Olympics to New Slaves: A Short History of Zs
Photo by Robin Laananen
By almost any definition of the term, the Brooklyn-based band Zs would qualify as “new music.” The rigor of their notation, the education of the participants, the early collaborations, and the music itself are all indicative of belonging to the same ghetto as any number of contemporary music ensembles. But despite the putatively catholic expansion of many of new music’s boundaries, Zs remains conspicuously absent from the dialogue within that community. Within the scene they call their own—D.I.Y., punk, indie, depending on who you ask—they’ve cultivated an impressive following and garnered plenty of press and even some album sales, the great white whale of any modern musical endeavor.
When Zs formed, there was nothing else on the scene quite like it. Throughout a succession of lineup changes—saxophonist Sam Hillmer is the only remaining original member—they’ve succeeded in bringing intellectual music to the club scene; and, for a while, they brought their raucousness into the realms of concert music. What Zs has done most effectively is demonstrate that there are no boundaries in making art, certainly not aesthetic, and least of all social. Zs has always had an otherness to it—in fact it was generated out of sense of unbelonging—but it’s chameleonic identification with different socialities brought about important avenues for influence and success. They’ve involved musicians from many different bands and ensembles: Extra Life, the Wet Ink Ensemble, Yarn/Wire, Hunter/Gatherer, Little Women, Pygmy Shrews, Seductive Sprigs, Music =quals, Moth, to name a few—spanning genres from improvised music to contemporary classical to progressive rock to punk, and beyond. Yet there was never any gimmicky vibe of “rock band playing classical” or “classical musicians going to the club.” Somehow, it all just made sense.
Jazz Dude Goes to Conservatory
A lot of the achievement in American new music in the last few decades has been spurred on by the very particular way that music conservatories seem to frustrate their students. As Hillmer describes it now, “a key vibe in understanding Zs is: jazz dude goes to conservatory—disillusionment.” Hillmer met fellow sax player Alex Mincek at the Manhattan School of Music (MSM) in 1996, both participants in the school’s Jazz Arts program. Within that setting, they discovered that they shared the same interests, and frustrations. Mincek sets the scene: “It was very black and white. Either you were a jazz musician, or you were something else. You were a commercial musician or you were a classical musician. There was no heterogeneous version of any of that. Sam and I wanted to be something that was blurry.”
Within weeks the two were hanging out constantly—formulating, defining, and sharpening their aesthetic goals. They began a discussion group, initially confined to just the two of them, that gradually expanded to include other musicians who were down with what they were after. The ones who stuck were trombonist Jacob Garchik, drummer/tabla player Dan Weiss, saxophonist Andy Noble, and composer Brendan Connelly, and by 1998 the discussion group had morphed into the presenting organization Wet Ink. The group began putting on concerts of their own “blurry” music at MSM, as well as in their own apartments and lofts, which they dubbed “Concerts at the Crib.”
The place the musicians were coming out of is sort of the classic postmodern hodgepodge. Mincek had stronger ties to traditional jazz playing than Hillmer—who for a while had his own free-jazz trio—but also was dedicated to the tradition of Western art music, and through his influence Hillmer also began to write through-composed works. Both had an abiding interest in other genres like punk and progressive rock. The first real Wet Ink season—after the 501c(3) had been filed—took place in 1999, centered around the Manhattan venue Collective:Unconscious.
In 2003, Zs recorded their third release, the EP Karate Bump. Although the band had been formalized as a sextet by that point, the second track, Mincek’s Karate, strangely featured only the two saxophonists. “I understand how it seems aberrant, but in terms of how the band came together it was not that aberrant,” explains Hillmer. “In terms of the early band, that was sort of the spine.”
Karate was indicative of how Mincek and Hillmer had fed off each other not only as organizers and artists, but as players. The piece is about fusing Mincek and Hillmer’s playing, which were so similar tone-wise, within a landscape that could also be combative—the interplay between unison monody versus combative polyphony. “It seemed to be the perfect mirror to what we were doing artistically, and our personalities,” explains Mincek. “We had so much in common, but we were kind of battling, too. It was a very social piece.” He goes further:
There are certain sports in which you can’t just dominate your opponent and feel good doing it. In order to look good, you have to have a worthy opponent, and the better the opponent is, the better you are. There are certain individual activities that have this property, and I thought martial arts was one of them. Because if you know karate and your opponent’s just a brawler, the shit’s just not elegant; you just kick their ass. You gotta know the other person’s moves; you need a worthy adversary. So Karate was my worthy adversary piece. I can do the things on the saxophone that I can do best because I had somebody else who could also do the same things.
Four years earlier, in late 1999, Mincek and Hillmer had just started doing gigs together that weren’t part of the Wet Ink series; in fact, they weren’t sure what they were, in terms of their musical goals. Most clear was their ambition: they strove to create as many opportunities to demonstrate their skills and aesthetic visions as possible. They began to wear “uniforms”—souvenier t-shirts from Mincek’s father Zdravko’s 40th birthday. On the front of the shirts the texts said: “Z’s 40.” Within short order Matt Hough—fellow MSM jazz refugee—joined the group on guitar at Hillmer’s behest.
This loose collective, a trio which would incorporate other players like Garchik as the situation warranted, would play at Wet Ink-produced concerts as well as in other settings. The music was largely improvised or based on loose, non-score-based structures, along with several pieces composed by Mincek. The first piece written that was eventually put out under the name Zs was Mincek’s Red on Still, a quartet with Garchik, recorded in 2000 and finally released in 2005 on the Music for Plants compilation. Contrary to the direction the sextet’s music would take, it’s a soft, slow, droning piece, with a delicate guitar punctuating the harmonies in the winds.
Hillmer started work on Olympics in spring of 2001. The piece was scored for the unusual instrumentation of two saxes, two guitars, and two drummers—a furthering orchestration of sorts for the existing relationship between he and Mincek. Olympics is an attack dog of a piece; while canonical structures lie at the base of its structure, it’s immediately grabbing for not only its aggression, but for the extreme precision it requires. In the summer, while working on the second piece for the setup, Retrace a Walk, he ran into guitarist Charlie Looker in Washington, D.C., and asked him to play with the existing group. In the fall he distributed the parts, and that winter rehearsals began.
In January of 2002 Looker played Mimesis, a Mincek composition for two saxophones, guitar, and bass with Z’s 40 at Greenwich House in a program shared with Trio, the improvising project of Christian Wolff, Larry Polansky, and Kui Dong. It was the last performance by the group before it became a formalized entity. But by Hillmer’s reckoning, it was also the first real Zs performance—three of the four principal composers for the forthcoming sextet playing a piece that would be featured on their first record.
Rehearsing the Band
Photo by Peter Gannushkin / DOWNTOWNMUSIC.NET
After Hillmer recruited drummers Alex Hoskins and Brad Wentworth (who had actually already been playing as a duo in a combo at MSM with Mincek and Hough), the group was complete. Intense rehearsals began with whoever was available—Looker, the only non-MSM member, would commute down from his studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut two times a week to join in. The prolific Mincek jumped in to fill out the rest of their repertoire, arranging Mimesis for the sextet instrumentation and writing a new piece, Slalom.
While the instrumentation was conceptually interesting, it also presented certain compositional challenges—saxophone, guitar, and drums are three of the most readily identifiable instruments within popular culture, and the last thing anyone in Zs wanted to do was create music that gave into the inherent expectations that come along with that. Which meant two things: lots of unisons, and lots of what Hillmer refers to as “that pointed ‘bam’ sound”—attack.
Thinking about the group as “one big muscle,” as Mincek puts it, allowed the composers in the group to steer away from preconceived ideas of what the instruments should sound like. “There are so many claims about being hardcore and rocking it and bringing the club scene to new music; but in terms of writing for an instrumentation in an authentic way instead of a pandering way, we were actually doing it. We were saxophonists. We were drummers. We were guitarists. It was internalized with us. So it gave us a good opportunity to take some of the conceptual ideas from the past 20 or 30 years and apply them in a very integrated way towards the instruments in a way that I don’t think many others were doing. I think that was the major triumph of Zs.”
After rehearsing for six months, the band went into the studio to record the four tracks they had worked on—before they had played their first official gig. The music was beyond what any of them had attempted before as performers. “There was no real certainty about whether what we were trying to do was possible,” Hillmer recalls. “It wasn’t like we were doing something within this vocabulary of skills. We just made these things and rose to the occasion. And sometimes, you know, we would have to change what was there.” Mincek puts it more wryly: “Getting a bunch of free-jazz musicians to play rhythms together seemed like a triumph.”
Nevertheless, the first recording session has not aged that well: the two tracks from that session that made it onto their first album, Retrace a Walk and Slalom, ended up being performed far more quickly and dynamically in concert, as evidenced by the 2007 Buck live release. Even after six months of rehearsal, the pieces just weren’t as solid as they would be after gigging them. It was a lesson well considered in the rest of Zs recorded output. Mincek explains:
As a composer, the biggest lesson I learned from Zs: when you finish a piece, the piece is not finished. And this is so sad for the state of composition because when I write for other ensembles, I hear the piece, I hear it rehearsed, I hear the performance, I make some changes, and maybe the piece gets performed again. With Zs, you brought in the piece, and with every rehearsal you could make changes. And then you rehearse it for six months, and after six months you could make changes. And then you toured with it for a year, and a year later you could say to yourself, “This one thing just isn’t right.” Music ain’t finished ’til it’s been out there.
In September 2002, Zs hit its first official gig as a sextet at a noise punk show, and continued to play gigs throughout the fall. That December they recorded Mimesis and Olympics, along with the band’s arrangement of one of Mincek’s pieces; on the record it’s titled Zs, but the members refer to it amongst themselves as “The Anthem.” A guitar plays a lovely progression over light percussion, while the sextet harmonizes ridiculous lyrics about Zs being “a band of mystical bros.” Suffice to say, it sounds like nothing else in their catalog.
The group scored a lucky triumph when it came to finding a label for their first record: Avant-metal guitarist Mick Barr was curating a series on the well regarded hardcore label Troubleman Unlimited, and invited Zs to release what they had. Zs sent the five-piece self-titled EP off to Troubleman that January and continued playing shows throughout the winter before doing a national tour in the summer. Meanwhile Looker composed his first two pieces for the sextet, Play and Glyphs, which were very much in the early Zs style, especially Hillmer’s.
A Brutal Chamber Ensemble
Zs lived a dual life during those three years, before the breakup of the sextet. On the one hand, it was an aggressive band playing within the D.I.Y. Brooklyn scene; on the other, it was a skilled chamber ensemble made up of aspiring concert artists who composed for a wide range of instrumentations. They didn’t attempt to reconcile the two scenes; they simply did both. In each setting, they sought to bring an element of constructive confrontation: “Changing the game through participation.”
On the DIY side, they challenged assumptions about elitism merely through the use of sheet music. It was partly confrontational, but also totally necessary—Slalom, for instance, features a section of continuously similar material which contains about 100 subtly different durations. No one was going to memorize that, no matter how many times it was played. Looker vents, only half-jokingly:
It’s actually normal to know how to read music, at least a little bit. If you’re a musician I don’t think you have to know how, but that is normal. If you took your average sloppy indie punk band and introduced them to a random working salsa trumpet player in Washington Heights, the trumpet player would be like, ‘You can’t read music? But you’re musicians.’ And they’d be like, ‘Oh, you’re all technical,’ and he’d be like, ‘Well I’m not that technical, I just know how to play.’”
On the whole, however, the integration into the Brooklyn scene was constructive and received positive feedback. Zs played with all manner of bands, popular and un-, and made it work through the insistence of their own participation. “In the social ritual of the show, an embedded unity becomes perceptible,” Hillmer explains. “I think not acknowledging this quality of otherness is just sticking your head in the sand, because that’s how people see it. But I think that by styling your participation in a certain way you create the possibility of a perception that there is a larger unity, because everybody totally has the conceptual vocabulary to completely get this music.”
On the concert music side, Zs was perhaps less constructive in the way they challenged the social atmosphere. “Everyone in the new music world is like, ‘such a charming piece,’” Hillmer jokes. “And we were just not on that ‘charming’ shit.”
The music critic Kyle Gann has noted how in the 1980s, every Downtown composer wanted nothing more than to be labeled “kickass,” which lead to a social matrix of inauthentic facades. Zs clearly had no problems with the inclination to write “tough” music (Susan McClary be damned), but it must be an inclination that’s derived from the artist’s life:
I have nothing against un-tough music; but you hear all these people trying to do extreme things with sound, and they talk about timbre and they talk about being visceral, and then they’re pipsqueaks who go home at 8 o’clock and watch Friends and then go to bed. How can you write something that’s arresting and viscerally compelling if you’re not engaged with living? So many people seem so disengaged at the same time they’re trying to write this badass music.
The Zs solution: lead by example. Rejecting the perceived bourgeois manners and politeness in the new music community, Zs created a raucous, rock-star atmosphere in which they could live with and create their difficult, pugnacious art. It would be easy to chalk up their behavior to immaturity, but as musicians completely engaged in both composition and performance they were very sincerely reacting against a phenomenon that they found infuriating on an aesthetic and creative level. “I have serious reservations about how much gravity something can have that’s taking place outside the logic of community,” Hillmer explains.
If you think about every kind of music you can get into—black metal, Detroit techno, early hip hop, whatever—they’re all groups of people who hang out. Except in new music. Composers hang out, but these musicians, it’s like they play a piece, and then when their piece is over they leave before the concert is over. Dude, that sucks. And that affects the music. It’s like there’s this aesthetic of efficiency, like, “How can we all agree to set of parameters that’s going to make it possible to do anything in five rehearsals, and not have to hang out at all, so that we’re getting the highest possible hourly rate for doing this?” That’s what determines the new music aesthetic. That’s what makes all that shit sound the same.
The Center Cannot Hold
After the recording of Karate Bump EP in November of 2003, Hoskins left the band. To fill the vacancy, the band recruited Ian Antonio, an MSM percussionist who had already been playing in Hillmer’s pieces for the continuing Wet Ink series. Today, Antonio is the only member of both Zs and the Wet Ink Ensemble.
From there the band continued writing new pieces, building towards their first full-length release. In 2004 Looker completed Nobody Wants To Be Had, a piece that featured quickly chanted tenor vocal part for Hough and himself in unison with the other instruments. The following year he wrote the vocal-less, entirely monodic B is for Burning. Hough also finally joined the ranks of composers for the sextet, writing the quiet and spacious Magnet in 2004, which was released as a 3” CD single. In 2005 he completed Woodworking, another unison piece that was, “an attempt to be a return to the ‘classic’ Zs sextet sound exemplified in pieces from our first set/record.”
Mincek and Hillmer both composed ambitious pieces that took newfound interest in exact repetition. Hillmer’s I Can’t Concentrate spends its first half engaged with halting unisons played by the entire band before breaking out into more harmonic, contrapuntal textures. It’s the most uncomfortable, truculent piece that was ever written for the sextet. Mincek’s Pendulum clocks in at half the time, but chews through so much material that it feels every bit as epic. It showcased an interest Mincek would carry through to most of his post-Zs music: the relationship between exact repetition and complete difference. Homophony is juxtaposed with polyphony, visceral bombast with tenuous restraint. You could also head bang if you could figure out the beat.
Internally, however, the vibe within the band was souring. Mincek had been accepted into Columbia to study composition in the fall of ’04; while the band continued to play gigs around NYC during that time, touring was almost completely phased out save for a three-date set in March of ’05. All the while the group was accruing enough material for their most ambitious recording yet; Hillmer and Looker were desperate to tour in support. Tempers flared, Hillmer and Mincek stopped speaking to one another, and the dynamic became untenable. On December 22, 2005, Mincek was kicked out of Zs, and Hillmer quit Wet Ink.
There was no thought of recruiting a new saxophonist to replace Mincek. With his absence, the entire dynamic of the band changed. Their dual existence ceased: “That whole era became about getting super hyped about ourselves and about our friends,” Hillmer recalls. “I think the sort of new music involvement for us was representative of this striving to an ideal that seemed beyond us. That was the beginning of the band becoming a band.” Antonio, who had been something of a subsidiary member up to that point, suddenly became much more involved. “I felt like immediately we all had more of a stake in the group,” he explains. “It went from almost like a composers collective that just happened to be functioning more as a rock band than a new music ensemble, to just more of a band.” Wentworth, however, was less committal. He also had little desire to tour for entire seasons, but nonetheless agreed to participate in the recording session for the band’s first full-length, Arms.
The quintet that went in to record Arms was playing sextet music, forcing Hillmer to record both saxophone parts. Pendulum obviously was no longer on the table, leaving the selections at: Looker’s Nobody Wants To Be Had and B is for Burning; Hough’s Woodworking, soon to become a national hit on the Howard Stern show; Hillmer’s I Can’t Concentrate and Except When You Don’t Because Sometimes You Won’t; and the collaboratively written (and fairly goofy) pieces Balk and Z is for Zone.
Hillmer and Looker, now “frothed up” on touring, began to book for the summer even before the new quartet had any music. The band holed up in Hillmer’s parents’ house in D.C. in May to write their next piece; and this time, there was a deliberate change of compositional process. The sextet piece Bump had been written collaboratively on a retreat three years prior; now, they wanted to tap into that same energy in writing one long piece to play on the upcoming tour. The band was now making an effort to bring out the individuality of each member, not just the composer of the piece, by leaving each person responsible for their own parts. To further negate any lingering sense of symmetry from the old setup, Looker moved from guitar to keyboard.
The Hard EP emerged in a nascent version after four days in D.C. “Hough really manifested in that incarnation of the band,” Hillmer recalls, “and in that piece especially. He contributed a lot. His harmonic sensibility is just all over that shit.” The piece functions as a series of panels, rife with repeats; the opening sonic monolith is created through short burst from guitar, keyboard, drums, and screamed-through saxophone, which breaks into a typically Zs beat. More than anything, the timbre of the band had changed, moreso than the mere addition of keyboards; Antonio simplified his percussion setup to include fewer sounds, and Hillmer, as he describes it, “ditched the note vibe.”
I think the absence of a second saxophone player makes playing “notes” less interesting, rather than these textured jabs. I also wanted to get away from it because it was becoming so boring to play so many notes. And that’s a cue I took from Mincek. The Hard EP is more like Mincek’s pieces than my old pieces.
They began their first tour as a quartet in June of ’06, playing a 25-minute version of The Hard EP. When they recorded the piece a year and a half later, it was down to 15 minutes. It had to live on the road before it was done. “It takes a really long time to internalize the form of a long piece like that, and do it as one gesture,” Hillmer explains. “We were going for length when we wrote it, but in executing it a million times, it’s just like, this is boring if this goes on for this long.” From June 17 until July 22 of that year they played 30 shows across the country, not only at the typical stops like Chicago and California, but places like Idaho, South Dakota, and Kansas as well. They were a touring band again.
Mood Music for the Mental Home
A touring schedule that intense is simply not something that everybody could handle. The first casualty had been Mincek, and the second was Hough, who was planning on going back to MSM for a degree in composition. He explains:
The hefty amount of touring that we were planning on doing at the time would not have been possible while being in school full time. I also needed to work on myself as an artist, and to work on my own vision–Zs, conceptually speaking, was essentially Sam’s project, and although the music at the time of The Hard EP was a total collaborative effort, I wanted to branch out into other projects and no longer had the desire to continue putting time into Zs at the expense of my own individual work.
Hough’s leaving would also sow the seeds for another departure the next year; burned out from a summer touring, he also cancelled his participation in an early fall tour with Seductive Sprigs, his duo with Looker. Instead, Looker went on the road as a solo act he called Extra Life.
In the meantime, however, Looker remained firmly entrenched as a critical member of Zs, and arranged his two Arms pieces for the new quartet formation. Hough, however, had to be replaced; the band was not about to rewrite an entire set only a few months after the splurge of creativity that spawned The Hard EP. Looker recommended his student at The New School, Ben Greenberg.
From the first rehearsal, Looker recalls, Greenberg simply nailed it. Hillmer relates what it was like incorporating him into the group:
I feel like Ben is the one who actually made that ‘personalities’ vibe happen. We were all like, ‘Oh, it’s going to be about individuals,’ but we were still stuck in the old mindset. But when Ben joined, he was able to just start there and move on from it, whereas for us getting to it was a major loosening and opening. He just tore the shit up.
Photo by Mercurialn
While he played a normal Stratocaster for Looker’s rearranged pieces (and sang second tenor for Nobody Wants to Be Had), for The Hard EP Greenberg brought his own distinct sound world to the table, and the piece changed significantly. Greenberg’s especially bright timbre comes from not only his particular style, but his choice in equipment: his guitar has a lucite body and aluminum neck, and he plays with a metal pick, creating a sound screaming with upper harmonics. “He has this calculated sloppiness that I think is actually really deep,” Hillmer says. “He’s incredibly zeroed in, but the way he plays is cavalier, shooting from the hip, stumbling but strutting, confident but vulnerable. He’s just a really interesting dude in terms of how he’s relating to the instrument.” It’s with Greenberg’s addition that Zs really started to move in a new aesthetic direction.
In the Fall of ’07, a year and a half after it was recorded and with only three of the original participants still in the group, Arms was finally released by Planaria Records. The band was still playing arrangements of three of the tracks off the album—Looker’s two pieces, and a clapping, saxless arrangement of Hillmer’s Except When You Don’t—but their live set was still centered on the as-yet-unrecorded The Hard EP. However, the band got a flood of press from an unlikely source: Howard Stern.
On November 6, 2007, Stern played several tracks from Arms—most prominently Hough’s Woodworking—and made fun of them. “It’s mood music, if you’re in a mental home,” he exclaimed. Over the next couple days the album kept coming up, eliciting bizarre and often hilarious claims about the total lack of skill of the band, as well as series of not-quite-facts about John Cage. On the third day, the Stern crew brought out their own instruments and proceeded to create their own “avant-garde music,” complete with guitar, trumpet, and bong sounds. “One of the pieces they did was pretty good,” Antonio observes.
This episode happened the same week as a bizarre noise performance on Conan O’Brien by Animal Collective, who had toured with Zs back in ’03. “It was the week the Brooklyn scene blew up,” Hillmer recalls. Along with the rest of the scene, that fall and winter album orders increased, and more people started showing up at their shows. Zs wasn’t exactly hitting it big time, but they were making good on their basic mission: “Get the shit heard.”
Turn and Face the Strange
“Zs isn’t really something you can do half way,” Looker explains. “You can’t just kind of do it while you’re mainly doing some other shit. Really, I was just getting so into being a singer from just casually doing Extra Life. It just became, “Oh, actually, I just want to be all about singing.” And Zs is not something that could have accommodated me being like, “Guys, we’re a cooperative, but I want to be the lead singer.”
Individual expression within a group dynamic has its allure, but it often loses out to the draw of creating objects of purely personal expression. Mincek had clearly placed his priority in being a composer over a performer. Hough left to find his own voice outside of the collective of Zs as well. Now, Looker realized that he wanted to prioritize his own work as a songwriter over the band.
Zs had been playing Nobody Wants to Be Had for more than three years, and B is for Burning for two. The Hard EP had settled into its final form and been their main focus for a year and a half; they had played these pieces at least a hundred times, and were getting burned out. In the fall of ’07 they were talking about moving on to a new creative phase, the next collaborative piece; Looker realized it was the time to leave and focus on Extra Life. His last show was at the Issue Project Room on December 7, 2007, just shy of the quartet’s 90th gig together, two years to the month after Mincek had been forced out. The band went into Greenberg’s basement, set up one overhead microphone, and recorded The Hard EP in one take. It was Looker’s last performance with the band.
Zs in Missoula, MO
Photo by Holotone
Looker’s exit prompted a major dynamic shift once again. The band lost not only the sound of his vocals, but his compositional voice as well. The sextet had been to some degree about the friendship between Mincek and Hillmer; the quartet was about the friendship between Hillmer and Looker. After Looker left, Hillmer says, “It was just three dudes in a room. I really didn’t have a relationship with Ben. There was no precedent for us being creative together, for us even hanging out.” Hillmer, Antonio, and Greenberg decided against bringing in a fourth member in order to feel out the new social and creative dynamic within the group, and took to writing music as a collective trio. Over the winter of 2008, they finished the first version of New Slaves, and brought it on tour in support of the record release of The Hard EP.
“New Slaves, man,” Hillmer lets a knowing grin pass over his face. “Writing and learning that piece was hell. It’s just become fun.” It’s maybe the most ambitious piece Zs has ever done, and certainly the longest at just over 20 minutes. Like many of the pieces the band had been writing since the end of the sextet period, New Slaves is composed of repeating cells; their function, however, has been reimagined. A vigorous three-note riff repeats for almost four minutes before the texture shifts, with the only variance coming from Greenberg’s improvisational flourishes. New elements get introduced, blended together, jerking between new material and old in the most viscerally compelling way. As the riffs keep coming, the grander scheme is revealed: all the material points to the same thing, a sort of über-melody.
“It’s very rhetorical,” Hillmer notes. “It’s sort of like approaching a subject matter and then backing up and then approaching it and then backing up; and then you create this thesis that seems so powerful because you’ve built up this context for it to exist in.” The piece reaches a near frenzy of shifting cells by the halfway point, whereupon it collapses into a loud drone that lasts the rest of the duration.
Well, at least that’s how it ended up. The “long, obtuse riff” that became the generating point for all the material arose out of rehearsals, but the myriad formal elements that make up the pieces, large and small, didn’t end up existing in their current form until it was taken on the road. It wasn’t until midway through the summer ’08 tour that they even realized that they had the form backwards; before that point the drone section had opened the piece. Even more than The Hard EP, New Slaves was largely composed on the road.
Which had its implications for one of the most readily identifiable aspects of the band: sheet music. Initially a score existed for New Slaves, as one had for every piece Zs had written. After just the second performance of the piece, however, Greenberg left his score at the venue and was forced to perform from memory the next night. Antonio forgot his score during the summer tour. “Ben and I never went back to reading music after that,” Antonio recalls. “Because we were just like, oh, we can play this from memory, and it’s better. Sam had one piece of paper that he kept around taped to my bass drum, and then eventually he just stopped using it. Sam actually takes a little bit of paper and puts it on his bottom teeth—a lot of saxophone players do that to protect their lower lip, I guess—and he just kept ripping off that one piece of paper until it just disappeared. He ate the score, basically.”
Something also notable about New Slaves was how far Zs music had traveled from Mincek’s original conception of not “pandering to the instruments.” Rather than now existing in a space where everything amalgamated into a unified arm identifiable as nothing other than itself, each instrument was now engaging in activity that could only be identified as a guitar or saxophone or drums, as almost a caricature. Greenberg even takes a solo over the beginning of the piece. Antonio’s drum part resembles a Neil Peart drum fill, but it’s only a drum fill, played without break for minutes at a time. The use of repetition robs the objects of their cultural identity with each iteration. There’s also an element of sheer physicality that really manifests as a primary concern with The Hard EP, but which New Slaves brings to an even higher level. “The Hard EP was incredibly difficult to play live. It was incredibly physically draining,” Antonio says. “And I think when you realize that, it becomes a challenge for you, and you try to push it even further. And then New Slaves is even more a test of your endurance. There’s a certain pleasure in pain that comes out of that, too, for the audience as well as the performers.”
This Might Be Jive
While New Slaves was being road tested, Zs was presented with the opportunity of joining The Social Registry, an emergent label that distributes Gang Gang Dance’s records. Hillmer knew he wanted to make the next big Zs album, the real follow up to Arms, but also knew it would take another two years. To take up the opportunity with Social Registry, Zs decided to try something completely different. Each member went into the “studio”—Greenberg’s basement—and laid down a track. Then another member would record something on top of that, and the process would go on until they were satisfied with the results. After adding a live recording of the clapping version of Except When You Don’t, the band had its newest release, Music of the Modern White, produced by Greenberg and released in 2009.
“It’s just pure studio experimentation,” Hillmer explains. “Ian was like, ‘this just seems jive to me.’ I was like, ‘Yes! It’s jive! That’s good!’ You’ve gotta be vulnerable. And I think that actually is a fault in early Zs. If you go back, it’s airtight, we’re awesome, it’s killing, it’s clean; but it’s like, ‘okay, good for you.’ It’s about how awesome we are. But you’re supposed to be awesome. Music of the Modern White was really about smashing that sense. It’s about ‘this might be jive.’”
In the meanwhile, Hillmer was still pushing for the creation of the next big album, but the band needed significantly more material than just New Slaves. The first piece to be added was Concert Black—an inelaborate piece for layered guitar harmonics based on a riff constructed by Hillmer (who actually played guitar when it was performed live for a period of time). It might be the simplest piece in Zs history—a direct reaction to the burnout from the compositional acrobatics employed for New Slaves. The other collaborative piece composed during this time was based off a riff that Greenberg brought in, Acres of Skin. The guitars achieve their broken-bell-like sound by crossing each of the three pairs of guitar strings over each other, under which Hillmer and Antonio clap out a supporting rhythm.
And, yes, guitars. Now that the next artistic phase was well under way, the group decided to bring in a new second guitarist to fill out the sound. Hillmer asked Amnon Freidlin of the Philadelphia band Normal Love to join the group; he played his first Zs gig in June of 2009.
The big new album—titled New Slaves after the big new piece that would be its centerpiece—was recorded that fall. “New Slaves is supposed to be the formal breadth and compositional depth of Arms, the execution of The Hard EP, and the studio relationship of Music of the Modern White. That was the idea from the beginning,” explains Hillmer. Yet, despite the major force that is New Slaves the piece, the group had only collectively composed about 30 minutes of music—in order to achieve their aspirations, still more material would need to be written. They came up with a solution that actually harkened back to the sextet’s composer collective: individually composed portrait pieces.
After Concert Black and Acres of Skin open up the album, Greenberg’s Gentleman Amateur amalgamates a collection of electronic banshee wails into a cohesive five minutes. Antonio’s piece Masonry, performed on marimba, functions as palette-cleansing piece before New Slaves. Grandest in conception is Hillmer’s Black Crown Ceremony, a 23-minute, two-movement creation—one part saxophone improvisation, one part musique concrète—that closes out the album.
Freidlin’s Don’t Touch Me not only doesn’t really sound like the other tracks on the record, it doesn’t really sound like Zs at all. “There was something about the band—it’s not that he didn’t get it, but I don’t think it’s what he wanted to do,” says Hillmer. On January 29, 2010, only seven months after his first appearance, he played his last show with the group. The group brought in Tony Lowe—Greenberg’s housemate, former member of the Skeletons, a band that had frequently shared bills with Zs over the years. He was thrown into the fire immediately, given only two rehearsals to get everything together before a tour of Texas for South-by-Southwest. “It was, yeah, intense,” Lowe recalls. “I spent a week of eight- to twelve-hour days sitting in my room learning New Slaves.” In interviews, the other members are in total agreement: Lowe is the right fit.
Act Like You Know
The difficult thing about constructing a cohesive Zs timeline is that while there are clear markers when albums are released and band members change, everything is in constant flux. During the rehearsal for their record release show at the Knitting Factory earlier this May, the band was still making significant changes to the arrangements of not only the set list, but the pieces themselves. Acres of Skin sounds totally different live than on the album; in Hillmer’s basement the night before the gig, the band added a momentary tacit before the loud section at the end, allowing Hillmer’s sax to enter with an entirely unstable and visceral high note. It may now be the most arresting feature in the music, and it wasn’t there until months after it was recorded, over a year after it was written. Even New Slaves received some minor modifications. Mincek’s assertion about when a piece is done might have to be slightly amended in this case: music isn’t finished until you’re no longer playing it.
And it’s surprising how little ego is involved in the process—every member contributed something, many things actually, and perhaps the most complacent was Hillmer, who looked nothing if not pleased at the machinery he had seen through the last decade. Greenberg and Lowe previewed a guitar part they had been working on, which Zs hopes to turn into a piece they can introduce on their upcoming summer gigs in Europe—the band’s first tour off the continent. Hillmer referred to the new piece as “some awesome Terry Riley shit.” He laughed. “I can’t wait to play over that.” The next night they killed it before a crowd of about 200 people. Not a sellout, but as good a showing as you’ll likely find for experimental music of this sort.
When Zs started, it contained a germ that could have sprouted in a dozen different ways—a few different moves, and the band could be one of the most hyped chamber ensembles on the new music scene; or if they had moderated their sound and ideas, they could be totally ensconced in the indie music behemoth that has grown out of Brooklyn in the last few years. But what Zs is most of all is inspiring. It’s a clear signal that composers and performers, given ample vision and skill, can shape their own way in whatever context they want. Anybody could start at the same point Zs did in 2001—disenchanted musicians trying to do something different—and move along their own path. The one action that might be totally futile is trying to follow the same course. Good luck on that.