Containing multitudes

Trey Spruance, driving force behind the hard-to-peg band Secret Chiefs 3, is comfortable with contradictions.

By JONATHAN BECK
April 27, 2010 10:38
Trey Spruance

Trey Spruance 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

2010 is turning out to be one of the lucky years as far as music lovers in Israel are concerned, with major international acts like the Pixies and Metallica scheduled to arrive here, following the 2009 shows by musicians as varied as the reunited Faith No More and Leonard Cohen.

But amid the fanfare of stadium gigs by heavyweight acts and reunions of some of the bands that defined our formative years, a left-of-field, ubiquitous group is also expected to arrive on our shores. This band is not doing a reunion tour; they are not septuagenarians. They are an ensemble coming here at the prime of creativity and one of those acts whose fans loyally follow and support out of the faith that the music they make points the way to the future. They are Secret Chiefs 3 (SC3).

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It is no easy task to peg the music of SC3, a band that contains many rotating members, according to the myriad musical languages their style incorporates, ranging from electronica-infused heavy metal to surf rock, Bollywood songs and Middle Eastern music to modern atonal classical pieces and even bursts of pure noise influenced by musique concrète.

Founded by Trey Spruance of Mr. Bungle fame – where he played guitar and produced after a short stint with Faith No More – SC3 arrive here with an impressive seven releases under their belt, including one live album and one album in collaboration with avant garde sax player John Zorn.

There are some 20 musicians who have collaborated with SC3 over the years, but the band arrives here as a compact quintet. Spruance, apart from composing and playing electric guitars, now also plays bass, rabab, keyboards, santur, trumpet and several other instruments with names hard to pronounce. During SC3’s Israel show, Spruance will play guitars and saz, along with Timb Harris on violin, trumpet and guitar, Jai Young Kim on keyboards, Toby Driver on Bass, and Ches Smith on drums.

ON THE band’s fourth studio album, Book of Horizons, the songs were performed by seven “satellite bands,” each with different members, different instruments, different artwork and a focus on different musical styles. A teaser for the album on the Website of Web of Mimicry records, a label owned by Spruance that apart from SC3 publishes music by 15 other bands, said the decision to split into seven bands would focus the wide-ranging vision of SC3. Perhaps the move was also intended to give listeners rough signposts in the thicket of the musical jungle in which the original band operates.

Thus Ishraqiyun is a Middle Eastern ensemble that plays Persian and near-Asian music with acoustic instruments, but with the added twist of heavy distorted guitars and a drum kit; The Holy Vehm is a death metal band at the logical endpoint of the genre, taking the hallmarks of heavy music so far that it makes bands like Metallica sound tame by comparison; Ur plays a sort of surf rock based on Pythagorean scales; and another ensemble, The Electromagnetic Azoth, creates mixes of samples from the other bands. There are also Traditionalists, the band that is behind SC3’s latest album, Le Mani Destre Recise Degli Ultimi Uomini; Forms, which plays epic pieces on an orchestral scale; and finally, a seventh band whose starfish logo also appears in the Book of Horizons booklet. SC3 followers are still waiting to hear what music this seventh, as yet unnamed entity makes, but it would come as no surprise those familiar with Spruance’s concepts if this last band plays the inaudible music of the spheres.  

INDEED, IT is no easy task to categorize SC3. So, ahead of their upcoming performance in Tel Aviv – part of a crammed European tour which sees them perform 37 shows over the course of 41 days – Spruance spoke with The Jerusalem Post, to clarify some of his thoughts about music, life and everything.

“I would, reluctantly, define Secret Chiefs 3 as a rock ’n’ roll band,” Spruance says, adding immediately, “Rock ‘n’ roll is a really confining format, but I like being confined to it in a masochistic sort of way. A lot of the art I like tends to be confined to a format.

“What rock ’n’ roll grants is a hedonistic sense of freedom,” he continues – although the idea of freedom is “greatly overrated these days.”

In recent years, Spruance has abandoned his secular roots to embrace Christian orthodoxy. Asked whether his religious choices don’t clash with the apparent iconoclasm that is a hallmark of much of SC3’s music, he clarifies that his religiosity stems from spiritual conviction. Religious obedience, he says, “brings considerable scrutiny to every detail of what before was just habitually considered ‘normal.’”

There is indeed a religious fervor apparent when Spruance talks about his music. “I vowed at the beginning of SC3 that we would always be telling the truth. It was never my intention to be playing church music.

“The different facets of Secret Chiefs 3 aim to narrate the primal unity of the God concept from different vantage points,” Spruance adds in a statement that would seem to be self aggrandizing were it not for the genuine conviction in his voice.

In a way, he, too, was a rock ’n’ roll rebel of sorts in his youth, Spruance recalls; except, he points out, that “in 1984 California, when everyone around me was listening to Kiss and AC/DC, I was listening to Stravinsky and Shostakovich.”

Another aspect of Spruance’s spiritual outlook becomes clear when he explains that the multitude of styles the band incorporates actually comes from a musical humility. As a musician with a solid grounding in music theory (he studied music in college during the early Mr. Bungle years) Spruance says he is on a continuous quest to “learn the craft of record production and to expand my power of musical languages.”

“It is not an intellectual operation, more of a receptive condition,” he adds.  

It is indeed fortuitous that Spruance has such a solid grounding of musical language, since this is what holds together the disparate elements, saving SC3’s music from the pitfall of simply making musical collages. The pieces, despite their complex meters and elaborate structures and instrumentation – likely to incorporate traditional instruments like the tabla or a koto side by side with a turntable and a laptop – are conceived coherently, and thus, as bizarre as they may initially seem, they evolve in a natural, organic way.

“DO I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes,)” Walt Whitman once wrote, implying that it takes a certain kind of intellect to be able to embrace contradictions. Spruance seems acutely aware that music, that most sublime and abstract of art forms, is uniquely capable of expressing contradiction at its purest.

And while it also takes a certain intellect to be able to absorb such music, it is a rewarding quest. Far from being cerebral, SC3’s music is simply fun to listen to; although intellectually stimulating, it has groove and a real sense of conviction.

It is fair to ask, then, whether the various quotations, references and original segments, written with the intention of evoking well-defined, recognizable musical styles, are all purely musically motivated or whether they are meant to have extra-musical connotations, perhaps even a political resonance.

Spruance is willing to have it both ways. While the driving force is usually purely musical, like the use of a specific meter or non-Western modal scale, he allows the “quotes and sounds to have the psychological baggage they carry.”

SC3 albums, all recorded and produced by Spruance, enjoy the highest production quality. All are mixed analog – the old-fashioned way – and as of late are also issued on vinyl as well as CD.

But SC3 is not one of those acts whose shows are a pale skeleton of their studio work; Spruance is aware of the limitations and capabilities inherent in the studio and stage arenas and embraces them.

While working on an album in the studio, he says, the musicians will sometimes get their parts mailed in MIDI or as sheet music and don’t even know how a piece will eventually sound until Spruance mixes it. But onstage, he assures, SC3 “is very much a live band.”

Surely, those willing to cast aside doubt and enter a “receptive condition” are in for a musical journey likely to shake some of their core cultural convictions.

Secret Chiefs 3 play at the Barby club, in Tel Aviv, on Sunday May 2. Doors open at 9 p.m. The opening act is local band Kruzenshtern i Parohod.


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