Quick: Name an accomplished drummer whose playing, without any other clues or context, you can recognize within a few measures of any given song. John Bonham? Keith Moon? Dave Lombardo? Elvin Jones? Point taken—but anyone familiar with Zach Hill's rabbit-footed, expressionistic approach to the kit would have to add the Sacramento, California-based drummer, songwriter and visual artist to that rarified list. Now, with his first solo album, Astrological Straits, Hill is proving that he's as recognizable in the conductor's chair as he is on the drum stool.
Though Hill earned his stripes as co-founder of the Sacramento-born duo-turned-quintet Hella, with whom he's recorded four albums and a number of EPs, split releases and compilation tracks, Astrological Straits marks the first time he's acted as ringleader, composer, chief vocalist and art director. In placing Hill front and center, the album also magnifies something about the drummer's writing style that might not have registered with those who've heard him in other contexts. “I've always been more influenced by people like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, to name a few, than by other drummers,” he explains. “Those non-drummers' ideas and free-form expression are what I'm trying to apply to the drum set.”
Hill's résumé as drummer boasts a mind-melting number of collaborations—from his work in the Deftones offshoot Team Sleep to his jazz-oriented gigs with Wilco guitarist Nels Cline and members of Sun Ra's Arkestra, to his roles backing Mike Patton, harpist Joanna Newsom and the Mars Volta's Omar Rodriguez-Lopez—but the guest-musician-loaded Astrological Straits is more than another notch in the career bedpost. From its music to its lyrics to its esoteric title (among his many interests, Hill is a firm believer in astrology and fate), Astrological Straits represents a major rebirth for Hill: from sideman to bandleader, collaborator to visionary, journeyman to creator of his own destiny.
“I've been on this path for a while,” says Hill, who left school at age 14 to chase his muse. “There's a common perception that I'm this guy who drops in on sessions to add my own thing, or that I'm the ‘Hella drummer with a million side projects.’ I can understand that—I'm a busy guy; that's part of my nature—but this is different. Not to get too lofty, but this album, and these songs, are the culmination of those experiences.”
For all of its dark elements—drugs, death and his own loved ones' brushes with both are among its lyrical inspirations—Astrological Straits is a celebration for Hill; an affirmation of his ability to step out of previous roles to write his own future. That's something you can hear not just in the music, which finds Hill's higher-mathematical approach to the kit expanding via funk, soul and big-band-style arrangements (if, presumably, those genres had Martian origins), but also in the overall celebratory spirit Hill and collaborators bring to the proceedings.
To realize his vision, Hill enlisted an impressive roster of former recording partners, as well as a handful of new collaborators, including Primus' Les Claypool, visionary guitarist Marnie Stern, Team Sleep/Deftones' Chino Moreno, No Age's Randy Randall and Dean Spunt, !!!/LCD Soundsystem's Tyler Pope, The Flying Luttenbachers' Jonathon Hicshke, Satori/RX Bandits' Steve Borth, the Advantage's Robbie Moncrief, and Hill's Hella bandmates Carson McWhirter and Josh Hill. The list is long and formidable, yes, but as Hill is quick to point out, these are more than just names on a studio log.
“These are friends and kindred spirits that I'm really comfortable playing with,” explains Hill, who co-produced Astrological Straits in Sacramento with John-Reed Thompson, his bass-playing collaborator in Marnie Stern's band. (Thompson's children also add vocals to Straits' bent, angular funk track “Ummer.”) “For this record, that was especially important. I gave the general direction, but there was an intuitive, unspoken sort of feel in the collaborations that allowed the songs to turn out the way they did.”
You can hear that in “Dark Art” and Astrological Straits' title track, both of which find Hill skittering, pounding and singing against some of the tightest, most exciting grooves and guitar riffs he's ever been a party to. You can hear it in the urgent alien boogie of “Iambic Strays,” with its whirling-dervish rhythms and Hill's hypnotically treated vocals. And you can even hear it in the accompanying bonus disc, “Necromancer,” which finds Hill, narrator Marnie Stern and Brooklyn-based pianist Marco Benevento shifting from Astrological Straits' more upbeat, rock-oriented feel to a expressionistic, Cecil Taylor/Tony Williams-style piano and percussion excursion. (Remarkably, the 33-mintue track is a continuous take.)
“I really wrestled with the idea of including that second disc,” Hill explains. “People's attention spans today don't necessarily invite listening to long records, but I decided I couldn't obsess about that. It was an important piece to this album, and whether someone wants to dive into the whole thing or take it a few minutes at a time, I feel like there's something important there to hear. Even with the longer material, I was careful not to waste space on this record.”
Hill is also being careful to plot his future after Astrological Straits. Individual touring schedules may make an artist-by-artist replication of the album challenging, but as he looks toward the future, Hill is excited about the opportunity to recreate the album in the live arena, as well as to create a recorded legacy beyond it.
“I can't stress enough that this is a new chapter for me,” he says, referencing the expansive, ever-shifting bands led by Frank Zappa and Miles Davis as inspirational to his own future work. Indeed, you may never hear Zach Hill the same way after spending time with Astrological Straits—but from this album forward, you'll only hear Zach Hill when you do.
Release date: Aug. 12, 2008