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Mr. Bungle Bassist Trevor Dunn Speaks on His New Record Sèances, Finding Balance in His Life & More

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Ever curious and intensely hard-working, bassist Trevor Dunn’s fingerprints are inlayed across droves of eclectic releases year in and year out.

Many know Dunn through his work with Mr. Bungle and the Melvins, with his distinct, fusion-inspired licks voraciously accenting some of the most ubiquitous rock and metal records of the last 30-odd years. But for Dunn, mastering metal isn’t his sole goal; the former Bay Area staple’s increasingly insatiable thirst for experimentation has seen him shapeshift across genres. Most recently, Dunn has chosen to revisit his 18 years dormant jazz-rock outfit, Trio-Convulsant.

If you’re assuming that Trio-Consultant’s newest offering will be composed of tired tropes, predictable structures, or tried and true devices, think again. Instead, Sèances provides a venerable smorgasbord of blended sounds, nuanced compositions, and blissfully unpredictable songwriting set to entrance even the most tepid of listeners.

During a rare break, Trevor Dunn dialed in via phone to discuss the origins of Sèances, the importance of fusion in his approach to the bass, his songwriting process, and how he finds balance amongst his prescribed chaos.

What are the origins of Sèances?

Well, musically, the origins begin with Trio-Convulsant, which is a group I’ve had for a while that dates to when I lived in San Francisco in the ’90s. And like a lot of my own projects, it got put on the back burner while I was being a sideman and trying to earn a living. So, it took me a long time to find the time, and then secondly, I needed to figure out what I wanted to do in terms of a new record. I always want to do something different, but at its core, I want my work to be becoming from the same place musically and make sense. So, it’s really a game of chess with myself.

You alluded to this a bit, but it’s been 18 years since your last Trio-Convulsant record. What makes now the right time to revisit the project?

I guess quarantine might have prompted it a little bit. But I did write a whole book of music in 2015, which I planned to use for the Trio-Convulsant. That was the original plan, and I wrote this whole book of music, but I just wasn’t happy with it. Once I was able to step back and hear it, I thought, “Wow, this isn’t really what I was aiming for.” I think I just got a little too microscopic and insular with it, and I felt like I lost track of the big picture. So, I basically tossed that whole book of music – which I rarely do – and after that, it took a long time to manifest itself. I knew it was there, but I couldn’t put my finger on it for a long time. But sometime during the quarantine, I started to find that voice, maybe because I had a lot fewer distractions or something. Regardless, by the end of 2020, I had the music written.

As you found that voice, what were some of the themes that presented themselves?

Well, all the music is roughly based on religious hysteria in 18th-century France. And those ideas go back even further from when I first came up with the name Trio-Convulsant, which I borrowed from the French surrealist movement. They had this concept about convulsive beauty, which is not something I can say I totally understand, but I liked the name, and I like what I know about it. And so, I went back to the roots of that, essentially, and I’d read some articles about this sect of Christians who were having convulsions on the tomb of this Deacon as they worshiped, and it piqued my interest.

Now, some of the stories are very far-fetched, but at the same time, there’s a lot of supposed “witnesses,” so maybe it can’t be totally ignored. But the warping of facts over time and the error in human memory is fascinating to me, so I ended up reading a bunch about that topic. And as I was making notes and trying to translate these ideas directly to music, things opened for me, and this all came together. I hope that it makes its way in there somehow, and I even used titles taken from some of the books that I was reading to tie it all together.

Mr. Bungle Bassist Trevor Dunn Speaks on His New Record Sèances, Finding Balance in His Life & More
All images courtesy of BKMusic PR

Do you feel those themes are relevant to our present-day culture as well?

I totally do. But that wasn’t my intention. It wasn’t like I looked at it that way initially, but as I was reading it, I was like, “Wow, this stuff still makes a lot of sense. It’s still happening.” And during the pandemic, I had the great idea to reread Camus’s The Plague, which I hadn’t read since college. And that book is amazing because as I was reading it, I’m like, “Wow, this book was published in 1947, and it’s still relevant in modern times.” And honestly, with the way people are reacting and behaving, it is all totally relevant. We’re still going in circles, and it shows that humans, on the whole, haven’t really learned anything as a species.

Trio-Convulsant was formed during a break from Mr. Bungle, right? What led you to move in such a divergent direction?

Well, it’s funny when people talk about the end of Mr. Bungle because while we stopped playing around 2000, we never officially broke up. Instead, we just went quiet and stopped making music together for 20 years. [Laughs]. But before that, I was still living in San Francisco in ’96 or ’97, and that’s when I formed the original Trio-Convulsant. It came out of just being around music in the Bay Area and being into these weird jazz-rock amalgamations that had elements of improv in them.

So, I was checking all of that out, and I remember listening to all of it. I saw that happening, I was taking it in, and it’s something that moved me. And at the time, I was playing a lot of upright bass; I was playing a lot of jazz at that time, and I wanted to write my own music. So, that led me to form my own group for the first time using all those combined elements, and it was also another way to do something different from Mr. Bungle. I felt like I needed to branch out in that way, and that’s why I started Trio-Convulsant.

You’re most often associated with rock and metal, but fusion elements have seemingly always been present in your bass playing. How big of an influence has fusion music been on you?

Oh, it’s been huge. When I was a teenager, I was discovering rock and jazz at the same time. This was when I had just started on electric bass, and they both had a huge influence on what I was doing as a young kid. But my older brother was really the one who got me into rock music, but with jazz, my mom has always been an avid music fan, and both my parents had a great record collection, and I absorbed all of what they had.

So, through that, I was exposed to jazz, and when I started taking private lessons on bass, my teacher pursued that with me. When you’re that age, you take everything you can in, and if you have an open mind, that’s going to shape you. Even when we started Mr. Bungle, we didn’t care about what we were supposed to be listening to or what people thought we should sound like; we went with our gut. Because we’re all metal heads, but still, we were gonna check out everything from jazz, to funk, to ska; anything we could get our hands on.

How does playing jazz-oriented music allow you to stretch out in ways that rock and metal don’t?

That’s a good question. There are times when I have to catch myself, like, I’ll have to reel in one side of myself, so I can let the other one come out. I can’t approach jazz in the same way that I approach rock music, you know? I think, ultimately, both have helped me be aware of the other and be aware of the moments where I’m like, “Hey, this is different from rock. I’ve gotta approach this with a different feel.”

But in terms of writing music, there are no boundaries for me; I’ll hear something or learn something in the jazz realm, and I’ll be like, “Oh, I’m gonna use that element in a rock setting.” So, there is overlap, and I don’t limit myself. While the approach changes, I am open to merging things as ideas come to me, applying them anywhere, and allowing myself to be free. And that’s what Trio-Convulsant is; it’s the mixing of those compositional elements while trying to maintain a certain separateness.

How would you describe the progression from album to album in the 18 years since your last Trio-Convulsant release?

Well, after the second release, Sister Phantom Owl Fish, we were lucky enough to open for the Melvins, which granted us a certain level of exposure. And that opened the door for my relationship with Buzz [Osbourne] and Dale [Crover] to blossom, which has been great. And so, we were able to play that music night after night, and after playing it that much, I got sick of my own writing. [Laughs]. And while there are certain things about Sister Phantom Owl Fish that I still really like, I don’t love it all. So, I try to focus on the things that I do like rather than wondering, “Why did I do that?” Because what defines a successful composition to me is how I can reinterpret that or if there’s an approach there that I feel is worth going back to while still making it fresh.

So, in approaching Sèances, I went back and looked at everything, and there were a lot of times where I was like, “Yeah, that was a bad idea. That’s not where I’m at now.” So, yeah, 18 years is a long time to let something stew. I’ve had plenty of time to rethink it and make sure that I was patient with my writing. Because I’m a pretty slow writer, I guess, but in general, I was able to take the time to make sure what I presented was worthwhile. Even just like writing a whole book of music and then tossing it, I guess that was part of the process of seeing what worked and what didn’t.

Mr. Bungle Bassist Trevor Dunn Speaks on His New Record Sèances, Finding Balance in His Life & More

How does writing for Trio-Convulsant differ from writing with the Melvins, for example?

Writing for my own stuff is a very isolated process where I’m sitting behind my desk like a composer, which I love doing. I love the idea of getting out of bed in the morning, heading to my office, sitting down, and just living in my own little fantasy world. Whereas when I’m working with the Melvins, a lot of the time, we just jam, or Buzz will say, “Hey, man, I came up with this bassline; what do you want to do over the top of it?” In that setting, it’s more collaborative writing, whereas I’m on my own for long periods of time when I do my own music. There’s a huge difference between being a composer and being a band member. At least, that’s the way I look at it.

Digging into Sèances now, tell me about “1733.”

Musically, when I’m writing a new record, I keep tabs on tempos and time signatures, as well as the overall vibe of each tune. And I think at that point, I realized, “Man, I don’t want this to be a lazy record; I want there to be some aggression here.” So, that was the intention I had for “1733.” It started out with a bassline that I created in the studio, but then at the last minute, I was like, “You know what? This needs a giant group improv.” And from there, I just let it happen, didn’t really give very much direction for it, and the result was what we hear on the record.

How about “The Asylum’s Guilt?”

That’s another one where I had this bass part written, and I took it and began to vamp and mess around with it. I started shaping it with other harmonies, adding melody, and it began to take shape from that point on. It’s got a very rock quality about it, and so, if you want to think about it in terms of rock music, it’s essentially got power chords all over it. That’s one where it’s hard for me to pinpoint how I came up with it, but I basically took the scrapes of what I had and added some familiar elements and new melodies to it and came up with “The Asylum’s Guilt.” I guess I don’t always know where I’m going with a track until it manifests itself, and then I can usually finish it from there. I knew I wanted to end it with a peaceful, vampy vibe, so I could give the listener a break at the very end. I feel like that’s a good way to maybe attract them back to the record because it gives them a different look.

Creatively, is your solo work more meaningful to you than your work with Mr. Bungle and the Melvins?

Oh, man, I don’t really have a simple answer for that. I’ve fortunately gotten to a point in my career where I can say “no” to stuff, even if it seems somewhat interesting. Because there was a time when I used to say “yes” to everything, just as a matter of survival. When I lived in the Bay Area 25 years ago, I was playing a lot of restaurant gigs, weddings, and stuff like that, and now, I don’t need to do that at all to make ends meet.

I am thankful that I haven’t needed to do that in years, and now I just play creative music that I write, other people’s original compositions, Mr. Bungle, the Melvins, and things like that. These days, music is something that allows me to be creative, and the gigs with Mr. Bungle, the Melvins, and things like that, are almost like my day job in a way. That doesn’t mean I don’t love them – do – because they allow me to sit around and write weird music. [Laughs]. And I know that maybe it isn’t gonna sell as many copies, but it’s something I love doing.

How do you find balance in your musical life, Trevor?

That’s a tough question to answer, too. I guess it’s a matter of not bouncing around too much while also making sure my creative nature is satisfied. It’s hard, but I have to find time for myself because I do have a tendency to be a workaholic. And that’s a tough thing because it can put you in a spot where you’re barely living life, and I definitely have that in me. But, then again, sometimes it’s good, and if I’m aware of it, and can give myself breathing room, and set boundaries, then it all works out. It’s important to take a step back and be like, “Okay, what do I want to do next? What am I craving right now? What’s important that I do next?” So, I guess by being aware of it, keeping creative, and doing what matters to me most; then I’ll never go wrong.

Mr. Bungle Bassist Trevor Dunn Speaks on His New Record Sèances, Finding Balance in His Life & More
All images courtesy of BKMusic PR

The post Mr. Bungle Bassist Trevor Dunn Speaks on His New Record <em>Sèances</em>, Finding Balance in His Life & More appeared first on MetalSucks.

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