Z is for zone

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Challenging music with New York’s Zs.

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Jake Saunders | February 11, 2015

Zs have been a band since I was six years old. The first Zs lineup began playing rigorously challenging compositions as a sextet whilst I was still playing with blocks. Since then, Zs have released five full-lengths (including 2012’s Score, which is basically four albums), two EPs, and three remix records. It’s a deep project, one with intricacies that can only truly be grasped by diving in headfirst. In a world of endless streaming information, Zs embrace the tangibility that we so desperately lack. Zs force us to pay attention and experience something real and lasting while the world watches every little moment pass by like twigs in a stream (much like the piece of writing you’re reading right now).

Describing the way Zs music sounds is a futile task. They receive tags like no-wave and avant garde jazz, but neither of those really work. If you are going to undertake the journey of exploring Zs, Score, a box set released by Northern Spy Records which archives the very early days of the band, might be a good place to start.  Arms, an epic display of pointillism, combining Philip Glass minimalism with the primal intuition of James Chance is another appropriate entry point. Regardless, you will never get to the bottom of Zs by throwing on any random song or album.

New Slaves has been their most well-received. It is the quintessential Zs record. Each section of the album is composed by one member of the band, a testament to the communal spirit of Zs, and how individual sensibilities come together to create a single entity. On New Slaves you can hear the various solo projects that came out of Zs begin to take shape, which stretches the scope of Zs further than just a single ensemble.

“Zs essentially always seeks to have the same relationship to the cultural sphere, which means we always have to be changing,” says saxophonist Sam Hillmer, the only remaining member since the band formed in 2000. He splits his time between working on Zs, his solo project Diamond Terrifier, and running the experimental show space Trans Pecos. “In order to maintain a consistent relationship with your surroundings you always have to be changing in order to position yourself relatively… Now that relationship which we seek to have is one where there’s a kind of creative and productive tension between fitting in and working, and totally not fitting in and not working. [There’s an] intentional blurring of stylistic boundaries and tensions.”

The current Zs line-up includes Hillmer, joined by composer and guitarist Patrick Higgins, plus Greg Fox, who also drums in Guardian Alien and Liturgy and plays solo as GDFX. The choice to include Higgins and Fox was obvious. Both are highly active in their own musical pursuits, and provide highly individual and characteristic voices within the larger context of the band. This is one of the great things about every musician of Zs past and present. They are constantly exploring the world both individually and in an ensemble context. “I feel like the all the music I’ve ever made and all the people I’ve made music with has continued to have a cumulative effect on the way I approach playing music and the sort of things I think about when I’m sitting down at the drumset,” Greg Fox tells me. “I think a lot about continuing to expand in every direction at once.”

Early Zs was born out of a Brooklyn underground culture wildly different than what we are experiencing today. Although many of Zs early contemporaries (Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Wolf Eyes, Black Dice, Gang Gang Dance are a few examples) would move on to receive widespread success, the commercialization of the current DIY fantasy-land we know as Brooklyn has made such boundary-pushing less common, and less celebrated.

Describing the way Zs music sounds is a futile task. They receive tags like no-wave and avant garde jazz, but neither of those really work.

There’s a frustration in Hillmer’s voice when I ask about the early days of the Brooklyn underground. “There used to be more identity to being involved with something that could be considered ‘counter-culture’,” he says. “It used to be dangerous to be involved with counter-culture, like literally because things were sketchier then. New York was a sketchier place. These venues, most of which were illegal, were in neighborhoods that were just really tough. Tough in a way that I don’t think people who are moving to New York now really understand because I don’t think that they go to places that are gritty and raw in the way that the Brooklyn we used to go to [was].”

Environmental conditions are constantly informing local music, so as Brooklyn has become more receptive to normative society, the music coming out of the city has softened and become less reliant on confrontation. The early days of Zs came out of a  bizarre and tumultuous time to be making music; before the Internet really influenced music as it does now, before everything became immediately accessible, in the shadows of Y2K and 9/11. Indie rock had finally entered the mainstream and it seemed like the only way to be able to jerk people around was to confront. And as I began playing soccer and little league at McCarren Park in Greenpoint, a whole underground arts movement was being unearthed.

“There [was] a vibe around the underground DIY community of that time; it was austere, it was severe, it was intense, it was exclusive,” Hillmer says. “There was this energy of danger, the possibility of violence and it wasn’t attractive to normative people.  And the only reason you’d be a part of something like that is if you couldn’t survive in normative society… It was very focused, people were doing what they were trying to do. Individuality and uniqueness and expressive voice was not just rewarded but kind of a necessity. If you were coming across at that time like you were just copying somebody, I mean that was really looked down on. People thought that was being really cheap and tacky. Now if you’re coming across as copying someone, it’s really the only way to do it. If you look at garage rock and psych rock and all that, all of those bands are just obvious carbon copies of things from previous decades, and that seems like a completely accepted mode of cultural production.”

“History repeats itself and repeats itself and sometimes I feel like we’re just circling in this culture drain right now and the cycle of the water around the drain is becoming tighter,” Fox tells me “I’m curious to see what’s going to happen when it all goes down the drain.”

Zs are clearly focused on challenging audiences, at a time when audiences desperately need to be challenged. But as the world continues to find ways for us to distract ourselves from the actual substance of life, where in the world does the tangible come into play?

Xe is the most recent Zs record, and perhaps their best to date. Coming out of a year and a half of performing and reforming the same set, Xe could be looked at as a statement of permanence.  We live our lives, and process information as a continuous stream, often through glowing screens. Xe both embodies and rejects this notion. Recorded with no overdubs, no edits, and highly minimal to no digital alteration, Xe is simply a moment in a recording studio.

The record is a captured moment in time. It is a statement of tangibility, of substance. It’s a projection of a real human experience, at a time when real human experiences are routinely buried under heavy streams of useless information. At the same time, Xe seems to confront this by sonically demonstrating the very condition of how we process information. Long, repetitive, stretched; there are moments on Xe where everything feels like a blur, you forget where you are in time until the stream dissipates and we are left with a release, a speed bump, a stoppage. A feeling that could be compared to spacing out at your Facebook newsfeed for hours until Kanye says something stupid.

This extreme repetition could be looked at as a rejection of our rapidly deteriorating attention spans, challenging us to lose ourselves in the ocean of time that Zs have opened up for us; challenging us to sit still until it’s time to move around. “We were really committed to making a record that was fully performed and was really human,” Patrick Higgins says. “It was not something that was constructed out of little bits that were put together but was really just us playing the music.”

It’s a projection of a real human experience, at a time when real human experiences are routinely buried under heavy streams of useless information.

Xe simultaneously embraces our fleeting moments, while forcing us to look deeper into them. It’s a rejection of our negligence of real experiences, while seemingly taking the physical form of how we process information.

“For me it’s about creating something that can’t be immediately digested, where you can just click on it and get it in 30 seconds,” Higgins continues. “That’s part of making long form music but also part of the production of the record and the way the music was composed was that it really was a developmental arc… There’s really no way to get it without going through the whole thing. I think making the record that way is sort of a critical stance on click bait or some shit like that.”

Xe is a mind-bending listen; it’s long and experiential and confusing, but it’s ok to sit there and be confused by it. That’s the beauty of this music—you can rest your thoughts on top of it, and project and relate your own ideas to fit into its contextual canvas. At a time when so much is quickly tossed away, it’s music that forces you to listen and discover; music that occupies the mind and empties it all at once.

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Members of Zs have played in many solo projects over the years. Below, find audio and video streams by past and present members of the bands.

Alex Mincek / Wet Ink Ensemble:

Ben Greenberg / Hubble:

Sam Hillmer / Diamond Terrifier:

Greg Fox / Guardian Alien:

Charlie Looker / Extra Life:

Charlie Looker / Psalm Zero:

Matthew Hough:

Patrick Higgins:

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