SARGENT HOUSE

Midtown Monthly: Interview with Zach Hill

I’m just going to say it: Zach Hill is the most extreme musician in Sacramento. A self-taught drummer and founding member of the deconstructionist duo Hella, Hill has earned accolades and fans both here and abroad for his signature brand of hyperkinetic drum destruction. 

Hill’s double-kick crunch has found him collaborating with a veritable who’s-who of indie-rock: Marnie Stern, Wavves, The Mars Volta’s Omar Rodríguez-López, Prefuse 73, Deftones’ Chico Moreno, Matmos, Pinback’s Rob Crow, Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier, and Joanna Newsom (to name but a very, very few).

Hill’s artistic endeavors also include his illustrated book, Destroying Yourself Is Too Accessible, (which came packaged with Masculine Drugs, the Zach Hill and Holy Smokes album) and a line of T-shirts for Altamont, the clothing company featuring his graphics.

Currently, Hill splits his time between his solo work, the Japanese drum juggernaut Boredoms, and the rap-punk of Death Grips.

Midtown Monthly: When did you first start drumming?

Zach Hill: When I was about 14, but I got my first drum set at when I was 15. It was this no-name drum set for like $150 from this family in South Sac. It was a white, really bottom-of-the-line, piece-of-shit drum set (laughs).

How was your drumming at that early stage?

Oh, it sucked (laughs). I started out playing fast punk music, but not really knowing what I was doing. I understood how to do certain things in my mind, but I didn’t have the practice or the abilities physically to do the things with the drums I wanted to.

What was the first band you were in?

Technically, the first band I was in was with my friend Julian Imsdahl. We just wrote these really short, one-minute songs. We didn’t have a name. The first “real” band I was in was called Clyde. We actually played a few house shows and these weird hardcore shows and a couple of shows at The Cattle Club. But that was short-lived.

My teenage years were really spotty, because I was living kind of transient. I left home when I quit high school and moved to Grass Valley and Nevada City where Julian and I ended up living on our own. We started this band called Legs On Earth, which is how I met Spencer [Seim], who eventually became the guitarist in Hella. It was this weird chain of events kind of thing.

When did you start Hella?

Well, we stopped doing Legs On Earth because there were drug problems in the band and stuff. We kind of all went our separate ways. I ended up going out to San Francisco – I was living there, but I was working here, basically – and playing in another band called Crime In Choir. That was like 1999 or 2000.

Spencer went away and did this QVC kind of shit where he did infomercial-type stuff live inside of Wal Mart. He was in Indianapolis and then decided to come back. We moved into this house in Oak Park and we started Hella in 2001.


How did you develop your drumming style? You’re a pretty mellow guy, but when you get behind your kit, you go berserk.

Honestly, that’s what helps me to be a mellow dude, because I have that outlet to wield around the other side of me. I have a release, you know? That’s what my draw was to even playing in the first place was recognizing that I needed a release, because I wasn’t that mellow when I was younger.

Do you ever have drummers approach you and ask you, “How do you do that?”

Yeah, pretty often. It’s funny, because I really don’t know how to explain it to them. What I do on the drums is based on feeling or a sensation of doing it, not on thought. It’s physical for me, basically.

I don’t know the terminology to define what I’m doing; I’m not a technical drum geek kind of guy. I just happen to hear certain things and play like that… I just have ideas and I practice them. Everything else is coming from a raw place of energy.

Have you ever injured yourself while playing?

Oh, many times, yeah. I’ve broken my fingers, my knuckles, and my toes. I’ve torn an eyelid with one of my sticks. I’ve hit a tooth out before. I’ve broken my testicles twice coming back down on my seat. It’s very physical.

A lot of the time, playing a show – or even practicing – hurts. But that’s part of the draw for me, because I like pushing myself. The feeling of discomfort or hurting is kind of a familiar thing for me at this point.

How many different projects are you involved in now? It just seems like you are a workaholic.

Definitely a workaholic (laughs). Right now I’m actually trying to consolidate the things I’m doing. It’s really hard because actively – say, in the sense of when I’m going out and playing live – I’m doing my own thing, which means I’m doing a lot of improvisational, more free-form, noise-oriented shows. Death Grips, Boredoms and my stuff are the main bands I’m doing now.

Hella’s still active in the recording sense. We have a new record coming out this summer, but we’re not planning on touring for a number of reasons – we’re kind of doing different things. Spencer’s working for Tim And Eric’s Awesome Show; he’s getting into TV and comedy and stuff.

This year I did this track with this guy, Delicate Steve, from the East Coast. Then there’s this guy, Spoek Mathambo, from South Africa – I played on his record, which comes out on Sub Pop later this year.

I played with Justice Yeldham last year. He’s amazing; he plays electric glass. He’s got a contact mic and basically breaks [the glass] over his face, and it’s the sound of that that you’re hearing. It’s a wild sound.

You do a lot of art too, right?

Yeah. I guess you could call me an illustrator, or a conceptual artist. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of video work … My ideas within visual art come through in certain elements of music that I make.

So, when do you find the time to do all this?

I don’t really do anything else. I really work on what I’m doing 24 hours a day. I don’t sleep that much, honestly.

By Tony King