Ava Mendoza: Interview
“Oh, my god I can’t think about stuff that’s not music all the time.”

Ava Mendoza is a busy guitarist. When she’s not throwing in her singular blend of free-jazz/blues-fingerstyle/controlled rock-debris with musicians like guitar paladin Nels Cline, synth-pop fringer Dominique Leone, or collabing on film scores with international East Bay heroes tUnE-yArDs, she’s an essential piece of a burgeoning Bay Area free-rock music scene.

All it really takes is one good listen to know Ava’s not just onto something, but has been perfecting her craft for quite some time. While not exactly a secret in San Francisco and Oakland, anyone with a taste for the kind of avant-garde, boundary-altering, ear-stretching audio known and loved by TMTers will find a remarkably fresh voice.


I wanted to talk about the most recent thing that’s coming up for you, the tUnE-yArDs International Film Festival collab. Are you improvising music over Buster Keaton films or is it something more composed?

It’s more composed, for sure. We rehearsed for it a lot. Me and Merryl [Garbus] did a lot for it over the course of three weeks while tUnE-yArDs, the band was off-tour. So we just got in all this rehearsal time. We’re kind of adapting songs of hers and songs of mine for the film. Also, we wrote some new stuff together. tUnE-yArDs’ aesthetic is pretty tight, kind of, which is perfect for these films I think. It’s all about really dramatic/tight action, kind of. So, it will be very not improvised for the most part. There’s little sections that are noisy and stuff like that. But it’s really plotted out.

That’s pretty cool. The reason I ask is because I had some friends in music school in Michigan and they did this improvised score to this French film called The Red Balloon. It was pretty interesting too.

Yeah, I did a score for the Film Society in November… With this drummer that I play with, Nick Tamburro.

Yeah, you told me you did an album together.

Yeah. But we did that score… together. And that was an old horror movie. An early campy horror movie that’s sort of like making fun of itself but also scary.

What’s that called?

The Bat.

Okay. I may have heard of that.

Yeah, it’s funny. I hadn’t heard of it before I picked it for this. Yeah, it’s not super-duper well known but it was kind of a classic, I guess. We also plotted out everything we were going to do for that one but there was a little more looseness. A little more free jazz involved in that one than there will be for the tUnE-yArds one.

That’s cool though. I mean, I know Merryl’s been in the area for a while. How long have you known her?

I met her when we played a show at Blue 6 in the city like three years ago, I guess. I knew Nate [Brenner] from before. We both worked at Pandora.

He’s a good dude.

Yeah, he’s awesome. I played solo and she played with Nate. We just liked each other’s stuff. When she moved down here we tried to find an excuse to work together somehow. This is the first thing that came up.

That’s great. That’s really cool.

We were realizing, after the last rehearsal, that it’s a really funny way to first work together.

Yeah, to collaborate on a film score.

Yeah, because it’s such a narrow world to work in. It’s not like we get together and write songs or one of you learns another person’s song. Just a really specific agenda. But it worked.

There aren’t too many guitar players I’ve heard in the area that sound the way you do. I’m curious about how you got started early on. Did you pick up the guitar before 10 years old?

Yeah, I started playing when I was 7. I played sort of on and off when I was a little kid. It was all classical guitar. I never had an electric guitar until I was 16 or 17. I played all classical guitar growing up. I got super serious about it by the time I was 15 or 16. I was really into it and practicing a lot but I was also listening to weirder and weirder stuff. I got into noisier rock and I got into Sonny Sharrock. I got into Derek Bailey. Then I was listening to Peter Brötzmann and Albert Ayler records but then playing classical guitar. And I was like, “Something has to change. There’s a discrepancy here.”…

So, I just wanted to play music that was more expressive, basically. So, I started playing electric guitar when I was 17 and never went back.

I assume that, since you started so early with classical, you learned how to read music too. It seems like, for guitar players — at least younger guitar players — you learn Led Zeppelin songs or tablature.

It was, I guess, the opposite of what happens with a lot of people because I was never, like, in a blues jam. I didn’t really improvise or have my own style growing up at all. I just read music. By the time I was 16 and 17, I was frustrated. I was like, “I really want to do something that’s me somehow.”

It’s still cool that you have those tools though.

It’s cool.

Most guitar players don’t have those tools. When I went to school for music I could barely read music. I’m still terrible at it but it’s also the guitar thing.

It’s laid out so weird! It’s not like a piano or something.

It’s one of the hardest instruments to read on. You have like five different ways to play one note.

Right.

You went to Mills College, is that right?

Yeah, I moved up here to go to Mills and I went there for undergrad.

Was there a reason you were drawn to that school, in particular? Did the instructor/musician Fred Frith have something to do with it?

Yeah, that was a part of it but I actually originally went to Mills thinking differently. I wasn’t in the music department, I was in the media department.

Interesting.

But my first year there, I thought I didn’t want to study music academically and I was in the anthropology department. And that totally didn’t work. I was like, “Oh, my god I can’t think about stuff that’s not music all the time.” But yeah, Fred was a reason and just the fact that they have a good contemporary music department and I just love this area and I wanted to be up here.

That school has a pretty good reputation for improvised music as well as other stuff.

Yeah.

You mentioned being into classical music but I notice that sometimes, when you play solo, you do a lot of blues finger-picking type stuff. Do you make the associations between different styles or is it something that’s more naturally developed over the years? It’s not like, “Oh, well now I’m doing something different”?

I just got into a bunch of old blues guys kind of at the same time that I got into noisier rock and free jazz when I was in late high school. And I just wanted to hear music that wasn’t slick, basically. I wanted to hear music that was expressive and pretty direct. So, I started listening to Robert Johnson and Skip James and Reverend Gary Davis. I guess Reverend Gary Davis and Joseph Spence are two of the guys that their feel and stuff was really exciting for me. They just have this excitable way of playing rhythm.

He’s kind of a different type of blues musician, but I was watching a video of Albert King…

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

I was looking at his hands and I was like, “What the fuck is he doing?” He’s actually just playing a guitar turned upside down, he doesn’t restring it.

But he plays right-handed?

He plays it left-handed but it’s not re-strung. So, when he was bending all these notes and playing riffs it makes you do a double-take. I think with the guitar, in general, perhaps moreso than other instruments, you find a way to make it work for you.

Yeah, I think so.

You develop your own sound and style because of that.

Yeah, everyone’s so different from each other. When I go see any guitar player, they’re always doing all these things that would never occur to me to do. And they’re all so different from each other. It’s super-personal.

Yeah, like Django Reinhardt, losing the majority of his ability in his left hand and developing a whole new technique. Or Wes Montgomery, he didn’t want to use a pick because his neighbors would complain about him playing too loud so he would play quietly with his thumb.

Oh, okay.

Just those kinds of things are pretty interesting to me. I don’t know enough about other instruments but it seems like with guitar it’s like that happens so often — People use their disadvantages as an advantage.

Yeah, totally. Or just stylistically, the differences. From Django Reinhardt to Terrie Ex to Kerry King or whatever. It’s like, what? This isn’t the same instrument!

I was talking to this girl, who’s a guitar player and works at Guitar Center. She was just like, “Aw god, being a woman guitar player’s so awful! Guys disrespect you all the time!” And I was like, “Really? When does that happen?”

Speaking of guitarists, I know you’ve done some work with Nels Cline. How have some of those collaborations with him come about? Has some of it been with the Singers?

I lived in LA, growing up. So, I liked that band the Geraldine Fibbers, that was his old band with Carla Bozulich. I actually never saw them.

So, you were talking about Nels Cline a bit.

Yeah, so those guys lived in LA and I got into that band the Geraldine Fibbers and then I got into Nels’ solo stuff. I think the first thing I heard was the cover of “Interstellar Space”that he did. I heard that before I heard the original “Interstellar Space.”

Oh, really? That’s really interesting.

[Laughs] It’s funny. But he was like the first guitar dude that I heard make a bunch of noise. I was like, “Ah!”

He’s pretty amazing.

Yeah, he’s amazing. But I just started talking to him at a show and I asked him for lessons and he has like insanely low self-esteem. And was like, “I’m too stupid to teach! I can’t give you lessons but we can sit around and talk about music.” So then we would just get together and sit around and play records and talk about music.

I don’t know what it is. Some of the best musicians I’ve met are very, very humble dudes.

Yeah.

It’s like whenever I see interviews with Bill Frisell, it just blows my mind because he’s like, “I don’t know, I’ve been doing this for 50 years and maybe something good has happened.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s old school humility, for sure.

I read something about your approach to improv: the idea of throwing a wrench into what you’re doing. And then starting over and feeling like that’s how you can get deeper into the music?

Yeah, for me, I really like to compose. I really like songwriting and writing something that’s super tight. But then, I like to find ways, in solo or a group, that it can develop or change somehow. If somebody can throw some kind of surprise turn into it, it can take a really different direction.

Yeah, when things fall apart it can be really cool. To me, it seems like perception is the issue: the difference between what you’re playing and what people are hearing.

Yeah.

Sometimes it’s like, “Aw, fuck! I fucked that shit up!” But for a person that hasn’t heard it before, maybe that’s the coolest part.

Sure, or for a person that’s heard it like, 50 times before, they’re like “Oh, wow! Thank god, something new!”

The first time I saw you was with Dominique Leone. I know Jordan Glenn plays in that band too.

And Aaron Novik is the role of bass player as bass clarinetist. I just knew Dominique from around here and we played shows together in separate bands a few times. He just asked me to do a tour with that band. He had a tour booked and no band.

[Laughs] That’s the hard part.

[Laughs] Yeah, so he asked me like a month before as he was getting the band together. I just stayed in the band and that lineup, the quartet that it is now, became the band. He’s now playing in a trio with me and Nick [Tamburro]. Dominque’s playing this kind of synth — it’s like a Korg Mini. But he’s playing that as like a bass role. It’s my trio, the Ava Mendoza Trio. It’s super incestuous.

I knew some friends from Interlochen. Did you enjoy your time there? I hear it’s pretty intense.

It’s really intense. I guess it’s like an Oberlin of high school. But it was great for me, actually. I was living in Orange County, at the time. So, it was good to escape Orange County. I just got a lot more serious about classical guitar while I was there. It’s super straight-ahead there. It’s very straight-ahead classical and super-square jazz. But it was just like a kick in the ass.

I was talking to Nate [Brenner] (of tUnE-yArDs) who went there. He actually enjoyed it. But Ohio for your whole life is a bit much I think.

Where are you from?

This really small town between Cleveland and Columbus called Mansfield. Where they filmed The Shawshank Redemption. Claim to fame.

[Laughs]

The last time I saw you perform, you were playing with a group with your bandmate Jordan Glenn and Sam Ospovat on drums.

Was it just Sam playing drums or was it three drummers?

It was just Sam, but I think Jordan was playing vibes.

Yeah, that’s Aaron Novik’s band. That’s called Dante Counterstamp. [Laughs].

That’s nice.

Yeah, that’s a pretty new thing. It’s just been the last six months that we’ve been doing that. Aaron wrote all this super hard music and we’re still getting a handle on it.

How long have you known drummer Nick Tamburro?|

Like, two years. We teach kids together at this place called San Francisco Rock Project. So, we had a year of being like, “Hey, we should play” and never getting around to it. I’d been playing solo for a long, long time and finally I just asked him to play a duo show with me. Solo with drums, basically. It was awesome. Now it’s a trio with me and Dominique [Leone].

We’re a really good match. He [Tamburro] comes from being into hardcore bands and death metal and stuff. He’s a really powerful player. But then, he has good swing feel also and is interested in a lot of different music. So, he just has good chops and is a really passionate player.

I was listening to the forthcoming recording, Quit Your Unnatural Ways. When I was listening to it, it didn’t sound like you guys weren’t listening to each other but you were also playing in your own spaces. I always enjoy hearing that. The sound of what you guys are doing is very different than a band like Don Caballero — but the way they would play, with each person in their own space, was familiar.

Cool. And that duo record is coming out on Weird Forest in June.

That’s awesome. One of the questions I was thinking about asking — but I hope isn’t too personal — is that sometimes with guitar or music in general, being a female guitarist you deal with a lot of weird situations.

Yeah.

I don’t know if it’s necessarily prejudice but the awkwardness of people not respecting a female musician. I don’t know if this is ever happened to you, has it?

No, I don’t feel like it happens to me a lot. For most of my life, I haven’t felt like that has happened to me a lot. It sort of makes me wonder if I’m just oblivious or if it just really doesn’t happen to me. I feel like, at least the guys I play music with, are like, “It’s not an issue.” It just hasn’t been something that’s gotten in the way.

That’s good.

I was talking to this girl, who’s a guitar player and works at Guitar Center. She was just like, “Aw god, being a woman guitar player’s so awful! Guys disrespect you all the time!” And I was like, “Really? When does that happen?”

There’s a song on the last Marnie Stern album about female guitar players.

“Female Guitar Players Are the New Black.”

Yeah. What does that even mean? Maybe it’s not a huge leap but I don’t know. I’m not a female guitar player so I can’t say.

Yeah, I don’t know. I kinda thought she was trying to say that they’re the new fetish. But I don’t know. Or they’re the new group that’s discriminated against?

Yeah, that’s kinda what I assumed.

There’s kind of a whole colony of female guitar players who are badass and getting press.

So, what have you been listening to lately? Anything you’ve been super into?

Yeah, let me think about that. I’ve been listening to P-Funk a lot, over the last few years.

That’s always good.

I’m always listening to them. I’m always listening to Albert Ayler also.

Do you have a favorite Ayler album?

I like Live in Greenwich Village a lot. And there’s a Live in Europe record that I really like.

Speaking of saxophonists, have you ever listened to Pharoah Sander’s album Thembi?

No.

That’s my favorite one by him. The cover is so cool because it’s just Pharoah Sanders playing some weird woodwind instrument and he’s got all these percussion instruments throughout the record. He’s kind of just wandering off in the photo.

That’s awesome.

My friend gave me that album in college and I think that was the first Pharoah Sanders album that I heard.

What else? Yesterday, I had this “fix my guitar” session because it had all these little things wrong with it. So, I just sat around and fixed my guitar all morning and listened to Slayer. And that was nice.

Reign in Blood?

Yeah.

That brings me back. I had a friend in high school who was super into Metal and even goth stuff too like Type O Negative. But I remember he had pictures of Slayer and Metallica taped up and covering his bedroom. It was this weird oasis that we zoned out in. We didn’t even smoke weed! [Laughs]

[Laughs]. It’s like too aggro to smoke weed to.

You’d get paranoid.

Yeah! Jeff Beck, actually, I’ve been listening to a lot.

See, I don’t even know where to start with that guy. I’ve heard him play so many times and sometimes I’m like, “This is cool.” And sometimes, I’m like, “I don’t know…”

Yeah, I feel like he plays really bad songs and music overall — well, not bad but cheesy. There’s Yardbirds stuff where I like the songwriting and whole package. But a lot of his solo stuff is on the cheesier side. But just the way he plays, even if he’s playing “Over the Rainbow,” just the way he phrases it and bends is so [great].

He’s a great guitar player, there’s no denying that.

That’s really like a geek thing.

  

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