That Was Then/This Is Yesterday

Interview: Trey Spruance (April 2002), Pt. 1

Posted in Interviews, San Francisco by wwyork on October 22, 2014

What special thing are you bringing into this world that would not have been born without you…?

__7_2030  Trey Bob

Left: Trey with Jesse Quattro, Oakland, 2005; Right: With Bob Madigan (Fluff Grrl), San Francisco, 2004. 

This interview took place on April 18, 2002 in San Francisco. The Secret Chiefs’ Book M had come out the year before (on September 11, 2001, to be precise), but there was no tour to go along with it—not even a one-off Bay Area show. The next SC3 album, Book of Horizons, was still in the works and would not come out for another two years. Meanwhile, Mr. Bungle was on indefinite hiatus but had not yet officially broken up. I had also heard rumors of Trey retreating to a secluded cabin in the mountains (partly true) and working on an opera at Mills College (not true), among other things.

Given Trey’s elusive reputation, I was surprised that he even responded to my out-of-the-blue interview (which I emailed to Web of Mimicry HQ). But he did—on the same day, no less. For a small-time writer (and big-time fan), this was a huge shot in the arm—especially given my near-worship of many of Trey’s past projects, from Mr. Bungle’s Disco Volante to his involvement with the Three Doctors, Faxed Head, and the early Neil Hamburger recordings, among many other things. The Secret Chiefs are no slouches, either.

For this interview, me met at Zante’s, an odd little place in the Outer Mission that serves Indian food, pizza, and Indian pizza. Parts of this interview made their way into an article about Trey that ran in the San Francisco Bay Guardian in the spring of 2002; the rest of it I had been planning to publish in a zine for several years, until I finally realized that this was never going to happen. So here it is.

[Note: Due to the length of this interview, I’ve divided it into two parts. Part Two can be found here. Part One begins somewhat abruptly with Trey talking, as I started the tape about 20 minutes into the conversation, following some more casual chit-chat and then the beginnings of a mutual lament over the state of avant-garde music, particularly the John Zorn/Tzadik orbit and some of its counterparts in the Bay Area.]

I don’t even really know how to say it, but these people who are involved in avant-garde music—somehow it’s become so completely permeated with—what would you call it—the letter of the law? The superficial? How did that happen? What the fuck? It’s like the classic tension between what’s marketable and what isn’t, and now, what’s marketable is who played with who—not what they did, you know what I mean? 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 just 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.

I guess a good example of that is some of these improv albums, when instead of just having maybe three people it would have, like, maybe 12 people, and they list the lineup and it’s like, “Look at all these people on here!”

I mean, I’m the same. I go to a record store and I see a bunch of great people [on an album] who I love and I wanna buy it.

Yeah, but then one person could be making something great on their own without the whole all-star-lineup thing, and that slips through the cracks.

I just wish more people put more time into cultivating really, really good releases that represented their genuine creative spirit, rather than just getting jerked-off into this careerism thing, getting yanked this way and that, play a fuckin’ gig here and there. And you know, [when you do this], there’s no time to invest in representing your real artistic output. And okay, maybe not everybody’s like me, maybe they don’t slave over the fuckin’ thing for a year before getting anything done, you know? Okay, 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? It’s gotten to the point where it’s like, “Alright, enough, man! Enough already.” I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t even be complaining about that.

When the Weird Little Boy thing came out, was that like . . .

A turning point? Maybe. I think I had been leading up to that. But it was the final straw.

I listened to that album back when it came out, and it wasn’t like it was any worse or better than a lot of other stuff like it.

I don’t have a criticism of Zorn, and you know, if I did, I would say. I’m not afraid to fuckin’ alienate myself. Like I said, nobody’s doin’ anything for me. But they’re just simply isn’t a personal criticism in that. I love everybody who was involved in that thing, on a personal level and, to a certain extent, on the creative level. I know everybody in that thing has a true artistic voice that should be expressed. They’re geniuses—they’re capable of so much. Why are we squandering it on this careerist bullshit? I’m not anti-making-money; it’s just getting together and doing these things that have no thought [that I have a problem with]. We’re capable of so much more than that.

Maybe it’s a case of your having seen it all the time in others, and then you kind of did something like that yourself—that’s probably why you’re harder on yourself about it.


I mean, most people wouldn’t even think twice about it.

This was the first time I did something that just felt like nothing. When we did Elegy—that felt like something. And I’ve done Cobras; Cobras feel like something. And Cobra is already self-explanatory—you know what you’re doing. But for me, it just struck me that the creative potential—I mean, time is a finite thing, and creative energy—these are all finite things. And I felt like I was absolutely, totally misrepresenting myself by being involved in that thing. That’s really all there is to say.

You’re definitely less prolific than a lot of these people, because I guess you’re very careful about what comes out.

I’m not really that careful: look at Faxed Head, look at the Three fuckin’ Doctors—I’m not careful!

Well, I see how somebody could say that you aren’t careful about your image based on the Three Doctors albums.

And they’d be absolutely right. To me, these things are fun things that are done basically for the same reason Weird Little Boy was done. [Note: I think he’s selling the Three Doctors short! Back to Basics “Live” is a personal favorite, though I realize I’m in a minority here.—WY] It’s like, you know, get together, come up with something…. But you know, Faxed Head has a point, has a purpose, has a voice. There is something there. Nobody can tell me that there isn’t. Read the lyrics; look what’s being done with the mythology of the whole thing. I won’t call it a “lofty” purpose, but you know, [redacted] is the captain of that ship, and it’s been steered into some beautiful places. Something like a little collective improv thing, if you do 800 of them and they’re being manned by nobody, it’s different. Those things are actually quite different.

I guess some people are in a position where they can put out 10 albums a year, like Zorn. But in terms of representing yourself with the Secret Chiefs stuff, you seem to spend forever on those albums.

Over time I’ve gotten more into doing that. Even, I’ll admit, Faxed Head has diminished. Everything that I’ve done outside of my own self-obsessed fuckin’ shit has suffered, absolutely. I’ve basically cut myself off trying just to sort of reorient and figure out what the fuck I’m doing, basically to put my energies into cultivating my own creative voice. I don’t need to, like, not be involved in anything [else] in order to do that, but I certainly think that things do pollute our creative spirit. They do. Avant-gardism has gotten to the point where it is potentially a good thing, but for the most part, it’s a pollutant on the creative spirit of today. I think so. And it’s time for us to all really just fuckin’ stake out our territory and reorient and maybe come back at some point once we know what the hell we’re talkin’ about here.

I remember you saying in an interview once that maybe a good “experiment” would be to actually make good music.

Try that, yeah! Why not try that? [Do] we have to come up with wildly innovative, new, new, new, new, new, new, new things from what’s been going on the last 20 or 30 years—do we have to do that? And I agree with the statement that you brought up that I said before: What’s “new” is the idea of putting something of quality together—having that be the sole purpose of why we have an artistic creation in the first place, just to truly represent what’s going on. Why are we artists? Do we have a fuckin’ creative urge? Do we have a creative impulse? What special thing are you bringing into this world that would not have been born without you, aside from … [pauses] … capturing that fuckin’ moment of improvi … shit [or “improvi-shit”?], you know what I mean? There’s enough! There’s enough. I’m goin’ on a fuckin’ rant here.

That’s okay—go ahead.

Okay, I will accept that point of view—saying that, “Okay, we have to have the license to just throw shit together and see what happens”—I will support that 100 percent, once, uh, once people accept the Sun City Girls as their lord and savior of improvisation. I mean, absolutely, positively—that’s improvisation. And it’s something that’s not recognized. Like, you talk in avant-garde circles about that fuckin’ group—okay, I can’t recommend one Sun City Girls CD and say, “Here’s the fuckin’ definitive, perfect Sun City Girls CD”—it can’t work that way. But they’ve tapped into a primal urgency of some overarching—spirit, I guess?—that really, truly is a matter of interaction between three human beings.

I mean, after jazz, after Coltrane, after some of the great things that happened with that thing, I seriously doubt that those things would have ever had the impact they did if they didn’t have the same improvisational power as the Sun City Girls have. The fact that that’s unrecognized—by even my musician friends who make a fuckin’ career out of improvising their lives away, ad infinitum—they see the Sun City Girls and it just doesn’t compute. And I’m like—this could be all value judgments, but I really do not think so—if you can’t understand the sophistication of what the Sun City Girls are doing, and you call yourself an improviser? I don’t even wanna talk to you. You can spin around in fuckin’ circles doing jazz, avant-garde jazz bullshit, [but] we’re not gonna get anywhere, man; it’s not gonna happen.


Sun City Girls specialize in “engineering coincidences,” let’s say. What really is beautiful about the flowering moment of improvisation is when something happens and it’s magic, and there’s no way to explain it. And maybe it’ll happen once, twice, three times in a night of collective improv. Sun City Girls can make it happen five times in five minutes—when they want to. Sometimes it doesn’t happen at all, and it absolutely sucks when nothing happens all night long.

I’ve seen ’em suck.

Yeah, they suck. Believe me, when they suck—you’ve seen it—they suck worse than anybody on Earth. It’s pretentious bullshit. I know: I’ve sat through probably 80 shows like that. So I can understand why people would give up on them, if all they ever saw was a shit show. But come on, man, you’ve got the testimony of people who know what they’re talking about. And it’s not just me. It requires a leap of faith in some way, and when you see an on night for them, you never change; you’ll never go back. [He was right about that.—WY] And if anything was decisive for me, it was when I saw the Sun City Girls play a good show. And that ended avant-garde improv for me.

When was that?

’93 or ’94? At the Chameleon [a now-defunct club in San Francisco], actually.

How much were you into improv stuff before?

I was really into it. I was doing as much as I could get away with doing, I guess. So I should just stop badmouthing and calm the fuck down for a second [laughs].

Playing with whom?

Uh, well I did a bunch of Cobras with Zorn that were all really good. And, uh, I did a few things with Eyvind [Kang] back then. I think the core members of Mr. Bungle did an awful lot of stuff, sort of separately. We did stuff with Bob Ostertag, a few gigs; we did a few things with ROVA sax quartet.

Were those all shows?

Yeah, those were all shows. But then there were a lot of things that weren’t really shows. Like, just weird little recording projects that never really turned into anything, but were completely of an experimental nature. Which is why I say, I don’t wanna discourage—I would never want to discourage somebody from experimenting. When I’m sitting here screaming and yelling about this stuff, it’s about the established artists, who can just stop it. [But] yeah, that was all totally important. Actually, it led to new compositional ideas, obviously. You free yourself from how you’re used to writing music because you can use all these other combinations of things, and you start trying to recreate them in you compositions.

Do you think that had a lot to do with the big change from the first [Mr. Bungle] album to Disco Volante?

Absolutely, yeah. That’s why it’s so confusing. 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, not even one second. It’s all completely notated—everything.

Even the piano solos?

Except for Graham Connah. Obviously—what are you gonna do? [But] any of our involvement—any instrumental stuff that we were involved in—was completely anal.

I don’t know how you could think that it wasn’t.

Yeah, but believe me man, half the Mr. Bungle fans out there think that we’re improvising. Even when we play [live], they think we’re improvising. We’re not, man! How could you do that? It couldn’t happen! But, the improvisational element is there—it’s the weird coincidences that happen when you’re doing collective improv that pop your brain open to the possibility of sonorities that you might be looking for. And a lot of these collective improv things that we started doing in Mr. Bungle just on our own time, they sort of prepared the way for me to appreciate the Sun City Girls when I finally did see them play a good show.

I’ve only seen ’em once. [Note: This is no longer true. I managed to see them five more times between 2002 and 2004, and the ratio of “on” to “off” nights was probably 4:1, maybe 3:2. The “on” nights compensated for the others.—WY]

The Bottom of the Hill thing [in 2000]? That was horrible, right? A little while ago?

Yeah, it was terrible.

Yeah, it was garbage. I was there too. And you know, they know it’s garbage when it’s garbage, too. Maybe I shouldn’t even be saying that; maybe they’ll get mad.

Are you friends with them?

Yeah. I don’t really know them that well, but ever since I saw that show I’ve definitely let Alan Bishop know. And there’s more to it than just the Sun City Girls. I mean, he’s done so many different things. This guy’s deserving of more praise than anybody I can think of, really.

But let’s not kid ourselves: Alan’s no fuckin’ saint, either. ‘Cause here’s the thing: When you’re dealing with insanely creative people like Grux [of Caroliner fame/infamy] and Alan Bishop, you can’t expect them to be “rational human beings” all the time. That’s just not the nature of it. Things that are sort of outside the sphere of rational influence—if they’re authentic, then the people who bring them into our world are going to be somewhat like that themselves. If their big concern is to create these new directions out of some weird pre-determined set of academic fuckin’ principles or whatever the hell they are—I don’t know, I guess I respond more to the things where you can tell it’s coming from their heart or something, where they have to do it, for some reason; they’re bearing some kind of responsibility to encroach upon our world with these things. I mean, it’s like what Absu’s doing. That’s the difference between Absu and fuckin’ Morbid Angel or something. It’s a weird dichotomy.

But maybe he [Alan Bishop] shouldn’t get more praise just because he deserves it. I’ve been really starting to feel that way personally. Thank God I’ve been able to just do what I’m doing, and I don’t have any real critical attention; I don’t have any substantial media coverage. It’s great!

You like it that way?

Yeah! It’s a blessing. I’m still doing the music I wanna do. I have the means to do it. What the fuck do I need some positive spin—what the fuck do I need it for?

Do you ever feel like there are people who wouldn’t know how to find what you’re doing but would want to?

Yeah, yeah. That’s the main issue, I guess. It would be tragic if there were somebody who would really be touched by what I do who went through their life and didn’t get [to hear] it just because of all this obscurity or whatever. But at the same time, I’m not willing to do what you’re supposed to do to wave your flag around. Not because I’m particularly “noble” or gentlemanly, but because I simply have better things to do. I wanna work on the music. Or whatever, cultivate the fuckin’ paranoid states of mind that cause it to come out the way it does.

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? And nobody has to deal with—I don’t know anybody who 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 is, I couldn’t be under that pressure; I couldn’t create anything worthwhile if I had to worry about that shit. He’s really strong for being able to do it. I don’t know what he’s sacrificing or what he’s not sacrificing, but I know I would be sacrificing a lot. I don’t wanna react to the outside world. I shield myself from it all the time.

It’s weird, ’cause it’s not like what he’s doing is any more “accessible” then what you’re doing.


Maybe the last Fantômas [The Director’s Cut, their soundtrack covers album] was more accessible then the last Secret Chiefs album [Book M], because maybe there are a lot of people who don’t want to listen to Indian and Middle Eastern music, but other than that….

Well that’s the thing, is that the traditional polarities that separate extreme music from, whatever, “non-extreme” music are completely erased at this point.

Yeah, Mike Patton’s going out and doing tours with Tool [as part of Fantômas] and stuff like that.

[Laughs.] I didn’t know about that. I haven’t been keeping up, man.

It seems like he’s pursuing this music-business stuff a little more actively than you. Because you didn’t even tour with the last Secret Chiefs album, right?

No, the next one, I’m gonna tour both of those records. That’s what I’m working on now, is getting all that shit together. I could afford to be a little more active with this stuff. But still, the one thing that’s important to me is that it comes out right. That’s all I care about. And, I mean, give me enough money so I can do the next one. And I feel very stable and secure that there’s enough people out there who’re gonna buy the stuff enough to keep the thing going. I don’t half to answer to anybody and have to kiss ass or whatever—worry about whether the review’s gonna be good or something. Fuck that! It’s such an interference.

You hardly ever see any reviews of the Secret Chiefs albums.

I didn’t send any out! I’m the record label. It’s up to me to send them out, right? Fuck it, man. I don’t care! But here’s the beautiful thing: just so you know that this isn’t all cynicism—cause there really is a lot of cynicism behind this—but the only way I’m able to get away with any of this, is because people talk. Whether I view media saturation as inherently evil or not, because people tell each other stuff that they like, and the Internet has helped facilitate that. I’m actually now in the process of getting a forum going with a guy who’s building what looks like it’s going to be a pretty impressive Web site sort of dedicated to the mythology behind the Secret Chiefs. Things like that are where I want to put my effort, which really isn’t any effort at all. Giving people a place to talk is so much more valuable than trying to sell ’em on some fuckin’ thing, you know? And in the long run, I think it really pays off. As a label, for the other projects—the things that are not me—I am gonna start advertising. I’m actually gonna start running it like a label. Because those other [musicians] don’t have the benefit of that word of mouth shit that goes on with my stuff.

But for me it’s almost like an experiment: I’m putting my faith in the human race…and it’s working! It’s not cynical. I’m still doing this because I expected the worst and I’ve gotten a lot better than the worst. Not to give you the impression I don’t do any advertising: Revolver has this cool thing where you can get your CDs into listening stations at stores, and that seems like a really good idea for Secret Chiefs. If people hear it, then they tend to like it. They’re not gonna go out and buy it if they hear, “Trey Spruance from Mr. Bungle has a weird Middle Eastern esoteric group. Can’t understand any of the philosophy, but people who like Mr. Bungle might like it. It’s a little more conservative than Mr. Bungle.” That’s not gonna sell fucking records! But if you hear it, it’s different.


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  1. […] In Part Two of this interview, Trey talks about SC3’s relative lack of visibility in the music press, touring with Mr. Bungle, and the differences between being on a major label with that band and running his own operation with SC3 and Web of Mimicry. (For Part One, go here.) […]

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