For a collective known for its instrumental chops, Brooklyn avant-rock collective ZS has become awfully interested in the mechanics of DJ culture of late. This past January, they transformed their recent, retrospective SCORE boxset into source material for a real-time remix installation in Tokyo, followed by a second staging of the project during New York’s Ecstatic Music festival in February. Both iterations of the project were co-curated by NYC turntablist label and collective Dutty Artz, who invited an extended cast of local musicians to re-imagine archival ZS material on the spot. To cap off the collaboration, Dutty’s DJ /rupture joined ZS in a live performance at Ecstatic, and the label’s Taliesin “harvested” some remixes from the Japan iteration of the experiment for the following mix. We spoke to ZS founder and saxophone player Sam Hillmer and drummer Greg Fox about the SCORE project and expanding their understanding of the “remix” as a musical device; DJ /rupture joined in on the phone with a few choice words that narrowed the gap between what ZS do with live instruments and what he does with archived sound. Catch the third installment of SCORE, co-presented by Tiny Mix Tapes, on March 15th at in Austin.
Download: ZS’ SCORE Remixes
While we have DJ /rupture on the line, let’s talk about the collaborative performance you did at last month’s Ecstatic Festival in New York, where you brought together live instrumentation with live DJing. How did you make that work? RUPTURE: We made a map. Part of the map would be like, okay, in this section I knew that I would play a beat of my choosing and they would respond, or in this section I knew that I’m gonna throw down some textural accompaniment to what’s coming from the ZS and things like that.
Do you think this was an interesting match because of your interests in improvisation? RUPTURE: Yes. ZS were playing saxophone, drums and guitar, but then all those instruments were being passed through pedals and various electronics. One of the things that was cool and interesting for me was, you guys were making these sounds but then pushing up through the electronics and really transforming them. When I do these kinds of sit-down, more artsy gigs, I work with a DJ mixer with all these effects built in and kind of a weird approach to turntablism. So we both honing in on that type of vibe as well. Not just like me playing sounds and then they play over them, but like let’s both generate sounds and try to twist them around and listen and get the same sort of stakes with that. I know that Sam and crew are just really kind of open and still thinking about remix culture and ideas about DJ culture but applied to the more free, kind of rock instrument world. HILLMER: For me, it’s really really interesting to be able to work so in-depth with Jace [DJ /rupture] or somebody who works roughly in the manor that Jace works in, with turntables, mixers, whatever. We’ve been trying to cultivate surprising bills by inviting DJs to work with us for years, but to get inside the machinery of it and make some sort of mesh-work out of what we do and what they do, it’s really exciting to me. I hate that there’s this [attitude] where it’s like, there’s music which is made by instruments and then there’s these representations of music through physical media and digital media, and people who choose that stuff to make other art. Even in the moment we’re in now, there’s still a lot of people who think that people who play music on traditional instruments in real time are doing something categorically different from people who work with sound artifacts, you know? I prefer to look at something like what we did with /rupture as this array of technologies. Something like a saxophone, at one time, was regarded as some sort of technological innovation. Even though now that is kind of archaic, I still see all of the instruments, and the mixer and the turntables and the records themselves as technological devices that function as an extension of our expression, or something comparable. It’s a more liberating point of view, because you don’t feel boxed in. As a saxophone player, I always feel boxed in. It’s kind of like, You’re a band, you do this and that’s a wrap. They’re DJs and this is what DJs do. To get the opportunity to kind of not be responding to those ideas, it’s just really exciting and liberating.
Can you describe the basic gist of the SCORE installation? FOX: The installation itself is a curation of remixers who are making new music using ZS’ SCORE box set as source material. Those people are all doing that sitting around a table together, and the sound they are generating while they’re making their work is being played in the space.
When you’re in there, what are you hearing at any given moment? HILLMER: What you’re hearing is some composite of everything that’s being worked on. If there are ten remixers in the space, whoever is at the mixer at the head of the table is getting all of their signals, so they’re able to hear everything that they’re working on. Now, they’re also in control of what gets heard and what doesn’t get heard, so you can turn something up or turn it down. So it’s not like everything that everyone is doing is heard all the time—there’s kind of a sculpting element to it that we do in real time in the space. Those things all become remixes and in addition we’re kind of remixing the whole situation at that board. There’s one other sonic element: members of the ZS contribute live, real time sound by playing along to what’s heard in the space. Greg, you did a lot of that.
What did it sound like? FOX: If we’re speaking specifically about the Tokyo installation, it was interesting to me because none of us knew personally a lot of these folks coming in. Emi [Kariya] from Hard Nips helped us as far as recruiting the remixers and reaching out, but a lot of them were musicians I was aware of. A lot of folks came in to do remixes, but a lot of people came in with their instruments just to play. So I felt like there was a really interesting exchange, where I ended up getting to play with all these folks, many of whom I couldn’t actually have a conversation with without having somebody to translate. The space would open up, and something would start happening. Sonically, it was just all different spaces. I think the whole idea of SCORE to a certain extent is to deepen the value that you can have from being on tour. Normally, you go into a city and you play the show and then you hang out a little bit after and then you leave and that’s basically your interaction with the people there. To do something like this, where we were there for three days with this installation and people were coming in, it was just an incredibly unique experience to be a participant in at all, let alone be one of the organizing principals.
When I first heard about the project, I thought you were going get electronic producers in on it, but it seemed like there was a big spectrum of musicians, like Dustin Wong and Shinji Masuko from Boredoms. I was wondering whether there was sort of an expanded definition of what a remix could be that you went into this thinking about. FOX: The dialogue surrounding the Tokyo installation moved from a remix to something that it might be more accurate to refer to as a re-imagining. Because it was half electronic music producers who made proper remixes, and half people coming in with instruments kind of responding to the ZS music and the sounds in the space. So we drew a bigger circle around it and said we’re not just strictly creating new music by way of mixing, but responding to this body of work and kind of re-imagining it in this setting that we had created.
What did it sound like with all these people contributing to the experience at once? HILLMER: I would say that it remained very confused for the most part. FOX: No, I don’t think so. For the most part, especially with the people doing the remixing, they don’t have control over the level that is being set to the PA, one of us does. So that’s not in their control to be able to dominate sound. As far as the experience we had in Tokyo, there was not really anybody dominating. I think people felt invited to be doing what they were doing. As far as somebody dominating the situation would have been sort of a transgression to certain degree.
But did you ever feel overwhelmed by the sensory experience? FOX: Yeah, definitely, for a couple of different reasons. Part of that is just temporal for me. Being in Japan for the first time, being so excited to be there, and spending most of the first couple days in this room doing this installation where people are coming and going and there’s no windows. Sam and I have talked about how the SCORE installation works as a metaphor for the whole process of making music and playing shows and being a working musician to a certain degree, especially in an outsider way. To me that was compounding my experience of actually being a musician in this situation that I was in. It was kind of a double whammy. HILLMER: Are you talking about that conversation where we were talking about speeding up the process of making, documenting, and presenting? It’s sort of like an analog for the way that Smartphones and all that stuff make things speed up. It’s kind of funny, but there is an aspect about this that’s true with the way music’s practiced. Making and documenting and disseminating and presenting almost can be one thing. And in the case of SCORE it is one thing. Score is an example of a piece of music or sound art or installation art that intentionally tries to harness that quality, where we live in this moment where the creative act itself can function as art. There were sound recordings of the remixes loaded onto mp3 buttons and given to the remixers when the left. This is kind of a stretch, but there’s a release at the end of the day. It’s a very liberal usage of the word release.
Still, I’ve always thought of ZS as more an example of live, real time, real space instruments interacting. Do you ever feel like you’re sort of naturally “remixing” musical information just by living in the internet age? HILLMER: I don’t think it has to do so much with that, though I think lots and lots of things have to do with that. In this case, I think it’s more like being in a band where people are always trying to sort of put the lid on what you do. For example when we did New Slaves, it was attributed to me, Ian [Antonio], and Ben [Greenberg] and then it kind of became this thing: ZS are this band, they made this record, it’s these three people, that’s a wrap. It’s like, no-wave prog trance, the end. And that just couldn’t be further from the truth, because there’s been like ten different lineups in the ten years that ZS has been a band, and most of our music sounds nothing like New Slaves. There’s commonalities, but there’s more differences than there are commonalities. I just find that property of the music industry really an anathema to being creative and feeling free. FOX: As a musician or as an artist, you get asked enough times, “well, can you tell me what kind of music your band is,” and people writing about it are basically just deciding what it is in a way that is completely antithetical to the whole thing we’re trying to do. I think it creates the impetus to create music that is even more challenging to define—to be even more confounding.
ZS – In My Dream I Shot A Monk (ZS Remix)
ZS – Cream Part Two (Tomharu Remix)
ZS – ZS (Gagakirise Remix)
ZD – Retrace a Walk (K Yanagawa (CAUCUS) Remix)
ZS – Mimesis
ZS – Z is for Zone
ZS – Except When You Dont Because Sometimes You Won’t (Zebrablood Remix)