To the world at large Viggo Mortensen is known because of the various characters he's portrayed in films like A Perfect Murder, G.I. Jane, and of course the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Yet Mortensen is one of those celluloidal thespians who spends much of his spare time between films working on other artistic endeavors. Not only is he an accomplished photographer and poet, but he's also dipped into the realm of music. To date he's collaborated several times with the outlandishly bizarre experimental guitarist Buckethead.
Ask Mortensen about his Buckethead connection and he'll calmly inquire "Do you know him? Have you seen him play?" Say that you have (truth is, I actually have seen Buckethead perform several times with the likes of Praxis, Painkiller, and The Deli Creeps, not to mention that once I even caught a glimpse of him sans his trademark KFC bucket and white kabuki mask) and Mortensen's face will light up, excited that he's not the only one hip to the six-string slaughtering of Buckethead.
Interestingly enough, several recent interviews, like one in Vanity Fair, for example, have mentioned Mortensen's alliance with the guitarist, though most of them have incorrectly referred to him as a Japanese guitarist. Mortensen laughs at this oversight. "He said 'Man I'm so happy you told 'em I was Japanese. I love that!' I mean [to the world at large] he's just a guy with a mask. And also he likes Japanese culture. He said 'That's so genius.' I don't remember saying that he was Japanese, though. I might have said that he has an underground following in Japan, but now it's been repeated in other interviews. So now he's this Japanese [guitarist]. People think that's cool, I've got a Japanese guitar player I work with. But I'm not gonna correct it. Let's just say that he was raised by Japanese chickens." Mortensen's voice trails off in laughter at the mundane nature of it all.
Regardless of Buckethead's origins, one thing is true. Despite the fact that he's part of Axl Rose's re-formed G-N-R band, to the average Joe on the street he is pretty much an underground, cult musical figure. A tall, lanky underground, cult musical figure who wears KFC buckets on his head and hides his face behind a porcelain kabuki mask. "He's very pure, as a person and as a musician, at least in my experiences with him. I know that's the reason I like working with him," explains Mortensen. To date the two have collaborated on several recordings that Mortensen released through his publishing company, Perceval Press. Albums with titles like The Other Parade, One Less Thing To Worry About, and One Man's Meat. Many of these are now long out of print. The duo recently released Pandemoniumfromamerica, which also features turns from Mortensen's LotR chumlies Elijah Wood, Billy Boyd, and Dominic Monaghan.
"The reason I think he has a good time when we're in the studio coming up with stuff is because I don't try to make him fit into repeating anything he's done and I don't try to make him fit a certain mold," Mortensen continues in regards to how the two of them interact in the studio. "From piece to piece that we work on, I don't have a set way that I do it, so I allow him to do whatever he wants to a degree, too. I mean we would never put anything out or call it a 'final mix' of any kind if he wasn't completely happy with it. But he also feels safe to experiment and do whatever, you know, mess up. Though I don't think he messes up, he's so amazing. It just makes him have more fun when he doesn't feel like I'm trying to steer him [in a certain direction]. I mean [when working with me] he doesn't have to fit into a style of a band he can just be himself and be appreciated for being himself. And I like working with him, too. He just inspires me and I feel like I can try different things, too or even suggest stuff. Another guitar player might be kind of touchy if a person who is not really a musician in the way they are says 'Well, I know it sounds weird, but what do you think about trying the thing in this style or playing a lot slower or faster in this one section? I don't know, it's just a thought.' Or even the terminology, I might not use the proper term, but he'll know exactly what I mean and it's like no big deal. I mean there's a good back and forth [between us] and it's a safe place to experiment. And what comes out of that is some interesting stuff. I think people have enjoyed it to some degree. I mean we do. We're working up something now that's gonna be one long piece in several movements. He's great. I'm so glad that in my life that I've gotten to know him a little and work with him. He's one of the most original, genuine, most sincere, and most gifted individuals I've met in my life. He's incredible."
Given their seemingly disparate background-Mortensen being an actor, Buckethead being a cult musician-one can't help but wonder how they actually managed to connect.
"It was just sort of coincidence really, or what we call coincidence," Mortensen begins. "Dove Audio--they do sort of educational CDs--had heard that I did spoken word sometimes and had recorded some stuff. They approached me asking 'Would you consider writing a piece for us? We're doing a recording of Greek myths. Can you do one?' So I made a recording and added some sounds that seemed appropriate, you know water sounds. Then I sent the rough mix of that to them. And then when I heard the final result it had a guitar part on it that was really beautiful. I asked them 'Who's that?' And they said 'Oh, it's this guy Buckethead.' I had never heard of him. So they sent me some of his stuff and I listened to it and thought 'This is incredible.' Anyway he moved to California and so I called him up and asked him if he wanted to try to record something else like that. So we did a few things, then we did a few things more, and then we did a lot more. We have hours of stuff that we haven't used that we'll probably put together sometime. The last couple of records, he and I have been the core of it. The Other Parade and then there's a new one called Pandemoniuminamerica. It's fun and it's a really good experience. Being in the studio with him and just spending a day at work, I walk out of there always feeling a little lighter, all my problems and responsibilities just feel a little less daunting somehow. It's like going for a nice walk in the woods. You just feel a little more able to deal with thing 'cause you know that you've used your time well and gotten something special out of the day. I feel that working in the studio and in particular working with him."