Big, Bold and Epic

San Francisco's Secret Chiefs 3 believe in the power of live music by rehearsed performers

Any connection between the San Francisco-based band Secret Chiefs 3 and the convoluted occultist movement of its mystical namesake is not so much coincidental as playful. In its song titles and graphic imagery, the band weaves together allusions to mystical rites, Masonic-style lodge traditions, Western pop culture and Asian and Middle Eastern theology.

It's a crazy quilt of quasi-philosophical references that "operates on two levels," said guitarist and de facto bandleader Trey Spruance, speaking via cell phone from the band's van somewhere between Detroit and Chicago.

"There's a real specific kind of logical picture being drawn by all the motifs. But in a more general way, I would say we use the imagery as a way of promoting the imagination ... which I think is under attack by modernist tendencies.

"Even Einstein stressed the need for imagination. That thematic link, even if it seems confusing, shows that we're not just art fags waving flags around, and it just gives the listener an entertaining way of entering the music."

Speaking of inspiring the imagination, that music consists of spacious, cinematic compositions rich in character and melody, often in the form of musical travelogues through the Balkans, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, touching down in spaghetti Western and surf music territory.

Also compelling is the SC3's approach to lush dance music that could have emanated from Southeast Asia, North Africa or the Indian subcontinent. In direct contrast is the band's tendency to play more abrasive and challenging material, such as hyper-speed thrash/death metal with hounds-of-hell vocals and truly unsettling horror-movie soundtrack music.

In true postmodern fashion, and maybe seasoned with a little ADD, the band often plays such divergent songs back to -back. But Secret Chiefs also have been known to separate the styles of music they play into themed sets: a grouping of surf tunes, followed by Middle Eastern music, followed by the dissonant mind-fuck metallic noise.

No matter which musical vein SC3 mines, the result always sounds big, bold and epic. And that's just the way music seems to turn out for Spruance, he said.

"I can't motivate myself to really do anything unless it is big and moving in some way. I was talking to somebody about this the other day, and I realized you have to put things out there that are worth doing, that feel compelling to hear."

Secret Chiefs 3 began as Secret Chiefs Trio in the mid-1990s, something of a spin-off from the semi-legendary Mr. Bungle, which also featured vocalist and avant-garde composer Mike Patton (Faith No More). Eventually, SC3 evolved into an ever-changing entity that draws personnel from sources as divergent as punk rock bands, jazz combos and symphony orchestras. Among its members in the past have been avant-gardists William Winant and Eyvind Kang, and members of the band Estradasphere.

In addition to Spruance, the version of Secret Chiefs 3 currently on the road includes Timb Harris, Peijman Kouretchian, Anonymous 13, Jai Young Kim, Rich Doucette and Jason Schimmel. Instruments employed will range from electric guitar, drums and bass to violin, saxophone and classical guitar, and to sarangi, tabla, shamisen and dubek.

Modern listeners who are used to hearing samplers and synthesizers on stage might wonder why Spruance and Secret Chiefs 3 go to the trouble of rehearsing a group of seven musicians for a full three weeks and then paying the overhead to take them on the road.

Spruance said, "People like live music. It's becoming more and more scarce. To have a rehearsed group of musicians that play together--good, highly skilled musicians that might otherwise get together to improvise for a night in jazz ensembles--that is becoming a rarity, and I think people respond to that."

The last Secret Chiefs 3 album, Book of Horizons, was released in 2004 by their perennial label Web of Mimicry. The group is in the process of recording a new album scheduled to be released this autumn.

At the shows, SC3 is peddling copies of four 7-inch vinyl records, each by one of four different "satellite" bands: UR, Ishraqiyun, Holy Vehm and Electromagnetic Azoth.

Spruance characterized these various units of SC3 as being of the genres of "krautrock, experimental and dissonant composition, sort of spooky horror film music and neo-Pythagorean folk music," although he left it up to the listener to decide which satellite group goes with each category. Much of that new material is making its way into the current set, promised Spruance.

The fact that the singles are available in limited editions of only 1,000 copies each is a treat for many fans, Spruance said.

"There's no such thing as a limited edition of an MP3."

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