ugEXPLODE Musicians Mary Halvorson, Jessica Pavone, Ava Mendoza, Sandy Ewen And Damon Smith On Shredding, New York Vs. The Bay Area, And Houston’s Improv and Drinking Scene


This week, the Voice rounded up Weasel Walter’s nationwide community of avant-gardist outsiders who both record for his boldly avant-garde label ugEXPLODE and collaborate with the iconoclast-about-town. The names are staggering and represent the most intrepid of musicians working in the experimental and jazz orb today: Brooklyn guitarist Mary Halvorson, Normal Love’s Jessica Pavone, Oakland avant-blues guitarist Ava Mendoza and Houston improvisers Sandy Ewen and Damon Smith. Extended versions of the Voice‘s chats with them follow.

Mary Halvorson

How did you meet Weasel originally and how did you wind up collaborating with him?

I met Weasel because our bands shared a bill in New York back in 2006. We immediately started talking about doing collaboration. Our first gig together was as a duo at the Stone in early 2007. I felt a very natural connection with Weasel from the very beginning. Weasel recorded the concert, and we ended up releasing it on ugEXPLODE [that was our duo record, Opulence].

Is playing with drummer Kevin Shea similar [or not] to playing with Weasel?

They are very different experiences, although both are freaks of nature and true originals!

Does Weasel’s intense and manic drumming steer you into playing louder and noisier to keep up with him?

Not necessarily. We do get into loud and noisy spaces because we enjoy it, although I feel like at any second I could cut the volume, unplug my guitar and go acoustic and Weasel would be right there with me.

Were you cognizant that ugEXPLODE for many years was essentially a platform for much of Weasel’s own music and the presence of women on his label was scarce?

I knew that for many years ugEXPLODE was largely a platform for Weasel and his collaborators… it had never occurred to me that the presence of women was scarce.

What’s your take on a women’s musician movement on ugEXPLODE?

I could be wrong, but I have a feeling it’s coincidence and Weasel hadn’t thought much about it. He is looking for music that is honest, challenging and extreme, and musical integrity is probably his main priority. [regardless of gender].

What is your impression on how Weasel runs ugEXPLODE compared to other labels you record for?

Weasel is hard-working, organized and honest in his management of ugEXPLODE. He is realistic, he keeps good records, makes smart decisions, and stay on top of accounting and royalties way more than most labels. I trust his decision making and appreciate his integrity. He puts out exactly what he wants to puts out… no more, no less.

Jessica Pavone

How did Normal Love’s Survival Tricks wind up being released on ugEXPLODE?

Normal Love asked UE to put out the album in some capacity, but Weasel had too much on his plate already to pull off another release on the label. Then NL asked him to master the album, and when he heard it, he said that it one of the best records he had heard in a long time, and offered to put it out.

Did you know Weasel prior to ugEXPLODE releasing Survival Tricks? Were you already familiar with his musical projects like Flying Luttenbachers and his improvisational work?

Yes, I knew Weasel before the release of the Normal Love CD. I would say that I know him better in the recent year, because he now lives in New York and Normal Love has done a few double bills with his bands. And, yes, I was familiar with his music.

What is your impression of Weasel and the way he operates his label?

In running the label, I think he is organized and efficient, which doesn’t surprise me because I think he is a man of integrity.

How do you approach and/or differentiate the sound you contribute to Normal Love’s aesthetic as opposed to what you do with with Mary, Army of Strangers, the Thirteenth Assembly, etc.? in other words, what do you do differently?

The violin is on a short delay and the rhythmic quality of the sound holds precedence over the pitch quality. I am playing viola in those other bands, and my relationship to the viola verses the violin is completely different. They are way more dissimilar to me aside from size and range.

Do you look at Normal Love as an outlet for you to get loud, noisy and skronky or is it another beast altogether in your mind?

I have other outlets to get loud, so I wouldn’t say that per se. I think of it as another beast all together but do think that it really takes advantage of my personal qualities as a string player, which lacks the pristine traditional classical sound and is more raw and gritty.

Normal Love have been around for a while before this new record and you have had some lineup changes, notably Marissa Martignoni, who contributed a lot of the vocals to Survival Tricks but has since left the band. There’s a new member [Rachel Bell] on vocals and sampler. How has Normal Love persevered through the lineup shifts, your superbusy schedule and other members’ other projects and such?

Although I have been in the band for almost two years, I still consider myself even a new member as they have been together for many, many years prior. With every new line up shift, there is a learning curve and the band needs to take a break from shows while we re-learn the music together. I have experienced this twice since I joined. We also have a new drummer. Like any band with five busy people, scheduling can be difficult sometimes, but we make work. Rather than rehearsing once a week we rehearse intensively in preparation for specific events. I am really looking forward to this tour because it will be the most consistent amount of playing with consistent members we’ll be doing since I joined.

What will Rachel bring to the fold?

What stands out to me most about Rachel is that she has a great energy and the vibe in the band has been really fun with the new line up.

Ava Mendoza

ava mendoza trio live
How is QUOK [with Weasel and bassist Tim Dahl] different from other projects you are involved in, such as your duo with Nick Tamburro?

One main difference is in terms of who does the writing. The duo with Nick, which has now morphed into a trio with Nick and synth player Dominique Leone, is all my writing. We are just called the Ava Mendoza Trio. In some cases the songs are things that I’ve played solo and adapted to suit the duo [now trio] context. In some cases I wrote them specifically for the band. In any case I bring stuff in, Nick and Dominique learn it, we arrange it together and figure out ways that they can have some freedom in their playing of it, and then they play the hell out of it. In QUOK we all write the music, though usually separately. Weasel or Tim or I will bring in a charted out song that we wrote alone, we’ll learn it together and figure out an arrangement that makes sense for us. It’s 1/3 each of our writing, give or take. I like playing my songs with them and I like playing their music; it pushes me to find ways to improvise and sound like myself within their compositions.

The other biggest difference is probably in terms of feel. For one I write and play music that swings sometimes, both solo and in the Ava Trio. QUOK does not swing ever, so that’s a difference. Also Weasel’s concept of drumming, as far as I understand and I think without putting words in his mouth, is based around Fast as the main or maybe only “type of feel,” so QUOK songs are all played with a fast feel even if some of them are kind of mid-tempo. The feeling is always sort of about pushing ahead. With Nick, I play some songs that are more about different feels, a little more about heavy, repetitive groove and pocket playing. There are occasional unabashed “this is a groove that feels good and makes people want to lie down and have sex to it” sections. Nick is good at playing pocket stuff while keeping a kind of propulsive energy. That is what a lot of the songs on our new duo record on Weird Forest, Quit Your Unnatural Ways, are about. So yeah, in terms of just approach to rhythm, QUOK is different from some of my other projects.

Do you play guitar differently with QUOK rather than with other projects?

I would say I play denser or more continuously in QUOK than in some of the other stuff I do; Weasel, Tim and I are more or less all constantly playing one billion notes. The writing itself is fairly dense but also just the way we improvise together is really busy; it’s about playing really strong, particular stuff and making really articulate choices within a playing field where a lot is going on simultaneously. Even in sections where it’s someone’s designated “solo,” whoever’s “supporting” is usually playing a bunch of really busy stuff as well, which basically pushes the soloist to a sort of new fever pitch. So, I play more notes and I don’t worry about stepping on anybody because we are all sort of constantly stepping on each other. It’s fun.

How did you come about meeting Weasel and collaborating with him? I assume you knew him from the Bay Area.

Yes, we met in the Bay Area. We played together in a few different improvised music contexts there, realized we had some taste in common, mainly in terms of our interest in free-jazz/weird heavy rock crossover, and eventually started playing as a trio with Devin.

As you may know from being in the Bay Area, ugEXPLODE has been essentially a platform for much of Weasel’s own music and the presence of women on his label was somewhat lacking. That has changed though with Weasel’s collabs with Mary Halvorson, a trio record he did with Houston guitarist Sandy Ewen [and bassist Damon Smith], Cellular Chaos, the group he’s in with two women [vocalist Admiral Grey and bassist Ceci Moss], Normal Love and a forthcoming record with QUOK down the line. What’s your feeling on a women’s musician movement on ugEXPLODE?

Wow, it sounds like we had picket signs or something! Let us on the brutal weird music label, we’re equal! Actually for as long as I’ve known Weasel at least he has been playing with a lot of women—he played in Erase Errata, he played in this band Burmese from S.F. that has a killer woman singer, he played with improvisers like Aurora Josephson, Liz Allbee and me. So I guess I never noticed if there was a lack of them on his label. I know Liz is on a record of his that came out a few years ago, and I’m pretty sure he’s on records with all those other women on other non-ugEXPLODE labels. I’m on a record with him that’s led by clarinetist Jacob Lindsay, released on Damon Smith’s Balance Point Acoustics. Anyway my sense is that the new influx of women on the ugEXPLODE isn’t because of an idealistic shift or anything on Weasel’s part, it’s just a continuation of what he’d already been up to. Women!

You’ve played gigs in New York, but you live in the Bay Area. How are the two scenes—Oakland and NY alike or different?

Oakland and the Bay in general certainly just have a slower pace of life. In New York on top of the economic pressure players face, I get the impression that there’s the pressure of more visibility; there are more interested critics and audience, and I think players push themselves a little harder cause of that. A Village Voice critic might be at your show! I can’t really think of an equivalent for that at a free jazz show in the Bay. So maybe people just try a little harder in New York, there is more pressure on each show you play. There’s more careerism because there’s just much more a possibility of “career,” more potential of making money and of getting press, etc. That has its pros and cons in terms of effect on the music. In New York, it seems like people have a little bit more of a Brand that they do, sort of a more narrowed musical focus. Bay Area players are maybe a little more willing to try new things out, because if there are only five people paying attention anyway, why not? There are positive and negative aspects to both approaches. Many killer players live in the Bay and make some great music but I think you need to be more self-motivated; in New York the environment is such a pressure cooker that it seems to be sort of a built-in kick in the ass. People in the Bay also just tend to be nicer, sometimes I think too nice, and maybe more serious critique of each other would serve as a good ass-kick for the music and also just make life fun! I’ve lived in Oakland for nine years now and have been playing and trying to promote shows for almost that long so by now some people know who I am, and if I work to promote a show I can get a reasonable turnout. But for the most part I don’t feel like that turnout comes from a larger built-in “scene” here; if anything what audience I have is made up of non-purists from a few different scenes. That could be just because I’m me, not because of my location. And maybe the grass is greener and there is no particular scene with built in audience/infrastructure to plug into in New York either! It’s just my sense from outside.

Would you consider moving here? Weasel has, and other left coast musicians like Trevor Dunn and Ches Smith have also.

If I had a good way to start paying my rent there I might move. At this point though I am pretty happy being in the Bay Area, I want to write a bunch of new music and record with the Ava Trio, I like the handful of people that I’m playing with out here a lot. I make my living teaching and I like that a lot. I do tend to get more inspired musically by going out and seeing bands etc when I’m in New York. I feel closer to the aesthetics out there in some respects, it seems like there’s more crossover between the rock and free jazz worlds. And I think more crossover between music and anti-music, which I really like—bands like Little Women, Zs, Weasel’s projects, Child Abuse, Seabrook Power Plant. I’m sure there are tons of others I don’t know about.

Sandy Ewen/Damon Smith

How did you meet Weasel?

Ewen: I met Weasel through my friend, Damon Smith, who used to play with him out in the Bay Area. I knew who Weasel was; his bands are pretty famous. I’ve listened to some Flying Luttenbachers when Weird Weeds were on tour. I’m in a band called Weird Weeds[], which is sort of a weird rock band. I would consider it to be rock music. So I’ve heard of Weasel before and I was super-stoked to get to play with him. Damon brought him to Texas last year and we played in Austin with a bunch of people, we played in Houston with a pretty large group and then I played also played with Damon, Dave Dove[] and Weasel at our Monday night series that we have here.

How did the Ewen/Smith/Walter record come about?

Ewen: Damon wanted to bring us to New York to play with Weasel and we were kind of waiting for the right show. So, we got this gig with this performance artist named Peter Dobill and he wanted a backing band for this performance piece. He had this set up with this room filled with hay, weird human-like figures on the wall with pig hearts and pig tongues on meat hooks. Peter’s performance was this indirect-based thing and he was getting hit with sticks and things. He was holding onto these ropes until he couldn’t take it anymore. Me, Weasel and Damon—we all played a bunch of noise for a while. Me and Damon went up to play that show and I also did a show with Tom Carter then, too. We [Weasel, Damon and myself] then got a recording session at WKCR.

Was the record all improvised?

Ewen: Yeah, yeah. We just showed up at WKCR and played the whole thing straight through. It was completely improvised.

Is your music usually improvised or composed prior?

Ewen: Well, the Weird Weeds is hyper-composed. What I do in Weird Weeds is I know where all the pieces are and I know what my parts are, what’s going on and what my goal is. There are elements of improvising but for the most part it’s composed.

The YouTube clips I’ve seen of you playing live, I assume, are all improvised.

Ewen: That would all be completely improvised. I play with a belly dancer a bunch too, and that, for the most part, is completely improvised, although we do make up pieces that we’ll ignore. We’ll think of some weird set list of stuff we want to accomplish. It’s good to have a goal.

Do you always have your guitar resting on your lap?

Ewen: For the most part. There’s some songs with the Weird Weeds now where I play [the guitar] regular.

What is your setup? It seems pretty minimal.

Ewen: I’m quite fond of using a pan pedal. Generally, my setup is two Fender champs, pan pedal, guitar and whatever detritus I’ve accumulated over the last decade: bits of metal, screws, chalk, etc. I think I used a bit of distortion pedal on that album. But for the most part I go pretty clean by going through the amp. I think it sounds better that way and I think a lot of pedals just make everything sound less. Pedals make it sound a certain way but you get a lot of great sounds if you just make noise with stuff you find.

What do you use on your guitar?

Ewen: I feel like most of my techniques I developed through necessity. It’s a lot of stuff that I’ve found. I keep an eye out for those street cleaner sticks. Ya know, the tines from the street cleaner brushes. They make a bunch of noise when they go by, but once in a while they’ll leave long, maybe eight-inch long pieces of metal and those sound good and I’ll keep an eye out for those. I found three last time I was in New York City. Sometimes, I’ll find other pieces of rusty metal just on the ground and I keep a collection of stuff that I find. Friends of mine, they know that I look for these things and if they find a cool piece of metal, they’ll save it for me. If you’re improvising with people, you have to improvise ways to make cool sounds and fit into stuff. So it just seemed natural to raid the closet. One of the main techniques that I discovered was playing the guitar with sidewalk chalk. So I figured that out just because I had some one day and I tried it on a guitar. It sounds really cool, like an Ebow. It sounds like a rusty piece of metal but it works way better. It’s like the ultimate rusty piece of metal.

When did you get immersed in the improvising scene in Houston?

Ewen: I started playing improvised music when I was in high school. There’s a guy here in town who does improvised music classes for young people—David Dove. I met him at the record store. I was buying a bunch of Sun Ra and Captain Beefheart records and he was like “Hey! You should come to the Sam Rivers Trio show. So I did. I was a junior in high school and so I was hanging out with Dave Dove and what turned out to be the seeds of the Houston improv scene.

He was a huge influence and there’s a bunch of noise musicians here who are awesome. We got a really solid noise scene here. I ended up getting to see Keith Rowe, who’s awesome, and other people. I wasn’t a great guitar player in the traditional sense; I was in high school so I was still learning guitar. But if you’re improvising with people, you kinda have to improvise ways to make cool sounds and fit into stuff. I generally consider myself an improviser. I don’t consider myself a jazz musician although I am in a jazz band and we do jazz cover tunes. I sing in that band and I play experimental guitar.

Besides Weasel, your New York collaborators also include guitarist Tom Carter.

Ewen: I graduated high school in 2003, moved to Austin and went to UT-Austin and I studied architecture. My freshman year of college, I played with Tom Carter. We released an album, a CD-R. It was recorded in 2003 and released in 2004. It was actually really good. It was on Jyrk Records. I’m really, really proud of that one. We released another album that we recorded about a year ago but it came out this year. That was on Tom’s label and my label, too. I made up my own label but I’ve only had two releases on it so far.

Have you played with Carter live?

Ewen: Tom and I played a gig back in May. We played at this place Exile, in Queens. We’re swinging some benefit shows down here [for Tom]. We were talking about setting up moe benefits here.

Have you ever wanted to live in New York?

Ewen: I lived in New York in 2007 for about six months and I liked it, I guess. My brother lives up there and you think about it but Houston is real fun and the cost of living here is real low, all my friends are here and I could do whatever the hell I want! I could just think of crazy fucking shit and do it like I have a large ensemble of all women and we could just think of crazy concepts to do. I have a job here [in Houston] and I’m going to be an architect. I feel like whenever I go to New York, everyone’s always bitching about stuff. [laughing]

Sounds about right. What about working with Weasel?

Ewen: Weasel’s awesome. He’s a really, really fantastic person. You should probably talk to Damon. He’s right here.

Smith comes on the phone.

Smith: What do you want to know about Weasel?

Some good dirt.

Smith: The dirt about Weasel is that he’s a nice, outstanding young man that pays royalties; the only person in improvised music that will give you a royalty check. But his image is all about not that. His image is all about not that he’s a nice, Midwestern gentlemen and very responsible. Me and Weasel hang out and drink Psyllium together instead of alcohol [laughing]. He came out here to play this metal festival and we go back to my place at the end of the night and we had shots of Psyllium instead of whiskey or something.

What can you say about Sandy’s aesthetic?

Smith: Well, I moved to Houston almost two years ago and then I started to play here and I just thought she had the most interesting sound and the most interesting music. We played a duo concert that was quite good, fairly quick after I moved here. She just sounded [of a] really complex solution of what to do in improvised music. Sandy found a really complex language. The thing about it that is not readily apparent when you listen to it is how harmonically sound it is because she has a band where she sings standards and she’s somebody who understands music and harmony. So the harmonic underpinnings of it are really sound, because I have sort of a classical and jazz background. What separates her music from noise is how we can sort of move it around harmonically even if you can’t really tell that it’s sort of coming out of like Stockhausen and those people’s use of harmony and Sandy knows the right place when doing that kind of stuff. It’s fairly apparent that she’s playing stuff on the guitar and making crackle sounds; what’s not apparent is that it’s in the right place. If you put it in a harmonic context, Sandy is starting at the right place to be—like exactly. I don’t know if she has a perfect pitch or—she might—she can blow out a beer bottle and make a particular harmonic sound that other people can’t make except a very musical person.

You are pretty busy yourself with your projects and with Sandy. What do you guys have going on?

Smith: We are going to play a trio with Keith Rowe in October here in Houston. It was Keith’s idea. It kind of came out from hanging out and drinking in Houston because it’s a really cool city to hang out and drink in. We have this thing called ice houses where you sit outside and drink. We were hanging out drinking with Keith Rowe and drinking and Keith Rowe wants to talk about art and music and we want to talk about art and music and then we had a trio. So we’re gonna do that [laughing].

Sounds like Houston is the shit.

Smith: Houston is really amazing. We have this really great art collective here. There’s always great improvised music here and we got the Rothko Chapel here.

You moved there from the Bay Area, right?

Smith: Yeah. I like it a lot better here but the Bay Area was also a very cool place. The Bay Area has just deep roots in improvised music. Weasel and I hooked up there and we played together nearly every week for about five years. We were also working really closely with my friend, Henry Kaiser. I started playing with Henry when I was really young, when I first started playing improvised music. Elliot Sharp was the first person I played a real improv gig with—it was Sharp and Joe Baiza and Jack Brewer from that band Saccharine Trust. That was a long time ago; like ’92 or something like that. Weasel and I did a version of Terry Riley’s In C together with this ensemble at Mills College and we’re doing chamber music by Roscoe Mitchell on the same night. We’ve done so much stuff together.

How about the record you, Sandy and Weasel did together?

Smith: Sandy and I didn’t have our regular amps and I had my electric upright bass. So we were immediately working with a different sound that’s a little more of a transistor sound, a little more immediate, actually. Somehow, it didn’t ruin anything. It was a lot more improvised than we usually do and we had this really nice duck salami from the farmers market downstairs and it was recorded by a famous trombone player’s daughter, Ray Anderson. He was in Braxton’s bands in the ’70s. She [Anabel Anderson] recorded it. I think we were out drinking the night before because we had big cups of coffee. The thing about that recording session is it felt like it could have just gone on; it could’ve kept going. We did this last piece and we were like “Should we do a last piece?” and we did a last piece and it ended up on the album. It was still like an idea and we still could have kept going but we stopped because we had enough.

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