Secret Chiefs 3 (3.7.07)

Posted on July 28, 2008


“So the Electromagnetic Azoth is basically this tornado that I throw the motifs from the six other bands into,” says Trey Spruance over the phone. “You’ve got these entities that don’t interact with each other except for when sending and receiving their motifs through the Azoth, an electromagnetic storm. From there, it comes out a static composition.”

No, this is not metaphysical chemical engineering, nor is it a procedure for cracking the human genome. I’d like to say it isn’t the product of a hundred too many peyote-fueled swims through icy mountain creeks, but it’s hard to say.

I’m almost certain that the statement above is in response to my question about Spruance’s musical odyssey and life thesis, Secret Chiefs 3.

“You feed it into a retrograde inversion like the serialists or something,” he says. Yes, the music is created with formulas; and yes, it still somehow rules. (“I admit, I have a heavy hand in editing to make sure everything sounds good,” he adds.)

Spruance, now 37, has been working on Secret Chiefs for at least 12 years—possibly more, depending on what you’d count as the beginning of the project. The four full-length albums he’s released focus on a kind of scrappy, medieval Seven Voyages of Sinbad sort of sound, but they’ve covered everything from ’60s Indian pop, to spliced cut-ups of vein-popping death metal, to acid-fried stretches of surf.

Thematically based on a prismatic set of esoteric references to long-lost tracts of mysticism and a veritable genie’s bottle full of other stuff, Spruance says that the theory behind the band is airtight, but that it’s not a must for listeners. Thank heavens.

“I have a CD booklet, like 16 pages, to put a bare minimum of the visuals down so that other people—people who already have a clue about all this stuff—will know what kind of ideas can be found in the music on that album.”

You could show your grandma a computer manual with everything spelled out in the most remedial terms, and she’d still have no idea how to download pictures of cats. You might feel much the same, after staring at a Secret Chiefs album for, say, an entire lunch break, absolutely stumped by the Persian scripts, homemade codes, numerological tables and geographic charts dotted with symbols that look like they sprung from the margins of Spruance’s AP calculus book.

“I don’t know, for anyone who’s not into all that stuff, I hope the music’s fun! The people in the band tend to have no idea about any of this stuff. I just give them the CD and say, ‘Here’s what we’re playing.’ ”

Secret Chiefs sprang from Spruance’s mind in the midst of his days with Mike Patton as the guitarist and co-mastermind of Mr. Bungle—whose relatively long periods of dormancy left him with plenty of time to tweak the more, uh, particular bits of his music. When Mr. Bungle broke up (“The ego is an invisible thing that sneaks up from behind,” Spruance offers), Secret Chiefs were already developing into a full-blown obsession, conveniently providing Spruance with a simpler setup and an ever-ready outlet. “In this band, there is no question about whose ego is being serviced,” he says. “Not that I don’t feel like kissing these guys’ feet every day. It’s insane that the musicians in the band can make time for this at all, even for three days of rehearsal.”

Now Spruance is finally taking the band on the road all the way to the East Coast for the first time in seven years. Six years ago, he moved out of San Francisco into a log cabin on top of a mountain above Santa Cruz, living a solitary life (“Abe Lincoln-style”) for years before finally getting some roommates (“a publisher of occult books and our respective love interests”). From his roost, he’s been leading Secret Chiefs as composer, label manager, artwork director and engineer.

For this spring’s tour with labelmates Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Spruance has pared things down. He’s only taking seven musicians on the road this time (as opposed to the seven bands that make up the surreal Secret Chiefs dynasty). It’s a move that, on top of freeing up some legroom in the tour van, has afforded them a whopping three weeks of rehearsals. This tour is just a warm-up, though; if all goes well, expect to see all seven of the bands that make up the whole of Secret Chiefs on the road in one mega-confusing show this fall. Is it a sign of the apocalypse? Will it bring fans any closer to breaking the code hidden under the tray in 2001’s Book M?

“I just don’t want all this stuff to end up being seen as a grimoire. I’m really trying to make this not come off as some Dungeons & Dragons shit, throwing fuckin’ clues around for everybody. It’s just sort of a record of what’s led me to this point and to accompany the music that’s resulted from it,” he says. “I mean, if I totally fail to show what is good about the philosophical things that have been found to be good and hopeful, at least you can have the music that’s come from it. I don’t know what more you could want.”

[Originally Appeared in Boston’s Weekly Dig March 7, 2007]