By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — As a driving force behind two of the most challenging experimental rock bands to emerge from the Bay Area in the past 35 years, guitarist Trey Spruance has consistently obliterated the boundaries between musical genres. As a teen, Spruance teamed with fellow future mavericks Mike Patton and Trevor Dunn in their remote Northern California hometown of Eureka to form Mr. Bungle while they were still in high school.
Refining an anarchic, menacing mix of death metal, avant-garde jazz, ska, and funk over the course of several demo tapes starting in the mid-1980s, eventually scoring a major label deal for the band’s brilliant John Zorn-produced debut in 1991. Mr. Bungle ventured into even stranger territory with the complex songs heard on 1995’s Disco Volante, ping-ponging wildly across styles in a style that echoed Zorn’s chaotic Naked City ensemble as well as atonal contemporary classical composers like György Ligeti.
By the time Mr. Bungle released the fractured avant-pop of their final album California at the turn of the millennium (the band split in 2004), Spruance had already been exploring a heady collision of Middle Eastern tonalities, twanging surf-rock, and lush cinematic orchestrations with Secret Chiefs 3 for several years. Over the course of ten albums and an avalanche of physical and digital singles issued since founding the group in the mid-1990s, the guitarist has developed an intricate cosmology of seven “sub bands” playing in a variety of styles under the Secret Chiefs 3 rubric.
Since issuing the sub band Ishraqiyun’s 2014 album Perichoresis, Spruance has largely focused his SC3 efforts on digital single releases from a variety of the satellite groups (as well as the unusual MUSICA PRACTICA *Geek Pack One*: Bereshith album that featured stem recordings that fans could create their own remixes with). But earlier this year, the band offered more details on Malkut, its contribution to Zorn’s new Book Beri’ah limited edition box set that features Secret Chiefs 3 and ten other bands offering interpretations of the final 92 songs from the composer’s series of Masada songbooks.
Spruance and the current septet line-up of Secret Chiefs 3 that includes longtime members Eyvind Kang (violin), Estradasphere/Atomic Ape leader Jason Schimmel (guitar) and monster percussionist Ches Smith will perform at the Chapel in San Francisco this Sunday as part of the venue’s four-day celebration commemorating John Zorn’s 65th birthday. CBS SF caught up with Spruance this week to discuss the new Masada songbook project and his plans for Secret Chiefs 3 and beyond.
CBS SF: From what I understand, the music recorded for the Malkut disc from the Book Beri’ah box set was first played live a few ago; I think I saw someone commenting on Facebook about hearing it performed at the Stone in New York City three years ago. But I don’t think it has been part of the SC3 live repertoire, at least based on the last time I saw you a year ago with Dead Cross. Have those songs only been performed at specific Zorn-related shows?
Trey Spruance: Yeah. When Secret Chiefs does Masada music, it’s usually done with Zorn as part of a Zorn concert or — when we do it on our own — we do it as a completely separate set. So it is always separated from the whole huge universe of Secret Chiefs music. The Zorn stuff is kind of it’s special own thing. I don’t really mix the two things up too much.
CBS SF: Do you think you’ll be sticking to that new material on Sunday, or will the set include music from the Xaphan: Book of Angels Volume 9 album that came out in 2008 too?
Trey Spruance: We did a full length concert of this stuff in Lisbon, Portugal, as part of a different Zorn festival. That was in early August. So we’ll probably do pretty much what we did there, which was mostly songs from this new record plus a couple of tunes from the first Masada record we did.
CBS SF: I was going to ask what amount of rehearsal went into preparing for this kind of show given the complexity of Zorn’s music, but I’m sure it helps that you did that festival less than a month ago…
Trey Spruance: I can tell you what’s involved. The arrangements that I do for Zorn’s music are extremely elaborate and very particular. There is a lot of part writing; everybody has their own charts. You mentioned somebody saying that they’d seen us play this stuff three years ago; it was probably four years ago. That was the same week that we recorded. So everybody had been looking at that music for months. I had given everyone their parts and finished all of the arrangements.
The Stone gigs were sort of rehearsals. I didn’t want to record the record without ever having the players play the songs in a live setting. So then we went into the studio that week. I gotta tell you, it was really a mess when we did it at the Stone [laughs]. So that scared everybody sufficiently into really digging in. So even after we recorded the record, there was still a lot of woodshedding that everybody had to do.
We played several shows. We played UCLA at Royce Hall and in Mexico City. So we’ve been working up this material over the last four years and now, after four freaking years, we finally have it. It has really come together. We just did a set of it in New York too. That was kind of the premiere of Book Beri’ah stuff live, I think. For several of the groups.
CBS SF: Did all of the recording for Malkut take place after the Stone gigs four years ago? Or was it more akin to how you record your own music with Secret Chiefs 3? From what I gather, your songs get put together over multiple sessions with lots of editing to piece the songs together?
Trey Spruance: It’s like Secret Chiefs. I don’t really piece things together with Secret Chiefs recordings too much. I pretty much always do it the same way, which is to have at least the rhythm section there for a recording and do the whole thing; do all the basic rhythm tracks. And then I kind of build all the other instruments on top of that, all the keyboards and guitars and that kind of stuff.
This time we had more percussion that we did in the studio and I think we had everyone there except Eyvind Kang on violin. So even the guitars were doing scratch tracks along with the rhythm section. So that’s how I always do it. I pretty much record every Secret Chiefs song that way.
CBS SF: I guess I was under the impression, especially with some of the more recent heavily orchestrated SC3 recordings, that it was a bit more elaborate with more studios and separate sessions…
Trey Spruance: Oh yeah, it is. That’s what I mean. Even on this one, after doing the original basic tracks, then I went down to Los Angeles and recorded a bunch of stuff there. That was where we added the caval and tons of organ and where Jason Schimmel did all of his guitar parts. Then we came back up here and did all of the stuff with Matt [Lebofsky] as his place.
The majority of the work happens at my house in my little studio. So it might have been a little bit less insane than a usual Secret Chiefs record in some ways, because for those, the basic tracks don’t all share the same session. On a normal Secret Chiefs 3 record, it’s a bunch of different drummers. The beginning point is totally different for each song, rather than this one where the beginning point was the same for every song. We all tracked it together.
CBS SF: How far ahead before the start of recording sessions do you get the songs from Zorn? I imagine that besides having to figure out arrangements and chart everything out for the individual members of the band, you have to familiarize yourself with the songs before you start building all that out…
Trey Spruance: About a year before we recorded, Zorn handed me the [Book Beri’ah] songbook and asked me to select 12 or 13 of them. So I went through the whole book of 93 tunes and picked the ones that I had arrangement ideas for. And then I started deciding what the ensemble should be. There was no ensemble at this point. I’m always starting fresh and letting the music dictate what the ensemble should be. And I realized that I could do a lot having Ches [Smith, longtime SC3 drummer] play vibes and percussion; he’s really an expert on the congas, so I thought we’d have a lot of coverage with him.
So I just started breaking up all the parts into what seemed like would work, and we ended up with the septet. I sent everybody their parts; the keyboard parts are in double stave, so some of them are like 20 pages long. The Zorn chart is one page, or a half a page. Like a lead sheet from jazz. But he gives you a long leash on what you can do with your arrangements, so I just take those melodies and chords and go bananas with it and give everybody parts that are respecting the integrity of Zorn’s composition but add a lot of different elements to it. But I’m not kidding when I say that sometimes these parts are 20 f—ing pages for one person [laughs]. It’s true! So I’m handing them a book.
And then they rehearse it for a few months on their own. They woodshed their parts. I pick players who I can rely on, so they’re totally prepared by the time we’re at our first rehearsal. Because we only have a day — if that — before a recording or a performance. So that’s why I’m saying this one was so elaborate, it took a few different attempts to play live before we really gelled. The arrangements were so detailed, but they came together with the live element.
I knew it would work with the recording. That part I always have covered pretty well, but translating big enormous things into a live thing — something that has some life where you have chemistry between players even though they’re overburdened with mountains of material. Finally everybody digested it and it’s totally happening now, but it took a while.
CBS SF:I can’t say I’m familiar with every player in this line-up of the band, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen you play with anyone who wasn’t a pretty astounding musician. It’s not like anyone involved with any of these bands playing Zorn’s music is a slouch by any means. I’m impressed it’s taken players of this caliber so long to get to this point…
Trey Spruance: I like to challenge people. What I do with Zorn’s music is a little different than what he does or other people. I really go into detail with the arrangements. I have to say on this cycle of recordings for the Book Beri’ah, a lot of the other ensembles when really rich on the arrangements, which was a really nice surprise. I feel like I’m in good company with them.
CBS SF: You already said that you see the the Zorn music that Secret Chiefs 3 has done as separate from the SC3 universe. But of the seven sub bands under the SC3 umbrella, is there any one band that fits particularly well with the Malkut material? Or do you look at it in terms of any of the seven bands can fit the songs?
Trey Spruance: It’s great. I actually consider it sort of a break from that, but maybe in a way, it’s a culmination of all of them. Or perhaps a better way to think about it is that it’s before it split into the seven bands. There’s a reason for me to think of this record Malkut as being associated with the earlier Secret Chiefs record Book M. Because it’s thematically actually related to that record. It just turned out that way. A lot of the songs that I chose and the titles and all that have links with that Book M record, and that record came before the seven satellite band thing came into existence.
I was pretty excited about that actually, so I’ve been justifying this one [Malkut] to myself that way. Sure it’s outside the normal orbit of Secret Chiefs stuff, but it’s totally integrated. This one even more than Xaphan, the first Masada record we did. I think it is integrated in some mysterious way.
CBS SF: Are there more performances of the songs from Malkut planned beyond the jazz fest in Sarajevo coming up in November?
Trey Spruance: After Sarajevo, we play in Vienna. And then there’s this short Stone tour it’s called. Zorn is touring stuff that has had a heavy presence at the Stone in New York. That’s in the Netherlands and Belgium. After that, we don’t have formal plans yet for anything, but this thing seems to be snowballing. There are more and more gigs popping up. Zorn seems to be really motivated to make this Book Beri’ah thing happen. And it’s totally happening, so I would expect more.
CBS SF: I wanted to talk about the Chapel show back in March when you opened for the Zorn/Patton duo as NT Fan. That was my first encounter with that satellite band. It was you solo with a laptop playing either a bass or a guitar, I can’t remember…
Trey Spruance: It’s understandable you wouldn’t remember. It was a six-string bass.
CBS SF: So when you joined the duo at the end for the encore, I was wondering if that was a written piece or more improv? I remember a friend who was there claiming he recognized what you were playing, but I definitely didn’t…
Trey Spruance: Hell no that wasn’t planned [laughs]! That was pure improv. I had no idea. In fact, I was feeling a little under qualified. Patton and Zorn have a very rich improvisational chemistry. It’s a pretty incredible thing to behold. So I’d been watching the whole show. And then they’re like, “Oh yeah, come out and play!” And I’m thinking, “Jesus, what am I going to do?” I kind of got lost in their chemistry, which is what improvisation is. It’s just listening and trying to catch what’s happening. What happened was what happened in the moment and it was definitely not scripted at all.
CBS SF: I was also going to ask about the concept behind the projections that were up on the screen during the NT Fan set. It was a mix of what looked like arcane symbols along with a variety of historical figures that included serial killers and cult leaders and leaders of industry….
Trey Spruance: I wouldn’t expect people to catch it, but every single person that was included was from California. It’s something that I’m working on for Holy Vehm, which is the black death metal/thrash metal satellite band. I’m building a record that’s conceptually focused on the end point of Western Civilization being California in a kind of apocalyptic light.
CBS SF: So that’s the next SC3 project that you’re focused on besides this latest Zorn album?
Trey Spruance: Yes. I think Zorn wrote me like ten days before that duo gig with Patton — or maybe it was Patton. I can’t remember. But one of them said, “Hey, you should play.” I didn’t know what to do on short notice, so I actually took the NT Fan thing, which is more of a noise oriented, very extreme avant garde, transcendentally loud and violent thing and mixed it with the Holy Vehm stuff I’d been working on. So I mixed the two ideas. It was blackened thrash, grindcore mixed with super violent noise. That’s what you saw. It was actually just for that show. And all of those images were borrowed from the Holy Vehm project.
CBS SF: It struck me as kind of black metal musique concrète type stuff.
Trey Spruance: Yeah, that’s exactly what it was.
CBS SF: I know we talked about this last time, but I sort of feel I have a journalistic obligation to ask about the possibility of Mr. Bungle getting back together. I know you have plenty going on Secret Chiefs 3 and Patton always seems like he has multiple projects in the works, not to mention what’s going on with Trevor Dunn and the other members. Last time, you alluded to the potential the band would have given what was then 14 more years of experience and developing musical ideas. Since you and Patton and Trevor are still in contact and even collaborate on occasion, does the topic Bungle getting back together come up?
Trey Spruance: I would say pretty much the same thing that I said to you last time. I mean, Trevor was also in Portugal recently when we played there. We joke about stuff, we’ll put it that way. There’s lot’s of jokes going around [laughs]. It’s a good environment because we’re all working together and doing creative things together. I think all of that is very natural.
CBS SF: It’s funny, I recently interviewed someone with a tangential connection to you and Mr. Bungle. I was talking to Ethan Miller from Comets on Fire about one of his other bands Howlin Rain and the possibility of getting a certain line-up of that band back together. I’m figuring you know Ethan from up north or from his time in Santa Cruz…
Trey Spruance: Of course I know Ethan! He’s the son of my favorite English teacher.
CBS SF: I actually learned about his father and the influence he had on you and other members of Mr. Bungle from Ethan’s wife chatting at a party last year…
Trey Spruance: Yeah, Trevor, Mike and I. Those guys were a year ahead of me, so I knew about Mr. Miller from them. He was really mentoring them, so when I got in there, I sort of had the road paved for me. He’s an extraordinary person. He opened us up to whole universes of literature that otherwise we wouldn’t have known about. He knew how to interest us in things. Because we were these angry, crazy kids who would rather be reading a Jerzy Kosiński novel than The Black Stallion or something.
So he would give us that stuff, kind of on the sly, because it’s not going to be part of the high school curriculum. But he interested us in reading and getting engaged in real heavy stuff. I don’t know if it’s different now, but back then nobody was doing anything like that that I’m aware of. He kind of saved our asses in a way.
CBS SF: That’s wild. So I didn’t know about that connection between two of my major musical obsessions until just a short time ago. Anyway, what I was getting at was that when I brought up the idea of Ethan getting that version of Howlin Rain back together, he said it wasn’t something that he’d ever do because he still plays with some of those musicians regularly. so actually reuniting that band isn’t really necessary for him, since he’s fulfilling that need in other ways. I guess I was wonder if the fact that you still play with the guys from Bungle in other capacities sort of satisfies the itch to reunite the band?
Trey Spruance: It’s been sort of going along this way for about ten years now. We’re comfortable with that, but who knows? Who knows were it will go from there. But that’s pretty much where it’s at.
Secret Chiefs 3 play the John Zorn 65th Birthday Celebration at the Chapel in San Francisco this Sunday, Sept. 2 at 10 p.m. For tickets and information, visit the Chapel website.