+ 1, Guest Contributor, Ava Mendoza, April 2015
Ava Mendoza. Photo by Ricardo Esway.
Give It Up for the Bands
I was born in 1983, toward the beginning of the generation of musicians who never had even the slightest hope of making real money off recorded music. The digital age blew into town in the '90s, and, maybe thankfully, I was none the wiser for it. I grew up sort of blissfully ignorant about the crumbling music industry, happily downloading music from Napster, practicing guitar, thinking it'd be nice to make a living as a musician someday, but oddly never really regarding physical albums as part of the potential living-making. That may have been just me, or it may be testament to how much the cultural value of recorded music had already dropped by the time I looked up to notice.
Whatever the case, recordings became secondary to performance for me early on. I was into my cd collection but I quickly learned that I loved live music and seeing musicians interact onstage more than any document. Of course getting into my twenties, I became friends with older musicians whose livelihoods were damaged by the record industry's nosedive. I witnessed their rightful anger at the situation, their bitterness and feelings of powerlessness, and also the ways that they found to adapt. Like it or not, I could still only think of recorded music as a Blip on the screen of music as a whole; hundreds, thousands of years of music making as livelihood by human beings, with one little century at the end of recorded music being part of that livelihood. My life existed at the tail end of that century-long Blip. Oh well!
Maybe a glib attitude, or maybe defeatist. But, it has worked positively on many levels for me to keep my value of material sales/anythings low and my value of playing live with people that inspire me in front of an audience high. Not to say that I don't almost psychotically love making a record too, but playing live is kind of my first love. In any case, this is all a long tangent because what I'm trying to do is write about some of the musicians I've played music with and toured with over the past five or so years. Specifically these are people who I've played my own compositions/songs with, and playing with them has made me hear, write and react differently. Thanks to these folks for being part my music-- ever-evolving and full of left turns, re-evaluations, and things that might be considered in some situations mistakes. Thanks to them for having such high standards in their own playing and performing. I'll talk about two different lineups of my main band, called Unnatural Ways-- the west coast lineup and the east coast lineup-- and a one-off trio I did in Australia with two Tasmanian musicians.
UW is the band most of my energy goes into, and the only band for which I do all the writing. Drawing a lot from both rock n roll and from free jazz, the music demands a particular skill set from its players. It really needs people who can nail difficult written music, who are good improvisers, and who have a deeply engrained desire to give their all at every show. Almost every song I write has a different ratio of composition to improvising. A couple are pretty much Head-Solo-Head forms. Some are more straight-up rock songs where everything has to be tight and perfect, nailing rhythmic changes and essentially sounding the same every time. The parts of songs where I sing are very composed; I sing the same lyrics the same way every time, and the instruments are doing the same thing each time underneath the vocals. In other parts I try to give all the players lots of chances to be themselves; solos and ample collective improvising, freedom in the way they interpret the written parts, etc. The band always has a distinct, heavy sound but also a lot of in-the-moment unpredictability.
Unnatural Ways - West Coast
For a couple of years in the Bay Area I was mostly playing solo guitar. I always enjoyed it, but at the same time I missed interacting with bandmates, musically and socially. In 2010 I met drummer Nick Tamburro (Dead Science, Casio Tone for the Painfully Alone) when we were teaching guitar and drums respectively at the San Francisco Rock Project. We realized we had both been members of Carla Bozulich's band Evangelista on different tours, though we had never officially met. Through talking and seeing each other play in various settings we realized that we shared a love for the feel and spontaneity of a lot of early jazz and free jazz, but were inherently part of a generation whose ears had been shaped and deafened by punk rock, metal, noise and various kinds of anti-music. Nick grew up playing in metal bands and also playing straight-ahead jazz gigs, eventually gravitating toward complex rock with plenty of improvising (with his band Dead Science). He could play heavy, and he could swing. We started doing shows together, adapting many solo things of mine to play as a drums/guitar duo. I loved Nick's feel and how we could improvise and mess around with each other's time, trying to trip each other up, even on the most traditional songs we played (usually renditions of old blues tunes). He has a very particular way of playing fills that are right on the edge of losing time but somehow holding it together, always on the verge of going free but still keeping the pocket.
Throughout the time that I was playing solo and duo with Nick, I was also writing stuff on my own for an imaginary trio configuration. After a couple years of trying to make life work without a bassist, I was ready to throw in the towel and expand. It was in early 2012 that Dominique Leone (keyboard, synth bass) reared his cheerful, bearded head. I'd never thought in advance about having synth bass instead of bass guitar in the band, but Dominique was the perfect person, and that generally matters more to me than instrumentation. By the time he joined, I had already been playing in DL's own band for a couple of years, and I knew what a good all around musician he was. Dominique grew up playing trumpet in many different jazz big bands. The music he writes draws a lot from electronic/dance music, as well as his obsessive love for all things Magma/Christian Vander (minus some aspects of Vander's ideology!). He has this metronomic sense of time in the face of even the trickiest rhythmic stuff to pull off, which makes him kind of a perfect synth bass player. And he's a natural improviser with an uncanny sense of harmony/chord progression.
The DL/Nick/me lineup only existed for one little year and a half, but it was a good one. Those two pushed my writing into totally new places and they brought so much to the music as improvisers. We toured the U.S. west coast, east coast, and in Europe. Once we got lost in a blizzard in the eastern Czech Republic in winter on the way from Ostrava to Ceske Budejovice. We had to push the car down country roads with one of us driving, and one of us on each side to make sure it didn't swerve. This went on for hours before we found anyone to ask for directions. We spoke no Czech, so the man we eventually found drew us a map with a stick in the snow-- car, forked roads, church, small town-- to get us to a place where we could stay.
In 2013 all of us moved away from the Bay Area for various reasons. The last thing we did as a band was to record an LP that came out on the New Atlantis label.
Unnatural Ways - East Coast
I moved to Brooklyn from Oakland in fall 2013. The current east coast lineup of Unnatural Ways is me, Tim Dahl (Child Abuse, Lydia Lunch Retrovirus, Pulverize the Sound) - bass / Max Jaffe (JOBS, Normal Love) - drums.
I met Tim in 2010 playing in QUOK, a trio with our friend, drummer Weasel Walter. It immediately became clear that he was an extremely fun bass player/improviser and had many of the same noise rock and free jazz points of reference as myself. Seeing him play in lots settings over the years has given me an understanding of his depth; he can fulfill many different roles as a bassist/sonic navigator, and he always maintains his own voice; sharp, visceral and timbrally complex. He's also a compelling and funny front man for Child Abuse. Being in never-ending rehearsals with people or trapped in a tour vehicle with them really makes you appreciate any entertainment they have to offer, and since TS Dahl's brain is an overflowing fountain of psychedelic absurdity, he makes for an awesome companion and band mate. When I moved to Brooklyn I knew I wanted to play more with him, and when I decided to make an east coast version of UW, it was really clear immediately that he was the right player for that music.
Max and I initially met when I first moved to New York. I was looking at two bedroom apts with a friend of mine from the Bay Area, and our mutual friend Stephen Buono recommended I contact Max since he was then working as a real estate agent. I did. Quickly, he discovered I had really modest savings and crappy credit, totally useless as a potential apartment leaser. However, we enjoyed walking around looking at empty apartments and talking about music together. We stayed in touch and when I saw him play several times over the next few months, I learned he was a killer drummer, and as an improviser had a unique ability to unite a group in its purpose, even at its most chaotic or directionless. Max brings a certain level of commitment to everything he does, contributing purpose and intensity in any situation.
In 2014 I got an invitation to be artist in residence at a festival in Tasmania, Australia called MOFO. The curator of the fest is Brian Tairaku Ritchie, who is the bassist for the band Violent Femmes, and also a good improvising shakuhachi player. What?! It is all true. Weirder still, Brian got partial funding for my residency from the American embassy in Tasmania, so I was a sponsored, official American representative to the festival. Essentially I was to do several open rehearsals of my trio music with a Tasmanian rhythm section (Hamish Houston - bass and Alf Jackson - drums), and to play two concerts at the fest with the same trio.
This was a pretty new situation for me on many levels. Obviously the American embassy aspect, but also musically. Hamish and Alf were both in their early twenties, straight out of the jazz conservatory at U Tas. In the first rehearsal, it became clear they were both very good musicians, versatile and open-minded. Getting them to dig in, and to free up rhythmically while keeping a strong sense of direction, were the challenges. Maybe the hardest thing to communicate was why digging in was vital to the music. For better or worse, most of my music doesn't sound right if everyone is not playing hard all the time and going genuinely bonkers at least 70% of the time. It's tough to say how much of that can be chalked up to me being an aggro, sloppy American, and how much is just personal. In any case, Tasmanians are generally a little bit on the reserved side, so it took a little work to get the feel I wanted. Ultimately I was really happy playing with those guys, with both of their musicianship, curiosity and openness to a truly non-conservatory approach. "Your music is like exercising!" they said to me at the end.
The American embassy people came to our last concert and seemed to genuinely like the music. I visited a prison (Tasmania is home to Port Arthur, Australia's most brutal 19th century prison), saw kangaroos and Tasmanian devils, ate amazing fresh raw seafood, and was asked by Q&A audience members to explain what harmolodics were and if I had heard of Frank Zappa. One guy asked me "Do you play harder because you're from New Yooork??" so I had to explain that I am originally a puny west coaster.
That's it! I'm fortunate to play with many other amazing folks besides the ones mentioned here, just wanted to give these ones props. More info on some of them below.
My name is AVA MENDOZA. I play guitars and stompboxes and write music. Currently I'm based out of Brooklyn, NY, having recently relocated here from Oakland, CA. I've toured throughout the U.S. and Europe and recorded or performed with a broad spectrum of musicians including singer Carla Bozulich, Fred Frith, Nels Cline, Butch Morris, Weasel Walter, Tune-Yards, and more. I've played on recordings released by labels Weird Forest, Tzadik, Clean Feed, NotTwo, ugEXPLODE, Resipiscent, New Atlantis, and others. I have played guitar for most of my life; in any context I try to bring expressivity, energy and a wide sonic range to the music I play.