Zach Hill Astrological Straits
Published Jul 29, 2008Known 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, its 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 Ages Randy Randall and Dean Spunt, and many more. Led by Hills ferocious drumming, heartfelt vocals and complex arrangements, the album bustles with its collaborators frenetic energy while retaining Hills singular vision. Opener "Iambic Strays runs pulsating synths and eerie guitars over Hills 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 its 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, Ive always had the idea that at some point Id like to start my own group from a bandleader stance, and start my own discography. I dont 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 everybodys 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 its 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 Id been thinking about it for a long time. It isnt a one-off project. Its the first in a long line of what Id like to do. Im 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 its hard to say. I dont really perceive things like that, probably because my brains used to doing so many things at once. If things work out and Im getting the fun, the challenge, and the creativity in whatever Im 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 discs improv piece. Its 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 hes 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, "Im ready! Im ready! He wanted to do this thing and really didnt want any explanation. We werent 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 Ive been painting for the last two hours.
I didnt know you were into painting.
Im 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. Im 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 its kind of hard to put the same amount into both.
Are you able to live off of your music without having another job?
Its what I do full-time. For the past seven years Ive been able to modestly get by on working at what I want to be working at, but its up and down as far as that go. Its funny the way that things are set up in this world. Its 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. Its pretty funny how backwards that shit is. Pretty much, its different what I do everyday but its always involved with music.
Does that ever mean you cant turn down projects because youll be losing money?
I wouldnt 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 Im worth this or that or anything; I dont really care. Im just one of those people that doesnt hold money in a high regard. Thats probably why I dont 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 didnt 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 hadnt 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 thats 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. Im very close with my parents and its definitely not weird these days but we werent 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 werent 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 wasnt 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. Thats where I met Spencer from Hella. He was still in high school. From there I just didnt 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 musics pretty primal and basic in sense of rhythm. When youre 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, youre 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. Thats 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, theres Miles and Coltrane, and all the jazz stuff comes into it. It just evolves.
When youre 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. Theres not much improvisation that goes into those records. With my stuff, Id say its 70 to 80 percent written, and then about 30 to 20 improvised, and then overdubbed on top of the improvisation. Its such a weird dynamic when youre working by yourself, or when youre working with a group of people that you only have for a day. Youre forced to kind of interact on a level where you have these frameworks but well 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, its not so far out that I couldnt go back and play the same thing again. It wasnt 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?
Its 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 Im putting out was still like that but it was much more focused, in the sense that Im making the solo record and Im 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 Im playing for somebody else. If they arent feeling something, Ill definitely be willing to switch it around until were both happy. But thats the thing the way I play is far from a conscious decision. Its kind of tricky because I play how I play. Playing busy and all that stuff, I really dont 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, Im just gonna fuckin play as technical as possible. But that is the way its perceived. Its kind of a double-edged sword because a lot of those connotations come along with the way I play. I know Im perceived a lot differently than what I think Im doing in my own mind. Its not my intention to play all crazy all the time; its just my feel. Its how I feel inside, and the only reason Im doing what Im doing is to express myself, so of course Im going to say what I have to say. But its weird because people can get very threatened. When you play your instrument more technically, I feel like people automatically throw these things onto you. Its not hip, thats for sure! At the same time, of course I want to push the instrument. I want to do things that havent 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 Im into musically is so all over the place. I love sloppy, thrashy music. I dont 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 Ive never met anyone more narrow-minded in the world. Im positive about anybody playing music to express themselves. I dont have anything negative to say, whether theyre in the Dixie Chicks or Limp Bizkit. I dont really see a difference in terms of people having something that they want to share with others that they might relate to. Im not down on that.
How are you going to tour with this project?
Right now Im trying to figure that whole aspect out but Im having trouble putting together a band to do it based on where I live. In Sacramento, its kind of slim pickings to find people who are willing to commit to the time it might end up taking. I dont have the biggest selection in the world as far as people who are willing to practice six or seven days a week. Its hard to find the right people. But Im definitely adamant about that, at some point, in one shape or another, it will happen. But Im also already planning my next record, even though its 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?
Thats something Ive been practicing more and more. Thats another big obstacle that Im trying to figure out. Id really love to do it, its just with some of the drumming, and the way the singing works with it, its very, very challenging. I wouldnt say that I couldnt do it; I just need to put a group of people together and figure out alternate ways to perform the music. (Ipecac)