Partial Pythagoras: Trey Spruance discusses composing radical constancy from harmony, numbers and letters.
The history of Secret Chiefs 3 carries with it some popular gravitas due to its a priori focus on Trey Spruance, a musician whose tenure in Faith No More and Mr Bungle still continues to influence and remains a source of obsessive discussion. However, more than a direct product of its antecedents Secret Chiefs 3 is perhaps one of the greatest musical events on the planet. Unequivocal hyperbole of this magnitude might seem to skew the objective tone of the magazine but if a twentieth of the bands that push CDs through Trebuchet’s letterbox were a quarter as good I believe that all wars would end and time travel might well be achieved.
of ‘revolution’. I spit on it.
I spit on it.
An amalgamation of a variety of styles and influences including death metal, trance, folk, non-western, Arabic, and more, Secret Chiefs 3 (SC3) along with displaying extreme technical proficiency is also compositionally forward reaching, relevant and mystical. Critics might well sneer at some of the prog-ish trappings, the cloaks and alchemical references, however the undeniable focus and visceral power of the music remains tempered by restraint. There is simply no fat on the tunes and without superfluity integrity abides.
Trebuchet: What is Secret Chiefs 3 at this point in time?
Trey Spruance: On the one hand it’s a touring band of five to six mostly revolving personnel.
We’ve been incarnating as “Ishraqiyun” (a loud neo-Pythagorean/al-Biruni-esque electro folk ensemble) and “UR” (suprasensory surf with roots in Anatolian psyche appropriations of Chaldean/Semitic themes, often running through the post-colonial conceptual filters of Krautrock… kind of).
But on the other hand Secret Chiefs 3 is a vast compositional and production umbrella involving yet five more bands (SC3 as “band of bands”). It involves over 50 musicians participating over the last 17 years. The whole thing is a unity meant to re-introduce mostly forgotten approaches to musical energies. These energies are ever present, and are always gathered wherever the eternal principle of ‘Harmonia’ is able to penetrate, even this moment, through the mindless fog of blind functionalism and nihilism that envelops our world.
Acting upon these realities becomes a war for us because ‘harmonia’ in its deep sense is currently a disregarded notion, even by intelligent people. That’s where some of the superficially confrontational dispositions in our music come from. People give us too much credit for being ‘pioneers’: our only ‘innovation’ has been to merely halt our steps on the disharmonic road of ‘progress’ long enough to smell the hexidecimal roses of an a priori, ever-present musical geography.
This is being said, recognising how easy it is to be continuously mesmerized by the western concepts of ‘individuation’ – there’s something essential to that to be sure, but it’s usually such a Yellow Brick Road of narcissistic farts being masked by lavender scents and various competing techno-utopian capitalo/communo ideologies that it ends up becoming another depressing egoistic Wizard Prison a la Kim Jong Il, Rasputin, Timothy Leary, L. Ron Hubbard, Donald Rumsfield, Crowley etc.
The state-vector collapse represented by Toto’s mindless revelation of the pitiful nature of the solipsistic Wizard, our qutb/pole of the modernistic techno-spiritual panopticon, perfectly describes the dead end, the cul de sac awaiting the ‘progressive’ motivation… that dead end is a common ceiling to any narrative sacred geography when it is approached with the wrong motivation.
How has it changed over time?
The touring incarnation, which has over 20 tours under its hat, has never had the same line up twice.
So the approach has been entirely consistent in that regard!
How has your approach to song writing changed?
Perhaps I am freer now than I was 15 years ago, also more belligerent and battle-scarred. Each layer of freedom seems to automatically initiate a new cycle of internment, a new prison from which one must escape. The struggle continues, the stakes get higher, and the friendships deepen.
The Enemy scatters and attacks indirectly through the subtle details. After you watch the ripples you’ve caused in the pristine surface of the reflecting pool of the cosmos bounce around for a while, you either try to make something beautiful out of your pitiful transgressions, or sooner or later you have to admit you really are an asshole through and through…
What is the importance of numbers in your music?
The Holy Tetractys should intimidate every living musician to silence and contemplation for at least 5 years.
You’ve drawn inspiration from the alchemical tradition of the Middle East, what attracts you to this culture, era, look, way of thinking?
I actually studied the Western alchemical tradition well before I discovered Jabir, Jafar al-Sadeq etc. And I only encountered the Persian alchemical tradition lightly, through hagiography and some scattered works.
The real transformative focus for me was philosophy in the Safavid era, the ‘Isphahani Renaissance’, with a focus on Suhrawardi and Mulla Sadra Shirazi. I am indebted to Henry Corbin, whose phenomenology opened up key works and conceptual tools to me, so that I could read more deeply into this area, and discover an entire harmonic universe at work, viscerally, in the thought of not just Shi’ite mystical philosophers, but also in the Hermetic and Kabbalistic universes of the first millennium and earlier, as well the crystallizing articulations and wisdom from the Greek Noosphere that helped congeal these elements, in every case, to our now seriously-lapsed posterity.
Over the course, you’ve explored a variety of sounds, modes, blends and themes and yet there remains a central aspect to SC3 that is itself, and seemingly unaffected. How do you keep the integrity of the music from becoming weak and pastiche?
It might not be readily apparent that there is a definite and quite rigidly-adhered-to superstructure to every element of SC3 music, but there is. I’m glad you detect that. One cannot just ‘cut and paste’ random elements together and end up with something like SC3. But I recognize that it violates conditioned linear cognition in some people, which is disorienting to them (though not to us), and so things might seem nonsensical and ‘random’.
We work with that effect sometimes, yes, but it’s not a central element. There are certainly both admirers and detractors who overemphasize those borderland moments, and either praise or criticize us for what is actually really just a somewhat narrow perception on their own part.
Coming from California is there anything authentic in your appropriation of other musical influences?
Coming from California, there is nothing authentic whatsoever in what we do, other than the fact that what we do comes from California. Most of our members are from New York and Seattle though. And those are certainly the other two great Meccas of inauthenticity on this earth. So yeah…
to make something
beautiful out of your
or sooner or later you
have to admit you really
are an asshole
through and through…
Do you consider SC3 musical tourism, something scholarly, or something else?
If anyone thinks we are playing the music of other cultures, they should take a tourist trip to those places, play our music for some local people, and ask them where they can find some more music like it. They will almost certainly point to the sky and say “Mars”.
There is a tendency to take SC3 very seriously (see previous questions), it would be remiss not to mention the humour in it as well. I get the sense that SC3 could be an elaborate joke; a deadly serious, mystical joke with a void encompassing/dividing/multiplying punchline and (occasional) Philly strings. How do you see it?
I see it similarly as you. Since there is no way to undo the historical disasters and schisms of consciousness that have led to the general schizophrenia of our western mentality, having a light heart is paramount. Though SC3 deals with serious matters, which correspond only with serious attention, if you can’t laugh about that kind of thing, and especially your own place in all it, any little self-obsessive Jihad you commit to is going to be ill-fated… like a bomb blowing you (and nothing else) up before you set foot outside the door.
I mean, that’s funny too.
But I hate the concept of ‘revolution’. I spit on it. I admit there’s a lot of slapstick in SC3 that, paradoxically, only jaded wizards deep in their hermetically-sealed wizard prisons are going to get.
Most of that slips by the healthier-minded people out there, which it well should.
Do you consider yourself a songwriter at all? and if so is it about the song, the personal era, or about the moment?
Barely… I see many voices singing variations on primordial songs, which is what I do too.
I try not to be too provincial about it. Maybe I consciously dress certain simple ideas up with clothing that will make them seem beautiful here, ugly and difficult and out of place here, profound here, stupid here… that way I can navigate through a lot of terrain, kind of doing what the classical composers did as far as ‘theme and variation’ goes.
It’s magical how things interconnect sometimes, and I’m often startled out of my pants at how congruous and geometrically aligned certain things that were purely intuitive can be. Other times I’ll impose strict ‘gematria’ systems on simple harmonic or rhythmic things and they come out like magic, sounding naural and alive. It’s hard to ‘take credit’ for such things.
Is performance central to SC3?
We’ve played over 200 shows in 30 countries in the last 4 years! Performance is like the proof in the pudding!
Do you see an end to SC3; is there a definite collection of statements that you want to make or is it an exegesis in form?
There IS in fact an end to Secret Chiefs 3 proper, with a tertiary and a quaternary being the main operations. A couple of intentionally floating anomalies in there, to be sure. But that’s the main artifice. The satellite bands, however, have their own life– their own autocephalous natures.
What do you enjoy the most about being in SC3?
There are certain moments when working on a recording that I can’t describe the feeling that overtakes things sometimes. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it justifies every excessive hassle of getting there. Probably similar to what mountain climbers experience on rare occasions. Because it’s not really about ‘you’, except that you took the trouble to witness something special and living, and it took an effort akin to crawling out of a grave to touch that space.
That’s the solitary side of things. On the other hand, there’s a magic to the friendships formed in the fire of touring and playing music with people, all with their own voice, but reaching for the same things together. The surprises that come from those experiences can even make a deeply cynical person like me have a positive outlook for a while.
Bringing in influences from so many places do you enjoy travelling itself?
Yes of course. If there’s a kind of audio xenophilia going on, for sure that translates itself to other landscapes.
You can easily get lost in superficial impressions, which are fleeting. But on the other hand, visiting a lot of non-familiar landscapes (social, visual, natural) until they DO become familiar after all, and your relationship to them becomes less superficial, slowly things change from xenophilia into friendship, camaraderie, brotherhood. And then finally you can ‘improvise’ in that context (i.e. be yourself) and not be bullshitting yourself or anyone else. It’s after those times that when you return home you realize how enchanted it actually is there.
What has been your best experience being abroad?
Meeting people who mean so much to me. It’s unbelievable. Also, visiting the monasteries and monks of the Eastern Orthodox Church, especially in Moldova, as well as the old monastic complexes of Anatolia (now depopulated) has been huge for me.
Do you bring influences back to SC3 from physical travels around the place or is your research based from the comforts of home?
I think it mostly comes from the comforts of home, actually. SC3 has always been a pretty interior process for me. I only REALLY started travelling in 2006 or 2007, well after all the major albums were finished.
If you could ensure that people take one thing away from a SC3 performance or recording what would it be?
A sense of freedom.
London based writer and photographer whose work has graced the grimy pages of most UK music publications. Marshmallowed with age he dreams of touring the Cairngorms and writing romantic prose about semantic pathways. As it is, until that cliché he is this one.