ZODIAC DRUM KILLER Zach Hill

With Hella on hiatus,
the unconventional percussionist makes an unholy racket.

 

BY DAVID DOWNS

 

 

“I got to be honest,” Zach Hill says, exhaling a puff of
Natural American Spirit Light into the searing sun. “Me and Spencer just don’t
get along.”

 

Tall and thin and blond, the 29 year-old Hella drummer wears
Nikes, tight jeans and a stained T. He squats in the shade of an alley just off
Commercial St.
in Nevada City, CA, sipping Cafe Mekka coffee and squinting
toward wakefulness this Saturday noon. Highly regarded in the weirdo prog metal
world, Hill is on the verge of recognition far beyond this hometown hippie
retreat; population 3,001. His longtime metal prog collaboration with Spencer
Seim imploded last year, culminating in a panic attack during Hella’s expanded,
five-man 2007 tour for There’s No 666 In Outer Space.

 

“Basically I didn’t imagine what it would be like to
play with all those guys. It just didn’t work,” Hill says. “I hadn’t
gotten a panic attack like that since I was, like, 14.”

 

After four albums and fifteen years of accumulated baggage,
Hella is on indefinite hiatus, yet the future is light indeed. Both Seim and
Hill have new solo albums: Seim’s sBACH which goes in a more pop direction and
Hill’s Astrological Straits, which is something else entirely.

 

The self-taught drummer’s debut (issued in August on Mike
Patton’s label Ipecac) is a wild, cryptologic ride – part jazz, metal and
electronic music. It is absolutely pummeling, uncompromising and authentic.
Thirteen bizarre, percussive trips both alienating and exhilarating include
contributions from Les Claypool, No Age, The Deftones, Tyler Pope of LCD
Soundsystem and !!! and others. Future Hill collaborators include Prefuse 73
and the Mars Volta. “I didn’t set out with a list of artists I wanted to
have on it. Things just sort of happened along the way,” he says.
“I’m not interested in making anything middling. I want to draw a
line.”

 

Indeed, the quiet, young man does. Straits speaks
dead languages via percussive braille. It’s music for listeners in the year
2100 – when ear drums are thicker and classic structure obsolete. If you buy
one difficult record this year, buy this one. Your grandkids will respect you
more.

 

Unseen forces dictated the recording of the album, says
Hill, who was a delayed speaker as a child but an avid illustrator. His
blue-collar family didn’t play instruments, and he wanted to be Walt Disney.
“I liked making my own world,” he says. However, an older neighbor
was a basher and, as Hill puts it, “I don’t want to say I heard voices,
but the drums spoke to me.”  Hill’s
a strong believer in UFOs, astrology (born December 28), and other aspects of
the occult. He won’t vote this Fall, thinking either way we’re trending toward
a New World Order. Hill doesn’t drive, never got his license, and was horrified
by the randomness and personal nature of the recent Greyhound bus beheading in Canada. (“Police
say the guy hasn’t spoke since. They have no idea why he did it. Do you know
how many buses I’ve passed out on?”)

 

At age 15, Hill dropped out of a violent, gang-ridden Sacramento high school
after a pregnant girl got stabbed. His parents split, and he became the Huck
Finn of inland California – pretending to be
homeless and sleeping on the streets of downtown Sacramento for days. He and a friend got
their first drum kit for $150 in yard sale money. Solo training gave him a
bashing, dense, asymmetric style all his own.

 

Hella’s four albums between ’02 and ’08 took him all over
the world and introduced him to many who would collaborate on Straits.
Patton and Hill met backstage at a Queens of
the Stone Age show and played some shows together, agreeing to a future Hill
release. Hundreds of Bay Area drummers lost to Hill in an open audition to play
with Primus’ bassist in 2001. The two saw eye to eye and have jammed
intermittently ever since, culminating in Claypool’s appearance on the title
track – a near-summation of the album. Pope is a neighbor who was home on a
holiday. No Age proved philosophical kin and the evidence is the beautiful “Stoic
Logic”, comparable only to the 8-bit insanity of “Dead Art.” All the pieces
fell into place by March of 2008, when the record was finished.

 

In the early afternoon, Hill heads into the Sierra
Foothills. We’re in gold country, following switchbacks to the South Yuba
River. Down below,
swimming holes line the bottom of the wooded canyon, along with families, dogs
and girls in Volcom bikinis. Ironically, the basher feels at peace in this
wooded silence. His feet shuffle into the cool green pool just one shoe size
smaller than Michael Phelps. Their arms look similar – lean and tan with veins
like cabling and tendons etched in concrete. Hill surfaces in the middle of the
deep end without a sound but a smile. The most thundering, chaotic drummer in a
300-mile radius is a recovering stoic.

 

“I’ve never been good at small talk,” he says and
disappears back into the river.

 

 

[Photo Credit: David B. Torch]

 

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