Let’s face it: the world of electric guitar can often seem like a sausage fest; when it comes to improvisational soloing women are conspicuous by their absence. Amid a wealth of brillliant female drummers, bassists, and keyboard players is a gaping hole in the guitar category. (Exceptions that prove the rule: Jennifer Batten, Sheryl Bailey). That is the only reason we notice Ava Mendoza’s sex as she improvises in duo with Nels Cline, adds extra musical girth to Fred Frith’s large ensemble, or tears it up solo and with her trio Unnatural Ways. But enough about that. She has too much to say about the art of modern guitar to waste any more time on gender issues in the six-string world.
What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?
I grew up playing classical guitar: Villa Lobos, Leo Brouwer, Carcassi, Giuliani, Bach. I was very serious about it by the time I was in high school, but at the same time I was mainly listening to no-wave bands and starting to get into ’60’s and ’70’s free jazz. I started trying to improvise; I bought an electric guitar. By the time I was out of high school I was mostly listening to free jazz. I used to fall asleep listening to Brotzmann’s Fuck de Boere every night! I was trying to play stuff like Derek Bailey plays on that record. I had some chops from playing classical guitar, but I also sort of had a blank slate in terms of personal style on the instrument because I had only played classical music and didn’t know what “my” music was.
What led you to create experimental (non-mainstream) music?
That was what I got interested in listening to when I was growing up. I think there are people who can express themselves fully by playing classical music, but I’m not one of them. I got frustrated from playing only that music, I wanted to find a way of playing that was very personal. I had friends who were already good straight-ahead jazz players, I liked a lot of that music and studied it a little but I guess I didn’t love it enough to commit to attempt to get good at it. There were all the rules to learn, and I really just wanted to play something that was immediate and honest. I got into weird rock bands like Arab on Radar and U.S. Maple. I got into Albert Ayler, Sonny Sharrock, Ornette Coleman. I also got into a bunch of early acoustic blues guys: Robert Johnson, Skip James and Blind Willie Johnson, and Rev. Gary Davis. I was just listening to all kinds of things and trying to sort out what I liked and why. I remember going to a record store and buying a Merle Haggard record, a Stockhausen record, and a Crass record and thinking “Why am I so weird? What’s wrong with me? When will I ever have a clear musical direction?” Now that I think about it it’s funny I tortured myself just for having broad interests, but at the time it felt paralyzing in many ways. In my own playing I was trying to learn to improvise and absorb all the music I was listening to.
I worked on fingerstyle blues stuff; I wrote these weird songs; I worked on playing kind of fusion-y solos, and also noisier sonic playing. I felt very confused. Basically I fumbled around in the dark trying to understand my playing and my taste, trying to play with lots of different people and to understand how I could relate to them through music. I grew up a music school child—I went to high school at Interlochen and Mills College for my undergrad. I had some great teachers for sure who influenced me, but one of the most valuable things I got out of the years I spent in school was time: time without having to work a day job, when I could check out lots of new music, think about music, and practice a lot. Ultimately I knew that I wanted to understand music as a way of relating to the world at large; not be in academia.
Whose music inspires you?
PAST: All the people I’ve mentioned earlier on, and also Captain Beefheart, the Red Aunts, some Sonic Youth, early electronic music by Pierre Schaeffer and Luc Ferrari and Stockhausen, later period John Coltrane, Tony Williams Lifetime, Miles electric records. As a teenager I lived in southern California, and Carla Bozulich and Nels Cline were inspiring for me. Scarnella was the first band I saw make a bunch of guitar noise live, that was formative. Later on I became friends with both of them and eventually played in Carla’s Evangelista, and played duo with Nels. Nels’ playing when I was a teenager sort of helped me understand that classical-esque guitar playing, shreddy solos, and walls of noise were not necessarily unrelated and could actually be good friends! My friend John Dikeman, who is a saxophonist currently based in Amsterdam, was an early inspiration also; he was the first person I ever improvised with. He got into free jazz really early and was already a great improviser by the time he was 16 or something.
PRESENT: All the people I play with. Always Albert Ayler. Also Parliament Funkadelic, Ornette’s Prime Time records, Magma, Swans, Darkthrone, Mayhem, Morbid Angel, Stockhausen, Conlon Nancarrow, Hendrix, and Jeff Beck’s guitar playing. I make my living in the Bay by teaching and that can be really inspiring, a lot of my kids are really talented and always finding out about new music and coming up with new things to play.
How did you get better at your current style?
By playing with lots of people, and by practicing. I’ve tried to put myself in lots of situations where essentially I’m the dumb person: playing other people’s music, or with players much better than me, or better versed in the kind of music that we’re playing. Playing music where I was confused and barely hanging on by the skin of my teeth has been really important to my development. I’ve played a lot of music that for me was about trying something and learning, not about “success.” I think that is how I got to better understand my playing and my instincts, why I was playing what I was playing. Currently I’m more grumpy and lazy and less willing to try stuff out for the sake of trying; I only want to do things that have a really high possibility of being great by my standards. But in the past it was important for me to suspend judgment and try things out in all these different contexts. I’ll probably want to do that again at some point, but right now I really want to do things that I’ve worked on more thoroughly.
Also just playing with people who have really strong personalities musically has been important. Firstly because it is just a good time, and secondly because it really forces you to be strong in your own playing and your decisions or you look like an idiot and the music suffers! Even if I don’t like everything about someone’s aesthetic I can love playing with them because the clash is musically interesting to me.
What are you trying convey with your music?
Lots of different things. I like that Sonny Sharrock quote “I’ve been trying to find a way for the terror and the beauty to live together in one song. I know it’s possible.” I want the music to be as open and honest as possible emotionally, to be able to express anything however great or mysterious or absurd or hateful or generous, or greatly mysteriously absurdly hatefully generous. And I want it to be fun!
I’m pretty obsessive about tone– in terms of gear but a lot too in terms of just the way I touch the instrument. For me players like Ayler or Hendrix, sometimes Sonny Sharrock or Buddy Guy or Jeff Beck, have this sound that you can love just for itself, their sound has a presence. No matter what style of music they play, that comes through. It is sort of this concept of sound as a living thing, always moving. It’s more common in singers I think; someone like Billie Holiday or Skip James or Screaming Jay Hawkins, lots of blues singers and country singers like Hank Williams or Waylon, have this distinct, warm sonic presence. So that is a big part of what I’m into in my own personal playing: presence, each note or sound having a distinct and somewhat vocal character.
For me working on music is like eating a meal or going for a walk or something: it’s just what I do, that expression is a necessary part of my life. Obviously it’s not necessary for my audience such as they are, but I guess if I could play something cathartic or helpful to their lives, or at the very least fun for them, I would like that!
Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?
I play a sort of frankensteined Fender Jaguar almost all the time. I got it almost new; I think it was made in 2009. It is one of the new ones with humbuckers in it, and it is quite short scale. I took the pickups out and put in a Seymour Duncan Antiquity humbucker in the neck and a Rockfield Mafia humbucker in the bridge. So the neck humbucker has an old school kind of 60s dark surf-esque tone, nice for cleaner playing, and the bridge pickup is more for cutting high gain playing. And I can blend them together. It’s a really versatile guitar now that can get a lot f the range of tones I want.
I usually use Vox or Fender amps. My effects are: Digitech Whammy pedal, Boss CS-3 compressor for fuller clean tones or for sustain on solos, Fulltone Fat-Boost Overdrive for mild distortion, usually Boss Metal Zone or a Fulltone 69 for lead playing, and a Behringer Ultra Vibrato which is about the cheapest vibe pedal on the market, but I think it sounds good. If I were rich I would get a Boss VB-2 from the ’80s, but I think the Behringer has a similar sound. Then I have an Ernie Ball volume pedal, a Line 6 DL4 that I use mostly for the looper, not for the delays, and a Boss DD-7 for delay.
Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?
To me they are such completely different things and I love them both. Playing live is more cathartic and visceral and immediate, I tend to take risks more and come up with new things. I didn’t really enjoy studio recording on the first few records I played on, I think because I just thought of it as a faithful document of the performed music. And actually you can never have a completely faithful document, so it seemed inherently inferior to live playing. You’re never going to give someone the experience of listening to a live band by playing them a record. But you can give them the experience of listening to a recording, the way a Joe Meek or Phil Spector recording or a Beatles recording is an experience. I think actually the attitude of recording being a transparent documentation of the music is very conservative in a way, it kind of negates all the fun that can be had using the studio itself as an instrument. Anyway at some point I started thinking of recording as a totally separate thing. I got more into doing overdubs and lots of editing and using compressors and messing with things in post-production. I’m definitely a hack at mixing and production stuff but I do enjoy it. I’m a perfectionist so that stuff is really fulfilling for me in a way that’s different from live playing. It’s more like being a novelist or something than a performing musician.
How have you built up an audience for your music?
Ha! It’s debatable if I’ve done that. Audiences are very mysterious to me. Mysterious and fascinating, or sometimes mysterious and not so fascinating. In terms of local audience I’ve lived in Oakland for nine years now and have been playing shows and trying to promote them almost that whole time, so some people know who I am and what my music is like. If I play with my trio with Dominique Leone and Nick Tamburro, called Unnatural Ways, or in Dominique’s band, usually there will be a crowd, which is great. I try to be pretty on it in terms of promoting my trio’s shows, both because I’m excited about the music, and for Nick and Dominique’s sake I want to have an audience there. I send out emails, make a Facebook event page etc. People get excited about alcohol, so if we’re playing a bar with fun cocktails I’ll mention that. I have been doing that for enough years that usually people will come out. If I play improvised music with an ad hoc group it’s way harder to get a turnout unfortunately. People in the Bay Area generally want to see bands, not one-offs, no matter how good all the players are. If there is an audience at an improvised music show I am usually surprised that they are there and wonder what their secret, dark motivation is.
On tour it varies a lot. I have been touring in Europe rather than the U.S. as much as possible for the last few years because there’s much more appreciation and more funding. It speaks volumes culturally that I can go from the superpower U.S. to a country like Italy whose economy is a wreck far and away beyond how the U.S. economy is a wreck but they are willing to pay ten times what American clubs pay for adventurous music. It can be a very strange feeling actually. In Europe I try to set shows up through people I know and like, or through people that have been highly recommended to me by friends. People who I know will care about the show and work to promote it. Other than that, audience is sort of out of my hands because I’m from far away. I just show up and try to play well and hope people will come back next time!
With whom would you like to collaborate and why?
With the people I have been collaborating with! They are awesome. I’ve been playing with Nick (the drummer in Unnatural Ways) for a little over a year now, he is a really versatile, powerful player, he has good feel for a lot of different things and loves to play loud and crazy. We were playing as a duo up until February 2012, when Dominique joined us on keys and synth. He basically has the bass role in that trio, playing a bass synth, and then occasionally he plays pianistic things on a regular keyboard as well. He is a killer musician in general and does a lot of cool things timbrally with his setup, which is great for the stuff I write. I feel fortunate to have a band with two really special players to write for now.
I did a two-week long tour in May in Italy as a duo with a drummer from Rome, Marco Di Gasbarro. He plays in an Italian band called Squartet. He is a great player, really disciplined and always on top of the music and wide open. We were playing a bunch of my songs, which he learned backwards and forwards. I had made these backing tracks for us to play along to, so he had to drum to backing tracks, which can be a nightmare but he was such a good sport about it! We had only played together once before we decided to do this tour. It was a pleasure to go in not really knowing what to expect but to just both be totally committed to making the music as good as possible and work on it really intensely for the time we were together.
I played with Fred Frith this fall doing a large ensemble show of his 1980 record Gravity. It was a real pleasure for many reasons– playing and geeking out about guitars, playing music written by someone who knows how to write for guitar so well, and also how to arrange for a large group like that so well (accordion, violin, sax, keys, guitars, electric and acoustic basses, drums and percussion). That group will do more stuff in the future; Fred wants to write some new things for us to play.
I worked with Tune-yards this last spring as well, and that was a treat. The SF Film Society asked them to make a live score for four Buster Keaton short films, and Merrill asked me to write the music with her, knowing that I’ve done live scores before. She and I took about three weeks of strategizing and rehearsing to come up with the music. Some of it we wrote from scratch together, but a lot of the time we took a preexisting Tune-yards song or a song of mine, and rearranged it in a way that suited the films. After three weeks we had everything scored out, we knew what we wanted the rest of the band to play, and we brought them on… We only had one rehearsal as a full band, which seems crazy but they are all badasses so it worked. We performed live to the films at the Castro Theater in SF in April, and then again at the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee in June. We have talked a little about wanting to release some kind of document of the music, so that may happen in the future. Merrill’s writing and my writing are really different stylistically, she writes all these fun tight rhythmic pop songs and I am more sort of loud and annoying and chaotic! But we like each other a lot musically and personally, and were both open to trying lots of new things when we wrote together so I think it was a really fruitful collaboration.
What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?
Unnatural Ways is definitely my main project now, and I want to write a bunch of new music and put out a record by next year. We’re going on tour in Europe in February.
I have a guitar/drums duo record with Nick Tamburro that came out this past summer. It’s sort-of-songs, as much about the improvising as about my writing really. Kind of heavy, bluesy free jazz I guess.
I play in saxophonist Jon Raskin’s quartet, and we made a record in collaboration poet Carla Harryman called Open Box. That came out on Tzadik in the spring.
I have tracks on two different guitar compilations. I Never Meta Guitar Vol. II, which is curated by Elliott Sharp is available now:
And the $100 Guitar Project, curated by Nick Didkovsky and Chuck O’Meara, will be out in 2013.
The Dominique Leone Band has a record coming. Dominique’s music is sort of Magma meets Kate Bush meets minimalism, though I’m not sure if he would back me up on that. Also coming soon are a record I play on by pianist Michael Coleman with some of the Bay Area’s finest, and a record I play on by saxophonist Scott Rosenberg featuring a bunch of East and West Coast players and one Italian. I play in clarinetist Aaron Novik’s band Dante Counterstamp as well but no plans to record, though his record Secret of Secrets came out on Tzadik recently.