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From the Archives: My Interview with Trey Spruance

CJ Chilvers
CJ Chilvers
13 min read

Yesterday, my all-time favorite band, Faith No More, announced they will perform their album King for a Day, Fool for a Lifetime in its entirety during a reunion show in Chile with the album’s original guitar player, Trey Spruance. Trey is better know as the guitar player/songwriter behind Mr. Bungle, Secret Chiefs 3 and number of other genius projects. He is the true definition of artist: a person who creates something new and beautiful just for the beauty of it.

Naturally, FNM fans are giddy at the thought and Mr. Bungle fans can’t wait for the Patton/Spruance reunion on stage. In honor of this incredible show-to-be, I dug through my archives and found the interview I conducted with Mr. Spruance 12 years ago, when I was struggling music writer/photographer. It includes some of Trey’s thoughts on King for Day, Mr. Bungle’s history and music in general.

At the time, Mr. Bungle was in between the US and European legs of their tour in support of the album California, drawing bigger crowds than they were used to and getting better press than they were used to. They had finally made an album somewhat accessible to the masses and were being rewarded for it.

I’m impressed to this day by how gracious and welcoming Trey was when I showed up at at Studio Chicago. He was producing the album, The Drake Equation by Tub Ring. If you’ve never seen the man in person, he most resembled…the Irishman in Braveheart. In fact, I can’t even watch that movie now without thinking about Mr. Bungle.

When I first arrived, Trey jumped up from the mixing board and greeted me with a resounding, “Cancelled!” He was speaking of the European shows the band had planned, cancelled due to the undying feud between Mr. Bungle and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who had allegedly blackballed Mr. Bungle from the highest paying shows (both were to perform at the same festivals).

He treated me as an equal, even though I was very young and barely knew what I was doing. He grabbed a copy of my newly released book, The Van Halen Encyclopedia, and I told him I referenced Bungle twice in it. He seemed quite amused by the thought. I asked him if he’d ever thought of doing a book like it, hoping to get another book going myself. He said he had, but if he were to write a book on the meaning behind the last Bungle album alone, it would take 600 pages. I wanted in, but it seemed like a back-back-back-burner idea.

Tub Ring was on a tight schedule with their studio time, so when a break in the mixing presented itself, everyone, including the band, Trey and I, walked down the street to a Thai restaurant, where between mouthfuls of rice, Trey was kind enough to answer my questions.

What do think of the people who show up to your shows?

Trey: Well, they’re all different - I like that. It’s too general. Generally, the first five rows are one kind of person, then the silent majority is behind all of them. I do my best not to think about any of it while I’m playing.

Do you think that people are intimidated by you guys sometimes?

Trey: Maybe the people who are considerate possibly are. They don’t want to be perceived as the fuckin’ clamoring, annoying shitheads. (laughs) I know that when I’m standing back there, usually, when I see a show, I don’t want to bum-rush the band.

That’s what I noticed this summer when you guys were walking outside the clubs. Some people took a couple of steps back.

Trey: I don’t know if we put out that “fuck you” vibe, but things like that tell me that we do. I don’t mean to, but I guess it happens.

What do you prefer, performing live or recording in the studio?

Trey: Technically they’re similar, but they’re both a fuckin’ nightmare for me. I probably get more long-term fulfillment out of being in the studio.

Is it about having something tangible to show for your work at the end of the day?

Trey: No, it’s having something to show at the end of three months of hell and toil. (laughs) Shows are very un-creative, it’s just a different kind of rush. You’re basically just enjoying it because it’s fun. But it’s not really the most fulfilling artistic experience in the world.

Who do you admire the most in Mr. Bungle?

Trey: Danny Heifetz. You can throw anything at him. He’s not a flashy player. He’s not somebody you notice right off the bat. I work with him on other projects too, and there’s nothing he can’t do. I can throw the weirdest things at him and I don’t have to explain it to him in any technical way. He understands it immediately. He’s really an amazing musician and a really fun person to hang around with. Everybody in the band is fun to hang around with. If you room with him you’ll be rolling on the floor laughing until you go to sleep.

Is it all the same way as it was on your first tour with the guys?

Trey: Pretty much. We’re a well-oiled war machine when it comes to dealing with the clubs. We’re hard-asses. Amongst ourselves, we have as much fun as we’ve always had.

What about your equipment problems on this tour?

Trey: You should’ve seen it when it was really bad. Our sampler pretty much got destroyed. Not the main sampler, which is a good 60% of what comes out of the speakers, that one didn’t break. Mike’s, which is mostly sound effects and noises, that thing broke in St. Louis because we played in the middle of the heat wave there.

What do you consider the best song you’ve ever written?

Trey: This answer would change depending on what day you ask me. Probably “White as They Come” on the Secret Chiefs record. That’s my very intense, personal project that I do.

Do you have a specific role in Mr. Bungle?

Trey: The guy who figures out how to make it happen. I write a bit of the music. We’re pretty equal – me, Trevor, and Mike – as far as the writing. But I do a lot of production stuff. Some of that is collaborative too. Everybody has ideas on how it should sound. My role is figuring out how to do it. What’s going to work, what isn’t going to work – that kind of shit.

What kind of goals do you have musically?

Trey: I want to become more self-sufficient, as far as being able to make records, and not just have it be some project studio bullshit. We have a little studio, but it’s better to find ways to work in real studios and just deal with all the weird incompatibilities of formats. That’s a lot of what I have to figure out. You focus more. I don’t really want to be in a project studio band. (laughs)

What’s the most inspiring thing to happen to you in your life, musically?

Trey: When I played with this guy Eyvind Kang, a violinist. The first time I played with him was this John Zorn Cobra thing. It just sort of ignited something, like meeting somebody who’s a friend but you know instantly that this is somebody you’re going to be working with and be close to. That happened in just a moment. That’s the only time that’s ever happened to me. I’m absolutely not a sentimentalist. I pretty much hate music. (laughs) But when that happened that was pretty incredible.

Why are you producing this band’s album?

Trey: I met a couple of the guys a few years ago when we played in Wisconsin and I remembered them. I didn’t hear any music at the time. Then they sent me a demo tape. We get a lot of demo tapes on the road. They’re real serious about what they do. A lot of bands will give us that stuff and they just kind of want to throw it in your lap and say, “Help us.” I could tell that these guys had focus and direction and wanted to do something specific. I felt that I could help. I don’t have a sense of that when I get a lot of demo tapes from people. I understood why they asked me to do it.

Let me ask you about the Halloween show.

Trey: (laughs)

Who came up with the idea to dress up like the Red Hot Chili Peppers?

Trey: I thought of it. Right when we were about to go on stage in Ohio, we were going, “What the hell are we going to do for Halloween?” As we were walking on stage I said, “Fuck, we’ve got to be the Red Hot Chili Peppers.” Just perfect.

I heard that you dressed up as the ghost of Hillel Slovak.

Trey: People were weirded out by that, but I feel misunderstood. I liked Hillel a lot. Back when he was in the band, I liked the Chili Peppers. Things just started happening after that like that whole thing of River Phoenix getting shot up by Flea, and then fuckin’ dying. All these things started happening and I just saw this Chet Baker movie called “Let’s Get Lost,” and it has Flea at the end of it just glomming on to Chet Baker in his most downtrodden state. He’s just running around on the beach with him – really sick. I mentally started associating Hillel with that kind of thing. I just started resenting this fucked-up junkie world that they had created for themselves. So my point in being Hillel was to be a grim reaper, haunting the living Red Hot Chili Peppers like, “Fuck you. You killed me.” That’s why I was dressed as the grim reaper. I wasn’t a ghost. It was the ghost of Hillel, but it was a grim reaper outfit. My demeanor on stage to the rest of the band was, “Fuck you!” I had a big needle and I was trying to stick it in them. So I don’t think it was in bad taste at all. The other thing that really pissed me off is now when they posthumously release a book of his writing. Which is obviously just table-top scribbles. A journal that they’re fucking publishing now. “Oh Hillel, our great fucking dear departed friend, the cosmic fucking genius.” It’s sickening. It’s so fucking exploitative. It pissed me off.

Do you ever worry about that kind of thing?

Trey: Like if we die?

If all the stuff locked away in the Mr. Bungle “vault” got out?

Trey: (laughs) That would be pretty bad. Each of us has what we call a “graveyard of riffs.” Everybody’s got stacks of tapes of ideas that haven’t been used. But there’s probably only 20 to 25 minutes of finished music that we haven’t put out. We don’t have a lot of finished material lying around, just a lot of scattered fragments.

Would you ever redo stuff from the past that you haven’t released? Everyone seems to love “Mr. Nice Guy.”

Trey: We hear about that.

Are you done with that?

Trey: Pretty much, yeah. Think about it this way – I just told you about this huge resource of these unused things that we haven’t figured out a place for. Don’t you think we’d be more excited about working some of those things up that have been laying around for longer? Like “None of Them Knew They Were Robots” which was based on riffs written 14 years ago. So, some of our new music is older, some predating “Mr. Nice Guy.” It’s more exciting to write new music and come up with new things than to go back…

Tub Ring: “Mr. Nice Guy” is the greatest song ever written. Ever.

Trey: We just hate our old stuff. We hate it. (laughs)

Tub Ring: That old song of yours that was also badass was “Definition of Shapes.”

Trey: For the first album, it was in the running. It was definitely in the running.

I heard you guys were really angry about the “Disco Volante” sessions being released as a bootleg.

Trey: We’re divided on that one. I understand it. We’re pissed at whoever leaked it, but you can’t hold people responsible for wanting to get a hold of that.

Tub Ring: I have it in my car if you want to hear it.

(everybody laughs)

What kind of book would you like to write?

Trey: I have three different ideas, I’ll give you one of them. I wanted to do a thesis, a final will and testament of an artificial being. Sort of a final lecture.

What’s another?

Trey: Sort of a historical, mystical, mish-mosh that creates an overall impression of a world that’s not what it seems. It would be intended to psychologically effect you at certain spots.

Is that what you’re trying to do with your music too?

Trey: Yeah, same thing basically.

I notice that the lyrics you write have a depth that makes me think that there’s a lot I’m missing.

Trey: Yeah, it would be elaborations on that stuff. I intend to do that at some point. There’s a lot of people who ask about it and I will give them a bunch of different references. Some people really get into it and start really understanding what I’m talking about. I can tell it’s rewarding for some of them, so it would be nice to weave some of this together and put it in one place.

Another thing I’ve heard rumors about is your low opinion of “King for a Day, Fool for a Lifetime.” Any truth to that?

Trey: Not really, no. I think that “Angel Dust” is a better record, though. There are certain things on “King for a Day” that I think really, really stink, but there are a lot of things that are really good. Like the last song, which I think is excellent. The end of the record is strong. There’s a few real duds in the beginning. I don’t hate it or anything.

What kind of albums are you listening to now?

Trey: I bought a whole bunch of early music like 12th, 13th century Italian dances. I’m into Persian and Arabic music too.

So that was what we were hearing before the House of Blues show?

Trey: Yeah. Rather than being a total fucking cultural-phile, my interest in that stuff is to see where our music came from. The cadences you hear in renaissance music are sometimes note-for-note out of these Persian things. Or even down to the instruments themselves.

What kind of approach do you take in studying that kind of music? Is it mathematical or just feeling?

Trey: For me it’s the feel, because I’m also interested in the mysticism of the time. And how the mysticism of Persia and the Middle East filter into mid-evil Europe. It’s easy to get into it from that place first. That comes first, then the musical history of it comes second.

Do you consider yourself a guitar player, or an overall musician?

Trey: I write music. I care least about the guitar than everything else I do. That’s for sure. The production stuff is the most important thing. As far as Mr. Bungle is considered, the overall point is songwriting, and the history of our music – kind of who we are as people.

Who do you consider your biggest influence, musically?

Trey: Probably Stravinsky. That’s what pulled my head out, ya know? I was just like everybody else – a real full-of-angst kid. “The Rite of Spring” really appealed to that and sort of changed my head around about what music can be. Not just plugging a guitar into a distortion box, but using things like harmony and really odd rhythms. Yeah, Stravinsky pretty much turned me around.

Are there any plans for a live video of the California tour?

Trey: There’s talk. We’d love to, but things have to calm down a little bit. There should be a video release. Everybody’s agreed on that at least. And we should have a live album. There’s plenty of well-recorded live stuff. We just need time to put it together.

That reminds me, at the last Chicago show I remember that cameras were rolling when that guy threw a bottle at you.

Trey: That was amazing.

Didn’t it break your keyboard? And didn’t you throw it back?

Trey: Yeah, it was actually the keys that had broken off. I was so pissed. But then at the last minute I was like, “I’m not going to hit this person.” I’d probably end up hitting one of the silent majority, the people like me who are just standing there trying to be polite. So, I angled it up so it would bounce of the balcony and not hit anybody.

Do you plan to take advantage of mp3 technology? [NOTE: At this point in history mp3 meant Napster. It was the first thing on musicians’ minds, as well as fans. iTunes didn’t exist. Where a band stood on this subject said A LOT.]

Trey: By the time we did, there’d be something better. So, no.

Wouldn’t it help you? I always thought that album royalties were a small part of the income compared to concert tickets. Wouldn’t mp3s put more people into the clubs?

Trey: Well, our records are no reflection of the kind of business we do. Our sales are not that great, but we play sold-out shows. What you’re saying is definitely true. We’re sort of formulating our strategy for our next record. That’s going to involve some pretty major changes.

Do you know what direction the next album is going to take?

Trey: Vaguely.

What do you think of the other projects that surround Mr. Bungle?

Trey: Some of them I think are great. I like Fantomas. I knew what to expect so it didn’t surprise me either way. I went and checked it out while they were recording and it sounded really good. The final product didn’t sound as good. There’s potential there for sure.

How planned are Mr. Bungle songs? Do you know exactly how you want the tracks before you go into the studio?

Trey: None of it is fiddling around, ever. I’m not really an experimental person. I just find a way to make it sound the way it should. We’re never sitting around like, “Oh, I don’t know, maybe we should fuck around with this sound.” Not at all. It’s not like that.

Equipment-wise, what do you prefer?

Trey: I like to have a big room to work with for the drums. I like to have at least three stages of room microphones. I’m not into drum processing at all.

With that, Trey and Tub Ring finished up and asked for the bill. We headed out onto the street where I asked the band about their album and plans. Trey suggested some ice cream before they went back into the studio for long night of mixing.

There were definitely stares as we walked into the ice cream shop. The customers knew something was up. After all, you don’t usually get to see the Irishman from Braveheart, wearing what only a Californian would wear in Chicago in December (think pajama-like pants and a multicolored, floppy-eared ski cap with dangling puff balls). None of these guys had slept in a while and I only grew more appreciative that they put up with me interrupting their work.

A few months later, Tub Ring sent me the album, which I liked. They have a unique sound, but Trey definitely put his stamp on it.

A little while after that, it became clear that the next Bungle album wasn’t going to happen. I could tell from Trey’s facial expressions, when I mentioned certain members of Mr. Bungle, there were tensions. Those tensions kept rising and according to other interviews, things were said that couldn’t be taken back.

That’s a shame, but Trey Spruance moved on and kept creating great art. This coming show with Faith No More will be his first live appearance with the band. I can only hope for video of show, since there’s no motivation to repeat such a performance anywhere near Chicago. Thankfully, Faith No More always delivers the unexpected and I can assume more pleasant surprises await us in the future.

Thanks to Trey Spruance for a hell of night for young, aspiring writer!