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