Death Grips: “There's a lot of recycling and destruction in the making of our music”

A full-frontal assault on the musical culture of 2012, Death Grips might just be the most important band to arrive so far this century. Zach Hill discusses raw reality, release and borrowing Simon Cowell's printer

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 02 May 2012

Death Grips burst into the musical collective consciousness in 2011 with Exmilitary, a tour-de-force of punk attitude, soundsystem bass weight and no-holds-barred hip-hop. The album explored occult knowledge, economic collapse and techno-futurism with a cathartic, purging emotional core centred on MC Ride's apocalyptic vocal performances. Their live shows, where the album was transfigured into a snarling, hardcore behemoth of rock, dance music and rap, gained them the admiration of metal-heads, punks and hip-hop kids alike, leading many critics to declare them not just the future of hip-hop, but also the first truly important band of the twenty-first century.


Consisting of lyrical tornado MC Ride, producer and keyboardist Flatlander, ancillary members Mexican Girl and Info Warrior, plus legendary drum-destroyer Zach Hill (ex-of Hella, Wavves and a whole host of other groups), Death Grips are remorselessly avant-garde: challenging to listen to, but with a keen ear for melody, structure and dynamics – not to mention a lo-fi, tech-savvy approach to visuals and videos that makes the band unique among the current slew of hip-hop artists. Now signed to the none-more-corporate Epic Records for an undisclosed sum, the band have just released The Money Store, a full-frontal assault on the musical culture of 2012. We spoke to Zach Hill about the philosophy behind the band, their approach to music and visuals, the cathartic rush of their live shows, and the now-legendary tale of how they borrowed Simon Cowell's printer.


Has Death Grips become your main project now, and how do you feel about that?

Yeah, it has, and as far as my part in the group, the genesis of the band has a lot to do with that. I've been friends with these guys for a few years now; Stefan [MC Ride] and I were neighbours, and lived on the same street for a few years, and we would see each other around town. I'd talk to them when I got home from tour. But for myself, I felt a real need to return to centralising and focusing my creative energies into one thing, and having one outlet, rather than spreading my energies all over the place and not maximising a certain vision. 

So when we formed the group, that was a major inspiration, to narrow down all the stuff I had been doing, and get back to have a real group again. By real I mean taking everything I have and putting it into this one project. Since then, I've stopped doing all of the other things I would have been doing, and have narrowed it all the way down to Death Grips.


When did you become a full member of the band?

We had conceptualised this group back in the summer of 2010, but just as friends talking about it. There were a couple of years, even before that, when we had been talking about the group just as friends; Stefan and I were saying we should get together and play music. Andy [Flatlander] was my friend too, he was an engineer around town who I had done work with before, and we'd been tweaking out together, making beats and recording. I'd been talking to Stefan for a long time – we'd see each other at the store, or we'd just hang out at the house and talk about how we should make some music. We got more and more serious, talking about that in the summer up to the fall of 2010, until about December, that's when we recorded the track Full Moon (Death Classic).

Our Albums of 2012 round-up, topped by Death Grips' The Money Store

That was the first go at this thing, and we just recognised the energy; we saw the potential for what we could do musically together. It was our first try but we were positive that it worked. So from that point on, that's when we started recording Exmilitary. I started whittling away anything that was peripheral to Death Grips. So from December to March, that was when we were recording Exmilitary, and I was just as involved in the process with that album as I was with The Money Store. All of us were on the same page. We'd been conceptualising this thing as friends for months – it wasn't led by any one person separately until the others jumped in – we all started together, intentionally, at the same time.


Was the release of Exmilitary for free, through online viral channels, a strategy designed to attract major label attention, or did the offer from Epic come as a surprise?

It came as a surprise. Nothing about the creative or the musical aspects of the group are at all forced or contrived, it's all very natural. The start of the band has much more to do with our own personal lives; outside of doing music publically, we were just trying to think about it as honestly and genuinely as possible... I start searching for a word, when I'm about to describe our music, but I don't know if I can do that. Empowering music, I guess is what I would say, for our own benefit, and for our own mental health. We were just friends who wanted to make some real shit, some shit that we connected with, and that first and foremost we were feeling, given our own personal situations.


The things that followed, in terms of labels coming into play once we'd released Exmilitary on the internet, the things that have happened since then have just been a series of improvisations regarding anything outside of the music itself. It's still like that: every day new things are happening, there are new decisions and choices to be made. Everything to do with this group, all of that peripheral stuff is very much focused out of the creative aspect. There's no angles, no strategies regarding some sort of business-like approach. It's all about the music, or the visual aspects. It's a very honest approach.


In other interviews you've mentioned that Epic offered you 'creative freedom' with this contract – can you elaborate on what this means?

Here's the thing: Epic was one of the last labels we had met with, and just like the meetings with the other labels, we went into the meeting with them with zero expectations, but we had a lot of other situations to compare it to when we went into this meeting with the giant, monster label. We had insight into how other people had come at us.

The thing about the Epic meeting was that it was the opposite of everything you would expect about going into that scenario, which made perfect sense to us as a group, but also as futurists. We're always thinking about how stigmas, and how they get attached to things. So our whole approach is to not operate based on outside opinions; on profiling or stigmas.


There was a majestic calling to that meeting, so a lot of what we were perceiving going into that meeting was abolished, and so that itself gave us the sense that this would be the right move. Based on their reaction to the music, you could tell that these people in that building – like L.A. Reid, Tricky Stewart and Angelica Cob, all these heavyweight industry people... I mean, there were not even a lot of words exchanged, we were just bumping tracks, and you could tell they were feeling it.

We played them most of The Money Store, which was about seventy percent complete at that time; this was October last year. You could just tell that they were like, 'Oh, fuck.' That there was so much energy and feeling in the music that they had almost forgotten we were in a business meeting. The walls, the posturing, the front, had just come down after they listened to a few tracks, and we realised we were in a room with some genuine people.


After that, you could also tell that these people, although they were really feeling the music, they also knew that it was operating on a level they couldn't understand – not entirely, but in a creative way. This isn't a negative thing, I think a lot of people would have that same reaction, but you could tell that even if they had wanted to mess with the creative vision of the group, they wouldn't know how to begin. Even though they had no interest in doing that – their only interest lies in recognising the power of the music, and being like: 'We wanna help this in any way we can.'


Also, you could sense this relief. Understand, these people, in those divisions, they spend twenty-four hours a day designing people's careers. So if they hear music that hits on that same level, or that hits on any kind of level of feeling or emotion, they can automatically sense that is if it isn't broke, don't fix it. It was kind of a relief: 'We don't even have to do anything, just let these dudes keep doing what they're doing. We just support in in any way that the band asks. Help them spread it.' So it was a combination of all these things, compared to other labels – majors and indies – who we had met with, we just trusted our intuition and we knew this was the one we should go with.


By now people have heard that you used Simon Cowell's printer to print off the contract – that must have been a strange experience, meeting the God Emperor of manufactured pop... Had he heard of Death Grips? Did you have a conversation with him?

The whole thing was a strange experience. To be honest, I went in there high as a kite. I was totally out of it. Well, not out of it, you know, but we smoke a lot of weed. Whatever. We were in there, Stefan had graffitied the bathroom, and then... it's very hard to explain. We don't even know these people, and then all of a sudden we're sitting there with the X-Factor host. It was strange. But the meeting went so well, and there were so many dynamics to what the vibe was.


We were following our intuition, and having that futurist mentality towards it where we don't let other people's stereotypes or opinions formulate our own. We believe in juxtaposition, we think things can coexist, we're into the one-ness of everything. That doesn't take away the surreal aspects of the situation of course, it was definitely a trip. They didn't want us to leave the building, they wanted the whole thing to go down right then and there. That's the way it went with people like Rihanna, or whatever, you know what I mean? So we were getting ready to sign the shit, the printer didn't work, and Simon Cowell was the only one left in the office, so he printed our contract out. It was interesting, you couldn't help but laugh. There was a lot of humour within it, but at the same time, we were like, 'No, this is regular, man. This is what should be happening.'


To all of us, it's a series of improvisations, to the point where everything is what we make it. Without sounding pretentious, we also consider any environment where we exist as a group – anything we're doing, anywhere we go – we consider it a piece in itself. It might as well be a record itself. In a sense, I guess what I'm saying is it was a performance, or it felt like that. That might be quite an abstract way of thinking, but that's how we talk amongst ourselves.

If you're an artist, the creative side of things never turns off. The environment doesn't influence whether or not you're being an artist. An example would be when Stefan went into the Epic building and just started writing all over the walls – we're just going constantly. It's not like Death Grips goes away, even when we go home and sleep. We live the whole thing, so the surrealness of that situation made perfect sense in our minds. It doesn't turn off, it doesn't go away. We're always making. Every situation is a chance to transcend the environment and be creative with what is in it. There couldn't have been better proof of that, than that whole meeting. That whole exchange, that whole interaction – it was performance art. That's what it was, and that's what it still is.


You've stuck to your commitment to free digital music and released a lot of The Money Store for free on Soundcloud. What is it that makes you so committed to sharing your music, ideologically speaking?

Here's the thing – we're making this work, but we don't like the old model, the old guard – we're very against it, and we believe you can push things in a new direction. For example, we got the label to make a deal with Bittorrent – that's their enemy, that's unheard of. We've been influencing the direction of things like that by rubbing off our ideology on the label.

The number one thing is we don't look at people who are connected with our music, or who are enjoying it, as consumers, and we're not businessmen – it's not like that. There's a relationship, and that should always be the front line of what we're doing, but it's a relationship between two groups of people, it's not a transaction. When you put something out, you're telling people to pay attention, to connect with it. So asking for something in return – and I know this is kind of a more utopian idea – it seems like that shouldn't be the focus.


So signing up with a major corporation, who have money and reach and all these kinds of things, we're still coming from this place of honesty, so we don't want it to feel like we're saying: 'Just buy our shit.' We would rather provide a method of exchange where people can just connect with it, and move on from that. We believe that the more you make that connection with your audience, the more you treat them how they really are – just as people – the more people they become invested in the group. It actually works in your favour if you open up to that sort of mentality. We don't even have to open up to it, that is our mentality. But that's what I'm saying, that rubs off on the people that we're working with. Ultimately that's why we're so adamant about keeping things free. We want things to be transparent.


The Money Store feels like a statement about the future – the way the synths were recorded, with lots of crackle and hiss and glitches; the way the drums sounded, so far from crisp dance beats, but also unlike punk or rock drums; and of course Stefan's lyrics. Flatlander has called DG 'future music' but it's not a shiny, flying cars future – it's tent cities and riots. Are DG trying to say something about the future of music, or the world? Would it be cheating to ask you to elaborate?

When we talk about the future, we recognise that the future is changing every day. It's chaotic. Take the internet – you can be on a site like Slashdot, one of the most interesting, intelligent sites in the world, reading this really informative stuff, and at the same time you can have some porn open in another window, and be jacking off to it simultaneously. Those things are welded together, and it's very much normal to have those ideas and mentalities all interwoven and coexisiting.

It's complex – the filthiest grime can sit next to the most polished thing; street-level attitudes existing right next to the highest level of MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] knowledge. So when we talk about the future, we believe that the future abolishes the notion of being able to profile people. You can't profile anything, or attach stigma to anything, because the future is about all of these things happening simultaneously. It's not about pigeon-holes, and places for individuals any more, but people underestimate this constantly.


As far as the scenarios you mentioned, like tent cities and so on, homelessness and poverty and violence, the crash of the American dollar – all those things that seem to be coming... we see that every day, where we live. It's a natural influence, because a lot of our friends, and ourselves, have been in those scenarios. We see it every day, all around us, and we feel a kind of energy from it.

There are going to be times ahead – very soon I think – where things are going to look a lot different than they do now. That gets naturally integrated into our music. I guess what I'm saying is that our music represents that, in terms of the analogy I gave about the internet, where you can have all these different thoughts and types of attitude all existing in one thing, because that is the future.


The occult seems to be a big influence on your work – does this come from one particular member, or are you all interested in this?

All of us have a general interest in it. All of us are the kind of people who feel like we have a relationship with the universe. We're all people who believe in things we cannot see. Not by any means anything having to do with a religion, or anything organised like that.

Mysticism and ancient knowledge are the things we are interested in. I can't speak for the rest of the band directly – I can speak for them as friends, and say that we all have our own individual ways of interpreting what that is, but when we talk about it amongst ourselves, it all comes together. It's definitely a theme, getting into the realms of magick, our relationship with the universe, recognizing synchronicities around your life, and the informational aspects of the group.


Manifesting your destiny, conjuring – those are things which we all believe in, but we all have different ways of expressing that, and different interests within that realm. We all have a personal connection with those types of things. I don't think any of us would narrow it down to anybody else's previously formulated ideas, like say Satanism, or something like that. That just sounds like Christianity to us, and we aren't interested in anything like that which is organised and hierarchical. What we're interested in is the knowledge contained in all of these things – there is useful knowledge contained in all the different writings about all the different types of spiritual connections. We're interested in how that relates to our relationship with the universe, and all of those things which you cannot see.


In one interview, one of the bad members referenced the concept of the 'collective conscious' as being important to the band thematically – is what you're talking about with regards to the simultaneity of different experiences on the internet a 'real world' manifestation of this?

Absolutely. That's part of our understanding of the future as well. We get a sense, just existing every day, among the people you meet, that you don't even notice, whether you walk past them in the store, or read a random comment they've made on the internet... there's an acceleration towards that collective understanding, or mentality.

It's that invisible relationship to the universe again – people waking up to something. They realise it subconsciously perhaps – because everyone's an individual, they all have different ways of expressing or acknowledging what that is, or what it means. I'm not even qualified to define it on their behalf; I can only define it for myself. But I do get a sense that there's a push for a certain kind of change, and there's also this knowing, in a collective conscious way, that big changes are going to happen in then next say, five to ten years. Major things, that mankind has perhaps never seen before.

I hesitate to define it, because I feel unequipped to do so, particularly in the role of speaking for everyone in the band. But for myself, I do get a sense of a push towards change. What we were talking about earlier – about profiling, and stigma – I think those kinds of thoughts are going to become baggage that will set you back in a way, in terms of your own survival. If you keep latching on to these old mentalities, that could in fact be dangerous. If you aren't awake to that, I do genuinely think you'll be left behind.

Things are moving and accelerating in a certain direction, and if you stay attached and hold on to your fears, you might not survive in the future.


There's something amazingly cathartic about your music and live shows – you leave feeling battered but purified by the experience of listening to Death Grips. Is it just as cathartic for you, playing the music?

That's why the group started in the first place, to do that on a level just for ourselves. When we started, it wasn't for anyone else and it wasn't about getting a record deal, or anything like that. We perceive that when we play shows, or even when we're recording, or even when we're having an experience somewhere where what's traditionally thought of as 'music' isn't happening, with Death Grips it is all a release. But particularly the live shows, for us, the whole point is to get lost, to get off into that energy. We conjure a certain energy, and to make ourselves draw on that power.


Basically the idea is like, all day you're eating a meal, and the show, that's where you shit it out. Afterwards you have relief, and you can eat again. That's the sensation for all of us, in terms of what we're doing. Negativity becomes positive because of the energy on the other side, when we're focused. And what it does for us is it makes us feel like: 'Shit's fucked. I can handle it though.' I feel like that's part of the connection that you are talking about. Sharing that experience with us, that's the hope, that you and the rest of the audience would come out feeling the same way.

We're providing a space and an environment where people can be whatever they want to be, because that's what we're doing. We're doing whatever we want to do, and everybody is sharing that experience with us. A space where you can exercise any physical motion, any verbalised emotion. We provide that environment, and that's what it should be about: 'Okay. Everybody get it out.'


Stefan's stage presence is intense. You get the feeling, watching him, that's hard work being in front of people, saying his words, which are often very personal. Is this a persona he wears on stage, or is he as focused and scary in real life too?

Yes. All of us are. Very much what you see on stage, that's what we're like in real life too. His demeanour in real life, I mean, of course he's just like everybody else – he's funny, he has a sense of humour, he's very sharp. But he's also naturally, in his day-to-day, not someone you would just go up to and start talking to. There's a very closed-off nature there, a more serious side. On a personal level, as far as like, at the shows – I think he's very lost in what he is doing. For all of us, it's like that – we really try and go to this place, and most of the time we do.


I don't even remember when we play. That's the whole point. It's just gone. And I think the same is true for Stefan, he's just in the zone. It's very honest and very real. I don't think he's even there a lot of the time when we're doing what we do. That's what we're trying to achieve. The worst case scenario is that you can't get there, for whatever reason. Everything about the music, and about Stefan's performance and what you see is very honest, and pretty accurate as far as showing how he is in his day-to-day life. He's pretty reclusive; not social. That's part of his energy. I mean, at some point I could see him talking more [to press], but he's just very sketched on it. That representation of yourself, through another person – not having any kind of control as far as representing your own words. He's paranoid about that, and I understand that.


I've already had a past in music, so I've already had to open myself up to the world and talk about music and those kind of things, that's why I naturally just got the sense of like: 'Okay, these dudes are sketched on it, for now I'll just do it, because it's a necessary part of the process.' We're not trying to alienate ourselves – we want that connection with people. But again, it's an improvisation. You have to find your way as a group. We're not eager to try and be in every single magazine, that's not what's going on here. It's all about the music. But we also recognise the importance of further articulating things, and explaining to our audience where we're coming from. But everything you're seeing is very much what it appears to be. There's no difference between our art and our real lives.


We understand the new album, No Love, is already in the works?

Yeah, we're really excited about it. It's about seventy percent complete, and we're going to finish it in July. We'll work on it constantly until then, but we're about to go on a pretty large tour... but it's very exciting. I think it transcends even the place we are right now, musically, just as hopefully The Money Store did with Exmilitary. It's kind of weird, because it comes across, in my opinion, as the kind of culmination of those two albums. It's refined. The most powerful aspects of the two records we've made so far combined as one, but going even further. There's a clearer emotional core, and a greater clarity to it in general, which I don't think we've gotten to yet, as a group. Which is very exciting.


The main thing I can really talk about now is the heaviness of it. I don't necessarily mean even just volume or noise, or things like that, because the most quiet thing in the world, musically, can be one of the heaviest. I mean more dynamically. It's so difficult to describe music – it's very beat-oriented, but it has a strong emotional core. There's a certain tone to it that I can't really describe, and it dominates all the material in this really great way, because it's still got that diversity of the other records, but it's dynamic. You'll hear some of the loudest things we've ever done, but also some of the quietest things. It's definitely not a departure from either of the two records that have gone before, rather it's a natural culmination. If you think of the records as a trinity, this one will be the point on the top of the triangle. It's powerful music. We're excited about it. It's dangerous.


There's a melodic aspect to all the things that are in the music we're making right now for No Love, that's why I keep talking about the emotional core, and the vocal performances, the clarity... it's on some other shit. It's the natural progression of Death Grips. We messed around with some ideas that were more guitar-like on Exmilitary through sampling, and there's less of that on The Money Store. This time around, there's an essence to certain songs, a bit like Guillotine, which returns on No Love. You get the sense that even though it's not a guitar, it has qualities of guitar music: we're using the same techniques we use all the time to generate the feel of a guitar. That range. It has the feel and the energy of guitars.


Who oversees the production of visuals for the group? Are there any particular visual artists you'd like the band to work with?

No-one leads it. We're all very visually-oriented, so we do all of the visual work as a collaboration. We have friends that we outsource to, and people we work with within the band. A friend from Chicago did our album cover, and another friend does our projections. We talk with all these people about the visual elements. My best friend just recently graduated, he's very much in the art world. There's a big influence surrounding this band. But in terms of the videos, the site, that's definitely collaborative, all of us make those decisions, and we talk about it constantly. In terms of collaborations in the future, we've been in correspondence with Crispin Glover, we might do a video together. We'll see if it works out – it all goes back to that concept of improvisation. Every day. We're very impulsive, but we know what we like and we know what we don't.


What was the idea behind 'retrograde' on the Third Worlds site, and who was responsible for producing it?

Have you seen the whole thing? There's 109 GIFs on that wall. For the past month, Mercury's been in retrograde, and we were very much experiencing that, in our communications with people – everything always seemed, in that period of time, like it was shorted-out. We just started thinking, in our personal lives, day-to-day, like: 'Fuck, this shit's real, man.' Particularly with regards to communication, we had the sense of things glitching, and it felt like living in a GIF. So we decided to make this into a creative project: a GIF wall.


All the GIFs are musical, so it turns into an instrument. People are always asking how we make our music, how we use samples – we would talk about music concrète, stuff like that, and that's absolutely true – we often make music out of material that other people wouldn't think to use. Like for instance we might take a sample from YouTube and then build a whole song around it with these more hi-fi instruments, and then erase the sample from YouTube so it's not even in the track.


There's a lot of recycling and destruction that happens in the making of our music. The genesis of the idea was to acknowledge the idea of being in retrograde; living life in a GIF. Beyond that we recognised the potential for those GIFs to become a musical instrument, relative to the way that we make music. So when you're playing one of those thirty-second samples, that's something like what we might start with to make a song, and it all starts intertwining from there.


We'll see you at the Stag & Dagger show in May – down the front headbanging with the best of them.

I'll be doing the same thing.


More on Death Grips:

The Skinny live review of Death Grips at SWG3.


The Money Store is out now on Epic Records.