Zs’ Sam Hillmer on Hating Skronk, and the Possibility of Disappearing Completely


The Kaufman Music Center’s Ecstatic Music Festival began last weekend, and it runs through March. The performers, which include Deerhoof, Julia Holter, Laurel Halo and the JACK Quartet, were selected because they occupy the “fertile terrain between classical and popular music.” Among these so-called fertile-terrain-dwelling artists is Zs, the New York experimental group whose virtues include malleability and disruption.

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Since the release of Zs’ 2010 full-length, New Slaves, a new trio has been born: founding member and tenor saxophonist Sam Hillmer remains, and drummer Greg Fox (ex-Liturgy) and guitarist/electronicist Patrick Higgins have been added. As part of Ecstatic Fest, this trio, plus turntabilist DJ /rupture, play Merkin Concert Hall on Saturday night.

Also this weekend (Sunday, 3 p.m., Public Assembly), is the U.S. premier of “SCORE,” Zs’ new live remix installation. Using songs from Score— the four CD box set released last year on Northern-Spy that collects Zs’ early sextet recordings–as source material, the installation allows remixers to enter the space and make live remixes of these recordings. Members of Zs control how the various remixes are distributed throughout the space using a central mixing board, and these sounds trigger the projections displayed on the gallery walls.

This sounds complicated because it is complicated. Zs like it this way. If you ask them to throw a fastball, they’ll throw a very slow curveball. But Zs just successfully pulled this installation off in Tokyo, so we talked to Hillmer about it, as well as some other recent happenings on planet Zs.

I saw the new trio play a house show in West Philadelphia a few weeks ago. Tell me about this new lineup.
At the end of the last phase of work, the New Slaves phase, we made an overarching plan for our work over a long period of time. That plan includes everything that’s now happening. One of the things that happened, as a function of planning so broadly and ambitiously, was that me and [former Zs members] Ben Greenberg and Ian Antonio realized we’d been doing this thing for a very long time. Ben had been in Zs for eight years, and Ian for six. Everybody saw that the plan made was the right plan for the work, and for the people interested in Zs now, and the people who will one day be interested in Zs. And we realized that we needed a new vehicle for that plan, and that it was time for certain people to go do other things.

Nobody was kicked out, and nobody quit, and we never said we’ll never work together again. But the people who were really down to make the plan happen appeared. And that was Pat and Greg, and we’ve been grinding, and going hard, and vigilantly making this thing happen. They’re the right cats for the job. And nowhere in this equation is there any hard feelings toward Ben and Ian. This is just what’s best for the work that Zs is doing right now.

What are the sonic consequences of this new lineup?
Well, first we decided to stop working with amplifiers. When you’re a band touring the DIY scene in America, and moving your amps every night, that’s fine. But when you start playing other venues, you’re always working with a PA. Rather than bring the amps and have the venues mike them, we just use the PA now. The PA can do so many things an amp cannot do, and you’re foreclosing those possibilities by using an amp. We want to take advantage of the full spectrum of the PA. Now we just tour with our own board and we use the PA. This is a technical point, but it’s changed the attitude of the band.

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How so?
Zs is known for this claustrophobic, severe, dense, No Wave sound. It’s often described, much to my chagrin, as “skronk.” That’s probably my least favorite music journalist vocabulary word. We’re aggressively moving away from that sound. The new sound is very expansive, very expressive, very warm. It sounds like a million bucks on a great PA, which makes a big difference.

Zs is constantly going through lineup changes, but you seem like the central mind behind it all. Is this true?
It’s not, and I try to avoid that language. I know what you’re saying, and you’re talking about something very real, but I wouldn’t describe it that way. I’m more like the custodian of the spirit of the work. I didn’t start Zs; Zs came out of dialogue. We’ve always made a real point to make sure that that dialogue is egalitarian and inclusive. I’m not the central mind, and it wasn’t meant to happen this way. But what did happen is I became the custodian of a space that’s become a platform for a number of amazing people to make their own creative work in a way that advances the mission of Zs. But I’m often very un-central to this process. I’m indispensable, but not central.

Is it possible for Zs to exist without you in the group? Can you imagine a future world where the work requires you to disappear?
I’ve actually been thinking, in a super long term kinda way, about scenarios where this could happen. I think it would be interesting for there to be an autonomous Zs ensemble that performs the works of Zs from the sextet era, and maybe create new work for that ensemble. I’d like it if there were other configurations that could function in that way as well, and I wouldn’t feel like I’d need to be in those groups, maybe just in dialogue with them.

I am always trying to think of ways to “go away,” in a sense. As artists, we are brought up to think of the creative act as something that’s inherently generative, but I try to resist that impulse. There is a phrase from Buddhist teaching that I like, which is “the situation is the wisdom.” This manifests in my practice in a band as a process of creating space for things to happen, rather than making things to fill up space. So there is a kind of intentional absenting of one’s self more and more, leaving just the purest articulation of the idea behind, maybe in a way that involves other people doing things more than it does you doing things. Whether it is possible to take that principal so far that you actually disappear from the situation all together, well, I’m not sure, but if it is, that’s something I’d like to explore.

Okay, let’s talk about some of the new work. Tell me about Zs’ recent trip to Japan.
It was our second time there. It was something we explicitly thought about doing right after the New Slaves phase when we were thinking about new material and what we wanted the new phase of Zs to look like. We wanted to go to Japan to develop deep ties with artists and communities there. We wanted to do a bunch of concerts, and do the “SCORE” installation there, which we’ve been planning since the spring of 2011. We’ve wanted to do more in depth work there for a while.

What type of in depth work?
We did the “SCORE” installation at the Vacant Gallery in Tokyo with the help of a bunch of other entities. There is a big projection component, that we worked on with the visual artist and projectionist Trouble. The tech think tank group Parte helped us a lot with some support by letting us use a web platform they are developing called ToBe, and providing us their Playbutton MP3 player pins, which the remixers loaded their finished work onto when they finished their remixes.

What’s the objective of the installation?
It’s like a big community engagement project. We noticed after years of touring that we get to go to a lot of places and meet a lot of people, but we have a very surface engagement with the people. We play, we sell merch, we crash, and we go to the next place. The “SCORE” project is about engaging with a community; it stands in opposition to those standard tour models. We wanted to meet up with these Japanese cats because we have interest in their work, and they’re interested in what we’re doing. When we developed the “SCORE” idea, it was developed as a way to engage specifically with that community.

Do you think it succeeded in ways that a traditional tour cannot?
Yeah, absolutely. The way the Score installation works is that it invites people into the work. It offers up our entire box set as raw material to make artwork in the context of an artwork that we designed. It’s an evolving piece of sound art made by everyone that’s involved. That changes the dynamic of being in a place. It’s very different to go to a place and create a platform for people to make their own art, and it facilitated us having a deeper relationship with the people in that place.

Can you tell me about how the installation works, and what it looks like?
It’s easiest to talk about it in layers. When you walk into the space, there are long family style tables where all the remixers are set up. It looks like an office with cubicles, except there’s musical gear and wires everywhere–it’s a trope on the typical work space. All that stuff is wired into a remixer at the end of the table, where a member of Zs makes a live composite mix of all the other remixes. People aren’t bringing in their own remixes, they’re making live remixes–looping it, pausing it, adding effects to it, whatever.

The remixers are sitting there with their headphones on doing their work, and we’re getting a signal from each one of them to the mixer that we use by combining the signals to make a sound piece that’s pumped out through the gallery. And there are projections on all the walls, and these images are being run through a software packaged that responds to the sounds. As many as 16 people will be making remixes, and each send a line to our board. We control the volume of what they’re doing as it is played into the space. What we do is sit there and ride the faders on all the tracks and create different combinations of the different works happening in the space. We’re making a tapestry of the other work that’s made.

Why did you decide to give this source material to the remixers, namely the Zs box set?
Zs experienced a jump in visibility when we signed to Social Registry. The albums since have gotten a lot of notice, but we got the sense that people didn’t realize we were a band for five years before we signed with Social Registry. We like that early music a lot, and it’s an important part of our story. We came to the idea that we should re-release it all between New Slaves and our next full-length. But the risk that you run when you do that is that it seems like you’re canonizing yourself. That’s not our intention; we just want people to hear it. We don’t want to become a library item. So while we’re pushing that old work out into the world, we want it to be used as fodder for new creative work being made. It’s a gesture toward the past and the future.

It’s not that this same installation couldn’t work with other Zs sound artifacts. We want this project to be an ongoing thing; all the remixes being made are stored on an online platform. There’s a running log of all the new work being made. At a certain point, I could imagine doing the same with New Slaves and the other albums, and even our next record. By using the box set, we’re just establishing a starting point. Conceptually, the installation can work with any of the records that we’ve made. But since the installation arose in response to the idea of a box set, we wanted to limit it to the material on the box set. “SCORE,” the installation, is a way to frame Score, the box set, and also a way to tear the work apart and make something new with the pieces. Zs is always about the future, not the past.

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Did anything unexpected happen while doing the installation in Tokyo?
Yes. We had to change the definition of what a remix is. There were a lot of people who want to come be part of the installation, but who didn’t have any proper remix practice. They weren’t working on a laptop or sampler, and they wanted to come in and play an instrument and contribute in that way. We were open to this, and we didn’t expect it. We thought we’d be working with DJs and producers. People namely brought in drums and guitars and mostly electronic rigs.

It seems very chaotic. Did you ever feel like things were getting out of control?
It seems that way, but not really. If one of the remixers is making something too loud or noisy or too obnoxious, we can just take them out of the mix. We have control over what’s playing in the space through the central board. It has the potential to be very chaotic, but it can also be hypnotic and mellow and ambient. It depends upon the disposition of the person at the board.

While the installation may not necessarily be sonically chaotic for the performers, it sounds like a very chaotic and complicated listening experience.
One thing we bring into the practice of being in the band is the idea that the music we make should provoke reflection, and cause you to question your assumptions about what music is for you, and what it should or could be. We like to constantly pull the ground out from under the listening experience so that we’re always questioning what the listening experience even is.

As indie and mainstream merges, a lot of what’s happening in the industry is about expediting conception. And this thing resists that. Although, at the same time, we try to have a populous approach, and we want people to hear our music. We equally dislike the avant-garde idea that it’s okay to have 10 people in the room. We try to keep it nebulous and ambiguous and it’s always a process of questioning. We don’t want anyone to think they’re coming out to see the same Zs they saw last time. We don’t want people to know what’s going to happen next.

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