Jimmy Hill’s Weird World

Perennial freerider Jimmy Hill explains how he communicates through music on his new album, "The Weird is World."

Jimmy resides with his girlfriend, Heidi, in his grandparent’s old house that they call “The Cabana.” It was originally built in 1972, but later passed down when the couple built a larger house on the same property nearby. There’s no cell phone service in The Cabana, but he prefers it that way. Less distraction. (Though they recently gained a WiFi connection.)

His studio, detached, sits in the office of his grandfather’s machine shop, a sort of hybrid work floor and living space. It’s where his family spent the 1970’s working mills and lathes, cutting metal in the halcyon days of Central California. There’s an aura to be tapped into each time he plays, the sounds radiating through the walls where the machines once echoed.

Though the business has since been shuttered, Jimmy speaks warmly of it and of his elders, affirming a strong connection to the Hill heritage. His great-grandfather and grandfather both musicians in their own right. Grandfather and Father riders, as the music gene skipped his dad’s generation. His father “wasn’t interested in” playing, says Jimmy. “He claims he’s tone deaf, which I believe.” A jab that could only be served with love.

Jimmy emits a positive, chilled tone, reflected in his art under the “Hillsack” moniker. After our introductions, we spoke generously of vibrations, and how they represent a way to communicate when our sprawling vocabulary falls flat. I’ll let the man explain the rest.

World of Echo: You know, I figured somebody would’ve asked you about your new music by now?

Jimmy Hill: You are the first! I think I know why, though. People think that I make music from samples, like I’m some kind of DJ pulling stuff off the internet. That’s what I assume people think, anyway.

No way…

I don’t know! I’ve played music for about as long as I’ve ridden a motorcycle.

I definitely want to get into the backstory of your music, but I first wanted to lay the groundwork for your latest album, The Weird is World.

The album name itself came from a conversation I was having with my grandpa over the summer. Obviously, this is the weirdest fucking year of our lives, and my grandpa was trying to say, “the world is weird,” but what came out was, “the weird is world.” That cracked me up because it encapsulated how we felt in an unconventional way. “The weird is world…” well, the world is weird so why not?

As far as writing the music, I don’t know what it is or where it comes from, but I can put something down on any given day and come up with a riff or other musical element on my piano.

There’s some guitar in there as well.

Guitar is a little harder for me. I consider myself a beginner guitar player, honestly. I’m not very good. I do have a certain feeling for it though, playing simple riffs here and there.

Some of the best music is simple, like The Beatles. Simple chords, you know?

How do you differentiate tracks when you don’t have lyrics to define the music?

That’s something that I’m getting a better understanding of as I continue to make music.

To me, even as I’m talking with you on the phone right now, I’m using vibrations to speak. The vibration of my voice is stringing together words to communicate with you. You understand because we have a learned language that we can navigate.

Music is an entirely different language to communicate with that also stems from the concept of vibrations as the root. It’s a language that is universal and doesn’t require the same understanding that’s needed for words, phrases, and story structure. The understanding comes from feeling, really.

You could call it a vibe, but the word “vibe” gets thrown around way too much lately, haha.

They said if I wanted to keep riding my bike, I had to take piano lessons.

Since your songs have no lyrics, are track titles something that you think about a lot? After all, they’re the only words that will be associated with specific songs.

I toss that topic around with Heidi all the time. She says it doesn’t matter what I title my songs, because they don’t have any lyrics! Which is true but, when I’m writing a song there’s usually something on my mind. That’s where titles and album concepts come into play.

I’m close with my family, therefore a lot of what I do is family oriented. I’ve recorded three albums now, and the second (Carlsbad), was based around my grandparents and their life in Carlsbad, California in the 60’s and 70’s. It was a similar method I used for my first album, Travels in Space and Time. I was reading a lot of Carl Sagan back then, exploring my fascination with space.

I pull those concepts from my life. For that reason I believe my titles have depth and I consider them important.

I understand your father and grandfather got you into riding, and your cousin Tim got you into freestyle. Where did music come from?

Oddly enough, music in the Hill family is just as prevalent as dirt bikes are. My great-grandpa, he’s from St. Louis. He was a professional musician as a teenager which, in the 1940’s, meant you could basically strum a guitar and sing at local bars. His name was Glenn, and he taught my grandpa how to play guitar too.

Upper left: Glenn Hill. Upper right: RJ Hill. Center: RJ and Jimmy.

My playing stemmed from a time I got in trouble in school around the 5th grade. I got some bad grades and in order to punish me, my parents threatened to take my motorcycle away. They said if I wanted to keep riding my bike, I had to take piano lessons. Somehow they got it in their heads that if you played piano it would help make you smarter… or something like that. [laughs] My brother, sister, and I, we all took piano lessons to try and get us to improve in school. It did not help one bit!

They tried!

They gave it the old college try! I’m so thankful for that, though. I took it for granted as a kid, but now that I’m older I appreciate that exposure I had to music at a young age. If I could go back in time I would be more receptive to it, because I really hated it back then. We had to drive all the way down to Bakersfield to take those lessons, a two hour round-trip every Thursday. “What are we doing this for?” I’d think to myself.

It’s all paying off, though.

One aspect of your music that I personally experienced was intimacy, almost as if I can sense you feeling out the space of your studio and sliding into a groove or riff.

That’s cool to hear, man. To be honest, I haven’t heard too much feedback verbally from folks. I have been a bit reclusive lately. Most of my feedback comes from the internet, but it’s cool to actually hear it, you know? I don’t know what this sounds like to anyone else.

It is definitely just me when I’m recording, though. Just a weird journey inside somebody’s mind. An introspective… I don’t know.

No, totally. That’s what I was trying to get at! I felt like I learned something about you, even though this is our first verbal conversation together.

Right on, man. That’s cool.

Where do you pull inspiration from, musically?

Off the top of my head… Pink Floyd, for starters. One of my all time favorites. I was super inspired by Radiohead as well, especially some of their more trippy albums like Kid A. There’s an Australian band called Good Morning that I really dig as well. Love their sound. I’ll throw Mac DeMarco in there too, because when I found out about him I was blown away. There are some weird parallels between us and the sounds we make.

Classical music is something that I get into as well. Composers like [Frédéric] Chopin put me in a certain mood. I caught onto classical music after taking those piano lessons when I was little.

Finally, I couldn’t forget John Williams. The music from the Spielberg movies like ET, Hook, and Indiana Jones are amazing. He’s a huge inspiration for me.

Circling back on the new album, one of my favorite tracks is the “Jim Jam” track. It sounds like you just hop into a groove here and it’s super infectious. Can you shed any light on the creation of that track?

I started that track on one of my synths, a Yamaha DX7… and quick side note that I find funny is that: I’ve been a Yamaha guy in moto for almost 15 years, and as fate would have it almost all of my equipment is Yamaha brand as well. Even my keyboard is a Yamaha MX88. What are the odds? Total Blu Cru status.

Anyway, I started Jim Jam on that DX7, which is a synthesizer from the 1980’s. I sat there with a drum track on repeat and just hit a few jazzy chords, and that’s where I felt the groove. It’s hard to explain beyond that, as there will be moments where I’m playing the same chords over and over, and I can just figure out how to navigate over the top of them to create the rest of the track. It’s a loose process, like I mentioned earlier.

I really enjoyed that song, though. It’s a happier song, which I wanted to make because a lot of my music this year was really emotional. I wanted a song that could make you move rather than chill out.

“It’s difficult to sit with somebody you love and explain what they mean to you, how they make you feel.”

On the other side of that coin, one of my other favorite tracks is the closer, “Grammie,” which I could imagine is about the unfortunate passing of your grandmother.

Mmhmm, right.

Do you believe there’s a healing power in creating music? Something cathartic about finding a tone?

Dude, totally. That whole song was written as my grandma was passing away. She was on dialysis, a routine she had been on for quite some time. If you don’t understand the process, I’ll spare the details. Just know it’s really a terrible thing to go through. It’s physically and mentally draining. She had been on that program for some time, then one day she came home and told us that she was throwing in the towel. The doctors gave her a week and a half to live.

A couple of days before she passed, I woke up and felt the need to write. I wanted to write a song for her because it was really hard to speak in that time, you know? It’s difficult to sit with somebody you love and explain what they mean to you, how they make you feel. I walked from my grandparent’s house back to the studio, and within an hour I wrote and recorded the whole thing. It’s a simple song, just two guitar riffs, but… yeah.

Once I finished recording it, I put it on my phone and brought it back to the house. I let her listen to it that afternoon and she told me it sounded like the waves on Moonlight Beach, which is a place in San Diego that she loved to visit. Being able to share that with her and hearing what she had to say was incredibly moving. She passed away the next day.

This is a difficult subject for me, but I’m glad you asked that question. I want people to know that there’s a way to express yourself when words can’t. There’s a time in everyone’s life when you can’t find the words to explain something, and that was a moment that was super hard on me and my entire family, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to express myself without having to say anything.

My grandma was an awesome person. She was really important to me, and still is.

It seems like she cared a lot about you.

I mean, I grew up down the street from my grandparents! They came to all of my motocross races as I was growing up. They knew because they rode as well. She was super supportive of everything I did on and off a motorcycle. One of the coolest people in my life, for sure.

Funny enough, she used to drive us to those piano lessons back in the day. Every time she’d drive us to Bakersfield, my twin brother David and I would be goofing off in the back seat. We’d really get into it too, but my grandma never took it and she’d smack me silly, man! [laughs] She’d say, “Jim! If you don’t knock that shit off I’mma slap ya!” And sure enough… *Thwack!* She laid down the law in the Hill family. She had a heart of gold, though.

I just wanted to say to whoever’s reading this right now: thank you. And if you haven’t heard the new album, go check it out! Pop a wheelie for me, too.

Thanks to Jimmy for the time. Stream The Weird is World on Apple Music, Spotify, or Amazon Music. Portrait photos by Gordon F. Dooley.