Formed shortly after the break-up of Mr. Bungle, Trevor Dunn’s Trio-Convulsant consists of the titular bassist and composer along with guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer / percussionist Ches Smith. Releasing one album in 2004, the experimental avant-jazz three piece have added the strings and flutes of Folie à Quatre for ‘Séances’, their first album in 18 years. It’s been a labour of love for Dunn, who’s also been busy with Tomahawk, Mr. Bungle, and his recently launched Riverworm Records of late. We caught up with the amiable creative for a chat about all of the above. No place like home; Eamon O’Neill.
Hey Trevor, how are you today?
I'm good. I had a busy weekend. Last night was Halloween here, but I was pretty exhausted. I had a couple of big shows recently, and so have been chilling this last couple of days.
Were those Trio-Convulsant shows?
Yeah, it was the Trio. We played in Philadelphia and then the record officially came out on Friday the 28th, so we did a record release show in Brooklyn at this place called National Sawdust.
So how did it go?
It went great. I can't say it wasn't a little bit nervous about it because it was kind of a big deal for me. You know, it's like, the first time I've done a show this big actually under my own name. It was a pretty decent turnout. A little over 100 people came out, and the band sounded great. It's difficult music, and these two gigs were the first time we played it live. So we had a short rehearsal to get it together. I mean, they're all stellar musicians, but there is a lot of like, live cueing and stuff and to keep track of.
The last time we spoke about was the Tomahawk ‘Tonic Immobility’ album, and those simple baseline are the polar opposite of what you're doing with this.
I agree. Yeah.
Was it disappointing that no live shows happened on the back of the album?
I kind of knew that nothing was going to go forward. I mean, that record was actually years in the making. Duane [Denison, guitarist] had me and John Stanier [drummer] fly down to Nashville and record. We recorded it four or five years ago, and he'd already had the music written for a while and he was just kind of sick of waiting for it to happen. You know, [Mike] Patton has been really busy doing a lot of other stuff, so that band is really Duane and Patton's baby. It's mostly Duane's to be honest, and then Patton was busy and just didn't have time to do the vocals on it until basically the middle of the pandemic. A lot of musicians seem to get some work done in that period.
But yeah, for various reasons we knew it wasn't going to happen. That band hasn't really been active in years, so it hasn't been on the kind of treadmill of the way a band functions; with putting out records and touring and stuff like that, which is unfortunate. So for me it's one of the more fun bands I play with because it's pretty easy, but also I can just rock out and not think too much. It's one of the only bands that can really do that.
You did tell me before that it was your second favourite Patton project.
Yeah, I just love Duane's sense of harmony and his guitar writing and the way that him and Patton work together. I think it really is brilliant and works really well. I wish we could tour and do more.
So there's no plans to do any touring around 'Tonic Immobility'?
No, unfortunately not.
As I say, the new Trevor Dunn Trio-Convulsant album ‘Séances’ is the polar opposite of Tomahawk's restrained style; it almost makes Tomahawk sound like pop music!
Yeah, I mean, Tomahawk is one of the more poppy things that I do for sure, but I think definitely playing that kind of music with Tomahawk it takes a certain amount of restraint. You know, like those basslines are Duane's parts; like, he wrote all that stuff, and he hears it a certain way. So I try to achieve that, and that's the same way that Fantômas functions for instance; that was Patton's project, he wrote all that stuff, and I just tried to do my best to help realise his vision. Whether I'm playing like a complicated line, or something that just sits there in groove for a while, it still takes a certain amount of energy and focus, and sometimes it's harder to do the easier stuff to be honest; it's hard to stick to one thing and not want to go off and improvise and do all kinds of variation. It's a challenge, and I'm always up for those kinds of challenges, whatever it is.
With the Trio, would it be correct to say that you're more of a composer, rather than just being a bass player?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, I am one of the instrumentalists in the band, and I write bass parts that I have to learn, but it's always funny because I spent all this time writing this music, and we get together and rehearse, and usually the last thing I'm thinking about is; "oh, man, I forgot, I have to learn my parts", like everyone else!
But yeah, it's primarily I'm a composer in that situation, so I'm writing for everyone's parts and approaching it that way. Then when it comes to playing live, I have to perform and make decisions, make cues and like, there's an open section with someone's soloing, and it's up to me to decide when that solo is over and to move on to next section. All that stuff can be really challenging. It's challenging to have both roles.
Is there collaboration with the other members, Mary and Ches as well?
I write 100% of the music, and I write all the charts out for all the musicians. There is some, it's not really necessarily collaboration, but I mean, there are sections that there's free improvisation; for instance in the tune 'Saint-Médard'. I specifically wanted a piece where only the trio; me, Chas and Mary improvise, and everyone else lays out, and in that song that happens, but I gave no direction as to what should happen there. The directions were; 'trio improv'. So it's different every time we play it, and there's definitely a conversation going on in there in terms of the improvisation.
Actually, I didn't write any drum parts, and Ches came up with his own parts, so in a way I should probably give him writer credit, but I didn't! He's basically reading the bass parts, like I give them the bass parts and then sometimes I might say; “focus on the cello part” or “play with the guitar on this section”.
I'm glad you mentioned that track in particular, because I did notice that improvised part; it really does hold you and take your attention.
It's fun for me to write a piece of music and then have a ramp like that. The very last hit of that before the improvisation starts, it's like we're hitting this kind of weird offbeat, repeatedly, and the only direction is just to keep doing that for as long as you can and just let it turn into something. I love doing that because you're coming from this written music which creates this tension, and then you're releasing that in the improv.
There's a track on the debut Mr. Bungle album that has almost the same sort of thing with improvisation going on.
I think it's the end of the last track, 'Dead Goon'. There's a DJ mixing records, and a lot of people have asked me about that, like; "where can I find this? What is this?", and the only place you can find that is on that record, because it was a it was an improvisation by David Shea who played turntables on a couple of songs. At one point, we just said; "hey, man, just do a mix. Just do something crazy and we'll just tag that onto the end of the record". So it's that's just him mixing vinyl, I believe.
Is there a concept behind ‘Séances’?
Yeah, there is. I describe the concept in detail in the liner notes, and it's loosely based around this story about this religious hysteria that was happening in Paris in the 1700s. It's all based around this sect of Christians called the Jansenist, and then an offshoot of them, these people who started having these convulsions at this church. Basically, this famous deacon died at the church and all these people started having what started out as just convulsions, and then it turned into basically, self-torture. They were having people stab them and hit them with hammers and stuff, but they would recover they would have no injuries and there's supposedly hundreds of witnesses to this kind of stuff and sceptics came in to refute it, and they then were convinced otherwise that it was real. So it's very weird. It's very kind of like a Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster story, you know? There's a lot of witnesses, but at the same time it's not very plausible.
It's great for an album concept though!
Yeah that sort of human behaviour fascinates me, and it's just a good topic. Once I dove into researching it, that's where I got a lot of the titles and the imagery for it.
I'm glad you've told me, because 'The Asylum's Guilt' for example, is genuinely unsettling.
That's actually one of my favourite tracks just because I'm just really happy with the way the counterpoint turned out and the type of harmony. As I get older I'm starting to really hone in on my sense of harmony and what appeals to me and how to represent it. That piece I was able to be really patient with where I wrote it and let it just continue. I mean, in terms of it being haunting and unsettling, I don't know how to explain that. I came up with a title after the whole piece was written and it just seemed to fit. There's a melancholy to it for sure.
Album opener 'Secours Meurtriers' has a real groove to it; is that fair to call it that?!
Totally correct. Yeah, I'm not heavy into ambient and drone music so much, and for some reason, that's gotten quite popular in the past 10 or 15 years, or longer. I still appreciate going back and listening to classical music that has a definite pulse, and to me, that's harder to do. It's more of a challenge than just say, droning on a low note for long; I mean, there are challenges to that too, but personally, I want there to be grooves, even if I sometimes try to hide it a little bit. I'll write a groove in a certain metre, but I'll have these hemiolas or these polyrhythms going so you can't really necessarily tell where the one is. I just like that feel.
The Trio is augmented by Folie à Quatre on the album.
Right, so it's technically it's a septet, but it's still based around the trio, which is why I call it a trio convulsant with the quartet.
They bring something else to the sound; you've got flutes on there that are complementing the jazz chords, for example.
My whole reason for adding this quartet was to fill out the Trio. There's a lot of doubling going on. A lot of times I have the cello and the bass clarinet playing in unison, or other times it's cello and violin, or cello and flute, just mixing up the orchestration as much as I can just to add different colours. Writing for trio is difficult, and the music is very exposed. There's only so much one person can do you; if I write trio music for me, Ches and Mary, a lot of responsibility ends up in Mary's hands, because she's got to play the melody and fill in the inner voices, and I've kind of wanted to free her up as well.
And are you playing stand up double bass throughout, rather than electric bass?
It is yeah, the whole record.
Does that give you a different approach?
I do both, and I switch. I actually write a lot on guitar, to be honest, and especially if I'm writing a guitar part, like I really get in there with specific fingerings and stuff and try to figure out what kind of weird chords are possible on guitar. I'm not a great guitar player, but I get around on it pretty well. I also write on keyboard, and part of the reason I do that is just to get out of any habits I might have on an upright bass. Other times, I'll be practising my bass and all of a sudden, a line will come out and like; "oh, I’ve got to write that down", and then I'll focus on trying to develop and write for it. But most of the time I do have to book myself to write. I have to set my day aside and say; "I'm not going to do anything else now. I'm just going to write”, otherwise it'll never get done.
I wanted to talk a little about 2020's unexpected Mr. Bungle reunion; what was it like diving back into that world again?
It was super fun. I mean, for the past 20 years that we have been idle, people have been asking about a reunion and stuff, and I've been adamant about saying "no", but the whole time I was saying that I had this idea in my mind to go back and redo our first demo ['The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny', . Me and Trey [Spruance] and Mike talked about it for a few years before we put it into play. But it was super fun. We all - me and Trey and Mike - were always really were proud of that first demo and that music. It wasn't recorded very well and we didn't play it that well when we were teenagers, and we always felt like it deserved a better presentation. That's why when we became friends with Dave Lombardo [drums] we thought; “he's the guy that music was written for”, really. When we were in high school, we were listening to Slayer and the Big Four and every other metal band that existed. We were voracious about listening to European metal in the '80s and all kinds of stuff, so it was fun to get Dave and Scott [Ian] to join us, and it was super fun in the studio. It was fun to be precise about that stuff, and the knowledge that we've gained over the years from studio work and working together, really it was a total blast.
So how do you get from that first EP, to songs like 'Travolta' 'Slowly Growing Deaf', and 'Egg'? It's like they're barely related at all.
All three of us were listening to different kinds of music in high school. In the '80s it wasn't really cool to do that, and you had to join a camp; you were either a metalhead or a punk or a goth or you're into pop music, but you couldn't like all of those. We had some skater punk friends in high school and I remember going to a party once and they were listening to the first Suicidal Tendencies record, and me and Mike started singing along and these punks were surprised like; "wait, how do you metal heads know this, man?" "Man, we love this record. It's fast. It's angry!" We never understood why you had to choose a genre.
At the same time, I was in college and I was studying, learning about Stravinsky, and all kinds of 20th century composers, and I was still learning how to play jazz. I liked all of it, and I didn't have any reason to limit myself. So those songs, I think, came out of that spirit. I mean, me and Trey and Mike, at a certain point, we were definitely influenced by bands like Fishbone and Oingo Boingo and these kinds of high energy bands that were pushing the limits of what rock bands could do, and I use the word 'rock' loosely, of course. But you know, it was just like; "hey, why can't we add a couple horns and do some like, ska funk stuff or something?"
I was always fascinated with the arrangement of something like 'Slowly Growing Deaf'; it starts off with this fun bass lick, then it stops suddenly, and those atmospheric, sparse keys come in.
That's a song that I wrote, and I guess I knew I wanted it to basically start out as a ballad, but it first it had to have this little intro; this fast intro that related to something that was coming later. So again, I'm thinking compositionally, and like; here's a theme, and then it goes into the main chord progression, and then the song kicks into this kind of like... whatever you want to call that. I guess it's a matter of thinking about a song conceptually, before you sit down and write, you're like; "what do I want this song to do?" I wanted to go in this direction, and we had free rein and we just did whatever we wanted. Same with Mike and Trey; they just brought in songs, like; "hey, I have this idea and it goes like this". "Okay! I don't know what kind of music that is, but I'll learn the part and we'll play it".
When's the last time you sat down and played one of those songs from the first album? If you had to play them tonight, could you do it?
Oh man, I haven't played any of those in years, I mean, probably in over 20 years. Some of that stuff is probably still in there if I picked up a bass. Some of it would take me a minute. I'd have to figure it out. But yeah, it's not like I listen to that music or anything.
There's some great covers of those songs on YouTube; have you seen any of them?
I've seen people doing that where they're actually playing parts incorrectly. But I don’t know, I don't have time. Someone tagged me in a video and so they don't see it and I'm like; "well, it's not totally right". There's been a couple of times I was in a snarky mood and I just commented and said; "WRONG!", but I didn't give any insight as to what was wrong about it [laughing].
That's very Mr. Bungle! [laughing] Were you surprised when the album was such a success, and did you get gold records and stuff like that?
We never went gold. I mean, we never reached like, any status of 'metal'; platinum, or gold or silver or anything like that. But yeah, the way that whole first record went down was surprising and unusual because we got this record deal kind of by accident, basically. Because Patton got famous and Warner Brothers didn't want to give him total autonomy, they said; "well, you have to you know you have to stay within the Warner Brothers family if you want to do this Mr. Bungle band", and our record came out on Warner Brothers, and we were all just like; "wow, incredible!" We thought it was going to be on a subsidiary, like Sire Records or something like that.
That must have been a little surreal.
Thanks to him wearing that shirt in the Faith No More video ['Epic'], people actually went out and picked up our record. When we did our first tour in '92 the places were packed, and all the kids knew the songs, and that was totally surprising. I remember being on stage somewhere, probably in like Omaha, Nebraska or something, and all these places were packed, and all the kids were singing along to 'Squeeze Me Macaroni', and I thought; "wow, how did these kids know these lyrics that I wrote in my bedroom just a couple of years ago?"
Fast forward a few years, the band played its final shows in 1999; did you know that the end was coming?
No, we didn't. we kind of were all starting to separate from each other, like, just musically, and as band leaders we were kind of coming into our own thing. Right around that time is when I moved to New York; Trey moved out of San Francisco, and two of the guys, Bär [Clinton McKinnon, saxophone, keys] and Danny [Heifetz, drums] moved to Australia, and they've been there ever since. It just kind of dissipated naturally. You know, we didn't talk about it. We didn't officially break up ever. A lot of people in the press talk about how we broke up, but we never actually said we broke up; we just stopped playing together for a long time. I mean, Mike and I continued to do Fantômas for a while, and I worked with Trey a few times and we just naturally didn't get back together. We started doing other stuff.
Definitely there was some tension in the band, when you tour that much together. The last two years, we were touring a lot of that 'California' record. It was just compact; we toured the states three times, went to Australia, and went to Europe, and we weren't the type of band to do that much touring usually. So I think we just got sick of each other, ultimately and needed a break, and then it just ended up being a lot longer than anyone thought it would be.
Which is your pick of the band's three albums?
Oh man, they all have different significance for me. They all have a place and a reason for existing. I guess for a long time I was most proud of 'California' , because I just felt like it was our maturest studio work. We really shined together as an ensemble, and using the studio as a tool, and we kind of went bananas on 'California' with the orchestration. Also, there's a level of maturity with the song writing, I think.
The first record is like the opposite of that; the first record is adolescent mayhem, where we were just like; "there's some open space, let's put some percussion in there, and now let's sing about masturbation" or whatever.
Then 'Disco Volante', actually, I feel like, for the Bungle heads out there, the real weirdos out there, that's their favourite record. That was always, I felt like, our identity crisis record. After we were done with the first record and we grew up a little bit, we weren't sure what to do, so we just did everything.
How is Mike Patton doing following his mental health battles?
Yeah, he's doing alright. He seems to be keeping it together. He's had some difficulties in the past few years, but he's been speaking openly about it, and it's not really my place to talk about that. It's his story to tell, but he's hanging in there, and we're planning on going to South America in December, so we've all been very supportive of making sure that he's comfortable. It's weird you know, he's a guy that I've known since we were 13, so we grew up together and we're on parallel paths; they're not the exact same paths, but they're parallel, so it's hard when you've known someone for that long and they're struggling. I just try and be supportive and encouraging, basically.
With Mr. Bungle back for those shows, is there a possibility of more, perhaps in Europe?
We're just going to play it by ear, see how it goes. If this trip goes well, maybe we'll do some more next year. We're just going to see how it goes because definitely, yeah, his health is the most important, and we're not going to force him at sword-point to walk out on the plank.
Are there any plans for any recording activity or releases?
For another Mr. Bungle record? It's something that Trey and Mike and I have batted around, but there's no plans. It would be great, it would be a lot of fun to get back in the studio with those guys, but there's no plans. Right now we're just focusing on doing one step at a time, doing these shows that we can, and each of us are doing our own things in the meantime.
Before we wrap up, what's happening with your label Riverworm Records.
Yeah, I had the brilliant idea during the pandemic to start my own label which seems kind of crazy because, what is a label anymore?! The first record on Riverworm is this duo record, SpermChurch, which is a pretty unconventional electronic music record that me and my buddy put together. I couldn't find anyone to put it out. I solicited a bunch of different labels, but the thing is if you don't know anyone at a label, the whole game of sending in your music and hoping for a response doesn't really exist anymore. You've kind of got to know somebody at a label, or they've seen you play, or they come to you, so I just decided; "screw it, man, I'm just going to take out the middleman and put this out myself, and have control of the artwork". Me, personally, I have a limited fanbase. It's clearly not as big as Mr Bungle's, but I have a fanbase, and so I've been putting out limited pressings of CDs of stuff that I'm directly involved in.
What's currently available?
There's four things that are out now; so SpermChurch; then I did a duo EP with Buzz [Osbourne] from The Melvins, but that sold out right away because we only made 200; and then I have a duo record with a tenor saxophone player Phillip Greenlief; and Ahleuchatistas' record, which is a Southern band. The guitar player lives in Georgia, and it's essentially his music but it's a collaborative trio record. And then I'm remixing some film music that I wrote a few years ago, and I'm going to put that out digital only on the label, and then there's going to be another improv thing next year, so not a tonne of stuff. Having a label is a weird thing, and it's already kind of more work than I want, but it's just giving a home to some more obscure music that would otherwise have a hard time finding a place.
Trevor Dunn’s Trio-Convulsant avec Folie à Quatre's 'Séances' is available now, via Pyroclastic Records. For all things Trevor Dunn visit his Bandcamp and Twitter profiles.
Like this interview? Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for regular updates & more of the same.