Sacramento math rock duo Hella earned a devoted, cult fanbase for its loose, but highly technical and mostly instrumental tunes. Yet in 2007, the pair behind Hella, guitarist Spencer Seim and drummer Zach Hill, surprised fans by changing up their duo’s intimate dynamic. Hella temporarily expanded into a five-piece ensemble, complete with a lead vocalist, Aaron Ross.
Seim was particularly impressed with Ross, so much so that the two started a side project in 2010, originally called Amaranth, and later changed to Solos. For this venture Seim hopped on the drums, with Ross playing guitar.
“When we started it, we knew we really wanted to make an album,” Seim says. “That was the goal of the band. We didn’t think we’d be touring necessarily. Honestly Aaron and I just got together to write some songs.”
The demos eventually evolved into the full-length, Beast Of Both Worlds, which they released last year on Joyful Noise Records. The duo stops at Cafe Stritch for a show on November 6.
While making the album, they had no budget and no commitment from a label, yet managed to create a stunning, sonically consuming professional album. On songs like the mid-tempo rocker “All My Tribulations,” through the thickness of the distorted guitars and the reverb-rich drum tones one can hear shades of The Who at Shea Stadium.
To create such a big sound, the pair not only borrowed a bunch of expensive equipment from friends, but they also enlisted producer Guy Massey (Spiritualized, Radiohead, the Divine Comedy) who agreed to work on the album for a significantly reduced fee. Massey’s skill is exemplified by songs like “Carpe Diem”—with natural ease, he links an oddball, synchronized guitar and drum verse with a traditional rock bridge and rhythmically jagged chorus. The connective tissue is his well-rounded mix and subtle texturing, much like his work on Spiritualized’s Let It Come Down.
“Making a record like this is something I’ve wanted to do since I started playing music,” Seim says. “I’ve gone to the studios and made a lot of recordings that I like, but to have somebody behind you that you really respect, and have the outcome be this big, bold sonic expression—it just worked out perfectly,” Seim says.
Much to Seim’s surprise, these days Solos stands as his primary project, with Hella sitting on the backburner. With Hill—his partner in Hella—now playing for Death Grips, the duo rarely get together, though technically they haven’t broken up, either.
Solos’ songs are big and powerful, nuanced rock anthems, with elements of classic, prog and space rock. Some hints of Hella’s math rock influences are still evident, too, as on album closer “They Don’t Care About Us.” The song starts out as post-punk, heavy rock and descends into an amalgam of complex, irregular rhythms and otherworldly synth sounds.
“Hella was way more freeform,” Seim says. “We would change tempos like crazy, and go around through all these different things. With this band, we really try to relax and to make stuff feel slower than it actually is. It’s a totally different approach. It’s refreshing. It’s what I’m into right now.”