Meet Ava Mendoza, the Blues and Punk Brutarian Who's Better at Guitar Than You
Now ingrained in Brooklyn's avant-garde and experimental scenes, Mendoza has formed a trio called Unnatural Ways. Watch their video for "Shapeshifters."
Photo credit: Leyya Tawil
As guitorrists like Mick Barr and Brandon Seabrook lead the charge as purveyors of melting jazz and metal into fret-spinning wizardry, it’s Brooklyn-via-Oakland six-stringer Ava Mendoza deconstructing of blues and punk into brutal shredfests that’s causing a ruckus in NYC’s DIY hubs. But prior to making the shift to the East coast, Mendoza, along with likeminded brutarian and ex-Flying Luttenbachers chief Weasel Walter, helped shepherd Oakland’s free-improv and noise scene with the two logging time together in prog-punk trio, QUOK—not to mention her collaborations with guitar godheads Nels Cline and Henry Kaiser.
Now ingrained in Brooklyn’s avant-garde and experimental scenes, Mendoza has rounded up a couple of musically sick locals—bassist Tim Dahl (of skronk-metalists, Child Abuse) and drummer Max Jaffe (of art-rock brainiacs JOBS)—for a reboot of Unnatural Ways, a trio she originally started in Cali. The result is their just-released debut, fittingly titled Unnatural Ways (out now via New Atlantis), and its nine sonic blowouts manifest a genre-hopping clinic of ax domination. Like Cline, Mendoza effortlessly bounces from the noisy din of Sonic Youth’s heavy space-rock jams, Black Flag’s prog-jazz instrumental freak-outs to the outlier twang damage of Fred Frith—usually all within the same song.
For “Shapeshifters,” Unnatural Ways’s first single and video, Mendoza enlisted the talents of director Dylan Pecora, the brains behind the creepy video from firebreathing improv crew, Andrew Barker, Paul Dunmall, and the aforementioned Dahl. For his latest venture into the unknown, Pecora has channeled his inner weirdness once again, this time starring—not Mendoza—but fellow virtuoso, Many Arms’ and Chris Forsyth & Solar Motel guitarist, Nick Millevoi. “I pitched it to Ava as ‘Martians use human slaves to make a Martian movie about enslaving humans,’” explains Pecora. “Cameos include Nick Millevoi as a struggling musician, Vosco Adams of Ruin as the editor, and a few dudes from low-budget-horror-production company Supraliminal Films as the boys eating pies in the basement.”
Not only are we here at Noisey proud to present the vid for “Shapeshifters” but we also tracked down Mendoza on tour in Europe.
Noisey: First off, we are premiering the video for "Shapeshifters" off your new record, Unnatural Ways. What can you tell us about this eight-plus-minute scorcher?
Ava Mendoza: The first thing I wrote was the weird bassline that starts about a minute in and goes through a lot of the track. Everything else in the song is "shapeshifts" of that bassline, either arranged or improvised. When I wrote this I was dwelling on humans, animals, and how humans still have a lot of animal in them no matter how human they think they are. We can shapeshift, consciously or unconsciously, at different moments or in different periods of our lives. It can be fun, frightening, or both.
You are writing from tour in Europe. How does touring there compare to the DIY joints you play here in NYC?
The crowds are very different in each country in Europe so it’s hard to generalize. Germans are sometimes jolly or sometimes full of angst and drunk, Norwegians are a little chilly and very clean, most Slavs are excited and up in your face, in a nice way. At Trans Pecos and Silent Barn, I feel fortunate at this point to have friends come out and to play in an environment I feel pretty comfortable in, with a crowd that wants to be engaged. On this tour we are playing many venues that are new for us, and we have to gauge the audience at each show.
Like your bud Weasel Walter did before, you relocated from Oakland to Brooklyn in recent years. Why did you make the move to the East coast? Is Brooklyn’s scene better than Oakland's?
I love Oakland and it was a hard decision to leave after being there for ten years. But there is a larger pool of musicians in New York, and more of them tread the noise rock-free jazz line that I tend to walk. So that was a big attraction for me. Also at this point the Bay Area is as expensive as New York, or more so, because of the tech boom and real estate insanity there. When I realized that was how it was going, it became clear to me that it would be worth giving NY a shot in order to be surrounded by many musicians who inspire me. Both scenes are dear to me and I can’t say which is Better. NY is just a bigger population, and it is easier to tour from than the Bay Area. Driving distances are huge on the west coast. Scene-wise, the Bay maybe has more of a sense of being able to try out genuinely new things musically without fear of failure, because you are in a smaller, more intimate community.
Let's talk about the new record. Unnatural Ways features keyboardist Dominique Leone and drummer Nick Tamburro but the present live iteration is bassist Tim Dahl, alongside drummer Max Jaffe. How did that changeup come about?
Dominique and Nick are the folks that I formed the band Unnatural Ways with while living in Oakland. It was an outlet for my three-piece band writing. I would bring songs in and we would arrange and adapt them together. We toured in the US and Europe and made that record. Right as I was moving to Brooklyn in 2013, UW got some attention and was invited to play at a couple of festivals, one of them the Victoriaville fest in Montreal, Canada. Since I had just relocated and now had no band, I decided to reform an east coastie version in order to make these fests possible.
How about the difference between the two different iterations?
The most clear difference between the two lineups is the instrumentation—the whole timbre of the band is different because of the bass synth vs. bass guitar difference, it’s heavier now. Dominique’s deranged organ interludes are now Tim’s deranged bass interludes. Aside from that, all the people you mentioned have such special personalities musically that there are too many differences to even begin listing. I will say that Dominique is deranged in a sort of sunny way, whereas Tim is mainly perverse and evil. So that’s some of the News!
You have a record from 2010 called Shadow Stories and that one is kinda bluesy and Americana-flavored. It's pretty different from the new record (although elements of Shadow Stories are certainly there). Did something happen along the way, influence-wise or what not, that made you go into the direction of the new record, which is kind of more punk-jazz and proggy? Some of it reminds me of Black Flag’s instrumental stuff.
I’ve basically always been into many early blues guitarists and also into current noisy rock bands, with equal enthusiasm. A lot of the music on Shadow Stories is kind of a love letter to blues and western swing music. I love the expressiveness and adaptability of that stuff. But it’s really hard for me to relate to anything going on in contemporary blues or country music. The music from my generation that I get into mostly comes from underground rock and some jazz. I don’t want to be stuck making music that is nostalgia-based. But I think anything I write, even the most abstract prog opus, will be influenced by raw and direct ethos of blues playing and songwriting.
You also sing on the new record. When and how did you decide to incorporate vocals into the mix?
I’ve been writing, words I mean, on and off for most of my life. I grew up reading lots of myths and folklore and I think that did something to my little brainz. A few years ago I started writing lyrics and having such a good time working on them. For me writing a song is really tied into myths and making a mythology. Anyway after a while I decided that even though I’m not a singer I had to start teaching myself to sing, just so I could realize these songs with words. I’d sung backup or unison with other people in bands before, but never been the official Singer of any band. I just started practicing, trying to understand my voice and get some control over it. I keep it simple sing from 1-4 notes per song. It’s ever-evolving, but it’s brought a new dimension to my music life and is definitely going to continue.
You and Nick had a duo record that features some versions of songs that are on the new record. How long have you had these songs/riffs in the tank?
Our duo record is called Quit Your Unnatural Ways. I consider it sort of a prequel to forming the band Unnatural Ways.
Let's dive into your guitar skills.
I grew up playing classical guitar, and got real serious about it in high school. So I had fingerstyle chops from that. I didn’t start playing with a pick and working on speed and stamina till later, in my early twenties. I would learn weird modes out of harmony books and incorporate them into things I wrote. I tried to practice things that would sort of give my solos an unexpected turn or push them over an edge.
Pick up Unnatural Ways via New Atlantis and check out Ava Mendoza solo on 5/18/2015 at Silent Barn, 603 Bushwick Ave., Brooklyn