Before Sacramento-based avant mischief makers Hella were Hella, what would become the core duo of guitarist Spencer Seim and drummer Zach Hill had formed a band with Zach’s cousin Josh Hill on guitar and Carson McWhirter on bass. They couldn’t find a singer and split up.
Shortly thereafter, Hella formed with Seim and Hill going it alone. A couple years passed, they released numerous seven inches, albums and EPs, and became one of those underground buzz bands that people always tell you that you should check out because you’d really be into them. Lucky ducks. Fortunately, in the case of Hella, the hype was justified.
Hill and Seim signed to Mike Patton’s (Fantomas, ex- Mr. Bungle/Faith No More) Ipecac as a duo and hit the road for a year with a couple friends to round out the lineup. When it came time to put together the record that wound up as the newly released There Is No 666 In Outer Space, it was time to expand the lineup permanently.
They called up Josh and Carson, which was easy enough, but they were still short a singer. Zach knew of Aaron Ross from seeing him do local acoustic shows, asked him to join, and all of a sudden, Hella was a five-piece.
It took most of 2006 to make 666, but the end product was well worth the wait. With Ross’ vocals particularly, the album has all the trappings of a more technically bent early Primus, the newfound collaborations pushing the band’s already off-kilter experimental edge to an extreme that’s at once unique and totally tangible. In short: it’s art rock that knows how to get down.
With a year of touring ahead of him, Seim took a couple minutes out of his schedule for a phone interview.
Do you think it’s at all strange that a lot of people are going to think of this as your first record?
No. I mean, obviously the course of events that happened previous to us all coming together again was supposed to happen that way. We probably would have liked it to go just directly to this, to the five-piece band, so to us, it kind of is our first record, in that, before Zach and I started playing as a two-piece, we were playing as a four-piece, all of us, the same lineup as now.
We wrote four or five songs, and we were planning on being a band, but couldn’t find a singer and were just having musical issues and different kinds of things as well, so we took a break for a while and Zach and I went off to just start playing again and find other members to play with us and couldn’t, so we just kept playing as the two of us and it worked out from there.
What was it that didn’t work out with the original four-piece?
I think a lot of it was that we didn’t want to be an instrumental band. We’d written these songs that really allowed themselves for vocals, and we absolutely could not find a singer, and it just got frustrating and probably led to other frustrations that did not need to be there and weren’t really that big of a deal. But you know, you’re younger and less used to a band dynamic and stuff like that.
We just kind of stopped, like, ‘Well, this isn’t going exactly the way it needs to.’ It’s not that we were fighting like crazy, it’s just that when you’re playing music, I think it has to feel pretty right to do it and it just didn’t feel like the right time.
This time about a year ago, it started to feel like the right time, and it wasn’t a huge decision necessarily, it was just like, ‘Okay, this is where it’s going now.’ It was just obvious to everybody.
Was there ever a point when everything was coming together that you wondered whether it should still be under the Hella name?
Well, maybe a little bit, but I think that what Zach and I did was an extension of what we were all doing previous to that. It was a really quick crossover. We stopped playing with that band, and a month and a half later, Zach and I started playing. We were doing a little more busy stuff than we were with the rest of the guys, but we still had the idea of what we wanted to play, which was very free in concept and arrangement and composition. Having these guys in it now just makes a lot of sense.
I think Hella is where Zach and I and other people and friends of similar thought are coming together. Year before last, our friends Dan and Jonathan came with us to do a year of touring as Hella, and we were playing stuff that was written individually, off our double solo record, where Zach wrote all his songs and I wrote all my songs independent of each other. Those guys came along to play that stuff, so that was kind of a weird thing to do as Hella.
But I don’t know if Hella is anything specific, considering how different our records are and just a lot of the stuff we don’t play live or couldn’t really, it’s just a different idea or concept for each record. So this seemed like a pretty natural thing. We’ve done way weirder stuff, I would say.
With the dynamic of the band changed, how do you feel about how everyone deals with each other now, as opposed to when it was just you and Zach and when it was the four of you before that?
We’ve always played really well together. Josh and I were in our first band together with Zach. Josh and I have always written really well together. And I’ve played with Carson for years in my other band The Advantage.
We’re coming from a very similar place musically and we all have similar ideas of what we want to make as a final product. It just works out perfectly. It’s obvious that we’re supposed to be playing with each other, so that’s really nice.
How has the writing process changed?
It’s no longer Zach and I. There’s songs on the record that I don’t even play on, and it’s under Hella. I don’t know. (laughs) Everybody comes to the table with parts they’ve written, then everybody writes their parts on top of it. There’s no somebody showing someone else how to play a certain part, ‘Okay, you’re gonna play this, you’re gonna do this.’
To me, it feels really good to be a band again. Obviously, I consider what Zach and I were doing before a band, but a full band, where there’s two other melodic instruments to accompany what I’m doing, and I can accompany what they’re doing. It feels really nice. It feels a little foreign, because it’s been a while, but nice.
Have you guys found yourselves reinterpreting any older material live, or is it just the new stuff that’s getting played?
None. Not at all. This is a band now, I don’t really see us bringing in any of the old stuff at all. Just because those guys didn’t have any part. That’s not really the band anymore.
I can’t say that Zach and I a couple years down the line wouldn’t maybe go out and do a short tour of two-piece stuff just for fun, but with the band, I don’t think we’re going to be fooling around with any of that stuff. We’ve played it for years, I think we’ve gotten our point across with it and played it as much as we need to play it for now, so we’re on to new things and new ideas.
Are you at all nervous about how the record will be received?
No, because I think either way, just with how people’s perceptions are, it’s got to do a little better than some of our other records, and for us, it’s already done super-well, because it’s been this long term project that we’ve had—some of the songs we’ve had for six or seven years.
Just to have it finally finished and realized perfectly, exactly the way we want it is enough in itself, so whether it sells a lot or not is a second thing to that. Obviously, it’d be cool if it did, and it seems like it would have the potential to, but you never know with music.
The best bands aren’t the ones that do really well. In today’s world, it’s not really about being a good band and playing good music.
Do you guys know what the tour plans are after South By Southwest?
Right after, we’ll be on a six-week US tour. We’ll do a figure eight across the US, then we’re home for a couple weeks, then it looks like we’re gonna go to Japan for a couple weeks. I think we’re home for the summer.
Aaron has a couple kids and stuff and I’m sure he’d like to hang out with his wife and kids, so we’ll come back up here in the mountains and then go to Europe for a month in the fall and do another States tour, unless something else comes up. I’m excited.
There Is No 666 In Outer Space is available now through Ipecac. For more info, check out hellaband.com