Interviews

Catching up with Sam Hillmer, owner of H0L0 in New York

Words by Kate Menzies

We talked to one of New York’s most passionate live music promoters about DIY shows, the importance of physical spaces, and how to stay creative in lockdown.

Sam Hillmer was only 14 years old when he put on his first gig in his hometown of Washington DC. He even had his mum working on the door. As a teenager, he’d become engrossed in the DC punk scene, and the ethos of that world became a huge inspiration to him. “Self-organization was a really big part of the social vocabulary”, says Hillmer. “We appropriated spaces for the purpose of DIY shows; places like houses, churches, and community centres. Any space could be a space where a show could happen. That was something that was in my consciousness from an early age.” 

When Hillmer moved to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music in the mid-90s, he discovered a different kind of scene. “It was fairly foreboding”, he explains. “New York has changed a lot in the last 25 years, but back then it was really hard to break in. In the early days of trying to get up on the scene, I was doing a lot of self-organising. My interest is in the street, people trying to break in. I like the energy of an even playing field. I was in Zs and I was running Wet Ink, and just organizing DIY shows and events in New York for us and our friends.”

My
interest
is
in
the
street,
people
trying
to
break
in.
I
like
the
energy
of
an
even
playing
field.

His first foray into weekly music curation was a night at Zebulon, a club that has since relocated to LA. The night was called Practice, and the pitch was: “Don’t do your main thing. If you have a collaboration or material you want to try out, just come and try it.” Every Tuesday night, artists were encouraged to experiment or perform together, and it soon became a coveted industry party for outsider musicians.

H0L0

After the success of Practice, Hillmer was head hunted to become the booker and creative director of Trans-Pecos, a new space set up by promoting legend Todd P. Coinciding with his decision to spend less time on the road as a musician, he settled into running Trans-Pecos with his DIY, community-led ethos. He also brought his love of avant-garde and unusual music, known as ‘difficult listening’, to the programming. “It was difficult listening early in the evening, and nightlife late at night. We had a nightlife late program that was all over the place, but cohesive”, says Hillmer. “At the time, New York was dominated by techno and house, and a lot of clubs weren’t really curatorial about it. We brought a more deliberate attitude towards curation and sought to present a diverse array of nightlife, rather than hone in on a niche. That experience really informed my curatorial practice.”

Hillmer went on to open H0L0, an independent venue in the Queens borough of New York that’s been running since 2017. The way H0L0 runs is true to his principles: it’s a music venue, rehearsal and recording space, as well as a community space that caters to creative outsiders and hosts plenty of DIY shows. He’s adamant that it should be available to artists from all communities. “The space is a resource – if anybody has a need and it’s defensible, then we’re doing it. We do what I was doing at Trans-Pecos, but with an even more extreme commitment to street-level New York.” he says.

The
space
is
a
resource
if
anybody
has
a
need
and
it’s
defensible,
then
we’re
doing
it.

The pandemic hit at a frustrating time for the H0L0. “I felt, and everybody felt, that after year three at H0L0 we really hit our stride,” says Hillmer. “We were partnering with Mean Red to put on bigger shows and curate events outside our walls, which was working really well.” It was tough to swallow the closure, but he quickly turned his thoughts to the future and embarked on ambitious new projects. 

“In the first three months, I sensed this was going to go on for a long time, and there weren’t any stopgap measures”, he says. “It seemed like we just had to take our time and think about what we were going to do and how we’d keep it alive after quarantine.” Hillmer decided to pivot H0L0 to live streaming, and invested in it with partnerships that would help them extend streaming to their community. “We did eventually put on a streaming program and figured out how to ticket it with DICE”, he says.

We
made
a
point
that
any
effort
we
were
going
to
put
in
during
shutdown
would
need
to
continue
in
the
future.

“We got a great streaming setup through a partnership with Big Room, and that’s been amazing because we can produce really high-quality streams”, says Hillmer. “That’s been a huge asset for the communities we work with because they can either come and stream live from the club or record things to stream later. We made a point that any effort we were going to put in during shutdown would need to continue in the future.”

Picking the right partnerships is a big deal, even more so when you’re trying to build new things. “Sometimes, working with ticket companies can feel like an impersonal interface”, he says. “But DICE isn’t like that. They go a long way to foster a community – the reps listen to your ideas, and they care. They’re into it.”

I
want
to
do
something
generative
and
collaborative,
that’s
my
motivation,
and
DICE
from
the
gate
was
about
ideas
and
putting
on
DIY
shows
in
the
community.

Ever the self-organiser, Hillmer has been busy during the various lockdowns. He explains: “We introduced a podcast, which I had actually wanted to do before lockdown. We also collaborated with local designers to create merch, started an audio series, and expanded our newsletter a bit. Now there’s a renovation underway and we’re expanding the size of the space. These things will benefit the communities we support when events in New York return.”

H0L0

The podcast, Places of Assembly, has a very prescient concept. Before the pandemic, Hillmer was already starting to think about a podcast that would create conversations about the physical spaces where events happen. “The podcast is the thing I started working on first. It’s an idea I had before the pandemic”, he says. “The premise is having conversations about physical spaces and the roles they play in the production of culture. It’s an interview show where I, and sometimes co-hosts, talk to leadership and team members from venues and spaces all over the world, as well as people like presenters and academics.”

He’s also going back to his roots to help out his community. “The city put out a request for proposals, where you could enter spaces to function as youth centres for kids to go to when they don’t have online learning”, he says. “On a whim, I put four nightclubs into the running and one of them got chosen. I used to work in youth development, teaching music in after-school programs, so that’s how I knew about it. Right now, from 8am to 3pm, I’m running a youth centre in a techno club.” It’s inventive and socially vital ideas like this that make Hillmer’s venues, and others, especially important to their towns and cities.

Staying creative and productive in lockdown hasn’t been easy for everyone, but there’s something to be said for branching out of your comfort zone. Take some inspiration from Hillmer: “This is a time when it’s really important not to have an attachment to your sense of self. There’s no shame right now in trying out random projects”, he says. “It’s a really powerful time to experiment with your professional identity and yourself – try learning something.” There’s a lot that we can all learn from Hillmer’s creative approach.

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