Trevor Dunn on Propaganda as Tool for Ideas and André Breton

In this issue, we’ve explored two basic meanings of the word propaganda in the way that it applies to the way we make and experience music: the negative cultural definition that is applied to thoughts of social control, media manipulation, and totalitarianism and the broadly functional description of propaganda as being a tool to express an idea.


By talking with musicians that have made the art of expressing someone else’s music a part of their career and philosophy, Sound American approaches the latter description. These individuals occupy a very specific place in the modern musical landscape. Their work is not the simple faceless virtuosity of the “gigging musician,” and it is their highly individual way of thinking that makes them an invaluable tool to express the radical ideas of composers and performers.


Trevor Dunn is, quite possibly, the quintessential example of such a person. His bass playing has already made him a subject of adoration and emulation internationally. After almost thirty years as a professional musician, the sound of his bass and the musical choices he makes have become an integral part of bands such as The Melvins and  Fantômas and multiple projects of legendary downtown music composer John Zorn, the lack of which would change the sound dramatically.


Our editor sat down with Trevor for a short talk about his history with the bass and his thoughts on music as propaganda—a conversation about balancing philosophy and psychology to maintain a sense of self while in service of someone else’s ideas. Besides his work on bass, Trevor is quickly becoming a profound voice in the world of music for film, which subtly changes the dynamic between tool and idea.


SA also asked Trevor to talk about a non-musical concept that he felt his music and way of life tried to express—what he propagandizes. The result is an insightful and inspiring appreciation of the work of André Breton and surrealism, and Trevor’s desire to use that movement as the basis to advocate for curiosity as the primary mover in human growth.

Listen to Trevor Dunn's "Styrofoam & Grief" from trio-convulsant's 2004 CD

Sound American: For those three people on Earth that may not know who you are, can you give me a little bit of your history—maybe starting with your upbringing to the present work you're doing with The Melvins, John Zorn, and, of course, your own music? Trevor Dunn: I started playing electric bass in 1981 after my older brother began bringing rock records home and picking up guitar himself. My first bass teacher, Larry Weber, turned me onto Jaco [Pastorius], Sly Stone, Carol Kaye, Stanley Clarke, etc. In high school I was riding the crest of ‘80s metal, but also learning how to play Charlie Parker heads and discovering Persichetti and Stravinsky. I was lucky enough to have a music theory class in high school, and, with one of my peers in that class, I formed a band called Mr. Bungle that evolved without boundaries for 15 years. In 1986 I enrolled at Humboldt State University and began studies on contrabass and 20th century harmony. After acquiring my bachelor’s degree, I moved to San Francisco with the rest of Mr. Bungle, and in 1991 we released our debut record on Warner Bros. records. It was produced by John Zorn, beginning a relationship that continues today. The eight years I spent in San Francisco playing jazz gigs and touring with Mr. Bungle, as well as meeting creative musicians like Ben Goldberg, Graham Connah, and Phillip Greenlief, prepared me for a move to New York City in 2000. I’ve been fortunate enough to be a professional freelance musician since I was 17—playing in countless bar bands and at weddings, restaurants, and studios. Since moving to New York City, I’ve been able to sustain that exclusively with creative music (as opposed to background or “functional” jobs) in both the so-called downtown scene as well as various California-based rock bands. The singer of Mr. Bungle formed some of his own rock bands, which I continue to be associated with:  Fantômas and Tomahawk. In Fantômas I met [Melvins frontman] Buzz Osbourne and have since become a member of Melvins Lite, one of the many incarnations of his band that has been around since 1983. In New York City I continue to work with John Zorn; Erik Friedlander; Colin Stetson; Jamie Saft; a collective quartet, Endangered Blood; and PROOFReaders, which plays the music of Ornette Coleman. I’ve been writing music for about as long as I’ve been playing it, and current projects include my Trio-Convulsant (now expanded to include a string quartet), various independent film soundtracks, and a growing collection of chamber music pieces (solo piano, string quartet, solo contrabass, etc).   SA: This issue is all about questioning whether music is propaganda: whether it has to be a tool of a greater idea or if it can simply be a collection of sounds for enjoyment. A subtopic of that is this notion of a musician being in service of an idea, sometimes a social idea, sometimes their own creative idea, and sometimes a vision of another person. I feel like you are in a special position in that you are very well known for your own work, but you also have an identity in which you are, for lack of a better term, a tool for the ideas of others, most notably John Zorn and Mike Patton. Can you talk about the balancing of your own identity and creativity with the pragmatism of interpreting someone else's idea? TD: Balance seems to be the key, yes? It seems that I have the right collection of elements in my personality to facilitate being a good sideman, and I’ve always taken pride in the work I do to help realize another’s vision. This is true in the work I do for Zorn, Mike Patton (in Fantômas), or any recording or gig in which I am hired to learn and execute someone else’s idea. This is a completely different mindset than being a bandleader—calling the shots and making my own creative/compositional choices. Not that I don’t have room for creativity as a sideman. Zorn often requests the “Dunn variation” of what he has written down, for example, so I am confident that I am being repeatedly hired not only because I show up on time and learn the music, but because I add something of my own to it. Some composers are more controlling than others, and that is fine with me. My mindset is to approach each thing not only as a job but as a learning experience or a challenge, as this seems to be the best path towards growth. It’s not uncommon to be in a sideman situation where I don’t agree compositionally with what is being presented to me. That is where the ego must be put aside. I am aware that I am easily manipulated and also that that word [manipulation] has both negative and positive connotations. I’ve certainly been in situations that really felt like work—–as if I was getting paid to sit down at a typewriter and hammer out the defined, expected results. Sometimes a paycheck is just a paycheck. Fortunately, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to be more choosey about if and when I need to take those gigs. They are not the reason I was drawn to music in the first place, so it is important that I gravitate towards being hired for gigs in which I can express my own identity within the confines of another’s vision. On the other hand, being a bandleader, or trying to realize one’s own vision comes with its own set of obstacles: self-doubt, self-discipline, channeling the elusive creative flow, and then, of course, the practical side of it all—copying charts, scheduling rehearsals, paying your band, etc. I find that being a sideman is ultimately a lot easier than being in charge. I think the balance of my own identity as a sideman comes from flexibility—to the point where sometimes that means putting my identity aside partially, but not fully. The number of adept, creative, and virtuosic musicians in New York City is astounding, and each may be hired or showcased for individual talents and voices that cannot be duplicated. There is no room for jealousy. The only way to stand out is to be oneself. That is the balance of psychology. There’s also a larger scenario here, which is to say subverting the dominant paradigm.  The simple, life-fulfilling act of being creative is often met with resistance within our Western ideals about consumerism, monoculture, and obedience. In that sense, any realized unique idea is propaganda. By working for someone whose vision goes against the grain or challenges apathy and promotes consciousness (however abstract), I sign myself up to be a cog in that mechanism. The minute details of composition, which I may agree or disagree with, don’t matter. That is the philosophical balance. SA: Along those same lines, you have been writing phenomenal film music in the past few years. Does this take on a different dynamic than your work with composers? How do you approach the creative process of writing music that is a part of a filmmaker’s overarching idea? TD: Most of the film work I’ve done to this point I would put under the heading of ”experimental” in that I am still learning how to deal with two mediums (visual and sonic) at the same time. This also comes down to a balancing act between two individuals, both of whom are being creative. I would say it is a more difficult collaborative relationship than what is typical between two musicians, but not completely dissimilar. I do believe that film music, within the context of the film, is subordinate. It is there to enhance and corroborate the visual. As an avid film fan, and film music fan (separately and together), it is a challenge to not want complete control. Even though I’m writing to the film and with specific goals in mind, the filmmaker also has his vision. Ultimately the filmmaker will have the last call and cut the music to his liking. Like in any relationship, there is a symmetry in the amount of compromise and allowance—trust and assertiveness. It’s a tricky balance, but I can also rest assured that I can write the exact music I want and publish it separately—not uncommon for a film composer—and this pacifies that need for control. I certainly enjoy film music on its own and have a good collection of [Henry] Mancini, [John] Barry, [Jerry] Goldsmith, and [Bernard] Herrmann on vinyl. 

An Appreciation of Surrealism and Music

Surrealism and André Breton’s concept of convulsive beauty have become something of a guidepost for me. In the most general terms, surrealism defines an attitude that pervades nearly every aspect of my life, yet is commonly deterred and discouraged in modern life in general. I’m speaking of curiosity, that thing that killed the cat (among others), and continues to goad us towards our fears and unconsciousness. Without the desire to venture into the unknown, the strange, the weird, the unfamiliar, or even into what we logically or morally know as “wrong,” we are left sitting—robotic and lazy. We become easily manipulated and unable to create or to provide alternatives. For many, this isn’t a problem, however, I can’t imagine living without curiosity and a desire to grow, especially if what comes from it goes against habit, customs, and the norm. I think curiosity comes naturally for everyone but, of course, we lose it. We often choose the path of least resistance and gravitate to the known. Not understanding something—even having an opinion against it—is reason enough to dive deep into it.  And, it is this attitude that has pushed me to dive deep into Ornette Coleman’s Harmolodics, Messiaen’s modes of limited transposition, the paintings of Remedies Varo, the films of Luis Buñuel, and the writings of André Breton. Breton stands out for me—–not as an aesthetic hero like the others—but as a teacher. The term “surreal” has always been thrown around carelessly. This flippancy, in fact, is what drove me to understand what surrealism actually is. As it turns out, there is an abundance of thought behind the concept. It was through these concepts that I came to terms with my own perspective and its role within my creative profession. Breton himself championed dreams, automatic writing, the found object, and, in general, a poetic interpretation of the strangeness of the natural world. This is the curiosity that is too often lost and this is the natural world that most ignore or are simply too busy “living” to see. The writer Sharla Hutchison has talked about “surrealism’s dedication to exhibiting disturbing upheavals in psychological coherence at the level of the individual mind or social body.” This upheaval is convulsive beauty. It is something that we rarely feel, yet, in my opinion, could benefit from on a global level, were we to experience it daily. Its ultimate goal is to usurp the dominant paradigm—–that is, the cultural habits, which were spoon-fed to us as accepted norms. In my continued attempts to fully comprehend surrealism I keep a “Surrealism Journal,” which highlights key points from Breton’s two Manifestos (1924 and 1930) and his essays “Les Vases Communicants” (1932) and “L’Amour Fou” (1937).  =I have borrowed one of his titles for my own music composition, “Equation of The Found Object,” and I have formed two bands, MadLove and Trio-Convulsant, that nod unabashedly in his direction. When I realize that his writings are almost 100 years old, I find it disconcerting that his ideas about moving forward continue to be obscure. This is partly why I have consciously chosen to uphold the ideals of surrealism, the act of which certainly answers in the affirmative to your question of the “propaganda” of art. I am typically reticent about my political and social views. Music is a way to “address” issues on a highly abstract level and in an interpretive way. It is enough for me to simply reference or quote Breton’s vision on the surface and then deal with it in my own aesthetic way within the context of orchestration, note choices, or form. I certainly think of Breton as one of my many artistic father figures—the root in a tree that branches to many other points of inspiration. This is not idol worship, however, for I have confidence that my own ideas are strong and worth pursuing, and I believe that more artists (and people in general) should spend less time regurgitating ideas and consider more their own twists and variations. Breton had a distinct way of formalizing his ideas and presenting them as a guideline complete with examples, references, personal anecdotes, discourse with peers, psychology, and science. Any given paragraph of one of his essays will undoubtedly send the reader down a rabbit hole of these concepts and references. This is how we discover ourselves if we have the courage to be curious. You can choose your own path. You will choose your own path. Many seem to forget that. Breton was rigorous and unwavering in his fight against this forgetting.