The last time Ayla Tesler-Mabe connected with Guitar World, the Vancouver-based guitarist was stoked to be testing out a metal-as-hell Cort KX500 for a YouTube review.
While she chunked her way through hard-rock moments with that six-string, the funk player is back to coursing impressionistic, pinky-flicking runs on a long-trusted Fender Duo Sonic when she reconnects over Zoom to discuss her band’s new Grown? EP.
Building off a strong, cosmic strut of neo-soul singles issued between 2019 and early 2021, this spring’s eight-song Grown? is quite literally the biggest release from Ludic yet.
True-to-form, Tesler-Mabe puts forth plenty of pep-heavy, Waza Craft Chorus-crushed rhythmic plinking throughout the release, but the EP also takes stylistic turns towards morning dew bossa nova (Judge Me) and a pair of slow jams.
Alongside bassist Max Cunningham and drummer Rhett Cunningham, the trio ultimately ties things together through various coming-of-age vignettes that navigate the transition from teens to early 20s.
On Frankie, a soul ballad flecked with rainbow swaths of effects-heavy texturalism, Tesler-Mabe takes stock of a tanking relationship (“Just because you have a bad day, doesn’t mean you can hurt me forever”) – she punctuates the candor with quicksilver pentatonic fluidity.
“I try not to dwell on anger or grief for too long. I always try to get to some positive emotions for myself – and even if there’s been a falling out, I try to find some empathy for the person. But it’s fun to write a song when you’re in that angry place,” Tesler-Mabe says of the feelings stirred up by Frankie. “That’s what art is about, right?”
Speaking with Guitar World, Tesler-Mabe and the Cunninghams further got into the musical, tonal, and personal evolution Ludic experienced while making Grown?
Ludic has been rolling with a singles-first approach for the past few years. Had you consciously put together the eight songs from Grown? as an EP?
Max Cunningham: “We just kind of write songs, but as we were recording these, it all worked together in some capacity. We had a general theme in terms of the subject matter.”
Ayla Tesler-Mabe: “Our singles were all in their own individual worlds as we went through them – they were pretty different. We had a couple of songs from that batch of singles that we hadn’t put out [yet], and we noticed there was a through-line, like Max was saying – this coming-of-age essence to them. It ended up tying together quite nicely.”
If those previous songs existed in their own worlds, how do you see the songs on Grown? linking together, from a tonal perspective?
Ayla: “With some of the singles, we played around with more extreme production, because why not? But these songs have a more organic nature to them; they’re definitely more vulnerable, which fits nicely with the subject matter.
“That being said, some songs have noticeable ‘80s production choices, combined with a modern funk and R&B approach; some songs are maybe more in the realm of an Emily King kind of soul ballad.”
With respect to that question mark in the EP title, Ayla, how do you feel you’ve grown as a player since Ludic’s last single, 2021’s Digital Release?
Ayla: “I’ve grown in accepting the parts of my playing that make it unique, while also realizing what my limitations are – limitations as far as what doesn’t come naturally, and what I’m not interested in developing.
“There are a lot of players out [there] who can do things that I can’t, but I want to master my own corner of the Ayla universe, you know? What can I tap into to make my playing so unique that someone can identify me as the player by hearing the guitar work? I think the guitar, as a production element, can be that much more individual and expressive than other production elements. I like tapping into that.”
Max and Rhett, can you get into the dynamics of the rhythm section? Was there an inherent brotherly bond that had developed before you’d met Ayla?
Rhett Cunningham: “Max and I played in another band beforehand, and we were taking lessons from the same music teacher, so we’ve played together a lot – and a lot of that learning was done jamming together.”
Max: “Like you said, it’s brotherly. We don’t have to say much to each other; we just know what the other wants to do. Ayla’s fit really well into that, too.”
Ayla: “A lot of telepathy! It’s so funny, when we first met there’d be these moments where you guys would just know what the other person was thinking without even looking at each other – you’d stop or put shots in at the same time. I’m so happy that I’ve tapped into that radio signal wavelength.”
Ayla, getting back to what you’d said about having a uniquely identifiable stylistic approach, there’s a funk-heavy backbone to your playing throughout Grown?, but a big pivot from that is the lithe, acoustic finger-picking that starts off the EP’s first single, Judge Me. Can you get into that side of your style?
Ayla: “I’ve always loved Latin American-style playing, coming from a very Argentinean/Chilean background. That’s been a huge part of my musical upbringing. It’s wonderful to bring that in when it suits the song. I think the demo that Max had originally concocted was in that style, but I remember we made it very explicit in the studio. All of a sudden, we were in a bossa nova sort-of groove.”
Max: “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I remember [EP producer] Ryan [Worsley] was like, ’Let’s do it in 7/8!’”
Ayla: “We tried it in a weirder time signature.”
Max: “It was a little too much.”
In the front end of Judge Me, Max, are those slippery bass runs on a stand-up?
Max: “We stuck a mute behind the strings to give it an acoustic vibe and that fingered texture. I really like that sound; it comes out real nice in the intro.”
Ayla, you got a little love from Duran Duran recently when they reposted a short, fretless bass cover you’d done of Rio on their TikTok. Can you get into your sense of rhythm on the bass, and whether that approach is any different than your rhythmic funk playing on a six-string?
Ayla: “Max is completely fluent on the bass and the guitar, and one thing you notice if you watch him play is he’s just oozing groove. I realized a couple years ago, when we started to play together, that groove is something that should exist on every instrument you’re playing.
“It’s definitely a side of guitar playing that can easily be neglected. If you’re a good bass player, you have to know how to sit in the pocket to serve the song. I have to do that in my guitar playing, [too]… because the type of music that I love is completely about groove.
“I love how you can sort of check your work on the bass, where you’re so exposed on whether you’re in the groove or not. If I think I’m developing a good groove on a guitar – I’ll check my work on the bass to make sure that I can play it in the pocket. You can’t really hide from that on the bass. If I notice progress, then it’s the go-ahead to keep doing what I’m doing on the guitar.”
Max, can you get into how you’re developing your own sense of rhythm within Ludic? On a piece like Grown?’s thoughts of u, you’re dovetailing around Ayla’s playing before you both lock into the staccato syncopation of the outro.
Max: “We just wanted to play something funky. That was the idea with the ending: how do we transition into something cool and bring the energy up? It’s a syncopated thing; it’s fun and funky.”
Ayla: “What’s funny about that is originally it was in 5/4 – this weird, almost prog thing we went into. We used to do it live a lot, with the idea that it would be this Abbey Road I Want You (She’s So Heavy) outro where it gets kind of messed-up [in the studio]; maybe there would be a big cutoff. But it didn’t feel good in the studio. You want there to be some satisfying release and arrival point at the end. The ending that we settled on just feels good to play. It made so much more sense.”
That kind of connects to how you scaled Judge Me back from 7/8 – maybe that speaks to Ludic locking into a more traditional groove?
Ayla: “4/4 hits, though! There’s so much you can do with syncopation, even if it’s in 4/4.”
With some of your lead playing in mind, on Frankie, there’s this really fluid, cutaway run you pull off right before the second chorus. It’s somehow both understated and one of the busier moments in your playing on this EP.
Ayla: “It’s one of those things where you can end on a minor 9 chord and just descend on the pentatonic. It’s something Max does a lot, but maybe it came from Melanie Faye – she’s famous for those runs with just her pinky. That’s basically all it is, just descending with your pinky as you’re barring the chord.
“I tried so many different fills [on Frankie]. We tracked the song live at first, and every time I was trying different R&B type fills as we went. That one seemed to work the best in that spot.”
Do you have any favorite pieces of gear at the moment?
Ayla: “I’m desperately trying to get my hands on a baritone guitar. It might’ve been [listening to] Mark Lettieri where I [figured out] how good it sounds; the Fearless Flyers stuff he’s playing on a baritone guitar just sounds insanely good.
“From there, I realized how many cool songs from the past have also used baritone guitars. It has this character you can’t achieve any other way. It’s just so rich. I love it. I’m trying to get a Squier Cabronita; it’s like a Telecaster but baritone.”
Max, what’s your general setup?
Max: “Just my Fender Pro Jazz. That goes into a DigiTech Whammy occasionally, and that’ll go to a compressor or a multi-effects pedal to get some weird stuff happening in the live show. For recording it’s super-simple, though. Just the bass and we’ll add [plugins] after.”
Ayla: “The classic is the Growler preset in the Helix. It sounds like a weird synth.”
Max: “The Growler is pretty dope, so I’ll use that for solos.”
Is a lot of the synth-like presence on the EP more of a textural manipulation of guitars and bass, then?
Max: “I wish it were, in a way, but we try and marry [synths] with all the instruments.”
Ayla: “One exception, though: the organ sound at the beginning of Frankie is the Electro-Harmonix POG, where you can get some pretty cool variants in pitch by adding upper octaves. That was all guitar.”
Outside of Ludic, Ayla, you had that big guest spot on Willow Smith’s album last year, when you added a solo to Come Home. How did you end up playing on that track?
Ayla: “It was pretty organic. One day I noticed that she had posted a picture she had drawn of me on her Instagram, which was wild. From there we started messaging each other. We did meet one time when Calpurnia [Tesler-Mabe’s earlier pop-rock group with Stranger Things actor Finn Wolfhard] was playing a show in Brooklyn.
“During the pandemic, I was just wondering how she was doing, so I thought I might as well reach out and see. We were talking about books we were reading, and whatever else we were up to.
“I wanted to know if she was working on any new music, just because I’m a fan of what she does. She said she had been, which I was excited about. Then she said, ‘By the way, maybe you could lay down a verse and a solo on a track?’ I was like ‘OK!’ – as if I wasn’t already excited enough that she was releasing new music.
“A couple weeks later, she sent the track over and said 'do whatever you want!' To have that trust from someone I respect so much is obviously unbelievable; it was such an honor.
“I tracked it at [Vancouver’s] Echoplant, where Ludic records with Ryan Worsley and Dave, our sound guy and engineer. They helped me make sure it sounded as good as it possibly could, and I sent it back over.”
Now sitting back with Ludic’s biggest release yet, how do you look back on the making of the Grown? EP?
Max: “I think, overall, we’ve learned more about ourselves through the process [of making the EP] – learning about ourselves as musicians, writers, friends, and individuals. Pretty much every aspect of growing up is within this record.”
- Ludic's latest EP Grown? is out now.