A Different Kind of Listening: An Interview with Sandy Ewen
There are few musicians in Houston who explore the depths of music in the same manner as Sandy Ewen. As an improvisational guitarist, Ewen is known for employing implements such as chalk, rocks and other objects to create her unique soundscapes. While many people may not be familiar with the realities of improvisational music, Ewen has made it her business to promote the medium for the people who dedicate themselves to it, as well as those who appreciate its beauty. Free Press Houston was lucky enough to sit down with Ewen to discuss her development as an artist, the state of the improvisational music scene in the city and where she would like to see it go.
FPH: How did you get involved in improvisational music?
Sandy Ewen: I met up with Dave Dove when I was in high school. My family moved to Texas, out in Katy, from Delaware. I’ve always been interested in stuff that was always kind of a bit out of the ordinary. I started playing music with [Nameless Sound founder] David Dove’s youth ensemble at MECA [Multicultural Education and Counseling Through the Arts] and then I graduated high school in 2003 and went to Austin where I started a duo with Tom Carter, who’s a really great guitar player. Then he moved to California and I played with The Weird Weeds for about a decade while I was in Austin. I moved back to Houston and kept playing with them. I graduated architecture school in 2008 and I’ve been working here in Houston ever since and I’ve been playing music the whole time.
FPH: How would you describe Houston’s improvisational music scene?
Ewen: For a city of its size, it’s small, but it seems like it’s growing. It’s kind of multi-faceted. You’ve got the noise crew, who just lost [Black Leather Jesus‘] Richard [Ramirez-Matzus] because he just moved to Pittsburgh, which is great for them and I’m happy for people to move on, but they were a real pillar of that. There’s the Dave Dove corner of the improv world that I’m part of, but also I do other stuff. There’s other people who are somewhere between noise and improv, the experimental scene, like Joshua Cordova and those kids. There’s lots of different corners of it. I think it’s growing and it’s healthy, but [bassist] Damon [Smith] is about to move, which is a bummer. He’s moving to Boston in August. That’s going to shape things because he was good at bringing different people through town, like Weasel Walter, for example. Like any city, it shifts. It tends to shift more dramatically because it’s a smaller scene, so there’s not really much hierarchy to work your way through. If you just want to set up a show and do whatever you want, there’s nothing stopping anyone.
FPH: Is there anything you’d want to see change in the scene in the way that you’d want it to grow?
Ewen: Finding venues that are quiet and well air conditioned and open to music is a struggle. We play a lot of shows at Avant Garden, which this time of year is too hot upstairs. We like to turn off the air conditioner because it’s really loud and then everyone’s just cooking. I like to do shows at Khon’s, but the room is a little small. It’s just not an ideal room for music. I’ve been doing house party concerts at my parents’ house, but that’s not really ideal because it’s my parents’ house [laughs]. It would be good to have a nice space that we could do shows at for free. There’s really no money in this music. You can bring in a nice group of people, but who will buy beer? The improv scene likes to drink beer. [laughs] We can’t be paying a venue and it’s got to be quiet. Some of these things happen every once in a while, but that’s really the biggest problem. That and I guess there is a bit of a brain drain. You see Damon taking off and Richard and Sean taking off. I mean, there’s people who move into the city and I think as a whole, it’s moving in the right direction and there’s a lot of promising young people, but it would be nice to see more people interested in performing and organizing things.
We also need record labels. I’ve been trying to release some stuff, basically because I want to have music out for the people of the world to listen to. It’s a lot of work because you have to put out promo copies, you have to get things pressed. You’re probably going to make your money back eventually, but it’s not a lucrative business. There’s no reason for someone to do it except if you release your own projects, so that’s what I’m doing. Anything that I’m doing for myself, someone could do that for themselves, too. You can do it yourself, but it would be nice if there was more attention paid to the scene, or just more people working to promote it. When I show up in other cities to play music, everyone’s like, “Well, what are you doing in Houston?” [I say] “Well, I live here.” I like the scene, but we need to work to make it more visible so people are aware that there’s actually music here.
FPH: What drew you to your instrument and your sound?
Ewen: I guess when I started playing guitar, I started off playing indie rock stuff and Velvet Underground covers. I was improvising with people and it just seemed like with the context of improvisation, I think you’d have to be an incredibly fluid guitar player to play regular chord changes and regular guitar as reactive, so I found other sounds that were more textured, using implements, because you can react to people faster.
FPH: What do you find appealing about improvisational music?
Ewen: I like the community of it. I like listening to it. It fills a different space than traditional music. I think it throws people off at first because people expect something to tap their foot to, something that they can remember the hook when they leave and hum it to themselves. It’s not like that, but it fills a more meditative space in a way. If you’re listening to it, or especially performing it, you’re so focused on that sound and the subtlety of it. It’s a different kind of listening and you kind of become that sound and live in it. When it’s great, it’s great, and it’s hard to listen to without focus. I used to get mad at Damon for listening to it in the car because you can’t hear it. It’s not where it lives. I think it really lives in a live performance. Recordings are good, too, but I think the live performances force you to be attentive, you actually have to sit there. You can check your cell phone or whatever, but you’re ruining it for yourself. If you can be present in a place and a time and listen and be a human in a room with a bunch of other humans, all focused on the same thing. It’s more like a movie or a soundtrack to a movie, it can bring you along for that journey. If you get distracted, you’re not on that journey.
Sandy Ewen will perform alongside B L A C K I E at House of Creeps (807 William) at 9 pm on Saturday, July 9. Show Me The Body, Mouthing and Ak’chamel will also perform and tickets for the show are $5.