Faith No More's Roddy Bottum on his Sasquatch opera

The Skinny talks to one of rock’s finest provocateurs, Roddy Bottum, about his first Fringe show, Sasquatch: The Opera

Feature by Amy Taylor | 31 Jul 2017

“I just felt like I had a bigger story to tell,” explains Roddy Bottum. Perhaps best known as Faith No More's keyboardist, Bottum’s musical career has taken him in all sorts of different directions since he first began playing professionally in the 1980s. From Faith No More, to his indie-pop group, Imperial Teen, where he does most of the vocals, to his latest musical collaboration, The Nasty Band, experimental sounds and even more experimental lyrics have always been part of his repertoire.

More recently, however, Bottum decided to literally and figuratively move in a different direction. Packing his bags and moving from California on the West Coast to New York to make theatre. Opera, specifically.

“And I do love telling stories,” he continues, “And I’m always working on stuff in my head, and it just felt like it was time to attack that. So I moved to New York with that intention, I was watching a lot of opera and I just sort of had this idea.”

This idea became Sasquatch: The Opera, and originally premièred in Brooklyn two years ago. A love story between a woman and a sasquatch – also called ‘Big Foot’ – set in the deepest darkest parts of America, it follows a hillbilly family who profit off the sasquatch legend; that is, until, they meet the real thing. And Bottum readily admits that his decision to choose one of the most bizarre American legends as a protagonist of a new opera was designed to get a strong response.

“It gets a funny reaction.” he muses, “Just the concept of it when I tell people about it. They go, ‘So what are you working on?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m writing an opera!’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, what’s it about?’ And I’m like, ‘Sasquatch!’ And they’re like ‘Huh?’ And then I go... ‘it’s a LOVE STORY! WHAAAAA.’” His eyes bulge and his mouth hangs open in mock surprise, but if he's expecting a negative reaction from Fringe audiences, he is well-prepared.

“The theatre world is a weird place for me to traverse,” Bottum explains. “I think I’m going to get a lot of, 'That’s not opera!' Questions like that. But also the piece is very sparse and it doesn’t do an awful lot. It might do more than I think it does, but in my head it’s very slow. It was an uncomfortable place to sit in. I think there’s some discomfort involved, some sort of anxiety-inducing things that happen, and even some mildly offensive things. ”

These “mildly offensive things” could be described as Bottum's calling card. From his early days in Faith No More, the band loved to get reactions from their audiences, preferably the more negative the better. From deliberately playing more mainstream songs, like Van Halen's Jump at gigs (“they would go, eeewww, corporate rock!” remembers Bottum fondly), to writing Be Aggressive, the infamous track about fellatio – featuring singer Mike Patton shrieking the refrain, 'I swallow! I swallow! I swallow!' – on Faith No More's 1992 album, Angel Dust, Bottum and the band were keen to get a response.

“There was always the idea to incite and provoke, and there was nothing better to get strong reactions. If we did get an unfavourable reaction, it was like, all the better! We love to piss people off,” he grins.

“I love turning the sort of classical notion of an opera upside down and just applying new strange forces to it. I mean, it’s not so new, a lot of people have done it. ” 

One of his favourite traits of opera is its extreme themes, high drama and strong presentation, all of which can be seen in one of his favourite operas, Aida.

“At one point in that opera there’s a big parade, and there is literally, the way that New York puts it on, there was an elephant on stage. I couldn’t believe the extent to which people were taking the artform.”

So, if a production of Aida in New York can have an elephant on stage, what's so bizarre about writing an opera about Bigfoot? As Bottum explains, this piece could have more in common with more classical pieces than you might think.

“Most opera that I like anyway, the characteristics of the protagonists are very extreme, and with that in mind, the protagonists in Sasquatch, we’re dealing with an area of America that’s, for lack of a better term, sort of white trash hillbilly, its dirty aesthetics.”

Although the opera features an extreme snapshot of contemporary America, with, as Bottum puts it, a “wigs and twigs” aesthetic, Sasquatch’s premise is much closer to home. It's about the misunderstood monster, the gentle giant, and it seeks to examine prejudices and fears and what we can do to escape bad situations.

Interestingly, the opera’s press release makes allusions between the sasquatch and Bottum sexuality, specifically his experience of being the first openly gay man in rock (Bottum came out in 1993, five years before Judas Priest’s Rob Halford). While he admits that this was something he hadn’t really thought about when he first started writing it, his experiences as a gay man and a musician in the traditionally heteronormative world of rock may have had more of an effect on the piece than he initially realised. Perhaps then, the story of sasquatch isn't just a riff on being a gay man in a very straight-presenting industry, but more the experience of being on the fringes as a bigger force, such as fame, takes hold. The press images for the show feature Bottum half-wearing a sasquatch costume. Perhaps, then, he himself is the sasquatch?

“It was a very male energy force,” says Bottum of his time in Faith No More during their first run of fame in the 1980s and 1990s. “And there was a side to it, the keyboard side – I mean, lucky me, I got to supply that side – the gentle quality, that had a sense of beauty to it that wasn’t there inherently or obviously. And that was very sasquatch.”

In the years after Faith No More's demise in 1997, just after the release of Album of the Year,  and between their eventual reunions in 2009 and 2015, Bottum has kept busy, writing music for film, performing in various bands, and writing his first mini-opera, The Ride, in 2016, about two men doing a sponsored bike ride for an AIDS charity, which reflected on contemporary attitudes to AIDS and the AIDS crisis. But Sasquatch marks his first foray into writing a full piece.

“As a kid I always considered myself a writer, but I never really write. I write good emails and good texts and stuff, but I’ve never done a big project like this. So, as a kid, I would be like, 'Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, older Roddy writing, that makes sense.' Not knowing that older Roddy didn’t write anything!” But oh, what a big story he has to tell this August. 

Sasquatch: The Opera, Main Hall, Summerhall, 4-27 Aug (not 14), 9.15pm (60 mins)