Wednesday, March 17, 2010

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 Devoand 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 theAstrological 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.”

- Scott Morrow

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Interview - Cathy Pellow of Sargent House

I'm on an interview kick right now, not sure why! Have been taking many many videos and will be uploading them all shortly.

Cathy Pellow (Sargent House)

Interviewed by: Linda Ferreira (09/05/09)
Interview by Adam Pfleider:

Usually management, publicity, and labels are separate entities in the business. Since every other rule is changing under the umbrella that is the industry these days, who says you can’t do it all. Cathy Pellow is doing just that. Pellow began Sargent House in 2006, beginning with the release of Rx Bandits’ …And the Battle Begun – whom she was managing as well. Since then, the label has seen releases from artists such as These Arms Are Snakes, Russian Circles, Good Old War, Maps and Atlases, and their youngest signing, Native. With her already snowballing success, Pellow now manages Omar Rodriguez Lopez’s imprint Rodriguez Lopez Production. She took time out to answer some questions via e-mail about the beginnings of Sargent House, its business models, and more importantly, the label’s creed and code.

When and how did Sargent House come to be? Which signer was the first to snowball the apt amount of talent that is now Sargent House?
Sargent House came to be when I needed to rescue RX Bandits from the limbo situation they found themselves a part of in 2006. They did not want to continue on the label they were on, but needed help to get off. Then they had no way to put out their record …And the Battle Begun. I was their manager and so I became an accidental “label” out of necessity. I just went for it. I got distribution and printed the album for them. Once I did it, I realized it was way better to put out the record this way, where we were able to do what we wanted, how we wanted, when we wanted. Then, to be able to actually see the band get money from their album for the FIRST time ever in their career, I thought, "Wow, I’m onto something here," and it was settled, Sargent House the label began. The whole chronology of Sargent House is actually up on Wikipedia. It just appeared recently, and I was stoked on how much they got the order of things right!

Is Sargent House more of a label or more of management group?
Sargent House is a music company that happens to also put out the records of the bands we manage. We took the matter of releasing our artists' albums on as a way to help them retain control of all aspects of their music careers. We are what the future of Indie labels should be in my opinion. There is no “Us against Them” mentality here that often takes place between bands and their management versus the record label, because we all start on the same side to begin with – the side of the artist. We are partners with our bands, sharing the same unified goal, which is to retain the integrity of the music and to grow and develop them so that they will be able to support themselves as musicians. Recorded music is now just a fraction of that puzzle. We don’t see records’ Soundscans as the be all and end all of success of a band. Watching our bands sell out shows is far more interesting to be honest.

SH has a roster that, arguably, is less notable by the public, but contains bands with massive loyal followings. For example, when I was at the Rx Bandits' show in New Orleans in July, I was a bit surprised, but more than relieved, at the attendance of that show. It felt good that in an era of “crunkcore” and “myspace flavor” bands, people still listen to, what I feel, is great music. Is this a general acknowledgment of a fan base for SH artists?
Hearing that kind of observation is the ultimate compliment to us, and helping grow and nurture fan bases is what we help our bands do. We believe very much so in fostering “community,” and have such a great respect and appreciation for the fans of our bands. I will say we have been fortunate over here in that we have really started to see a sort of cult of lovers of all things “Sargent House“ emerge. People who appreciate the kind of music and the ethics of the kind of bands we are supporting and who appreciate the work we do for them. I think a lot of labels really lost touch, or never make an effort to interact with the people who are the most important of all: the fans of the bands whose music they are releasing. To us, the listener is our friend. They are one of us. They are interested in what we are doing for the same reason it interests us to do it – we all love music!

What has been the response from the listening public in the discovery of new bands through Sargent House based on a roster with a few well-cemented ones? Was the sampler on a success in that?
There is absolutely no question that our roster leads people to find the other bands on our roster. So many people have said, “Wow, I love so and so on your label which turned me onto so and so, and now I just love your whole roster." Things like the Amazon sampler is a perfect example of what I mean by fostering community and not having an "Us vs. Them" mentality within Sargent House. We aren’t sitting here worried about giving away a song, it’s about inviting people in to check out what we think is great music, and in turn they might just find a new favorite, then they will spread the word and so on. The bands are all really communal here to. We all really get along like a big extended musical circus.

For anyone who has ever checked out Sargent House, it’s hard not to stay up on the site’s updated blog. From reading some of your entries, you are not a fond person of illegal downloading. For the sake of a winded debate, I am curious to know your stance on the argument of discovering new music through illegal downloads, but supporting the bands on the road, or downloading first, falling in love, and getting the album later/cheaper at a show?
I am super supportive of anyone who is out there blogging and writing about and recommending music and such, but no matter what, I just don’t believe that giving away an entire album for free without the permission of the artist is respectful -- especially when you can still turn someone onto a band without giving them a whole album download to do so. I understand people’s desire to want to hear the whole album, which is why ALL our albums can be listened to in their entirety in our digital store, and they are less expensive and can be downloaded in any file size you want. We respect the audience, so we were so happy to discover Bandcamp, because it allows you to share the link to hear the whole album on your blog, but it also allows the person checking it out to purchase it from the artist at the same time, should they choose to want to have it in their collection. But really my biggest gripe is with LEAKS because leaking an album is stealing and publishing something that is NOT available yet for a reason. I find leaks to be the most disrespectful thing to do to any band. Let them release their album when they want it to come out, the way they choose. It is their property until they put it out into the world. Then if you want to get it for free, do so after it’s out. But also, the audience really does need to understand that you are 100% hurting the band when you take their album and contribute nothing to them financially. But I understand the downloading quandary of course. And again, it’s why we don’t get all caught up in ONLY the bands' records, but in the touring and merch, etc. [This is] where the band can be supported as well, to sustain themselves and allow them to continue to play music for us all.

Since Sargent House does implicate a full album stream in the HelloMerch store when buying MP3’s of the label’s albums. Do you feel this should be the model for all labels, instead of 30-second clips?
It is the model we believe in. I think if everyone made the whole album available to hear in full, both leaks and Illegal downloading would be reduced. A lot of people illegally download simply because they “want to hear it first,” before they pay.

A big thing about SH that caught my eye was that when purchasing an album as a digital download, there is a “minimum” price for said album, but you can give more. How has this “tip jar” model worked? Have some fans given a few extra dollars?
You know, it’s funny, I never imagined anyone would ever pay more if they didn’t need to, but a lot of people do, and those people to me are really the people who “get it," because that money really does go to the bands here. Every gesture like that helps us all to carry on, and reassures us that this uphill battle of putting out non–commercial, quality music is worth going to fight for everyday – so to all of you that recognize that – thank you so much. It means more than you could ever imagine.

The SH imprint has taken a liking to vinyl as of late. Two prints of the These Arms Are Snakes/Russian Circles split, a grand job on Rx Bandits’ Mandala, countless write-ups in LA Weekly, and after talking with Chase Ortega in New Orleans, and his former work with Pirate Press, why the wax pride?
What can we say, we think vinyl is beautiful sounding and embraces the ritual of loving music, [and it encompasses] big, gorgeous, thought-out artwork. It’s really just the kind of bands we have here. They are “vinyl” bands, not disposable plastic jewel cover bands, so it’s only fitting for them.

How did the management of Omar Rodriguez Lopez’s production company come about?
Sonny Kay, who was partners with Omar in [the now defunct] Gold Standard Labs (GSL) label, was doing some artwork for Red Sparowes, and I had always loved Sonny Kay and his art and his label. I called him to come talk to me about doing some artwork for us here, and in talking to him about what Sargent House was all about and our whole philosophy and style of how we work with our bands and he said, "Hey, I need to introduce you to Omar, he wants to have his own label again, but he needs you to do it with him!" So Omar and I got together, and after our first four-hour conversation, we agreed that we were mutually crazy in the best of ways and committed to things in a way other people just don’t understand. We both truly love what we do, and can’t stop – so we share that bond and our overall view on creative freedom. I have so much utter respect for uniquely creative people, and I myself am extremely creative. I just happen to apply it to the way in which I see doing business, while he applies it to recording and making films and art. I am honored to be able to help people like Omar, and all my bands for that matter, be freed up from dealing with the “business" side of things so that they can do what they do best, and that is to make beauty for all of us to enjoy! I’m happy to say that Sonny Kay is also here with us full time as head Creative Director. He now creates the majority of the beautiful packaging you see on our vinyl and CDs, including the RX Bandits’ Mandala packaging, which is some of my favorite.

Sargent House is growing with talent, without question, but what is next, or do you take every new venture as it comes?
We take it as it comes. We just want to stay true to our bands, and not grow so big that they get lost in any shuffle. We don’t ever want to give into trends. We act from our hearts and use our gut instincts. I’m not ruled by record sales statistics and focus group opinions. I make my assessments at the live show – that is where Great Bands are found. I think the music business is really interesting to be in right now because all the old rules are no longer applicable. I’ve never liked rules made up by old men, so the guerrilla, "make your own system and go for it" thing has always been my kind of music business. The Cream will rise to the top, and I believe that Cream is real, honest musicians making music that is true. So, RIP Autotune, and gimmicky bands – you would never be welcome over at Sargent House.