Zilla: The Groups Mind
Searching for new creative thrills is part of the jamband musician’s mental make up. It’s why band members are constantly taking that leap of faith that a move into unchartered territory, hoping that will yield positive results by inspiring and connecting with their bandmates while energizing and stimulating the audience.
It’s that ongoing desire for challenges that in March of 2003 led The String Cheese Incident’s drummer/percussionist Michael Travis to join Jamie Janover (whose hammered dulcimer has appeared on seven solo albums and also in various contexts with such artists as Phish, SCI, Gov’t Mule, Garaj Mahal) and Aaron Holstein (guitar/bass/sampler/keys) who has played with Vibe Squad and runs his own record label, Vibe Squad Records.
As Zilla, the trio takes the influences of Breakbeat electronic dance music into the concert arena. Using its credo of “100% Live 100% Improvised” as the foundation for performances of hairspin turns in creative directions. It makes sense that the interview with Travis and Janover would take a similar route as Zilla’s music, with the preparation for that night’s gig causing an improv-ready approach during the two separate conversations.
JPG: The idea of Zilla. Did the genesis of it take place during conversations sitting around at home?
JJ: It was kind of actually an organic process the way it started, much like the music. Travis and I moved into a house together in Boulder in 1995 and we lived together all the way up until 2005. So, I’ve watched String Cheese grow from being a little bar band, getting to be a bigger and bigger band. Along that whole time I was jamming with a lot of other musicians around Boulder in this house in North Boulder, called Doube Dig’s Farm. Dave Watts from The Motet lived there as well. So, Dave and Travis and I did a lot of playing and drumming with lots of people from the community and that’s where Kyle Hollingsworth from String Cheese first met String Cheese was through Doube Dig and doing jam sessions. Same thing with Ross Martin, the great guitar player who plays in Kyle’s band now, played with Tony Furtado. All these guys we met early on.
Travis and I have been playing music together for a long time, but never in a formal context and then maybe five years ago, Travis started a band with a guitar player Xander Green. They were a duet for a little awhile called Merkaba. Then, they were forced to change their name because it was used. Around that same time I joined the duet and it became a trio of drums, guitar and dulcimer. That was the band, Zuvuya. Zuvuya played for two years or so. We did a bunch of shows. We played for awhile and it didn’t quite work out with Zander for so many complicated reasons.
We had a gig, that we were going to cancel, but rather than canceling it, we said, Why don’t we call up a couple of other guys and we’ll just do it as a special one time show?’ We had such a great time playing with Steve Vidiac and Aaron Holstein that we decided, Let’s form another band. Call it something else and have it be different.’ So, we started this band Zilla with Aaron and Steve. Steve was our keyboard player for a year. Then, he got a gig with Citizen Cope. He got so busy with Citizen Cope that he didn’t have time to go on tour with us anymore and we were forced to do a big chunk of a tour without him, as a trio. When that happened, it forced us all to compensate for the lack of all that sound that he was able to produce on keyboards and we all had to take on a little bit more responsibility musically to fill out our sound. The way we did that is we all added instruments to our rig. We would start playing multiple instruments at the same time. Travis added keyboards to his rig. Aaron added keyboards to his rig. I added sitar, tamboura and electric kalimba. Now, we’re all pretty much surrounded by instruments. There’s only three of us, but we have the gear of a six-piece band. It takes us quite a lot to set up. We’re very gear dependent. But when we get it all working, we’re making music that you couldn’t make otherwise.
JPG: Taking into account the group’s motto of “100% Live 100% Improvised,” how did you develop the Group Mind to make that goal a reality?
JJ: Here’s the beauty of the situation for me. I knew Aaron Holstein. Aaron and I lived with Dave Watts from the Motet in Boston in 92-93 in a house called Neptune. He, partly on my urging, moved to Boulder right around the time I moved there. He and I had been best buddies for years and years and I’ve been best friends with Travis for years and years as well. I introduced Travis and Aaron to each other through the community in Boulder. Now they’re best friends.
So, it’s easy for us to do the Group Mind, group improvisation thing because we have such a solid friendship. That is underlying the whole thing. There’s a lot of trust that is involved. At any given moment, somebody can shift what’s happening in the music. You might have a really strong feeling and really intense desire to make the music go in a certain way and right before you’re about to make some dramatic statement, somebody else in the band makes the music take a left turn and in that instant you have to completely let go of all your previous expectations and desires and in a very humble, forgiving way just say, Oh, you’re leading the way. I’m following you now.’ And if you can give up that moment because you know at the next turn where the other guy’s looking down trying to figure out what his new sound will be and pauses for a second and maybe drops out as a compositional statement, he gives you the opportunity to be the person to be, Now, I’m going to make the music turn left and you’re going to follow me.’ You can play that game and follow along those rules.
We set out a lot of rules for each other. If we can hit and follow all the rules that we’ve established for each other, then that’s when we hit the music that we really are happy with and we’re trying to make.
MT: Just a constant honesty with each other and talking about what was not going right the night before resulting in a set of rules that we keep climbing into our heads over and over again and trying to actually play by them, which is less is more. Drop out for your friends. Play like a loop. No soloing. If you feel that you need to step out in front or you have a thing to say, a melody of the piece and has a kind of trance-like quality as opposed to noodling sound.
JPG: I read an article where Travis felt that it took some time for Zilla to get to a satisfactory place creatively, referring to the results as hit and miss. Is that just him being a tough critic or did it take some growing up in public before Zilla hit its groove?
JJ: We have a very, very high goal and vision of what we want the music to be like. So, he was speaking in reference to that there was kind of a big gap of what we heard in our heads and what we wish we were able to play and what we were actually able to do at the time. Not just recently, it’s always true. We’re way better than we were five shows ago. I could be talking to you in five more shows and I’d probably say the same thing because we always listen to the show, like, Wow, that part right there. Man, I hope we keep holding this and don’t get distracted and wander away.’ And we would hold it longer and longer and longer, and be like, Oh my God! We’re hitting the zone here. This is it!’ And that would encourage us to play like that again and keep doing it again — a continuous positive reinforcement feedback loop that we set up for ourselves where we listen to our shows and say, This is working. That’s not working. See how you wandered there. If you’d just repeated that four more times and laid into it and just been calm you would have seen that I was going to develop that theme and we would’ve evolved much more smoothly. Instead, we hit this little wobble here and narrowly avoided the time slouching.’ We get into that and then we go and play the next show and it’s better.
MT: I feel like every step we take forward and every time we say, Now we’re really getting somewhere.’ Then the next gig…personally, I’m thrown back into the place of, Wow, we’ve got a long way to go before we get to where we want to be on this one.’ Always.
JPG: Jamie talked about how if you ask him now, he’ll say we’re so much better than we were five gigs earlier. If you ask five gigs later, it’s the same answer. There’s always that sense of improvement happening all the time.
MT: It always seems like it’s two steps forward and one step back with that stuff. We take big leaps and then we kind of mire around in another level and then we step forward again. The other guys might not say that.
JPG: Are you just more critical? Do you pick apart stuff your work?
MT: Yeah, absolutely. I mean improving in this band is very fractal in nature where the problem in the middle looks the same size no matter how much everything gets bigger around you better. Now we’re getting 300-400 people around the country screaming and throwing their arms up and writhing around for hours and afterwards all I can think about is the stuff that wasn’t how I want it. The issues never seem to move.
JPG: Jamie, you talked about friendship helping to create the Group Mind, do you do other things before you go onstage? Is there like a time where you meditate or…?
JJ: We have talked at length as a band about our expectations and the rules quote unquote of the music, which is largely listening first and playing second, trying to really stick with those and play stuff that’s really compositional. Repeat stuff over and over so that it really falls into a groove and try to be thematic, play some hook and stuff like that. Beyond that what we do is what we call our pow wow before we play and, yeah, it is almost meditation. It’s kind of an intentional circle, so to speak, and the three of us huddle together.
We have no net at all. We don’t have a single song. There’s some themes. If I play a certain lick, they’re like, Oh yeah, I member this lick. That’s the jam we like to play in this kind of feel in this groove in F# minor.’ That’s as far as the song goes. It’s not even a name, it’s, Oh yeah, we’ve played this kind of theme before,’ but there’s no set number of times that we played this. There’s no arrangement. There’s no B part or beginning or ending.
It’s gets in a flow that we’re trying to ride and it comes from years and years of listening experience to things like jamband music and Indian Classical Music and jazz and things that are largely improvisational and taking all the lessons of those types of music and applying it to break beat, live electronica, which has only been around for a short time. The tools used to make it have only been around for a short time. So it’s pretty exciting! I’m really glad to be in this style of music at this time. It feels very much like playing rock and roll in the beginning of rock and roll or playing jamband music like when Phish was doing their thing and trying to take the lessons of The Grateful Dead and blend it with other things.
We’re taking really good ideas from other types of music and applying it to a very modern type of context to this live rave/dance music that’s now popular all over the world. When we played in Japan I think we were all amazed at how incredibly responsive people were. I think the crowds freaked out more in Japan than they do in America. We were blown away. We’re not American Music. It’s just music music, and it’s very universal. I am feeling very grateful and, really, I’m psyched to have manifested a band that’s playing to such an incredible response. We’re really glad that people are enjoying the music that we’re making cause we’re certainly having a good time playing it.
JPG: When you mention the rock and roll aspect to electronica I think of bands such as Sound Tribe Sector 9 and Particle, although they’re not doing what you’re doing — the all improv all the time approach.
JJ: Sound Tribe Sector 9. They’re friends of ours, and they’re definitely an influence of ours and really admire the fact that they had a similar vision themselves that they’ve been able to develop to such a successful level. I collaborated with [Sound Tribe percussionist] Jeffree Lerner on a project called Lernover where it’s Jeffree doing laptop computer beats with me doing dulcimer and a tabla player Jagjit Chadha. We’ve only done a couple of gigs but we have the intention of doing more, but Sector 9 has been so busy that Jeffree and I have not been able to schedule in time for practice or recording or gigs since last summer.
JPG: I discussed with Jamie the idea of organic electronica. Tell me about your introduction to the music and what it was that you made you want to re-create it in some way?
MT: The first experience, that was the New Deal playing in High Sierra Music Festival in 98. I was like, Yeah!’ I couldn’t even conceptualize how incredibly tight the drummer was, how much discipline. The band had to realize that they were taking computer music and making it live. Very impressed.
Then it took a number of years before I thought of myself as wanting to do that. I got this album at a ski area in Taos. Actually I was doing an espresso and they were playing this music. I said, What is it?’ It’s a CD. Want to buy it? We’re selling it.’ And I bought it, “The High Fidelity Lounge.” Down tempo, ambient stuff. I was so amazed how rich and smooth and selfless it was; just the perfect timing, discipline and restraint and self-discipline.
It was all computer-based stuff. Synthesizers, acoustic guitars over it or acoustic sounding pianos, probably sampled pianos.
JPG: Jamie, as I listen to you describe the music, it sheds some light that it’s not just a completely unplanned process. Themes and ideas and a degree of construction is involved in some manner, so it doesn’t sound like a clash of ideas.
JJ: It’s tough. Our goals are to sound like we’re compositional, sound like we’re playing songs even though we’re improvising it. Part of that is letting go of your own personal desire to go noodling around and play raging solos and play all over the map, and it’s so fun to do that. You see people doing it all the time. And it’s been done incredibly well in every possible way that you almost can think of.
We’re trying to do something where there are no solos and just a group improvisation thing. All about the dance groove, 100% about making people dance and sending people into a trance where they even forget that they’re dancing kind of thing. We try not to stop, more like DJ style. We have songs, we kind of do but we break down and it becomes ambient much like a DJ would break down and there’s all sorts of ear candy, noises and stuff.
JPG: Speaking of which, I was looking at the band’s website (www.zillamusic.com) and see you’ve worked with Ooah the Turntable Junkie at several gigs.
JJ: We do like the paradigm of having a DJ as part of our shows where you come to the club and there’s a DJ that’s really, really good laying down some really good down tempo. Then, we do our first set and maybe we segue right from the DJ into us. At the end of the set, maybe he comes back in and sits in with us, seamlessly from us into the DJ. And he keeps playing at set break and people just keep dancing right through set break. There’s really a blur of the show’s still going on. We come back again and we play our whole second set and he sits there with us more and we end up with a three or four hour continuous show.
When we have a choice of having an opener, we usually like to have a DJ because we’re really trying to emulate west coast break beat music, especially that we have been exposed to over the last many years at Burning Man. Burning Man is one of the very important parts of our musical and (slight laugh) spiritual lives. And we’re very influenced by the music that we have been exposed to there. That’s what we listen to on the bus and that’s what we’re trying to simulate live. Not easy.
JPG: Were there particular albums or songs that inspired to develop some version of it?
JJ: Absolutely. We love Kruder & Dorfmeister. Shpongle is amazing and we’re influenced by a very wide variety…I can’t speak highly enough of Burning Man. Burning Man is a huge influence on me on many, many levels including the mini-kits, the miniature drum kit I developed would have only been made because I wanted to play drums and bike around at the same time at Burning Man. And so, I made the Realmsmobile that you [can] read about on my site (www.jamiejanover.com).
JPG: Who are some of the Breakbeat artists you’re into?
JJ: Lorin Bassnectar. He’s a good friend of ours, who also plays with Michael Kang. Also, people like Tipper. Ooah’s going to play with us some more shows in the spring in California. These guys are really good DJs, Tipper and Ooah especially. They’re both really good Scratchers. We’ve also played with DJ Logic.
JPG: He seems to have played with almost everybody on the jamband scene.
JJ: We had him and Kang as special guests at a late night show once.
JPG: The trance-like aspect of the music, is that something that you’ve picked up, not just from electronica, but from other World Music such as Indian or Middle Eastern pieces?
MT: Yeah, cause there’s all types of music in the world. Closer to home, there’s really crafted pop music like The Beatles or Coldplay or Radiohead or The Flaming Lips. Many, many other bands. I just kind of focused on that British characteristic. Tons and tons of discipline. They’re just playing very, very specific parts. There’s no extra fills. Everything’s trying to cement the themes. They’re trying to make individual statements as a band. I think jambands, in general, can lack discipline. Everybody’s kind of moving around a lot. The Grateful Dead made it a magic source doing that. They’re all noodling at the same time but somehow they’re selling each other’s parts. It’s really sly.
JPG: Which brings this up, what was it that got you on your way to become a drummer/percussionist?
MT: A friend of mine named Ben that lives in Alaska now. I had been tapping on things as a kid, but not with any kind of seriousness. Then, I went to college in Santa Cruz and Ben said, Hey there’s this African drumming class on the hill. You should come do it.’ I said, Okay.’ I did everything he asked me to do back then. Like all great mentors. And that was it.
JPG: So you were starting on hand drums and then moved over to a kit?
MT: I started playing a kit about a year after String Cheese formed
JPG: How much of a difference was it for you?
MT: It was a pain in the ass. The drum kit is a pain. I’m not sure I even like playing drum kit. I kinda do. It’s just very, very mentally strenuous to hold all the limbs and doing the same things at the same time.
JPG: Watching you play, it reminds me of the Robert Fripp guitar school where it’s a very zen-like, low energy output style of playing rather than overexertion. Was that something you naturally do or did you have to learn that?
MT: I’ve gone through different phases. Hitting too light and hitting too hard for me, and now kind of ergonomic equilibrium.
JPG: Were you interested in other art forms as well?
MT: Yeah. I was a visual artist before that and I tinkered around the piano as a kid. I was very into visual arts then. I went to acting school for awhile. Thought about being a Hollywood guy there for awhile.
JPG: Now, Zilla’s released five albums. I’m wondering why bother doing that rather than allowing the concert experience to be in and of itself the band’s complete experience?
JJ: Well, we want to present our music, like we’re trying to hit these incredible zones. It’s hard to be improvising in the perfect zone and play the perfect stuff every time. So, the idea was to play a bunch of music and choose the golden moment and put em together in an order that made sense and present it sonically in a better way than just a live recording that you would hear on etree or something like that for free. And present our music in a more produced, literally, format, which is much more in accordance with the music that we’re emulating. The music that we’re playing is normally made by a guy sitting by himself in the basement sitting at a computer, very meticulously going over every measure.
We’re now in the process of making our next record, which we do by multi-tracking our shows and then carefully going through and choosing the sections. That’s gonna be, hopefully, done by the end of March and come out some time in 2006. It’s going to be called all iZ, a-l-l lower case and then a new word, i-Z’ with the Z capital because it’s Zilla backwards. It’s going to be on Sci Fidelity, String Cheese Incident’s label. We have a really great visionary artist named Luke Brown doing the cover in the tradition of visionary/psychedelic art. If you look at his web site you can see some of the art work. We have a cover image selected already, one of his pieces.