Local artist Zach Hill’s Astrological Straits
Zach Hill’s first solo album, Astrological Straits, comes out this week.
Describe how you felt going into recording/writing Astrological Straits?
Um, hey, can I ask you a question? Is this gonna be like in straight-interview form, or is this like one of those things where you chop it all up and only it’s actually only like three sentences that I said.
Well, I dunno. I wanted to write a feature, but I’m open to question-and-answer format.
From like a standpoint of checking something out, I find that more interesting, I think.
Well, ’cause then—and this means no offense to you—you end up with this thing that’s like “Oh, the drummer from Hella, duh duh duh duh,” and it’s like basically like what my bio says and then three quotes of what I said.
Well, if you’re a crappy writer, yeah.
Even if you’re good and stuff. You understand what I mean, though?
It’s just a different thing. I was just curious before we started getting into all these questions. You know, how much do I even have to answer.
I’m going to do it in question-and-answer format, and I have 750 words, so depending on how big the art is … so let’s just run it Q-and-A.
Well, you’re going to have to edit it anyway, ’cause I ramble, dude.
Hah. Well, we’ll just put it online in its entirety.
Ah, really. OK.
Well, to answer your first question, I’m basically putting a band together to perform my material, and then simultaneously I’m working with Prefuse 73 now, on his records and on him taking on producing my next record. And I just finished Marnie Stern’s newest recording, producing it and playing drums and all that, so there’s a chance I’ll be doing that tour. And I believe a record I did with Omar Rodríguez-López from the Mars Volta is supposed to come out by the end of this year; it’s finally finished.
So there’s a ton of things happening, and I’m not sure what’s gonna go in what order or what, but there’s a lot of things going on. And there’s the Boredoms thing coming up [ed note: The boredoms “88 drummers” event occurred on August 8 at 8:08 p.m. in Los Angeles], which I’m really excited about.
Does playing this album live fit into the equation?
It does, definitely. To be honest, it’s been challenging trying to assemble a group that’s been appropriate or fitting to the material in this town. There’s tons of amazing individuals and musicians around here, but to find the right mix for what this particular material calls for has been challenging, and also to find people that can dedicate that kind of time in this region to the project and plan on investing months at a time to touring, you know, it’s kind of tricky. It’s definitely on my agenda and I’ve started messing around with a couple people. And I’ll probably be going overseas with it come late November/December. So I’ll be doing the first round of touring for this record in Europe. But yeah, it’s for sure something that’s gonna happen, I’m just not sure where or how.
And that’s a whole other thing: My plan is to figure out sometime between this record coming out and my next record, within that time, having a band assembled for the future, inevitably for any show. I just gotta do one thing at a time.
When you were composing Straits, what was your role as a musician and as a songwriter?
I think it’s just different when the whole thing is orchestrated by you and there’s a big emphasis from the production standpoint on my ideas and where I’m coming from, ultimately being the director of the recordings. And also drumming consistently throughout, consistently singing throughout, and at least, give or take, on every single song playing two or three instruments on top of that, different ones here and there. That’s different. All those things combined are very different.
But I definitely wouldn’t take credit for writing all the material on the record. All the amazing people that came in and played wrote just as much as me, but the difference was at the end of the day they would leave and I would stay, and nine times out of 10 it would end up totally different.
Were you open to improvisation?
Totally open to it. I mean, ideally, I want everybody to do what they do best, what comes natural to them. What the vocal or what the drums automatically is bringing out of them.
But it’s different from part to part. I might have something very specific in mind. Other times I might say, “Well, I just want to see what you would do,” you know? And then it’s also different with a few of the people, specifically like when No Age came and Les Claypool came. That was definitely like playing in a room, working things out in a very live atmosphere, rather than them overdubbing on things that already existed. It worked all different ways.
Which tracks did the guys from No Age play on?
They played on “Stoic Logic” and “Ummer.”
Are you recording most of this live? What about on a song like “Toll Road,” what doesn’t have a traditional structure—verses that come out of nowhere. How did that song come to fruition?
Not with a group; it’s recorded live in the sense of the drum track. From there, that’s when it gets pretty deep into production, messing with stuff that’s more kind of in an electronic realm or arena … because there’s definitely stuff that’s assemblage, with songs here and there, just to give it that aesthetic that’s live but simultaneously has this synthetic feel to it. But a track like that started with the drum track and me messing with all the sounds and coming up with little melodies on the keyboard, then bringing in other people to play the main riff.
In my mind it was all a very natural progression and stuff. But they all definitely came about in different ways.
Do songs change a lot, take different forms?
Well, I’m also talking about different things, like affecting tracks and then basically getting rid of the source material, then using the affected track solely so that the organic track doesn’t exist any more, then re-tracking the organic track on top of the electronic affected track. It’s kind of complex to explain. …
That’s like an old Brian Eno trick, really, where you have everybody recording real instruments all going through effects, and then all the affected tracks are all going to their own tracks. So then basically when you get back in there and are listening to the song, you get rid of all the organic tracks, and then you’re just listening to all the affected tracks, which don’t sound like instruments. Then you go back and re-track instrument tracks back on top of those electronic tracks, playing and approaching it in a totally different way. So a lot of things like that.
And what about experimenting with sounds, like on the opening track, “Iambic Strays"?
Well, some of the stuff I would rather not talk about, because that’s how I do it and that’s how I do it. But it’s kind of like in the same fashion of what I was just explaining. But I want to stress that everything you’re hearing, nothing’s programmed, minus a few things, like when I was playing with Tyler Pope and stuff. He played on the song “Hindsight is Nowhere” and he definitely had some programming going on and stuff that I re-recorded to with real drums. But for the most part, the source of all the material on the record, whether it sounds synthetic or electronic or whatnot, it is all coming from the drum set and being played real time.
Actually, that’s funny, too, because that track, “Iambic Strays,” that’s like one solid drum track performance—the whole thing. There’s no drum editing in that song.
That’s the thing: You would never believe that based on the song sonically, but there’s so many things you can do in production and in the realm of the studio in so far as dropping things out, and it’s like that track is exercising exactly what I was explaining before, that you have a solid drum track going through 30 different effects tracks all on their own tracks, so you can take out the real drums at any time and the effects tracks going on course with what the real track’s doing. So in theory it’s all one take, you know what I’m saying.
Sort of. I can’t totally grasp how it stays in time.
Well, it stays in time because real time the drums are still there, but the source material is gone, so you’re only hearing the effect that was coming off the drum track. So it’s still all in time. It’s just—do you understand what I mean.
The source has been eliminated?
So that’s how it stays in time. Because it’s still the same tracks, it’s just coming through a different microphone.
What about on a track like “Uhuru,” there’s a lengthy drum interlude—
That’s just straight-up playing, really.
Pretty much. Improvisation, I guess. That’s just how I express myself.
Which track best represents you as a solo artist?
Honestly, I really couldn’t point that out, you know what I mean? And at the same time, too, I really wouldn’t want to, you know, because I don’t really think like that, you know, I don’t have any rules for myself or any kind of thing. Anything can change any time, depending on where I am in my life. Ultimately, my music’s a reflection of where I’m at, so that could change any day, so I couldn’t really say.
How about structure and planning songs out: Is that your approach?
Oh yeah, definitely. … Everything on the records, as chaotic as it sounds and whatnot, or as out there as it is, is definitely intentional. There’s not like, “Oh, whatever dude. That sounds crazy.” Every single thing that’s happening there is meant to be happening.
What about electronica music? Which artists do you listen to?
I’m really into Autechre, that’s the main one. And some of the more obvious artists like Squarepusher and that. But recently I’ve been getting into producers in that realm, like this dude Clark. I really like his newest release [Turning Dragon on Warp records]. But I would say the biggest one is definitely Autechre.
Do you ever use drum machines?
Not really. Hardly ever. Like I said, my approach when trying to achieve something like that, I always start with the real drum set, affecting that, and then if I want to take away the real drum set the sounds still is organic, even though it sounds affected.
Where was the album recorded and produced?
At Retrofit, on 19th and S streets. That’s pretty much where I’ve done 90 percent of the records I put out.
Do you take your time? How do you work?
It kind of depends. Every one’s pretty different. With this record, it was definitely one of the hardest, most grueling of processes.
Why was that?
It was just an extreme amount of work. In so many ways, when you’re doing all that stuff by yourself, ultimately there’s not too many second opinions, and you’re starting at eight in the morning and finishing late in the night every single day. Getting it done. And then also when you’re having guests play on things, particularly the list on this record, you don’t just call the people and go “Oh hey, come down today.” [Laughs]. It’s not that easy, even if people want to do something, getting people together and into town and then also being DIY about it and not having resources financially—I mean, dude, it’s a lot lot lot of work.
Is that restricting?
I don’t think so at all. I guess you could say that in a certain sense, but I try to look at it on the opposite end, and that’s makes what I make, it’s having those restrictions and forcing me to find other creative ways to do the things I want to do. If I had all the resources in the world and stuff it wouldn’t come out the same way, so I try to embrace doing it myself.
Which collaborator surprised you?
Everybody that’s on the record are people that I’ve been friends with for a long time, and for the most part I’ve played music with before, several times, and beyond being musicians, they’re my friends. So there wasn’t too many experiences where I didn’t know what to expect or anything like that.
But I would say, in so far as really being blown away, Marco Benevento, who plays on the bonus disc with the record, which is a half-hour track. And if I was going to point something out, that I was amazed by a particular performance—and I was amazed by everybody—that particular one was an insane thing, just because I had that drum track, that I did by myself, a half-hour piece where I had been improvising, just one take. So Marco came in and basically was—it was pretty comical, actually. He was like amped up and all he wanted to do was record and do this. Literally, he’d been at the studio for like three minutes, five minutes, and we already had the piano all mic’d up, and I was trying to explain to him the length of the track and trying to give him direction, because seemingly it wasn’t walk-in-the-park type stuff. But he was just like “Roll it. I’m ready. I want to do it. Don’t tell me about it, just play it.” and was really adamant about not knowing anything about it and just sat down and ripped through the whole thing, a half-hour track. It’s kind of one of those things where you just have to see it and be there, but it was just pretty insane.
You used it?
Oh yeah. One take. A half-hour. Oh yeah. That’s what I mean. That’s long, dude. You know what I mean? He was out there screaming, loving it, smiling. I mean just really going. And like I said, we got there, he put down his backpack, sat and was like “roll it.” Literally. It was definitely like “Holy shit!”
What’s it like being a musician in Sacramento?
Well, it plays a big role, really, in so far as just being from here and staying here and stuff. Well, that’s kind of tricky. I mean, there’s a reason why I stay here, as far as throughout the years not moving, it seems like the majority of people I know who end up doing things on an international level or gain any modest success in a certain kind of way that are from here naturally end up moving on, because they feel that’s what their path is.
I’ve chosen to stay, consciously, for a number of reasons. And one of them, basically, I guess … well, I don’ t know. I feel like when you’re from a place and you’ve grown up in a place and you have so much history in a place, just being around since you were 16, so many stories, I find it inspiring. I don’t know, I’m pretty grounded as a person and like being rooted where I’m from and I like being kept—I don’t know. It’s just humbling staying where you’re from, seeing people from sixth grade and joking about taking acid playing soccer all night on the tennis courts and shit or whatever. That’s really important to me, as far as seeing the people who are the biggest part in my life on a day-to-day basis and seeing my family and being around those people.
At the same time, I’m so busy touring and doing all these things that I don’t get out enough to where I’m OK with being here, as my home.
It’s also weird, because consciously I don’t play around here that much. I like to incorporate this place into the music that I make, but I like to keep it separate, kind of, from like just being a musician or a drummer.
You don’t perform that often in town.
It’s true. For one thing, there hasn’t been too many places to do that, and also when I’m here I feel like a totally different person than when I’m out doing what I’m doing. Not a totally different person, but at the same time I definitely like to keep this place my regular, everyday, not-band-life kind of place. Just doing my regular things, hermitting up, practicing, being creative and making things and stuff. A lot of times I don’t feel the need to be in front of people when I’m at home or something.
Do you put in a lot of hours practicing, experimenting?
Oh yeah, I practice pretty much every single day. I mean, when I’m home, that’s all I do, really.
But, yeah, I switch up my setup quite a bit, for a number of reasons, really. To introduce new ideas and different approaches to what I’m doing and stuff.
Are their restrictions to what kind of gear, sounds you’ll experiment with?
I think that that’s something that just kind of happened naturally for me, in so far as having a limited access to new things and new gear and not being able to keep up financially with a lot of things I’ve gone through. Ever since initially starting to play, I’ve always just played on beat-down shit, so in a way I’m most comfortable on stuff that’s rickety or has personality or different character than just a brand-new set and just playing the same set every day. It’s exciting to adapt new ideas to a different drum set.
Are you cool with having a producer messing with arrangements after doing this album?
Oh definitely. I wouldn’t have one if I didn’t want that, because that’s what it’s all about to me, having a second opinion and people doing things, basically editing you, because sometimes it’s hard to self edit. I’m really fascinated and interested in working with somebody who can say “I think you should do it like this” and have a whole new perspective on what it is is exciting to me. Especially someone who’s known for being in a genre that’s totally different from what I do, but is more and more what I’d like to be doing, which is hip-hop music and electronic music, in an experimental sense. Because also, primarily the strength in that music comes down to the beat and the power of the beat. So me being a drummer, it seems like a natural path to get into music like that and work with someone who understands the power of the rhythm and the beat, and see what kind of approach they take on what my understanding of that is.
How has Sacramento changed in your eyes over the years?
Oh, it’s very different. Haha. Very very different. In a lot of ways. Are you from here?
I am, but lived away for a while.
OK. Umm, well it’s different in ways that have nothing to do with music, of course. The development. A lot of the, well, I don’t know what to call it, the homogenization or something.
So you can rehearse and wail on the drums and not get bothered.
Well, I’ve been fortunate to have people who are really supportive to what I do and have helped me out by letting me practice at places.
But it’s changed in a lot of ways. Musically tons, as well. I don’t know, I love this place. There are millions of talented people and great bands and things like that. It’s definitely lacking certain things and stuff, but I don’t really know how to express what that is without …
Maybe not lacking, but there’s definitely like a weird—Sacramento’s trippy, because it always had these huge waves that happen, where—and I’m talking about the music here—there’s these periods where it’s like all the shit’s happening, it’s really exciting, all the bands are really united, there’s not too much ego, there’s not too much competitiveness, it’s all one, everybody’s playing one place and shows are going off, out-of-town bands are coming through and locals are opening up and it’s like really an exciting time. Then it feels really strong, and bands get recognized.
Then all of the sudden—and usually it’s because the rug gets pulled out from under wherever the place is—and then it gets kind of rattled and then it’s dead. And then it happens again. But I feel like definitely it’s been a while. I feel like the enthusiasm and the spirit—and I’m guilty of it, too—in so far as having a real strong scene and bands working together and doing their things, it is happening on a certain level and stuff here, but I just feel like it doesn’t have. Well, that Luigi’s place just opened, so maybe it can support something like that, but the scene hasn’t had a support system to build something like that up, I would say sense Fools Foundation. So therefore it’s been feeling pretty scattered to me, to where it’s not too strong.
But that also has to do with having a place, but having someone book it who understands music outside of this town, and knows how to bring band through and knows we should have locals opening up, at least one, on every show. There’s a definite system to building it up.
And it does ebb and flow.
Oh yeah it does, definitely. And I feel like maybe with all the cool bands that are on the house circuit and stuff, that maybe with a new place it could get strong real soon, but I definitely feel that it’s been kind of “ehh.”
Another thing I noticed is a lot of the shows, and not all of them, for the most part things are so tame, and audiences seem so, like, I don’t know, even like a few years ago, just six years ago, I remember every single show I would go to was really wild, people were into it, it was an event, people were dancing, whatever. It was high-spirited, enthusiastic. And now it seems that every show I go to people are sitting on the fucking floor. Or outside, getting wasted. Everybody wants to see this band, and then that bands playing but no one’s even in there watching it. I don’t know, it definitely feels like there’s an ADD plague in here, kind of, in a weird way. But that’s not everybody, and don’t quote me without saying that I feel guilty of it myself and stuff. I’m not like pointing the finger or anything, it’s just what I’ve noticed.
And here’s another interesting thing that I’ve noticed: Say back when solid things were happening, particularly when Capitol Garage was in its heyday or even Bo Jangles and the Cattle Club or any of those places, when a house show would happen outside of those places, then like house shows were like crazy. It was a party. It was an event. It was really fun and exciting and spirited and magical stuff happened. So now it feels like Sacramento’s in a groove that every show’s a house show, so it’s just like “blah blah blah.” “Whatever.”
But that’s the thing, too: I love it.