Interview: Hella

interview by gordon downs

These days there are way too many muthafucking drum and guitar duos to even name check in this piece. Some are good, and some are of course really fucking horrible wastes of space. With Tascam making smaller and much more affordable 4-track recording machines available, and the sudden public awareness of how an amplified guitar and some added percussion can create a varied musical raucous; the current musical landscape seems to have new two-piece rock combos popping up weekly. May it be sweet bubble gum pop, or sexy (and often sensible) blues-rock, the drum and guitar duos making music right now are either ridiculously famous (e.g. White Stripes. *note to editor, Meg White has a great rack.) or exist within a much more obscure realm of stardom, (e.g. The Black Keys, Quasi, Lighting Bolt). And yes, while all the bands mentioned above certainly create their own unique brand of music, no two-piece guitar and drum duo can match, or even compete with the originality that is formed by the Sacramento duo known as Hella.

Their unique style can loftily be compared to the free jazz movement of the 1950’s – only it’s punk: 2004. Imagine Art Blakey peaking on white blotter, and a frenzied guitar-playing menace accompanying him with frenetic and thrashing guitar licks. Yes, Hella is indeed a tough band to describe. Not even Hella themselves can really explain how they came to be such a highly regarded name inside the realm of punk/indie-rock. Adored by hardcore fans (punks) and praised by highbrow critics (pricks) Hella is definitely a name on the rise.

“I met Zach [Hill] when I was sixteen.” explains guitarist Spencer Seim. “We played together for a little while in this four-piece band for like a year and a half or two years. Then that [band] broke up and we kind of did our thing for a couple of years, and then we started doing this.”
During the early and formative stages of Hella, the duo had sought out a bassist to fill in the lower ends, which apparently was not an easy task.

“It was kind of a hard thing.” Seim explains of the bands incarnation. “Originally, our first band broke up and we had a couple of years where we were kind of doing our own thing. Then Zach and I wanted to start playing again, because we always had a lot of fun playing together. So we started playing, just hoping we could find some other people.”

Living in such a fertile and musically diverse area of California, you would think being able to find someone who could handle a boom stick would be somewhat easy?

“We kind of looked around and talked to some people and stuff,” explains Seim, “but there was nobody in Sacramento or even San Francisco that we could think of or knew, or thought that would work, or even necessarily wanted to make that kind of music. It was a hard thing. I guess we never auditioned anybody? So we kept writing songs as the two of us, and got asked to play a show one time. And from then on we just kept booking shows and getting more and more songs. It just kind of became a two-man deal.”

Hella’s music is complicated enough, yet extremely primal at the same time. The structure and pace of the guitar and drums are like no other combined sounds ever heard before. Upon my first encounter with the band, I thought I was listening to a two-piece punk-improvisational work of art. Though Seim derailed that chain of thought with the formidable truth.

“The majority of our songs are compositions.” Though also adding, “We have one song off “Hold Your Horse Is” (5RC) that has a long improv section in the middle. Usually that song drags out about fifteen minutes long in our set. As far as other songs, they’re pre-set compositions, stuff we can play five or six times the exact same. During shows there are a couple of places within the songs where there’s a quick break or a place where we both know there’s some room.”

Percussionist Zach Hill also admits there is a definite improvisational aspect to Hella’s live performances.

“There are designated areas to where both of us are free to do what we do,” adds Hill. “And then there’s definite moments where we need to get back to what’s scripted. When we play live, we kind of have this policy of messing up doesn’t really exist.” Seim adds, “You could even say that a quick three-second improv comes out of whenever we mess up.”

“I’m just saying,” continues Hill, “we mess up a lot, but the thing is, we turn it into whatever it turns into, and then that’s what it was supposed to be at that point in time. It is a very free zone. A very free atmosphere. We don’t acknowledge messing up,” Hill adds “we embrace it.” Seim agrees, “We know where we’re supposed to end up, so there’s some room to do whatever we’re feeling at that moment, or just whatever happens. There are a couple of [improvisational] parts in some other songs, but they’re relatively short.”

Though still a reasonably new and young outfit, Hella has already established a healthy catalog of music. 2002’s “Hold Your Horse Is” and a 7”, “Falam Dynasty b/w “It’s-Go-In” (both released through Kill Rock Stars’ imprint 5 Rue Christine). Last year they released two EP’s, “Bitches Ain’t Shit But Good People” (Suicide Squeeze Records) and the amazing “Total Bugs Bunny On Wild Bass” (Narnack Records) as well as releasing a spilt live album with San Francisco’s Dilute (Sick Room Records). Their latest offering, “The Devil Isn’t Red” (5RC) is perhaps their best foray yet into their inner musical psyches. A topic both have already seemed to have discovered is their inclinations towards creativity, and their ability to excel rather uniquely with their selected instruments.

“I don’t know what I’m channeling, or what?” Seim exasperates. “If I’m making up something on guitar I’ll just play until I like it. So obviously my brain is choosing to keep certain parts or certain things that I’ve pulled out of the air”. Hill agrees that there’s something intangible that assists Hella in kicking out the jams in a most one-of-a-kind manner. “I always loved music but I didn’t realize, ‘Oh, I could play music!’ that didn’t even cross my mind until I was fifteen years old. It’s something I don’t take credit for.” Hill states of his remarkable drumming skills. “I’m just a filter for something else that exists and then it chooses to go through me. I just deliver the message.”

And that message tends to make teenagers slam dance. “When we’re playing obviously there’s a lot of exchange going back and forth, that’s not being spoken or anything,” says Seim, “it’s just kind of this thing that’s happening. And we both know on some level, for some reason why that’s happening and what it’s supposed to sound like or be like.” Hill adds, “I just play what I hear in my mind and in my heart. I don’t listen to what anybody else says or does. I don’t pay attention to other people. I’ve just always done what I do. I just hear stuff and then I play it.”

And when Hella performs, they tend to set their instruments at a rather high volume. As in “This one goes to eleven,” kinda loudness. Spencer takes the precautionary measure of playing with earplugs for quite sometime now, while Zach took some coaxing into protecting his hearing.

“Zach has never played with [earplugs] before,” notes Seim. “And he doesn’t like them, which makes sense because it’s really not that fun playing drums when you’re wearing earplugs. I’m trying to push him to get those high tech fancy ones that are molded for your specific ear and have filters and all that stuff. It’s just not fucking good to be blasting your eardrum out.”

At a recent show in March of 2004 after this interview occurred, I was lucky enough to see Hella perform. This time around, Zach was wearing earplugs, and they were accompanied by a vocalist and another guy playing an instrument or doing something I couldn’t exactly see due to the ferocious pit before them, and the fact that they were performing on a stage about three inches high (*note to editor: I was also stoned off my ass). Another occupational hazard I happened to notice, aside from the on-going bout with tinnitus from performing regularly, is that Hill also runs a serious risk of impaling himself or Seim with wooden shards from his flailing drum sticks. A problem Hill has encountered because of the power, speed and free form technique by which he plays drums is the lack of sponsorship amongst drumstick companies. He apparently goes through a shitload of them each time Hella performs.

“Yeah,” Hill concurs, “based on that. I don’t sell a million records for one thing and then I go through so many of those things.” And exactly how many, on average, does Hill go through on any given night. “Too many to count really.” He responds simply. “I’m saving all my drumsticks to build a bed frame one day. I’m dead serious.” he assures me, “I’ve never had a bed, well, I had one until I was fourteen or less than that actually. I haven’t had one for years though.”

With Hella having recently embarked on their first ever tour of Europe and Japan, I have a feeling Zach will be able to build that bed frame he’s been wanting by the time they get back to Sac-Town.