Sam Hilmer is one of the purveyors of daring, free-minded, sound-manipulating experimentalist local outfit Zs, and it’s fitting that the seriously bearded saxophonist would refute the generic “post-minimalist, neo-no wave, industrial noise” descriptor tossed at the band he shares with guitarist extraordinaire Ben Greenberg and drummer Ian Antonio and opt for his own genre: “Zs is Zs.”
For a decade, Zs has clung to that “It’s Zs” philosophy, constantly reinventing then retiring its music from the live setting. At this weekend’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry festival, Hilmer and Greenberg will debut new material from their forthcoming LP, cryptically entitled Xe.
But Hilmer has a hell of a lot going on besides Zs. Under the nom de plume Diamond Terrifier, the sax-slinging Hilmer composes a storm of apocalyptic skronk waves of both face-ripping and hypnotic proportions; in the fall, Northern Spy will release his solo debut, KILL THE SELF THAT WANTS TO KILL YOUR SELF.
Sound of the City caught up with Hilmer at Williamsburg’s Zebulon, where he books killer gigs every Tuesday evening and usually performs as Diamond Terrifier.
You’ve been booking the PRACTICE! gigs at Zebulon for a while now.
I’ve been doing stuff here at Zebulon since November . Zebulon is an amazing venue that does awesome stuff and lots and lots of people want to play here. The Zebulon vibe—the owners and everyone who works here—are really warm with people who bring the kind of music and the vibe and energy they want at the spot. It’s a very familial attitude. They’re pulling it off and it’s pretty singular. It [my booking] started as every other week, then, in February it became every week. My hope would be that I could get it going to a point where I can step away from it and it would seem reasonable for it to keep going. But that’s a long way off, and in the meantime I’m having an awesome time booking the nights!
You play in one incarnation or the other, either solo or with collaborators, every time you book a show. You just played a duo set with Kid Millions and you have one with Weasel Walter later this month.
I do. But I’m backing off that now. I literally called the night “PRACTICE!” because I was building up a solo set, and I was doing just that, practicing. So much of the evolution of the music I’m involved with happens in front of an audience. It’s like you write, you get it conceived in your mind you feel like you can do it. But most of the learning that happens about how the music should actually be, takes place on stage. So, getting ready to put out this first solo full-length, I just wanted to be in that situation as much as possible.
Will your solo album be under the Diamond Terrifier moniker and released by Northern Spy?
It must be trippy to have Ben’s Hubble project, your solo record and Zs stuff all on Northern Spy.
Yeah! It’s intense, but they’re awesome and we’re stoked to be building so deep with them!
Is the new Zs full-length coming out on Northern Spy, as well?
That is uncommitted. There’s nothing written in stone where that record is going. But N-Spy has been awesome! I think they’re doing an amazing thing with that label. They’re choosing really solid music that’s kinda set apart from a lot of what’s coming out of Brooklyn right now. The bands they’re rolling are deep musically, have legit followings that are stoked on it, and N-Spy are consolidating all of it under one roof, and they’re running it like a regular indie label, not like some kind of rarified, grant-based, secret avant music affair. It’s a good look…
So the new Zs record isn’t in the deal?
It’s not in the deal. We did the 7-inch with them, the two solo records, we’re doing a box set of the complete Zs catalog from 2001 to 2006, we’re doing a project which is 100 remixes of that material and we’re doing an EP of new material separate from our new full length record, which will be called Xe [pronounced Xe].
Diamond Terrifier at the Rotunda in Philadelphia, April 2012
How did the Diamond Terrifier concept come to you? There was a song on Zs’ New Slaves LP entitled “Black Crown Ceremony I: Diamond Terrifier.”
The New Slaves album was unique in our output in that there are tracks on that record that feature each individual as a composer and a performer. So, “Gentlemen Amateur” was Ben’s track and my track was those two at the end. So the ground work Diamond Terrifier began in Zs around the New Slaves record and the touring that happened for that record. So for me, when I came out of that and was like “I’m gonna make the solo thing into a legit project,” I took that name [Diamond Terrifier] and kept it moving.
You just came back from a tour. Does Diamond Terrifier improvise or do you do rehearsed material?
I have a set. Sometimes, I do other things. But I have a set that I’ve been honing in.
Are you into improvising?
Oh, sure, of course. There is a lot of improvising happening in the set, but it’s also a pretty choreographed thing.
Weasel, a collaborator of yours, is an improviser.
Really a cool guy. He’s an old, old friend and major, major supporter of Zs. [Zs have] played a million shows [with him] and he’s helped us out in a lot of ways. When we first started playing in 2002-’03, we met Weasel pretty early on. We met him at SUNY Purchase.
Was he doing Flying Luttenbachers at the time?
He was in the middle of doing Flying Luttenbachers. We’ve been tight ever since. He did do some stuff with Zs. He was on the Essence Implosion! record and was really involved with it. Weasel is doing four out of the five Tuesdays in May with me [at Zebulon]. It’s really awesome. He’s got Elliot Sharp, Paul Flaherty and Peter Evans coming through—gonna be a deep hang.
Do you categorize Diamond Terrifier as “jazz?” You have the saxophone…
No [Laughing]. That’s the thing: the way in which the saxophone is bound up with jazz music has been a career long obstacle for me. I don’t really seek to situate myself as a jazz player or in that community. No commentary or judgment, you know, but the frame is just not interesting for what I’m doing. To me, it’s not interesting—the values that are espoused. I have a lot of experience in that community but I’d rather be around people who are doing interesting stuff with synths and other noise-making objects, things that are less invested in some notion of genre, or a stylistic tradition, or what have you.
But you take the improvising aspect and the saxophone and a duo set with Weasel and it equals…
… jazz. But Diamond Terrifier and Zs—I wouldn’t describe them that way.
I venture to guess you do listen to jazz, though.
All the time, it’s awesome. What a deep tradition of music making in America. It’s just mind bogglingly deep. That said, there’s a thing I realized a long time ago, when I was working more in jazz, which I did a lot of actually. I came up playing straight ahead jazz and I learned to do it fairly well. I was around a lot of people who were doing that, and a lot of my friends from that time went on to be quite successful, good jazz musicians who are really nailing it. But what I realized was that it has crystallized as a medium to the extent that when you push certain parameters beyond certain thresholds, the music sort of automatically becomes not jazz. Millions of people would disagree with me, but, if you do away with swing, do away with changes, and you do away with the quality of there being a head and some sort of variation on that, and at the same time the music you’re making is not free, then, I mean, what makes it jazz? [Laughing]. Other than some sort of base association with the saxophone, it’s like “Oh, saxophone sort of borrows from the sound world of Coltrane or whatever… therefore it’s jazz.” That seems really simplistic. I just had this feeling like all of these variables that I was interested in manipulating and pushing as far as I could, were just going to push me to the outskirts of the jazz community, while on the noise scene, messing around with those same variables is fine—nobody thinks twice about it. But on the jazz scene, then you become this thing that’s like on the scene and in that community but sort of not that thing at the same time, and that just seems like a real painstaking existence to me. I rather be somewhere where it’s just okay to do what I’m doing.
Do you have a descriptor for the music that Diamond Terrifier or Zs creates?
The new thing in Zs is just to say “Zs is Zs.” We’ve been a band for ten years and I think it’s more interesting to just say it’s Zs and you should check it out. Otherwise it becomes this thing where it’s like “post-minimalist, neo-no wave, industrial noise.” That’s not a thing; that doesn’t exist. That’s not real. We’re just trying to identify as us and, for me, that goes right into the solo projects. Why not just say “Zs is a thing?”
In your mind, is Zs, Diamond Terrifier or Hubble any more important than the other or are they all on the same wavelength?
I wouldn’t say any is more important than the other but I think there is a consistent commitment across the board to a specific group of concepts.
Zs will be premiering new music at the Crossing Brooklyn Ferry festival. When did Zs last play live?
Last time we played live was November when 33 came out, the double 7-inch. We played a set that actually was completely improvised.
It’s known you’ve retired some of Zs’ earlier material…
All of it. So far, in the ten years of doing Zs, there’s no revisiting anything. It happens for a number of years then it’s gone.
Is that agreed upon by you and your bandmates?
It’s kind of like, the whole thing is just this one process of writing this music. What was happening at our first New Slaves show versus what happened at our last show was night and day. So, the whole four-year period from sitting in the room with nothing to playing ninety minute sets at awesome shows that we were stoked on [Laughing], it’s kinda just this one thing like getting from A to B. Then, at a certain point, it becomes like a law of diminishing returns situation artistically; law of diminishing returns professionally; so it’s time do another thing. That’s sorta all we do. It’s not like we bring back a track from the last record. It’s not like Bruce Springsteen or something [Laughing]. It’s also like the pieces from the last three records are such an investment to have that going on in your life. To play New Slaves, man, was bananas. It’s just physically, emotionally, spiritually totally exhausting.
Is doing a Diamond Terrifier set comparable to doing a Zs set?
Yeah, for sure. This is something that is interesting to both Ben and I—the quality of pushing things to the point of failure. You come up with an idea that can’t really totally work and is actually not totally possible to do. But you establish the intention to do it and by doing that you put yourself in this situation where you get up onstage in front of people trying to do this thing that is not totally possible and not such a good idea [Laughing]. But that’s substance of the art! The industriousness and creativity that arises spontaneously in those moments of failure. You’re gonna do this technical feat but that’s not really gonna happen 100%. But those percentiles where that isn’t happening and you gotta get through it somehow, there’s this sort of spontaneity and creativity, and just some turbo boost that you tap into, and that’s the art. The Diamond Terrifier set is very much about creating that frame—pushing something to the place where it starts to deteriorate and then holding it in that lively margin where things are sort of failing a little bit and you have to manage it. That relates to the name Diamond Terrifier because it’s the English translation of the indo-tibetan god-name Vajrabairahva. Diamond represents that which is indestructible: the thing that scares the thing that is indestructible.
Can you talk about the new Zs music? Is it similar/different to New Slaves?
It’s extremely different. The music has swapped out the extreme abrasive high ends for deep dub lows, and we’ve swapped out the angular jaggedness for deep minimalist trance vibes. The music also has clearer reference points than any past stuff we’ve done, and I’m really psyched about that. Can’t wait to hear what folks think, stoked for the show!
Zs plays BamCafé tonight as part of Crossing Brooklyn Ferry; Diamond Terrifier presents PRACTICE! Tuesday nights in May at Zebulon.