Spotlight: Álvaro Domene

More and more guitarists are experimenting with noise. Making noise with a guitar is easy; making music with noise, not so much. Álvaro Domene has mastered the art of turning non-pitched abrasive sounds into a kind of beauty. “Beta Particle,” on his record The Compass is record offers up a glitchy din ala Stian Westerhus, but with Domene’s personal stamp all over it. Elsewhere, ambient clean tones morph into Wagnerian waves of distortion, as he employs the entire range his 7-string guitar. He joins a growing number of European-born players making, er, noise on New York City’s modern guitar scene.

What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?

My mother played guitar when I was growing up in Spain, mostly Spanish folk music. I grew up with an old Spanish guitar as part of my toy collection. My grandfather played classical guitar and lute and showed me my first guitar chords when I was around 10. I was fascinated by the sounds he produced. I first picked up the guitar then, but didn’t become disciplined until age 14. From that moment on, I knew music would play a major role in my life. I started practicing obsessively, learning songs from records, scales and harmony from books, etc. I also started writing music and forming bands right away. By 2000, I needed some direction, as I felt overwhelmed with the amount of information I was finding. I found my first teacher, who was a fantastic jazz guitarist. It quickly got serious.

I started learning jazz tunes, transcribing, sight-reading, etc. I was training to be a jazz guitarist because, given my serious interest in improvisation, I thought that should be my path. I was completely obsessed, so much so that I would often skip high school to stay home and practice. I wasn’t yet playing in a jazz group, but throughout my teens I played in different rock and metal bands with experimental and progressive elements that I brought from my jazz lessons and research. Some of the artists that influenced me at the time were Led Zeppelin, Rage Against the Machine, Tool, Allan Holdsworth, Mr. Bungle, Miles Davis, Faith No More, John Coltrane, Black Sabbath, Kyuss, Joaquín Rodrigo, Meshuggah, Paco de Lucía, King Crimson, Pat Martino, Sepultura, Dillinger Escape Plan, Slayer, Pat Metheny, early Korn, Pantera, Fantomas, Wes Montgomery, Aphex Twin, etc.

What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?

Growing up, I never saw music in terms of genres, for me they were just different ways of dealing with sounds. It was perfectly natural for me to go from a Coltrane record, to Gorguts, to Frisell, to Mompou, and still is. Don Caballero, Mr. Bungle, and Sunn O))) all have an unconventional factor that attracted me.

I went to study jazz at Middlesex University in London. The problem was that the concept I had of jazz didn’t match what “jazz” is considered to be by most people, or what’s left of the industry (I was clearly aligned with the “avant-garde,” but not fully aware of it yet). I studied the music of Louis Armstrong, bebop, post-bop, etc. I felt like there were a few key elements missing in most conventional jazz, especially emotional content and flexibility between composition and improvisation. I became generally dissatisfied with the sonic and conceptual limitations of post-bop music. I love jazz, but I find that it can be way too polite, safe, predictable, and sterile, especially nowadays.

The desire to explore structure and abstraction, sound, the line between the pre-composed and the spontaneous, instrumental techniques, the emphasis on collective musical dialogue, and the lack of a clear hierarchy within a group, were pointing me in a direction. I discovered that my profile seemed to have a lot in common with the avant-garde traditions (in jazz, classical, and metal), and that I could really express myself artistically under that light, so there I went.

Why do you think many schooled guitarists are venturing into free improvisation?

When it is at a high level, spontaneous composition can be the purest, most moving, sophisticated, instinctive, mysterious, and satisfying way of creating music. So, if you are a well-formed and open-minded musician, those characteristics are probably going to attract you. I see many classical guitarists who are absolutely exhausted, uninspired, and miserable due to the rigidity of their repertoires, and spontaneous composition can be a liberating and fun activity for them. In the right conditions, the process is able to alter our state of consciousness, becoming a spiritual and fulfilling experience for everyone in the room.

Whose music inspires you? Past and Present.

Besides everyone I work with, there is Evan Parker, Anthony Braxton, Earle Brown, Iannis Xenakis, Morton Feldman, Gyorgy Ligeti, Anton Webern, Giacinto Scelsi, Paul Motian, Tim Berne, Roscoe Mitchell, Elliott Carter, Craig Taborn, Lustmord, Ornette Coleman, Mike Patton, Wormed, Pig Destroyer, Suffocation, Pauline Oliveros, Albert Ayler, Bach, Krallice, Arve Henriksen, Gorguts, Meshuggah, Bela Bartok, Portal, Krzysztof Penderecki, Car Bomb, MJ Keenan, Matt Mitchell, Khanate, Olivier Messiaen, Sigur Ros, Federic Mompou, and Gerard Grisey.

The list of guitarists I have found inspiring throughout the years include Paco de Lucía, Derek Bailey, Allan Holdsworth, David Torn, Bill Frisell, Marc Ducret, Hilmar Jensson, Elliott Sharp, Adam Jones, Dan Lippel, Luc Lemay, Ben Monder, Adam Rogers, Matte Henderson, Stuart Hall, and Stian Westerhus.

There are guitarist friends and peers whom I also find inspiring and who deserve more attention: Miguel Ontivero, Harvey Valdés, Dustin Carlson, Brandon Seabrook, Dane Johnson, Chris Sharkey, Lucas Brode, Matteo Liberatore, Aaron Quinn, Nick Millevoi, and Ryan Miller.

How did you get better at your current style?

Both performing on guitar and composing music benefit from roughly the same method: envisioning what I want to accomplish, research and study, practice, working with people who are more experienced (I have been the youngest member of pretty much every group), reflecting on those processes with honesty, and repeating and improving upon them as often as I can, to the best of my abilities. Something I also find helpful is to not only be aware of my limitations and address them with a serious practice regime, but also to recognize aspects of my playing/composing that come more naturally to me and exploit them. My new solo album, The Compass, is an example of this strategy.

Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music?

In general, I like valve amplifiers and pedals, but I am quite open and will try anything that enables the manifestation of my musical vision. My strategy with equipment has always been to imagine a sound that needs to come out of the speaker and to try to find a way to achieve that, initially with my hands. For certain ideas, external help is necessary, especially for the time-related activities I frequently envision, like having different lines going in opposite directions and tempos from each other, retrograde/inverted and expanded/contracted versions of an original line or texture, and many alterations of that concept. Part of my vision is the application of certain serial compositional techniques in real time, which allow me to unravel an entire piece in a spontaneous manner.

I always liked glitchy sounds. The first stutters I heard were done by Adam Jones using the pickup selector of his Les Paul on Tool’s Opiate, and Don Caballero on American Don, which I believe was accomplished with a Boss DD3 on hold mode. I bought that pedal a long time ago for that purpose. I am also into Aphex Twin, Autechre, and Ikue Mori, and they all use those sounds extensively and in a creative manner. I really enjoy the tactile and immediate response I get from pedals, and love the flexibility I get from devices that can deal with macro and micro sampling, as opposed to using a computer, which I try to avoid.

On The Compass, and for pretty much everything I’m doing these days, the signal chain is a Strandberg guitar into a Zvex Fuzz Factory, an Xotic SP booster, an EHX Micro POG, a Horizon Devices Precision Drive, a Weehbo Bastard distortion, a Volume Pedal, a Hexe Revolver, a Red Panda Tensor, a Strymon Timeline delay, a Neunaber Wet reverb, and an EHX 720 Looper. All these go into a Peavey 5150 EVH (original block letter) through a 4×12 Boogie cabinet, a ’70s Fender Twin Reverb, and a ’70s Ampeg SVT bass amp, through a 4×10. All cranked to 11, at Menegroth, Colin Marston’s studio in Queens, New York. I sometimes also use a cello bow.

Why a 7-string guitar?

The extra string gives greater range, depth, and opens up many sonic possibilities, melodic, harmonic, and textural. I have been always deeply attracted to low frequencies but never enjoyed playing electric bass, so I currently find this to be the best solution. I find 8-string guitars a tad uncomfortable to play and challenging to amplify properly, so I settled on 7-string. I play in numerous bass-less groups and love the flexibility and harmonic space that situation offers. By having the 7th string, I can easily get into bass territory when the music needs it.

Another reason is sonic clarity. I played a Gibson 335 for the last 10 years, but when I tuned it down, no matter what I tried, the sound would be muddy and the intonation would be off. That was fixed the moment I got a 7th string, or a 6-string baritone. I decided a 7 was the right choice for me because I didn’t want to compromise my access to the standard tuned strings by playing a baritone. Fortunately, the Strandberg features a multi-scale neck, so the low strings are baritone scale, allowing for proper tension and great intonation throughout the entire range, which translates into a lot of clarity in the sound. The other strings are a 25.5-inch scale.

In the live videos, is the 335 tuned down or are you using a pitch-shifting pedal?

It was probably a combination of both. I used to tune down the low E string to D, C, B, A, and even F# on the 335, and have also used sub-octave effects in the past, including Boss OC-2, OC-3, Digitech Whammy, and EHX Micro POG pedals. I’ve yet to discover one I truly like. Using a sub-octave pedal is always a compromise, so I now use it sporadically.

Tell me about ZÖBIK-3 

It was a trio I formed with Álvaro Pérez, a great alto saxophonist, when I returned to Madrid in 2011-12 after living in London for a while. The project lasted until 2014. I wrote the majority of the music and defined the aesthetic, which was based on a jazz/rock/metal hybrid. We played the city’s circuit, released a record that got positive press, and did some touring around Spain. It was challenging to keep a project like that alive in Spain due to the financial crisis and lack of opportunities, so we put it on hold and went our separate ways.

What do you think is the connection between Metal and Free Improv?

Assuming we are talking about consistently loud and “dark” free improvisation, I think common elements could be uncompromising musical ferocity, functional democracy, raw energy and visceral power, the sheer volume, and the anti-establishment ethos.

Interestingly enough, I find it quite challenging to find musicians who manage to successfully simultaneously utilize both refined improvisation skills and the said ferocity of heavy music.

Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?

I enjoy both activities, but I love the experience of making music on stage due to the synergy among band members and audience, the risks, the ephemeral and unique quality of the performance, the social aspect, the discovery of new places, etc. I have to say that the way I have been making records in the studio has always been very fast, usually in one or two days if I’m lucky, mainly due to budget constraints. I’m sure that influences my take on this.

Who else would you like to collaborate with and why?

I’m very fortunate to collaborate with some of my favorite musicians in the world on a regular basis but, off the top of my head: Evan Parker, Björk, Arve Henriksen, Tim Berne, ICE, MJ Keenan, Roscoe Mitchell, JACK Quartet, Mike Patton, Tyshawn Sorey, Can Buyukberber, Craig Taborn, Alberto Bustos, Stewart Lee, and Charlie Brooker. The reason is the same for all of them; I feel that their work resonates with me and believe the collaboration would be complementary, successful, and a lot of fun. Having said that, I am always open to collaborate with committed artists with strong personalities and ideas, regardless of discipline.

How have you built up an audience for your music?

That is an ongoing and challenging process, but besides the traditional ways of getting my name out there by performing as much as I can and putting out records, establishing and maintaining a strong social media presence is critical in today’s world. It definitely can help broaden your audience and student roster.

I am curating a monthly concert series in Kingston, New York called Singularity Music Series. Some of the top groundbreaking creative musicians in New York and elsewhere come there to perform for a small audience in an intimate and comfortable setting. A wonderful byproduct of my assisting others disseminate their art, is that the reception and spread of mine is being positively affected. I’m very proud of the work we have done so far with the series and look forward to the future. We have exciting plans for it. I have always believed that in order to receive from a community, you need to contribute in any way you can. That’s part of our philosophy with Singularity and also Iluso Records, which I run with my friend, an exceptional drummer-composer Michael Caratti. We started releasing music in 2013 and now we are about to release our 13th record.

In general, what are you trying to convey with your music?

I prepare myself to be able to reach a state of flow, and strive to push myself out of familiar territory to raise my consciousness and level of awareness, and by doing so, hopefully take the listeners with me on the journey. What the music conveys is the level to which I’m able to express musicality with the tools (not only musical) I have developed up until the point at which the music is occurring. Being well prepared allows me to play what I hear, to be authentic, true to myself, and to express whatever is coming through me at the moment. As an immigrant in 2018 USA, it’s a daily struggle for me not to feel infuriated, frustrated, and hopeless; all those emotions have to somehow be expressed. The result and consequences of the latest election in the USA definitely acted as a catalyst for the general sense of despair, angst, and drive in The Compass. At the same time, whatever listeners experience in the music is what it is expressing, at least to them.

What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?

I just released my very first record of solo guitar works, The Compass [Iluso Records]. It features 10 pieces, half I composed in the months prior to the session, and half were spontaneously created in the moment. I have been inspired by my studies of Webern, Scelsi, and Xenakis’ music and that is reflected in the sonic vocabulary of the pieces, though through a metal and improvisation lens. It’s loud, and I had a phenomenal time recording it at Colin Marson’s studio, Menegroth, in New York. He also did the mixing and mastering. And (I’m getting this question quite often) no, there were no overdubs; it was all live. It just got picked by Avant Music News as record of the week, along the “new” Coltrane record and a couple other great albums, which is quite surreal and humbling to me. The Compass is available now, in both CD and download form, from Iluso Record’s Bandcamp and as a CD at the Downtown Music Gallery in New York.

Besides my solo pursuit, I have a few other projects. Lenticlouds is an improvising trio with saxophonist Briggan Krauss and a rotating roster of drummers (Ches Smith, Mike Pride, Andrew Drury, or Lukas Koenig).

Leaving The Sky in Splinters is a trio with drummer Kate Gentile and bassist Kim Cass, in which we play compositions of mine.

dMu is an improv-metal trio with Mike Caratti and baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton. Our first record, Synaptic Self, got a lot of nice press.

I have a duo with Briggan Krauss. We made this record.

I’m also working on a piece for string quartet, which I hope to finish by the end of the year and record in the new year. It will include a part for 7-string electric guitar.

Recently, I have been playing in Karl Berger’s new band, along with Ingrid Sertso and Michael Bisio, and we will be recording and performing in the upcoming months.




One thought on “Spotlight: Álvaro Domene

  1. Very inspiring interview. I’ll be purchasing Alvaro’s CD in a few days. Nice 7 string Alvaro. I’m very happy for your growing success.

    John W., Morristown, N.J.

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