Even if you don't recognize his name, you've probably heard Trevor Dunn's music. In addition to leading his own groups Trio-Convulsant and Mad Love, he's a perpetually in-demand, bi-coastal bassist equally adept at jazz, classical, and death metal. That schizophrenic skill set led him from his stint as a founding member of Bay Area weird rock forefathers Mr. Bungle to a standing gig as bassist for the prolific New York avant-garde composer John Zorn, who's made use of Dunn's versatility for more than a decade. In between, Dunn has performed with artists such as Sean Lennon, Yuka Honda (formerly of Cibo Matto), The Melvins, Nels Cline, and Brian "Head" Welch, former guitarist of Korn.
A San Francisco expat currently residing in Brooklyn, Dunn has consistently returned to his beloved Bay Area over the years. He'll be at back Great American Music Hall this Friday and Saturday with Tomahawk, an angular post-rock supergroup led by guitarist Duane Denison (The Jesus Lizard), with drums by Helmet's John Stanier and vocals by his ever-eccentric former bandmate, musical polymath Mike Patton. Now an official member of Tomahawk, Mr. Dunn recently spoke with us about the merits of keeping it simple, what he misses about the Bay Area, and why revisiting Mr. Bungle wouldn't be worth the money.
You're currently an official member of Tomahawk, not just filling in, right?
Exactly. They were without a bassist for quite a while and Duane [Denison] had a new batch of songs. Being someone who [Mike] Patton has known for 30 years -- and who's been playing music with him for nearly as long -- I was sort of the obvious choice.
I think the only thing they were worried about was whether I was going to be bored playing music that wasn't very weird. But actually I really enjoy playing "straight" stuff as much as any weird stuff that I do. It's kind of a breath of fresh air, actually.
There's a lot of vamping and repetitive patterns that you do in Tomahawk that remind of things you play in [Zorn's] Masada. It's not flashy but it's very committed.
I grew up with listening to classic rock and that traditional role is not something I shy away from. On the other hand, I love stuff that's really pushing the boundaries, like a lot of the jazz stuff I listened to. One of the people I loved when I was younger was [Bill Evans Trio bassist] Scott LaFaro. He's never really laying to down, he was kinda going off the whole time. It was really about counterpoint.
But in a band like Electric Masada or Tomahawk, my job is to lay it down. I think there's a song either in Masada or [Zorn's exotica-based ensemble] The Dreamers where I'm just doing the same six notes over and over. It's really hypnotic. Everyone else is going nuts on top of that.
I think some people think I get bored doing that but for one, it's not actually that easy; it's like trying to keep your feet on the ground in the middle of a hurricane. And for another, I can be more of a spectator with the best seat in the house, watching all these great players go off around me.
It can be hard to convince talented players to play a part that isn't very sexy but that will be the best thing for the music. It's a real ego hat trick.
Right. I'm a bassist so I learned to push my ego aside a long time ago. My personality is really conducive to that role; I'm not really a show-off kinda guy. I think it was Zorn who said, "You just make the band sound good."
What do you miss about playing music in the Bay Area?
There's a lot of great musicians that I got to play with there like Graham Connah, Ben Goldberg, and John Schott. Those were some formative years for me coming from Eureka to the big city. The scene was really vibrant; it was like going to graduate school for me. I think I learned more about music in San Francisco than I did in college. There was a period in the late '90s where I was playing all these gigs at Bruno's. I lived a few blocks from there, so that was great. It's also a really fickle scene. I used to play a lot of weddings and bar bands and I don't really do that at all in New York.
The Bay Area new music scene has a lot of power behind it creatively but doesn't seem to have a significant enough infrastructure to sustain itself continuously.
Yeah, totally. There's this group I play with called Endangered Blood that's like jazz with balls. We've come out to the West Coast for a few tours and for some reason San Francisco is always the hardest town to book.
I'm hoping now this new place Duende in Oakland will take off because that would be a great place for that band. That's the place I played with Nels [Cline]. There was a lot of people there every night so it seems like there's people who need a scene like that.
What's on the table with your own projects for 2013?
I haven't had much time for that stuff, but at the end of the year, I'll be bringing Trio Convulsant to The Stone (in NYC) with a string quartet led by Jennifer Choi. I just need to write some music for it.
I gotta ask before we wrap up: in this time of band reunions, has there been talk of a Mr. Bungle reunion?
I've heard the faintest murmurings about it, but honestly I don't think anyone is interested. It's nothing personal, either. We all feel like that band said what it needed to say. It would feel weird and awkward to play that music again. It would take a pant-load of money to make it happen, and honestly, I don't want to do it for that reason. I would prefer to let go of it, respectfully.
That's a merciful attitude considering how many of those reunions just seem like paydays.
Yeah, totally. And I'm not above seeking a payday. It's just as I get older, I start to realize what's truly valuable to me. I got to survive like anyone else, but I don't need to be gross about it.