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Noises On 

The story of a band named Hella, an unclassifiable sound, and tobacco products

Wednesday, Mar 3 2004
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You'd be surprised how difficult it is to get a drummer to hold a cigarette in his asshole so your friend can grab it between his teeth and eat it. Well, I was surprised.

It was the fall of 2002, and I was a lowly freelance music writer just trying to pay the bills. I wasn't sure if anyone was going to want a story on the Sacramento-based duo Hella, but I was certain that this act was destined for a kind of musical celebrity reserved only for true greats, names like Gorp and Pere Ubu and Michael Bolton.

Back then the band had only one album in its cupboard, Hold Your Horse Is, a ferociously original collection that was burning a hole in my CD player as I tried to journey to the center of its endlessly complex sonic catacombs. The band is only two guys, yes, but they sure do cause a ruckus. What drummer Zach Hill does with a few wooden cylinders and a couple pieces of shiny bronze metal sounds like a herd of American buffalo charging through the Financial District during rush hour. But the jaw-dropping part is that guitarist Spencer Seim is somehow able to score that chaos, matching each of Hill's bashings with static-charged bursts of crunchy lines that ride the percussive explosions like a lunatic longboarding a tidal wave. It's noisy, noisy stuff, and challenging – boy, is it challenging. I didn't quite understand the music or its makers, but I desperately wanted to.

So I called up my friend Andrew, because he has a gift for helping me crack the less crackable nuts of this world through a form of belligerent (albeit gentle) provocation that I am not capable of.

"Hey Andrew, I gotta go to a show and interview this band. You wanna come?"

"What kind of music is it?" (Andrew likes D.C. hardcore mainly, has the tattoos to prove it.)

"Uh, kind of challenging, weird, different. It's loud, though. You like loud."

"..."

"I'll buy you beer."

"..."

"How much beer do I need to buy you?"

My interview that night with Zach Hill didn't last very long. Hill was kind and forthcoming, but I was nervous and cagey. My questions weren't hitting their mark. Hella's secrets were not being revealed. How did these two guys pull off a three-minute song with three dozen changes and play it in constantly unfolding time signatures – 2/4, 7/8, eleventy-19? Without discounting my disbelief at his and his partner's abilities, Hill answered my queries simply, nonchalantly.

"When we get together, we play like this," he said. "It's not contrived; we don't try to play a certain way. It just comes out sounding like that. Most of our influences aren't musical in the first place. What we're trying to accomplish musically has nothing to do with music, really. Both of us are inspired by things other than music, and we transfer that into music."

What kind of influences?

"Anything from magic to watching someone comb their hair to, I don't know, eating a burrito."

Wha?

Pretty soon I became frustrated in my attempts to comprehend these musicians through straightforward journalistic technique. And besides, Andrew was dying to show off the (gently provocative) trick he had devised prior to the interview, which involved the shoving of a cigarette up a volunteer's ass and Andrew's eating of that cigarette for the lowly sum of $10. Because he is my friend, Andrew was willing to eat a cigarette out of Hill's ass free of charge. And I was willing to think this was a good idea. Hill was not.

"No way, I can't do it."

"It's cool," said Andrew. "I don't have a sense of smell." (Long story.)

"That's against my morals," Hill replied. "I just feel bad. I don't want you to have to eat something that's been in my ass."

Musicians can be such prima donnas.

And so the nut remained uncracked. Andrew ate a cigarette out of someone else's ass that night (so that Hill could see we were serious), Hella played an amazing show, and I remained stupefied by all of it – the music, the musicians, my own strange motives. Oh, and the story I wanted to write never found its way into print. Gee, I wonder why.


A lot has happened since the fall of 2002. Andrew has moved back east, I am no longer a freelancer, and the guys in Hella have enjoyed the kind of success I knew was coming their way. They're not millionaires (and never will be; like I said, this music is challenging), but they've released a few more EPs and 7-inches and have toured the country a couple of times. Soon they'll head to Europe and Japan, and next Tuesday, they celebrate the release of their second full-length, The Devil Isn't Red, at the Bottom of the Hill. One thing that hasn't changed, however, is that I am still fascinated by the music Hella makes, and I still can't figure it out.

"What's to figure out?" you might ask. For me, the answer has to do with the fact that this music is simultaneously captivating and unlistenable; like certain animals in nature – polar bears, mainly – there is something about this pummeling stuff that makes me want to jump into the cage with it, even though I know I'll get beaten and eaten.

Hella is not the first group to walk this line. The band belongs to a lineage of noise-speed-metal-jazz-punk groups that compel audiences with technical feats while repelling them with a combination of extreme volume, near-infinite complexity, and (in some cases, although not in Hella's) physical violence. Such acts include Providence's Arab on Radar and Lightning Bolt (also a duo), Brooklyn's Black Dice, and Japan's the Ruins and the Boredoms, as well as many others I'm not cool enough to have heard of.

While some of these acts, most deliciously Lightning Bolt, plant tongues firmly in cheeks, Hill and Seim may just have the best, and possibly strangest, sense of humor of the lot. For one thing, they named their band "Hella," that stupid word that Northern Californians use to mean "very" and that Southern Californians, as well as people in the rest of the country, use to make fun of Northern Californians. There are also the song titles: "Post-Ivy League Depression," "Welcome to the Jungle Baby, You're Gonna Live," and, my personal favorite, "Bitches Ain't Shit But Good People."

"We like humor, we like to laugh," Seim tells me in a recent phone interview. "And certain words sound funny coming off the tongue. We just like to put those out there with the music, because it's something different."

In some sense, the absurdity hinted at in the titles applies to the songs themselves. The first track on The Devil Isn't Red, "Hello Architects of the Universe," begins with a phone being dialed and a robot answering (which is the closest the album gets to including vocals), followed abruptly by some choppy, distorted guitar stabs and a drumbeat that's not really a drumbeat but is kind of a drumbeat, or maybe it's 17 different drumbeats, or maybe it's just the whir of a cotton gin made to sound like a drumbeat, or a bleating goat being eaten by a lawn mower – we don't really know. All we know is that it's getting faster and faster, and it's pulling the guitar riffs along almost violently, like a noisy station wagon merging onto a freeway, muffler dangling, sparks flying, a yapping poodle tied to its bumper.

With Hella, it's hard to talk about changes and parts, because there are either too many to count or none. Listen to Devil (or any of the band's records) and you'll think these guys have to be improvising, that drums and guitar are not in sync, and that including them together in one song is the joke. But then you see Hella live, and you realize that Hill and Seim can render these chaotic tunes onstage exactly the way they sound on the album. And you think, "This makes no sense." And you may be right, but there it is, happening in front of you: Two guys are playing a hurricane. And suddenly you're reminded of that theory about the butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo and how that single event caused Zach Hill to hit his cymbal in precisely that way. And then you think of the Ashton Kutcher movie The Butterfly Effect. And then you think, "Have I just been punk'd by Hella?" Yeah, it's kind of like that. Absurd.

Repeated attempts to find out what's behind this conjuring have yielded little usable information. As Hill told me, "We're not trying to make crazy music, we're just trying to make good songs." Neither Hill nor Seim has ever taken a lesson. They don't read music; they don't write their songs down. "I don't know anything about that stuff," said Hill.

And so, while I didn't realize it in 2002, I now can't imagine a better way to interview these musicians than to ask them a few stupid questions, get a few answers that cite hair-combing as an artistic inspiration, and then watch as a drunken buddy eats a death stick out of someone's rectum. Like that surreal night, Hella's music lies in a realm beyond explanation. That's as true today as it was a year and a half ago. And that is why I love it.

About The Author

Garrett Kamps

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