Trey Spruance / Mr. Bungle Interview, 1995

Trey Spruance

Trey Spruance / Mr. Bungle Interview, 1995

This was conducted just before soundcheck on the Disco Volante Tour. During the entire interview, Trey was sifting through an enormous trashbag, containing his personal belongings (comic books, socks, etc.)  It was one of the highlights of our three-day road trip following them, second only to their cover of Loverboy’s “Working For The Weekend” the previous night.

• • •

What made you want to start playing music?
It’s kind of vague – it was so long ago. I started playing the trumpet when I was in third grade…it was to get out of class. And then it kind of stuck. By the time I got to about 7th grade, I was a REAL, REAL nerd…and I tried to find some way to gain the acceptance of my peers. Since I couldn’t be strong and tough, and boss people around, I started learning how to play guitar. Which was ill fated, because it didn’t really succeed in making me very cool. But I stuck with it because I liked it.

Did you go to school for music?
Yeah, in high-school, actually I had a few music classes and by chance I had this fuckin’ AMAZING teacher who would even during the summers set time aside and play in jazz combos. I’d meet a couple of other guys. So in addition to getting a head start on music theory that you would learn at college and stuff like that we also had hours and hours of experience of playing in a jazz sort of combo environment… a couple summers straight of doing that shit with this guy who could really play was REALLY great, so he taught us lots of jazz chord theory, and on top of that, Trevor and I had a music theory class also. Then we got to college, and we did the college music thing, which was kind of different. It was kind of ridiculous. That was at Humboldt State University. I liked it fine, but everything we were learning was pretty straight stuff aside from the jazz, and finally got into what I really wanted to pursue, which was 20th Century composition. We had a really good class in 20th century classical music, had some good ear training teachers – drill sergeants and stuff. And that was pretty much the extent of it. I didn’t take any classes on the guitar, I never really learned how to play an instrument. All of my personal training was in theory. Trevor is a different story. He learned the bass.

Is that why you play a bunch of different instruments?
Yeah…cuz I’m not competent at any one thing. (laughs)

What other musicians influenced you the most?
I could start at the beginning and say Devo was the first tape I ever had, and it’s the only thing that I have consistently liked my entire life. But that was a long time age – it’s like saying Van Halen or something. 20th century composers – that would be number one. I was really blown away years ago when I first heard Leghetti’s Requiem piece. You might have heard it because it was used in 2001 when the people are standing outside and staring at the monolith, there’re all these voices going bizarre…and it’s an excerpt from that piece and his use of microtonality – like between the notes B and C, there are notes that you can’t hit on a piano keyboard. He uses a system that allows for exact quartertones, things like that. He created his own musical landscape with microtonality. He wasn’t the first to do it, wasn’t the last to do it, but he used it so poetically and effectively, it just FUCKIN blew me over when I first heard it!

When you come up with your music for the Mr. Bungle albums, what methods do you use?
Well, for example…in Techno Allah, there’s a riff, and riffs get layered on top of riffs, and what usually happens – just by coincidence, riffs that we have made up are stacked up this high in tapes from all the years that we have been playing together. We’ll come up with something, and then maybe a week later, it fits perfectly with this other one that you can layer it with. And then you can use one of those riffs on top of another one, and another one to give it a sense of continuity – so it’s sort of like multiple riff stacking. I think it stops being riff oriented and it becomes more of a superimposition of different elements. So it’s a kind of long process. It takes a while to finish a song,because then a set of riffs that all work together that you can stack on top of each other, but you haven’t made music yet, you haven’t arranged it into a structure that makes any sense so then that’s the major time consuming part.

I notice you use tritones a lot in your playing.
On the first record I’d say that was a little more true than on this record. But usually it’s more than one tritone. One of the more favorite chords we were using a few years ago was the tritone here and then half-step down but an octave up so it’s like a tritone, then a seventh, and then another tritone. It would be a 1 b5 7 sus4. We used that a lot on the first record. For whatever reason. Just trying to hide from playing barre chords.

How much time do you spend composing?
On tour we don’t have time, we’re just trying to work up new cover tunes we wanna do. I spend EONS making music up.

What do you do when you’re not with Mr. Bungle?
I’m working on a vast range of other musical projects, but a lot of the time I just work on Mr. Bungle. We have to be prepared…we can’t just go into the studio – there’s a LOT of preparation that goes into it. And everybody else has to agree on the arrangements, getting it all shaved, and a lot of the time someone won’t have any idea what instrument should play a certain part, so I’ll have to spend a lot of time programming synthesizer voices or finding organ voices and voicing chords.

Does Mr. Bungle do much sequencing?
No, none at all, actually. Sometimes when I’m writing – like Ma Meeshka Mow Skwoz…you can actually tell that it was written on a sequencer, because it’s little four-bar chunks. But on the recording, I just teach it to the rhythm section. They don’t even have to know exactly what is going to happen with the rest of the song. As long as we can get the drums and bass together, I can go back…

Is the rest of the band pretty easy-going about playing what you tell them?
Well, it’s in two stages, usually…The first stage is having a four-track recording of it that’s semi near wheat it should sound like. Second stage is teaching the rhythms section the parts. But of course, there’s so much to remember, there’s no way they’re going to remember everything that was going on in the song at the time…so you have to keep beating them, telling them exactly what to do. Then, after that you just go back and overdub everything on top of it. Sometimes, like Danny our drummer will not be excited about how it sounds – cause it’s just drums and bass and it’s just a stupid vamp. After like two days, I’ll go back and record all the keyboard parts and it makes more sense, and he’s like, “Oh, OK! That’s what it’s supposed to be…” and then we start gelling as a band after that.

How do you decide who is in control of what songs?
It’s a matter of ideas; whoever has the ideas is responsible for bringing it to the band and rehearsing the band.

It’s pretty rare though, that you get that many people together to play that type of music…
Yeah, it’s actually NEVER. It’s me and Trevor and Danny…and Mike when he’s around…getting together and working that stuff out. And Bar, when he can be around, too. Bar is getting more into writing, which is really good, too. There’s a lot of people writing.

Do you all get along well?
Yeah. We’ve known each other for a really long time. If there are some aspect where we don’t get along together we know how to deal with it.

What keyboards do you have up there?  You have two Yamaha’s?
Yeah…the Yamaha’s we don’t really use the sounds on, we just use them to trigger the sampler.

I have that exact PSR.
The PSR? That’s the fucking greatest thing! You like that?

Yeah, it was good for the price…to start out…

It’s got a good piano sound.
I think just all around, man…the background patterns that it has for writing pop songs – are the greatest! You can just churn out, you know …Neil Diamond quality music at the snap of a finger! It’s really good! I’ve come up with some real nice stuff that I REALLY like on that thing!

How much did it cost you to do Disco Volante?
Final figure: I’m not really sure, but I know that it was less than $100,000 and more than $80,000.

How does the record company fit into that?
How it works is: you get…whatever…12% royalties off of every unit sold. They lend you like $120,000. And they’ll pay themselves back that exact amount, $120,000 out of YOUR 12%, not out of the whole profits of the record. They’re making a profit when the record sells, and then paying THEMSELVES back out of YOUR royalties. And then AFTER you’ve paid them back out of your royalties, then you start getting money. That’s why it takes so long to get paid, and that’s why so many bands DON’T get paid. Cuz it seems like maybe in the beginning, “Wow! All this money! We can have this huge record, and spend all this fucking money on it,” and YOU’RE UP SHIT CREEK. You’ll never get paid.

How much did you guys spend on this one compared to last time?

A lot less?
A little bit less. The next one we’ll spend a lot less on. Because we did this ADAT syncing this time, where we could actually work on some of it at home, but we still ended up doing vocal comps and vocal shit and a lot of keyboard stuff in the studio and it’s very time consuming, so that ran the price up. But now, since then, we’ve bought all of the organs that we use on the record with the leftover budget money that we had on this record so that we have all of that stuff at our disposal. I run a small recording studio that we can record at, it’ll be the same quality. (The door started squeeking really loud, and someone stuck their head in the room and said something to Trey. -Ed.) Where’d that food come from? I’ll get some in just a sec. I gotta put my shoes on.

Do you plan to stay with Warner Brothers?
That’s a good question! (laughs.)

Have you thought about releasing your music independently?
We’d love to. It’s hard. We have good distribution. That’s the main thing. It’s really nice to reach – the record gets to the most bungfuck places in the world, and there are a lot of people who hear it, and I get the feeling that they don’t get the chance to hear very much else, people who are starving for…you know what I’m talking about?

I know what that’s like.
Yeah, so do I. And I feel like, there are zillions of great record companies in the world that are independents…but the distribution is one thing. I kind of talk half-playing devil’s advocate here, because we would rather be going it on a level that’s more proper to us. The record company has no promotion for us, doesn’t do anything…but. I’ve got to back off and say that I’m really glad that they don’t care about us, because if they did, then we’d have to work for them. If they promoted it, then we’d owe the record company for it. So we’re in kind of a good situation. We get enough money to put out our fucking records, they don’t care WHAT we do on the record. We don’t get censored at all. They put it out, send it around the world, and they don’t expect anything from us. It’s kind of a good situation. I’m not sure how long it will last, but if it changes, yeah…we’ll definitely start shopping around and see what else is available. I do more underground records and independent releases, so we definitely have some options there. But as far as the time being, it’s a pretty good situation. But we did get some complaints about the artwork. Here’s the main thing: We’d love to do more interesting packaging. Believe me, we tried to do a lot on this record. We did a bit, but we had a lot of bigger ideas. We’d love to go further on it, and every deviation you do is money coming straight out of your pocket. If there was some A&R person who could really grab the torch on that we could probably do it without having to pay for it, but there’s no one there willing to do it. So we end up having to be on the phone…SERIOUSLY…for three months straight, to get anything remotely different to happen – it’s pretty nerve-racking.

Is it sort of like…you break even on it?
Last record, I think we made something like $8,000 each – so that’s pretty good. Not much, you know, but it’s better than nothing. I’m happy with that. On the tours, we do alright. The shows are pretty well attended. We don’t have final tallies until the end of it.

I noticed a lot of people at the last two shows really enjoyed themselves…they were saying that they hadn’t had a good band come though in a long time.
It seems to be a weird time in music where there’s nothing interesting going on at all. I think we’re getting the benefit of that. People are really sick of fucking music as I am. So I get the feeling that there’s people that wouldn’t even like us normally, but they’re so sick of everything else in the fucking world that they’ll go and probably have a good time, just because it’s different. I’m happy to see that there are a few people who are relating to the music and who really understand it. Or at least attempt to hear the music instead of projecting all this goddamn bullshit on top of it. It’s better than it was last time for that.

How many people do you have going around on tour with you?
12, all together. 7 band members – with Will, the percussionist, who we’re bringing on tour.

You’re not going to have him in the band permanently?
No, he’s just a hired gun. He’s got a job and everything. He’s a teacher at a college and stuff, whatever other shit he does.

Why didn’t you come to Florida?
That’s good question. Tampa would be fun to go to. We didn’t like playing Hollendale, though, driving all the way down. Tampa was a cool show, I liked the people and the town, it was really fucking crazy, but Hollendale left a really bad taste in our mouths, and we got pulled over as soon as we went across the border – it was a bad scene. We had a certain amount of days to do the entire United States, and Florida is one of the places that got jipped. In retrospect, it seems like we should have played 2 shows around the Atlanta, GA area, cuz there’s so many people who had to drive so FUCKING far. I talked to people who where there (Georgia) last night who were from Nashville. How are people gonna find out about a show in Athens fuckin’ Georgia? Think about all the people who never heard about it.

A question about the first album…Who wrote the lyrics?  The style of the lyrics were completely different between the two albums…
Yeah, Mike wrote more on the first album. He wrote Travolta, Squeeze Me Macaroni, Girls of Porn…the smash hits that people keep screaming for. Trevor wrote Slowly Growing Deaf, Love Is A Fist…those were different times. We’re printing lyric sheets. That’s part of what people will get when they send in that two dollar thing – part of what will be in that is the lyric sheets of some of the made up languages (from Ma Meeshka Mow Skwoz). There’s a bunch of other shit that comes with that, too.

What plans do you have for the next album?
Well, we’ve got a good bit of it recorded already, probably 15 minutes…I think there’s 30 minutes all together; but 15 minutes of it will definitely be on the next record. We recorded that much to avoid wasting all that time again. We pretty much know what we’re going to do for the next record. So it’s probably a matter of booking some studio time probably in late summer, I would guess. This coming up year. We should have another album out by March of 1997 probably.