Trey Spruance was feeling “a little frazzled” when we spoke on the phone recently in the lead-up to the Secret Chiefs 3 (SC3) rock concert at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv next Saturday (8:30 p.m.).
“I stayed up all night trying to prepare stuff, finishing a record and getting everything ready before we go on the road. It always seems to happen this way,” said Spruance with an air of resigned acceptance. “But I’ll survive.”
That Spruance is a survivor has been abundantly clear for some years, and he has gradually carved his own unique niche in the music business. He served a creditable apprenticeship with stints as guitarist and keyboardist with California experimental rock band Mr. Bungle and rock outfit Faith No More before striking out on his own diverse way as leader of Secret Chiefs 3.
The group’s live performances are something of a whirlwind experience.
There is a deceptive laissez-faire ambience about their shows, but Spruance is keen to point out that a lot of groundwork goes into making what he and his band mates appear to reel off with ease.
“It is very meticulous, all the work that goes into this, all the sculpting,” he said, adding that it would be nice if he were able to go with the flow. “I wish it was a little bit more spontaneous. That’s what everyone wants to hear from a musician – spontaneity. There are certain moments when we play, but that’s solo spontaneity, and that’s completely different [from shared spontaneity].”
Considering the expansiveness of the Spruance and the SC3 spread, it is not hard to understand why there is little room for on-the-fly endeavor. The 45-year-old multi-instrumentalist and his cohorts delve into so many areas of music and dip into so much culturalethnic background that they have to make sure their act is polished and super smooth before they proffer it to the paying public.
On Book of Souls, for example, the band’s latest release, and their ninth album since setting up shop in 1995, there is a very wide spectrum of genres, vibes and creative ideas that cite from 20th-century classical music, prog rock, cheesy riffs, frenetic stabs of sound, 1940s movie soundtrack passages, Middle Eastern melodies and electronica – to mention but a few.
“What we do is really the opposite of going with the flow,” he stated. “I feel like I am forcing an idea into the world, and there is a lot of inertia against it.”
He added that he has no pretenses to being a master on any of the instruments he uses to make his artistic statements and relates to the tools and their cultures of origin with the utmost humility. “I think the word ‘instrument’ is the right word for how I use them.
They are instruments for a composition. I really respect musical traditions to the point where I can’t involve myself in their history. There are musicians who get really deep into the history of their instrument, but I’m not like that at all. What I am interested in [using other instruments] is that it takes me out of the limitations that I find in my own conceptual horizons, and that sometimes involves me picking up an instrument I am not familiar with. With Secret Chiefs, I think it is all our Western baggage being imposed on these instruments, but that’s for a reason, for a compositional reason,” he said.
So where does Spruance hail from musically? “The beginning for me was [early 1970s American rock band] Devo,” he recalled.
With its mix of punk, art rock, postpunk and new wave offerings, Devo sounds like a natural choice for someone who was to take in such an eclectic swathe of musical avenues. The Spruance musical evolutionary plot thickens.
“Very soon after that, I got into Stravinsky. My dad would listen to Stravinsky when he was angry or the Poulenc organ concerto. That scared me, but when I got a little deeper into my puberty I started enjoying it, the scariness of it,” he said.
Stravinsky also wrote music for ballet, and there is a certain visual element to his scores. However, Spruance said that, in addition to the aforementioned emotive content, he also takes a mathematical approach to music.
“My approach is a bit more primitive. I have internalized the basics of geometry, having studied a lot of geometric principles for a very long time. After a while, it just starts to happen that you really start to feel affected by that. I think that really affects my music, although not always in ways I understand,” he said.
Not surprisingly, given Spruance’s penchant for improvisation, jazz also features in his musical coming of age.
“Jazz was part of it for early on, in high school and college, but then I sort of moved away from it,” he said.
But the jazz bug has continued to make its presence felt in Spruance’s creative mindset.
“When I hear Coltrane or [pianist] McCoy Tyner today, I hear all kinds of stuff I didn’t hear back then,” he noted, referring back to his mathematical approach. “I laugh at how people analyze Coltrane solos, and the tertian harmonies [notes divided by three semitones], but it’s just geometric patterns and it’s coherent, but not in the sense of tertian harmonies.”
As one of the first jazz artists to look outside Western culture for inspiration, Coltrane is a natural choice for Spruance, as is American avant-garde composer, arranger, record producer and musician John Zorn, whose oeuvre cuts across numerous genres and styles. Spruance teamed up with Zorn in 2008 when he arranged and played on the richly diverse album Xaphan: Book of Angels Volume 9.
“John is one of the only people I feel really comfortable working with. He works on so many different levels. He’s a musical genius. He really shines on every level you look at,” he said.
Spruance is pretty much a bright spark himself, and next week’s audience at Barby should come out of the show feeling suitably enlightened and satiated.
For tickets and more information: (03) 518-8123; www.aurismedia.com and tickets.barby.co.il