Ben Greenberg of Hubble, Pygmy Shrews, and Zs

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The epic guitarist on naming conventions, outer space, and Sandy Bull.

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Sjimon Gompers | February 28, 2012

Hubble at Death by Audio

by Eric Phipps

Ben Greenberg is a guitar-wielding force of nauture for Zs, Pygmy Shrews, and solo as Hubble. He is also one of NYC's most in-demand recording engineers, having worked on, among others, Laurel Halo's King Felix and White Suns' Walking in the Reservoir. Unfortunately, Pygmy Shrews are playing their last show on Wednesday at 285 Kent in Brooklyn (White Suns open), but we have no worries that this guy is gonna sit at home, eating cheetos on the couch. His solo release under the Hubble name, Hubble Drums, premiered with a video he soundtracked with NASA's approval of Hubble Telescope images. So, you know, he's basically a rocket scientist now, in addition to being really fucking good at playing a guitar.

How do you transition between the musical frameworks for Pygmy Shrews to Zs to your solo work with Hubble?

Well, Hubble was born out of material that I was writing initially for Zs, so in my mind it was what I was always doing. I have been playing guitar for about 20 years, so at this point the way I play is in a stated sound. I hope that it keeps growing with time, in the big picture, but between Zs, Hubble and Pygmy Shrews I like to think that my guitar sounds more or less the same.

Well, there are some different things happening between them, different oscillations…

Oh yeah, I know. With Hubble I don’t have those other musicians to bounce off so I guess I don’t need to fill all the space possible with guitar. (Laughs.) But I kinda like to, it’s more fun that way!

How did the NASA thing come about?

It was in collaboration with the Space Telescope Science Institute. It’s in Baltimore, it’s based out of the Johns Hopkins campus; They have this really cool building. They just have the most amazing space there, it’s so beautiful.

How does this all work, with the NASA budget being slashed and everything?

Well, they’re not paying me! (Laughs.)

Bammer!

Actually, that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this, to call attention to that very question into light. I feel that NASA is vital, not just to our country but humanity as a whole, vital as almost anything we’re spending money on right now. I think it’s totally criminal that these cuts come at the expense of the Webb telescope, which is supposed to be the successor to Hubble if they get it built. Right now it would be absurd if they were able to finish building it, because they got fucking cut so hard. But if they do get it built they will be able to go so far out into space and see so far out that we will be able to see evidence of the Big Bang, and learn about the art of the universe and everything, and I just can’t even imagine how we can spend billions of dollars on wars in stupid countries and not want to find out how we started out in the first place .

Having contributed to the soundtrack to a video of Hubble Telescope-captured space imagery sanctioned by NASA must feel pretty good.

Um, well, you know, I’m just trying to help people reacquaint themselves with the unknown.

What brought you to break new music through guitar experimentation?

Well, guitar has been probably my life since I was… I’m 26, I’ve been playing for 20 years, so my whole life basically. So in my mind, it’s just what I do, it’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at, the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. I play every day, and if there was any sort mindset to be, ‘Yeah, I’m going to make totally new guitar music that is going to make people totally change the way they look at guitar,’ it’s actually more like I play all the time and this is kind of where it took me. People that have inspired me to the wonder of staring at the stars when I’m on tour. You can’t see the stars in New York City. (Laughs.) Stuff like that.

I feel like it is almost reductionist to classify your work with Zs and Hubble as psychedelic. If there was a succinct way to reference your body of work by us prying journos, what would you prefer?

Well, there has been talk over the years on how to classify Zs and we have tried to take a few positions on it. The first step was to try to get people to stop calling us ‘avant-jazz’ which I think we have established at this point. But once we got them to stop calling us that, it sort of spun off into these other direction,s so now when people bring up our band they start stringing six or seven adjectives together! But with respective to Zs, and we’ll get to Hubble in second, I like to put it out there that I don’t think there is any point in classifying the music any more. I think Zs would appreciate it if everyone would stop putting genres on it and just call it Zs. I think that would sort of save everyone the time. No one really wants to think about it as industrial, psychedelic-post-minimalist-no-wave-punk jazz, you know? That doesn’t sound like anything, but if you call it Zs I think it speaks for itself.

With respect to Hubble I think that it’s kind of in a similar vein. It is guitar music in a similar way but I think it occupies a lot of other spaces as well, in the same way that you could call Zs avant-jazz if you wanted to consider it an offshoot of that culture. I mean what I’m doing with Hubble is an offshoot of guitar culture. I grew up with guitar teachers who taught me Joe Satriani licks, and how to do a Kirk Hammet solo, and the Eddie Van Halen “Beat It” solo, and that’s a part of my brain that I can’t get rid of. It’s right up there with all the Terry Riley, Negative Approach, No Trend, and everything else that I love. So what I’m doing with Hubble has to be an offshoot of guitar music in that way, but again, you don’t want to just call it guitar music because then people think Joe Satriani or Eddie Van Halen taking a guitar solo on “Beat It.”

With a track like “Glass Napkin” with Hubble, what’s the trick to shredding for over 20 minutes without feeling too, you know, tired?

Heh, I don’t know, I don’t think there’s a secret, I think it’s just when I pick up the guitar that’s just usually what I do. I just play for a really…you know, long time! (Laughs.) It just appeals to me. I like getting lost in things. When I was a kid I played in punk bands. I still play in punk bands, but I played in a lot of punk bands when I was kid. But what attracted me to that was totally physically and mentally losing myself in that moment, because It was such a release. I’m chasing that same experience with Hubble, only that I don’t wind up with so many broken noses and stuff. But it’s the same basic idea, I want to create something with my guitar playing and music making that people can lose themselves in, and not in a passive way either. I think that great art should demand your attention all the time when you’re experiencing it.

I get the feeling like you're trying to communicate in a different language with the way you play different frenetic guitar strums like on “Hubble's Hubble.” Are you attempting to transverse language in exchange for guitar licks?

That’s interesting. It’s been said that music is its own language and that it's universal, blah blah, and I think that's true and I think that’s an interesting thing to bring up now, because the idea of being a musician is such an open concept, compared to what it was in the pre-punk era, even in the ‘60s. The notion of being a musician was completely different; the notion of what it took on your instrument for you to be in a band is completely different than what it used to be. So, yeah. Maybe there is something in what I’m playing that's like, I don’t know, learning all the words of a different language but admitting that skill won't make you fluent. And I feel very fortunate to start playing an instrument at such a young age, to have some fluency on it, and maybe that does translate to something. I think maybe it is a different way to communicate for sure. I just hope people can understand it. It’s hard to create many different forms of experience with the music when it’s just me and the guitar, and I’m not even singing, so I think that just the logistical setup of what I am doing lends itself to a kind minimal front compositionally as well.

I love it, takes me back to all that Sandy Bull stuff that just blows my mind.

Yeah, for sure. My friend Patrick Higgins is a really amazing guitar player and right now is working on a record I recorded for him that is solo classical guitar and it’s all Bach. You remember that one track on Inventions where (Sandy) does a Bach choral and it sounds super surfed out, but it is beautiful and resonant, like something from an electric church? Well, Patrick is kicking this solo classical guitar record and he is just tweaking it completely, so it’s all Bach and it’s all performed immaculately and it sounds fuckin’ beautiful, and he’s taking that and twisting that into this production nightmare. I’m really stoked for him. The record is going to be called Bachanalia. He did a bunch of performances of it lately where he has an amplifier and acoustic guitar performing the Bach and he’s got all these different pedals of distortion – reverb, delays and all that – and he’ll just keep bringing it in and out in accordance to the dynamics of the music. It’s really beautiful; he’s a good composer too. You should check it out. There are people doing cool things with guitar and it’s not all, ‘I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing’ or you did know what you were doing and weren’t making anything of value. You know? Ever since the ‘90s I feel like that’s been the vibe. Granted there are obviously always exceptions, but I feel like in the mass consciousness as it relates to the guitar, that has always been the vibe. And I think there are great people making things with guitars that no one else has ever heard before and I hope that continues. I would be honored to be considered a part of that for sure.

Jumping back to Zs real quick, I was wondering why all the songs were called “33” with the different tracks identified with various back slashes and symbols?

Well when I initially put those pieces together the idea was to come up with a double 7-inch-worth of material, but basically Northern Spy came to us and they were like ‘we want to do a multi format release with you’ and we were like “Great, we got this tape, and we got this other one, and a third one.” [Northern Spy’s Owner, President, Marketing Director, Distribution Manager] Tom Abbs is really into trios, and wanted to make this double 7-inch format. So we had to make something that was specific to that, and my idea initially was to not have song names at all, but obviously that is impractical with digital music. That is something interesting to explore. If you are only releasing something in the physical format then it is completely possible to have no song titles and have everything be a mystery. which is what I wanted initially. But there has to be a digital release too, and you can’t do that digitally, you have to give it a name. It is impossible to work in the digital format without a name, which is something that actually kind of scares me.

ID3 tags have taken over, but even mp3s are a kind of archaic contraband now that everything is going into the ‘cloud.’

It’s true. I don’t know. There is something about naming. No matter what you’re talking about, be it a person, or going back to how we were talking about genres and how people tend to put all these different names on Zs that aren’t necessarily applicable although they might be moving independent of each other, once you start naming things you lose something, you know. I think you should have the freedom to not name things sometimes and that was initially the goal with 33. But we were thwarted by the digital age! (Laughs.) So we tried to differentiate them in the least specific way that we could, so that there wouldn’t be this implied hierarchy or anything like that. Because I want all those pieces to stand at equal moments, so that there isn’t a sequence you’re supposed to listen to in or anything like that.

The Hubble stuff draws me through a whole different approach than Zs, where you have to dissect the sound in different ways. Not that there is more happening in Zs than Hubble at all but there are different listening receptors you utilize. You go about them differently. With Zs there are 3 minute tracks where guitars come in and out with atmospheric things, strange keys and other effects coming in, whereas Hubble is this solo Iliad with its building approach to guitar work.

That’s awesome. Zs isn’t doing any shows right now and we’re just writing our next full length, and we’re basically taking the next 2 years to do so, we haven’t written any music in like 3 years. So the idea I’ve been running with since before we did 33 was that I want to put Zs into a spaceship, not just metaphorically but also literally. I wanted it to sound like a spaceship. Like, a far off goal of something that doesn’t really exist, that you can’t quite put your finger on. But it obviously implies tons of sounds, ideas, and feelings, and that’s the way I went ahead with it. And the way I have been thinking about Hubble is like a satellite of the spaceship, or one of the residents of the spaceship coming out and telling his story, or something like that.

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