Features I by I 20.05.13

Catching Zs: the avant-garde Brooklyn outfit on regrouping, remixing and musique concrète

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Don’t be hoodwinked by the name – if you’re looking for a band that’s impossible to nod off to, Zs are the fellas.

Formed by disillusioned jazz students Sam Hillmer and Alex Mincek at the Manhattan School Of Music, the Brooklyn outfit have spent the last decade-odd building a channel of communication between the city’s high music circles and art-rock scene. Over the years, they’ve proved themselves to be eternal halfway men, determined to outrun expectations and evade purchase. They’ve undergone regular line-up transfusions, swelling from a duo to a six-piece then downsizing to a trio (Hillmer remains the only constant). They’re a valued (if marginal) part of the NYC jazz conversation, and yet they’ve shared bills and studios with Battles, Gang Gang Dance and Genesis P-Orridge. Their signature sound, honed from 2002-7 and collected on last year’s rapidfire Score box set, is similarly difficult to pin down – a bumper-to-bumper collision of free-jazz, prog and US hardcore, simultaneously venomous and prim. Subsequent releases have seen them sprint into even more unusual territory: witness 2010’s thundering New Slaves, a scandalously underrated noise-rock record.

New EP Grain marks another change in personnel, with saxophonist Hillmer joining forces with guitarist Patrick Higgins and drummer Greg Fox. As with so much of the Zs’ work, Grain cocks a snook at conventional ideas of what being a “band” even means. The EP sees Higgins and Fox independently remix the last extant recording of the previous Zs line-up, producing two churning collage pieces from recordings of their immediate predecessors. However you take the release  – a tribute, a parody, a countermand, or something else entirely – it’s a beguiling Frankenstein’s monster, variously redolent of Keith Fullerton Whitman and Black Dice.  With Grain on shelves and a new album due in the Autumn, FACT sat down with Higgins to discuss DJ culture, musique concrète and co-ordinating the most ambitious remix project of 2012.

“We were trying to expand the notion of what a remix even means, so that it’s not just a single artist taking one track and producing a new version of it, but from 10 to 16 people simultaneously working on a remix.”

How did the current trio come together, and how and when did you become involved?

It came together basically over the course of the last two years. I had known Sam and the other guys in Zs for quite a long time – the previous guitar player Ben Greenberg’s a really close friend – so my old band used to play with Zs quite a bit many years ago. But basically over the course of the last two years Sam and I were launching our solo projects at the same time. I have a solo project called Bachanalia that’s solo arrangements of J.S. Bach for classical guitar with surround-sound electronics. So I was starting that project about the same time that he was starting his solo saxophone project Diamond Terrifier, and we did a series of concerts and tours together in the United States right around the time that Sam was beginning to consider launching a new line-up for the band. Basically that’s how I was asked to join – by working jointly on our solo records together.

When was Greg involved?

Greg came in about a month afterwards – he was sort of our first choice for a new percussionist, so we called him up and asked if he wanted to do it and was thrilled to do so. He’s also a good friend, so it was an easy move to make.

Looking at Grain: whereas New Slaves was really a record about force and power, this new record is much more cryptic and beguiling. It feels like it’s on a very different plane to the previous full-length. How do you think that change has come about, and why?

The Grain EP in particular was more than anything a sort of studio experiment for the first release for this new line-up. Our method for producing that record was actually taking the last live recording of the previous trio of Zs, with Ian Antonio and Ben Greenberg and Sam Hillmer, and we used that as source material. In other words, like a sort of musique concrète array of sounds from which to take samples and compose a new work of electronic music from that. Basically, it was an opportunity to try and digest and reprocess a previous incarnation of the band as the first release contribution of the new ensemble, and using sampled material as an opportunity to compose new work, but that had an immediate connection to the new line-up.

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I’m wondering how that relates to your Bach project – the idea of taking extant materials and remixing them, in a way.

Absolutely, that’s something I’ve been very much interested in both as a composer and a performer over the last few years. The notion of revitalising or recontextualising historical works or past works in ways that are more than just redoing them, but somehow taking them on as an immanent component of what you’re trying to do in the present – and as a result hopefully breathing new life into them.

How do the strategies you’ve gone with on this EP relate to the more conventional way in which jazz operates as a ‘standard’ system – where classic set texts are endlessly reinterpreted? Does your approach resemble that?

I think it might to some extent. I suppose the only difference would be that there’s no formal generative principle in the same way that there would be with a jazz standard, where you have a given melody and a given set of chords that have to be cycled through and that the soloist solos against. So instead, it’s almost taking the end result of a previous improvisation and, again, using that as a concrète musical starting point, just on the level of their sound – in other words, timbre, texture and pitch – but then using those almost as you would set up a palette to create a painting. So whereas improvising within a jazz standard is more akin to running around a track at different speeds or in a different lane of the track, the racing track is already there. In this case, there was no formal map that was already there. What we took instead were sonic textures and pitches and rhythms and used that to create something entirely different. So while to some extent it could be related to that tradition, I think it’s importantly different in that respect – precisely because it is generative rather than just improvisational.

Did your cut-up and musique concrète approach necessitate less instrumental playing in the making of the album than previous Zs record would?

It certainly did for this one, but then of course this record is very different from the music that Sam, Greg and I are writing and performing now, which is our ensemble music which is all instrumentally based and all performed live. That’s stuff that we’re going to be recording this Fall. So the Grain EP was very much a studio record that’s not intended to be performed.

Moving on to performance, can you tell us about the live multimedia-remix project the band have been working on in recent years?

Yeah, absolutely. That’s a project called Score, which takes the same title as the recent box set that we released of the first five years of the band’s material. So that project was an attempt to try and think of a way that we could put out this box set, but not make it seem as though we’re trying to historicise or canonise the early era of the band, and try to make the release something more than a historical document. So we wanted to make it an opportunity to invite fans and collaborators and audience members to take part in the release of the record in a different way.

How that wound up manifesting was as a live remix project, where people would come in and have access to downloading all of the tracks on that record, and produce a remix on the spot. We would take an audio out from their computer and run it into the master mixer in the art gallery, and then one of the members of the band would always be controlling this sort of improvisational master mix of everybody whilst they were working at this table. Then we also had our instruments set up around the perimeter of the gallery space, and we’d do live improvisations that reacted to the room mix that was going on from all of the various people working on their laptops. Then, at the end of each day, each remixer would produce a single remixed track, which was then printed on these little button MP3 players that a group out of New York called Playbutton had produced for us. So it also by the end resulted in a concrete musical object, as well as being part of this ongoing live gallery performance.

“We’re adding a new soundsystem element to the band – doing lots of live stereo processing, but it’s all really deeply grounded in traditional composition.”

This notion of remixing seems to have been a recurrent concern for the group, including the New Slaves remix album – was that the first Zs remix record?

I think they released a remix record of Arms before that, but the New Slaves II one was the first prominent remix record. It’s certainly become something that we’re interested in in this last year I think especially, trying to think about remixing – though in different way to how DJ culture tends to think about it. In other words, on Grain for instance, we were remixing ourselves. We were remixing a previous version of the band, and trying to do this less as a remix and more as a sort of recomposition – taking samples and using them to create absolutely new works that bear no resemblance to the original whatsoever, except in the fact that they’re sourced from the same sound file. And then in the case of Score, trying to expand the notion of what a remix even means, so that it’s not just a single artist taking one track and producing a new version of it, but from 10 to 16 people simultaneously working on a remix which produces an immersive sound-art piece but also results in this whole proliferation of new versions of our work by the end of the day.

In the last decade, Zs have often been mentioned in the same breath as the Brooklyn scene, or the more experimental end of indie or Noise – is “DJ culture”, as you put it, something that has any bearing on the group? Is it something you’re interested in in practise or in theory?

I think yes and no. What we find interesting about that is…the simple answer is yes. What we have an interest in there is again a kind of musique concrète style where there’s not an abandonment of rhythm or of rhythmic motifs. In other words, using sample-based technologies to create rhythmic textures and rhythmic profiles, but doing so in a way that’s not geared towards just producing dance music but also potentially art music, which is our interest.  

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There’s variation in personnel on both sides of Grain. How do the two halves relate to one another? I guess they’re too discrete pieces in a way.

They very much are two discrete pieces. Their relationship is that they’re sourced from precisely the same initial samples, so what I think is so interesting about the way that record came out is that the two records are absolutely different results but begin at the same points. They begin with the same source material and show two possible outcomes – they show two very different interpretations or two very different end-points, given the same staring point. So the Side A was the side that I composed, and Side B was composed by Greg Fox, the new percussionist. So the throughline really is that they are taken from exactly the same initial sample but wind up ending in very different places  sonically, and in a way that also has something to do with articulating the different musical personalities that Greg and I both have.

Are there any particular artistic influences that you feel have come through on your side?

I don’t know, to be honest – I have a hard time answering that in particular for this record, given the nature of how it was produced. In other words, it’s very different from when I normally compose music, whether for a chamber music ensemble or for a band like Zs or something. This was a very singular experience as far as composition was concerned, because there’s much less of a desired sound or particular kind of style I was trying to synthesise, and much more it was about thinking how I could transmute and transform these samples to create an entirely new kind of work, so it was really much more introspective than it was a question of trying to look to other sounds and influences.

“The Grain EP was very much a studio record that’s not intended to be performed.”

You mentioned the new album is on its way. What stage is it at, and what’s the process currently like?

The process for that full-length is almost the diametric opposite from how we made Grain. It’s been entirely based on more traditional compositional styles and live rehearsal and live performance. It’s all going to be material we started working on about a year ago, and the way we’ve been developing the record is actually by writing all of these pieces and then touring them relentlessly for the last six months. So we did two tours of the Unites States and Canada, then did a tour in Japan, then did this long European tour, and on all of those concerts we were basically developing this new material live in front of an audience. So even though we started out with compositions we had rehearsed, by the end of that the touring schedule the pieces had changed as a result of having to present them night after night after night in a performance setting. So the music there is guitar, saxophone and percussion, the traditional Zs instrumentation, but one of the differentces now is that we’re running everything through live manipulated electronics, both analogue and digital. We’re adding a new soundsystem element to the band – doing lots of live stereo processing, but it’s all really deeply grounded in traditional composition and human performance. But we’re trying to add this sort of electronic element to it that’s much more about enhancing and expanding the scope of our instrumental possibilities, as opposed to something like Grain where it’s entirely derived from electronics. In our live work and in the record we’re going to be recording, the electronics are very much an extension of the instrumental practice.

What kit are you using?

My guitar generates three signal outputs while I’m playing, so I run one line into a laptop which has a stereo delay algorithm that pans the sound of the guitar very quickly from left to right at different speeds. I run another line through an analogue board that’s a series of modular synths and harmonics processing pedals and so on. Sam does something very similar, but without the laptop – he just runs his sax through a pedal board. And then Greg the percussionist, of course, has a drum kit, but also uses a laptop where he runs Ableton Live, and then has a two-part triple oscillator on an exposed RedBoard – that’s basically an analogue synthesiser, and he uses that to create very complex and also rhythmical drones, because of the six different independent oscillators on it.

What are you working on in a solo capacity?

Right now I’m composing a lot of chamber music – I write for a group called the Mivos String Quartet, I’ve been working with them quite a bit, working on lots of other avant-garde classical compositions, and then I also have a solo guitar practice, both the Bach project and also a solo electric guitar project called Stereo that’s all about utilising quadrophonic speakers to create immersive surround-sound guitar work, and I do a lot of finger-tapping and rhythmically and harmonically complex works for that.

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