Hella Messiahs

These "Beardy Fellas" will be the first raptured. Regardless of who's coming back.

According to many spiritual systems and calendars, the present age is fast coming to a close. We are on the brink of what the yogis call the Age of Aquarius, a time marked by elevated universal consciousness and global unity. People have come to feel the urgency of our human condition. The sensation that time is speeding up is common. A tumultuous transition of epochs will see the Golden Age of humanity realized, the end of disease as we know it, and fantastic creative heights achieved. The changes in music and culture are palpable. Living in the darkness your ego casts will cease.

Actually, I can’t take credit for all of the above. The final phrase is stolen from track nine of Hella’s newest, and greatest, album to date. The lyric is prefaced by even more prophetic language: “Words are not artificial they are blind/Camouflaged in white light/you’re gonna know infinity tonight.” Entitled There’s No 666 in Outer Space, Hella’s latest release is art history in the making and an authentic harbinger of the Golden Age to come. It’s been forever since I’ve heard an album so complete and refined on every plane. The LP has an ageless quality; experimental yet grounded, and a grace found only in music that’s been years in the making. And doubtlessly indicative of the rock and roll revolution to come. Holla!

In such heady times, I was lucky enough to speak with two of Hella’s members, Aquarian guitarist/founding member Spencer Seim and newly inducted vocalist and Gemini Aaron Ross. While I sat in my cozy apartment amidst Vancouver rain, Spencer did his portion of the interview while cruising the streets of his Northern Californian hometown on his motorcycle, cellular phone engaged. Gold rush hamlet Nevada City, founded on the banks of the mystical Yuba river, has produced some pretty amazing musicians (Joanna Newsom among others). I asked Spencer what’s going on in Nevada City, what’s the secret to such a creative community. He wasn’t “really sure, actually. Living by the Yuba river maybe, I just went hiking there today. It’s a pretty magical thing to have running right near your town. It’s pretty awesome up here. And there isn’t really a scene here, so people don’t really feel like they have to play a certain way to fit into that, which I think is really good. People play what they wanna play, it doesn’t really matter if it’s popular or not.” I’ve spent one day frolicking in the waters of Yuba, and it’s one of my most memorable swimming adventures. Just minutes from town, waterfalls tumble to crystal clear pools over miles of natural waterslides. No wonder people who live there do such wonderful things.

Hella’s style is not easily described, and has changed drastically with There’s No 666. They’ve expanded to a full band, after years as a guitar and drum duo. Though I never found the duet of Spencer and drummer Zach Hill lacking, the addition of Josh Hill’s guitar and Carson McWhirter on bass fill out the ever-present depth and texture. Inventive vocalist Aaron Ross and Zach collaborated to produce skillful poetry that settles easily into Hella’s signature guitar/drum skirmishes. Somehow they manage to maintain their original raw integrity while integrating three more musicians. The final product is layered, speedy and devastatingly unique, flowing effortlessly from start to finish.

The latest incarnation of Hella is the culmination of a long creative history. The current members have worked together in various musical capacities since high school (the mean age of the band is 25). The obvious starting point is Spencer, Zach and Josh’s first band, Legs on Earth. Imbued with the pop sensibility of vocalist and bassist Julian Imsdahl, they produced one full length album before dissolving in 2001. Lasers and Saviours is a miraculous debut from such a young band, and represents a crucial period for Spencer. “When I met Jules and Zach, and we started playing together, I was like ‘Wow, these guys are crazy good musicians, I’d better get my shit together!’ We started playing a lot more and I got more inspired to do my own thing.” Carson came into the picture shortly after, and the band was “really stoked to play with him. We were playing songs we were really stoked on, but there were no singers really around, and we tried to get stuff together, but it wasn’t right. Everything was pointing to that it wasn’t the time to get a full line-up together. Directly after, Zach and I started doing Hella, and now we’ve just re-incorporated those guys back in. It’s kind of our dream come true.”

Hella are well known as pioneering champions of the guitar/drum duo, and any devoted listener will be surprised that they’ve expanded so easily. Spencer and Zach were one prolific pair over their five years together, starting with the release of their first full-length Hold Your Horse Is in March 2002 on 5 Rue Christine Records, an auxiliary of Seattle-based Kill Rock Stars. Over the next three years they put out a few EPs, and a split live LP with Dilute. I asked Spencer about the halcyon days of duo Hella, and about their best album and tours. “Devil Isn’t Red [2004], around that time period, we were really lucky to get a lot of great tours. We had a pretty amazing time on the Quasi tour. One of the tours I look back on as totally amazing that I’m probably going to be even more wigged out about as I get older was the Ex Models, Need New Body, Hella tour of the States. That was a pretty magical time.” 2004 also saw the release of a split seven-inch with Four Tet, and a Japan-only three-track Acoustics.

Moving into 2005, Hella spent some serious time in the studio producing a double LP on Suicide Squeeze Records. Zach’s dark, uninterrupted noise piece Church Gone Wild and Spencer’s lighter, Nintendo-esque Chirpin’ Hard seem totally opposite; neither party heard the other’s contribution before the records were finalized. The result was a totally innovative project that required more than a pair to play live. Hella expanded to four to tour the new album, adding Dan Elkan for vocals, rhythm guitar and synth, and Jonathan Hischke on bass. The quartet toured like madmen, supporting System of a Down and the Mars Volta on a stadium tour, Out Hud, and Les Claypool, and headlining their own shows in the States, Japan and Spain. In late 2005 Hella released the Concentration Face/Homeboy EP/DVD, returning to 5 Rue Christine Records. Their last release as a duo, Acoustics, came out this past September, and the melted chocolate bunny cover art was amongst Pitchfork’s 25 worst album covers of 2006. The band was duly pumped.

Hella returned to the studio in February 2006, replacing Elkan and Hischke with the three new musicians that make up the band’s current incarnation. Five “feels more like a family,” explains Spencer, since an extended line-up was always in Hella’s plans. In the family scheme of things, Spencer [guitar] “would be Big Gay Daddy number one, Zach [drums and lyrics] Big Gay Daddy number two, Carson [bass and keys] the Bigger Brother, Josh [guitar] the Little Bro and Aaron [vocals and lyrics] the Dead Ghost Sister.” I asked Spencer about writing with five instead of two. “It was rad. I’ve had a lot of fun writing with Zach over the last few years, because we could just do whatever we want, not having to worry about vocals or anything, but it’s really fun writing with a full band and having everyone’s input. Josh and I write really well together I think, and it flows really well. It’s great, I’ve been looking forward to it for a really long time.”

Aaron’s vocals are a stand-out contribution, and I was excited to talk with the “Dead Ghost Sister”. He switches easily from melodic to demonic in an instant (fitting for a ghost), and manages to navigate Hella’s rugged soundscapes with ease. When asked if it was easy to fit into Hella’s music, Aaron acknowledged the difficulties. “It was [easy] and it wasn’t. I’ve always known about Hella and always had a lot of respect for them, I kind of always had this feeling that we were coming from similar places. It was kinda meant to be, I guess. It was definitely a challenge to put melodies to their music, because it’s pretty insane. It was a big challenge too, because it’s so different from what I’m used to, but a good challenge because it pushed me to go beyond what I thought I could do.”
Aaron’s extensive musical history likely helped ease his entry into the world of Hella. “According to my mom, I started writing songs when I was a little kid, because I was always coming up with little stuff. I started really seriously playing guitar and started, writing when I was about 14. Pretty much once I started I knew it was I whatwanted to do, it was the only thing I could do really well. I’ve contemplated giving up a lot, but I just keep going. The opportunity to work with Hella came at the right time.” His early experiences were “mostly punk bands and stuff,” before founding Fresh Young Blood, on lead guitar and vocals, and putting out a self-titled LP in August 2005. He further proved his versatility with an impressive solo acoustic repertoire. There’s No 666 in Outer Space is Aaron’s first exclusively vocal effort, as he’s normally leading with a stringed instrument in hand. “I never really envisioned that I’d just be singing in a band—I always thought I’d be playing guitar or bass or something. I’ve never really worked on my voice actually. I just try to sing like artists I like and add it to the way I sing. This is the first time I’ve really had to think about singing, working on perfecting it and making it sound really good. It was a big opportunity and I wanted to put a lot of effort into it.”

There’s No 666 in Outer Space will be released on January 30th on Mike Patton’s Ipecac records, whose mission statement is to “purge you of the drek that’s been rotting in your tummies.” They describe their label as “a place where bands we admire will have the freedom to release music they might not be able to, or want to, release on other labels.” I urge all to listen to There’s No 666 often and preferably with decent headphones, as it’s one of those fantastic albums that gets better each time you hear it. The realization of a full band tempts me to classify their sound as reminiscent of Sonic Youth and Mr. Bungle, complete with thrumming melodies and dynamic movement. The poetry has the wit of Devo and the wisdom of ancient sages. Even the cover art is perfect! Pursue any chance to see Hella live (i.e. Pat’s Pub on Sunday March 4th). This album is going to be huge.

In times as hectic as these, as war rages and the weather changes, we need good art more than ever—art that inspires realism and hope for the future. There’s No 666 in Outer Space inspires such hope. The Golden Age of humanity is soon upon us, and happily we have Hella to keep rock and roll moving in the right direction.

Hella Fun Facts:

None of the current members have had formal musical training.

Only one of the band members is single (sorry babes). Actually, that’s only really a maybe. You’ll have to guess who.

Hella’s favourite way to reduce recording stress, according to Spencer, is to “drink beer and blow up stuff in the recording studio parking lot” (with fireworks.)

Hella’s favourite restaurant in North American is our very own Naam. Hella doesn’t eat any fast food on tour, and have pretty much mapped out all the health food stores across the continent.

Spencer’s most prized possession? His necklace.

Cumulatively, Hella owns 12 vehicles, including boats and motorcycles. Car insurance is cheap in America. Each additional car only adds $150 to insurance premiums. God bless America.

Spencer, Josh and Carson are all Aquarius. Zach is a Capricorn and Aaron is a Gemini.