May 1, 2009

VIVA DECONCINI—A.K.A. “VIVA”—IS A NEW York City-based guitarist and vocalist with a solid groove and a dramatic flair, who honed her rhythmic and performance chops during a six-year stint with legendary Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista’s Beat the Donkey ensemble. “A lot of my music is theatrical, and my style of guitar playing is theatrical,” says Viva. “So it made sense for me to apprentice with Cyro, because the Brazilians are very heavy on groove, and costumes, and the presentation of a complete spectacle. For the first two years, I just played the bass drum or sordu—the heartbeat of the samba—which grounded me in holding things down.”

While touring with Beat the Donkey, Viva played alongside the brilliant saxophonist and composer Peter Apfelbaum, who eventually asked her to join his avant-jazz big band, the New York Hieroglyphics. “You have to be rhythmically strong to play with Cyro,” says Apfelbaum. “Viva has incorporated that Afro-Brazilian sensibility into her playing—sometimes even playing her guitar with a saba stick—and that’s why she works so well with Hieroglyphics, which is heavily rhythm-based. She also has that real rocker spirit, which is great.”

Viva’s latest CD, Electric Cabaret Volume One & Volume Two, kicks off with five smoking pieces arranged by Apfelbaum and performed by the horn-driven Hieroglyphics, followed by nine smaller-scale songs, ranging from the loungey “Like Any Other Human” to the Carl Perkinsapproved “No, I Didn’t” to the pedal-steel and mariachi horn-infused ballad “Waltz for My Mother.”

As if the aforementioned workload wasn’t eclectic enough, Viva also gets her Mick Ronson on with Ziggy Starlet and the Spiders From Venus, an all-female David Bowie tribute band.

Your playing covers a lot of stylistic ground. What is your musical background and who were your primary guitar influences?

I went to this kooky Montessori school where one teacher taught everything, including how to play the guitar. My teacher sold me a Gibson SG Junior and a Randall Commander II amplifier, which I mostly used to play Beatles songs. When he got arrested for tax evasion, I transferred to public school, where I played in the jazz band, and wore a polyester shirt and a yellow dickey.

My biggest influence was Jimi Hendrix, particularly for his ability to convey emotions using his instrument, but also obviously for all of the amazing things he did technically, and the huge variety of sounds that he produced. I also loved Brian May—Queen was very theatrical—as well as Jimmy Page for his riffs, and Eddie Van Halen for the excitement he brought to his playing. And sometimes I feel as if you can’t play anything on the guitar without sounding like Chuck Berry, because he was so influential.

Some critics have compared you to Carlos Santana.

I love Santana, but I think those may have been people that heard me playing Brazilian music and didn’t know the difference between samba and salsa, so they just thought “Santana.” There was a time when Cyro actually played with Santana, though, and after the gig he called to say that he liked playing with me better [laughs].

Is that a real ’60s Pink Paisley Telecaster you’re playing on the CD cover?

No, it’s a Japanese-made reissue. I used that guitar for everything on the album except on the song “Alive,” but for the past four months I’ve been playing a 1980s Gibson SG Standard made in Nashville. I switched because the buzz from the singlecoils in the Tele was an issue, especially when I was singing a song with wide dynamics. Things would get really quiet, and the guitar would go, nnnnnnnnt.

That’s a big change tone-wise.

I used to prefer the Tele’s rhythm sound, but after playing the SG a while I am satisfied with the rhythm sounds it makes—and it’s screaming for lead! The SG was tweaked in some mysterious way before I bought it. I took it to [guitar tech] Bob Jones to check out and he said, “I don’t know what they did, but it works.”

Did you change string gauges?

No, I use D’Addario .010 sets on both guitars.

What do you play through?

I use a Headstrong Lil’ King Reverb, which is basically a replica of a ’64 Fender Princeton Reverb. I can’t play through large amps because I can’t stand to turn them up. I used a Mesa/Boogie Rocket 44 in Beat the Donkey, which was okay, but that was a really loud band that played on huge stages. Usually, if I plug into a Marshall stack and turn it up to three, I feel like it is too loud, and yet I’m not getting the tone that the amp was meant to deliver. With the small amp, I can crank it up to five or six and get a really big sound.

Then how do you get those heavily distorted solo tones?

On the album I used the Rocket 44’s distortion— which I love—but now I’m using a Fulltone Full-Drive 2 and an MJM Blues Devil. I’ve also got a basic Dunlop CryBaby wah and a Line 6 Echo Park delay, and I can get almost every sound I need using just those four pedals. My only other pedal is a Moogerfooger MF-102 Ring Modulator, which creates all sorts of spacey sounds, like the big canon-type blasts that go off during the solo on “Psalm 39.”

The Ring Modulator can be challenging to use live. Can you offer any tips?

Get at least one expression pedal. I use two—one to control the Rate and one to control the Frequency—which really provides a lot of control, and lets me play it like an instrument. Of course, using a bunch of pedals at once can get tricky, almost like dancing.

Standing can be difficult when you’re using both feet to manipulate pedals. Do you ever sit down?

I can’t sit down.

What have you learned from working with Peter Apfelbaum?

Peter really taught me about harmony. For example, there were up to five horn parts in the arrangements of my songs on the album, and while mixing, I could listen to individual parts to hear how the voices moved harmonically in relation to each other. Another thing is that when playing Peter’s music I would often double the bass line, which helped me more fully understand the function of the bass within complex music. Of course, sometimes the guitar can serve a similar function. I was in an Afro-beat band for three years, and I’d play the same muted guitar lines over and over for about 15 minutes. Things didn’t change much harmonically, but the sound was so groovy!

You mix a lot of things up when soloing. Are you intentionally blending particular scales, or do you play more by feel?

More by feel. I’ve learned a lot of scales, obviously, but I seldom think of them while I’m soloing. My improvisations tend to be more rhythmical than melodic, because there’s nothing like locking in with a great bassist and drummer—though occasionally I play composed solos that are more melodic, like Brian May might do. As far as mixing up scales goes, I went to the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music for a while, and the founder, Arnie Lawrence, told me that there’s really only one scale, which is the chromatic scale—and I kind of took that to heart.

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