"I believe in things I can't see," Death Grips drummer Zach Hill tells me, describing the natural forces he genuinely believes guide his band. New-age flotsam? Perhaps. But I have reason to buy into his theory. In the summer of 2011, Death Grips played a word-of-mouth set at a semi-legal Brooklyn warehouse venue, where I happened to be living at the time. Prior to the show, I spent hours mopping seemingly unmovable dirt off the floor and picking random detritus from beneath tattered couches: a forgotten Touch & Go zine anthology, a curious shoebox of oil paints, unidentifiable pills. Back then, before Hill and vocalist Stefan Burnett signed with Epic Records, honed their expressionist punk-rap across face-kicking full-lengths The Money Store and NO LOVE DEEP WEB, and were inadvertently dropped from the label after leaking internal emails, they were most certainly fucking with a place like this. And they were already provoking eerie, dramatic behavior.
I'll never forget the moment, before the show, when someone casually carried a 10-foot guillotine-- a strangely appropriate stage prop-- into the main space of what was then my home. "It would be cool if it was still there, just haunting the building," Hill says late last month, laughing over the phone from the streets of Detroit, where he and Burnett performed the previous night. After our interview, an ex-roommate of mine confirmed that the infamous medieval recreation is indeed spooking the space to this day.
As major labels continue to swim against the unending tide of the internet, Death Grips served as an emblem of that old system's newfound adventurousness as well as its limitations. After all, the Sony-owned Epic was brave enough to sign Hill and Burnett, who craft legitimately weird and confrontational sounds-- music that would vex many indie labels. But Epic wasn't progressive enough to keep up with the band's pace or negotiate between these fiercely autonomous artists and entrenched ideas of promotion and album-cycle timelines. Death Grips' commitment to transparency and dedication to furthering the cultivation of their art led them to sever ties with Epic, acting purposefully to end their contract, according to Hill. These were the actions of artists seasoned enough to pinpoint what aspects of their careers were worth protecting, but who also clearly still have much to learn.
As for that Detroit show, it was staged at the Magic Stick, a venue connected to the storied Majestic Theater. "I think that's where Houdini did his last performance," Hill adds casually, foreshadowing a fondness for magical thinking (and Magic: The Gathering cards), not to mention his band's tendency to slip out of thorny situations with its legend more than intact. Talking with Hill is exciting-- he's a genuine free thinker, someone who can't help but question any and all ideas of normalcy. He might not have the answers, but he's having a hell of a time trying to put everything together. In conversation, Burnett isn't quite as effusive. "I never talk about my art, I just put it out," he told me during a brief chat. "I have never had the desire to explain my actions."
In the following far-flung interview, Hill and I discussed Death Grips' dissolved label ties and two-month stay at celebrity playpen Chateau Marmont (Room 7 on the 77th floor, no less), as well as the deep web, the moon, self-empowerment, fearlessness, religion, politics, and reading that dick pic right.
Pitchfork: Are you still dealing with the fallout from leaking NO LOVE DEEP WEB yourself and then getting dropped from Epic at the beginning of October?
Zach Hill: It's hectic. Everyday on tour, all up until the show and then after the show, most of our time is consumed with figuring out our future and the details of getting free. But we brought it upon ourselves. We made our own decisions, knowing it was going to be like this if we took the path we're on. The label has their own demands now, which is kind of strange because they're the ones dropping us. It's been a shitstorm the past two months.
We knew leaking those emails from Epic would put things over the edge, and they would likely release us, which is what we wanted-- so there was definite intent there. But that was more for media outlets that were still questioning the authenticity of our actions. We're very into transparency. The comments and skepticism suggesting we had fabricated this whole thing-- that's misrepresentation.
Pitchfork: When you initially signed with Epic, did you consider how it would insert all these middlemen?
ZH: Of course. But we were presented with a really interesting and unique opportunity with even having a major label interested in our music in the first place. We were into taking that risk to see where it would lead us. When you're starting any kind of relationship, you can see things that might be a problem in the future, but you won't know until you start. It seemed positive and realistic, like it could totally work, and these people [at Epic] actually got the music. But when we signed in November 2011, we couldn't have predicted that our whole team would be fired this August-- we were left with zero real contacts at the label and we couldn't get people to listen to the new music. We don't regret the action of starting out with them, but it became apparent that it wasn't working out and we needed to put ourselves back where we had total control over what we were doing.
Pitchfork: At the start, what did you feel there was to gain by signing with Epic rather than working with an independent label?
ZH: It's about experience. What drew us in was knowing-- no matter the outcome-- that this was going to throw us into an entirely different dimension. And there was a sense that it would lead us to where we are now, which is an interesting place. "Absurd" is not the right word, but we recognized the surreal aspect of aligning ourselves with [the major label system]. Even outside of music, Stefan and I are drawn to taking risks and following something you never would imagine.
Pitchfork: Have your personal ideas regarding why Epic signed Death Grips changed at all since the beginning?
ZH: I think there were really good intentions from [Epic Chairman and CEO] L.A. Reid and [former marketing head] Angelica Cob, who truly got the music and are into it. But that doesn't equate with knowing how to cultivate it. Those are two different things-- being a fan, and being online with where we're coming from. And the label, it's all "X-Factor" and shit. I'm not disrespecting L.A. Reid-- I have a lot of respect for the dude-- but how on earth could someone put all their focus into this band when they're working on a massive TV show? We weren't a priority and that became more and more apparent.
Pitchfork: You guys moved to Chateau Marmont in Hollywood this summer and leaked NO LOVE DEEP WEB from there. How did that decision come about?
ZH: Throughout the past year, there's been a lot of disenchantment within our camp, just feeling let down by ourselves and everybody around us. I had been having conversations with my younger brother, who is 26. He's a major gamer; he runs [Dungeons & Dragons] at conventions and has been on 4chan since he was 14. So he's talking philosophies, strategies, different decks you use in Magic: The Gathering, and we started talking about the control deck. I'd been reading about parallel things that were totally separate from gaming: the idea of using peoples' powers against them. I mean, it's an insane notion [laughs]: "control decks" in real life. But I've always been very interested in magic-- more psychologically, like magical thinking.
Anyway, when we moved out of where we recorded NO LOVE, we went to Los Angeles to force meetings [with Epic] and force people to listen to the record. We were walking down Sunset, looking for a place to stay, and it clicked. I'm familiar with Chateau Marmont and what it represents historically. I started thinking about everything that had been developing over the course of the whole year, all these conversations with my brother, my own thinking. [Stefan and I] started talking about the control deck and formulated these ideas on the pavement. We basically moved in there for two months to mirror the people we were working with and learn about that culture, which was somewhat in control of our destiny at that point.
Initially, the whole idea was infiltration. It's not what you could consider a smart move financially, or logically. But the place where we're coming from sometimes transcends logic. So we lived there for a couple months; it's where we did the album artwork, took the photo, leaked the record. We got into the history of that place and started making our own history. It was interesting because, for everybody from the label, it was totally real to be like, "Yeah, we moved into Chateau." They'd be like, "Oh great, I lived there for two months." I never learned so much about the social aspects of humans and what certain things do to people than I did within that two-month period. It was insightful and insane and dark and weird.
There's another energy within that building. It sounds cliché, and everybody says it's haunted, but we felt like the building was talking to us on a minute-to-minute basis. We started Death Grips feeling we had this relationship with things separate from the group, and this experience reaffirmed that to the maximum. I would wake up in the middle of the night and the CD player would just be blasting "Lock Your Doors". Essentially we gave to the place and it gave back to us.
There have been a lot of what we call "flashes" since we started Death Grips-- this real relationship with listening deeper to everything happening around us everyday. If you pay attention, it's just insane how there's this dialogue you can have with life and the unknown. If you're awake to certain things in life, they tell you what to do. We believe in that. We live by that. We're experiencing that everyday. This was a perfect example; you're not even supposed to be able to walk into the Chateau off the street, and we did just that and moved there for two months. It was obvious: this is what we were supposed to do. One more thing-- the room where we did everything was Room 77 on the 7th floor. That's just the room I was assigned.
Pitchfork: That is wild. Did you find the idea of infiltrating the hotel and facing that unknown similar to the experience of signing with Epic?
ZH: Absolutely. It is the same thing. That's what I mean: knowing to go through a door, even though a lot of people wouldn't. Listening on a deeper level. Both of us are hyper-intuitive, but there's massive intent behind our decisions. Even living in that hotel-- it's not about the hotel itself, it's mostly about what it represents to other people. It doesn't represent anything to us, but knowing what it represents to others is how we used it to inform ourselves.
Pitchfork: Did anything surprise you in particular while staying there?
ZH: [laughs; long pause] The whole thing was so bizarre-- 90% of the people eating at the restaurant every night are fucking famous or known for something. But that's not even the most interesting part. It's not like we were living some double life, but we didn't let other people onto what we were doing. The people that work there are our friends now.
Pitchfork: When you decided to live there, were you feeling that your relationship with Epic was about to end?
ZH: Definitely. It was dissolving. Our feeling now is similarly intense and insane. I'm always pretty paranoid and not entirely stable mentally. What I'm saying is: We had that notion of just being out of our minds and knowing we're doing something so crazy. We laughed a lot, but were also somber and serious about it. It's a hard period to fully express; kind of manic, actually. We knew we had to do something to change our path.
Pitchfork: You had already finished the album, so what exactly did you do there?
ZH: We were rehearsing for tour, trying to get these meetings, working on ideas for our next record, the artwork. We were also working on something for MoCA, and we filmed a video there, which will be released at some point. We're working on two other videos at the moment. A lot of time was spent designing our future, thinking about worst and best case scenarios in terms of our creative work-- how we would do things once we acted.
Pitchfork: Can you tell me more about the NO LOVE cover art? You've said that if someone could get past that image, they could get past any male-- or aggressive-- notions attached to the band.
ZH: We had the cover idea for a while before we moved in there. We started Death Grips being very pro-homosexual and pro-individual-- the idea of being OK with yourself no matter what. It really has to do with acceleration-- culturally, on a world level-- of sexuality in general, and getting past homophobia. People should be able to look deeper into something rather than just seeing some dick. It's also a spiritual thing; it's fearlessness.
As a group, we're perceived in large part as male or very aggressive, but we don't think about those things. There is no gender to this group. It's androgynous. But we know that perception. Peoples' hangups with sexuality, gender, and nudity-- it's similar to how I feel about organized religion. It's toxic and poisonous to the human mind, and the development of humans in the modern world. In our own modest way, through our artwork, that's what it represents: pushing past everything that makes people slaves without even knowing it.
Pitchfork: There are definitely a lot of people who would attach an aggressive or male persona to the group based purely on sound. But, for me, thinking about the way you've not done many interviews-- and said "no representation is better than misrepresentation"-- it instantly reminded me of the riot grrrl media black out in the 90s.
ZH: I take that as a compliment. I'm very inspired by a lot of that work; it's about advancement and human progression, which is what we're doing for ourselves and trying to project through our music. The first label I ever signed with was Kill Rock Stars.
Pitchfork: When you released the art for The Money Store, it came with these ideas that went beyond music: "We're feminist, we support homosexuality and individualism, we're in favor of a transparent world leadership." In that vein, with the actions you've taken this year-- self-releasing NO LOVE, using provocative art, sharing internal emails, canceling a tour because it felt right-- were there any extra-musical messages you wanted to convey?
ZH: As far as gender, race, politics, there's this feeling that so much change is happening so rapidly, both socially and on a world level. We want to make it clear that we embrace people being whoever it is they really want to be. It gets tricky-- we aren't a political band-- but both of us have been very elusive and outsider-ish our whole lives. We're not the most social people; we're loner-esque, awkward. If you have a hard time expressing aspects of your personality, the platform of creativity has always been one of the healthiest places to get these other things out. We are encouraging that. Even through being a listener of this music, or at our shows, we want to provide an environment that is entirely non-judgmental. You can do whatever you want. You can be whoever you want. Every facet of your personality can be expressed within this space or listening experience.
Say you were being bullied in school: If you have our music in your headphones, no one is really bullying you anymore. It's like taking a pill that makes you super-human. The music has emotional suffering on the darker and deeper side of what the human experience is like, but it's also a beast-- you could take a bite out of a bowl while listening to it. That's the kind of energy we want to project.
Pitchfork: The music itself conveys a feeling of empowerment, but also watching the way you guys have presented yourselves this year is empowering, too.
ZH: Thank you. That's important to us. A lot of our choices have forced us to be honest with ourselves. Frankly, a lot of things we've done over the past few months are not that easy. Staying true to the original concept for the group, we'd be asking ourselves: "Should we do this?" There was plenty of back and forth before we leaked the album. But ultimately we asked ourselves, "What would Death Grips do?" We have to live up to what we make the music about. There are a lot of full-circle aspects. It's very real. We have to come outside our own fears and practice what we preach.
Pitchfork: You said Death Grips is not a political band, but are there any political ideologies that have influenced the way you've been working?
ZH: There definitely are, but it gets tricky because it's on a human level, not a political-party level. Of course, some moves we've made could be related to people resisting certain politics or movements. We do find inspiration there. But we're operating based on our own moral code. We're our own party. Neither of us vote, so we aren't even invested in that process in the country we live in.
Pitchfork: You have mentioned that, around the time of The Money Store's release, there were certain things you wanted to do to further Death Grips' artistic vision, which Epic was not on board with. Anything in particular?
ZH: It was more an issue of not feeling like a priority rather than being told "no" about creative things. There's a lot of talk that happens within those rooms; everybody's all hyped. But we noticed that every time we would go [to Epic], some time would pass and a lot of things we'd talk about would dissolve-- as if everybody walked away and forgot everything we had talked about. That became a recurring feeling. We sensed that, even if they were on board or understood what we wanted to do creatively, there was a lack of investment in the sense of actual work-time spent on what we were doing. So we started to question it. Why exactly did they sign us in the first place?
There are certain examples of things we were trying to accomplish that just weren't working out. Like Crispin Glover, who we were in contact with about doing video work together. We would bring that up, trying to find ways to finance it with the label, and it was obvious they just didn't understand what that was in the first place. And then we'd have them coming back with things we would never even fuck with.
Pitchfork: Were there any other creative ideas you were presenting to the label that never came to fruition?
ZH: We've talked about having someone that's the face of the band, but not necessarily in the band. Really far-out things, breaking the mold of "rock band" or "rap group." Something we did bring up to the label was the idea of putting multiple representations of our band on tour at one time, but none of us are actually there. Like, there is five Death Grips. You send these people out-- if they are even people, or projections or holograms. Having these events that are like your world, happening simultaneously, touring the world.
This is all so abstract. [laughs] It's kind of insane. What I'm talking about is not fully formulated, but it's an example of the kind of dialogue we have-- those are the kinds of things Stefan and I would talk about in my old apartment, before we made a sound together.
Pitchfork: In a sense, your records have thematically mirrored the trajectory of the band this year-- as simple as the major label debut being called The Money Store, and the record that resulted in Death Grips getting dropped being called NO LOVE. Do you feel the content reflects the arc of the band?
ZH: Definitely. One of the weirdest aspects is, we had the title NO LOVE DEEP WEB before our fallout with the label. We perceive Exmilitary as our first record; we were talking in 2011 about this being a trilogy of albums. Not to sound pretentious, but in a weird way our first album starts like a self-prophesizing statement. It has everything to do with exactly where we are now. It happened freakishly, not too much by design. Of course, we were hyper-aware of what we were doing creatively, but it's crazy that life has ended up mirroring exactly what we've been doing from the start.
Pitchfork: Usually when you're making something, you can see your life reflected in it rather than the reverse.
ZH: Totally. You can do that throughout your life; you're playing with life. Everything becomes very real. One mirrors the other. On a subconscious level, we've been aware of those things while making all three records, but it was never thought-out or contrived. It was all based on a feeling-- as if we could feel what our path was going to be before anyone even knew who we were.
To be perfectly honest, our minds are at a very strange place right now. It's impossible for us to stop thinking about it. There is a sense all the time that it's much bigger than us, like there are strange forces at work, and members of our group that we aren't even aware of. We perceive the band as a separate entity from ourselves. We don't really look at ourselves in it, because the whole idea was to create this world of it.
Pitchfork: I read that you intentionally released NO LOVE during a full moon.
ZH: Yeah. From the start, lot of things we have done as a group-- whether publicly releasing something, shooting a video, working on music-- have always been aligned with the moon. That was something we determined and decided we wanted to do before we ever made a sound together.
For us, personally, it makes it even deeper. That's what I mean by unknown members. None of us are religious, but I consider myself spiritual. I believe in things I can't see. No gods, but the forces in nature and energy. That's all very real to us. And it's crazy to have that affirmation through what you are doing. Our whole past as a group has been constant affirmations; when we acknowledge that, it totally acknowledges us back. It's mind-blowing for us.
Pitchfork: Do you feel you met Stefan through fate and the forces of nature?
ZH: Absolutely. We had known each other from around Sacramento for a few years and talked about making music for a long time. I'd always see Stefan and be like, "Fuck man, we gotta fucking make music." I just had this feeling and I could tell he did, too. But I wouldn't even hear a sound when I had that feeling. Then we found out we lived two blocks away from each other; we started hanging out at night, smoking weed and talking about life and music. There was definitely a knowing before we ever made a sound.
Pitchfork: So from the beginning you bonded over something more spiritual -- feelings and ideas about life-- rather than something sound-based?
ZH: Yeah. Not necessarily music. We wouldn't talk about what this thing would sound like. It was all about empowerment for ourselves, not for other people. We'd talk about it like it was another person who was in the room. It was about this place where we could let out a lot of internalized things with hyper-velocity. We would talk about a super-inspiring sound as a concept, like a drug you'd take. There were a lot of philosophical conversations. At the start, we never really once talked about what kind of sounds we'd make, or instruments we'd use.
Pitchfork: What visual artists and philosophical concepts did you bond over?
ZH: So many. We've referenced Chris Burden. People that would really go to almost a sacrificial place, to project a certain energy that would really push the limits of their own human meat-cage, to get across this hyper-internalized feeling. We thought about the idea of "iconic"-- the future "group," the future "band." We didn't want to call ourselves a "band." We think outside of what you think about when you're thinking of a band. It's led us to a lot of interesting decisions. Both of us are believers that there are still so many places to go with what being a band even means. We don't pay much attention to what other bands are doing, but we are convinced that you can do things very differently.
Pitchfork: You mentioned earlier that your brother is a gamer. So the DEEP WEB half of the last album was informed by him?
ZH: Yeah. We were talking about [shadow internet sites] Silk Road and Onion Land. He was talking about being active in deep web and doing his thing down there. I hadn't heard the term "deep web" but when I found out about it, I was like, "Dude, that's fucking sick." I just liked how it sounded, so I wrote it down on a piece of paper. We were already planning on calling the album NO LOVE, but Stefan saw it in our apartment and was like, "It should be NO LOVE DEEP WEB."
Pitchfork: What did you like about that phrase's connotations?
ZH: We are totally interested in internet culture and inspired by a lot of aspects of it. Everything I'm talking about as far as transparency and human progression-- the internet simultaneously pushes people in a direction towards getting past genres, because it's so saturated and mixed and free, but it also breeds a lot of lower-level thinking and ignorance. Chaos is another thing we find very inspiring, in theory and nature and human nature. It's highly relatable to the deep web or internet in general, in terms of information chaos. What people experience on the internet everyday is like the foam at the top; there are sub-levels where all of this other information goes. It's an abyss. It's also relatable to human emotions that are similarly incalculable You can't physically see where these things are stored. There's a chaotic aspect to that, too.
We perceive Death Grips as an ever-progressing cycle that's in constant collaboration with our fanbase and the general public. This totally open source. It relates to the idea of putting 10 versions of Death Grips on tour at once; we take our ego out. We prefer it to be this open collaboration with the world.
Pitchfork: You guys are interested in engaging with the internet, so why did you delete your Twitter?
ZH: We felt Twitter was unnecessary. It's more of a brand space, and what it requires mentally can be overwhelming. We aren't the kind of people that want to talk about our daily lives because we are extremely private. What are you even doing on there? You're just shouting into this thing. It's just nothing, really. A lot of great ideas get wasted on it. I see tweets and think, "Man you should have saved that and done something with it." The whole thing feels cheap to us. It's a little bit desperate. We're into creativity, not talking about it all day. We don't judge people for anything, really. But we already see it as archaic and irrelevant.
But we might go back on there if we need to use it for something. [laughs] Right now though, we are actually into real life. The internet is amazing, but the way things are going for us creatively is back to the real world. Not that the internet isn't the real world, but it's a mutated form. We didn't necessarily quit Twitter just because it's stupid, it's more complex than that.
Pitchfork: What do you have planned for the next album?
ZH: It's definitely not a departure at all from the music we've been making-- just growth and expansion. Naturally, we're always going to try things that are new, and what we do with the next record will probably be on a larger scale than anything we've done before, conceptually.
Pitchfork: Do you think you'll self-release it?
ZH: We probably will not self-release it. We aren't anti-record label. We're just anti-dinosaur. We need futurists on our team. We would sign to a major label again, it just depends on the individuals. We've learned a lot through the mistakes we've made. We aren't naive; we wouldn't sign up for the same thing again. But we aren't anti-anything. We have completely open minds. What we want to do with our next record is pretty ambitious. It would be unrealistic to think we could do it entirely by ourselves. We'll need a very specialized group of people helping us. Whoever's competent and capable, that's who we'll end up working with.
Pitchfork: When you say it'll be bigger in scope, what do you mean?
ZH: We mean every aspect of the album. The idea is what what we do next would transcend the idea of an "album." We want to work with [Megaupload founder] Kim Dotcom, so we're trying to make contact with him. There's no rules in our mind ever, about anything, so it all depends on who can help us maximize it or get closer to achieving the things [Stefan and I] talked about before we ever made a sound together.
Pitchfork: Considering you gave your album away for free and then used your advance money on the hotel, do you care about making money from music?
ZH: No, no. That's never really had anything to do with it for us. We believe information should be free. In the physical world, with an object or item, it's understandable why you pay for that. But charging people for something that's digital, that's in the ether-- it makes sense but it's strange. We have records for sale, but it's hard for us to wrap our heads around not also providing the option of getting it for free digitally, like a weird spirit out in the machine.
We both happen to be people who are not ruled by money. We really don't put any value into money. It's kind of a joke, or absurd. If you've been a person who hasn't had money your whole life-- or sometimes you've had it, and sometimes you've not-- you're not ruled by it. You're really unafraid of having none. I can have no money right now, and that doesn't make me scared, because I know how to survive. The one thing we are interested in financially is just [having money] for the further realization of the bigger creative ideas we want to execute. We think about how to acquire funding for art itself but, on personal level, not really.
You cannot post new topics in this forum You cannot reply to topics in this forum You cannot edit your posts in this forum You cannot delete your posts in this forum You cannot vote in polls in this forum