Zach Hill

Astrological Straits

Zach HillAstrological Straits
Known best for his work in avant-metal experimenters Hella, Sacramento-based mega-drummer Zach Hill has always been known for his many projects and collaborations. (Hill estimates that he is currently involved in eight musical projects.) As such, it's only fitting that Astrological Straits, his first solo record, is packed to the brim with collaborations from the likes of Les Claypool, Marnie Stern, the Deftones' Chino Moreno, No Age's Randy Randall and Dean Spunt, and many more. Led by Hill's ferocious drumming, heartfelt vocals and complex arrangements, the album bustles with its collaborators' frenetic energy while retaining Hill's singular vision. Opener "Iambic Strays" runs pulsating synths and eerie guitars over Hill's hectic drumming and surprisingly laidback vocals, working as a nice run into the anthemic guitar of "Toll Road." "Street People" makes things a little chaotic, with hammered guitar runs and ferocious drum rolls, while "Ummer of Love" veers between start-stop dynamics and slow release melodies. Then it's over to "Necromancer" on disc two, the 32-minute drum piece perfectly matched by pianist Marco Benevento. Astrological Straits is both the most ambitious and accessible work Zach Hill has ever done, successfully bridging the gap between his prog, free jazz, metal and punk influences, leaving his peers covered in dust. )

Why did you do a solo record at this point in your career?
Even from a younger age, I've always had the idea that at some point I'd like to start my own group from a bandleader stance, and start my own discography. I don't want to call it a "career" but my own discography and my own core group of people, like Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, where everybody's doing what they want to do and expressing themselves but doing it under the direction of an individual. I always thought that would be interesting to do from the perspective of a drummer, just to put what the role of drummer is in a different perspective from how it's normally perceived. That was always a long-term goal of mine. It was always something in the back of my head, and just from doing this more and more, basically by being fortunate enough and lucky enough, my resources evolved to where it became a reality where maybe I could do that and people would want to listen. I started talking to Mike Patton about it and prior to them even wanting to release a Hella record, I had a plan to do a solo record with them. So I'd been thinking about it for a long time. It isn't a one-off project. It's the first in a long line of what I'd like to do. I'm planning on making records on my own from now on.

Does that mean Hella will take a backseat?
That kind of depends. Hella is a real grey area in general right now, so it's hard to say. I don't really perceive things like that, probably because my brain's used to doing so many things at once. If things work out and I'm getting the fun, the challenge, and the creativity in whatever I'm doing, that will always take the backseat.

Is there a particularly memorable story from recording Astrological Straits?
One thing that was pretty mind-blowing was when Marco Benevento came in to record the second disc's improv piece. It's a 30-minute straight drum piece, but I knew I wanted to have a piano piece to accompany it. I knew Marco would be great for it because he's an amazing player and an amazing improviser. He has all of the sensibilities to take something like that on. I was trying to explain the whole track, because it has kind of a story that goes with it. But as soon as he got to the studio, probably three minutes later, he was sitting at the piano going, "I'm ready! I'm ready!" He wanted to do this thing and really didn't want any explanation. We weren't even ready and he was like, "Just roll it! Just roll it!" So we did and he just ripped through all 30 minutes, playing the most incredible shit. It was totally on point to every sensitive little spot. It was pretty crazy. He rolled up, sat down and did it.

What have you been up to so far today?
Basically a lot of monitors, things like emailing and the vortex of the computer world, and then I had lunch with some friends to discuss some musical things. Getting ready to go to band practice, and I've been painting for the last two hours.

I didn't know you were into painting.
I'm definitely really into visual art. When I was younger, prior to playing music, it was actually what I saw myself doing. My idol was Walt Disney, and from a young age I was really into visual arts and drawing. I'm still pretty active, and when I get a chance I like to bridge those things together with my music, as far as all of the album art and videos I do. In the future, I would like to get as focused with that side of things as I am in music, but it's kind of hard to put the same amount into both.

Are you able to live off of your music without having another job?
It's what I do full-time. For the past seven years I've been able to modestly get by on working at what I want to be working at, but it's up and down as far as that go. It's funny the way that things are set up in this world. It's amazing how hard it is to support yourself on things that make you happiest and how easy it is to support yourself doing the things that make you miserable. It's pretty funny how backwards that shit is. Pretty much, it's different what I do everyday but it's always involved with music.

Does that ever mean you can't turn down projects because you'll be losing money?
I wouldn't say that all of those fall under the category of being "lucrative." Generally, the financial side of playing the music is usually at the bottom of the list. In that regard, I think I sell myself short a lot of the time. Not that I think I'm worth this or that or anything; I don't really care. I'm just one of those people that doesn't hold money in a high regard. That's probably why I don't have any. It really is secondary to me.

How were you introduced to music and the drums?
No one in my family played any instruments but they were all very much music lovers, so there were a lot of records playing in my house, but I never had a physical interaction with an instrument until way later. Growing up, my parents were really into listening to a lot of good stuff like Bob Dylan and the Cars and the Who and Talking Heads. I didn't have my first interaction with a drum set until the kid that lived behind me had a drum set. He was practicing all the time, and I could hear him over there playing. I had this Van Halen tape and I was probably 13 and I was totally a dork kid and all I wanted to do was see his drum set and touch it. I didn't even have a specific love of the drums yet, it was just that someone in the area had that. So I had this Van Halen tape and I brought it to his house and said I saw him drop it off of his bike. He was 18 or 19 and he totally knew I was just being a weird kid but he was still cool enough to let me go inside and sit down at the drum set, look at it and touch it. That was my first interaction with a drum set, but I didn't have real access to play the drums until I was 14 or 15 years old. That was through a friend of mine. We wanted to start a punk band but we didn't have any money, so his dad gave us a bunch of junk to have a yard sale and we made enough to get a drum set for me to play. I hadn't even played one yet but I started hearing an intuitive force within me telling me I could do something like that. So then we had a garage sale and got $150 bucks. You can imagine what kind of drum set it was for that kind of money. Then I just got obsessed with it and dropped out of high school and that's all I did.

Was it weird with your family when you dropped out?
Yeah it kind of was. But it was already a dysfunctional time. I'm very close with my parents and it's definitely not weird these days but we weren't your average family. So there was definitely a lot of time, from freshman year to high school, that was tripped out with kind of weird stuff. I only went to high school for a year, so obviously they weren't super-stoked on that idea. Also because the idea of drums was kind of random to them — it was out of nowhere and I was really adamant about it. But again, there wasn't really anything stopping me. Then I ended up moving to Nevada City, CA, and I had a bunch of friends there. We lived in kind of a punk house atmosphere — the whole runaway kid kind of thing. I pretty much lived there with a bunch of kids. That's where I met Spencer from Hella. He was still in high school. From there I just didn't really want to hear any other way from anybody else. I knew what I wanted to do.

How did your tastes progress from living in a punk house and playing in a punk band to where they are today?
I think it was just a natural progression. Even back then, we were really into punk music like Dead Milkmen and Black Flag but even then it was just the natural progression. That music's pretty primal and basic in sense of rhythm. When you're first starting, a lot of kids start with punk music. Growing up we were definitely into some weird music as well, like Frank Zappa, weird glam stuff, T Rex, David Bowie, the Residents, Primus, a lot of the Bay Area stuff. Being a kid in that area, you're automatically into Faith No More and Mr. Bungle. Also, we were experimenting with hallucinogens, or we would go out and pretend we were homeless for two weeks. A lot of crazy stuff that had a lot to do with the progression of our music. Then, when I as 16 or 17, we met this guy named Ken who really opened up our minds. He was from L.A. and in his 40s, and he worked at the record shop we would all go to. He was a huge prog-head, like a prog encyclopaedia, and he opened us up to Magma, Gentle Giant, Hatfield North, Gong and all that European prog music that was just out here. It kind of blew our minds. That's where we made the transition from being obsessed with punk to trying to go further with our instruments and getting into that kind of playing. Once you open that door, there's Miles and Coltrane, and all the jazz stuff comes into it. It just evolves.

When you're drumming, how much of it is improvised and how much of it is written out?
It kind of varies album to album. With Hella stuff, most of that stuff is written out. There's not much improvisation that goes into those records. With my stuff, I'd say it's 70 to 80 percent written, and then about 30 to 20 improvised, and then overdubbed on top of the improvisation. It's such a weird dynamic when you're working by yourself, or when you're working with a group of people that you only have for a day. You're forced to kind of interact on a level where you have these frameworks but we'll just wing it here and maybe something magical will happen. So with that there was a lot more improv than some of the other stuff. But at the same time, it's not so far out that I couldn't go back and play the same thing again. It wasn't aimlessly played.

How much of the music was written before your guests entered the studio?
It kind of varied with different groups of people. With certain people, I had all of the drums. For the most part, we would just write when people came in and play and collaborate, and after they left I would make changes in the studio to everything, from the structure to the overdubs to the vocals. Once you start adding things it kind of dictates what direction it goes in. At the same time, I already had these frameworks with stuff I had put down with other instruments or vocals and then people would come in and overdub on top of things that already exist, so what they were playing was clearly influenced by what had already been done. There were no rules or regulations in making anything. I wanted everybody to do exactly what they felt from what they were hearing and play naturally but to expect that in the end it would probably be different because I would have discoveries along the way. In the sense of a movie, you could say I directed the whole thing.

This record is being touted as your first solo record but you have released material as Zach Hill on Suicide Squeeze. How do you differentiate between those projects?
It's just a matter of how I perceive it and how I feel about it. In my mind I perceive this as my first solo record. Even though the other one had my name attached to it, it was such a different process to where my mind was. That was just a bunch of people jamming, a way more relaxed and loose environment. The record I'm putting out was still like that but it was much more focused, in the sense that I'm making the solo record and I'm making my first solo record. Just to have that different energy projected on it means it definitely feels like my first solo record.

Your drumming style is often very busy. Have you ever been asked to hold back a bit?
People have asked me to do that and I do. I want to be sensitive, especially when I'm playing for somebody else. If they aren't feeling something, I'll definitely be willing to switch it around until we're both happy. But that's the thing — the way I play is far from a conscious decision. It's kind of tricky because I play how I play. Playing busy and all that stuff, I really don't think about those things. If I hear an idea and a rhythm, I just play what I hear just like other people. I just happen to hear more notes than most people or something. My mind has never been in the place like, "Oh, I'm just gonna fuckin' play as technical as possible." But that is the way it's perceived. It's kind of a double-edged sword because a lot of those connotations come along with the way I play. I know I'm perceived a lot differently than what I think I'm doing in my own mind. It's not my intention to play all crazy all the time; it's just my feel. It's how I feel inside, and the only reason I'm doing what I'm doing is to express myself, so of course I'm going to say what I have to say. But it's weird because people can get very threatened. When you play your instrument more technically, I feel like people automatically throw these things onto you. It's not hip, that's for sure! At the same time, of course I want to push the instrument. I want to do things that haven't been done, and bring things into this dimension that no one else has. I want to contribute to the tradition of what playing drums is. I hold that in a really high place, especially with it being one of the oldest, most primal ways of playing music there is second to the voice. Of course I want to contribute to the long scheme of things beyond my lifetime.

What do you listen to?
My scope of what I'm into musically is so all over the place. I love sloppy, thrashy music. I don't only listen to what would seemingly be my peers. I listen to straight-ahead rock, or electronic, or world music. I listen to way simpler stuff than what I play.

Even by looking at your collaborators, it just emphasises that you are involved with both a highly technical community and a rawer, noisier one of musicians with a more punk background. Do you have to deal with narrow-mindedness from either?
Certain folks in any community can be narrow-minded. Particularly with jazz — I've never met anyone more narrow-minded in the world. I'm positive about anybody playing music to express themselves. I don't have anything negative to say, whether they're in the Dixie Chicks or Limp Bizkit. I don't really see a difference in terms of people having something that they want to share with others that they might relate to. I'm not down on that.

How are you going to tour with this project?
Right now I'm trying to figure that whole aspect out but I'm having trouble putting together a band to do it based on where I live. In Sacramento, it's kind of slim pickings to find people who are willing to commit to the time it might end up taking. I don't have the biggest selection in the world as far as people who are willing to practice six or seven days a week. It's hard to find the right people. But I'm definitely adamant about that, at some point, in one shape or another, it will happen. But I'm also already planning my next record, even though it's way in the future. In between the time of this one coming out and the next one coming out, I plan to have a tight group of people.

Will it be difficult to sing and play the drums at the same time?
That's something I've been practicing more and more. That's another big obstacle that I'm trying to figure out. I'd really love to do it, it's just with some of the drumming, and the way the singing works with it, it's very, very challenging. I wouldn't say that I couldn't do it; I just need to put a group of people together and figure out alternate ways to perform the music.

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