Interview with guitarist Ava Mendoza in my apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, March 11, 2014
Cisco Bradley: What path did you follow to becoming a professional musician?
Ava Mendoza: I played music ever since I was a little kid. I played classical guitar and classical piano my whole life growing up. I started piano when I was 5 and guitar when I was 7. I got more serious about it just as I was becoming a troubled teenager. I went to Interlochen which is like Oberlin for high school. A boarding school in northern Michigan that is very art focused. I went there for classical guitar. They had a major like in college. I went to there for classical guitar for 3 years and got more serious and more immersed in it there. I was super into it, but at the same time I was listening to tons of punk rock and getting into experimental rock, and free jazz. So at some point I got an electric guitar and started playing with the two other people that I could find who were into improvising together. We just started experimenting. By the end of high school I realized that’s what I wanted, to be doing and I was listening almost exclusively free jazz records at that point. I got out of there and went to Cal Arts (California Institute of the Arts) for one year? Then I took a year off and went to the Mills College. I was more doing electronic music by the time I got to Mills. Which is cool, they’ve got a good program for that. But by my last year there I was back to playing guitar all the time. I didn’t want to be working on Max MSP, I wanted to be playing guitar.
CB: Who did you study with at Mills?
AM: Fred Frith is there, so him, and John Bischoff, one of the electronic music dudes there. Chris Brown is another electronic music guy there, though I didn’t study with him. Fred is the person that most improvising musicians know there. Now Roscoe Mitchell is there but he wasn’t when I was there. There’s a great 20th century theory professor there, David Bernstein who I studied with. He was a Cage scholar, but has a broad knowledge about 20th century classical stuff. He was excellent at framing that music within its socio-political context, which is rare and was important for me to learn.
Already by the time of my last year there I was playing a lot in the Bay Area. So I got out of there and was playing consistently.
CB: Where exactly is Mills located?
AM: It is in Oakland. It is getting towards east Oakland. It is a really awkward neighborhood. It is not the bad part of Oakland but it is not the greatest neighborhood either. So freshman come there and get mugged. [laughs]
CB: So you were training at Mills, but you were also getting your foot into the Bay Area music scene simultaneously.
AM: Yeah, I knew that I want to be playing out a lot. By my second year there, I was really trying to go out to play away from Mills as much as possible.
CB: Were you mostly collaborating with students who were at Mills or other musicians?
AM: Some of them were, but some were older musicians. Like Philip Greenlief is a guy I was playing with when I was at Mills. He is a saxophonist from Bay Area and goes out of his way to take younger musicians under his wing and bring them into the scene. John Raskin was another person. He is a saxophonist in ROVA. I played with a lot of people who were at Mills too, but some older musicians. Bob Marsh, a cellist who is out there, and Moe Staiano, a percussionist, and Gino Robair, another percussionist. So, lots of people that had already been playing in the Bay Area for years. When I got out of there I had a rock band with Moe Staiano called Mute Socialite. That is what I was focused on.
CB: When did you enter Mills?
AM: I entered Mills in 2003.
CB: and then you finished …
AM: 2006, three years. So I got out of there and was playing more free jazz and playing in this rock band. With Moe Staiano and Shayna Dunkleman, who lives here now. I went on tour with Carla Bozulich who is a singer from the west coast originally. She used to be in a band with Nels Cline called the Geraldine Fibbers in the 90s and early 2000s. She had a new band called Evangelista starting around 2007, and I toured with her as her guitar player. I was just trying to tour, playing as much as possible.
CB: Where did you guys go?
AM: Mute Socialite were mainly on the west coast. We just did trips up and down the coast, and then with Carla I went across the country. After a few years I slacked off touring a little bit, just trying to play locally and didn’t want to go on tour and lose money. So I stuck around home a little bit longer. It was at the end of 2008 into 2009 I starting playing with Weasel we started a band called “QUOK”. Originally it was me, him and Devin Hoff. Everyone moved to Brooklyn from that band, separately. Anyway we played together for a year or so, and then were invited to play this festival in Austria, Wels Unlimited Festival. Devin moved right after the invite came and couldn’t play. We ended up asking Tim Dahl, who you saw me play with in Brooklyn, to do it. We did a little tour as a trio in Europe, and then on the east coast. By that time I was feeling that it was too hard to tour from the Bay Area. I had a great time touring in Europe. I did some solo stuff also.
CB: This was in 2009?
AM: That tour was in 2010. Then I was thinking this works a lot better than touring on the west coast, and I don’t want to just be playing locally in my city. I want to play every night I can. [laughs] I always had a good time when I came to New York and also a good time touring on east coast. I knew I needed to move and was trying to figure out where the move was going to be to for a while. Eventually it became clear that this was the right place.
CB: What does this mean for the music that you’ve been making up to this point. Are you able to bring some of those projects with you?
AM: Well, not exactly. That would be cool if I could, but my main project for the last few years in Bay Area was Unnatural Ways; that’s my trio that I wrote all of the music for with Dominique Leone and the drummer Nick Tamburro. That I can’t bring with me, unfortunately. I got asked to play that music at the Victoriaville Festival, in Canada, and the then at the Moers Festival in Germany right after I moved out here, but I didn’t have a band and couldn’t rehearse with those guys anymore because I moved to east coast! But I have formed an east coasty version of Unnatural Ways. So that is the thing now with Tim Dahl and Nick Podgurski.
CB: So that’s something you’ve formed since you came here.
CB: And are you going to play both of those festivals?
AM: Yeah. UW will play, and I am also playing with Fred Frith. Fred has a record called Gravity, which is a 1979-like kind of classic prog-meets-contemporary-classical record. It was only a studio record, never performed live. But a couple years ago he put a group together to perform the record live in the Bay Area, and that group is playing both of those festivals also. So I will do Fred Frith’s Gravity and Unnatural Ways east coast version at both festivals!
CB: So, do you have other projects you are looking to build here?
AM: Basically I moved here because there is such a huge pool of crazy good people. I don’t have an agenda of other projects. I want to play with UW, and to start playing solo again, which I haven’t done in several years. But other than that I am open to collaboration with a lot of people. I’m getting the lay of the land and setting up little sessions with people here and there. But I feel like I haven’t played with a lot of the people that I think are awesome around here.
CB: I hope that continues to go well. Do you want to talk a little bit more about your background on the west coast? Where did you grow up?
AM: I lived in Chicago until I was 10, and then I moved to Orange County, California: Irvine. I lived there ostensibly through high school. But then I went to Interlochen for 3 years of high school. That was where I first felt “this is the path I want to go on”. It became clear that there wasn’t another thing that I was going to do instead of music. I’d played my whole life up until then but that’s when it became clear.
CB: Before you went Mills you went to Cal Arts. Were you also studying music there?
AM: Yes. I was studying guitar there. There iss a great, great guitar player there that isn’t known as much as he should be, Miroslav Tadic. He is a Yugoslav guy, or ex-Yugoslav guy– Serbian. He was a great classical guitar player originally but now he mainly plays all this Balkan stuff that he arranges himself. He is a killer electric player as well, and great improviser. He played a lot with Wadada Leo Smith, who was on faculty there for many years. So I studied with Miroslav there as I was becoming less focused on classical guitar and more focused on electric stuff. During that time, I was listing to a ton of free jazz. I got into Sonny Sharrock. At the same time, because I came from classic guitar and acoustic guitar and finger style technique, I didn’t play with a pick at all then. I was listening to all of these older blues guys from 20s to 50s.
CB: Anyone in particular?
AM: Reverend Gary Davis is a big one. Joseph Spence plays folk tunes, I wouldn’t call him a blues guy necessarily but he is another one who’s near and dear to me. Anyway Rev. Davis and Joseph Spence are the big ones I got really into. I tried to rip off their feel. [laughs] But a lot of other people I got into too, like Robert Johnson and Skip James and Pink Anderson. For acoustic guitar, that is still some of my favorite playing. I’ve gotten into more electric blues players like Howlin Wolf and Buddy Guy. I guess that stuff was in tandem to me getting into Sonny Sharrock and more No Wave stuff like Terry X and Andy Moore, noisier guitar playing and because I was from southern California, Nels Cline who is there. He was the first person I saw play live who made this kind of guitar noise that amazed me. That was revelatory for sure.
CB: Did you ever play with him?
AM: Yes, we became friends. I asked for lessons but he always joked that he was too stupid to teach. So instead we got together and just sat around and talked about music. I went to his house and listened to his records. He and Carla Bozlitch were together for years, so I became buddies with both of them and later played with both of them.
CB: What about Nels Cline’s music really appealed to you?
AM: Lots of reasons! Because I came from classical guitar, he was really the first guitar player that I saw whose playing was so intensely personalized. I had seen many good jazz and classical players but he showed me that the instrument could be part of your character.
CB: Did you see that manifesting in yourself?
AM: I definitely wanted to get that. I felt I wasn’t getting that from playing other people’s music. Like playing Bach. [chuckles] I was just getting start to hear but I really wanted to have a broad sonic palette. I really wanted to get into the sound world of guitar a lot more.
CB: Are there other influences on you as a player?
AM: There are so many. Chrome is a big influence, a west coast rock band. Helios Creed is the guitar player. Sonically, he does so much cool stuff. The way that they write things, these repeating hypnotic riffs I really like. He has this phasery wah wah post-Hendrix, sort of industrial Hendrix sound that I real like.
CB: You mentioned you listened to free jazz?
AM: I got really into Albert Ayler. That was first thing in high school grabbed me.
CB: A particular record?
AM: Bells was the first one that I heard, which I still love, though it might not be my favorite. Then Live in Greenwich Village, Slug’s Saloon, so yeah, that was one of the first things, and then Ornette Coleman. More of Ornette’s 60s stuff at that time. Somehow I missed the electric Prime Time bands until a lot later, but now they are super important for me. Ayler and Ornette and late Coltrane, I got really into those saxophonists. I kind of wanted to play saxophone, actually, and that was part of my attraction to electric guitar, having this big sound that you could change the timbre of easily like saxophone. You can’t do that with acoustic guitar. So I tried to do it with pedals and just how you touch the electric guitar. Derek Bailey was another super big influence. Peter Brotzmann, Nipples/Machine Gun and all of that early angry European free improv stuff. So, it was 60s and 70s music that I got really into.
CB: Was there a fair amount of free jazz going on in the Bay Area when you moved there?
AM: When I moved to the Bay Area there was not much free jazz going on but there was a lot of improvised music. It was more quiet, listeny improvised music rather than fire-breathing free jazz [laughs]. That’s not really the thing there, at least not in that period. The thing there is about listening, very west coast, maybe being in the same sound world as one another and making similar noises, pretty polite [laughs] in the way that you play together, which is cool, but different. It’s not like … William Parker [laughs], it’s a different ethos.
CB: Was there anything that changed for you when you started to hear improvised music played live?
AM: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I’ve thought about it. It did, definitely. I played with friends in high school and I played with this guy John Dikeman who was already at the time this great, weirdo free jazz saxophonist. He lives in Amsterdam now and is super active. Playing and listening to records was really emotionally cathartic for me at that time. I felt that the music was so open and that you could get to all of these emotional places that you can’t any other way or through any other kind of music. When I moved to the Bay Area and started to go to more improvised music shows, I don’t think I felt that! [laughs] I felt more engaged intellectually by that music, interested in the way one can cooperate within a group and interact with other players. But I did miss the more fire-breathing free jazz that I had been playing and listening to earlier. I think I learned a lot musically from the more polite approach that people tend to have on the west coast, but it’s not necessarily what I love.
When I moved there and began to go to more improvised music shows, it became more of a genre to me. I became aware that there were all of these unspoken rules of it. So, in contrast to the way I had idealized it when I was young, I realized that it was a type of music that also could be codified. I started looking around for stuff that felt fresher to me, and started playing in that rock band, Mute Socialite. That was the first time that I ever played really loud! That was revelatory because I realized I could still do cool stuff harmonically and timbrally, but it could rock. And because it was really fun. That band was sort of like a No Wave band meets Sonny Sharrock. I got to play long, weird, noisy solos with two drummers. That was my first time playing energy music.
CB: What do you mean by energy music?
AM: I guess music that is about propulsion and catharsis. Where it is stated from the beginning “this is about propulsion and catharsis,” not just “this might happen to end up going there, but it could be something else too”..At the same time I was playing solo finger-style stuff, trying to negotiate the disparity between that and the louder rock band stuff. I was trying to figure out how I could be me and do both of those things, because both are very important to me.
CB: When you growing up, was music something that was listened to a lot in your family setting?
CB: What kind of stuff?
AM: I listened a lot of classical music growing up. I didn’t really listen to a lot of pop music until age 12. I really liked the Carmina Burana when I was a kid, by Carl Orff. Bach, Mozart, just classical music. Bartok, who I still love. Shostakovich. My dad is from Bolivia, so there was always music from there floating around the house, folk music from there. My folks were music lovers, but not snobby musicophiles. They are not record nerds, but music was important to them. So, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, their early 50s and 60s stuff was around the house. I definitely heard a lot of that stuff early on. Basically there was always interesting family-friendly classical and jazz music around the house, and also Bolivian and other Latin American stuff floating around. They listened to a lot of Cuban music. I never studied any of that music, any kind of Cuban or Bolivian or any south-of-the-border music but I feel like the harmony, the chord changes that they use, really seeped in from listening to it over and over and over.
CB: Did you meet any resistance from your family in becoming a professional musician?
AM: Yeah, they wanted me to quit. [laughs] They were like: why don’t you be a lawyer, you like to argue! [chuckles] That was always the thing. Why don’t you go back to school for a law degree? No! [laughs] In one way they were very supportive because they respected it. My mom has a degree in art history so she understands doing something no one cares about because you are obsessed with it. And she respects it. But at the same time they were worried about how I was going to pay my bills, and so was I. So they try to convince me to stop for a long time, but now they’ve accepted my fate. [laughs] They are sweet. They come to shows now and are really into it. As I became a teenager I introduced them to post-1965 Miles Davis and John Coltrane and they are really into that, they love electric Miles stuff and some Mahavishnu Orchestra stuff. So, they like 70s fusion music. They can appreciate what I do from the perspective of it being related to that.
CB: How would you describe your style or your sound?
AM: In many ways free jazz is the first music that I really fell in love with, but I havc more of a rock sound. That’s the kind of sound that I’ve always been attracted to, a big, sustainy sound. More like the 60s and 70s rock but done in a way that I can do harmonically interesting things and play a little more idiosyncratic melodic lines. Fuck! That’s a hard question! In my writing I am always trying to figure out interesting ways to combine writing and improvisation. It is really important to me to write good songs that are not just an excuse to improvise. Not, you know, skeletal jazz tunes with a 20 second head and then 15 minute solos. I do have a couple songs like that actually, but in general I would say I want a more fully formed song. At the same time, when people play my music, I want them to be able to be themselves and have their own sound. It is important that certain parts are a certain way and it is important that other parts be really free. In Unnatural Ways for example, I want people to have room to play themselves but at the same time there are certain that I want to be tight, to sound very rehearsed.
CB: Genre has come about a bunch times in this conversation. Does genre even matter anymore?
AM: To me, no. To me genre is something that I’m always stumbling on, it seems so shallow. But that’s how people are taught and think about music. To me, it is about a sound and approach that is personalized.
CB: So, if everyone is their own genre, can you try to describe your own genre?
AM: Rock and roll free jazz would be more or less accurate. Rock and roll meaning the full spectrum of rock and roll from the early stages of 50s R&B and pre-that stuff to psych-rock, noisy no wave bands, and metal. That combined with a free jazz ethos where you improvise with abandon.
CB: Any thoughts about your future in New York?
AM: I am super happy to be here and excited to tour this half of country more because I haven’t really done that much yet. I’ve never toured in the South at all, so I am looking forward at some point doing that. There is a lot about this country that I haven’t seen.