A lot has happened since SOTC met Ava Luna two and a half years ago. Drummer Alex Smith has been replaced by the returning Julian Fader, who played with an earlier iteration of the band (in the interim, he was a member of bands like Quilty and a couple others). The backup vocal trio is down to a duet (Felicia Douglass and Becca Kauffman remain; Anna Sian recently left the group). They released their first full-length, Ice Level, earlier this year. And they just returned home from their first headlining tour, a 30-date jaunt throughout the U.S. and Canada that followed a handful of short support stints opening for acts like Twin Sister and Toro y Moi. (They celebrated their homecoming earlier this month with a Mercury Lounge gig.)
Well, first, it’s to Gravesend; Ava Luna pack leader Carlos Hernandez, a Park Slope native who still gets misty-eyed when he talks about the few unchanged parts of the borough that remain, suggests I meet his bandmates at L & B Spumoni Gardens, located down the street from the Korean church where the sextet recorded their early material. (They returned to the space while recording Ice Level to lay down Hernandez’s vocals—and drink heavily.) Somewhere between the pizza and the spumoni, the band got into a debate about the myth of Sisyphus, and whether it can be reinterpreted as a positive metaphor for their situation right now.
Either way, its symbolism is pretty apt: after riding high with a record and a month on the road, now they’re back to the slog of job interviews and sublets. The transition wasn’t smooth, either; the band’s practice space (also Hernandez’s Crown Heights apartment) was abruptly discontinued by the landlord just before they left for tour, so they’ve even been forced to relocate to a “big, old, weird schoolhouse in Bushwick.” In Fader’s words, “All our eggs were in one basket, and now that basket is broken.”
What was the experience of your first headlining tour like?
Carlos Hernandez: To be honest, I was nervous before we left. We got a fair amount of press for the album—all positive—but like, if your album blows up, you know it. So I was a little nervous. I’m happy with what we’ve done, confident about playing it, but is anyone even going to come? That’s totally out of our control. But incredibly, we went on tour, we invited our friends, and I had the lowest of expectations—but people came! There was actually a fair number of people at every single show, a couple were even packed. That was a big surprise. The only touring experience that we had that [wasn’t] touring with a bigger band is, like, DIY shows, which is its own thing. That’s like, absolute, insane party, or complete, horrible shit. But this was very consistent.
What cities were the most successful for you?
Julian Fader and Ethan Bassford, simultaneously: D.C.!
JF, EB, Becca Kauffman, Felicia Douglass: [list other cities]
CH: The only places that were not awesome were, like, Toronto and Montreal. And that’s just because—well, I can’t say why. That was the beginning of the tour.
EB: They have their own thing up there.
CH: We played 30 shows or so. And there were only, like, 3 shows that were not awesome. That’s a good statistic.
Not a bad track record, in all.
EB: In D.C. someone brought a record for us to sign. He said he’d seen us a bunch of times.
JF: I signed someone’s arm in D.C. I think it was her first show ever. Of any kind.
BK: She was 14!
JF: I saw her tweeting about the show, saying, “I wish I was 18!” so I got her name and put her and her brother on the list and hoped that they wouldn’t fuck with them. They got in though, and she was so psyched. She must’ve tweeted about it 150 times. She was going insane.
Ava Luna, “Wrenning Day”
So do you run the Twitter account, Julian?
BK: Yeah, wait, Julian, how’d you end up tweeting with Nite Jewel?
JF: (shrugs) You know… [group laughs] I got a tweet from Walgreen’s today! Zankou Chicken tweeted at us, too.
EB: Ooh, what’d they say?
JF: They smiley-faced us.
EB: Zankou Chicken is my favorite business.
JF: I’m on a tear right now. I’m trying to get corporate Twitters to tweet at us.
EB: Olive Garden was the best.
JF: I said, “Are your breadsticks really all-you-can-eat?” They said, “They sure are.”… I’m most proud of Zankou Chicken, though.
You guys seem like you have a handle on your local scene but also on what’s going on in your fanbase beyond that&30151;nationwide, online…
CH: I spend a lot of time thinking about the concept of community and what that means. There’s a subtle difference between a ticket-buying music listener and someone who’s really gung-ho, probably in a band themselves and goes to shows every day. I feel like it’s very important to be aware of what’s happening in Brooklyn and beyond, to support [other acts] when they come through. There’s a lot of bands from out of town that I’ll come out to their shows, if not help them book it. By now, in a bunch of cities, we know people in bands, in a bunch of cities across the country, who we can expect to come out [to our shows. All that takes is love and enthusiasm, but beyond that, gaining the interest of those who are just music fans [and that’s it], that’s a total mystery to me.
But that community aspect is how you got fans at the beginning, right? This scene is helping each other out, and people want to be a part of that.
CH: There are so many amazing bands, in New York and beyond, that are making music that’s just too strange or abrasive or whatever, but they’re just good people and you want to help them out. And I’m not a naturally social person, either. I get real anxious around people, but I always really like hearing what they have to say.
Did you have any bands who gave you a leg up in that way, back when you were a younger band?
CH: Oh definitely. Bands, and also certain key curator/promoter people, too. When we were booking tours for ourselves a year or two ago, for instance… Tyler [Walker] from this band Blastoids from Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
JF: I’m playing with him [when he comes through New York].
CH: We said, “We’re coming through Tennessee. Who should we contact?” and [people tell us], “Contact Tyler.”
BK: It’s a whole network. Like community organizers, just for music.
CH: One of my favorite human beings of all time here in New York is this guy, Kunal [Gupta], who sort of plays in a band? He lived in Silent Barn when it was around, he’s involved with Babycastles, so he does noise music stuff… he’s all over the place. He’s an example of a person who decided he liked our band and ever since he’s been throwing us these insane opportunities. We played this show with Inspectah Deck of the Wu-Tang Clan because Kunal texted me, “LOL, do you want to play a show with Inspectah Deck?” Like, “Uh… yes?”
So people just text you with unexpected Wu-Tang opportunities now?
CH: Occasionally. We had to turn down a show with Kool Keith because we had a show out on Long Island that we couldn’t [back out of]. There are so many different ways to go about this thing.
Other than down here, are there any favorite venues?
CH: One of them is definitely Big Snow.
BK: I like being there better than playing there.
CH: That place is like the baseline. Everyone will give you a hug when you walk in.
BK: Like Cheers. [The group continues listing other places they’ve played in the past year—Bowery Ballroom, Webster Hall, and Le Poisson Rouge.]
JF: We play a pretty wide range of shows.
CH: And we take pride in that. Some bands can’t really fit in a small place, and some bands can’t play a big place.
JF: We don’t really seem to fit anywhere.
CH: And I guess you can say that about the way we sound, too. There are pros and cons [to that].
Ava Luna, “Ice Level”
You guys have a very translatable sound—it’s disciplined, rehearsed, clean…
CH: I confess, I’m a music nerd. I was assembling notes on a page long before I’d even heard of Death by Audio or DIY. It’s like trading cards or something. It’s a lot of fun to gather all this stuff, to be like “all these people are so cool, and these bands are so cool, and all this stuff is so cool,” but all that is still secondary to actually writing a song. That’s always been the weird dichotomy, with us especially. We’re all very social, we all like to see shows, but at the end of the day, we get together for rehearsal, and we have to make something new, and all that other stuff goes out the window. Then, the challenge of course is how to take that thing we’ve made and put it back in that world? Very often it doesn’t make sense. The songs exist in a different world.
Do you have any specific artist influences?
CH: Every song is kind of starting from scratch. The past two or three songs we’ve been working on, I’ve been really into D’Angelo lately, so I’ll basically draw directly from [his music]. For awhile, I was listening to a lot of Joy Division, while we were making Ice Level. That’s a funny question, because one thing that I never really understood—not to say that it’s not valid; I just don’t understand it—when someone’s forming a band and they’re handing around flyers that say, “Hey, we’re forming a band, and we’re going to sound like the Birthday Party” or whatever, before you’ve even made a song [together]. That just doesn’t make sense to me. What’s more likely to catch my ear [than a song] is like a little… trick [within a song], and it has nothing to do with the [overall] style of music. It can be a nasty guitar lick from Joy Division or a drum beat from D’Angelo. It doesn’t really matter what… walk… of life… it comes from.
Are there any comparisons or conclusions people draw about you that you disagree with?
EB [annoyed]: THE MANHATTAN TRANSFER comes readily to mind. [the band laughs] I think that kind of thing says more about the person writing about us than it does about us, though.
CH: Some people have written about us and called it “unlistenable, chaotic noise” and other people have written that it’s “smooth, and jazzy,” and, like, “Jamiroquai.” I’d rather be called “unlistenable noise” than to be compared to Jamiroquai. Nothing against him.
How do you see yourselves as a band?
CH: This is something I always complain about—the metrics of success as a musician. [The rest of the band give him a collective look.] What? [Everyone bursts out laughing.]
BK (to VV): You’re the only one at this table who has never heard him say this stuff before.
JF: What are the metrics of success, Carlos?
CH: You know what? You tell me.
JF: No, no. Just say it!
CH: OK, fine. On the one hand you have your local support and that’s very much a social thing. What kinds of shows you’re offered, what bands want to play with you. On another hand, that can be applied on a tour. On another level, you have financial [success], which doesn’t have to do with who you are; it has to do with how dumb people are to be willing to throw money your way. [The band objects to the statement.] I’m extremely cynical about everything, and that includes about levels of success. Even if we become successful, I would never want to admit it.
JF: We have low self-esteem.
BK: And really, really high standards.
JF: We really did think no one would come out on tour.
What does the future look like for Ava Luna? What are some of your goals, now that you’ve gotten to this transitional point?
EB: To not have a job.
JF: Ethan got into this at first to get laid; now he just doesn’t want to work.
CH: There’s so much you can’t control. For me, I would be happy to make an album that’s better than the one we just made, which, in turn, was better than the one before that. That’s really what it comes down to. My goal, really, is to just tour all the time; we tried to do that this year—
JF: We toured a lot, though. We probably played, like, 100, 150 shows. That’s way more than we toured any other year.
CH: Some bands are like [makes a steep, exponential motion with his hand]. I’m committed to the slow [crawl]… I guess I’m kind of like a troll. I like that grind. It’s like carrying a boulder on your back and never stopping.
JF: Isn’t that… a myth?
EB: Sisyphus. Yeah, that’s not supposed to be a fun story…But wait, some philosopher actually did reinterpret the myth to actually mean a positive thing.
JF: But that’s a great way to put it. Because once the album [cycle] is over, it’s a bummer.
CH: But the boulder rolls back down the hill, right? That works, because we haven’t reached the top yet. We have yet to see the boulder roll down. I like this metaphor.
JF: Carlos is very happy right now.
CH: Yes, thinking about suffering.
You’ve gotta stop giving me so many soundbites here, guys.
JF: Just make sure you include that we’re smiling while saying this stuff.