Who’s Tommy’ is amazing, if you want to call that an opera. The cultural position of opera is weird. Opera’s a very heavy-handed word. It scares people. Initially, Kim Deal was gonna be my Sasquatch, but honestly, the word ‘opera’ scared her. I get it. But it’s kind of a loose term. Like I don’t feel like I have to stick to an aria or a drawn-out, meandering vocal line. That would be a snooze.
Are you gonna stage the whole thing at some point?
That’s the plan, yeah. I would really like to take it to site specific places in Los Angeles, like Griffith Park. ‘Sasquatch: The Opera’ in the wilderness…

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Is it difficult to switch between working on opera and then touring with Faith No More?
Not so much switching. It’s just like a juggling, you know. Like for a long time, I was like whatever, playing squash, and just like hanging out and having a good time. And then all of a sudden it’s like, boom!
Is it unusual to be the keyboard player in a rock band?
Yeah. But it’s a good place to be. Maybe it’s just the type of person I am, but for me, it’s like a no-brainer. Like to add the pretty on top of all that ugly in a hard rock environment. It kinda makes sense. Like to be in this crazy man-charged environment of like chumpa-chumpa-chumpa hard rock…
Is that how you saw your role in the band?
For sure. Faith no More is all about the contrasts. It was always my role to sort of bring in sweet strings and a piano melody. Making, you know, the pretty parts. Not to stereotype or put in a box what the gay man does, but I love arranging flowers and I love pretty things.
Yeah. Isn’t it a bit of a lonely place being the only gay in the band?
No, not at all. It’s a learning experience for all of them — a teaching experience, I should say.
Yeah, definitely. Didn’t you once take Robert Plant to a gay bar?
Yeah, I did, kind of accidentally. We replaced Black Crowes on a tour with him, and we use to go to the thrift shops and pawn shops in every city. One time we were thrift shopping, and he was out on the street and we were like, ‘Oh, hey. Come with us.’ And he kinda hung out with us. He’s such an amazing guy, really sweet. He’s like, ‘You guys care to go for a drink?’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah sure,’ and kinda looked at this bar — there might even have been a rainbow flag — and it was like, ‘Oh wow, this could be awkward.’ So we walked in and it dawned on everybody, ‘Oh, this is a gay bar.’
Yeah.
There we are with Robert Plant in a gay bar! He was like, ‘Oh, this is great. Great. Let’s have a seat. Let’s have a drink.’ Then we left the gay bar, and some kid pulled up in a pickup truck, and he’s like, ‘Hey, you’re Robert Plant.’ And Robert Plant’s like, ‘Yes, I am.’ He said, ‘Where you guys going? You guys want a ride?’ And we all got into the back of the pickup truck.
Is there any music genre that you dislike?
Um, I really don’t like hard rock that much.
But don’t you feel an affinity with someone like Rob Halford?
Oh, for sure. Yeah, yeah, yeah… I mean, not really musically because that’s not my bag — I couldn’t even tell you a Judas Priest song — but I made a point to go and find him when we were at the same festival, Soundwave in Australia, this year. I kind of trolled the halls a little bit looking for him, and I saw him play. His thing is fuckin’ rad. He comes out on a motorcycle — have you ever seen Judas Priest? He comes out with sound effects over the PA, like vroom vroom… He drives out on a big, badass motorcycle in like chaps and leather. He’s holding a whip and he’s got a leather cap on — it’s so badass.
Was it sexy?
Yeah, totally sexy. It’s really bold and in-your-face, and he’s been doing that forever. That’s part of why it’s so cool. And he was a great showman. So anyway, I trolled the halls and I saw him and I started walking towards him and he saw me, and he knew who I was…
What did you talk about?
It was kinda brief. He had just come off stage and he wanted to, you know, clean up or whatever. He was going to Japan. And I asked, ‘Do you like Japan?’ And he said, ‘I love Japan. I find it the most civilized country in the world.’
Supposedly, he keeps a dungeon in Amsterdam.
Oh, really? That sounds like an urban myth, but I’d like to believe that — I would believe that. I’m telling you, the motorcycle blew my mind.
You came out of the closet before him, didn’t you? By a number of years — you in 1993, and him in 1998.
Yeah. We had an argument about that backstage. I’m holding my ground on that one, for sure.
You were on tour with Metallica and Guns N’ Roses when you came out.
Yeah, that was a weird time to sort of make that proclamation. My band, of course, is super supportive and right on — they’re from like San Francisco, so it was like, you know.
Does it still feel natural performing as a 50-year-old?
I saw some footage of myself playing squash a couple weeks ago and I looked really crazy to myself. And then I thought, ‘My god, I wonder if that’s how I look when I play live.’ I haven’t explored that and I kinda don’t think I will. It feels perfectly natural. We just own it in such a way where it can’t really be taken away from us. No one else could play it.
You play squash?
I do, yeah. It’s very English. It’s a very gentlemanly sport. Really super polite and reserved — you have to ask permission for certain things. People say it’s like chess, but at a hundred miles per hour. It’s a really heady game.
Have you ever played on a professional level?
Absolutely not. I’m horrible.
Oh, really? And you cycle…
I do. I cycle too.
What was it like cycling five hundred miles for the AIDSRide?
It’s really great. Like geographically, it’s stunning. Like San Francisco to Los Angeles on the coast most of it — it’s so beautiful. Plus the energy being around all those people raising money for AIDS, like everyone’s just doing it to be helpful. I’m never in that environment that’s like so charitable. Are you a bicyclist at all?
I’m not really. But one thing I do know about cycling long distance – sometimes when you’ve been on the saddle for ages, your balls can contract into your body.
That has never happened to me. The chafing aspect was an issue… There’s like this stuff called body butter or something — butt butter is what it’s called. And you put it on your thighs and your balls and your ass because otherwise you’re gonna get a bad chafing. At the start of the run, everyone’s like really shy about it like, ‘Ooh, who’s stepping into the bathroom to put on their butt butter.’ And by the end of that day, people were just stuffing their hands down in their pants.
And haven’t you swum across the San Francisco Bay to like Alcatraz as well?
Yeah, I have.
Isn’t that really dangerous?
Not really. For the swims that we would do through our club, we would take a boat out to Alcatraz and then jump off and swim at a certain time of the day during a slack tide. Slack tide is when the current isn’t going out or coming in. The ebbs and the flows of the currents are really predictable. It’s still for a good three hours, you can pretty much make a direct line from Alcatraz straight into Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s still pretty hardcore. You gotta build up to it.
How many miles is that?
Um, two miles. The big swim was always on New Year’s Day when it’s so fucking cold. Like, I don’t know, forty-seven degrees Fahrenheit. It’s insane, but at that point, you’re swimming every day and you’re used to the cold water.
Have you always been sporty?
I’ve never considered myself sporty, but listening to you bring ’em up one after the other, it’s pretty weird. Like that bike ride is crazy extreme. Swimming from Alcatraz — for sure, same thing. So I guess, yeah, for sure — I like extremes.

Follow the black rainbow to where Roddy Bottum and his band Faith No More (as well as Judas Priest, KISS, Turbonegro, etc.) play the Grüne Hölle Festival today, 29 May 2015 in Nürburgring, Germany. Follow ‘Sasquatch: The Opera’ over here.

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