Zach Hill: Compositional inspirations inform demented tech-pop debut

The style of drumming virtuoso Zach Hill is instantly recognized.  Dropping the jaws of concertgoers, his blazing stick work and hiccupping footwork are as tight and wild as free-jazz legends, but often as punishing as metal beat makers.

A Sacramento resident and founding member of spazz rockers Hella, Hill is among the most accomplished and prolific drummers in the avant-rock community.  Yet before August, he had not achieved two of his oldest goals: transitioning into a bandleader and releasing a solo album.

With the release of Astrological Straits on Ipecac, Hill begins this new journey. Borne from a vision that dates back to when he picked up sticks, this solo life finds Hill changing how others view the role of drummers — as capable of being more than a melody-free cog in the musical wheel.  With Astrological Straits, Hill pushes the boundaries that other drummers-turned-leaders have set before him, and he does so in the form of a demented tech-pop oeuvre.

“Drummers don’t normally put out solo records unless it’s just drums, improvisation, or avant things,” he says.  “But in the sense of being a bandleader in the spirit of Frank Zappa or any of the great jazz bandleaders, it’s really not that common.  Very early on, a goal of mine was trying to achieve something like that.”

And though Astrological Straits is rife with high-profile guests — Les Claypool, Chino Moreno, and Marco Benevento are among them — Hill is the overriding force behind its direction, responsible for vocals, keyboards, guitars, basses, horns, and drums.

The hour-long opus, with a 33-minute freeform bonus disc, is an epic space-math conception. It draws from visionary artists like Devo and Captain Beefheart, laying warped, warbling, alien vocals over the majority of tracks, and employs squeaky effects evocative of electronic artists like Dan Deacon.

Its springing synth sounds, tweaked guitars, fuzzy bass, and convulsive drums lay a strange foundation for bits of classic instrumentation; notably, the saxophone and piano on “Tick On,” the penultimate track, result in one of the album’s most interesting stylistic convergences.

Yet despite Hill’s lengthy instrumental credits, listeners may be surprised to find that his influences are spawned primarily from non-drummers.

“There are so many amazing drummers that I’ve learned from, but I relate to the emotion of certain guitarists or composers,” Hill says.  “The emotion that they can convey through their instruments, I envy so much.  That stuff strikes such a deeper chord with me, but I’m a drummer.  There’s a certain lyrical quality to a more melodic instrument.”

That inspiration led Hill to experiment with harmonics on his drums, creating “inaudible” melodies around which he wrote other melodic parts.  And for as experimental as Astrological Straits is, it stands in stark contrast to Church Gone Wild, his solo effort as part of Hella’s 2005 double-disc release.  For Church Gone Wild, Hill penned a 59-minute, single-track noise jam; for Astrological Straits, which he jokingly refers to as “Church Got Dialed,” Hill scaled back the frantic freeform moments.

“In the past, if there was some crazy shit or some real alien thing going on, I would have been looser about it and more careless,” he says.  “On this album, I was very hands-on and particular about what I wanted to hear.  There are a lot of the same ideas, and in some ways I have a sound of my own, but I feel that I’ve refined [the sound] and what I’ve wanted it to be.  [Astrological Straits] is really intense, but dynamically, it’s a lot broader and a lot smarter of a record.  It’s a lot more advanced.”

And it’s that dichotomy that causes Hill to struggle with his musical creations.  His trademark free-spazz beats come naturally when he’s behind the kit, but when he’s pulled outside of his musical world, he often finds himself listening to more straightforward or poppy albums.  So for his proper debut album, he opted to make something to enjoy when he’s not that obsessive, zoned-in drummer — when he’s simply riding his bike or doing normal activities.

“It’s weird,” Hill says.  “Sometimes the way that I express myself isn’t parallel to the kind of music that I like to hear.  My personal taste is much different than 70% of the records that I’ve ever made.  It’s bizarre, because everything that I’ve made I love and I’m super proud of, but it doesn’t necessarily line up to my tastes.”

Thus Hill’s confliction between id and ego may ultimately define his legacy as a solo artist.  Known for his dozens of experimental projects and collaborations, and with another proper band in the works, the drumming prodigy plans to maintain his other efforts.

But he is already planning for his second solo recording, which could begin as early as the end of his summer/fall tour, set to feature the Astrological Straits material.  To be orchestrated with a live band that uses samplers, sequencers, and keyboards to fill in the blanks, that tour could captivate audiences with its unorthodox presentation.  More importantly, however, it could redefine Hill as an artist.

“Horn players and guitarists — people like Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman — are so expressive,” he says.  “That goes back to that attitude when you start playing the drums: ‘No, you have to stay in this small fucking box, just chopping wood out there so that other people can do their thing.’

“There’s so much to do with [drums] that hasn’t been done yet; the roles can be reversed.  You can’t do anything outside of the box on the drum set — or go freeform in a pop-structured song — without someone going, ‘Drum solo!’  But if you’re a guitar player or a horn player expressing yourself in free time while others are holding it down, it’s some brilliant shit.  In my mind, that just equates to brainwashed propaganda.”

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