Pushing the Limits
By Eric Garcia
Brooklyn rooted avant chamber rock group Zs play modern compositional punk pieces consisting of polyrhythmic drum harmonies, sax staccatos, beeping guitar lines, and vocals that resemble Gregorian chants. One couldn’t possibly imagine that every single sax skronk drum hit and guitar pluck is written on staff paper. That’s right, sheet music. Live, the band is mesmerizing: seated in a semi-circle facing spray-painted gray music stands twitching and rocking over their instruments. Their set morphs from minimalist dual clapping parts, vocal chants, to gorgeous walls of drone all from the naked platform of a chamber quartet.
Hailing from New York’s growing scene of idiot savants, members of Zs – Ian Antonio (drums), Ben Greenberg (guitar), Sam Hillmer (saxophone), and Charlie Looker (guitar) – perform and collaborate with other virtuosic artists like Mick Barr (Orthrelm), Weasel Walter (The Flying Luttenbachers), Dave Longstreth (Dirty Projectors), and John Zorn while simultaneously keeping other projects afloat, including solo projects, Little Women, Yarn/Wire, The Fugue, and Hunter-Gatherer.
Skyscraper caught Zs on their last tour with lead guitarist Charlie Looker, who recently left the band to pursue his solo project Extra Life. Charlie and Sam Hillmer spoke about their music and how they perceive it. Their latest release, The Hard EP, is being released by ThreeOneG Records in August 2008.
Who composes the bulk of your pieces? Do you guys jam or improvise to find parts?
Charlie: We used to each individually write completely finished, fully notated pieces, bring them in and learn them. Now we write more collaboratively. We talk things out, come up with parts by improvising, et cetera. It has more of a “rock band” m.o. now, although we still use notation.
What should a riff or motif consist of? Could you please explain the composition methods for Zs’ music?
C: I don’t think of what we do as “riffs,” more as “repetition.” There isn’t any essential difference at all, of course, but to me a riff means something which happens maybe four or eight times. We rarely do that. Our earlier music would hardly ever repeat at all. The pieces tended towards a flow of continuous but self-similar variation. The flipside of this is that when we repeat, we repeat material many, many times, so the section becomes a big block. We often refer to long repeating sections as “panels,” I suppose in reference to Modernist art. Anyway, to me the role repetition plays in Zs is not about “settling in” to something; the vibe should be unsettling and trance-inducing.
Sam: I try and listen to the material. You start out with some stuff that you come up with and, if you look hard enough at it, the stuff will propose a direction. I try to go into the material, not away from it; use a really limited amount of stuff and go through it and focus on different aspects of it, and write stuff that brings out the character of what I’m working with. I have said to people that I’m like a guidance councilor for the material I happen to be working with – I like that way of putting it. I try to be really sensitive to the material and let it do what it wants; I try to leave myself out of it. I’m trying to do something for music, not have music do something for me. There are absolutely no systems or crystallized methods of any kind, just intuition, sensitivity, and follow-through.
C: Matt [Hough, Zs former guitar player] writes music where you have to split your attention in, like, five different directions to be able to lock up correctly with the ensemble. One eye is on someone’s foot, one eye is on someone else’s head, you have to count, play, and do other stuff with your body because someone else is looking at you for a cue. The only way to do something like that is to totally turn the mind off. The way I use my mind when I play is less like a mathematician and more like a basketball player who can shoot three-pointers time after time and get them every time. I don’t get it every time, but I’m working on it. The point is: it comes from memorizing a group of sensations you associate with certain experiences and internalizing the information, and then acting from a place of instinct not intellect.
What is your musical education background? Institutional or self-taught?
C: All the Zs guys know each other from Manhattan School of Music except me. I went to Wesleyan University. I majored in music. But Wesleyan is a liberal arts place, not a conservatory, so it’s kind of a different environment – not as technically rigorous, more book-ish and humanistic. Most of the technical nuts and bolts I know about music, music theory, composition, and guitar, I taught myself, with occasional private lessons and consultations with a few deep gurus (Anthony Braxton, Alvin Lucier). In the end, however, I think that no matter how deep one goes or doesn’t go into institutional education, real knowledge always comes from within. All knowledge is do-it-yourself. One can interface with academia as much or as little as one wants, but nothing sticks or works if it doesn’t speak to immediate experience, personal constitution, and real action, things which are always completely unique to the individual. The RZA says, “You have to do the knowledge.” I think real knowledge is active and emanates outwards from people intensely engaging their life; it’s not an object to be consumed passively. Asking about education is particularly relevant to Zs because the sheet music, the sitting down, the saxophone, and the relative complexity of the music all scream out “schoooool”! In fact, education is usually the first thing people ask us about when they talk to us after shows. For me, Zs is doing something subversive with education and with people’s ideas about education and knowledge. I think what we do with our training is a real challenge to the passive knowledge-consumer role which the ivory tower tends to offer students. I think this speaks to people because education is always bound up intimately with power in general, and I think people enjoy seeing elements of school and education playfully fucked with. So, I think there is a political current in the music as well, although it’s not blatant or specifically topical. It seems that punk was/is often about rejecting the idea of education or knowledge, hating its institutional and hierarchical nature. I definitely can relate to this. However, nowadays so many kids who have a punk/D.I.Y. orientation do go to college, and actually finish with honors. And I personally had a blast at college. So, I think Zs’ participation in the scene we’re in is relevant to the idea of subversion as an alternative to rejection of the world of institutionally produced knowledge. All due respect to dropouts, of course; that’s still super-relevant too!
S: I’ve done all that school shit. I was studying from age 12 on. I was in college in high school and all that, went to a conservatory, and even entered a graduate program where I finally blew it off. School is good for accruing information and ability, but art generally goes there to die. If you’re not careful you can get shook by what people tell you and end up buried in a bunch of shit that is really beside the point. I’ve met a number of professors who are really depressing characters. One of them told me I had to choose between playing an instrument and composing. At the moment, people look at school as something you can legitimately be doing, like it’s a job or something. If a barber went to school and only stayed in school and never worked at a shop or anything, we wouldn’t think of that person as real barber; the same goes for musicians, as far as I am concerned. But, when you get up there in the higher levels of education you meet all these people that just want to stay in school forever. It’s really sad and it was draining me spiritually, so I got away from it. Morton Feldman put it best” “Someone can be getting their tenure and be a drop out in art.” Amen.
Your last album, Arms, has been well-received and was even nominated for a PLUG Award. How was the studio experience?
C: The studio experience was amazing. Colin Marston [Time of Orchids, Behold... The Arctopus] is a master. I am more psyched about this record than anything I’ve ever been involved in.
Tell me about your other projects. How they are different? What are their overall ideas?
C: I have a brand new solo project called Extra Life, which I’m touring with starting in February 2008. Ian plays drums for it.
S: I play in a few improvised music projects and solo as Regattas. But Regattas does other stuff, too, with the trombonist Ben Gerstein as Moth, and with Weasel Walter and Mick Barr of The Flying Luttenbachers and Orthrelm, respectively, as Walter/Hillmer/Barr. All of these groups work on developing a rapport as improvisers. I also play with the Scenery Ensemble and the S.E.M. Ensemble, which are more on the classical tip. The Scenery Ensemble is basically devoted to interdisciplinary stuff; we do a lot of work with a theatre company in New York called The Theatre of a Two-Headed Calf and also do some chamber music stuff. We’re doing some of Charlie’s music tomorrow night. I also am just about to start working with the out pop act Dirty Projectors. Dave Longstreth is an old friend; he just moved to New York and it looks like Charlie and I are joining the band. I am excited to be a sideman for once!
Has there been much hostility at shows from the audience? What was the show you felt most out of place?
C: It’s weird, we never experience hostility! When we started this band, I thought we were going to get beat up after shows, but people dig it, even in random places where you wouldn’t expect it. I think no matter how esoteric or rarified your music is, if you present it to people in a positive, respectful, non-condescending way, it’s likely that they’ll get on your page. It’s good to give people some credit.
How has your music caused you to personally grow?
C: For me, it’s hard to answer this question because the music I’m involved in is completely non-separate from my entire sense of my being in the world. I can’t say that it affects me or my life, because it constitutes my life and self-hood on the most basic level. For me, music isn’t a hobby or a profession: it’s a way of being in the world. All emotional, spiritual, political, social, and erotic currents which flow through me flow through the music at exactly the same time. Or at least that’s the vibe I’m trying to get to...
S: Too deep...
Arms (CD/LP, Planaria, 2007)
Karate Bump (CD, Planaria, 2005)
Zs (CD, Troubleman Unlimited/Vothoc, 2003)