We've been able to survive on, basically, what a dishwasher's wage would be, which is more than enough for us," says drummer Zach Hill of the experimental freak-rock duo Hella. "As long as we tour and stay creative and work and progress."
Hill is referring to himself and longtime collaborator Spencer Seim, the guitar-strangling Jekyll to his own skin-beating Hyde. As Hella, this modest Sacramento-based noise aggregate (spun from an earlier outfit called Legs on Earth) has been mixing dangerous potions since 2001, when it unveiled Hold Your Horse Is on 5RC Records. In addition to a pair of EPs, Bitches Ain't Shit but Good People and Total Bugs Bunny on Wild Bass, Hill and Seim also issued a full-length, 2004's The Devil Isn't Red, which, like most of their instrumental output, adheres to a single-minded, rhythmically fixated assault on the senses. Menacing guitar lines, flurries of loud, staccato beats and electronic arcade racket all combine for a sonic clutter of art-metal chaos.
"If it doesn't fit, we make it fit," Hill says, offering a tidy mission statement that could also apply to the lost art of Chinese foot binding. But rather than inflict discomfort in the mere name of beauty, Hella has branched into more conceptual territory with an ambitiously ugly new dual-solo release, Church Gone Wild/Chirpin Hard. Something of a spazzcore rebuttal to Outkast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, Hella's latest opus certainly won't inspire listeners to shake it like a Polaroid picture. Instead, Church/Chirpin explores darker, goofier and far more frightening dynamics, presenting Hill and Seim as independent multi-instrumentalists capable of playing every instrument on their respective discs -- like two equal halves of one telepathic mind-fuck.
"The way we've approached our band for years is as a child itself and something that we've raised as its own person," Hill reveals. "In a lot of ways, the conclusion has been that this record could be an insight into both sides of the brain of a band. I'm the noisier and more troubled side, I guess."
No matter how you slice the melon, Hill's distressing Church is about as soothing as a rake on a chalkboard. Intended as a seamless, sixty-minute piece broken into twelve separate movements, it's more endurance test than musical experience -- one steeped in enough visceral menace to make an al-Qaeda detainee cry for his mommy by the midway point. A dizzy-headed centrifuge of blurred time signatures, feedback and black humor, Church also marks the debut of Hill's own monotone and pitch-shifting vocals, which reference Jesus, Walt Disney and babies in comas, among other earthly delights. Snubbing melody in favor of depraved anti-music, the expert timekeeper displays dazzling technicality. But like Mel Gibson with a noise fetish, Hill pushes the same buttons over and over, pummeling his redundantly paranoid composition into a thick, bloody paste of raw nerve endings. The unexpected grand entrance of a children's oratorio on movement eight ("Earth's First Evening Jimi Hendrix-less and Pissed") comes as a welcome tourniquet after forty minutes of sonic hemorrhaging.
"I have an art space in an old orphanage that's still an active private school," Hill relates. "It's kind of like a big cultural center. Anyway, the school has a choir, and a lot of times when I'm in my studio practicing, I can hear them singing. So one day I went down and recorded them doing their thing and then played along to it.
"People keep saying there's a lot of field recordings and samples and this and that on the record, and actually there's none," Hill adds. "There's no found sounds. Those are all performances."
Hella's free-form approach continues on Chirpin, Seim's more lighthearted and accessible side of the coin. A part-time drummer for a full-time Nintendo cover band called the Advantage, Seim incorporates an array of eight-bit bleeps and squelches into his progressive song cycle, turning the whole affair into an electro-punk-infused treatise on the video-game age. Chirpin's cartoonish nihilism blends melodic math rock with twisted harmonies and propulsive grooves, advancing to the challenger stage during standout cuts "Famnail" and "Trap Kit Whatever." More fun and varied than his counterpart's onslaught, Seim's hour of pounding joysticks nonetheless seems as commercially viable as a Hummer hybrid. Thankfully, the label head at Seattle-based Suicide Squeeze found merit in Hella's madness.
"Fortunately, David Dickenson is a firm believer in trying to pioneer things that haven't necessarily been done before, and he takes chances on things that maybe other people wouldn't," Hill says. "He truly believes in the music itself without being concerned so much with finances or taking losses for the advancement of art, which is something that's hard to find."
Likewise, finding concurring backup musicians with the technical proficiency to perform Church/Chirpin in a live setting is just as difficult. But guitarist/keyboardist Dan Elkan and bassist Jonathan Hischke have joined Hella's ranks with the full understanding that, despite any tight configurations, there's still plenty of room to scribble in the margins.
"There's a good amount of improvising in the set," Hill allows. "It's one of my favorite things to do. I couldn't imagine being in a band where there was none of that involved at all. I think it's one of the healthiest and most powerful things you can do on an instrument. Our set probably consists of 40 percent improvisation at this point, within boundaries and checkpoints and coded areas."
Hill explores his own impulsive nature even further in Team Sleep, an outfit fronted by the Deftones' Chino Moreno that also features members of Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails. In addition to completing a solo CD/book of drawings, Hill is in the midst of Concentration Face, a DVD documentation of Hella's first trip to Japan.
"It's a very progressive place," Hill says of the world's noisecore epicenter. "It's definitely different, and the differences come out culturally through ancient reasons and upbringing. I feel like the audience over there is a little more respectful and open than over here -- as far as attentiveness and actual focus on what it is that's going on.
"But the response is less overwhelming," he continues. "Shows in Japan are very quiet, and when you get done with a song, it's not as rowdy or energetic, which is a thing over here that sometimes fuels the performance itself. But Japanese crowds have a calmness that's so focused it gives you energy, because you know how hard they're concentrating on what it is you're actually doing."
What Hella is actually doing remains difficult to describe. While Seim deconstructs Donkey Kong and the overworld music to the Legend of Zelda, Hill goes through drumheads like they're made out of wax paper. At least they're not scrubbing plates somewhere in matching hairnets.
"We haven't had day jobs for four years," Hill enthuses. "So we're very lucky to keep ourselves afloat by just making sound."
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