Mr. Bungle and the Case of the Bizarre Reunion: interview with TREY SPRUANCE

ALLMUSIC.com, October 28, 2020 – Interview by Chris Steffen

Trey Spruance wasn’t planning on spending this much of 2020 revisiting a demo he played guitar on when he was 15, but it’s been a strange year. Before the pandemic hit, Spruance and a new lineup of the long-dormant experimental rock band Mr. Bungle regrouped to perform The Raging Wrath of the Easter Bunny, which paints a picture of the nascent band as the thrash metal-loving teenagers they were, priming the pumps for the weirdness that would follow. In keeping with the metal mood, the band’s core trio (Spruance, vocalist Mike Patton, and bassist Trevor Dunn) recruited a pair of ringers and heroes from their childhoods to flesh out the lineup: former Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo and Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian.

In its initial incarnation, Mr. Bungle was known for its eccentricity and sense of humor, but anyone who thought the band was joking about the hyper-specific focus of the reunion was set straight when the live shows made good on the promise of only featuring Raging Wrath songs, along with some covers, and ignored the rest of the band’s output. “When has it not been the case that when Mr. Bungle did something, a good chunk of the people were like, ‘This is what they’re doing?'” Spruance said from his home in Arizona. “It’s a good sign.”

Not only did the band complete the run of shows (catching COVID-19 in the process, according to Lombardo), but they hightailed it to the studio with its new drummer and guitarist in tow to re-record most of the original demo, along with a few covers and previously unrecorded songs from the era. It’s a peculiar choice, but also completely in keeping with the oddball legacy of Mr. Bungle. Spruance explained how it came together, detailed the painstaking lengths he went through to capture the songs’ original imperfections, and recalled his experience rejoining Faith No More in 2011 for a one-off performance of King For a Day…Fool For a Lifetime.

AllMusic: The reunion has been a distinctly narrow version of Mr. Bungle, was that always the plan?

Trey Spruance:
 It was only a flash of inspiration about doing exactly this. The band formed around this music, around these songs, and these songs had never gotten a fair shake. Most bands are maybe embarrassed of their early demos; we made four demos, and we’re not as excited about the subsequent demos, but we’ve always felt great about the first demo and about that music. So when Trevor had the idea, when Lombardo, Patton and myself were in the room at a Dead Cross/Secret Chiefs show in Brooklyn, he presented this idea, “What if we went back and did the Raging Wrath stuff with Lombardo on drums?” We weren’t talking about the second guitar stuff yet, but he just floated the idea, and that was the moment of inspiration that the band had been waiting for. With all the talk of a reunion and doing stuff again, as a group of friends and musicians, we needed inspiration to rally us to a cause, and nothing had happened until that moment.

AllMusic: Was there ever a second guitarist in Mr. Bungle?

Spruance:
 Oh hell no. Mr. Bungle is not a guitar band, really. I have people ask me, “Here’s a guitar, play a Mr. Bungle song!” and I’m like, “What, what do you want me to play, the riff in ‘Travolta’? You wouldn’t even recognize it, it’s a small piece in a big jigsaw puzzle.” Mr. Bungle’s music is often very layered and textured, there’s lots of instruments, a symphony of powers, let’s say. So any instrument is just a cog in that big thing, usually me onstage at a Mr. Bungle concert was playing a synthesizer here, trigger this sample there, doing backing vocals here, switch to a surf tone,and that’s everyone on my side of the stage, wearing a percussion hat and a flute hat and a tenor saxophone hat and a keyboard hat. You’re just trying to get as many parts covered as you possibly can with the people that you have, all that talent is servicing the arrangements.

This thing we’re doing is a completely different beast, it’s guitar-centered music, straight down the middle. Patton thought we needed a second guitar to anchor stuff during the solo stuff, and metal works best with two guitarists panned left and right, and who better to have than Scott Ian doing it? That we’d ask him and he’d say yes, that wasn’t in the realm of possibility, but Patton shot it out there and it landed.

AllMusic: A lot of bands that evolve out of metal tend to shy away from those roots, but you’re embracing it.

Spruance:
 Exactly, that’s the Mr. Bungle stamp, in a way, that we won’t do things unless we have the motivation that’s ridiculous and pushing it past the realm of reason or something. A lot of bands, if you go back to their roots, if they came up as the same time as us, their roots are playing Foreigner covers or 12-bar blues or something, and for us it’s playing Slayer riffs. More and more, you’re going to have people whose roots are that, so why not embrace it? I still listen to that music sometimes, and it’s so fucking good. If anything, there’s a sense of pride. We weren’t part of it, we were out of the loop, out in the middle of nowhere [Eureka, California]. People didn’t know about our band, but spiritually, our head was in the Bay Area thrash metal game, for sure. And we’re proud of that, so why be ashamed of it?

AllMusic: Was there the impulse to go in and fix things about the songs? How well did you remember them?

Spruance:
 You’re going to think I’m insane, but I remembered all of the riffs, I just have that kind of memory. When it was time to make demos for everybody to re-learn all the stuff, I went to YouTube, where the original has been uploaded, and I made tempo maps. You can’t hear the drums well on that recording, but I can remember where all the drum parts were and what they were doing, so I went through and matched all the tempos exactly to what we originally did. There’s all these weird tempo changes that are a little unintentional, things slow down that shouldn’t, or speed up here and there.

I wanted our original template to be ingrained in everybody’s mind, and I didn’t tell them that they were these weird tempos from the original, nobody said anything, “This is all over the place…” The music just internally makes sense with all these weird fluctuations in tempo, so I totally nerded out on that stuff for the demos, and that became natural to everyone in the process of learning the stuff now. It was all part of trying to be faithful to the spirit of the original, if you sit down and just play the riffs, the tempos will end up being more perfect now, we have experienced players who will keep the “right” tempos, but if we’re learning it with them all over the place, then they’re going to learn that. So that was really cool, that’s how good these guys are, that they can learn it as is.

AllMusic: Were there any surprises for you as you were revisiting the material?

Spruance:
 For me, it was crazy. Scott plays this fast shit all the time, and for me, trying to play a full hour and 20 minutes of speed metal was a new thing. My ass got kicked by it, and I had to essentially work out to get up to the point where I could do it as a guitar player. So some of these riffs, once you have them under your fingers and are digging in on it, it feels really good, and that’s what helped me reconnect with that crazed aggression you have as a 15-year-old. “This is what it feels like to play this shit!” To have all this tension and feel these evil tri-tones going by, they’re things you wouldn’t do now.

AllMusic: These songs weren’t staples of the band’s live shows as its career progressed, how did they come to be phased out?

Spruance:
 Our mission statement from the beginning was that we’d always be evolving and moving past what we’d done, we’re not going to retread the territory. As soon as that demo was done, we were on to the next thing, which was a Specials/ska kind of thing. Fishbone had come through Eureka, one of the few bands that ever did, and really inspired us, really fired us up and gave us a confidence that we could play other forms of music and make it really intense and compelling. We never really looked back at metal, I think the last time we played one of these Raging Wrath songs was in 2000, a New Year’s Eve show, we played “Sudden Death,” and did the whole thing. We remembered it all, it was in there, but the subsequent demos, I wouldn’t remember most of that stuff. I’d have to totally re-learn them, but the Raging Wrath stuff is etched perfectly in there.

AllMusic: Were you wary of bringing new people into the band? Mr. Bungle seems like a very specific sort of vibe that not everyone can buy into.

Spruance:
 With Dave, I’d first played with him at a John Zorn improvisational show in ’99, so I knew about him and I’d seen him at Secret Chiefs concerts, staring at our drummer, and he’s really on top of things as a musician. He was a known quantity, and we grew up worshipping the guy. Trevor, Mike and myself would air-drum the entire Reign in Blood record, we knew every fill, we were Slayer fanatics. Scott, who had similarly influenced us, not just with S.O.D. but also the Fistful of Metal record, all the fast picking, if I had to say our first choice of who most influenced Mr. Bungle in the 1985 era, it’s Scott Ian, for sure, as a guitar player. So that was our motive, to get the two best guys who had the most to do with why we were doing what we’re doing. Mike approached Scott, and Scott wasn’t just into it, he listened to that tape back in ’86, ’87, he was doing the tape trading, same as everyone else, and he knew the music.

AllMusic: Did you know that he went that far back with the band?

Spruance:
 Not until we fucking asked him. So that was like, “OK, this is going to work.”

AllMusic: Would that have broken your brain at 15, to know that one of your heroes was listening to your demo?

Spruance:
 That would have broken my brain completely. And the other thing is how seriously he dug in on it, how much he respects the tradition of Mr. Bungle. And he’s an absolute pro, he showed up at rehearsals way more prepared than anybody else, really serious. He did his homework, and he knocked it out of the park.

AllMusic: It’s been nearly a decade since you played guitar with Faith No More in Chile. Was that a meaningful experience for you, given how your initial run with the band ended? [Spruance played guitar on King For a Day…Fool For a Lifetime]

Spruance:
 Absolutely. I’d been to Chile the year before with Secret Chiefs, and witnessed the phenomenon there that’s pretty intense when it comes to Faith No More. It was the promoter’s idea, “Why don’t you just play this album?” and when they asked me to do it, I at first thought they were just being nice, but then I thought, “This is good.” I give props to [current Faith No More guitarist] Jon Hudson, he’d been playing all of that music all of that time, the difference being that I played it and made up a bunch of the stuff. But the studio is different than live, and he had decades of experience, honing what the needs of a stadium concert are for music like that, so he really helped me so much to get my act together.

AllMusic: And you’d left the band originally before the tour started, so you’d never played any of those songs live.

Spruance:
 My only experience with playing that music live was in front of 80,000 people.

AllMusic: I feel like that album has grown in estimation over the years.

Spruance:
 It’s very strange how it’s lived on, I’d expect that the sleeper record that would clean up everything would be Angel Dust, which is true in the United States, but outside the United States, King for a Day somehow really has taken on this very grand life, and it’s cool to see it. I can’t say I understand it; I think the music was great on that record, but they have so many records that are really strong. I was a Faith No More fan before Patton joined it, we were driving around Eureka listening to that stuff.

AllMusic: It’s the spooky season, and I noticed you wearing a Dario Argento shirt in the photos from the album sessions. Do you have a movie recommendation for us?

Spruance:
 For me, the most compelling horror film of all time is probably Andrzej Żuławski‘s Possession, and I know that it hugely influenced Dario Argento. It’s not like there’s a similarity or he copied anything, but I feel like the language of that film, and his other films that go into horror, like Diabel and Szamanka, I give props to him, a master somewhere in the background of giallo, although he has nothing to do with actual giallo cinema other than that the serious directors were paying attention to him.

Photos by Buzz Osborne

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