Mr. Bungle 30 - Trevor Dunn Interview
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the debut album by Mr. Bungle we had the privilege of chatting to members of the band and discussed their thoughts on this seminal record. Five years later and we are revisiting our conversations.
Our second interview is with the incredible bassist and songwriter....Trevor Dunn.
Trevor formed the band in 1985, and grew up in Eureka with his co-founders Mike Patton and Trey Spruance. Even after there disbandment in 2000, Dunn continues to enthuse about the band. Since Mr. Bungle Trevor has played in a number of bands: Trevor Dunn's Trio-Convulsant, Electric Masada, Fantômas, Secret Chiefs 3, Melvins, Tomahawk, MadLove and other great projects including John Zorn. He is currently in the studio with L.A. band Qui.
When was the last time you listened to Mr. Bungle's debut album?
Honestly, I can’t remember the last time. It’s rare that I listen to my own music, especially from that far in the past. I’m quite self-critical of my performance and compostion and that would extend to the group dynamic in this case as well. If I dive deep into my memory I would say the general sound of that album is a bit dated. It’s very “early ‘90s” with extremely bright guitar tones and cheap synths. I guess the kids are into that sort of thing these days though, the ‘90s that is.
How did John Zorn become involved with production? What did he add to the band's sound?
We were all appreciative of Naked City, Spillane and Spy Vs Spy —Zorn’s projects of the late ’80s that found their way onto the Nonesuch label. Since we had an actual budget thanks to Warner Bros. we decided to get an actual producer. Thomas Dolby was too expensive and Frank Zappa was too busy. I think it was Danny and Trey who approached Zorn when he was in SF and handed him a cassette tape of some songs and improv sessions we had made in Eureka (the “legendary” Chicken Coop Sessions that were recorded in an actual chicken coop with 4-ft ceilings where we used to rehearse. He tried to convince us that he wasn’t “commercial” and we might find a more apt producer somewhere else, but we were persistent as we felt that —due to his understanding of many genres—that he would understand us. In essence he helped us mix the album. Scheduling meant he couldn’t make the actual recording sessions. Later, he had us re-do some things and gave us a general guidance. Essentially he put the brakes on a bunch of hyper and overly-excited small town kids who tried, almost successfully to fill up every nano-second of space will some kind of sound. He kept us true to our spirit, however, always deferring to our desires, which was encouraging. (tidbit: the Chicken Coop Sessions is where the bulk of Dead Goon was created).
One song that didn't make the album (much to fans dismay) was Mr. Nice Guy. Did you ever plan to record this song?
We did record it in that session along with an early version of “Platypus” and John Barry’s vocal theme of “Thunderball”. Unfortunately every album has a time limit. Well, that is actually a fortunate thing. I, for one, can’t stand records that are too long. I have always loved that song, too (mostly written by Trey) but for whatever reason we decided it didn’t fit in with the rest of the material. Something HAD to go. By the time DV came along, a revision of Platypus was appropriate, but Mr. Nice Guy wasn’t musically valid to us anymore.
Will those recordings ever be heard? A reissue with extras maybe?
It's possible. There are also rejected songs from DV ("Lemmy Caution" aka "Spy" --which I believe has made it's poorly copied presence known to the intraweb, and an extended version of "Everyone I Went To HS With..." (12 minute "Class of '86 remix) as well as "Coldsore") and from California ("Praise of Folly"). The truth is, we have piles of tapes lying around (various places....who knows!?) of possibly interesting jams and unfinished recordings, prank phone calls and monodramas. I would love to release them all but that is a huge can of worms.
How much of your childhood growing up together in Eureka went into the album?
A whole-fuckin’ lot. I would say that Trey and Mike and I, considering our ages and penchants, where destined to find each other. We disliked everyone/thing else and we gravitated toward each other in a very small, impoverished, and isolated area. I would say that every song reflects, in some way, our collective introspection, confusion, disdain and resultant social commentary and self-reflection that developed as teenagers in the ‘80s. While many of our peers were turning to drugs and alcohol, we found comfort in music.
You had been playing many of these songs for years. Did this make recording easier?
As you probably know, most of the songs were recorded on our previous demo from 1989. Frankly, I feel that they had more youthful energy on that demo than the way they ended up on the album. By 1991 we were already close to sick of those songs which is why many phrases and inflections changed. This was even more apparent when we set out on our first real tour in ’92 and really started to mess with tempos and arrangements. To answer your question, yes it made recording easier. We rehearsed the shit out of all those songs so that we could come in and do as few takes as possible saving us time and money.
Are there any songs/moments on the album you are particularly proud of?
Referring back to a previous comment I made about self-critique, I usually find songs that the other guys wrote to be the most rewarding. I think My Ass Is on Fire is probably my favorite. Trey and Mike have a good collaborative dynamic whereas I tended to work alone. I also like the additions and weird production we added to Carousel (a song that dates back to the mid ‘80s).
There is an immeasurable amount of talent and crazy on the album. You guys grew up together, did you encourage each other to be eccentric or is this why you all gravitated towards each other?
I met Mike in junior high school where we were gradually seceding from our respective cliques (he from basketball jocks, I from D&D geeks) and started trading rock records. I suppose he saw that I was playing in a band and saw something in common between us. Later, I met Trey in music theory class in high school where he turned me onto Poulenc’s Organ Concerto and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. We certainly encouraged each other, even into our college years and beyond (not just in music but also in literature, art and general discourse). We were all fortunate enough to be blessed with curiosity. Mike and I played in a metal cover band; Trey and I played in big band (jazz) together. The eccentric quality seemed natural to us, it wasn’t forced. Mike and I were eventually ousted from the metal band “Fiend” because the other members were convinced we were trying to make it more punk and in those days metal & punk did not mix. (They were probably correct in their assumptions. We wanted to add COC, SOD and DRI songs to our Metallica/Slayer repertoire). That division always seemed ridiculous to me and still does. Of course, those guys now have successful careers in construction. Trey, on the other hand, couldn’t find an apt bass player for his weird, harmonically adventurous metal band “Torcher”. Thus, we gravitated toward a central unit.
And is it at this point Mr. Bungle formed or were you playing under a different guise before?
Once Trey, Mike, Jed and I got together ('84 or '85) it was pretty much unanimous to start a band. I remember our first session being a haphazard jam of various metal covers such as "Whiplash" and "Chemical Warfare". We contemplated naming the band Summer Breeze for a moment. It seemed like the most un-metal thing we could imagine. By November of 1985 we had played our first show at the Bayside Grange off the 101 between Eureka & Arcata. Our 1st demo was slated to come out in April of '86 somewhere around Easter but took longer than anticipated to "produce".
Dan Sweetman and P Earwig's illustrations on the cover fit the music perfectly. How did this collaboration happen?
P Earwig was a guy I met in the early days of tape trading. He started sending us drawings influenced by our lyrics. The hyper-adolescent, cartoony, perverted and violent nature of his work seemed appropriate, so we paid him a few bucks to use it on our debut. The Sweetman stuff was not really a collaboration. We were aware of his work and reached out to him for permission to use the images which he allowed to be colored and chopped up. We had previously asked Joel-Peter Witkin for use of some images….if I recall correctly one of a circus freakshow guy hammering a nail into his own nose and another of two bodiless heads kissing. We were denied usage. I also remember wanting to use the black and white clown (on the disc itself) to be used for the cover but I was out-voted by the other members. So be it. Another tidbit: We had asked the designers to make the sky red, not blue, to represent the fire the clown had lit, but “artistic freedom” prevented us from having our way.
How do think Mr. Bungle's future would have transpired if Patton hadn't found fame with FNM?
I can only speculate. There is no denying that we were handed an otherwise unlikely opportunity. We were certainly looking for a label at that time and I doubt that, if it weren’t for that FNM video in which Mike wears a Bungle t-shirt, no one would have been interested or curious about us. We may or may not have continued on depending on how difficult it would have been without that hype. It was a golden chance to make the records we wanted with a real budget from a label that had no interest (i.e no meddling) in what we were doing.
I know you were proud of Mike's career with FNM. But their must've been a real sense of brotherhood whenever he mentioned Mr. Bungle in an interview or was photographed wearing the shirt?
There was never any doubt that he remained an inherent part of Bungle and in those days we were gung-ho about promoting ourselves in anyway possible. At that point we were merely a garage band and FNM was playing small clubs in SF. There was no sense that it could blow up like it did. That blow-up caused its own set of problems which led us to not using his name on the record and refusing to play shows if they were advertised with Mike's name and association with FNM (this is what led to a lot of the destruction we caused on our first tour in '92, which in retrospect conjures the word "tantrum"). We wanted to be our own thing. We were never "Mike Patton's other band" and aside from sharing a singer we had nothing to do with them. We were a collective that Mike was a part of from the beginning. Obviously, the "front man" in a band is often credited with more leadership than is deserving. I was certainly proud and happy for him with the success of FNM but to be frank, that band was never really my thing. I think his melodic ideas are what made it interesting, and I would support him by going to see them play live, but it wasn't something I put on around the house. You also have to understand that listening to his voice is a little too close to home for me. For example, I can't listen to Zorn records anymore. Once you are fully inside the music (by working on it and collaborating for years) it is impossible to be objective and not dissect everything. There are endless personal, micro-musical and non-musical connotations that distract me from the music itself, so it's not a normal listening experience.
The inevitable last question. What would it take for Mr. Bungle to reunite?
Ultimately it would take the collective desire, interest and, most importantly, inspiration from the individuals to say something new. I can assure you that if it were to ever happen, the fans would not be graced with material from our past. I am often asked this question and the analogy I continually turn to is that of the exgirfriend. How strange and uncomfortable would it feel to return to a relationship from 15 or 20 years ago? Especially when each had moved on to other loves. There is nothing wrong with things coming to an end having fulfilled their roles. Nostalgia is a double-edged sword and it’s rare that a return to past mind-sets results in something natural as in the way those things originally happened. It would have to be an organic process. I can’t say any of us are really in control of that.