VAIL – For some bands, improvisation is a part of the equation. But Colorado’s Zilla predicates everything about its music upon experimentation. Every time Zilla steps on stage, nobody has any idea what’s going to happen. “It’s 100 percent improvisational,” said band member Jamie Janover. But the kind of niche Zilla is carving out also has something to do with technological advances that have made this trio’s sound feasible. “We’re making music that wasn’t even really possible to make due to technological reasons,” he said. “We are never looping. It’s always live. So while we may have computers on stage, we never, ever press a button that would be a loop that we’d play along to. We would only hit things that are samples and we use delays and things like that, but it’s only tapping into a thing, not a computer playing the music. It’s completely live and it hopefully completely sounds like it’s not being played by live musicians, ironically.”Janover (hammered dulcimer, mini-kit, electric kalimba, mini-sitar, sampler, percussion, tamboura, tongue drum, water), who like band mates Michael Travis (drums, percussion, keyboards, sampler, mallet kat, samples) and Aaron Holstein (guitar, bass, keyboards, samples) wears many hats on stage, is known for his mastery of the hammered dulcimer, a relatively unknown instrument. Janover picked it up because he had a strong interest to learn a percussive instrument other than drums. After borrowing one from his uncle, he was absolutely fascinated with it, but didn’t really know what to do with it. “I just thought it was the coolest percussive instrument I had ever seen, but I didn’t really do that much with it initially,” Janover said. “I was kind of bored with it until somebody said, ‘You should bring that to the park.’ I started playing it out and then somebody said, ‘You should play that on the street.’ I was like ‘What, in public, are you kidding me?’ and they were like ‘Yeah and maybe you could make some money.’ So I went to Grand Central Station in New York City and played and I got kicked out, but I made some money and realized, ‘Oh, this is actually a thing.'”
It has been a lot more than just that for Janover though, as he has most definitely figured out what to do with it, winning the 2002-03 national hammered dulcimer championship and enlightening listeners to the instrument’s unique sound and rhythm. After playing in bands in Boston, New Orleans and San Francisco, just to name a few, Janover moved to Boulder a decade ago and began forming relationships with the wealth of talent in the surrounding area. He found that many musicians in the foothills, including String Cheese Incident drummer Michael Travis, shared his love for improvisation. So Zilla was really just a natural progression of what Janover, Travis and Holstein had already been doing for a very long time.”That’s what I’ve done my whole life and Michael Travis as the drummer of String Cheese has done a lot of improvisational drumming and Aaron has been in a long line of bands, and we’ve all listened to a lot of improvisational music from jazz to Indian to gospel music to Grateful Dead and Phish,” Janover said. “In my case, I’ve been lucky enough to have even played with Phish and played with String Cheese; I’ve directly played with them so it’s more than just listening to them in the form of having shared visions.”Zilla’s shared vision to be a band that doesn’t sound anything like a band may seem bizarre, but to Janover and the many fans Zilla has won over, it makes perfect sense. “We’re trying to absolutely emulate the vibe and the groove and the biggest trance you get when you see a really good DJ. It’s very hard to do and we’re trying to do it,” he said. “There’s bands that come close and I don’t even pretend to think that we’re there yet, but on a good night if you close your eyes and just haven’t heard us, you might say ‘what DJ is this?'”For Janover, the impetus to be entirely improvisational may have something to do with the kind of show he might like to go catch. “I just wanna go out and see a really good DJ that’s gonna play for hours and I can just dance and dance and forget about everything,” he said. “Usually you get that with a DJ and sometimes you can get that with a band, but a lot of times bands have songs that are like, ‘OK here’s the calypso song and here’s the blues song,’ and were going for this trance/breakbeat/electronica quality with a combination of all of the things that people like about “jamming” without all the solos. We don’t solo. We’ll never do that.”
Just because you might find actual tracks with song names on Zilla’s albums (the new release “Egg” has 13), it doesn’t mean the band intends the tracks to be actual songs, just breaks or pauses in the composition perhaps. “It’s been completely improvisational at every show we’ve ever done,” Janover said. “Just because we named it doesn’t mean it’s not improv.”Zilla will be doing plenty more song assignment, with plans to make a new album that will be part live, part studio. “We’re gonna put a bunch of time into it to make really as good as it can get,” Janover said.But he gives no indication as to how much of it will be live versus studio. After all, mystery plays a big role in Zilla’s music and as the band evolves, ambiguity seems to be growing with it. “It’s getting more and more ambiguous as to who’s doing what now; it’s hard to tell who’s playing what,” Janover said.
It would be safe to assume Zilla likes it that way. Mike Thomas is a freelance writer based in the Vail Valley. He can be reached at email@example.com.Vail, Colorado