Ava Mendoza and Devin Hoff — two long-time, exceptionally gifted friends — finally got together to create together! And together with another pair of exceptionally gifted musicians — James Brandon Lewis and Ches Smith — they created Echolocation! Echolocation is out now on AUM Fidelity.
(Photo Credit: J Houston)
Ava Mendoza is a Brooklyn-based guitarist, singer-songwriter, and composer; Devin Hoff is an also-New-York-based bassist, composer, and arranger. The two recently formed the jazz-rock unit Mendoza Hoff Revels, and their new record, Echolocation, just came out last month on AUM Fidelity. To celebrate, the two got together to chat about it, and much more.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Ava Mendoza: Something that we share, over our 20 years of friendship: we’re both cat lovers. Your cats feature a lot in your playing on Instagram. They show up in your videos. Mine is too, she shows up here and there. But yours are on your bass, literally. Mine is more independent, doing her own thing. Do your animal friends influence your music?
Devin Hoff: Absolutely. I think they both intentionally influence my music. My oldest cat, Liebchen, really likes to get in the mix when I’m practicing, including being on my bass or on my head — and when I lay the upright bass down on its side, she’ll always jump on it and won’t get off. It’s her cuddle spot. And Didi likes to help me mix and record, and will usually at some point decide kind of violently that the computer is hers.
Ava: Does she sit on your lap and then co-opt the computer?
Devin: She eventually just jumps on to the computer, and she has amazing ways of stepping on just the right — I use Logic when I record and I don’t really know [the key controls], but she knows all of those. And she can do key commands and, like, wipe out entire recordings. It’s amazing. [Laughs.] What about yours?
Ava: Flora usually actually leaves the room when I start practicing. But one interesting thing about her is she loves to hear both my and my partner’s recorded music. If we start playing something over a phone or over our speakers, she comes running and starts rolling around real happy.
Devin: But not if you’re playing in the room?
Ava: Yeah. I think maybe the physical act of it is too jarring for her. But when it’s recorded — not that it’s quieter, but I think maybe she gets a little jealous of me spending time with the guitar. But then if I’m sitting there listening to myself recorded, she’s like, “That’s you, and I’m celebrating. And also you can pay attention to me.”
Devin: That’s so cool. It’s like she can tell that it’s your energy in the recording.
Ava: Yeah, she definitely comes running to that. And I will say — this is not musical influence, but as a child, I had a tuxedo cat, Fuzzball. My first stylistic influences, and still the reason I look like I do now, was my cat Fuzzball, Patti Smith, and Sid Vicious. I had a book on rock & roll that had pictures of Sid Vicious and Patti Smith, and I had the cat, and that was why I have this hair.
Devin: I talk to Liebchen a lot about how much I like her makeup, and every time I put on eyeliner, I try to do it exactly like hers.
Ava: Yeah, it’s a high bar.
Devin: But it looks so good! And she uses black lipstick so well, which is really hard to do… [Laughs.]
Ava: So both of us play in what are considered many different genres — whatever that word means at this point. We both have our solo work. We both have the writing on this record, Echolocation. You play with Julia Holter and Shannon Lay and Sharon Van Etten. I did Unnatural Ways for years, and I play with Malcolm Mooney and with William Parker. What for you ties that together? Either in terms of playing, or in terms of musical values, just in terms of your taste.
Devin: That’s a good question. You know, when people see me on an airplane with an instrument and say, “What kind of music do you play?” Lately, I just say I play bass. It’s kind of funny to say that, but I also do think that, at least from my perspective, the bass has a similar role in all music. It’s not always the same, but often it has a kind of interesting role where if it’s working right, it’s like the axis in the center of a wheel, and melody and harmony and rhythm and form are kind of the spokes. I think ideally, often really good bass playing to me — whether it’s William Parker or Talking Heads or Robbie Shakespeare — it connects these elements of music. Obviously jazz bass playing does that.
So for me, it’s actually instrumental, and the different genre designations… I think about the same music a lot, like the things that I’m consciously referencing. If I get stuck, I’ll think about the same musicians or bands, regardless of what other people think of the genre designation. So I try to not think too much about, This is this kind of record, or this kind of band, when I’m actually playing the music.
Devin: What about you?
Ava: Very similar. In a way, I’m a little bit like — to put it negatively would be “genre death.” But I don’t think about it a lot, and I never have, and I’m glad of that. Just the way I grew up listening to a lot of different things and trying to play a lot of different things, I don’t really separate them. But for me, in any kind of music that I listen to or play, I like to hear people playing right up to the limit of their ability. And that could be that could be the Voidoids or the Circle Jerks, or it could be Mahavishnu Orchestra live things where it’s this incredible level of virtuosity but people are pushing it beyond their level of total control. And that could be that could be Robert Johnson, that could be Reverend Gary Davis, Alice Coltrane, Betty Davis. But there’s a certain level of rawness that I guess I respond to. I also like a lot of really polished music, but for myself to play, I think that’s something that ties it together, both in terms of my own playing and my taste.
Devin: That’s really interesting. I do think that I think about “genre,” in quotes, differently if I’m playing or if I’m listening. Like, we’ve gone to metal shows before — it’s like you need to eat some potato chips. Like, “I need to hear some death metal.”
Ava: [Laughs.] Yeah. Who’s that Polish band we went to see?
Devin: Oh, Behemoth.
Ava: I mean this as a compliment — it’s like going to Disneyland. It’s just so dialed in, and so it’s heavy and and gnarly, but it’s so polished in a way and it’s a show. It has sort of a calculated raw sound. Nobody’s really taking risks in that, it’s very much like a production.
Devin: I totally see that. I think in recent years, I’ve become more fascinated by that sort of thing. I saw The Cure recently on their last tour, and they’ve been one of my favorite bands all my life. But they seem to hit a real sweet spot for me of it being like, everybody knows exactly what’s happening all the time, all of their sounds are dialed, but it’s not too polished. They’ll do things a little bit differently night to night in certain places, and if you’re a super nerd for them like I am — I know all the parts in all the songs — it’s like, Oh, that part’s a little different tonight.
Devin: They’re mostly super polished, but there’s just enough looseness that it feels kind of regenerative. Touring with Sharon [Van Etten]’s band, for a while we were getting pretty close to having a dialed in show, where it was the same order of songs every night — because we had a lighting tech, Rosie, and she was doing certain things, and so we were like, “We have to keep things consistent for her.” And it was really interesting for me to be like, OK, we have to keep things in line for this other element to work. That was an interesting challenge for me, and for all of us, really. But I understood the aesthetic of why we were doing it. It felt like it had a bigger purpose as putting on a show, but it wasn’t strictly about music, and I found that very fascinating.
Ava: Yeah. I definitely enjoy seeing music like that. I just think as a player, I don’t know if it suits me necessarily. Having done music for theater a bunch, which is similar, where the actors are reacting to the musical cues and vice versa and it has to be really dialed in — I really love that. But I think part of what I love is that framework — like, you have 30 seconds exactly to do something, but it can vary slightly night to night. It doesn’t have to be a big variation for me to be happy. But you can find ways to be in that skeleton and do your part and keep it fresh.
Devin: Totally. That’s similar to how Fred Frith will construct music, where there’s specific things happening, but within there, there’s a freedom. I guess that’s one of the other things we were talking about, how we both tend to write certain kinds of forms sometimes for certain music. What I’m fascinated by is all these different ways of organizing music, organizing sound. And so I think at this point in my life, I’m as fascinated by very open-ended free improvisation as I am by a really good pop band, because in both ways I feel a little like Dr. Spock, because I can kind of be like, Hmm, that’s an interesting approach. I kind of nerd out just a little bit on how different people organize their music, because everybody has their things.
Devin: Do you think about form formally? Like as you’re sitting down to write music, or you have a germ of an idea or something, do you think about form already at that point? Or does form get constructed out of the different segments later?
Ava: It really helps me if I have some concept of the form going in. Otherwise I’ll get too all over the place as a writer and kind of chase my own tail. With “Diablada,” for example, I thought, I just want to write a head and people are going to solo and then there’s a head out — just the most traditional jazz form, even though in some ways it doesn’t sound like that. But formally it is that and so I gave myself that parameter and then did it.
And with “Interwhining,” I’m allowed to have a couple different sections in this one and then maybe it’ll end differently. We’re not just going to play the head out. And so with those limitations, I wrote something where I think it’s like A, B, C, more or less, and then what we play going out is kind of C1 or something. It’s like a different version of C. But it helps me to think in bricks like that — you know, how many bricks am I going to have, how many sections am I going to have? Otherwise, I’ll just start writing and I’ll be up to, like, the P, Q, R, S sections and I won’t have stopped myself. It’ll just get too all over the place. So I like to think of form first and think, I’m going to write something like this, and then kind of fill in the blocks.
Devin: That’s interesting actually, because you kind of know the structure that you’re going for.
Ava: Yeah. Sometimes I’ll just come up with a bass line or a melody and I’ll think, Alright, the way to develop this would be to put this many other sections on it, or maybe it just stands alone. I’ll write something intuitively, staring out the window, and then kind of decide what form makes sense for it.
Devin: Right. I guess different pieces kind of have their own logic somehow, internally. Different music maybe wants to go different places, different vibes or whatever.
Ava: Yeah. If you write something that’s new to you and unlike anything you’ve written before, maybe you need to figure out a new kind of form approach for it.
Devin: That’s a good idea. That’s an interesting thought.
Ava: What about you?
Devin: Well, I think on the songs on this record… A lot of my writing lately has been kind of formal, in a weird sort of way. I can tell that subconsciously I’m trying to do something — I think I’m trying to teach myself some things, or learn some things, or maybe justify the fact that I never went to music school.
Ava: Please don’t. [Laughs.] Let me put it in a petition for you to not do that.
Devin: [Laughs.] It’s too late for me. But I feel like on both “Dyscalculia” and the song “Babel-17” on this record, I was thinking consciously about early 20th century formalism.
Ava: That makes so much sense.
Devin: Yeah, like Schoenberg and Bartok, and I’m obsessed with the Mikrokosmos. I practiced that music a lot, and over the pandemic, I taught myself how to play upright bass and cello tuning. Anyway, I ended up realizing that both of those pieces are like that. They’re very much left hand, right hand, doing very specific things. One song, left hand is taking over — “Babel-17” is more left hand lead.
“Dyscalculia” — in the main section of the song, the bassline is a 12 tone cycle, and the guitar part is a 12 tone cycle, and the sax part that’s a harmony is also a 12. So they’re all 12 tone cycles that create harmonies that hopefully doesn’t sound as atonal. That kind of stuff is really fun for me. And so starting that as an experiment, then it’s like, OK, well, now how do I make this not sound quite so much like an exercise? Then the kind of metal part comes in. So everything kind of led to each other, because then the metal parts [were] like, Oh, that’d be a fun way to break up this tension. And then also you’re like, Well, I need to relieve the tension, so there’s that more soaring part after the 12 tone section.
I think that’s what ends up happening a lot — I’ll come up with one part, and then I’ll be like, Well, how do I contrast this? Or where does this go? But I think almost everything I write comes from one theme or one conscious idea. And then I try to think about what I would want to have happen as a listener, if it was either contrast, or maybe if it’s a nice vibe, just go with it.
Ava: One thing that I noticed form-wise for both of us — I mean, I’ll say this first about both of us as writers: I think our writing is really distinct, and that that’s one of the reasons that it was exciting to me to co-lead a band with you, because I think they’re complementary in a certain way. We’re different from each other, but something we share is we love rhythmic music, and pretty complex rhythmic music, but then we also love to sort of break that down into completely free playing where it’s out of time and probably atonal and super noisy. And I realized that one form that both of us use on the record quite a bit is kind of like, A, B, C, maybe a D blob. And by blob, I mean wide open, like anything could happen. It’s not a designated solo area and nobody’s necessarily leading it, it’s collective playing. And usually I think for both of us, it goes pretty out of time. Like on “Dyscalculia,” and I think on “The Stumble,” it’s kind of the case for you. “Stumble” maybe stays a bit more in time.
Devin: Yeah. Well, funnily enough, “Stumble” to me is like an attempt at doing a whole tone — just because Thelonious Monk loves whole tones — but kind of like a whole tone-ish 7/4 vamp. Actually, the start of that bassline is from a punk band I had decades ago. But anyway, I always try — not successfully — to keep some semblance of the form on that song. And one thing I think is interesting is when that seems to be a lost cause.
Devin: To me, that creates a really interesting tension. And it’s a similar tension in a way — when you’re trying to keep a form, but it might not be being kept — to those earlier Andrew Hill recordings.
Ava: Oh, sure.
Devin: You can hear this energy in the recording, and I think part of what’s so exciting — I don’t know if this is how they felt, but it feels like they’re trying to hang on to a hot potato.
Ava: I think of a lot of early jazz as being like that, a lot of New Orleans jazz being more about the collective playing, and it’s not necessarily one person taking a solo. Many people are elaborating on the melody and kind of doing counterpoint. And then sometimes the form isn’t totally the form in a beautiful way.
Devin: Yeah, exactly. I guess that’s kind of what you were saying earlier too — maybe it’s in that same vein of, there’s a real excitement to people playing at the edge of their ability. I think one of the reasons I’m glad I didn’t go to music school — it’s kind of like what you’re saying about [how with] some metal bands, sometimes it’s really great and really dialed in, but it’s almost not quite as heavy because it’s so dialed in. I think it’s the same thing with a lot of jazz derived music. As soon as you codify something, you kind of lose some of that spirit. When I was playing jazz for a living — which I haven’t played a proper jazz gig in ages, and I couldn’t if my life depended on it right now — but when I was doing that, I was very obsessed with keeping the form and keeping the rhythms right and the time and stuff. And that creates a certain kind of energy, but I think one of the great skills of an actually great jazz player is you have to think about that, but only so much.
Ava: Yeah, right. You have to be able to let it go.
Devin: You have to let it go.
(Photo Credit: left, J Houston)