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

Categories: Interview, Zs

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.

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