June 05, 2002


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The secret chief
Trey Spruance declares war on hipness by association.

By Will York

PLEASE HEED THE warnings on this group about the worthless schlock CD entitled Weird Little Boy and DON'T BUY IT! I know: I played on the piece of shit.... Yeah, some giddy newcomers to "experimental" music might find layers of subversive irony within it, what with all the "big names" engaging in pure musical vacuity along with the additional "absurdity" of it being retailed at such a high price. Besides, "There HAS to be something to it," otherwise we're not as smart as we thought we were for BUYING it. Hmm ... I think most of us have had enough of that kind of thing. Unless wasting thirty bucks on a turd gives you some kind of sick, giddy post-modern thrill, avoid this at all costs. – Trey Spruance, message posted to the alt.noise newsgroup, 8/7/98

"I don't remember that. What did I say?" Trey Spruance asks, then lets out a big cackle after hearing the gist of his old, scathing self-review. Weird Little Boy is a collaboration between Spruance, saxophonist John Zorn, vocalist (and fellow Mr. Bungle member) Mike Patton, percussionist William Winant, and guitarist Chris Cochrane that was recorded in a day and then slapped into a fancy package that makes it look a lot more impressive than it sounds. It's no masterpiece, nor is it as terrible as Spruance's rant makes it out to be. But it caused something to go off in his head, caused him to reexamine his priorities as a musician.

"This was the first time I did something that just felt like nothing," he says. "And I felt like I was absolutely, totally misrepresenting myself by being involved in that thing. There isn't a personal criticism in that. I love everybody involved in that thing, on a personal level and, to a certain extent, on the creative level. They're geniuses – they're capable of so much. Why are we squandering it on this careerist bullshit?"

Straight talk

From an interviewer's standpoint, Spruance is an ideal subject: he's funny, he's articulate, and while not a loudmouth, he doesn't mince words either. He speaks in emphatic tones (thus all the italics you see in this article), and he's opinionated in a way that only someone who spends a lot of time thinking and stewing and banging his head against the wall about things can be opinionated.

Plus, he has a lot of stories to tell. Although still in his early 30s, he has seen a lot as a musician, everything from international cult stardom with post-metal experimentalists Mr. Bungle – the band he has co-led, along with Patton and bassist Trevor Dunn, since 1985 – to the most obscure corners of the San Francisco noise underground. And just as Mr. Bungle has radically changed over the years, Spruance has evolved too, from a teenage guitar-shredding prodigy into a skilled multi-instrumentalist (including in a variety of Middle Eastern stringed instruments) and an inventive producer and arranger. He survived a decade in major-label land – from 1991 to 2001 with Mr. Bungle and briefly, in 1995, as the replacement guitarist for Faith No More – during which time he was also getting into (and later, out of) the more prestigious avant-garde orbit revolving around Zorn and his Tzadik and Avant record labels.

In the past couple of years, though, Spruance has been keeping an almost suspiciously low profile. Book M, the third album by his current main project, the revolving-door Middle Eastern, techno, Indian, surf-metal outfit Secret Chiefs 3, came out last fall to little fanfare, and he didn't play any shows in support of the album. It was put out by Spruance's own Mimicry Records, founded in 1998, which only put out two other releases last year. And 2001 was the first year in a decade that Spruance didn't play an official gig under his own name in San Francisco. (He did play one show here as part of the supposedly crippled, suicide pact-surviving death metal band Faxed Head, but, well, that was an anonymous situation.)

So where has Spruance been? Apart from being able to dispel rumors that he's been attending Mills College and working on an opera (not true on either account), I don't have much journalistic dirt to report. No drug habits, no religious cults – nothing like that. "I've basically cut myself off, trying just to sort of reorient and figure out what the fuck I'm doing," he explains. "Basically to put my energies into cultivating my own creativity or whatever – [to] cultivate the fuckin' paranoid states of mind that cause [my music] to come out the way it does," he adds, laughing. "I don't need to, like, not be involved in anything [else musically] in order to do that, but I certainly feel like things do pollute our creative spirit."

The star system

It's a cliché to extol the virtues of the noble musician who, so true to his or her art, turns down a shot at making the big bucks in order pursue the sacred call of the muse. What's interesting (and refreshing) about Spruance is that he is equally likely to lambaste the avant-garde establishment – including his old friend Zorn, which is kind of like committing career suicide right there – as he is to vent about the big-label music industry. "Here's the two things," he says. "The avant-garde, the only reason I'm fed up with it is that I expect more. There are so many unbelievably genius, talented people who are just getting caught up in this fuckin' tailspinning. The pop world, that's the arena of pure evil, and sometimes something [good] pokes through."

"I just wish more people put more time into cultivating releases that represented their genuine creative spirit rather than just getting jerked off into this careerism thing, getting yanked this way and that, playing a fuckin' gig here and there," he says, partly explaining his disgust with the tossed-off Weird Little Boy and also commenting on an overall trend in improv-oriented experimental music. "[When you do that], there's no time to invest in your real artistic output. And OK, maybe not everybody's like me, maybe they don't slave over the fuckin' thing for a year before getting anything done," he says, referring to his meticulous work habits in the recording studio. "OK, fine, but still, man, can we at least figure out what we're tryin' to say before we start jacking off all over the tape?"

"What's marketable [in experimental music circles now] is who played with who – not what they did, you know what I mean?" he continues. "Not what they were trying to say or anything like that. Because most of the time they weren't trying to say anything; they were just excited because they were gonna go play with this and this and this person and see what happened. And if it wasn't an improv thing, then a lot of times, it's just sort of a loose ... It doesn't represent a genuine creative urge, you know? It's been flattened out to this instrumental-only thing and then left to the 'well-informed listener' to project a bunch of 'well-informed' fuckin' art fantasies on top of it. It's fucking bullshit. And it needs to be addressed."

Experimenting

Spruance has been addressing what he sees as an avant-garde crisis in his own way, through his music in Mr. Bungle (in which he writes about a third of the material) and Secret Chiefs 3 (in which he writes all of the original music). One of Mr. Bungle's greatest achievements has been to concoct a type of music that is on one hand really advanced and experimental, yet on the other hand wonderfully obnoxious and snob-resistant. They drag you through all sorts of cut-and-paste song forms, dissonant harmonies, and electronic noise collages – real highbrow stuff, you know. But at the same time they're also rubbing your nose in trashy pipe organs and death metal guitars and tacky cartoon xylophone runs.

The latter lowbrow sounds serve as a sort of musical garlic breath, meaning that Mr. Bungle – and by association, related projects like Secret Chiefs 3 and Patton's Fantômas – aren't given the respect they deserve as a serious band. At least, not by underground tastemakers such as the Wire magazine and Forced Exposure, or by the indie critical establishment that upholds Tortoise and Stereolab as exemplary. That's probably a good sign, ultimately, but it's also frustrating to see that many still view Mr. Bungle as some kind of zany, funk-metal Faith No More offshoot (especially since vocalist Patton joined that band several years after Mr. Bungle formed). To understand where Mr. Bungle is coming from on an album such as Disco Volante – their challenging, love-it-or-hate-it masterpiece from 1995 – you have to understand that, yes, these guys started off as a bunch of teenagers from Eureka playing death metal and worshiping Fishbone, but their roots in more esoteric stuff like Japanese noise, electro-acoustic tape manipulation and '60s spy-movie soundtracks run nearly as deep.

Disco Volante, in particular – much like Secret Chiefs 3's First Grand Constitution and Bylaws from 1994 – came about after a period when Spruance and the other members of Mr. Bungle were heavily into free improv, both privately within the band and in shows with local improvisers such as Bob Ostertag and Rova Saxophone Quartet. (In addition, several Mr. Bungle members, including Spruance, were regular participants in Zorn-led improv game pieces such as Cobra and Xu Feng.) As much as Spruance is down on free improvisation these days, those experiences had a big impact on the direction of his music.

"I was really into [improv]," Spruance says. "I was doing as much as I could get away with doing, I guess. So I should just stop bad-mouthing it and calm the fuck down for a second." He laughs at himself again for a moment. "But when it was time to put together those albums, what came out was entirely scripted. It's kind of like the old quote from composer Edgard Varèse: 'I do not write experimental music. My experimenting is done before I make the music.' "

"That's why it's so confusing," he continues. "Mr. Bungle is always sort of misunderstood from both sides – pro and con – especially when it comes to Disco Volante. You get the peanut gallery saying, 'Yeah, look at those guys – they're so good! Look at how they can improvise and do all this stuff!' And then you get people saying it's just noise bullshit. And actually both are wrong. There's no improvisation on Disco Volante," he says, noting the exception of jazz pianist Graham Connah's guest spots on a few tracks. "It's all completely notated – everything. Any of our involvement – any instrumental stuff that we were involved in – was completely anal. But the improvisational element is there: it's the weird coincidences that happen when you're doing collective improv that pops your brain open to the possibility of sonorities that you might be looking for. You free yourself from how you're used to writing music because you can use all these other combinations of [sounds], and you start trying to re-create them in your compositions."

Insider art

"Trey is the classic 'absentminded professor' type, so very absorbed in creating art that it gets in the way of certain normal social functions and responsibilities," says Gregg Turkington, former head of now-defunct Amarillo Records, which released the first two Secret Chiefs 3 albums. "And getting hold of Trey, even for his closest friends and family, is not much easier than getting patched through to the Oval Office. I definitely think that he's a perfectionist, but in the best sense of the word."

What's funny about this quote is that Turkington and Spruance – whose collaborations since they met back in 1991 make up another, less-celebrated and almost-never-talked-about portion of the guitarist's oeuvre – are not especially known for displaying "dedicated craftsmanship" in their collaborations. The two main groups they have played in together, the Three Doctors and Faxed Head, are commonly dismissed as cynical, tasteless jokes that made bad music to boot.

Sometimes those groups have been just plain miserable, but there's more beneath the surface than what's evident at first glance. The most remarkable thing about the bands is the detailed effort they have gone to in order to summon up moods of bleakness and beyond-black-comedy despair.

If there were ever an album that should have been direct marketed to the 25 LP bin of some thrift store chain, it's the Three Doctor's Band's Back to Basics *"Live"* [sic], with its dismal cover art, self-congratulatory liner notes, and Turkington's smarmy vocals. The Three Doctors was the ultimate clueless, go-nowhere bar band; they were dreadful. But at the same time, there was something touching about their ineptitude: it had a human side to it that Spruance, for one, doesn't show elsewhere in the elaborate, studio-intensive productions he has become known for with Mr. Bungle and even Secret Chiefs 3.

Spruance says that playing in the Three Doctors back during the mid '90s was partly a way to rebel against the pop world he was then getting his first real taste of with Faith No More, as well as against the more serious avant-garde and even certain aspects of the local indie-noise scene (if you had to put this band anywhere, it would be in the latter category). They also represent another example of the anti-careerist, almost self-sabotaging tendencies Spruance has shown throughout his career.

As Turkington says, "So many bands – particularly in the 'noise' field – try so hard to be 'extreme' and 'alienating' but always using a set of predefined parameters. I think we were sort of disgusted with the unoriginality, cliquishness, and pointlessness of all that, and so we set out to create a band [the Three Doctors] that truly was 'extreme' and 'unlistenable' – but not in the way people expect from, say, [Japanese noise artist] Merzbow. And to really do that, you'd have to be an utter failure, wouldn't you?

"We had a live-show policy in which we would only play live in Santa Rosa," he continues. "Nowhere else. And so we'd go up to Santa Rosa and play for 10 disinterested people who were not in on the 'joke' and who basically didn't care at all. And the flyer would play up Trey's short association with Faith No More in the most tacky and gratuitous way possible. So truthfully, the level of obsessive detail in [that band] was actually quite high!

"Same with Faxed Head. You'd be amazed at the truly unusual production techniques that Trey used in order to make things sound like an absolute train wreck [on their 2001 album Chiropractic]. It might just sound like crap to some people, but others can hear the time and effort that goes into creating the different layers. Making those recordings was almost like doing Foley work in a film studio."

Laying low

Lately Spruance's collaborations with Turkington, like most everything else, are taking a backseat to his efforts to put the next few pieces together in the ongoing, thematically linked Secret Chiefs 3 saga. He's also working on setting up a proper recording studio near his new home outside Santa Cruz. Over the years he's learned how to pull off the meticulously assembled recordings he demands while no longer having to rely on a $200,000 major-label advance to do so.

So he is relieved, in the case of Mr. Bungle, to finally have severed ties with Warner Bros. How the band lasted 10 years on a major label and got away with things like Disco Volante in the first place is "a complete fluke," as he puts it. "And if there's one thing I have to be thankful for, it's, 'Yeah, thank you for giving us that advance you used to not ever pay us another dime afterwards,' because by doing that, I learned how to use the studio."

He is also thankful to be in the relatively steady position of having developed a dedicated enough fan base, mostly through Mr. Bungle, that his whole enterprise – that is, his label and the non-Mr. Bungle bands he releases through it – is practically self-sustaining. It is, at the same time, pretty much cultish and off the beaten path, but that doesn't bother him. "Thank god I've been able to just do what I'm doing, and I don't have any critical attention; I don't have any substantial media coverage. It's great! It's a blessing." (And yes, he acknowledges the irony of this quotation appearing in an article such as this, but this is an exception, OK?)

"And also, look, man, I've been friends – off and on, however you wanna say it – with Mike Patton since I was ... 14 or 15?" he continues, referring to his old bandmate and the pop star-charismatic frontman baggage he's had to deal with over the years. "And nobody has to deal with more opinions than he does – for better or for worse, whether he's looking for them or not. I mean, whatever your view of Mike Patton, I've been there to witness what a person has to deal with when they're getting a lot of fucking attention."

"I guess what I'm saying," he concludes, "is I couldn't be under that pressure; I couldn't create anything worthwhile if I had to worry about that shit. I don't wanna react to the outside world. I have to shield myself from it all the time."