By: Gary Eiferman
The acoustic guitar duo Mixed Doubles creates a quiet storm of free flowing music. Their compositions travel various directions into folk, rock, jazz, and classical modes, leaving listeners hanging on to their intricate interplay. Lisa Liu and Justin Gonzales, representing Brooklyn and Queens respectively, have been together for the past 3 years playing in various venues and public spaces. Their debut full-length EP, Unforced Errors, will be released through Naxos/Composers Concordance May 24th. I spoke to them shortly after their performance at HiFi Records in Astoria.
PTM: How/ when did you two meet, and under what circumstances? How long have you been playing together?
LL: I first met Justin in 2007 or 2008. We were in different bands at the time, and I saw him play with Pet Ghost Project at Bushwick Open Studios. I was really impressed with J’s playing and presence on stage. Eventually in 2011, I asked J to play in my indie band, Magnetic Island. After an onset of tinnitus in 2012, I wanted to do an acoustic project for the sake of my ears. J would come over to my place, and we started jamming out, and the songs came out naturally. This project was very rehabilitative, as it brought me back to playing music. I chose the name Mixed Doubles after seeing J play in a tennis tournament, Battle of the Boroughs, in Flushing.
JG: I felt the same way at that show where we met! I was blown away watching Lisa’s band at the time, Renminbi. I admired her music and talents from afar, so it was an honor when she asked me to join Magnetic Island. From that came Mixed Doubles, which did have its therapeutic beginnings, but now is its own entity. She really hit the nail on the head with the band name; I think it fits what we do perfectly. I didn’t do too well at that tournament she mentioned, but at least we got a band name and identity out of it.
PTM: Where does the composing process come from? How much is improvised if at all?
LL: Usually one of us comes in with a riff. We’ll play around and jam on it, and then the subsequent parts fall into place. About 40-50% of the songs are improvised, and the rest are definite “parts.”
PTM: Is there a difference between playing live and recording? What happens when rehearsing for a show or recording?
LL: Playing live is a lot looser in my opinion; I love feeding off the energy of the audience. There’s definitely a dialogue happening between us and the crowd. Recording is a bit more stressful since we’re under the microscope. Since we’ve been recording the albums by ourselves, we also have to manage engineering the sessions, too. But I’m really happy with how Unforced Errors turned out. I think the album captures our spirit.
JG: Yes, self-recording comes with its own set of challenges, but it’s nice to say at the end of the day that you did it all yourself. And the recordings for Unforced Errors are probably our best results with this process. We’re not ruling out going to a traditional studio in the future, but recording ourselves has gotten better and better each time. As for playing live, that’s the fun part, though I will admit I feel the most exposed with this band than any other, especially in the band’s initial stages. No thundering drums, effects, nor volume to hide behind. I saw it more as a challenge than anything else though, and Lisa helps guide and push me in the right direction. I’ve reached a relaxed but uneasy comfort level, which I’m happy with.
PTM: Who are your main influences as musicians and guitarists? How far back does your immersion in music go?
LL: I started playing classical piano when I was 6, and composers such as Debussy and Brahms had a huge influence on me — especially in terms of long-form composition. I also play a lot of jazz; Django Reinhardt, Martin Taylor, Marc Ribot, Jerry Garcia, Mimi Fox, and Grant Greene are among the guitarists I love.
JG: I started with piano lessons at 12 and picked up the guitar on my own at 13. Music didn’t really click with me until I had one music teacher who encouraged me to learn music I was interested in. That opened a lot of doors afterwards. As for influences, I love artists and musicians who are fearless and push boundaries: Neil Young, David Bowie (slowly discovering his work), St. Vincent for modern times, even filmmakers like Kubrick. I gravitate towards those traits in guitarists as well: Derek Bailey, Jonny Greenwood, Robbie Basho, Leo Kottke. Lisa turned me on to Tommy Emmanuel; he’s top notch.
PTM: What do you feel is different or a progression in the new album from past releases?
LL: I think we finally figured out a recording technique that works for us now, where each of us is mic’ed separately. On our old recordings, we would both play into one mic, and that was really hard to get the right balance. Also over time, I think our compositions have gotten more complex structurally and harmonically.
JG: We’ve gone from recording ourselves jamming for hours and picking out the best parts, to coming in with fully fledged songs, and everything in between. It’ll be fun to keep experimenting with those composition techniques and try new things.
PTM: Lisa, you are from Southern California. What brought you to NYC? How long have you been here?
LL: The live music scene was a lot more vibrant out here at the time I came to New York. I’ve been here since ’99.
PTM: What other music endeavors are you involved in at the time?
LL: As I mentioned, I play a lot of jazz. I have a weekly Saturday residency at Rosamunde in Williamsburg where I play as part of a jazz guitar duo. I’ve also been asked to play with the revered poet Cornelius Eady & Rough Magic. That project will be releasing a new album later this year. My drummer buddy, Tim McLafferty, and I have also been talking about putting together a jazz/Grateful Dead project. Lastly, I also play in my solo singer-songwriter project called Las Lanas.
JG: I’m in a lot of other projects! Passenger Peru has been a recording project I’ve been passionate about for a few years. DLK is a rock outfit I front, and we’ve been on and off for a long time. I also play guitar for the bands Libel and Oracle Room and gig out with various other musicians throughout the city.
PTM: Do you see Mixed Doubles going in a different direction in the future? Possibly adding more instrumentation, going electric, adding musicians (then you would have to change the name!)?
LL: For right now, I think the essence of Mixed Doubles will remain Justin and me. A few other people have approached us about playing with us, but I don’t think we’ve exhausted the possibilities of the duo situation yet. Justin and I have a special telepathic connection! Perhaps going electric would happen later on down the line, but I like just being able to play acoustically, with my hands doing all the work, without the aid of pedals.
JG: It’s hard at the moment to imagine us adding anyone else. Maybe going electric as Lisa mentioned or having different instrumentation (vocals?), but one of the initial beauties of this still is bringing just one piece of gear to a gig. After years of both of us playing in loud rock bands, it was nice not to have to bring heavy amps and pedals to a show. The immediacy and rawness of acoustic guitars really appealed to us as well. I like to believe it also forces us to be more creative with arrangements and our playing. We don’t wanna mess with a good thing just yet!
PTM: Memorable moments either in performance and/or rehearsal/practice.
LL: Busking in Central Park, playing an acoustic set at Hifi Records, and playing next to a river at the Montague Book Mill in MA!
JG: Busking is where it all started for us! It’s something we still wanna keep doing, along with playing the traditional show in a venue. Having a group of kids join us and interview us while we were busking in Portland, ME was one memorable moment. The Bookmill in Montague was also very magical. In general, improving as a musician and guitarist while playing with Lisa is a big thing.