Music Interview #005 - Zach Hill
Music Interview #005 - Zach Hill
With his name on five albums last year, Zach Hill, is for lack of a better word, a maniac.
For a long while growing up Hella was just another obscure noise-rock band who’s CD’s I inherited when my brother moved home from college. At the time I wasn’t into Hella’s brand of blow-out-your-years, neck-snapping black metal, but I hung on their CD’s just like I did the Lightning Bolt, Black Dice, and Shellac albums my brother discarded after he discovered WFMU Radio, therefore, never needing anything more than a reliable Internet connection. There was something about that kind of utterly abrasive music and those bands whose names I didn’t understand that told me I would need it and them later on in life. Sure enough, it was a few years later when, after unearthing my brother’s burned copy of Mission of Burma’s Signals Calls and Marches that I began giving some of that music a chance. First it was Mission of Burma, then Sonic Youth, then Fugazi; I was discovering the value in the notion that only in chaotic anarchy can you fully realize a peaceful freedom. Then I came across Hella and sweet sweet sounds of drummer Zach Hill. But before diving into some musical jib jab about Zach Hill’s rock-solid drumming-prowess thrash-abilities of Hella, I offer up this quick video of a commercial you might remember.
The Maxell Last Days of Humanity commercial has proved a reliable and nostalgic point of reference when describing to people the music of Zach Hill and Hella. It’s not enough to simply say Hill’s music sounds like a black hole eating itself alive or a swirling vortex of starving demons. Whether wailing away with Hella or one of his half-dozen side projects, Hill’s unrelenting percussion is something of another species or breed on entirely different planet than earth. It’s almost like he’s traveled to hell and back, but instead of telling the story through words he bangs it out on bloodied drum skins and stacks of broken cymbals. Hill’s music has done drugs so you don’t have to. With a solid set of speakers listening to Zach Hill isn’t all unlike that Maxell commercial, except it doesn’t stop just blowing you back, the force of the music grabs you by your eye sockets and drags you out of your chair, down the stairs, and out to the street where the violent rush of noise proceeds to beat the shit out of you in front of your horrified and on-looking family and neighbors.
Needless to say, I was pretty stoked when Zach himself responded to my interview request. He made himself available to talk with me during a break from Hella practice and was surprisingly candid about the intentions and motivations behind his music. In some respects he fit the drummer stereotype set by Adam Sandler’s character Pip from Airheads. Admittedly an introvert, Zach was soft spoken, thoughtful, and willing to think aloud about the questions I asked him. With the long flowing California hair and skeletal frame he displays in pictures and videos, I could see him pulling twice the tail as Pip with a shy wink and a smile. But unlike the sheepish Pip, Zach exhibited the intelligent and focused mind one might expect from psychology major, not a trash metal drummer. Though ‘you know’ and ‘dude’ punctuated many of our sentences and the interview didn’t lend itself well to transcribing, Zach and I managed to have one hell-of-a conversation. He’s never used a double-kick drum, prefers listening to Chrome or Dying Fetus when taking a shit, and might play your house party if the room’s big enough.
James H. Ewert Jr.: You’re out in Sacramento?
Zach Hill: Yeah, actually at Hella practice right now.
JHEJR: How’s that going?
ZH: We’re working on a new record, our first one in like two or three years or something. We kind of took a break and spread out doing our own things individually and now we’re slowly getting it back together and working on a new records, but we don’t have shows planned yet or anything.
JHEJR: So is practice just like the two of you getting together and wailing on shit?
ZH: Yeah. We write and conceptualize parts and sounds and emotions that we want to convey; all that stuff.
JHEJR: So, of course every day is different, but can you lead me through a typical day for Zach Hill?
ZH: Generally I wake up. I stay up very late, I have sleeping problems so I tend to be up until at least like 4 or 5 in the morning every night, so I end up waking up on average somewhere around like 10:30, 11 o’clock or something. Then I immediately get coffee; I’m like heavily addicted to it. I drink more than average. I do that then I go straight to practicing really. Usually I ride my bike there. I’ve never had a driver’s license, never driven a car so I ride my bike all over town and stuff. I go straight to practice and pretty much work on music all day. Then I’ll take a break and eat, but then I’m back to it night, and usually at night time I’ll be recording and stuff. So I spend the day normally rehearsing or not necessarily doing anything specific, but just stream-of-consciousness style playing and working on my own ideas on the drum set or any instrument. Then at night I usually meet up with a friend of mine and record all night.
JHEJR: You’ve been really busy with a lot of different projects, is that a habit you’ve had to work into or has your work ethic always come naturally to you? We’re you much of a partier at onetime?
ZH: I’m definitely not a partier. It might sound boring or whatever, but making noise is like a party to me. I’m not too socially comfortable and I’m not really that much of an extroverted person. I don’t have too much to project, or really felt comfortable in those sorts of environments and I’m pretty private, kind of a loner to be honest. So, I’ve never really been too drawn to that and also from experiences at a young age. I’ve seen a lot, whatever it be, friends, this and that, just seeing people take a certain paths that I knew I didn’t want to take because I’d see an outcome that to me just wasn’t appealing. So, I’ve been kind of obsessed with being creative and getting my energy out that way. Ever since I was young, before I even played music, I just wanted to draw and paint or skateboard. I’ve never been that drawn to that side of things and I think I spent all that energy that some people spend socially, mine just goes directly into music.
JHEJR: That’s interesting because in a lot of interviews I’ve read with you, you talk a lot about how your drumming style always came naturally, and I wondered if that natural drumming style reflected your personality at all. It struck me that if someone went about drumming like you do, you’d also go about life like that, but that’s really not the case, is it?
ZH: Yeah, I feel like that’s the thing. Maybe that’s a part of it, or there’s an element to it. Again, generally speaking, maybe what I project creatively to other people is kind of more on the intense and wild side of music and things like that, maybe that’s a form of an internal fantasy of mine, to where in reality I feel blocked to be that way and human to human talking, I feel blocked in the outlet of getting those things out and those kind of feelings out with another person or in a group in environment. So, for me, knowing it the way that I’m able to express it is just through that. But, yeah, as a person I’m not a big extrovert, I’m not very loud or even too social. I have a small circle of friends and lots of the friends I’ve made through fellow musicians and artists, and playing music. And that’s another thing too, is that a lot of time just through music naturally I’ll end up in more social environment constantly just because it comes along with a certain side of what I do. Any other time, I’m into conserving my energy for what ultimately makes me really feel good, which is playing music. So I want to direct all of that in that, that’s just how I’ve always been.
JHEJR: Now, not every one who plays music has an audience in mind, but are you trying to reach certain people with your music? Is there an audience you think picks up your music more than others?
ZH: I think that’s a pretty common thing to think about it, but it’s pretty complex to talk about. Say when I’m just developing an idea or if I’m in the process of actually making music and recording it, initially my thoughts are never geared toward, ‘oh no one will like this, or I want to please this certain audience or oh I want to gain an audience, or I’m trying to do this or that.” Letting those things dictate what I want to do creatively can be sort of poisonous and then I start losing track of actually just being myself or what I want to hear. Then I would start feeling fraudulent if I was trying to cater to a thing, so I never do that. But of course, I’m really grateful to anybody in general who’s interested in what I do and when I make connection to somebody through what I’m expressing, and if they can relate to that or are getting something from that, that’s really valuable to me. So, of course it crosses my mind what something might be perceived like, but I definitely do not let those type of thoughts change my decision making as far as what kind of thing I want to express.
JHEJR: I say that because a lot of people I know who like your music I might not initially think of as fans of your kind of musical style. I find that your music extends beyond the typical notion of noise, trash, black metal, or whatever you want to call it. People might not like that style of music, but have respect for what you’re doing.
ZH: That’s pretty interesting and cool to hear. That’s another thing about that kind of thing, because I don’t really know. To be honest, I don’t really have a certain gauge even of say my particular audience, which is totally fine, but I don’t really even have an accurate perception of how I’m really perceived generally among people that are into music. One thing that I do feel often is that I don’t actually exist in one particular genre which is kind of a trippy thing. Maybe perhaps it’s because I never set myself up with thinking these kinds of thoughts that we’re talking about. It’s very instant to me as far as what I’m feeling and what I’m doing and I’m very interested in keeping things an honest reflection of whatever I’m feeling at the time and if people can relate to that, that’s great.
I would say though being a drummer, naturally, as far as people you wouldn’t expect being able to, maybe not even fully embracing what I do, but just being able to get into it in some certain way or just naturally being able to feel something from it could come back to be a drummer and the primal sense of there’s a pulse. The foundation of all my music and usually how it all starts and how it’s written is with the drums, which is very human. Even without having a drum set it’s a very old and instinctual thing to really feel a beat. I feel like it’s almost coded inside all of us to relate to that. Since there is so much emphasis on that element within my music I could see maybe that’s why people that normally aren’t into a certain side of the things that I do are able to get into, because the sense of beat is very important and key to my music.
JHEJR: Funny you should say that because I wanted to talk about why you chose drumming to begin with. Being able to drum on virtually anything and create music with your surrounding environment, lots of times with non-musical objects, does that contribute to your interest in the instrument?
ZH: Yeah, I just feel like it’s a highly relatable instrument. Like I was saying before, even if a physical drum is not in front of you, it’s just the pulse of anything. Not to get too hippy trippy or whatever, everything within life has a pulse; I believe, you know what I mean? Therefore that’s like a natural thing that a lot of people pick up on. That’s like the basis of most of my work. Starting out at least, everything starts with that, and it’s my exploration of what you can do with those different pulses and different rhythms.
JHEJR: When it comes to your kit, do you have any homemade drum devices?
ZH: Yeah, that’s kind of what I do all day, which is basically experiment you could say. I’m not the kind of drummer that’s had the same drum set since I was 12-years-old. With some people that’s a really powerful cool thing because it’s like their power object or whatever, and they’re so used to it and it’s like their thing. But for me; I’m quite the opposite to where I’m just constantly changing everything and playing on odds and ends and sometimes purposefully I’ll set up the most beat up, almost impossible to play, weirdest thing ever and see what I can do on it. And I’ve just been doing that for 15 years basically. I think that’s led to me also discovering so many different ideas for myself as far as how to approach things once going back to this and that and I’m constantly switching things and using outside-of-the-box elements in my particular set up. I’ll spend a whole month where I’m practicing everyday just as much, but I’ll limit myself for a month to only have a high-hat, a snare drum and a base drum. I’m always trying different things basically to just try to have some kind of discovery for myself.
Also I have a lot of home-made style things from friends or fans I’ve met that have built me things to try out which is really awesome and amazing. Sometimes people will come out shows and they’ll have built this handmade cymbal or this or that, so of course I’ll take it home and I’ll use it on a record or practice with it a bit.
JHEJR: Do you go through a shit ton of equipment while you’re on tour?
ZH: Yes I do. At home too, yeah.
JHEJR: I read somewhere that you were building a bed frame with all your broken sticks?
ZH: Yeah that was an idea of mine. Now I have a bed, but throughout my teenage years and into my early twenties I was really nomadic, not just by tour because I still live that way, but just even how I lived at home, you know, I never really had proper beds. So I started saving all the broken drumsticks and filling garbage bags and not throwing them away. I’d always joked that I was going to make a bed frame out of all those because I never had a proper bed. I still have all the sticks; I do save all those things. Also, it’s kind of weird to me to just throw away wood. Even though I guess I’m just hoarding and their not doing any thing but just sitting there, it’s kind of a valuable material to just like chuck, you know. I do have bags and bags full of broken drumsticks.
JHEJR: So you’re not one to throw your drumsticks into the crowd after a show?
ZH: No, not really. People have asked me for them after a show and of course I’ll give them to someone.
JHEJR: Do you still play house shows?
ZH: Oh yeah, that’s what I prefer actually. At home, too, most shows in the town I lived at, that’s where things kind of happened. I don’t know, throughout the past few years I’ve played in quite a few very different environments from arenas, to festivals, to houses, to this, to that, or whatever. Still to this day, my favorite and I think the most exciting, honest, the most connected and energizing shows are in a [house] setting like that, where you’re really close to the people your playing with, the people become part of the show, they become part of the group. Those particular shows, I really love it when it feels like the audience is joining your band or part of the performance and it all feels like part of one thing for that night. I love playing at houses.
JHEJR: I think house shows are probably the best place to see you. A lot of people at house shows are sometimes forced to hear bands they might not listen to normally and they bob their heads so they don’t look like dicks, but by the time you get a handful of songs deep they’re thrashing like everyone else.
ZH: That’s like the wildcard element of that exact thing at those shows. Perhaps it’s because people feel more comfortable, because usually [house shows] are so close-knit it affects them in a different way and they start feeling like they are a part of it because it’s not in this environment where the band’s up on a stage and there’s a bar, maybe it’s that you have to want to be into. I’ve experienced what you’re talking about where playing, maybe I have some friends who bring some friends and they don’t really go to shows and they’re kind of out of their element, but by the end of it they’re like, ‘whoa.’ They see some things they’ve never seen before because of the environment.
JHEJR: Have you gotten to the point in your career where you don’t play to bartenders in empty bars anymore, or do you still get the off night every so often? Has it made a big difference in terms of audience touring under your own name as opposed to touring under the Hella name?
ZH: Yeah, I’d say so. Frankly, I’m always hoping for the best but expecting the worst. I don’t have any delusions in my mind to where it’s like if there happens to be a show where there’s ten people there I’m not shocked at all. It’s quite the opposite. When people do show up I’m like this is great. It really hasn’t been too bad up to this point and I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I’m just doing my thing and if people are interested in seeing that, that’s great, and if not, that’s great too.
JHEJR: Drawing and art is something you do as a sort of side project, do you still keep that up?
ZH: When I was a child, prior to discovering music, that’s basically all I wanted to do and what I saw for myself. From a real young age I wanted to be an animator, or a visual artist I should say, and I was really obsessed with people like Walt Disney. Basically people that through visuals and through illustrations created these alternate realities and fantasy worlds, and I was really obsessed with that when I was a child until I discovered music. Once I got overwhelmed and taken over by [music] my path changed, but I’ve always been just as busy with visual art, but kind of more just for myself.
JHEJR: I’ve always found it’s really important for my creative process to have more than one outlet for my expressions. It’s just that different expressions can’t come out in the same forms.
ZH: But they can help each other that’s the thing, they’re relatable. I feel like I’ve put so much of myself out there in the musical sense that there’s a side of me that really likes having an outlet that’s just kind for me at this point in time, which is when I feel like drawing or painting or making video art or whatever, because I do all that stuff on my own time at home. For some reason I’ve chosen to keep that my own personal thing for the most part, but at some point I would love to do that just as much as I do music. I really want what I’m doing, whether it’s music or art, I really want it to be exactly…I don’t want to waste anybody’s time with what I’m putting out there. I want to really believe in it 100 percent and that’s kind of hard to do with two different things at once.
JHEJR: You don’t want your art to piggyback your music?
ZH: Yeah, exactly. It’s like 200 percent with music and it’s like I don’t want to do art at 100 percent. Just because I do it, doesn’t mean that everybody needs to see it. I believe the same thing about music and I think there were a few times in the past where it was cool and stuff, but eh. That’s kind of changed. Now a days I’m not really interested in putting anything out unless I’m like 200 percent on it. In the past my intentions were never bad with releasing things that were way outside the box or not for everybody, but I think I was a little more loose with what was made available or what I was trying to get other people to pay attention to. I want to believe exactly in everything that I’m doing. I don’t want to waste people’s time and it’s got to be worth it to me for it be worth it for other people.
Rapid Q&A (last half was cut because Zach’s phone died. He sent an email follow up)
JHEJR: Unemployment, food stamps, or welfare.
ZH: Oh, food stamps dude.
JHEJR: Would you ever smoke a clove cigarette in public?
ZH: Would I ever? I have, but I don’t care for them.
JHEJR: If your music was an ice cream flavor, what flavor would it be?
ZH: Peanut butter and chocolate.
JHEJR: When was the last time you were in the hospital?
ZH: December. I broke my hand playing drums.
JHEJR: Just to be clear, do you use a double kick?
ZH: No, never have.
JHEJR: If you could only see in two colors for the rest of your life what would they be?
ZH: Purple and sea green.
JHEJR: Hella should do a Christmas album. Slip-ons, sandals, or surf socks (aqua shoes)?
JHEJR: Colored pencils or cray pas?
ZH: I like colored pencils.
JHEJR: What’s your style in five words or less?
ZH: Oh dang…[Zach’s phone dies]
JHEJR: Best band to listen to while taking a shit?
ZH: Chrome or Dying Fetus. JHEJR: AM or FM?
ZH: FM. JHEJR: Blonde or brunette?
JHEJR: V-neck or tank top?
ZH: Tank top. JHEJR: If you had a dog, what would its name be?
ZH: The Internet.
JHEJR: Smashing Pumpkins or Pearl Jam?
ZH: James Iha
JHEJR: If you could play anywhere on the face of the planet where would you play?
ZH: Larry David’s house.
JHEJR: Do you remember that Pamela Anderson movie Barbed Wire?
ZH: Was there any barbed wire in it?