Secret Chiefs 3 were founded by the rather unexpectedly hippy-ish Trey Spruance, most commercially known for his work with Faith No More (King For A Day 1995) and Mr Bungle, with fellow Mr. Bungle members Trevor Dunn (bass) and Danny Heifetz (drums). Spruance is widely known for his remarkably far-flung studies of ancient mysteries and appreciation of unknown and under-appreciated musical subgenres, and as a result of his absorption of these non-musical ideals, the band's output varies from album to album, with studio recordings and tours featuring constantly different line-ups. Secret Chiefs 3 exist in various incarnations quite like Acid Mothers Temple in the sense that they're a collective rather than a constrained idea of a band, they're more of a movement, with satellite or related bands, and their music is an exploration that journeys far and deep into the imagination.
Album titles like 'First Grand Constitution and Bylaws' and 'Book M' hint at the music's vaguely metaphysical bent, and 'Book of Horizons' is an alchemical fusion of Morricone-esque cinematic grandeur with midnight surf guitar, parading Spruance's love of traditional Middle Eastern rhythms and time signatures. The mix of this with demonic death metal and electronic deviance yields work of a somewhat undeniable force.
Our assistant editor braved a discussion with Spruance, where the questions went out of the window and an hour of meanderings around Persian philosophy ensued, about harmonics, materialistic paradigms and suicide potentially being a response to the inability to accept cyclical time... very deep, very complicated, and only slightly about the music.
Secret Chiefs 3, how did all this crazy music come about?
How did we come about, erm, well we've been around since 1995, actually the drummer tonight is the same drummer we had in 1995 [Danny Heifetz]. Actually Secret Chiefs 3 was born pretty much as I quit FNM. I had all these musical ideas that I had just never really comitted to, and the day I quit FNM I just decided yeah I have all this other stuff I'm going to start doing it.
I think there are about 50 different musicians that have been involved in the band since then, so when we play a live show or when we do a tour its always a different line up of people, its never been the same line up.
How do you manage to decide whos actually coming on tour then?
We've done something like 25 tours in the last 4 years, like 200 shows. I dont know how to describe it, well it's basically a matter of people's availability, and we kind of do a jigsaw puzzle for each tour, and it just so happens that we've never had the same line up ever, it never has been the same.
No never, I mean there could be two different bass players who are available at the same time, and when that happens you have to decide who seems to be the most complimentary for say the drummer whos available at that time. Theres something about that chaos of never knowing what the chemistry if going to be that usually works out the best for us. Not always, we've had one time when it didnt work out so well, out of twenty, but thats still good. Its a good way of doing it so y'know, it keeps it surprising for those of us who are on the tour. We have no idea whats going to happen every night because of this sort of x-factor in the band's chemistry.
Oh no. Not X Factor. Let's not go down that route...
Tell me about this 'other stuff' then, I mean I've just watched the show and there are so many different things going on...
How do I decide what ends up being presented? Well a lot of ideas are like wine, you know when you set it aside because you know it was a good year. Some ideas, they don't have the finishing part on them and I set them aside and I flesh them out when I have the idea that will make them work, and that could be twelve years later. So some of this is a function of how much time that goes by, some of it is a function of the fact that I impose these really elaborate harmonics systems on what we're doing also, and sometime when I impose those things the musicians who are involved bring their own things to the picture, and I have to react to that, and something very magical happens with that too, so its very hard to explain.
When it comes to recording I'm the dictator and I guide everyone and tell them what to do, how it's supposed to sound how its supposed to be, but when it comes to a live show its a completely different story, I step back, we're all equals and I'm not a dictator in that case.
Is it hard to direct recording then seeing as things are so spontaneous when it comes to your live work, is it hard to transfer that to the studio?
Its not hard its time consuming, I love it, because the musicians that I work with could never have heard it or never have played it. We didn't play it live, so its new to them and sometimes I'm bending them into a pretzel shape that they've never been bent into before. Usually the excitement from that sort of contortionism finds its way into the recordings; I depend on that in fact in our recordings. Its a combination of paranoia that they're not doing it right, and excitement that we're doing something we've never done before. I try to capture that on the recordings. Live they've done it a million times so theres a different x-factor that you're working with, which is usually the energy or a musician who doesn't exactly know whats going on yet!
Well it doesn't seem like it's that disorganised...
Ah great, we fooled you!
All the different influences you've got, jazz, folk, metal, and the interesting instruments that you play, where has that come from, from interests you've had yourself, things you've listened to when you were younger, things you've picked up from people you've worked with?
I wish I could just say yes to that, because it would make everything so much simpler.
Oh we don't want simple, we want to know how you tick, how this philosophical reading directs you. Standard answers don't wash here Trey, we don't want to hear that you got it from your brother...
Oh well my brother was listening to The Beach Boys and Def Leppard so it didn't come from that!
It came from, well some of it came from me understanding what harmonics are, what harmony really means, I was actually introduced to what harmony means through Persian philosophy, and I got into Persian philosophy because I found a limitation. In my opinion Western philosophy reached a zenith with Nichi [sic] and after that its been sort of hitting its head on a ceiling and bouncing off, then hitting its head and bouncing off and kind of doing it again. I mean the best we can do is post-modernism, which is interesting also and I try to learn and deal with that sometimes. But Persian philosophy never had this ceiling that I'm referring to; Persian philosophers use musical metaphors when they're describing philosophical concepts, actually in the same way Western philosophers used to do before they accepted this completely materialistic paradigm. If you go into pre-materialistic Western philosophy it’s actually quite the same. There are all these possibilities but it's just never been accepted in Western philosophy because we've always had this materialistic philosophy, but in the Persian world and even if you go back to the Greeks through neo-Platonism [sic] I would say theres a consciousness of harmony that isn't so decided upon in Western philosophy.
It has been decided that when you modulate from G to D and then from D to A and from A to E, that this is this square thing where theres an exact same interval every time you make the modulation. There is actually a certain amount of fidelity that nature gives to that relationship and if you add fidelity to the natural relationship between notes, if you have one given note, when you modulate to the second harmonic, it isn't what we have on the piano, its what we have when we whirl a hose around or when we sing and we go *makes noise like a didgeridoo* it doesn't work on the piano, its wrong on the guitar, y'know?
I think so...
Well I started to understand that, the Western system has imposed certain limitations that has made certain things easy, like building skyscrapers for instance, that has this kind of mathematical thinking, you square everything off and you can build a 110 storey building, but its different if you build a dome structure, where all of the tension is intersecting with itself where it will never fall down, or a pyramid for example, a pyramid will last for ten thousand years and its never going to fall down, the fucking skyscrapers are not going to last for that many years its just not going to happen.
So I consider that structural integrity to be the same in harmony, theres harmonic integrity and our Western music is actually incapable of actually doing it. It can refer to it, it can point to it, and I love it when it does, I mean I do that too I use Western music all the time, but Western harmonic theory like Western philosophy has a ceiling, and if you actually go outside of this grid structure and you realise that there are structural things that have more integrity than bricks and blocks that build tall square buildings, suddenly you have beautiful things, suddenly you have buildings that just by obeying the natural laws of harmonics in their architecture when you walk into them they're beautiful, and you sing into them its beautiful and they reflect all the sounds back to you acoustically. Everything fits, everything works, so you don't have to reconstruct everything, you don't have to make a post-modern simulator of everything that used to be, you actually inhabit a space that is inherently harmonic.
So with Secret Chiefs we're just barely, *barely* trying to do a tiny little bit of that, we're just trying to break a little bit out of the bricks. Just a little bit, because it would be preposterous to say that we could go all the way with that. We can't, especially with the loud rock electronic music you can't, but you can go a little way, you can break a little way out of the prism.
Well that explains it. Now you've said that actually, you can hear a kind of abstract structure to your music, if thats not a contradiction in terms...?
Yeah thats it totally, its because avant-garde has got this habit of being deconstructive, if we were just an avant-garde band we would be trying to destroy all of these things and hoping that something new comes up. I mean for me we're just trying to relate our loud music some ancient and basic principles, they're not avant-garde, avant-garde means new they're not new, they're beyond old they're ancient. And all we're trying to do is being stubborn and saying we're not going to accept the modernistic paradigm completely, we're going to root at least some of what we do in ancient and dare I say it eternal metaphysical principles, even just a little bit and that explodes the whole construct and then we get all of this false praise for being pioneers, but we're not pioneering anything its all completely old ancient basic formulae, its just been forgotten.
I owe everything to Persian philosophy, I can tell you that unequivocally, Persian philosophy is the thing that introduced me to harmony outside of the Western system. And Persian philosophy owes something to the Greek philosophy, but theres really a graceful interchange between the two.
Its not like I know actually Persian *music*, I can only sing Ghori Sangam [sic] and I dont know a lot of Persian music, I never learned the Daskan [sic] system, but if you have fidelity to this system its [your music is] going to turn out that way, its going to sound like that.
So where on earth does the Ennio Morricone come in, pure fun and indulgence on the flip-side of all this depth?
Ha ha! Well, we do Morricone-style things, but actually we've never played Morricone in this band before, but our music certainly is indebted to him for an aesthetic.
There was a piece tonight with the trumpet...?
I find it fascinating that happens, well this is Universal. Most of the time people always think that ('Book T: Exodus' from Book Of Horizons 2004) is a Morricone tune, and Ennio Morricone worked from the mid 60s through the 70s to now, and that song was actually written in 1951, not by Morricone but by Ernest Gold, and its the soundtrack to the film Exodus, which is basically a Zionist propaganda film. But he really captured a spirit and some of the things that he did Ennio Morricone was surely influenced by, theres no question. So for me when I'm thinking Ennio Morricone or when I'm thinking Ernest Gold I'm thinking “Western”, meaning Spaghetti Western, but also Western consciousness because its equal temperament.
So despite all this round-the-houses explanation, you're basically open to absolutely anything being a part of the music that Secret Chiefs puts out, there's not construct, there are no rules...
We have this very complicated thing, because Secret Chiefs is made up of all these differently influenced bands, there are two bands that play that kind of Western stuff, they refer to Western tonality. So if its Ennio Morricone or Ernest Gold or whatever the hell it is, thats what we're doing. Sometimes I'm trying to violate the idea that timelessness or the place of eternity is equally distant from every point in chronological time.
How does that experimentation relate to your music though?
If you conceive chronological time as a circle, and the point that is still is the centre, with chronological time the circle is like a wheel where the centres always still, but at the hub of a wheel from the centre there are spokes that are all the same length, but they all come to the same point. There was something about learning about time in that way that made me realise, whats the rush, why do you need to express that exactly at that moment, sometimes its good to say “I should catalogue that, its not what it should be or what it could be, so I'll wait.” And when it's moment comes is when it comes out. An album doesn't have to be representative of what you're doing at that exact second, it can be something from another time, a person is bigger than the sum of their feelings or emotions at any particular moment I feel.
So this is why the sounds of your albums though are so different, one time you'll have a nice folky melodic sound the next it's something full on and heavy rock...
If you're a folk musician okay maybe you should just grasp that moment and say it right then, but I have like I said, with 50 musicians Secret Chiefs is an ensemble, its not folk music, so theres something about having a bit of distance from the moment, so that then you can actually seize the moment. Sometimes I think that, well this is a very Western thing actually because Western composers like Beethoven who wrote nine big symphonies in his life and a bunch of other works, he really slaved over these things, and I sort of agree with that. I'm sure he had that idea for the 9th Symphony whilst he was writing the 3rd, and you age it, you wait for it to perfect itself, and I think there is validity to that as an artist, and that why his 9th Symphony is considered the immortal symphony, and its his last symphony.
Its a culmination of everything that hes been sitting on, all of his best ideas...
Well yeah. And actually you're Persian [I'm not] so maybe you know about the thing about when you're born you have the vintage wine and you open it when you're 40...? Theres really something to this, this mid-life point where you become aware of mortality and that awareness of mortality opens you to all these things. In other words you'd better focus on whats eternal at that point because you're not going to make it, you're not going to live forever, you can't delude yourself any longer. These are poetic metaphors, poets have always been using these things of ageing wine, and music is always part of that metaphorical cycle in Persian poetry. I dont know, I think I adopted this idea of not inhabiting chronological time completely; I don't have fidelity to chronological time.
Which seems sensible in a way, why restrict your creativity, the great painters didn't force things so why would musicians squeeze out music if it isn't quite right...
Well sometimes if you're an obsessive artist or musician, you think what you're working on is so fucking important, and sometimes that piece can end up being bullshit. And the stuff you've put out in the meantime instead of that, that you didn't care about, thats what ends up being the really immortal great stuff. I mean I accept this too, half the stuff I'm obsessed with is self-obsessive bullshit, and the things that you just kick out in the meantime is the stuff that you listen to ten years later and think its actually quite legitimate and at the time I was full of shit, it wasn't that important. Sometimes you capture the moment, and sometimes you have to let go of the moment like your fist clenching sand, you're never going to hold it so you have to let it go.
This is very profound. Obviously working under this dedicated and yet at the same time seemingly 'open to everything' philosophy is unusual and I can't think of many other bands working that way, on the platform that you're on, with your listeners...
I never really thought of that, so maybe not. There are bands that are certainly as committed to similar things that I am, I know some of them personally, but maybe not in the same way, their things are different. I would defer to The Sensity Girls, who aren't playing as a band any more, but I would say that they inhabit that space more authentically as a space than I do as an artist. And they would never have had this decision about it, and thats only because I approach things through philosophy that I can sit and say this, they just get on and do it. They just live it, so I can actually put my head down and say there are masters and there are students and I am definitely a student.
I'm sorry about my long convoluted answers. It's really fucking complicated, and I'm also a little bit drunk so I apologise. Have you ever read Sadik Hidayet? Should I even ask that? Its so horrible to ask that!
No I've not. I'm worried now what he's written!
You've never read Sadik Hidayet? I mean its not like nice mystical Persian philosophy, its really fucking dark like the most horrifying shit I've ever read in my life, but its all about this metaphor with the wine. He committed suicide, but its one of those things that is like a dirty secret. Little kids find copies of his books and read under the covers with a flashlight. It's really fucked up, the French think they've written the most decadent twisted most fucked up shit in the world and I'm telling you its not true because Sadik Hidayet wrote the most disturbing piece of writing on the face of the earth.
Oh... okay.... Doesn't sound like something to venture into unless you have to.
Sorry! It's just so.... well, I'm not advocating people committing suicide and having this existential crisis about it. But what I am saying I love about it is this timeless consciousness with the modern world which absolutely imposes a different way of looking at time, and I would never call him a casualty of that, he was more like a really true soul, a true spirit who couldn't find a way to be in a world that accepted cyclical time, the idea of cyclical time, of being born and dying and being born again and dying, and I guess maybe its because I'm 42 suddenly all of this stuff really matters for me. I feel like I spent a lot of time researching all of the esoteric stuff and Persian philosophy and now its just reading poetic prose that matters to me, I'm sort of done with all the philosophy, you know its weird. Its weird to get to that point and say “well, theres another issue that needs to be dealt with”, and your rational intellect being balanced with the mystical actually isn't enough, you have to live it in a poetic sort of a way. You're bound to come to a point where that kind of stuff is overwhelming, and you have to deal with things...
You have to be in the moment, and thats the hardest thing in the world, to be in that moment. I'm really grateful to the band members that I have that some of them are quite good at that, so I learn things every night when we play, they actually do that, and me with all these high conceptual things I'm way behind them. Its true, its really true. They bring me back down to earth a bit.
Well, you've certainly given me a lot of things to think about. Some of its a bit over-whelming, but definitely the structural integrities within music and the Persian philosophy.
Really, have I...?
Oh that's amazing, thank you.
Posted: Mon 14 November 2011