Trey Spruance, Art for Its Own Sake

Trey Spruance is a musician. He’s worked most of his life in relative obscurity, because his focus has always been on music, rather than on self-promotion. Throughout his professional career, he’s had a singular focus on creating music, even at the expense of being recognized or appreciated for creating music. Which, I think, is rare. And that’s why I admire him.

In the first half of his career, he was most closely associated with the testosterone-heavy experimental band, Mr. Bungle. In the second half, he’s worked mostly with John Zorn and his own group, Secret Chiefs 3.

In this video, Spruance is the tall man with the beard in the wizard’s costume. If you look closely, the first thing you may notice is that the instrument he’s playing is unfamiliar. It will be unfamiliar to you, because it is the only one of its kind. It’s a kind of souped-up electric saz, a Turkish or Persian instrument, notable for its distinctive fretting, tuning, and tonality. And Spruance is doing things with it that nobody on the planet has ever done. He’s combining Persian instrumentation with elements of surf-rock, metal, and the stylings of Ennio Morricone. Suffice it to say, Mr. Spruance has developed his own unique style of music.

In a 2012 interview with WestWord magazine, Spruance said this about his style:

I think it was — and maybe this is a bogus thing to say — I felt like I had come to the end of the Western tonal system. It’s not like I’ve completely mastered Bach and I know absolutely everything that’s going on in Stravinsky, or that I could orchestrate the way that Ravel does. I’m not saying that. But as a person who was living in the late twentieth century, you’re basically dealing with the deconstruction of tonality in the avant-garde at that point, and it just feels like everything is breaking down.

For me, going to Japan and seeing noise bands playing in ’95 and seeing that wall thrown up, it gave me the feeling of if there was nowhere else to go as far as the progress or the progression of tonality. Then what are we supposed to do as musicians? I think something in my heart, I guess I would say, was seeking something more a little bit more fundamental than the function of time and the history for music.

Because if the development of tonality is a function of history and time, then, in a way, what do we have to look forward to other than musical dissolution as well? Which was exactly what was going on around me in avant-garde music with some exceptions. There were definitely interesting things going on. I was never bored, and I was certainly excited by some of that dissolution. But, yeah, I was seeking something more substantial.

So it got me thinking about going outside of the Western tonal system, which got tricky because it’s not like I wanted to go…. I might have wanted to, but I probably wasn’t capable of signing up to apprentice for some Persian master and sitting there for fifteen years and learning to play Persian music. I’m not really an instrumentalist. I’m more of a composer, so that wasn’t going to be fulfilling to me. So I started studying the musical systems of antiquity to try to understand what made them tick and what they were invoking.

Here’s my synopsis of this point he’s making here: Spruance grew up in a tradition of rock music and Western music. He learned it well, played it well, he deconstructed it to hell, and then wondered, what next?

And this is what he came up with.



Whether or not you’re a fan, you must admit, it’s not like anything else out there.

What’s most interesting to me is why he’s chosen to make the music he’s making. More than 20 years ago, he was invited to become the lead guitarist of a band that was making Gold records and had worldwide acclaim. He recorded one album with the band, and he then quit before they went on tour in support of the album. That was the most lucrative professional opportunity he would ever receive.

An economist or evolutionary biologist might look at music and the act of creating music as a form of signaling, or a way to establish intergroup affinity. When you go to a concert, in a way, you are visiting with a self-selected tribe. If you meet someone who likes the same music as you do, it’s a signal that you have a set of shared values that extends beyond the music itself. If you’re a Tame Impala fan, and you’re at a party, and you meet one person who likes Tame Impala and another who like Nickleback, you’re going to assume that the former is in your tribe while the latter is not.

Trey Spruance seems to have gone to great lengths to make his tribe as small as it can be. And maybe that was a subconscious or conscious decision. Maybe he did it because he revels in obscurity.

But perhaps there is another explanation for why Spruance does what he does. And maybe that explanation is totally non-cynical. Music is art – something we do not only because it has value as a form of signaling, but also because it is valuable in and of itself. And while we shouldn’t waste too much time trying to define art, we can explain a few of the things it does for us. It allows us to connect with our own humanity and relate our own consciousness and life experience to others. We do that by discovering our own voice and then sharing it with others. Early in his career, he did this in ways that resonated with a broader audience. But now, his musical idiom is so far removed from mainstream culture, that he’s unlikely to do so ever again.

Spruance knows this, but he does it anyway. And it means he plays to smaller and smaller audiences for less pay. I believe this to be a conscious decision, one totally out of synch with most people’s values.

In the interview with WestWord, Spruance was also asked about the role of ego with artists, and he acknowledges his struggle to create music for its own sake without trying to be recognized.

I think individuation is a spiritual necessity, but when it’s paired with a flawed idea of historical progress…. Already with individuation you’re talking about megalomania. But there are worse things than megalomania and pathological narcissism. I think it’s normalized, at this point, for us to expect artists to be megalomaniacal, pathological narcissists, and we forgive them for it. We think, “That’s the way they are. They’re these crazy assholes who think so hugely of themselves.”

Think about, I don’t know, the fourteenth century: Artists were anonymous. They had no ego attachment to the things that they created. It’s kind of a radical shift, I think, the positions that artists occupy in our consciousness. So I think it’s kind of unhealthy for us to sit here. I think it’s unhealthy for myself because I have a lot of these tendencies of the modern artist — I can be a total megalomaniac.

For most artists, the act of being recognized for making great art is more important than the creation of great art itself. For Spruance, that is not the case. He recognizes his own desire for recognition, but he believes it to be unhealthy. His model is the 14th-century artist, who works as a craftsman without any attachment to external recognition or adulation. That is not an accident, but rather a conscious decision. And that is why he is worthy of our admiration.