“We’re more into creating these rhetorical spaces that provoke reflection.”
It should be no mystery by now that we love ZS here at Tiny Mix Tapes. Last year, we awarded the New York City band’s Social Registry LP, New Slaves, the highest honor possible, when we gave them the illustrious number one spot on our world-renowned Favorite 50 Albums of 2010 list. From their 2003 self-titled release to 2007’s Arms to this year’s New Slaves Part II: Essence Implosion!, we’ve eagerly watched them bloom into one of the most radical, unpredictable, and electrifying avant-garde outfits in the avant-garde game today.
ZS recently signed a massive, multi-record deal with the Northern-Spy label, which has the unit and its members’ various side-projects — including Ben Greenberg’s Hubble and Sam Hillmer’s Black Crown Ceremony — dropping six records over the next two years. Maybe you know otherwise, but we don’t think this is a common practice for bands working within the nebulous world of experimental music. This is definitely rare, and it made us curious. We recently caught up with founding member and saxophonist Hillmer for a telephone chat to talk about the wild and wonderful world of experimental music, the band’s composing processes, the lingering mysteries of New Slaves, the upcoming Northern-Spy releases, and ZS’ future plans, which include an orchestra, Africa, and Singapore.
People have a hard time categorizing the music ZS makes. Why do you think this is the case?
We don’t really acknowledge stylistic categories in our lives or in our musical practices, so it’s difficult for people to use that lexicon to talk about the band. We don’t subscribe to any sort of significance to the notion of “classical” or “jazz” or “indie” or “chillwave.” We just don’t think these monikers are substantive concepts. They’re real, and they’re part of the world, and we have to have a relationship with them, but we don’t use them to set our compass.
Most of the time, ZS gets lumped into catch-all categories like “avant-garde” or “experimental.” Are there any genres ZS have been tagged with that you think are helpful in describing the music?
Yeah, those are the standard tags we get, and also “art rock,” “free jazz,” and “No Wave.” We’re always interested in being categorized in surprising ways. We like when people liken us to “industrial” or “minimal techno,” because it doesn’t happen as often. That’s exciting to us.
You’ve said before that you’d rather your music be hated than remain trapped in the experimental music ghetto. Can you talk about this?
That has more to do with the inner workings of the experimental music community and less to do with the public. What I don’t like about that community is that they self-ghettoize. With them, there’s a strange value placed on obscurity; if you’re obscure, then you’re good, because if you weren’t good, people would like your music. It’s a weird inverse logic that says “If we play The Stone on Tuesday and a few ‘cool,’ experimental music people are there, then obviously we’re doing something right.” I completely disagree with this. That’s not what ZS wants to cultivate. It’s not about being obscure or arcane. For us, it’s all about sharing what we’re doing with as many people as possible.
In the past few weeks, there’s been what I consider to be a really fucking stupid conversation going on among the jazz community that was sparked by a questions asking whether jazz journalists need to be jazz musicians in order to be good jazz journalists.
I think that’s a really bad idea for jazz. [Laughs] Jazz shouldn’t be eliminating any kind of attention. They’re sorta doing triage in the getting-attention territory. You know, who cares? That whole discussion around the dichotomy between critic and performer is just… I mean, if that’s what you’re thinking about, then you’ve been asleep for the last three decades. If that’s a real issue, then, critically, the last half-century is just completely down the tubes. That question is nonsense.
It seems like it would just further alienate people from the music by creating an unnecessary barrier for new audiences. It adds an additional quality people must have in order to truly appreciate or discuss the music.
Yeah, that’s a big part of the machinery of the self-ghettoization that jazz and experimental music participate in. There’s this sort of ever-growing, expansive pre-knowledge that people are supposed to have to be able to decide whether or not something is good or bad. All it does is push the music itself toward extinction, which might be what some people want. But if you’re trying to perpetuate what you’re doing, that’s a bad strategy.
“We like when people liken us to ‘industrial’ or ‘minimal techno, because it doesn’t happen as often. That’s exciting to us.”
So, moving away from the internal trappings of the old avant-garde music community, is there evidence of new, more open communities forming?
There’s always been a lot of people down to listen to music, so it’s not really about new communities as much as it is about musicians getting out there to find people who are already interested. There’s social, political, and economic machinery that musicians, especially those in the communities we’ve been talking about, have a hard time negotiating. That can lead to a situation wherein musicians and listening communities have a hard time communicating, but it’s not because people don’t want to hear music. ZS has played all over a large part of the world at this point, and people are down, man! People are down with us! When we go and play, they may not all buy the record, but they don’t walk out of the room either. People are excited to hear us, and our experiences are positive.
So let’s jump back in time to 2010, specifically a song called “Acres of Skin” on New Slaves. That’s also the title of a book by Allen Hornblum about some fucked up experiments that happened at Philadelphia’s Holmesburg Prison. What’s the connection?
Yeah. That’s actually a quote from the dermatologist who performed the experiments. He’s talking about how, when people pitched to him the idea of doing these experiments on prisoners — by the way, he taught at Penn State until very recently — he said something like “I looked out at all these bodies and all I saw was acres of skin.” It’s just the creepiest, most unbelievable thing someone could say about a group of human beings. So, that’s where the title came from.
When you have a song like this, where there’s a direct reference to something, do you go into the composing process with the idea in mind or is the name attached later?
The title of “Acres Of Skin” came after. We want to be politically resonant. We want to try to bring something up and somehow position ourselves in a relationship to current events, and at the same time, we don’t want to be didactic. We’re not gonna make an album that’s overtly political. Our attitude is more about provoking reflection. For that album, we already knew that the centerpiece of the album and the title would be “New Slaves.” The issue of the mass-incarceration that’s been going on for the last several decades, starting with Reagan, I guess, is an important issue for me, and we talk about it in ZS. There’s a connection between mass incarceration in the United States and the legacy of slavery, and while that’s not necessarily what New Slaves is referring to exactly, there is that sort of resonance. We’re more into creating these rhetorical spaces that provoke reflection. But there’s not some sort of conceptual, programmatic side of the music that corresponds with the reference in the title.
Do you ever go into the composition process with some sort of conceptual ammo and then compose around that idea?
The only constant idea for ZS is that we are constantly moving into the idea and never away from it. Our songs don’t really change, but they go into themselves. It’s like looking at something from a particular distance, and then putting the microscope on it, and then putting the microscope on that, and continuing to get closer. We want to continue breaking things down until we’re exhausted or there’s just no further way to break them down, and then it ends.
So rather than reveal something already discovered, you’re articulating the investigative process?
Yeah, that works. There’s this sort of relentless scrutiny that’s producing this procession of changing spaces. I don’t know. It’s hard to talk about. That’s what we talk about, but people should ultimately experience the music however they want.
Back in 2008 or so, ZS retired the pieces on Arms and Hard. Now you’re retiring New Slaves. Why?
We’re retiring the set we played when we were touring the New Slaves material. In this case, though, I’d like to not forget how to play New Slaves. There’s no way we’d ever be able to play the Hard EP again unless we were to relearn it off the record. I don’t remember it. We’d like to be able to play New Slaves again if we wanted to, but the intention is to stop playing it. The only reason we’d play that music is if there was some sort of specific request, but otherwise we’re done with that music. We need to write new music. But when we want to do something new creatively, we have to stop playing the old music. There’s something about keeping that old set alive that forecloses on doing a new one.
You have a ton of releases coming up, and the title of one of them is This Body Will Be A Corpse. Does this title speak to that idea?
That’s exactly what it’s about… leaving this body of work behind us. But it’s also a reference to our actual physical bodies, how we’re all going to expire. It’ll be released in the form of something called a PLAYBUTTON, which is an MP3 player that you’ll wear as a pin that says “this body will be a corpse,” which is kinda funny. The entire New Slaves set is on that pin. It’s a recording from about a year ago of an entire set we played at the Jazz In Willisau Festival in Switzerland. Then flanking it there are a few remixes, an outtake from the Music Of the Modern White EP, an improvised piece with Weasel Walter, Brandon Perry, and Charlie Looker. There will only be 100 of the pins.
And there’s also a tape coming up called Sky Burial. What’s a sky burial?
A sky burial is a way of disposing of the dead practiced in very high-altitude mountain towns in China and Tibet where they take the bodies and feed them to hawks and buzzards and other birds of prey. These are all live recordings made on our last European tour, and they’re only of encores. Something strange that happens when we play in Europe is that we get two or three encores per show. [Laughs] It’s hilarious because we never get encores in the States, where after we play for 50 minutes, people are like, “Okay, that’s enough.” They’re recordings of European encores all made on cell phones and iPods, so they’re super-severe and compressed. Ben and I dumped them all into ProTools and cut out our favorite sections, put it together on two sides, and we’re releasing it on a cassette. It’ll be a gold-plated cassette with only 50 copies, but another 150 copies white, so, 200 total.
In addition to these releases, you signed a multi-record deal with Northern-Spy. Is that a normal thing for, sorry for the expression, “experimental,” bands to do?
No, I don’t think it is. [Laughs] That idea came from the band, specifically me. We have a sort of a division of labor, and I do the outreach stuff with bookers, managers, labels, and whoever. So I had the idea and Northern-Spy expressed an interest. Those dudes rule, by the way! The idea is to articulate what each member of ZS is bringing to the band. We each have multiple projects, but we each have at least one other project that exists in the same world where ZS exists. That was the key. We wanted to bring those projects into a relationship under one umbrella, with one label, and create a series of records that included records by all of those projects, and some original ZS music. It’s sort of like a Wu-Tang model, you know? We talk about Wu-Tang all the time for this reason. So, Northern Spy was down with this, which is awesome!
It’s not like, “Okay, when we’re not doing ZS we’re just all out there gunning it for ourselves.” It’s more like we all do these other things and we’re trying to use the networks we have with each other, and our work with ZS, to contextualize this other work that we do without rendering it in some sort of side-project, peripheral way. That was the idea — to do a series of records with one label, as one gesture.
So you are trying to create a space for each individual to express their own distinct voice as composers.
Yeah, and New Slaves was sort of organized to prefigure this move. Part of the concept there was that we had a group of pieces that we’d collectively written and learned with ZS, but then there’s a handful of pieces that were realized individually. That was really the beginning of differentiating the personalities. So, Ben wrote “Gentleman Amateur,” Ian wrote “Masonry,” and I wrote “Black Crown Ceremony,” the two-part piece at the end of the record. So there’s a blueprint for this phase of distinguishing our voices there. But maybe, in retrospect, once you hear these new records you’ll be able to go back to New Slaves and the old ZS records and hear more clearly what we’re each bringing to the band.
The first thing ZS is releasing on Northern-Spy is a new 7-inch, right?
Yeah. It’s a double 7-inch 45 called 33. [Laughs] It’s an awesomely hilarious format because it begs the question “Why don’t you just put out a 12-inch?” I love that kinda stuff. It’s like old-school, DIY, punk kinda behavior where it’s not about making money, but just doing something awesome. It’s a 45 and somewhere on there it’ll say to play it as a 45, but it says “33.” If you play it as a 33, it’s gonna sound kinda low and warbly. But then if you play it at 45, it’s still gonna sound low and warbly. [Laughs] There’s an aspect to it that’s kind of a joke, but we’re really psyched about it, and it’s a real testimonial to how on-point those Northern-Spy cats are and that they’re down for this!
It’s also the last part of the death trilogy, which we call “the Holy Trinity.” It’s This Body Will Be A Corpse, Sky Burial, and 33. It’s a triptych of weird formats with ZS celebrating the death of the New Slaves set while also celebrating the new work. In my mind, 33 is the year that Jesus died. [Laughs] But I don’t think the band shares that point of view. None of the albums say “the Holy Trinity” anywhere; that’s just what we call them.
And then you’re putting out your work under the name Black Crown Ceremony?
Yeah, that’s me and an electronic musician named Brandon Perry, who also goes by the name Marty McSorely, which is his DJ name at WFMU. This began when we decided to do a non-traditional West Coast tour with ZS. Brandon and I got together and used some remixed tracks of ZS stuff as source material, and we combined them and chopped them up and messed with them to create original tracks. Then we just decided we’d turn it into a band and release the record. All that said, I may actually do that release as Diamond Terrifier, which is just me solo. I have a Diamond Terrifier tape that’s about to come out on Sockets, and I’m pretty stoked on that project, so we’ll see.
What’s the instrumentation for those?
For Black Crown Ceremony, it’s saxophone and electronics. It’s basically like a hip-hop model, like an MC model, where I’m the front person with the mic and he’s spinning and cutting. It tropes very heavily on that. Diamond Terrifier is just me playing saxophone and electronics.
And, finally, there’s going to be a retrospective ZS box set. What’s up with this fella?
I’m really excited about all this stuff, but this one’s gonna be really cool. ZS was a very different band in the beginning. It was a sextet with no electronics and no effects. It began with something like a composers collective model where we read from sheet music. When we were first getting known, that was the big thing people would talk about, that we’d play with sheet music in this punk context. The music was pretty intense and severe, but it was just a very different model. That ended in 2005, and in 2006 we did the Hard EP, which began a new phase. Then, when we signed to Social Registry, we had a big jump in visibility. My impression is that most people who know about the band really only know about the albums we put out with them and don’t know that it used to be a very, very different band. So this box set is bringing that past phase back into the present. It’s just gonna be the sextet. It’ll be called Score: The Complete Sextet Recordings, 2001-2006.
That’s a lot of stuff… So everyone’s branching out expressing their own musical identities, and then ZS, at some point, is going to unite again. Is there any way to predict how these events will change ZS’ new work? What do you envision?
One thing we already know we’re going to do is that we’re going to become a sound-system band. We’re not gonna play through amps. We’re gonna run everything through a mixer and play through a PA. So we’re leaving that model, of playing with amps, behind. We were using four Fender Twins and we blew them all out a bit. They were really loud. [Laughs] We’ve been getting invited to play festivals more and more, and with them, the sound people just mic our amps. So it seems more interesting to us to figure out how to max out a sound-system than letting someone mic our amps.
“It’s not about being obscure or arcane. For us, it’s all about sharing what we’re doing with as many people as possible.”
So it’s not just about minimizing the backline, but there’s a sonic aspect that you want to explore?
It’s both. It’s definitely gonna be a cheaper and smaller backline, but it’s not just about that. One of the consistent concepts of the band is that we operate at the threshold of what’s possible. We write pieces that physically push us such that it’s not a good idea to be on the road for 20 days and play the same set every night. It’s borderline dangerous. The same with volume, whether extremely quiet or extremely loud. We don’t feel like we should limit this “push it to the limit” attitude to anything that we do. We want to be in a venue with this huge, new sound-system and then have to figure out how to blow it out.
We’re also trying to put an emphasis on collaboration and brining other people into the picture when we’re making records. A big split between a record like Arms and New Slaves is the way in which we used the studio on New Slaves as a tool. We want to continue that logic to include even more collaborations. One we’re really excited about, that’s going to be one of the centerpieces of the next full-length, is with a group called Alarm Will Sound. It’s a chamber orchestra that’s worked with Dirty Projectors and Aphex Twin. We’re gonna be doing a lot of collaborative work with them around two new compositions, as well as to do orchestration for the music from the Music Of The Modern White album. I don’t know really what to expect because most of it is ahead of us, but there will be a “ZS with orchestra” vibe on the next record, and a “ZS with soundsystem” vibe, and there will be some performances that feature ZS and all of Alarm Will Sound.
Those are gonna be some big, interesting changes.
Yeah. We had to think of a way to grow after all these releases, so we decided to focus on new collaborations. We can call up an orchestra like Alarm Will Sound and pitch them an idea now to where, like five years ago, someone would’ve said “Ummmm…we’re not gonna be able to do that.” [Laughs] But as with the sound-system, this is about pushing it to the limit. It’s all about pushing it to the limit.
How many people are in the the Alarm Will Sound orchestra, and is it all acoustic instrumentation?
It’s 20 people, all acoustic. We’re going to be realizing the work in a facility that I am not at liberty to announce yet, but there will be a setup to address the sound requirements for when two groups like these get together.
Are you gonna take this thing on the road?
That’s the idea, but not in the typical, play a show and drive to the next gig model. But, in terms of playing around the States and around the world, yeah. That’s what we’re thinking about now: trying to imagine the space where we’re going to record and realize this collaboration, and trying to reach out to venues who want to present it. The response has been great so far. It’s not going to happen for a while, but we want to make sure we have some people supporting us so that when the time comes, we’re ready. Probably late-2013 and into 2014 is when those performances will be.
This is kind of a wanky question, but since you emphasized the importance of collaboration for the upcoming work, I’m gonna ask it. Who are some of the other artists or ensembles you’d like to work with?
We’d like to work with Ensemble InterContemporain. They work at a facility called IRCAM and it’d be cool to do something there. I’m really interested — and this is something that we’re also planning right now — in doing remix collaborations with scenes of electronic producers from the African diaspora. There’s a lot of interesting electronic music coming out of there, and I have a very narrow connection to it, but I’m interested in fleshing that out. Other bands that I’d like to tour with and hang out with are Tinariwen and Group Doueh, and that whole desert rock scene in the Sahara. The twilight desert rockers… those guys are the bomb. There’s also this whole scene in South Africa that’s this sorta electronic rationalizations of traditional South African music, and there’s this whole dance scene around it called Shangaan music. My buddy Wills put out a compilation of it that’s worth checking out.
Is an African tour in ZS’ future?
I’m trying to set this up. That’s another really big priority. We love touring the States and Europe, and playing venues and festivals, but we really want to take what we’re doing outside of the current social logic of indie music. One cool step we’ve made in that direction is building relationships in Asia, and we’re planning to do a project over there. Our current North American booking agent and manager is also an Asian booker, and he’s cultivated a tour route for bands to go for two weeks at a time. It’s not just Japan, but Korea, Singapore, Jakarta, Beijing, and the whole nine yards. We’re trying to make that happen in early-2013. We just wanna go to places where we have no idea what to expect.
Do you see this as another way for ZS to put itself out on the threshold?
Definitely. We want to think about what’s possible, and do it, but gun it as hard as we can to the point where it borders on what’s impossible, if that makes sense. Probably what will end up happening is something that none of us could have planned for, but that’s awesome. Whether it’s writing music or playing it or whatever… that’s the theme of the whole ZS experience.