Over ten years of ceaseless activity in the New York underground has done nothing to slow the pace of the inimitable Zs. The group, currently comprised of drummer Greg Fox, guitarist Patrick Higgins and saxophonist Sam Hillmer, create a visceral, surreal kind of chamber music which introduces rock instruments into the more experimental territories of the modern avant-garde, forming their own distinctive path with unconventional sounds and sublimely surreal compositions. Stabs of noise, contrapuntal melodies and head-turning rhythmic patterns combine on the group's latest record Xe, which serves as an artistic apex for the ideas Zs has been building on for the past few years-- a one-take capture of a set molded together from over two years of touring. AdHoc recently spoke with Patrick Higgins about how the band developed its unique pulse and Xe, which will be released on January 27 via Northern Spy.
AdHoc: What made you guys decide to record the new album in one go? How long did this take?
Patrick Higgins: That's what the material is. The way we've been doing it for, I think maybe the last two years now, live, has been in that format and we don't really stop playing live once we start. We kind of kick off and burn our way through. But that's also how the record was written, basically. We obviously had lots of rehearsing and composition work that went into it, but as far as finishing up the songs and putting together our set, that all evolved sort of naturally as we toured with all that material. That was the only way it could have been done.
We basically spent about three days recording. The first day was developing audio, getting sounds, getting all the mic levels set, developing the kind of colors and shapes that we wanted on the record. We spent the next two days just playing that set a lot. But again, because the material on the record was developed over such a long period of touring and performing live, it was pretty...I don't know if easy is the right word, but it wasn't a struggle to track it in that manner. And we really were interested in making a record that way, because it's so different to how records are made anymore, where everything is built up in layers and layers, with small, small, little takes, and everything's chopped together on the computer afterwards. We really just wanted to perform, and leave in whatever weird quirks there are— it's part of how the songs work for us. I think we were all kind of committed to putting out a record that was made a little bit differently than records have been for a while now. That was part of the fun of it.
AdHoc: I noticed a common theme that some of the tracks on Xe share. I don't want to say it's political, but, like...there are songs called "Wolf Government” and “The Future Of Royalty”... What was the inspiration behind this record?
PH: Yeah, there was a kind of vague conceptual interest in the sort of...subterranean, black-ops corporate military world. Which is also what the title Xe kind of refers to. That was the intermediary name that the Blackwater group adopted before they changed their name to Academi while they were being investigated for war crimes or some such thing. (laughs) So, it's at once a cryptic nod to that, but also a lot of the titles and the songs themselves are pointing in many directions at once. Also, Xe, the way it's pronounced ("Z"), is a Chinese word, an abbreviation for Xenon, the element. There's all sorts of polyvalence to the name.
AdHoc: How did you link up with [album cover artist] Tauba Auerbach?
PH: She'd referenced us in an interview she gave for the New York Times a while ago. She was a fan and inspired by a lot of our music. So we got in touch with her, and sort of discovered that we were working on very similar sort of themes in Zs' music as she does in her sculpture.
AdHoc:The cover art actually kind of reminded me of some of the songs. It seems like there's this one motif, like at the end of the title track, where. for a brief moment, there's this part where everything coalesces. But the rest is these bits and pieces that are all ricocheting around...
PH: [Auerbach] was trying to offer a kind of-- I wouldn't say interpretation of the record with her sculpture-- but she certainly was engaging with a similar kind of process that we used in composing that music. Small interlocking elements that create structural variation in the way they're put together, but not necessarily in their fundamental unit.
AdHoc: On New Slaves, one track was written by one person, another track by another person, and so on— was the new album more of a group effort?
PH: Very much a group effort. The way the pieces really reached their final form was over about two years of just touring the material. The initial way the songs were written basically involved me bringing in guitar patterns and ideas and working with Sam and Greg to turn them into more formal structures, and then Sam writing melodies and ornaments for the saxophone, Greg composing all the rhythmic parts, and after those contributions are made we started changing arrangements, fitting everything together more tightly, and seeing what works live and what doesn't. That's really what dictated the eventual shape of the songs.
AdHoc: How much on the record is improvised?
PH: There's a lot of improvisation on the record, but it always serves a compositional purpose. There are specific moments of bounded freedom, within certain songs where room is set up for us to improvise collectively. But it's always towards a particular goal in the song, [to reach] a certain moment in the song. I'd say about 75% is composed, and a quarter of it is improvised. But it's a writing style where all of the songs have a kind of loose structure, they're written to be flexible.
AdHoc: How did you develop the rhythms on Xe?
PH: With me, and with the way Greg plays percussively, we were interested in taking advantage of the polyrhythmic and syncopation flexibilities that are afforded by just focusing on a pulse, instead of a steady or rigid time signature, as far as dictating the feel of the music. So the two main tracks on the record are more pulse-based than anything else. Part of the point is that the music is always shifting its emphasis and its feel rhythmically, in terms of how the phrases are operating, because it's based on a fundamental pulse.
AdHoc: Where was Xe recorded?
PH: It was recorded at my studio, Future Past. It's a studio that I run in Hudson, New York. It was all recorded to two-inch tape, all analog and old-school. Yeah, all tracked live, no edits and no overdubs. Strictly speaking, the only thing that isn't live are the digital hand claps at the beginning.
AdHoc: How did you first get involved with Zs?
PH: I joined three years ago. Sam [Hillmer] and I started working together a lot on our solo projects— I was doing a solo classical guitar and electronics project called Bachanalia, and Sam was developing his project Diamond Terrifier. So we had started playing a lot of shows together, then we went on tour together doing that. It was through that period that we began developing the idea of building a new iteration of the band where I was involved, and Greg [Fox] joined shortly after that, in the summer of 2012.
AdHoc: There have been a lot of different lineup changes for Zs. It sometimes seems to be an institution, with different members coming and going.
PH: I think that's certainly true to some extent. It's less true than it might appear. There have been a lot of people in the band over the years, but there's really been three main phases that were pretty intact for long periods. I think what's great about the way Sam has run the group is by allowing it to adapt to changing personnel and to always adapt to new styles while still retaining some kind of aesthetic commitment to what it set out to achieve in the first place. But he's never held the band back by some abstract definition or conception of what it's supposed to be. There were three main phases of it: kind of a post-classical sextet for the first phase, and then the second one was with Ian [Antonio] and Ben [Greenberg] and Sam, and then there's the current phase.
AdHoc: How much is Zs influenced by other contemporary performers and bands?
PH: Not so much for Zs. What I've found really interesting about Zs historically is its commitment to developing new vocabularies and new styles within the band itself. I certainly have a lot of personal influences in my music, but I tend to draw from pretty old sources, like classical and baroque and early modern work. I check out a lot of contemporary music but I purposely try to not check out too much of it. You keep a kind of willful ignorance that allows you to do your own thing.