EXCLUSIVE: Leader of Secret Chiefs 3, and guitarist on Faith No More’s classic ‘King For A Day’ album, Trey Spruance is perhaps best known as one of the key members of avant-garde metal outfit Mr. Bungle. Reconvening in late 2019 after almost two decades apart, Mr. Bungle's core of Trey, Trevor Dunn and Mike Patton were joined by Slayer’s Dave Lombardo and Anthrax riff machine Scott Ian, in the newest incarnation of the band. Ushering in a new era by rerecording their ‘Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo’, the band are still doing things in their own, against-the-grain way. Celebrating their rebirth, we sat down with Trey for an extended chat. In Part 1, it’s about all things Bungle. Glutton for punishment; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Trey, how are you today?
I’ve no complaints.
Before we get to the return of Mr. Bungle, you’ve been a little bit underground for the last few years; what have you been up to?
You know, it’s funny, because starting in 2006 or so, the band that I focus most of my time on is Secret Chiefs 3, which I’ve been developing since, I think 1995, when the first record [‘First Grand Constitution and Bylaws ‘] came out. We toured a little bit, but it really became a touring machine in about 2007, and we’ve played 700 shows, I think, since. We’ve played fucking everywhere; maybe up to sixty countries! It’s just a parallel universe, and of course, you’re right; it’s underground, but it’s also a lot of activity. So, I’ve been insanely busy, doing more music than I’ve ever done, and much more music than I ever did in the ‘90s with Mr. Bungle. But yeah, it’s not as visible.
Mr. Bungle has a real hard core cult following; do you feel you’re carrying that weight with you with anything you’ve done since?
I used to really try to discourage promotors from using that, but then I realised that every region is different, and in, say Australia; yeah, that’s how they want to promote stuff, or in South America; that’s how they want to promote stuff. But like in France, and continental Europe and Eastern Europe; no. I’ve built this thing where it’s been a problem, in some ways, to be associated with Mr. Bungle because the audience for Secret Chiefs, some of them are like; “okay, I know about that, but it’s not really my thing”, so it’s not really that it’s a detriment, but we’ve had to build around it a bit. So it’s different, and I’ve kind of handled it differently everywhere I go.
What has it been like stepping back into Mr. Bungle and going right back to the band’s earliest days, even though it has now attained something of a legendary status?
Yeah, I like that about this phase of it. It’s cool, because we’re reconvening around our friendship in high school. And I think even the whole time, the legend that you mentioned, I feel like we were always a little bit out in front of that, and not really noticing the kind of dust we were kicking up. So, in the meantime, in the twenty years between when we played our last show and now, maybe each of us have digested a little bit more; “okay, yeah, all of that stuff got kicked up”. We just ignored it at the time, so now that it’s part of our consciousness of the band, going back and focusing on the absolute original root of the band, you know, high school friends, it’s really great. It really helps clarify who we are as musicians with each other; what our collaboration really looks and feels like. It really just kind of cleanses the pallet. It’s really been a very healthy thing for all of us.
Did you ever think that the reunion might happen, and how was it broached that got you thinking; “okay, this might actually work?”
I wasn’t sure whether it would happen or not. I don’t think any of us were, and I think every one of us had mixed feelings about that too, like; if we were to do it, what shape would it take that would be right? Also, we have kind of a pedigree established, in that all of the music that we ever did came out of pure inspiration and pure motivation, and would we have that again? And if we didn’t, why would we ever fucking reunite and do anything?! That’s where we were at with it, and how it happened essentially, is that the idea to go back to the beginning and do thrash metal was the thing that just inspired each of us the same way. We all just took to that like; “that’s the answer! That’s what we’ve got to do.”
So it was a conscious decision not to have, say, the horn section return?
It was completely deliberate; “we’re going to go back and play the music from 1985 that was the beginning of the band”. That was the whole purpose of this stage of what we’re doing.
Scott Ian is the perfect addition to the line-up for that sort of music, but what’s it like being part of a two-guitar band for you?
Oh yeah. I mean, and that’s the thing, from the ‘Raging Wrath’ era, the original demo, from that point forward, my role in Mr. Bungle – and Trevor’s is similar – for me, I’m orchestrating the band a lot of the time, so I’m involved in a lot of the other instruments. I mean, everybody is, but I stopped identifying myself, really, as a guitar player, somewhere around 1987 or so, really. I’m not attached to the guitar at all, so for me, even doing the Faith No More record [‘King For A Day’, 1995]; that was two guitar players. It’s me; both of them are me, but one is panned in the right speaker, one’s panned in the left speaker, and when I do that, I’m trying to be two different people. I approached the guitar from two different psychologies. If you’re doing heavy music, with the distortion, you often need the two-guitar dynamic. So, it was totally natural for me to think it terms of two guitars.
Is that why the decision was made to add an extra guitar player for this incarnation of the band?
Most of the time it’s just me because the precision in all of that works out more easily, I guess, but in Mr. Bungle we have like billions of instruments going on; we don’t need a bunch of guitars. But going back to this music that’s nothing but guitar music; Scott Ian, I mean Jesus Christ, what are you going to do?! You can’t do better than that! That’s the golden egg. He’s the guy that probably inspired us the most, with the guitar sound of what a guitar is supposed to sound like. Having him there was just like; "Jesus, I guess we’ve got a Lamborghini now!"
You can hear that influence in some of the heaviest riffs you ever recorded; such as the palm-muted riff towards the end of ‘Squeeze Me Macaroni’, from the debut album.
Oh, for sure. You touch on an important thing, which is there’s never been a time in Mr. Bungle’s existence where it wasn’t a metal band. There was always metal in there somewhere, and when we think ‘metal’; metal isn’t just riffs and drums playing like a machine; it’s a whole psychology. The psychology of metal is there, even in that funk metal era; it’s everywhere.
Mr. Bungle’s debut was released via Warner Bros. in 1991; what do you remember about the recording of the album?
I mean, I remember everything. I guess, the big thing was being in a big studio. We had an engineer that we had worked with on the ‘OU818’ demo ; he was actually our engineer on that first record, but we did not have a producer. Warner Bros, they were having us be on the label for, let’s say their motivation wasn’t really about Mr. Bungle, right? I mean, they wanted to manage the situation with Mike Patton - understandably - and so, we were wary of them.
Why were you wary of Warner Bros?
They were trying to put us on different subsidiaries; some of which probably would have been okay, like Sire Records, Reprise Records. Slash Records probably wasn’t going to work for us because the guy who runs Slash was the guy who developed Faith No More on the ‘Introduce Yourself’  record and all of that, so we didn’t feel that his motives were particularly pure. So, we were recording a record, we didn’t have a producer, and we were floating around without any idea what label in the Warner family this thing’s going to come out on, which is totally weird circumstances for recording a record, especially with an enormous budget like the one that we were given.
So, at least they gave you a decent advance for the album.
I say ‘given’, but you know how the major label budgets work; they recoup every penny that you spend out of your percentage before they pay you anything. So, it’s not like we were rich or anything! So, once we got John Zorn as the producer, we were able to finish the record and have something that we were very happy with. And the record ended up coming out just on straight Warner Bros; the label of Frank Sinatra and Devo! [laughing] It's kind of how we slipped under the radar in the Warner family; because there was nobody paying attention to the record! Which is a mixed blessing; there’s some good things about that. Our relationship with Warners from that point forward was always totally weird; they had no idea what we were doing, but the records would sell enough that we would survive on the label, which we didn’t want to.
You were keen to get off the label?
We wanted to get off of Warners almost the whole time, but, you know; “they’re cutting Mudhoney, they’re dropping bands left and right in the mid-90s, and they’re not dropping us! FUCK!!” Weird! It’s a totally weird situation, but one that I can’t complain about because we got the money to make these crazy production records.
How long were you actually in the studio, recording the first album?
As far as the recording, actually, that record was pretty fast. I think we did all of the tracking in less than a month, or around a month, and the mixing took something like three weeks, and there was a little bit of rerecording. The way we structured the recording was smart in the end, and it wasn’t really our doing. Our engineer David Bryson, he knew us, and he was good. He ended up being the guitar player for Counting Crows, by the way!
So what was it that made it easy for you?
You know, it’s interesting, I think that we had the same way of making a record from the first record onwards. They just got crazier and crazier, but that first record, we still did everything the same way, which is to, essentially build a skeleton; record the drums and the bass, and then leave spaces in order to get the tempos done correctly, and make sure there’s room for all the instruments that are going to be put onto the skeleton. If there’s no drums happening, you’re just sitting there tapping, or just singing the parts that are going on until the drums come back in. You just build a skeleton and then you add the organs, and you add the flesh.
The album opens with almost a complete silence, and then this colossal chord hits you with these crazy, carnival-esque keys; was that a deliberate attempt to shock the listener into submission?
Absolutely. Throughout that record there’s a bunch of felid recordings which we did one night walking around Eureka. What our real goal was, was we wanted to record the freight train, because we were into hopping the train, so we wanted to jump on the train with the recording equipment, and record the train. But we missed the train, or then we caught it and jumped off of it, and essentially, all of those field recordings on that record are things that happened that night. So, that silence that you speak of, we want people to think it’s silent, or to just hear something so they’ll turn their stereo up really loud and hear it.
Do you remember what it actually was that you recorded?
It’s actually, if you listen carefully, you can hear something snoring, and this kind of fits in with the artwork. You have, essentially, homeless, violent clowns that are breaking bottles over each other’s head, kind of stuff, so we found a guy who was sleeping on the ground in the middle of the night, and we just recorded him snoring. And then we walked down the street a little ways, and busted a window! [Laughing] I’m not real proud of these things, but that’s what we did. We were kind of living the ultraviolence. We didn’t kick the bum’s head in like Clockwork Orange or anything, but we did wake him up with a broken window about ten feet away from him, and that’s the beginning of the record.
Who was it who went on that recording trip with you?
It was Trevor and myself, just walking around. It’s the group that became Raging Mass. Only the guys from Eureka would be so stupid! We rented a DAT machine in San Francisco, and we had really good microphones. It was really high end audio stuff to record this ridiculous bullshit!
From a lyrical point of view, there are some less than conventional topics covered, such as on the likes of ‘Squeeze Me Macaroni’.
I laughed! I thought that Mike’s lyrics were always clever. I didn’t really think too far beyond how things sounded, and how they fit with the riffs, and fit with the song. I did pay more attention to it a little bit later. In fact, when we were recording the first record – which, by that time, ‘Squeeze Me Macaroni’ as a song, had been around for two years at least – we were actually going to have the Kronos Quartet, the avant-garde string quartet – they were slated to play on that record, but then they got a load of some of the lyrics, and they were like; “yeah, unfortunately we can’t do that”, which I totally understand! Then I took a look at those lyrics and I’m like; “yeah, I get it. I wouldn’t want to play on that fuckin’ record either”!
With ‘Egg’, was that end “there’s no place like home” section jammed out?
Let’s see; ‘Egg’, Trevor had written ‘Egg’ several years before we recorded it, I think in ’88 or something. Yeah, a lot of the stuff on that record was born from collective improvisations, and that part wasn’t from an improvisation – it was written for sure by Trevor, but some of the modifications that we did on it were… I won’t say it was totally improvisational; we knew how many times thing would happen; we knew were accelerations and slow-downs would happen, but on a lot of things it was left to chance. So, that made it onto the record. I guess that the skeleton part that we originally recorded, like you were asking before, locked in a specific way we were going to do it, and then we just layered things on top of it that we thought would work.
An aspect of your playing that is quite striking is what’s now referred to as your ‘video game’ guitar style; how did that come about?
I think yeah, when it was video games, that was mostly in the ‘Raging Wrath’ era, and it was only because I was doing sort of atonal serialism sometimes, or things that were not in traditional key signatures, and it sort of sounded like randomised computer blips. Somebody, I think it was Patton, said; “that’s video games; do that video game solo stuff”, so I don’t know, I got a reputation for being able to turn it into like a video game. But I’ve never been like a pedal guy, so it’s not really pedals, I think it’s just the note; the note choices sound more like they’re computer generated, than human generated.
I wanted to touch on ‘Disco Volante’, which is the most inaccessible of the original three releases; what’s your view on this one?
I think that ‘Disco Volante’ was our true coming of age record. I mean, as far as the audience, it certainly divided people, and my experience of it actually is that the people who love that record, love it more than any other record; they’re like, kind of over the edge in their love of it, which is cool! It’s cool for us because it was our first totally self-produced record. We were certainly, as ever, just following our own inspirations; so collaborating together and having control over every aspect of what we were doing. I was getting more and more into recording, which helped facilitate the arranging process; doing group arrangement stuff. We had a great engineer, Billy Anderson, helping us navigate the studio, and all of these elements created this atmosphere of collaborative fire, I would call it, where we just knew; we fucking knew what we were doing. Whereas, on the first record, we didn’t know what we were doing; we knew what we wanted our band to sound like, but we didn’t know how to get there at all, and we luckily had very good help with that.
So it’s your most autonomous album?
‘Disco Volante’ was when we; “okay, nobody’s going to help us do this shit, that’s for sure!” It worked, so I’m super proud of that record, still. ‘Disco Volante’ has its challenges, and it wears its’ challenging nature on its sleeve; it just shows you, directly, what kinds of obtuse things are happening behind the scenes.
Moving on to ‘California’, which is another fan favourite, and it’s conversely, probably the most accessible record the band has made.
It was by far the most complex record to make. There are way more things going on in ‘California’ that are much more challenging than on ‘Disco Volante’, but you wouldn’t know it quite necessarily, if you were expecting that so show up as like, avant-garde sounding music. So, ‘California’, that was more of an enormous labour; a little bit more like – not in a bad sense, but more like a Beach Boys ‘Pet Sounds’ / ‘Smile’ era, in a sense, where there’s just an awful lot of thought going into every part. Each part is a skyscraper of parts, so since we’re not working in digital but working on tape, everything has to be planned in an orderly way in order to pull it off at all, and still have the collaborative spirit being the primary focus. What you end up with in the end, is an accurate reflection of the spirit of all the people in the band. Like, all of those elements, I think, came together perfectly, like better than on any other record. The fact that we were able to keep focus, and keep our shit together with such an ambitious project, and also not hate each other; like to enjoy working with each other under that kind of workload, it’s amazing, totally amazing.
It sounds like ‘California’ is the one that you’re proudest of.
That’s definitely the proudest analogue record that I’ve ever made. It’s unbelievably strong, to this day. I still think about it, like; “man, nobody really…”; some of the fans know what went into this record, but as far as music history goes? I think ‘California’ deserves a place in the books, just for the ambition and the scope of what was done, and that it was all done on tape. And it was really the last enormous, multi-channel, tape production done by a major label.
The album opens with ‘None of Them Knew They Were Robots’, which is incredibly dense from the off; is that what you mean when you’re referring to those skyscrapers within songs?
That’s interesting that you should say; it’s not really what I meant, but you’re right. The feel of that song, which - our working title for that song was ‘Rockabilly’ and ultimately it sounds more like a swing; the song comes across like a big band swing song. But the absolute skeletal part of it throughout the tune is rockabilly. When you do rockabilly it’s swinging, but it’s kind of in a rock and roll way; it’s really important to get that rock and roll, rockabilly thing going on in the rhythm section, and then yeah, there are just mountains built on top of that, so it’s not the first thing you notice.
Another favourite is the sweet melancholy of ‘Retrovertigo’.
I remember when Trevor wrote it, the riff and the melody. I remember we were sharing ideas that we had for the next Mr. Bungle record, and he reluctantly showed us that one. He was kind of fast-forwarding like; “yeah, there’s this idea, then there’s this one”. He’d play for a second, and like; “wait, wait! What’s that?!” He kind of didn’t want to let us hear it, and the he was like; “okay”, and he played it for us, and Mike and I were just like; [excitedly] “well, we’ve got to do that! Jesus Christ, this is great!” And he was like; “Ah maybe it’s too straight. It’s too ‘pop”, and we were like; “what the fuck are you talking about?!” And that helped enable Patton and I, who also were for some reason thinking the same thing; to do a Mr. Bungle perspective on pop sensibility.
So ‘Retrovertigo’ was the song that actually set the tone for the whole ‘California’ album?
When Trevor showed us ‘Retrovertigo’, I think it motivated me to actually share some things I had intended for other things, and one of those was ‘Pink Cigarette’. After ‘Disco Volante’ it’s not something that you’d think was going to go with Mr. Bungle. But I felt in my soul that it should be Mr. Bungle; I just wasn’t sure anybody else in the band was there yet, and when I heard ‘Retrovertigo’, I thought; “oh! Well, I guess this is what we’re doing now”. It really helped congeal the direction for that record.
‘The Air-Conditioned Nightmare’ is a great example of that pop sensibility, with Patton’s doo-wop backing vocals.
I mean, it’s interesting too, because in ’98, Sony in Japan had asked me to contribute a couple of songs for a Beach Boys tribute album [‘Smiling Pets’], with mostly American and UK and Japanese indie rock bands, doing Beach Boys’ versions of ‘Pet Sounds’ and the ‘Smile’ record. I had done ‘Good Vibrations’ and a version of ‘Heroes and Villains’, so I had been doing all of this, four freshmen, four-part harmony Beach Boys’ stuff, with distorted rhythmic vocals and stuff like that. And completely parallel to that - I mean, nothing to do with that - when Patton brings ‘Air-Conditioned Nightmare, the parts of that song that he wrote, there was the Beach Boys’ stuff going on. We hadn’t talked about it, the project I had done - I don’t even think he was aware of it - it was just we were really all on the same wavelength.
Saxophonist Clinton "Bär" McKinnon is also credited on that song.
Well, Bär wrote the other half of that song, and out of everyone in Mr. Bungle, Bär is the guy who writes the catchy melodies. Not everything that he writes is catchy in the conventional sense, but when it’s a really catchy thing, it’s infectious. All in, ‘Air-Conditioned Nightmare’, Bär’s contribution is, I hear that now, and I’m like; “man, what a beautifully written piece of music”. Bär’s amazing.
You mentioned that you all enjoyed working on ‘California’, but after the tour, the band ended; what happened?
That was more about after the recording. I mean, I guess there were some little cracks, for sure, that had shown up. Later though, in the touring cycle, things just kind of deteriorated. I used to think it was just only between Mike and myself, but I think there was really just bad communication between, really, the three of us; we’re all pretty guilty; Trevor, Mike and myself. Like, Danny [Heifetz – percussion, drums] and Bär they’re not involved in what the problem was, and the problem if you just boil it down, is bad communication; just not talking to with each other, not talking problems through, and letting resentments fester.
So it was a lack of communication that ultimately, ended the band?
All of this kind of shit, you know, I know I was doing it, because looking back I can see where my festering resentments were located, but I know I’m not the only one. And now that we’re able to communicate better, it’s really, really obvious like we had a very dysfunctional relationship as friends, and as partners, probably because there would be years going by between these records where we wouldn’t be in the same room together. It was cool for the music because we’d bring all these fresh ideas together and collaborate, so musically we just had this incredible relationship, but our friendship, I think got eclipsed. I think putting the music front and centre, and not dealing with our issues as friends; that’s really the story.
Back to the present day, and the world waited twenty years for Mr. Bungle to return, and then the pandemic hit; that must have been a huge disappointment for you.
Well, I’ve had a hell of a year I have to tell you, my wife and I. My house that I’ve lived in for twenty years, I’ve been renovating it, and I was in the process of selling it, and it came very close to getting burned down by one of the big California wild fires over the summer. So I’ve been moving all of my stuff, and it’s just been a crazy period. You can imagine moving all of your crap during a pandemic, and moving into a new place, so for a while there I didn’t even have time to think about the fact that; “oh yeah, Mr. Bungle was doing stuff, and then the pandemic hit”.
It sounds like you’ve been extremely occupied, in that case!
I’ll be honest, I produced a record for this metal band, and I’ve been super fucking busy at home. But what sucks about this is we were planning on going overseas and playing shows in other countries; letting the fans have a chance to check it out. And it sucks for that to get postponed because you’re right; I think the chemistry in the band is important, and we had this great momentum going. But let me say this, when we did The Night They Came Home [virtual concert, 31st October 2020], when we played live in the studio for the livestream thing; all the pieces are there. Like, it’s not hard to get this band motivated, so I’m pretty optimistic that once the pandemic’s over, we will find our stride very quickly.
So the take home message is that there will be further live shows, and that we haven’t heard the end of Mr. Bungle?
We know that the will is there to do it, but yeah, like everybody else, what the hell can you say? We don’t know what’s going to happen yet. But yeah, the will is there.
For Part 2 of this interview, which covers Faith No More's 'King For a Day' album, click here.
Mr. Bungle's 'Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny Demo' is available now, via Ipecac Recordings. For all things Mr. Bungle visit the band's official website.
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