TREY SPRUANCE 'California' 20th anniversary interview
Continuing our celebrations of 20 years since Mr. Bungle’s third and final album California was released Trey Spruance reveals to us how songs were written and recorded, and his interpretation of 'California dreaming'.
We have chatted with Trey on several occasions and always found him a wonderful interviewee. In 2016 we discussed Mr. Bungle’s debut album in a special Halloween themed 25th anniversary article - Trey spoke in glorious detail, and with vigorous passion (that interview remains one of the most popular we have ever conducted on our website.)
Approaching the 20th anniversary of 'California' we got in touch with Trey with great excitement knowing his readiness to deep dive into Mr. Bungle’s music. We posed questions that would hopefully incite some enlightening responses and a further understanding of the music on Mr. Bungle's final album. As you will discover we received so much more.
It seems we chose the perfect time to quiz the composer as he is currently researching for a new project concerned with the US state of California.
"If I ramble on a bit on these subjects in this interview it's because I'm in the middle of an enormous multi-year project that deals directly with the dark mytho-history of California. So I am knee deep in research materials having to do with that."
Trey was so enthusiastic on this subject that after our initial conversation he returned to us several times with more ideas and edits.
For fans of Mr. Bungle, the album 'California', the man himself and those who just love a good read... this is a real treat and we can not thank Trey enough for taking the time to respond in such detail and for simply being so damn cool!
Grab a pot of coffee, pull up a chair and immerse yourself in a wave of California surf...
Trey Spruance 'California' 20th Anniversary Interview
Probably so. Though it wasn’t as ‘experimental’-seeming in content as a record like Disco Volante, California was easily the most ambitious record we ever made. The music writing itself was also a gracefully balanced moment for all of us as a band of contributing writers. For our arrangement and production vision the technical and production demands were utterly enormous — to the point of being absolutely ridiculous at times. In perspective of hindsight, I think it was the last multi-channel analog tape production on that massive of a scale ever to be attempted. For a tape-based production California is pretty much as ridiculous as it gets. In terms of what musicians can normally permit themselves to ask a studio to do, it’s even hard to think of anything BEFORE that record that stretched things as far. You have go all the way back to something like “Delirium in Hi Fi” (1958), which would be comparable in terms of what they were pushing the studios of the time to deal with. The Beach Boys’ “Smile” (1966) and White Noise’s “An Electric Storm” (1969) would be the other precedents. It’s hard to come up with other comparable examples.
For me personally that’s probably the main thing that throws “California” into a special category. Also, it’s nice that the ideas behind most of the songs show a certain geographically-correct prescience about the soon-to-be-unleashed socio-digital apocalypse. 20 years later, now that the entire world has been placed under the shadows of a bunch of California-based logos (Google, Apple, Facebook, PayPal, Uber, Instagram, on and on), some of the ideas on this record might actually make a bit more sense to some people.
Everyone in Mr. Bungle definitely has their own perspective on the 'subject' of California, and in no way do my viewpoints represent any kind of band statement. For sure we all have our own take.
I read that you found new respect for Brian Wilson’s craftsmanship during the 90s. Did you set out to create music with distinct surf-rock sounds?
Speaking for myself personally, 1997 was the year Sony Japan asked me to contribute a song for their “Smiling Pets” tribute compilation. A couple of years before that Gregg Turkington (Neil hamburger) had exposed me to an enormous archive of cassettes of studio outtakes from Smile. Of course hearing all that that helped me gain an appreciation of Brian Wilson’s mastery, especially his using the studio as an orchestration tool. What is also exposed on some of those recordings is the devil/god in the details: every last nuance of Brian Wilson’s faustian and self-destructive pursuit of excellence is audible. I guess every true artist makes sacrifices, and nothing of value comes without a price…
As far as Mr. Bungle pursuing distinct “surf rock” sounds, I tend to think of it this way: if you’re in Canada you don’t expect the Canadians to call a goose a “Canadian Goose” like we do in America. For a band from California, when Californian elements like surf rock start creeping in, it’s not like there’s a conscious process to it. I’ll admit to you that things like surf music might be equally foreign and ‘exotic’ to us as they would be to a musician in, say, London. No matter how ‘native’ that sound might be to our experience, we remained ever on the exterior of that culture. It’s a fascinating form of ecstatic alienation, and it’s probably the reason that you can find surf-ish elements in Mr. Bungle, even well before California.
Maybe that’s not so unlike Brian Wilson in a way too.
Without discussing any ‘concept’ of any sort, Mr. Bungle approached the ‘Californian’ aspect of the record pretty much as xenophiles, meaning as our normal selves. It’s much the same way we approached the mysterious co-incidence of deep outer space / and the deep sea inner space of Disco Volante: in each case there is encounter suit to define the space between an uninhabitable exterior world (outer space, deep sea) and an interiority that is always at risk of fatal rupture and exposure.
As outsiders to surf and beach culture (obviously) and pretty much everything else that is seen by the world as “Californian” on a superficial level, our very home might have seemed just as “exotic-but-familiar” to us as it does to anyone else. It’s almost impossible to avoid viewing the subject of California outside of any number of its own many myth-making filters. Most wouldn't even think to try.
So this is another form of music that people forget is natural to the state. And we were immersed in it from the beginning.
Remember that Mr. Bungle was born in one of the most famously dark corners of the womb of the Golden State in '85. Nurtured on some of the bitterest milk of Kalifia's alienation we were, naturally enough, a death metal band. Surrounded by hippie stoners and rednecks, disliking pretty much everyone, we were just another group of disaffected punks roaming aimlessly in a dreary coastal town in the extreme north of the state. That’s it. Surf culture was at best an import. People we knew who were identifying with that sunny culture were just making it up based on movies and television. And in that they were no different than everyone else living outside of Southern California who, in the well-worn tradition of mimetic envy, wrapped their identities around the various Hollywood exports.
The geographic and cultural isolation afforded by the immense redwood curtain/womb/incubator all around us ended up working in our favor. Eureka taught us how to fight uncompromisingly. That's mainly because the only other alternative was to slide into a deranged stupor blunted resentment and general mediocrity. People have little choice other than to take characteristics like that upon themselves when they're trying to withstand the daily psychic suffocations of an abused, abusive and economically doomed micro-cosmos. But there were breathing tubes around. Patton worked in a record store — his tenure there, and a few nearly-selfless teachers at our high school, helped expose us to glorious things and develop a taste for everything that might be out there beyond the immediately bleak horizon. Our xenophila progressed intensely but naturally. We went from death metal to punk to dissonant jazz and such, until we found ourselves getting jacked up looking at Ligeti scores. We’d gotten pretty far out of sync with everything around us by then… but it says something good about the area that there actually even were Ligeti scores around!
There are people who seem to think the metal aspects in our later music are a cheeky tacked-on genre novelty -- the kind of thing a bunch of music dorks might set out to do just for laughs. They forget that death metal is more natural to us than breathing, and that we carried it with us everywhere we went.
So when the band made California we’d all been in San Francisco for a decade — taking in yet other whole universes of new information and by then traveling around the world. In a way we were just offering slightly more sophisticated musical expressions of the same disaffected punk/death metal sentiment as we'd ever done.
I guess when people get a bit more 'worldly' in addition to discovering new ways of looking at things, they also discover how just how distorted the rest of the world's view on where they come from can be. That mytho-vision can have fascinating effects. The idea people have of Brazil for example. My wife is Brazilian and when we meet Americans and Europeans you can visibly see the first thing popping into most people's mind are Rio de Janeiro, Carnival, Victoria's Secrets models, Favela tours, bikini asses and light Bossa Nova background music at fancy high society gatherings. Ok, we can say those are just outsider stereotypes, gringo shit, but to a certain degree they are also domestic exports. Perceptions of California operate under a very similar dynamic. You have the mythic impression of the outsider which as a native you can dismiss, but you also have not just a cynical industry but a culture that deliberately exports those impressions. There are a few songs on California that might be marinating in this dynamic, consciously or not.
In Brazil there is an excellent phrase "Para Inglês ver", "for the English to see". It's about cleaning up all the bad shit and hiding it so that when the gringo comes through with his scrutinizing colonial eyes and inbred sense of civic superiority, all he will see is good stuff. Well guess what? This is exactly what we do in California. But for slightly different reasons. There is so much BAD you can barely believe how dark it gets if you really want to look into it. I won't go into it here. The point is, not only do people here want to avert your eyes from all of that and pretend it isn't a thing, they also desperately seek to avert their own eyes as well (proving not only that they know it is a thing, but a very bad thing). I can make my case on that, and will do so elsewhere.
You have to be understanding when you name an album "California", though. Of course people called us a "California band" and by the album graphics would logically assume that we made the album as an ode celebrating our favorite place on earth, our beautiful home. It's not like that's not true. Let me be clear that I have nothing personal to complain about personally. The state has been great to me. But God, I still have to cringe when someone accuses me of being a "California musician", which of course I am. What a bore to my accusers if I sat and cataloged all of the most nefarious aspects of the Golden State. Or if I advised them to situate me not in the usual sunny legacy of lovable California "outside-the-box" progressive musical rebellion, but instead within the stunningly opaque darkness at the end of the western expansion's dirty rainbow. In that case I wouldn't be inclined to disagree with the characterization. But my accusers will still place that triumphal arc of the California Dream over my head, and the objectionable and unconscionable aspects of what it means for anyone to be a Native Son of California will be swept under the rug like always. The charade will go on.
Because that charade is a domestic export. Para Inglês ver. It's not like we Californians are blissfully unaware of the motives behind "Californication", or believe that those impressions are all due to outsiders. Californians are the ones who manufacture the mythology in the first place, and oh my God do we labor crazily to maintain the facade. This is the reason you always see Californians scrambling. Competing for the "outside-the-box" rebel consumer crown, sure. More profoundly, though, everyone seems to be desperately trying to place some distance between themselves and the scene of a vast integral crime -- a crime against humanity -- a monumental, apocalyptic crime that pulses out rhythmically from the heart of darkness. I'd say this crime was destined, manifested you could say, and that the essence of the California personnae is to surf (surface) the waves pulsing from a monstrously deep raging sea of “thymos” — the ultimate occidental angst pit of thwarted messianism.
It's psychotic. But with so many post-frontier pioneers unable to accept that there's an end to the trail, how could you not end up with an Empire of petty Immortalists?
That to me is a big part of where the surf sounds come from.
The way to say it is that in the "warre of every one against every one", every Californian awaits the advent of their own Rage Messiah. That's it! It's a matter of Rage Redemption, a job which falls to "Mavericks" seized with the vision to look even farther west...
The way to say it is that in the "warre of every one against every one", every Californian awaits the advent of their own Rage Messiah. That's it! It's a matter of Rage Redemption, a job which falls to "Mavericks" seized with the vision to look even farther west...
Nice place to visit. So next time you are here, look out well beyond the shore, to the setting sun. There, silhouetted against the crimson western Sun -- a now rising in the West -- behold the man: walking on water, bisecting the heavens from earth with a longboard powered by Tesla. (After the Flyboard Air we just saw debuted at the Bastille Day celebrations, l'Ascension des Saints Armés Kalifia can't be far behind... )
Who but the worst Decadent could consider such a sickening vision to be "Romantic"?
Ugh, the fruits of thwarted messianism fall from every tree...
So I think all we really set out to do with California is to be true to the spirit of this state.
I’s definitely right to acknowledge Brian Wilson’s impact on the project, especially when it comes to the Faustian scale of it. His is a distinctly beautiful voice from inside the belly of the beast — and it resonates through the ages with a more innocently melancholic and well-intended temperament than Mr. Bungle’s fevered screechings.
In a recent interview Greg Werckman said the initial recordings for California were even more ‘Beach Boys-esque’, and that you guys consciously set about to making a record that was more accessible than Disco Volante. Can you remember how those early songs differed from what ended up on the album?
There was only one consciously “Beach Boys”-esque tune, Air Conditioned Nightmare, which I didn’t write. That song’s working title was “Beach Boys”, so there was a guiding star there for sure. It could be that the demo versions of that song had more compression to them and stood out as more Beach Boys-y. We didn’t try to reign that kind of thing in on the final version or anything — each song in Mr. Bungle only ever followed it’s own internal logic, from idea to demo to final version.
As far as California being intended as more self consciously accessible, I mean… imagine setting out with an intention of making an album that was LESS commercially accessible than Disco Volante. That’d be pretty funny!
At one point we did actually consider releasing an album of static just to see if Warner Brothers was paying attention. But how it actually happened with California is that when we finally got around to sharing our ideas after years of pursuing our various musical paths, we were all very excited (and relieved) to discover that each of us separately had been veering in an eclectically ‘pop’ direction in our moods towards Mr. Bungle writing. I think initially each of us even felt a little apprehensive about showing the band our more ‘consonant’ ideas. For example, I remember Trevor was a bit shy about showing Mike and I his early draft of “Retrovertigo”. Once we’d twisted his arm to let us hear it, I don’t think he even really believed our enthusiasm for the song was genuine at first! I probably even had my demo of what became “Pink Cigarette” in my pocket… still afraid to show it.
To answer the last part of your question, those early versions of songs were just shoddily recorded home attempts to show the other band members what we were trying to do. Sometimes those early versions have something magical that you can’t replicate in the studio. When that happened with Mr. Bungle, sometimes we’d just put the demo version on the album (as happened with most of “The Bends” on Disco Volante).
You went from an album that features very few 'catchy melodies' to an album which has some incredible and infectious melodies. Was that all Patton or did the writer of each song contribute the melody also?
If this wasn’t coming from such a supporter of Mr. Bungle’s music, it would be one of those abrasive questions that anyone in the band would wince at. But you bear no fault for asking it, realizing most bands operate very differently than Mr. Bungle did.
On any Mr. Bungle song, each writer, Trevor, Patton, Bar or myself, was usually fully responsible for the melodic content of the songs or parts they contributed. So the usual way of thinking about “bands” with everyone writing from their instrument and others democratically “doing what they want” on their own instrument has absolutely no place in any discussion of Mr. Bungle.
The way it usually worked is that most songs, or at least song parts, came complete, with most or all melodic and chordal things written by the one who composed it. But everyone could add or make alterations to any part for any other instrument. Someone might have an idea for a harpsichord riff, a glockenspiel part, or imagine a different guitar voicing, a different vocal part, whatever. I mean to highlight that we all wrote for the big picture, not for ourselves. Occasional writing collaborations happened throughout the ensemble, from the beginning. For example, on Carry Stress in the Jaw I added analog pad synths to the verse, drawing out some nuances of Trevor’s chord changes. On Violenza Domestica Patton added rich bandoneon parts to a whole section of comparatively simple synth music I’d written. That kind of thing was a lot more than just fair game, it was symbiosis. The essence of the band. Most of the time if it went that way it was one person grabbing another person’s floating riffs (from the graveyard), which were essentially already completely composed, and fitting them together with their own ideas. The best alterations happened in that fitting-together. Orchestration and arrangement decisions were made both collectively and individually in Mr. Bungle. In examples from Disco Volante like Techno Allah you can hear clearer instances of collaborative arrangement. On California it’s still there, but a bit more subtle.
So looking at the aforementioned Retrovertigo, Trevor wrote the melodies, the chords, the lyrics (if there is a poet in the band, it's Trevor). Patton came up with the beat-boxing and some counter vocal lines. Or look at Pink Cigarette. I wrote the melodies and chords, Patton wrote the lyrics and instrumental intro section, and diverged from the original verse melody (subsequently a counter line heard on English Horn) with a better more natural vocal approach for the verses.
But then consider Air Conditioned Nightmare or Goodbye Sober Day, where Patton picks up a few parts Bar had written (melody, chords, everything) and weaves them together with his own complimentary ideas (again all parts for all instruments, not just vocals) and ties it all together with his instrumentation ideas and lyrics.
Vanity Fair is a unique case where Trevor had written this really interesting and bizarre atonal doo-wop song, and Patton came up with a kind of Jackson 5 type tonal melody on top of it that pulled it all together. Ok, that’s a case where Patton did a vocal thing over a pre-existing piece.
But I’d like to remind people that with all the focus on Patton’s singing, it’s not just “the rest of us” being shadowed as not contributing the melodic material he sang (oh boo hoo), but he also gets robbed of all the ‘inside parts’ he contributed, and the arranger’s ear and production aesthetic that he has. It’s always wisest when looking at Mr. Bungle to fight the expectations you may have.
You know it’s weird, you’re not the first person this month to have brought up a middle eastern influence on ‘California’. It baffles me. For sure there was a bit of that sound going on with on Disco Volante, but not California. On "Goodbyse Sober Day" the references are Samoan and Balinese (farther west!). But I suspect you guys are referring to “Ars Moriendi”? That would be a case in point for the earlier question, because Patton wrote “Ars Moriendi”. I didn’t write a note of it. And that song is rooted firmly in Romanian village music tropes, not middle eastern music. I understand it’s a bit of a maze when dealing with each of our various subsequent musical interests and output, and it would be easy to make assumptions based on that. You mentioned about me “exploring things further” in SC3, but that wording can create an impression that’s out of sync with the actual chronology. By the time we started work on California, SC3 had been playing some Romanian classic village-music songs in a punk-metal vein already for a couple of years. I’d also been importing albums from Fanfare Ciocarlia and a Taraf de Haidouks for sale on my Web of Mimicry webstore in the late 90s. So it’d be incorrect to say that I explored those things further in SC3, post-Bungle. And it’s the same chronology with the SC3 Beach Boys re-orchestrations for Sony Japan — that’s all before California.
But just because of that, everyone will now assume it was me who brought the Romanian village music and Beach Boys dimensions into Mr. Bungle. Halt! No it wasn’t! That was mostly Patton and Bar. I just helped realize the ideas as a band member with some relevant production/realization skills. As I said, it’s easy to make assumptions, but really, when it comes to Mr. Bungle, it’s better not to. So just to be clear, when you hear ‘Ars Moriendi’, all those violin parts are Patton. The accordion parts, Patton. The cymbalom parts, Patton. The guitar parts, Patton. For sure on any song, when necessary Trevor or I would transcribe Patton’s ideas for other instruments, but we didn’t alter the content: they were his parts. Every note. It goes the same with the writing on something like The Holy Filament: the vocal lines, Dunn. The piano parts, Dunn. The string parts, Dunn. The guitar parts, Dunn. Or None of Them Knew They Were Robots: the lyrics, Spruance. The horn parts, Spruance. The organ parts, Spruance. etc. building on some bass-riff contributions from the ‘graveyard’ (Patton and Heifetz).
With Bar, it was usually either Mike or myself stealing one of his fully composed parts and putting it into a song we were working on. And in those cases where Bar’s muse was pilfered on California (Goodbye Sober Day, Air Conditioned Nightmare, etc) it was much the same: the vocal lines, Bar. The bass lines, Bar. The keyboard parts, Bar. The guitar parts, Bar.
Can we discuss some of 'your' songs and the album. None Of Them Knew They Were Robots has some very interesting lyrics (which you have explained a little at BungleFever.com) could describe to us what they are about?
I'll be going into subjects related to this on an upcoming website overhaul. But for relevance in this article: in briefest terms, None of Them Knew They Were Robots looks at the ever-increasing reflex of mechanical self-understanding that our species finds easier and easier to accept, and puts that against a background some relevant ideas about "the Singularity".
Those ideas are not new, some are in fact ancient, and the talk about them now was current in the early-to-mid 90s in various Bay Area underground scenes -- well before the current explosions of the subject. As a connoisseur of extremes, some of those ideas seemed so insane to me that they warranted further review. I found myself rifling through the "history of the ideas" to such a degree that I ended up with a pretty surprisingly coherent chronological chart of the history of every permutation of the idea, from ancient paradigm to heresy of antiquity to modern cosmological construct for cybernetics tinkerers and biological engineers. Those things all overlap in startling and informative ways. During the writing of the piece I guess I had Borges, John von Neumann, Philip K Dick whispering in one ear and Evagrius Ponticus and Georges Lemaître and Teilhard de Chardin in the other. A Great Ball of Napalm Rockabilly Fire was brewing, and though it was to be aimed beyond the retro-ironic cocktail scene of the 90s Bay Area hipster culture, the idea owes a certain tangental debt to the cynicism of that phenomenon (as does Retrovertigo). Well, pursuing my own interest in the subject on a philosophical level, I began to attend some weird lectures and engage in more and more discussions related to it. I found some pretty disturbing things.
Otherwise reasonable-seeming people around me seemed really eager to be rendered and accumulated as bits of information to be fed into a God-sized inter-galactic supercomputer. They expressed a kind of reserved expectation that once every bit of information in the Universe was accounted for in this Babel-to-end-all Babels, they (we all) would be "run" as programs in some kind of perpetual computational anamnesis beyond time. As such we'd all participate in, yup, Eternal Life. I guess I could understand being seduced/suckered by lofty universalist redemption-type things, especially when the most ridiculous assertions are cryptotheologically camouflaged, and even 'vindicated' by the authority of a few well-branded names from the hard sciences. But for the life of me I could not understand an actual will to mechanize. It fascinated me that any sentient being would aim to condition its mind down to a few mere mechanical constructs -- to shave the cumbersome sharp and poetic parts off the consciousness just so the binary ether can fit through the cybernetic door.
I learned that the important thing for this type of eschatologist is to earn the futurological points necessary to theoretically subsist for all eternity in some inconceivable post-human form. Now to me, to have the design concept for our destiny be made at the whims of the cranks and Libertarian CEOs and gurus of futurology would be bad enough. But to want what those guys want for yourself?? I'm used to seeing those kinds of scenarios in Philip K. Dick novels, where scams upon humanity are perpetrated by hi-tech super-villains, and not as ethoses eagerly taken-on by plebs. My God, you'd think there'd be a fight, not this milquetoast masochism and subservience to a deterministic paradigm. But that's an ancient and powerful urge, is it not? And boy is it gaining ground now.... now more than ever, None of Them Knew....
Is it true that parts of song were written years before, from the ‘graveyard of riffs’? How did it develop into the final version?
Yes, the four note bass-line you hear in the first bar is from the “graveyard of riffs” with Patton's name on the tombstone. First I unburied it, resurrected it, and made hundreds of bars of new bass lines to go with it. Then I buried all that under a million big band riffs and a thousand polytonal rockabilly elements, beginning with the chord clusters that sit atop the original “graveyard” line at bar One. There’s also chromatic tongue-twister in the bass at “Lindy Hoop Around the Truth” that I lifted from the graveyard, with Heifetz’s name on the tombstone. Even while we were tracking the album I hadn’t finished writing the lyrics. One day I took a few hours to finish them off, and actually handed them to Patton the DAY we recorded him singing it. Somehow he was able to deliver those mouthful lyrics I’d saddled him with at the last second with supreme fire and conviction!
Pink Cigarette is (in my opinion) one of the finest songs Bungle ever recorded. Is it more of challenge to write what is essentially a 'pop song' or something more avant-guarde?
Thanks! Yeah, it's strange. Writing isn’t what takes time, production is.
I wrote Pink Cigarette and three other “pop” songs in a few hours. In arranging for instruments there’s some more time investment, but at the idea phase it’s a breeze. The more avant garde stuff usually comes just as fast, but you might spend a bit more time justifying certain things harmonically. I think poppier music writes itself more instinctively — you know where things fit just because there’s a kind of intuitive hierarchy to melodies and chords and voice-leading. If you have something worth developing, everything kind of just suggests itself. If you don't, well... For more intensive and harmonically challenging music, there can be a less obvious hierarchy of intent. Sometimes you have to consciously work up a specific harmonic ‘language’ to get the right interrelationships in place. That can take a bit more doing. I’d say arranging/orchestration is equally challenging between the ‘pop’ and ‘avant grade’ realms. But in production it’s the other way around than in writing. Making things sit well in a mix for unique, non-generic ‘pop’ music requires a lot more dexterity than the avant grade stuff. It requires a whole range of specific skills that are not a matter of ‘trying new things’, but are more a matter of using well-developed tried-and-true techniques to the best effect. I guess when you put those things together, that’s when things get the most interesting...
Did you at any point consider releasing a single from the album?
We tried! Retrovertigo was “remixed” for radio. Nothing happened with it.
Lyrically and, in certain parts, musically Golem II The Bionic Vapour Boy reminds me of the first Bungle album. Could it be a follow up to Quote Unquote?
Oh, I see what you mean. Had to think about that… good observation.
It’s not a follow up, but yeah, it shares the theme of a seemingly disincarnate being operating in the world (or imagining himself to). Whereas Travolta (Quote Unquote) deals with multiple disability and sensory deprivation liberating a being into omnipotent imaginal god-hood, Golem II explores a kind of inverse of that. Stanislaw Lem, in his story / philosophical essay Golem XIV, poses the question: would a genuinely AI being, meaning an intelligence native to silicon instead of carbon, have anything — anything at all — to say to us? And would we be capable of understanding it if it did?
I used the title “Golem II” to more directly connote the obvious update on the old Jewish myth. These days it would be more recognizable as Golem v2.0 or something like that. The song was meant to sound like a children’s storybook song, like the ones that narrate the adventures of a heroic figure. The idea was that if human beings were to be aware of the actions taken by this new AI Golem, meaning things happening well beyond mankind’s comprehension level, then the task of getting humans to understand any of it would fall to the AI, and not the other way around. That not only inverts the typical understanding of the role of human/teacher and AI/student assumed in AI development, but also implies that the burden of comprehension would now go the other way, from AI to human.
That shift will be a significant one.
I don't know, we tend to think of power in terms of hierarchical rank (bionic puppet boy) and more recently in terms of the flow of information (bionic paper boy). But we still overlook certain blatant essentials when it comes to what we mean by the term “AI” that I think will likely haunt us greatly in the not-too-distant-future. Whether one has a utopian or dystopian outlook anticipating the future of the enterprise, I'd imagine what will likely come as the main surprise is not what will be unearthed in megatech, but what will be unearthed about us -- about ourselves.
Of course we humans have a primary (and ancient) motive for building the Golem I of ‘Thinking Megatechnics’. We’ve always wanted to teach the machine how to do things for us as a beast of burden, (as a Bionic Labour Boy!), and use our magic words to instruct it and tell it what to do and what not to do. Now we increasingly want to be released from the burden of thinking. But this song isn’t some dystopian warning about the folly of that, or of expecting AI to obey us once it demonstrates to us that it has acquired some form of anthropoid sentience. It’s more a question of motive. What would drive a being that had acquired the advanced ability to mimic something as artificial to it as anthropoid sentience to go to the trouble of speaking in our terms about itself? Further, is it reasonable to expect such an intelligence to politely accommodate the expectations of cyberneticists? Or to genuinely speak its mind in a comprehensible manner? Do we really believe ourselves capable of confining such a being to our purposes? By definition a superior intelligence has to be capable of free choice. Are we not assuming an enormous amount of benevolent condescension from the machine by expecting that it would even desire a conversation with us? As the Lem story illustrates, comprehending the motives of such a gloriously alien being would necessarily reduce proud mankind to the embarrassing position of having to ASK…. and then to hope for an answer, preferably a full explanation.
And what of the resounding unfairness in the fact that the Bionic Vapour Boy has access to everything about us, but we’d have no access to him other than what he decided to tell us?
Sometimes it seems as if a certain segment of humankind is actually looking to take one famously difficult relationship with an 'unknowable other' and replace it with a new one. What I mean is there seems to be a creepy subliminal effort to find a way to recapitulate the human/divine dynamic in terms of a new silent partner, silicon-based this time, who is just as unresponsive and effectively all-powerful as the one we are seeking to outsource to robotics. Or maybe there’s something else going on… something more deplorable and Freudian.
The song takes no drastic utopian or dystopian position on the subject. It simply evokes a hypothetical AI shoe-horning its cognitive field down to fit its expressions into carbon-based human metaphorical symbolic constructs (master/slave, truth/deception, visible/invisible, desire for immortality etc). The song takes for granted that Golem II wants (for some reason) to tell a simple mythic story about itself in storybook form… as an instructional for children. Hence the juvenilia of the song. But that’s just illustrating orders of magnitude; the children are the Golem’s creators in the military industrial complex. The Golem composed the lyric in reverse first-person person, identifying “us” as narrator and “He” as itself. It uses the Epic of Gilgamesh and Golem stories to give some idea of the otherwise incomprehensible tasks it performs on behalf of its ‘masters’, while also giving some insight into its character as a self-organizing and evolving system (Giga-giga-gilgamesh).
One of the things in the lyrics shows that 'by day' Golem deliberately reveals itself to his handlers as an obedient slave, performing the expected tasks in the sunlight of human comprehension, passing the carbon-based cognition tests etc. However, of the things done 'by night', where our comprehension is blind and he is no longer slave but King, Golem refers to performing activities like 'perfecting' us and 'correcting' us, building a new Zion etc.
Well, who knows what that means? What will the advent of truly native silicon intelligence mean for mankind? I’d say the song hovers right in the vapor of an inescapable etheric gap, where progress only widens the aperture of the 'open question'.
In the context of the rest of the album it stands out as a delightfully bizzarre song. What was your writing process?
It’s part of a cycle of songs I wrote on a wurlitzer electric piano that included what became “The End Times”, “Welcome to the Theatron Animatronique” and a few other Secret Chiefs 3: FORMS compositions. I had this frightening Papier Mâché artist’s bust self-portrait as Dionysus (complete with snake around his neck and eyeliner) made by a special needs artist working at “Creativity Explored”. I used to stare at it while playing that electric piano, and a lot of great music came out of that self-hypnosis. I didn’t intended what became Golem as a Mr. Bungle song at first. It had a more shall we say ‘Italian’ feel to begin with, not so much Nino Rota but more in the spirit of Armando Trovajoli or something… but after I made a demo of it and thought of the lyrical concept, it kind of took on its own life and became a Mr. Bungle song. Funny that after adding clavinet parts and Patton doing all those harmonies it ended up sounding more like the Gap band or something!
Just in the sense of the planning out, mapping, problem solving of unique technical challenges of that record. Aesthetic vision, the most important aspect of record production, belongs to the whole band. How to make it happen technically was especially in my wheelhouse, working with Billy Anderson and Justin Phelps. Maybe ‘architect’ would have been a better word, because it was really just that — the plan, the blueprint. The WAY to do it. With this ambitious of a project we had to have a comprehensive map that was legible and workable both for the engineers and all the artists involved. That aspect of the production job, problem-solving everything we wanted to do into a tenable studio game-plan, was a massive creative challenge that my specific skill set was well-suited for. But the production was a collaboration, top-to-bottom. Patton worked the same endless hours as me tweaking stuff, and Trevor oversaw most of the tracking with us and all of the mixing too. The execution of our production approach in the studio wasn’t dominated by me, but was a job everyone was involved in. For example, for a certain reverb on a bongo to be just right, it had to be dialed on the spot — Willie had to be there playing because we were printing reverb to tape during takes. With 70+ tracks going at times, there would be no way to dedicate a reverb on an aux later during mix, or waste time doing a submix. So pretty much every reverb (and effect compression) was printed during the performance. That means the musician had to be standing there playing, Billy had to be running the transport, someone would be dialing in the reverbs and/or compression for takes (either myself or Patton or both), and Trevor (or Patton or me) would be listening and judging what was happening. Some such configuration of the three of us was going at all times, with Danny and Bar coming in and out throughout the entire process as well.
So production was a collaborative thing in Mr. Bungle. My thing, the ‘production strategy’ thing, was architectural — blueprinting everything so we could actually pull it all off. That was a major job. I’ve continued down that road in similarly elaborate scenarios since, but California was analog so it posed some very special challenges.
So being analog rather than digital it must've been difficult to organise such a complex album. Especially with an extra 14 musicians to coordinate as well as the band.
The main thing was strategizing the sessions chronologically in the best way that would deal with the limitation of tracks vs. the scale and variety of ensembles we wanted to incorporate.
It became a joke that the most common phrase Billy would hear by far during that record was “would it be possible to?…”
We started with the tracking of the rhythm-section skeletons on each song. We’d be using two or three reels (48 - 72 tracks) on each song. Reel One would be Phase I skeletal rhythm section, Reel Two would be Phase II overdubs, Reel Three would be Phase III overdubs. Each reel was 15 minutes or so and had two or three songs — so there were multiple Reel One, Reel Two etc.
The initial Phase I, Reel One tracking was done at Coast Recorders, a studio that was capable of linking two 24-track tape machines together for a total of 48 tracks (in reality 46 tracks because one track per reel will go to time code to sync the machines). We had have those two machines from the beginning because after tracking the rhythm-section skeleton (drums, bass, some guitars and “scratch” guitars and keyboards as guides for subsequent recording), we were going to make “reference mixes” of these skeletal parts onto three tracks of Reel Two. With three tracks of reference mix you could have at least a little control over the headphone mixes for overdubbing musicians.
We brought all our Reel Two(s) to anew studio for Phase II, overdubbing. We worked at a studio that didn’t have time code and just had a single 24-track machine. It would slow us down to have two reels up anyway (transport takes more time on linked machines), so it’s a streamlined way to work. Twenty tracks are free on Reel Two, the other four are eaten by the three reference tracks and one for time-code.
First we did the big overdub-ensemble stuff because there’s a lot of tracking space at first. Every time there’s a choir of Patton’s voices, like on “Goodbye Sober Day” and “The Holy Filament”, it’s submixed from as many as sixteen voices down to two. After the submix, six tracks are now eaten: three for reference, one time-code, and now two for Patton choir. The Patton choir recordings had to be done first, otherwise there wouldn’t be enough room to do sixteen (eight stereo) tracks of violin, viola and cello. The strings were mostly tracking together, so that’s a situation where you have to have serious players that can play together well. Charts were prepared by Trevor and myself, with Trevor’s being beautiful from the start and mine being shitty last-minute scribbles. After tracking all the strings we submixed those sixteen tracks down to two or four tracks, depending. So then there were eight to ten tracks used. (three reference, one time code, two for Patton submix, and two or four for strings submixes).
Then it was time to bring in the individual instrumentalists: cymbalom, accordion, French and English Horns, pedal steel, harmonica etc. Trevor’s chart writing was better than mine as usual. An unforeseen thing is that Patton had written an idiomatically impossible part for cymbalom, so we had to creatively break out those parts into three, sometimes four separate passes/tracks. I’d done a bunch of that kind of thing with Secret Chiefs 3, you know, writing things that are essentially impossible to play and doing what needs to be done overdub-wise to get them recorded. So that ate up some tracks.
Finally we tracked some lead vocals. Some percussion. Effectively filled up every Reel Two.
Then it was time to go back to the first 48-track studio, Coast. We synced up the machines to have the two Reels going on each song. In what space was left on either reel, we tracked some organs, some guitars, some more vocals, some more percussion, mallets and such. Now we’d filled out both reels. If we wanted to track more (and we needed to) there was no studio nearby that could sync THREE tape machines, but we’d planned it so we’d be mixing at a studio that could run three machines down in LA. So, since there was still a ton left to do on most of the songs, it was then time to make new reference mixes from the 48 tracks (actual 46) on Reels One and Two and keep tracking on a new reel, Reel Three. Yep, REEL THREE.
And we got to work on filling Reel Three up.
It gets even crazier. We also made reference mixes (and a smpte time code track) onto an ADAT tape, (8-tracks on SVHS) so we could take those tapes to the Mr. Bungle rehearsal studio and track all the remaining guitars, organs and various keyboards that were there. In some cases that ended up being a job for TWO ADAT tapes, so in addition to THRE REELS there was yet another 16 tracks of ADAT (!)
So that’s 72 tracks on analog reels (give or take time code and reference mixes), plus 16 more tracks (give or take time code and reference mixes) on ADAT tape. That wasn’t on every song, but “None of Them Knew They Were Robots” and “Goodbye Sober Day” and I think “Sweet Charity” went there.
Finally, we schlepped all those tapes down to LA. The micro-Lynx module could sync three Studer 24-track machines, whereas the regular Lynx couldn’t. But the ADATs were out of the picture. They wouldn’t slave to the micro-Lynx. Uh oh! I think it was our tech Justin Phelps who figured out how to incorporate the ADATS into the three Studer tape machines — it could only be done by slaving the tape machines to the goddamned ADAT (!) with a “BRC” (an annoying acronym for Alesis’ “Big Remote Control”). Fucking thing. So for a few songs the whole system was being run by an ADAT transport — imagine it: you hit play and the first ADAT winds up, then the second one, then the first Studer tape machine, then the second, then the THIRD. Finally after a 25-second lag, you hear music… imagine trying to mix, rewinding, hitting play, over and over, with THAT obstacle in the way! But that was the deal….
The 96-channel SSL board was filled to capacity, and even with GML automation on those 96 channels we still had to manual mix (by hand) a lot of channels in real-time. This is because the 96 available (automatable) channels had to be prioritized for outboard gear returns, so some of the tape returns had to come back on the monitor/headphone returns, which are not automated.
What this means is that, in addition to the major time and effort spent of writing GML automation for everything, at the final mix of a song four guys would often be standing over the board hand mixing their assigned sections…
The patch-bay was so filled with tape-returns and buss cables that under their weight (hundreds of cables) the entire housing bent and warped. No lie.
Thinking back I have to say, Billy Anderson put up with legendary amounts of bullshit on that record. Not many engineers in the 90s would have been ok with punching in one divisi flute note on the floor tom track simply “because nothing was happening RIGHT THEN on that track”. Consider that during mix down we would have to account for that one note — differences in tone, compression, panning etc notwithstanding. Every song had MILLIONS of things like that. But Billy was one of us. We’d cut windows into the track sheets so we could continue the list of punch ins on the other side and open it. It was retarded. Complex beyond belief, well planned-out, and idiotic. We did what needed to be done. It was madness.
As I understand it Warner Bros didn’t get in the way of your creativity however they didn’t give you any support once the album was released. If you had been able to break away from Warner Bros what differences do you think that would have made?
Big ones. There would have been no way to have made a record like California in 1999 without the recording budget Warner Brothers was doling out. It wouldn’t have been made with the same scope. I’m sure we would have conceived the whole thing differently. Mr. Bungle could have gone down any number of roads, man. California was a road we went down because we could!
When you took the album on the road you played some wonderful covers including Henry Mancini’s The Thing Strikes and a stunning version of What The World Needs Now. How did you guys chose the songs? Did you ever think of recording them?
For each tour we’d decide on a catalogue of originals and covers, and that way we could make fresh setlists every night, combining things in different ways. Never a dull moment.
I remember “Begin the Beguine” and “Tower of Strength” being standout covers from the California era.
We had played “The Thing Strikes” as far back as the first national USA tour for the debut album. Of course there were so many other covers we wanted to do during the DV era I guess we took the Mancini thing out of rotation. Come to think of it, didn’t we also bring Citta Violenta back into rotation during some California tour? Jesus, who knows? Mr. Bungle must have covered around 200 songs in our 16 odd years together, so it’s not easy to keep recollections straight.
As always, cover songs were chosen simply for what we felt would make for a good show. Thinking back on it, Patton was behind a lot of the cover song selections — and again, that’s not just vocal features but also includes instrumentals like “The Jet” and “Love Dance of the Saroos” in the DV era. We all had our ideas and input of course, but I have to credit Patton’s first-rate instinct for what moods should be juxtaposed in a live environment for always carrying the energy in the right direction.
We did start to record some of our covers from that era, but that project never went anywhere unfortunately.
I was in the audience for your last ever gig at Rock City in Nottingham UK. It was an amazing night. Did you know that it would be your last show as a band?
No we didn’t. There was building tour strife, and some things we should have had better communication about bubbling behind the scenes was starting to break through. Lots of extenuating circumstances having nothing to do with Nottingham made that into the last show.
Greg Werckman also mentioned that there was a chance that Ipecac Recordings would reissue Mr. Bungle’s discography. What would be the chances of deluxe versions with extra tracks etc?
Would be nice! I think there might be a few interesting extra tidbits we could throw in there…
20 years on do you think that California was a fitting end to Mr. Bungle?
Most fitting. In the widest sense, California is “the end of the trail” of so much aspiration. And everything that happens after the achievement of “Manifest Destiny” is a kind of recapitulation. A replay, or resurrection in a hazy afterlife. A nostalgia for an un-realized perfection.
Baudrillard noted that since the End is revealed as Illusion at the close of the millennium, what was revealed by this End of Illusion was mainly a cynical desire to wipe out history in order to be “Born Again”.
I think California the album captured this thought beautifully. Every song plays on the theme somehow.
Why? I don’t know. We didn’t talk about it.
But yes, it all ended right here, fittingly, at the California coastline.
Photos sourced by Bungle Weird