Nowadays, music across genres and chart location is all a synthesis. There’s no one untouched musical landscape, and they all seemingly blend together because certain bands have crossed certain lines. No one is more familiar with this than Carlos Hernandez. Growing up the son of a soul DJ (“My father probably wouldn’t tell me if he didn’t like the music itself,” Hernandez said. “I think he’s just happy I’m doing it at all”), Hernandez is a producer and musician who has seemingly struck on a veritable landmine of musical creativity that is one part soul and one part indie Brooklyn noise.
Ava Luna, made up of Hernandez and friends Nathan Tompkins (synthesizer), Alex Smith (drums), and back-up singers Felicia Douglass and Siheun Song, have created a dynamic where the doo-wop of the ’60s and the messy electronic chaos of Justice and The Pop Group meet. In fact, a write-up from the band describes them as “James Brown arranging beats on a broken computer.” Their song “Four Five (I Will Survive)” is the feather in the band’s cap. It’s a tune that sees Hernandez croon along like Sam Cooke with a punk flair while the ladies harmonize in high pitch chirps like pin-ups from the ’40s, and Smith and Tompkins create this truly sinister and genuinely unnerving set of crunchy guitar-esque synths that are punctuated with the semi-rhythmic, always primal drums.
“It took years of performing with Ava Luna — with laptop beats, banjo ballads, prog freakouts, projector experiments — to settle on this sound,” Hernandez said. “As a band, we needed to strip away everything extraneous… and as a songwriter, I had to sort through my own upbringing, and decide which musical instincts and ideas were legit and which weren’t.”
If you’re thinking chaos when listening to the sounds of Ava Luna, you’re right, even if you’re missing the point. The point is to kind of blur the lines and work that confusion to their advantage. That kind of ambiguity and uncertainty seemingly fuel the work of the band. In fact, they go so far as having the instruments and vocalists rehearse separately. With Ava Luna, the audience is meant to squirm.
“I spend most of my time squirming,” Hernandez said. “People have been incredibly supportive. Definitely a few blank stares… but mostly shakers. The last show we played, people actually sang along. It freaked me out.”
That level of discomfort probably stems from Hernandez’s work as a producer for acts like Fucked Up. But his boundary-free existence as a musical entity isn’t just a great cheap thrill, used to draw in fans with a schizophrenic sound that gets old soon. The band’s music is not the same hectic crunch and angelic vocals each time. Sure, songs like “(Do Me No Wrong) While I Am Gone” and “We Were Young” continue the marching orders, but their beauty lies in the technical prowess of Hernandez. They’re built well enough that you’re waiting to see how things unfold, whether the light and dark elements crash into each other and burn up or build something wonderful (usually the latter). But then they make a song like “Girlies”, which is still and quiet and amps the cherub vocals to the front. The joy comes from watching it all unfold in front of you.
“In both of those positions (producer and artist), the audience plays a huge role,” Hernandez said. “I’ve found the performer in me influencing the producer more than the other way around. Lately I’ve been into live recordings, trying to capture the sound of a band in a room, whereas a little while ago I was totally into studio tricks.”
While the music is a struggle, lyrically the band is pretty set in its ways. It’s all kinds of standard R&B fare; love, loss, being forlorn, general life regrets. Even with the wall of distortion to deal with, the vocals do their best to come off as real and genuine. The words are almost a buoy in the angry ocean brewing around you. But that decision is more out of limitation than any other artistic decision.
“At the end of the day, music has to be about expression,” Hernandez said. “You can get yourself tangled up in experiments until you’re blue, but not when it interferes with actual songwriting. That being said, I’m no poet; it’s hard enough just to find a few words to express myself, much less try to make them un-traditional.”
And through all the descriptors and the clashing genres, Hernandez said he makes no bones that what he wants is really simple: To make music that pulls from a diverse life, something most musicians have but often complicate with titles. Titles like Ava Luna being an art band because the group lives in New York’s hippest borough and puts on a near-revivalist show of three-piece suits covered in passionate sweat. For Hernandez, music is too important to be over-labeled.
“We’re not an art rock band, but I don’t think that’s a negative term either,” Hernandez said. “Bad slants come when artistic ideas are used to justify bad music. Sometimes music and art should coexist, other times they shouldn’t. I’ve found that people without huge backgrounds in music are less likely to demand a descriptive label. Just call it pop music.”