Trey Spruance of Secret Chiefs 3: "I started studying the musical systems of antiquity to try to understand what made them tick"
Secret Chiefs 3 (due tonight at the Bluebird Theater) is the brainchild of Trey Spruance, whom you may know from Mr. Bungle. With Secret Chiefs 3, Spruance seemingly follows every musical idea he can think of down every rabbit hole imaginable. Along the way, he has learned to play a plethora of exotic instruments in an attempt to realize his musical vision.
Really, the Secret Chiefs 3 is a blanket name for various incarnations of the band that make use of more specific aesthetics from Middle Eastern-flavored experimental music, death metal, soundscaping and whatever else emanates from the minds of Spruance and his numerous collaborators. Each of the band's shows is a bit of an audio-visual feast and never less than impressive. We recently spoke with Spruance about the influence of Pythagoras on his music, Wizard Prisons and Laibach.
Westword: For this current tour, are you playing out as Traditionalists?
Trey Spruance: Oh, no. We're kind of just doing what we've been doing for a while. It's a mix between Ishraqiyun and UR, which is the surf band and that sort of neo-folk/neo-Pythagorean band. In fact, we're going to rehearse a melody from the Traditionalists record, and I think we're going to do that. We definitely want to do it. It depends on whether we can get it together in two days or not. I definitely think we can.
How did you become familiar with both Jacques Brel and Scott Walker, and why did you feel that reinterpreting "Le Chanson de Jacky" was something suitable for Traditionalists and the new seven-inch you're putting out?
It's mainly because our upcoming record, which is a midpoint in a trilogy, actually deals with that kind of midpoint anxiety. In Jacques Brel's case, it's definitely like a mid- life-crisis anxiety. I'm using the metaphor for that but also for being stretched on a high wire across an a abyss and finding yourself equidistant from both the starting point and the destination point. Certainly like everything with Secret Chiefs, it's filled with all kinds of ironic, metaphorical and metaphysical stuff.
I was familiar with the Scott Walker version of it. Then when I heard the Jacques Brel original version, it clicked a little more with me. Scott Walker I've been listening to since the mid-'90s or something. Actually, it was the comedian Neil Hamburger that told me I would love Scott Walker. I think it was in 1994 or something that he gave me a Scott Walker record. After that, I've been a fan.
I was certainly aware of Jacques Brel before that, but I didn't know all of his material. I sort of came to know some of my favorite songs by Jacques Brel by being introduced to them through Scott Walker, because he actually did an EP of all Jacques Brel songs. They're actually some of my favorite Scott Walker songs. There's one called "Next." That's a really powerful song of his. And "Mathilde."
What was it like working with Mike Patton again on that song?
It was so easy. The original idea for that song -- I was telling you about those three different stages of the beginning, the middle and the end -- was to have three different vocalists to do it. I actually got the French vocals done by a friend of mine who lives in Nice, France. But I asked about it to see if he would want to do the second verse, because I thought it would be good for him. At first I think he misunderstood and thought I wanted him to do the whole song. I didn't even consider that he would do the song in French.
I know him pretty well, but I never really thought of that. It didn't even occur to me at all. I asked him, "Wait a minute. What? You can do that?" And he said, "Yeah, sure, I can give it a shot." Obviously it's less schizophrenic to have one vocal, and it's also probably more respectful to the legacy of the people who have come before and sang their song to have someone of his caliber sing the song, so I said, "Yeah, fuck, go for it, man!" And he did it, and nailed it. It was so great.
Since this is kind of the middle of the trilogy, are there tonal ranges you try to use for various parts of the cycle?
Actually, that's not a function of which part of the trilogy it is. Each band has a different tonal approach. Some of them are pretty related. UR is sort of a rock version of Western tonality, and Traditionalists is more of a cinematic, soundtrack thing, whereas FORMS harks back to an earlier age of Western music, sort of a late romantic era being played by automated machines, band organ, that kind of thing.
Ishraqiyn is more the quasi-Pythagorean tonalities, referring to the more Eastern tonal system. Holy Vehm is sort of crushing those things together in a violent collision, and Electromagnetic Azoth is actually the center of the whole thing, distributing all the different tonal systems and sometimes coming out seemingly chaotically, but it's actually very structured. Electromagnetic Azoth is the band that takes the seed motifs and distributes them to the different bands. So the different band's tonal approaches are used to reinterpret each motif.
Why did you decide to revisit "The Exile" for this current seven-inch?
The original version of it is going to be on the third part of the trilogy. So each of these are sort of variations of it. There's just a lot you can do with that melody. And actually, the original version of it is radically different, so I wanted to explore these variations a little bit more, for example, on the CD for Book of Horizons that "The Exile" comes from.
For the artwork for Traditionalists, you have this guy, and he's doing the normal cowboy thing, riding into the sunset. He's got his horse charging away from the sunset into the night. Basically, I wanted to take it a little bit deeper into that feeling of the Occidental exile, what happens when you're outside of everything. I wanted to just take that feeling slightly deeper into the darkness.
What was your introduction to giallo films, and what is it about them that continues to fascinate you as a musician and as an artist in general?
You know, it's funny, but I'm not the biggest giallo film fan. Of course there are classics I love, but the stylistic formula of giallo films are super-attractive because they work, and there are a lot of extremely intelligent filmmakers like Dario Argento, with whom I have a certain kind of kinship. Because sometimes their films look cheap or something. But I don't think so. They're put together in a way that is stylistically interesting and compelling, and then they're intelligent at the same time, but there's not really a huge budget behind it. It's a very resourceful genre.
Some of these guys mastered how to conjure feelings out of the audience with an artistic...I mean art in the sense of being artful. When Obama says someone made an "artless comment," he means they didn't know how to put the right spin on it. Even though what they were saying was the same kind of lie that any other politician says. I think what these guys have mastered is the artfulness of fear, paranoia, panic, horror, all of that. That definitely inspires my own sort of sensibility, because as a musician, sometimes I want to conjure those feelings as well. I'm working in a kind of limited medium; it's just sound.
So it's colorful what these giallo films do, the way they conjure fear and paranoia and all of that. I think that's what's inspired my imagination to try to capture that musically and musically alone, which is not easy. The composers who were writing for giallo films were totally brilliant at complementing what was going on on the screen. To me, the challenge was taking the screen away and maintaining some of those feelings. That was the challenge that was fun.
It looks like you play every instrument known to man. What got you started on your path to playing what some might call exotic instruments?
I think it was -- and maybe this is a bogus thing to say -- I felt like I had come to the end of the Western tonal system. It's not like I've completely mastered Bach and I know absolutely everything that's going on in Stravinsky, or that I could orchestrate the way that Ravel does. I'm not saying that. But as a person who was living in the late twentieth century, you're basically dealing with the deconstruction of tonality in the avant-garde at that point, and it just feels like everything is breaking down.
For me, going to Japan and seeing noise bands playing in '95 and seeing that wall thrown up, it gave me the feeling of if there was nowhere else to go as far as the progress or the progression of tonality. Then what are we supposed to do as musicians? I think something in my heart, I guess I would say, was seeking something more a little bit more fundamental than the function of time and the history for music.
Because if the development of tonality is a function of history and time, then, in a way, what do we have to look forward to other than musical dissolution as well? Which was exactly what was going on around me in avant-garde music with some exceptions. There were definitely interesting things going on. I was never bored, and I was certainly excited by some of that dissolution. But, yeah, I was seeking something more substantial.
So it got me thinking about going outside of the Western tonal system, which got tricky because it's not like I wanted to go.... I might have wanted to, but I probably wasn't capable of signing up to apprentice for some Persian master and sitting there for fifteen years and learning to play Persian music. I'm not really an instrumentalist. I'm more of a composer, so that wasn't going to be fulfilling to me. So I started studying the musical systems of antiquity to try to understand what made them tick and what they were invoking.
Once I started doing that, I realized it wasn't just some frivolous or escapist idea. It really felt like finding something very substantial and fundamental we seem to have forgotten a lot about. It's part of our Western tonal system, too -- it's not all Eastern. If you look at what the actual Greek system is, when we say Ionian, Aeolian, Lydian and all of them, it's ridiculous. The scales we learn on the piano are not at all what those modes are. The logic of those modes is much deeper and much heavier and, in fact, much closer to Persian music theory, which has certainly been touched by Hellenic and Greek music, as well, so it's not so foreign as people might think.
What exactly is a Pythagorean guitar?
It's a guitar I had...it's ridiculous, in a way. A Pythagorean guitar would actually be a cythara. It's an ancient Greek instrument for which every time they would change modes, they'd have to retune the thing. That's not what this is. It's just a normal electric guitar, and it's been re-fretted to accommodate Secret Chiefs 3's own, proprietary tonal system, which is a happy medium between three different modes, so we don't have to retune.
Basically it's a solution to a math problem. And it works. Equal temperament is a solution to a math problem. It's kind of bogus; it doesn't reflect harmonic reality. The Pythagorean guitar is similar to that in that it's not reflecting harmonic reality, but it does allow us to play three different modes without having to retune, which is cool.
What sparked your continued fascination with Pythagorean concepts, and how did you get started on the path to finding the influence of Pythagoras across centuries of Western and non-Western thought?
Yeah, that's a good question. It's not that I started out looking at Pythagoras and going, "Whoa, cool, I'm going to check out Pythagoras." It's just this default you end up in. Actually, I was just reading Suhrawardi, who was a Persian mystical philosopher from the twelfth century. I believe in Suhrawardi; a very practical outlook comes together in him between the rational intellect and the intuitive intellect and all of this. But he's basing a lot of his rational arguments in Neoplatonic philosophy, in a way. Once I was starting to try to get at the bases he was establishing, so that he could have the other half of things, which is sort of the mystical, enlightenment part of things.
Henry Corbin, who pretty much introduced Suhrawardi to the West, called him the "Hellenite magi" because he had one foot in the Hellenic world and one foot in ancient Zoroastrian mysticism. So it was that and the subsequent schools of Ishraqi schools of philosophy and doing background research on Neoplatonic philosophy that led me back to the Stoics first.
And that really ended up forcing me to look at the pre-Socratics and that way you inevitably deal with Pythagoras, and out comes the compass, and pretty soon you're learning about where those interesting geometric shapes in mosques come from and what the relationship between some of those things are to our musical scales. And why the fuck are we playing equal-tempered musical scales? It fires you up to try something else.
Obviously you've read The Enneads, by Plotinus.
Of course! Exactly! The third book of The Enneads is what threw me back to the pre-Socratics, definitely. Also, Plato's Timaeus. People sneer about Plato these days, and I think it's kind of sad in a way, because it's sort of like sneering about Ravel or Stravinsky. I can't sneer about that and say, "Well, I hate Western music."
Those guys are masters that are beyond my ability to even conceive of what they were doing in a certain way. It's really ludicrous that we think we know who Plato is and what he was saying. I still feel like I've barely even scratched the surface at all. In certain ways, when I hear people having all these opinions, I think, "What?! What are you talking about?"
I think that the Muslim philosophers of the Sassanid era were very good at synthesizing Platonic ideas and Neoplatonic ideas and adjusting them into the Muslim worldview -- which is helpful, because it is a parallel development in philosophy that didn't happen in the Christian world. And it's very sad that it didn't, because a lot of possibilities were overlooked and erased, and some other choices were made that were devastating.
How did you meet and come to work with John Merryman?
Oh, yeah! Actually, I became aware of his playing through a drummer who was kind of worshipping him: "That guy's the fastest; he's so bad-ass." I'd heard Cephalic Carnage before, but I hadn't focused in on the drums so much. It was like, "Yeah, that's true, he's awesome." And I was asking that guy if he wanted to play for Secret Chiefs for some of that crazy, death/black metal stuff that we do sometimes. And he was like, "You know what? You should just ask this guy; he's the master."
So I asked him, and he was down, and he was totally great. He was really easy to work with. By the time I was working with him, he was sort of looking to do something other than do blast beats and crazy metal beats. I think he was hoping I was going to challenge him with a bunch of other rhythmic concepts, but unfortunately, I was keeping in the same box he's always been in. "No, play blast beats; go crazy." Unfortunately, I probably wasn't as exciting and challenging to him as he was to me.
In that interview for Trebuchet, you refer to an "egoistic Wizard Prison" as embodied by some of the more vile and pathetic historical figures of the modern era. Why do you think those examples of Western individuation are perilous for artists and for people in general?
I can answer that in one word: Faust. No, I mean, you know, I think individuation is a spiritual necessity, but when it's paired with a flawed idea of historical progress.... Already with individuation you're talking about megalomania. But there are worse things than megalomania and pathological narcissism. I think it's normalized, at this point, for us to expect artists to be megalomaniacal, pathological narcissists, and we forgive them for it. We think, "That's the way they are. They're these crazy assholes who think so hugely of themselves."
Think about, I don't know, the fourteenth century: Artists were anonymous. They had no ego attachment to the things that they created. It's kind of a radical shift, I think, the positions that artists occupy in our consciousness. So I think it's kind of unhealthy for us to sit here. I think it's unhealthy for myself because I have a lot of these tendencies of the modern artist -- I can be a total megalomaniac.
I think I vented that, so I see that bouncing off the mirror. It's a problem. I think it's a real issue. Especially when you start messing with metaphysics and music -- you're really asking for trouble. On the one hand, you have people coming up to you, because they've been conditioned by new-age gurus, with so much reverence, as though you're some kind of guru yourself. But that's not their fault. It's actually your fault because you're throwing this megalomaniacal thing out there. It's a real conundrum.
It should be fair enough to deal with issues. Like,I'm excited to remind my fellow humans that we once knew and were once normal and that we've totally forgotten about and are valuable and beautiful. I think that's great. But there's a lot of stuff to go along with that. I have a lot of friends who are doing a sort of parallel kind of work.
It's the proselytizing for one's own special religious perspective or little private pseudo religion or something. That's kind of why I said that. People like that inevitably end up in a Faustian situation always. It's a wizard prison. A fucking wizard prison! Let's just say I know what I'm talking about because I'm totally one of those guys.
In that 2007 interview with Mark Prindle, you mention Laibach. How did you learn about Laibach, and what about them do you find philosophically interesting?
Even calling it irony is almost an insult when you're talking about Laibach. it's beneath them. I think that they have done something singular in music. I'm not aware of any musical group doing what they've done, which is to be political by being apolitical, and somehow being ahead on everything. Being able to anticipate all the twists and turns of global politics and turn it into satire. I would say this satire is the highest and most ancient form of satire. Satire, as in "S-A-T-Y-R."
The person who launches a critique and a mockery, and nobody knows, really, how to interpret it other than they know, it's a devastating, devastating revelation of some flaw somewhere. I really think that they have mastered that to the point that I'm seriously not aware of that level of satire anywhere else in the last century. They're the greatest.
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.