I have come to realize that Sandy Ewen is something of a rare bird: the Avant performer who began by playing experimentallly, without any background of performing mainstream music with more typical technique. I was lucky to see her on tour in Nashville, in a small enough space to fully experience her unique use of a pan pedal that moves her prepared guitar sounds across the stereo spectrum. Since moving from Houston to New York she has become a fixture on the improv scene there in a surprisingly short time.
What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?
I started playing experimental sounds when I was in high school. It’s hard to say when I became proficient at it, but probably sometime in college when I was playing with the Weird Weeds. Having to fit my sounds into the structure of rock music, and having to repeat things and match pitches with extended techniques elevated my playing from an improvised jumble of possibilities into something with a bit more intention.
What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?
I’ve been interested in non-mainstream music since I was in elementary school. I eventually stumbled into the improv scene in Houston, and I can’t imagine playing mainstream music. The most mainstream thing I did was playing with Weird Weeds, and that was fairly abstract.
Whose music inspires you? Past and Present.
Dave Dove’s and Pauline Oliveros’ music have had a huge impact on me. I’ve been privileged to perform some of Pauline’s scores, and working with Dave Dove was a fantastic foundation for listening and improvising. Pauline’s text based scores and musical approach have inspired me to create an all-female large ensemble. I hope to get that going again soon. Presently, I’m in New York City and there are tons of inspiring musicians here. It’s reassuring to meet great musicians and get to perform or record along side them. Lately, I’ve been playing with Weasel Walter, Damon Smith, Daniel Carter, Maria Chavez, Eugene Chadbourne, Chris Pitsiokos, Tashi Dorji, Stephen Gauci, Adam Lane, Kevin Shea, and lots of other awesome folks. I did a recording session two weeks ago with Joe McPhee, Kevin Shea, Matt Mottel and Luke Stewart. It was wild. Friendly supportive artists inspire me to keep on playing; when I was in Texas last month I recorded a duo with Chase Gardner. I’m feeling very enthusiastic about that, too. We’re talking to some people who might put it out.
How did you get better at your current style?
I played hundreds of gigs. I’ve found practicing improv at home with friends is helpful, too. There’s more opportunity to discuss things at practice.
What are you trying convey with your music?
When I’m improvising with other people, I’m mostly trying to communicate with them. The audience obviously matters, too, but it’s primarily about supporting and contrasting the other performers. My solo sets convey my inner state, so solo sets for me exist on a spectrum between fairly calm and meditative sounds to more frenetic/noisy sets. I’d prefer things to be calmer but playing solo sets makes me anxious, and the music reflects that. I am interested in guitar sounds—not in guitar pedal sounds. I seek to create something with a nice trajectory where sounds and textures overlap.
Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and WHY?
I play an orange Ibanez Artstar guitar. I bought it new around 1997. I like its durability. I like sticking wires across the pickups and into the f-holes because it amplifies the guitar’s body. It might be nice to have a fancier guitar but then I would feel bad about ruining the finish. My guitar looks pretty good from a distance but up close you can see a lot of bolt wear along the edges and many impacts from blunt objects on the top.
I use Ernie Ball strings, the kind that come in a yellowish green package. I like them except that the winding on the 26-gauge strings gets mangled too quickly and I’m always busting the .010-gauge string. I probably break more of the .046-gauge strings than most people. I only break strings about 20% of the time. I like to joke that guitars have six strings so you can break five and still play. Broken strings can provide interesting opportunities, I like sometimes having strings that aren’t attached to the tuning pegs. Most of the time, though, I play with all the strings attached properly.
I use a pan pedal and two guitar amps. I don’t use any effect pedals these days, although in the past I’ve used a Moog ring modulator that was pretty awesome. My two amps sound very different from each other. One is an Ampeg Gemini VI, the other is a smaller amp made by Scott Waugh. I used to play through a pair of Fender Champs. I like those but they generally don’t have enough punch for a lot of the shows I play. I try to set the amps at a similar volume level. The panning is a great spacial effect. It works well in live shows and sounds great on recordings. The Ampeg has heaps of low end, so the pan pedal works a bit like a tone pedal. If I were to add a pedal to my setup, I might add a tone pedal. I think too many pedals is sometimes compensating for boring material. I have a particular dislike for looping pedals in solo sets. Like the performer is scared of silence. It’s like a security blanket. That said some people are great with effects and loops (Tom Carter and Henry Kaiser come to mind). Usually when people see me play they want to take a look at my table of stuff. I’ve got lots of metal bits, some chalk, wire, etc.
On Idiomatic, the duo with Weasel Walter, l am using various objects with the guitar. On the first track I use a threaded screw, street cleaner wire, and a steel dish scrubber. Weasel is playing the electronics. About five to seven minutes in, I can hear that I’ve got some larger pieces of metal, and I have this round thing with bells attached to it that I can spin around and the bells all hit the metal and make a nice texture. My friend Dan Minoza gave it to me. I try to balance between muffling all the strings and getting percussive sounds, and letting the strings ring. I usually have street cleaner wire woven through the strings so they all vibrate together. I don’t like hearing an individual string ring out. That’s the opposite of most guitar players. About 16 minutes in, I hear the high ringing of a steel railroad spike being played with the threaded screw on top of the pickup.
The second track on the album was actually recorded last. It was my idea that we should try for a quieter/slower piece to make the album have some diversity. At the beginning of the piece I am playing with a railroad spike. It creates good low sounds, and rubbing it on the strings makes some high-pitched plinky sounds. The railroad spike makes two different high pitch sounds if you play it with a screw; the tone depends on which side of the spike you rub. The second half of the piece I use the thing with the bells.
The third track has some nice distorted railroad spike sounds. It’s more or less the same palette of materials, but there’s also chalk that comes in in the middle. Chalk sounds like a long tone with some distortion. One thing that is fun to do is to quickly tap/bounce the railroad spike on top of the pickup while you play the neck of the guitar with a screw. It creates a sound that alternates quickly between low and high sounds, it can be very fast and sound like the amp is going to explode. The middle of the piece, I am de-tuning the low string and playing with a screw and metal dish scrubber. The dish scrubber sounds like static. Towards the end I’ve got a whole bunch of clanky metal pieces on top of the strings.
Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?
I like them both about the same, also with practicing with friends. I like improvising with other people; it’s almost always very exciting. I’m new to New York so the shows have been a great way to meet people and learn my way around the scene.
How have you built up an audience for your music?
I play a lot of shows and I talk to other musicians and whoever is interested. I’m in it for the long haul; things build slowly over time. Releasing albums with different people is helpful, too. I’ve got some good musician friends looking out for me. Henry Kaiser put me on his guitar duos compilation; Tashi Dorji is saying nice things about me. Maria Chavez has been introducing me to people around New York. I’ve also been trying to tour more.
With whom would you like to collaborate and why?
I’d like to do a duo project with Tashi. I’d also like to do a duo project with Daniel Carter. I’ve played with both of those dudes before and it went well. I’d like to play with Ava Mendoza, and maybe Mary Halvorson. I haven’t met her yet but I haven’t been in New York very long. Back in Houston I had a large ensemble that was all women, I’d like to start that up again here. It would be better if the scene had more women performing, so this would help.
What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?
My latest release is Idiomatic, a duo with Weasel Walter, available here
Brilliant work. Sandy Ewen is uncovering entirely new territory even amidst improvisational vocabularies. I’m so glad for this innovation!