An Interview with Trey Spruance of Secret Chiefs 3

ProgSphere’s Conor Fynes hooked up recently with Trey Spruance for an interview during the band’s stay in Vancouver. Secret Chiefs 3 have become a synonym for implementing various cultural heritage through their inspiring work. Read on what are Trey’s thoughts on this, as well as other topics.

Secret Chiefs 3's Trey Spruance with Conor Fynes

Trey: I think I counted a little while ago, I think we’ve toured over eighteen times in the last four years, three years… so it’s alot. I mean, it’s been a long time since we’ve been to Vancouver. We’ve done over 200 shows over those four years, in thirty different countries, actually.

Conor: What’s been your favourite place to visit so far? I know that Secret Chiefs have a multiplicity of different styles from different cultures in their music, so there’s certainly a ‘world’ vibe to it.

Trey: Well I would give different answers for different reasons. Actually, the United States is great. For some reason, the audiences in the US bring us some of the best musical performances for whatever reason. France has become sort of our second home; it used to be Austrailia outside of the US but we’ve played alot in France. Of course, it’s always alot of fun to go to places like Romania, Turkey, Israel, Chile, South America now; we’ve been exploring different boundaries of places that we want to call home.

Conor: Do you think you attract different demographics of people based on where you’re playing?

Trey: That’s a hard question! Hmm, I would say no. The people who come to our shows are usually pretty similar, I would say- what would be the most extreme case? I would say the most extreme back-to-back gig thing was when we played in Romania; when we played in Bucharest, it was a younger, more hipster crowd. Then, the next day when we played in Istanbul, it was a more… you could say, they were dressed up, they were listening intently, they would shush up other audience members if they were talking too loud.

Conor: The erudite crowd!

Trey: Haha, yeah; completely the opposite! Or, you know, sometimes we play in a world music festival, like in Portugal we played in one recently, and it costs 400 Euros to get into it. There’s a food fair on the beach, where the super rich people are, but it’s also very cool because it provides a soundsystem for outside, so the entire village gets lit up. There’s sound and screens everywhere so people can watch for free. It’s a citadel, a castle inside, where the wealthy elite are, then outside’s where the paupers are, you know what I mean! There’s hippies travelling from all over the place to see it, and they’re not paying anything. So, it’s very strange in terms of demographics. We play metal festivals sometimes, jam band festivals; they are completely different!

Conor: I guess your eclectic nature works to your benefit, in terms of scoring gigs.

Trey: We have the ability to be mercurial and fit into different places, but when it’s just our shows, it’s very consistent. The demographic is usually a certain kind of music nerd, which is fine! That kind of thing’s been building momentum for quite a while, everywhere we go.

Conor: For those who may not be familiar already with the work of the Secret Chiefs 3, how might you describe your sound, and what you’re aiming for with this progressive direction in your music?

Trey: There’s a thing with being ‘prog’ or ‘progressive’ that tends to come out of rock, like ‘prog rock’. We’re not from that background, at least I’m not, at all! I never listened to Zappa, I never listened to Yes, I don’t get involved in arguments whether Yes is better than Genesis! It’s just not the background, you know? But, it’s cool, because there’s often prog rock people that will show up at our shows and introduce themselves, and it’s interesting to see how that works because we’re outside of their frame of reference, but they’re open minded enough to take it in… Some of the people in prog rock are open minded…

Conor: Some! Haha!

Trey: Yeah… Maybe we’re getting false credit from them because they usually come up saying “you must have listened to Frank Zappa!” Well, we didn’t! On the other hand, it’s great that the showed up, and it’s super cool that they’re listening to what we do.

Conor: A shorter question; would you consider this a continuation of your work with Mr. Bungle, or would you consider this something of it’s own entirely?

Trey: This is something on it’s own. I mean, this started five or six years before Mr. Bungle, they were going simultaneously, so I had a different sort of artistic impulse that was outside of Mr. Bungle that was the beginnings of this band, and it really blossomed, it’s been ramping up the whole time over the early part of the last decade, that’s when it really anchored itself.

Conor: Secret Chiefs is a very musically demanding band to play in. You can’t just pick up an instrument and take a few lessons, learn how to play ‘Black Dog’ then join SC3! So, I’m wondering; what’s your evaluation process for finding musicians and taking them into this collective?

Trey: That ends up in a way selecting itself, because we’ve never held an audition or anything. You just sort of meet people, and they would be either what I’d say “free”, they’re musically fluent. You have to be those in order to play this stuff. There aren’t that many people around that are like that, so it takes care of itself. Some of us have been growing together musically for years, and others cycle through the band have to be malleable and bend to accomodate with the differences. Alot of it is not as extreme as you might think. Some of the stuff sounds alot more varied and crazy than it actually is.

Conor: I know you and Toby (the bassist, also of Kayo Dot and maudlin of the Well) are both associated with John Zorn (of Tzadik Records and Naked City) so I’m guessing that there isn’t a great deal of musicians that align themselves with the more left-of-centre, ‘avant-garde’ approach. I guess you’re all quite networked together!

Trey: Well, not really! It’s weird! It’s usually that someone might play in the band, who knows somebody else that may be good for it. Usually what happens is that I have people brought to my attention who are either playing with the band, or have played in it. They ask “have you met so-and-so; they would be great for Secret Chiefs.” That’s usually how it works. Then, I meet people through Zorn, of course. I didn’t meet Ches through Zorn. Danny I’ve known from way back. Timb I know from Estradasphere. Toby I didn’t meet through Zorn either!
Conor: Really? That’s what I had always assumed. What’s the story behind that, then?

Trey: Well, I had been aware of Toby and his work with Kayo Dot for quite a while. Then, our booking agent suggested that we do a co-headline tour with them, and I was like, yeah; let’s fuckin’ do it!

Conor: Well I know you’re interested in different sorts of philosophy; how do you think this translates into the music?

Trey: That’s probably why Secret Chiefs formed; maybe not as a direct result of my interest in Persian philosophy, but at least a major factor. It solved a philosophical riddle that I had always needed to find an answer to, and Secret Chiefs is the musical expression, the exploration of those thoughts.

Conor: So how do you come up with these ideas, how do you think up the music and translate it into a full composition?

Trey: That is a huge, huge question. That’s why there are seven different bands I’m in, each for a different angle I am trying to express. That’s also probably why there’s that unified whole out of those seven approaches. There might be one motif, or ‘theme’ for each of these, a philosophical concept that gets tossed around in the music. It gets redistributed around, think of it like filters or a prism; how a prism reflects different colours, but takes in one force of light that gets refracted, it’s like that. Scattering the lights into different modalities, that’s the best way I could describe it.

Conor: In Secret Chiefs, there’s a great variety of different sounds you’re drawing in, from what sounds like Middle-Eastern, to Eastern European folk and Celtic even. I’m wondering if this is done intentionally, in order to challenge the listener and have them perceive the music in a unique way, or is it just a natural collage of styles?

Trey: It’s very natural, for me. We don’t actually do any East European music; we did one song a long time ago. We’ve never done any Irish music, there is one time when we did a Persian cover song but we never recorded it. The rest of it is composed as a melange of sorts. As for those colours I was telling you about, one of those colours would be surf rock, and the other one is all from a non-western tuning system, but not necessarily located in a geographical location. Then other could be doing something cinematic.

Conor: I was actually going to ask you about the cinematic thing. I was listening to SC3 last night and it struck me that this is Quentin Tarantino’s wet dream for the soundtrack for his filmwork! So, I know that alot of instrumental music tries to create a sense of imagery to it that evokes the cinematic experience. Is that your goal in SC3, to get that feel and tell a story?

Trey: That ties into the philosophical question, actually. What role the imagination plays in how we understand the world! How we understand things with our eyes, with our ears, creating that world back through ourselves. Basically, we interpret most things through our eyes and our ears, and cinema covers those two of the senses, not all of them, and the imagination fills in the rest. With the music that we’re doing, we’re limited to one sense; sound. So I’m trying to utilize the imagination, triggering something in them that enables them to experience my impressions or thoughts of what the world is, but doing it just through the ears. So if there’s a cinematic metaphor going on in our music, well, there’s one album in particular we did that was meant to be the soundtrack to a film that doesn’t exist. It’s supposed to evoke images of a film, getting the ideas across that would have been in the theoretical film.

Conor: A last question, what advice would you give to a composer or a band trying to come up with music, trying to find inspiration? Tricks you’ve found along the way…

Trey: Well, that’s actually a couple of questions in one. As far as inspiration goes… I don’t have any fuckin’ idea! But how to get your band happening? I would say you have to be really, extremely stubborn; super persistent. You have to know who your friends with, who’s on your team, but also be flexible enough to let things go, so if things get fucked up, it doesn’t take the whole ship down. You just have to be able to roll with every punch, every time. Especially now, it’s so, so hard to get established. I feel like we’re incredibly lucky, because we got our big start about ten years ago. Now, it’s a much different way of making things happen. Starting from scratch, that would be a major challenge…

Conor: Especially when there’s so much competition nowadays.

Trey: Exactly. I mean, ten years ago, you could have a record company do everything for you, and nowadays, it’s more likely to hurt you. It’s a weird paradoxical situation. There’s always ways to make it work. You have to learn to be diverse, you need to be a bit of a businessman. Alot of the time, you’ll find people who will bury their head in the sand, saying that they don’t want the business side to get in the way of their artistic expression or inspiration. But really, if that’s the case, your inspiration must not be very strong if you don’t have the heart to do something else even a little bit. If you’re so fragile that you can’t do basic, practical shit, what good is inspiration? It’s probably just bullshit inspiration, if you can’t bother yourself with the real world stuff. That’s what I think. People who do that have a hard time going anywhere; I used to sort of empathize with that sorta thing because there are some great musicians who love music but cannot get involved with anything else, and then get ignored as a result. On the other hand, there’s a part of me now that recognizes that the most complete musician nowadays is someone who is able to do alot of things. If you’re just autistically devoted to the music and nothing else, I don’t know how well suited you are to the music world as it is nowadays. You have to do everything.

Conor: Performing, recording… the latter of which is probably a big thing for you, as the mastermind of such a big project.

Trey: I take the record production onto myself, because there’s like a control freak aspect there. You’re like a conductor, and in order to do that nowadays, you need to have total control over the way a record is recorded and put together. A composer that conducts his own music, that’s what I feel like I’m doing. For some sorts of music, you can allocate some of the work to an engineer, but for what I’m doing, I feel like I have to take on all of the burden myself; micromanage everything. If you’re going to be putting in a million hours into making this record, if your heart’s not into it, then it’s not going to have any power to it.

Conor: Cool! Well it was a pleasure interviewing you, man!


  1. kam

    November 11, 2012 at 4:23 pm

    good interview. Trey Spruance is such an inspiring musician !

  2. Pingback: Secret Chiefs 3 Book of Horizons: Folio A | Rilaly's Blog

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