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Hella: guitar fretwork inspired by Nintendo game soundtracks

Jesse Locks

WARNING: NOT FOR EVERYONE, BUT WILL CHANGE THE WAY YOU THINK ABOUT MUSIC. So read the sticker on the outside packaging of Hella's 2002 debut album Hold Your Horse Is (5RC). In the next two years, the Sacramento, CA-based instrumental two-piece would go on to forge an entirely new path in modern music with the help of their like-minded peers and listeners. And what they didn't know then, they certainly know now--that this complicated, spastic, adrenaline-infused rock is something bigger than just the two of them.

Before the band Hella there was Legs on Earth, a four-piece so far ahead of its time it defied description They were mind blowing awesome. After a tumultuous two years the band disbanded in 2001, leaving each player to go his own way. "Zach started playing with the Crime in Choir dudes and I went and sold mops with Joe," guitarist Spencer Seim says, recalling the break "After a while we started playing with one another again and realized there was really no one else to play with"

Drummer Zach Hill elaborates: "In the beginning we were going to start a full band and we wrote some critter little songs. We started playing shows with three or four songs and finally said fuck it. We decided we could do something with the two of us and since then have learned how to hone our craft as a two-piece It has become way bigger than the two of us."

Now, duos are not uncommon, especially as of late with guy/girl-isms being played out by the White Stripes, the Ravonettes, the Kills, Mates of State, and so many others of their ilk But an instrumental two-piece like Hella with just guitar and drums has never sounded so full, so radical. Maybe it's the guitar fretwork inspired by Nintendo game soundtracks or the manic drummer who never allows for a break in a song But whatever it is about Hella, Slim Moon, owner of Kill Rock Stars and the imprint 5RC, loved it the first second he heard them. "I think they are an important band doing something entirely new and unique that I find deeply moving," says Moon. Encouraged by friends on the label. Hill sent Moon a hand-written letter and a three-song demo. "I told him I thought we were good and we would get better," he says "I also said we were serious ... and we needed someone who wouldn't necessarily give us money for recording, but someone who would distribute the record. At that period in time they were the only label that were doing things along the lines of what we were doing musically

"I'm into musical exchange with whomever I can get it from I'm into evolving and learning new things from every situation I enjoy relationships with lots of like-minded people. Also the more different they me from what I'm used to doing, then the more fascinated I am. I try to put myself in certain situations that I wouldn't regularly end up in."

Both Hill and Seim have collaborated independently on other projects, Hill has worked with Les Claypool from Primus. He also plays with Chino Moreno of the Deftones in Team Sleep and with Greg Saunier of Deerhoof in Nervous Cop Seim plays in The Advantage. The guys play and write so much music that the recording process can hardly keep up. "I have no choice," Hill says. "This is what I do. It's like eating or shitting. We make so much music everyday That's why our records have shifted from area to area, because we don't sit in one genre. We are constantly making stuff, and why not let people hear it?"

Hella, similar to Sonic Youth in their prime, are releasing records so quickly that are so insanely good their listeners don't have time to rest The two have managed to find time to record and release two EPs, one seven inch, a live split with the band Dilute from Oakland, and their second and most recent LP The Devil Isn't Red The band is constantly progressing with each release and hint that their next release will be a double-disk concept record that will encompass everything they have experimented with thus far.

"We're into experiments, but experiments don't always work," says Hill. "But that is the of it Most of the time when bands try to experiment and it doesn't work they don't put it out I like the idea of us not even thinking about it and leaving it up to the people who enjoy our music to tell us whether or not it worked."

Most of Hella's recordings are live with no overdubbing. Seim says each record reflects "whatever our state of mind was in those few months writing the material." Hella experimented with their only use of vocals on the Bitches Ain't Shit But Good People EP (Suicide Squeeze). They explored electronica on Total Bugs Bunny on Wild Bass EP (Narnack Records) and tested a heavier rock sound with The Devil Isn't Red (5RC). The two are not entirely opposed to using vocals again, saying that if the right person or song came along, then maybe. Until then they are enjoying the freedom of instrumental music.

"Instrumental is not as literal," Hill explains "It's open for interpretation more or less. With lyrics you connect the music with some scenario the person is singing about. With instrumental music it is kind of like choose your own adventure."

When asked if the audiences they play to are choosing their own adventure, the answer lies in their live show Good friend Dan Elkan, who also plays in Team Sleep with Hill and lends his vocals to Hella, recounts the live show: "It can seem like an all-out assault, but when you see it night after night you realize that the music is as pre-meditated as it is free. The songs are technically there every night, but the emotion is what turns the music inside out. Every night I get to see the look on people's faces when they see (Hella) for the first time. They're (Hella) really doing something that makes people process their perception of what is beautiful, I've seen them make people cry."

"Zach and Spencer are two of the most talented and down-to-earth critters around," adds David Dickerson, owner of Suicide Squeeze. "Watching these guys play is magical The shit they pull off is beyond words. If playing shows were like sports and there were winners and losers, Hella would be undefeated."

Hella is scoring more and more points with their audience, which are helping change what is accessible or commercial in modern rock. Their listeners are bearing the repetitions even with the strange time signatures, finding the underlining structure and choosing their own meaning from the music.

"It's pretty cool where it (the music) is now," Seim concludes. "Enough people know about it and are getting something from it or enjoying it; it isn't some trend or style. I think it would be cool for the masses or the whole country to be into very complex music. Complex music does something to people's brains--and people in this country definitely need some help."

COPYRIGHT 2004 High Speed Productions, Inc
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group





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