Interview by Tim Sasscer
I liked the Ex before I even heard them. I don't usually think of myself as susceptible to rock and roll imagery but I saw a picture in the local paper after they had played and I was intrigued. They looked like depression-era farmers, holding electric guitars, snapped just as they pissed on an electric fence. Short hair, short pants, clod-hopper boots, guitars up, guitars down, angles like a Union Jack. Then the article mentioned Dutch anarchists and playing with avant-garde cellists from New York.
My friend Julian had opened for them some years ago (he told me it was common for the Ex to list the opening band over themselves in the local handbills), and he passed along some great tapes. Then I bought Scrabbling At The Lock, and I knew they were a great band. I went through their back catalogue, and was astonished at the effort they put into educating their listeners, with flyers and articles, essays, addresses and comics spilling out of the record jackets.
When they came back to town, I thought I was ready but I wasn't. We made our way to the front, and I thought about the driving rythyms and the politics, the Hungarian folk songs but I wasn't ready.
The Ex exploded into action- the sight and sound was too much to take in at once. The guitarists not only never stoppped moving, but they moved in ways I had never seen before. Hopping, twisting, bumping into or just missing each other, bent at the waist, grinning, sweating, and serious. Tight, stopping on a dime, then back into their interlocking-parts rock noise, then shifting parts again, then silence. Then the next song. The first thing I thought about the drummer was that she wasn't playing any cliches. She was propelling a world-class punk band without resorting to any of the usual suspect drum maneuvres. Then I realized I'd never heard a cowbell so prominent in punk music before. I found I was enjoying myself so much I decided to stop thinking.
I don't think I heard the lyrics until several songs in, but I was peripherally aware of the serious shouter at the front, declaiming loudly, even angrily, yet calmly unmoving, letting the words and the sound of words be his motion. Only during the longish instrumental segments would he jerk about or agitatedly stalk the stage. I got the last shock about halfway into the set, when I noticed that they were communicating with each other about when to take the song to the next section. I could see them debate it with eyes and gestures, with "no's" and shrugs and smiles. "My God," I thought to myself, "they're actually improvising!" It was exhilirating to see and hear, to witness, to share.
They played several times in the next couple of years, impressing me by loading their own equipment, tuning, and then starting their set one night in less than twenty minutes, or opening for Sonic Youth, or hosting an improv night when the cream of Chicago's jazz improv and rock underground got up onstage for a round or two.
The band started in 1979, drawing straws to decide whch instruments to play. They are self-taught, and they have managed to retain and explore their untutored approach to their instruments. Although initially inspired by the first wave of punk, they also drew heavily on local anarchist/squatters movements, and (get ready, anarcho-punksters everywhere) their parents. They took punk into the Iron Curtain, have collaborated with top Dutch jazz musicians, and have seriously investigated punk-jazz improv, including an all-improv album (Instant) and several collaborations in the Fishtank series, with members of Tortoise and Sonic Youth.
The Ex continue to refine and redefine their music. In the last couple of years they have released several albums as a band and in various solo configurations, played in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, toured with an avant-garde big band orchestra playing their own music (The Ex-Orkestra), been the subject of a great documentary (Beautiful Frenzy), lost their bass player of almost 20 years (Luc), replaced him with an avant-garde cellist (RozeMarie), written and rehearsed a completely new set of music, and then toured (September in North America, October in Europe).
What follows is an email correspondence with singer/lyricist Jos, a bit of background, some current thoughts, and hopefully enough of interest to intrigue some new listeners to enter the fray. Also, check out the website, at http://www.xs4all.nl/~exrcrds
PSF: From the beginning, the Ex have had a political conciousness...what was the social situation in Holland/Europe/the world that led to the idea of your band? In other words, it wasn't necessarily the old 'Beatles/pulling girls/misunderstood teen' inspirations that inspired you to rock...or was it?
Jos: Well, these were late '70's... the cold war was still there, the US wanted to put cruise missiles on European soil against Russia, unemployment-rates were high; "no future" was not just a trendy slogan on a pre-torn t-shirt. In Holland, there was a very big activist scene, lots of anti-militarist and anti-imperialist action groups, and the squat movement was amazingly big, too. Plus, a very energetic punk scene. No escaping from that enthusiasm, very inspiring. Punk & squatting & activism went hand in hand together, they all dealt with the same thing: a form of resistance against all the shit that civilization had brought us. I have nothing against civilization (like Mahatma Gandhi said, "western civilization? that sounds like a good idea"), but a lot of the by-products do more harm than good, and we felt it was time we should speak out, and try to change things. No matter the scale... we thought this not the right time anymore to sing silly love songs or how miserable we felt and that we wanted pity. Fuck pity, we wanted a better world- not for a wealthy elite but for all of us. Therefore it was as logical as can be that our lyrics reflected those ideas.
PSF: How would you characterize your background? Were there any experiences that carried with you into your current work in a rock band?
Jos: Me, I didn't have a tough childhood. No problems with parents or school, whatever. My parents had a clothing-shop in the small village of Wormer (10 miles north of Amsterdam). We were not rich, but doing quite okay, I guess. No expensive gifts for my birthday and all, but we could afford my subscription to the soccer club. Nothing special, really. I went to school there, had friends, played cowboys and Indians, went swimming, the usual stuff. It was a friendly environment. Friendly, but once you've turned into your teens, boring too. Nothing to do there. No culture. Terrie and his brother I met at junior high, they came from a similar village nearby. Their father was a (really good) cartoonist annex comics-writer, children's stories. Big jazz fan, outspoken taste. Their mother very nice too. Open minded, modern people, I guess they kinda put us in the right direction, culturally speaking.
PSF: I imagine that taking the band on the road in the early '80's, especially in Eastern Europe, with a van load of propagandistas and electric guitars was quite an education. What surprised you the most about those tours?
Jos: An education it was, is. In retrospect I feel that even more. At the moment that you're doing all those tours you don't always realize it, but once you're looking back at it, it is somehow unbelievable. Four weeks on the road with a crappy van, clumsy sleeping-places (a couch, the dirty floor, the sleeping-bag, no pillow), chaotic venues all over the place, bad coffees, smelly laundry... you certainly get to know your friends that way! As long as everything goes smoothly (and sure, sometimes it did) it's easy, but especially when things get tough (like spending 17 hours at the Czech border while the cold is freezing your ears off), and you manage to not get to each others throats... at those moments you realize how special this band-relationship really is.
What surprised me about thsoe tours is that the audience usually was very open and friendly. Eastern Europe was, at the time, still quite different from where we came from, so you also learned to put your own thoughts and ideas into a different perspective about how to organize your own lives. Like, for instance, in Holland we were all of us on the dole, which meant too much money to starve but just enough to survive. Easy for us to say "fuck work", but in Poland or so... they had no choice, they would kill for a job, they could really use the money.
The surprising thing is, that despite the worse (as far as we could see) circumstances than our own, they DID manage to create an alternative to the situation they were in. Basically the same goals, with different means. A true inspiration.
PSF: The Ex played recently in Addis Abbaba. How did that come about, and how did you think it went over? Where else would you like to take the Ex, and why? South America? India? China?
Jos: In 1996, Terrie and his girl-friend made a roundtrip through Africa, starting in Morocco, all the way down on the westside to South-Africa and up again on the eastside, ending up in Ethiopia and Eritrea. They fell in love with that country, and with its music. Before the trip he had already bumped into this late '60's/early '70's music, which is so astonishingly beautiful, so that when he was there he started to collect all the records and tapes he could find of all these great musicians (Mahmoud Ahmed, Tilahun Gessesse, Alemayehu Eshete, Hirut Bekele, to name a few). Back in Amsterdam he made friends with a couple of Ethiopians. They told us how history had wasted their music, and that the country was still suffering and recovering from a twelve year long Mengistu communist dictatorship that had destroyed most of its culture, and that the nowadays musician could do with some new inspiration, and that our kind of music could help with that. There had never been any rock bands over there anyway, so we were very curious of course. We managed to get funding for the trip, learned a couple of Ethiopian songs also, and toured there for three and a half weeks. It was fantastic. A beautiful country, great food, happy people everywhere, very friendly. They were very curious about our music, very open minded really, and when at the end of the set we played their songs, they went totally berserk. Katrin, who sang most of these songs, was like the queen of Addis Abeba. An amazing experience.
That is the great part of touring... We are partly tourists too of course 'cause we like to see and get to know better other countries and cultures, but this way we can also give them something back. Music is great for that, because it is so direct. It brings people together in an instant, just like that. That's why we like to go also (to) places we haven't been before, for the fun of being there, playing there, and get to know the people, and vice versa, which is good too, for the love, peace and understanding part of it all, as we're not so different from them. So, sure... South America, India, China... Yes, please!
PSF: I love the story of the band deciding on who plays what by drawing straws, but how does an anarcho-punk band write songs? Can you describe the musical philosophy of the Ex, and how it has evolved to include punk, NYC noise, Hungarian folk songs, almost-African riddims, large orchestra and improvisational 'free' jazz? What's next? Unplugged? Techno? Dub?
Jos: What we liked about punk was the idea that everything is possible. You don't have to stick to a format or style, if you want to in- or exclude certain somethings, then just do it. Usually we start from scratch, in the practice room. Someone comes up with a melody, a rhythm, a riff, whatever. The others listen, join in, kind of a jam, we improvise... See if it's going somewhere, I try some vocals, does it fit, make sense. If we feel there's a kind of something in there we record a bit on the mini-disc, while jamming along. We talk about possibilities for the piece, what do want with it, let it rest, next time try again... At a certain point the thing finds a certain shape, we never know on beforehand where it will go to, which is also part of the fun, of course. Sometimes you find yourself in unknown territory, other times you explore areas you already are more or less familiar with. The adventure is no less exciting. Through the years certain elements of other musical styles have crept into ours, the result of the fact that we too get inspired by other musics. When it feels like, hm how you say this, like it suits us or something, and we can make it something of our own, then it might find a place in our music. It's not that we are desperately searching to find these kinds of music, it feels more like these musics find us. Once you bump into it, you might suddenly recognize it as something that might fit with what you want to do with your music.
PSF: Can you tell me about the record label a bit? Who runs it, and how? Any unique problems or extra cool things associated with it? How important is the computer/internet to the Ex's operations? (ie, Pro Tools, or newsletters)
Jos: The question is, is it a label? It's called Ex Records, it releases the Ex stuff in Holland, and it's run by ourselves, but there are no other bands on the label. So, basically it's just a name. In the early days, the name of the label even changed with every new release, but the distributors begged us to stop that, it made distribution of the records too complicated. The fact that the label is just us, is an advantage. It makes it easier to make decisions we can release a record whenever we feel like it.
As for the rest of the world, our latest albums are released in the USA by Touch And Go, which feels like a very healthy partnership. They're very friendly with us and help us where possible when we come and tour the U.S.. The internet is an interesting area, but we are still not totally uhm, "connected", is that the right word? We do have a website, but it's still very clumsy, it's been "under construction" for almost two years now. It seems we're just a bit too busy all the time. To do that really good it takes more and more time to learn to do it properly. Someone is helping out at the moment, so hopefully, in a couple of months... As soon as it is more updated, designwise and such, we maybe can improve on-line ordering, offer downloadables, things like that.
PSF: What is it about Steve Albini that works so well? How did someone come to build a studio with "the same specific ideas and preferences as Albini's" but in France?
Jos: Steve likes our music, he likes us, we like Steve, and he knows how to make our music sound good. So it is always fun to work together. He has an excellent ear for all the instruments, how to give them their natural sound, and keep an openness in the music. I don't know how he manages to do that. I am less than an amateur when it comes to recording... The on/off switch I can find, but well, most of the times, to be honest... The studio in France, that was build by a guy who used to live and work with Steve in Chicago for a couple of years, and they kind of agreed on the same ideas about recording.
The Politics of Art
PSF: Here in America (home of education-and-health-for-cash) there is a constant making art versus making-a-living dilemna that Europeans seem less encumbered with due to much more access to free university education, more state grants for artists, festival support, etc. How do the Ex support themselves? Is anybody still squatting? Is there way to make a (decent) living at art?
Jos: The first years of the Ex's existence we were all on the dole. As I said before, during the late '70's early '80's there was massive unemployment, and we have a welfare system here that ensures that nobody has to starve. It wasn't a huge amount of money, but since we lived cheap and had no or low rents, and were not interested in luxury, we managed to survive, and since we had no jobs, we could spend a lot of our time on the band. All the money we received went back into the band. Later, that got more problematic, the unemployment office started to hassle us (officially you are not allowed to do anything when you have no job, except apply for one), but as the band was doing well, we decided to try making playing in the band our job. We are still not making lots of money (which has never been the aim anyway), but somehow we manage to make a living out of it. We have received the occassional funding, usually a small financial extra to help cover transport-cost for tours abroad. A couple of times, we received funding for a special project (like the first concerts of the Ex orkest, which initially was put together to play at the Holland Festival).
Squatting has become more and more difficult, partly because the laws have changed, closing all the loopholes, partly because a rather large amount of the better organized squats got legalized. Some of us live in houses like that, others have bought a house with a mortgage, which we never would have dreamed of in the early days, but since the prices have sky-rocketed it was cheaper to buy and pay mortgage than to rent sometimes.
From what I can see there are possibilities to make a living in art over here, but a lot of the art has a rather commercial feel to it. A lot of people who had an art education end up doing arty work for big companies and such. State grants for rockbands there are definitely not, which I think is okay. The occasional grants I like, because it can give you the opportunity sometimes to do something really special, but in general I think it would make musicians a bit lazyish- the Dutch music scene has often lacked a certain kind of drive. Unlike the States, people over here never seemed to really go for it, because, you know, who cares, if you don't succeed, there is always that safety-net...
PSF: We Americans have (very) recently begun to acquire a new perspective on the Middle East situation and our role there. The Ex have a long history of support for the Palestinian cause, and an admirable record of investigating alternative politics. How would you assess the current situation and what do you think America (and its European allies) can do to propagate equal rights and justice? What about the person at street-level? What other issues interest you now, and why?
Jos: When you say "we Americans," I assume you don't mean the American government, because I don't see any change in the U.S. government's policies. I thought that after the horrible attack on the Twin Towers, I hoped that the U.S. would for once start to think about why so many seem to dislike America. But nothing like that has happened. On the contrary, people who even raised no more an eyebrow about the decision to attack Afghanistan were considered enemies of the state. If America and Europe would like to propagate equal rights and justice, then they should start living up to those standards themselves. As long as America thinks that they have the best system in the world... well, I don't care if they think that, but they shouldn't force it down other countries' throats all the time. Let countries decide for themselves what they think is best for them, and respect their choice.
As for Iraq, I don't think Saddam Hussein is a very nice guy, but all this nuclear threat business is a load of bull, because everybody knows that the whole affair is about oil. Bombing Iraq into a thousand pieces of destroyed cities will not help anybody over there, and it will only make the hatred against the U.S. bigger. What should happen there is, I think, humanitarian and economic aid. Because THAT would give them one reason less to hate the U.S.
I think on a street-level people have already realized this a long time ago. But hey, that isn't very helpful for the arms-industry, is it? The main issue of big importance right now is the matter of globalization. All these demonstrations have made one thing very clear: they have enough of being taken for a ride time after time. I don't think the demonstrators are against globalization in itself, on the contrary, I think it is a good thing. The main concern, however, is to make that globalization is a democratic thing, with fair trade and fair chances for everybody. And we all know that as long as those big companies are in control, that's not gonna happen. That's why this movement is such a good thing, all over the world people are involved: young, old, punks, peasants, hippies, desk-clerks, factory-workers, mothers, fathers, you name it... And the bourgeois media can try and censor the news, thanks to the independent media (the Internet!) they cannot hide it away anymore. People have access to the news, if you wanna be informed, you have the chance. That's a good sign.
PSF: Speaking of working together, the Ex have worked with a wide variety of collabotators, including folk, punk, and jazz/improv musicians. What do these musicians bring to the Ex experience, and how did these collaborations occur?
Jos: The collaborations usually grow out of a mutual interest for each others' qualities. It's not that we "search" for interesting people to play with because that would look good at our resume, the thing is that when we appreciate certain artists for what they're doing and we notice that this appreciation is mutual, we keep it in mind and sometimes the occasion rises and we would think it a good idea to maybe do something together. This might result in three or four vocals, or hardly any... it varies, which is okay by me, as long as the result doesn't suffer from it. I'm not on an egotrip anyway. When there are so many instruments to deal with, with all of them of course wishing to have a piece of the pie, to me it makes total sense to not have all those goddamn vocals put in everywhere just for vocals' sake.
The jazzers in Holland liked to play with us, I guess, partly because the band does not function as five individuals but as one "wholeness," if that is a correct expression. Within the five of us, there is no rivalry, unlike in the jazz-scene. They play in all kinds of different formations, not always with only people they like, therefore at times they all have to eh, defend their territory so to speak. At least, that's the way I see it. The Ex's strength lies in the fact that the five individuals make each other better when playing together. 5 x 1 = 6 something like that. That is why it worked so well with Tom Cora- he had that same kind of idea about it. At first, we only knew him from the stuff he had been playing; we admired what he did, we contacted him, sent him a couple of our CD's, asked him to contribute to one of our albums. He didn't have time then but he said he'd be in Holland pretty soon after, we should meet and do a practice-session or something. We did, and it felt good, sounded good, and thus we agreed that we should make this collaboration more than a one-off thingy...
PSF: What are you listening to these days? Any guilty pleasures? New voices we should be aware of? What did you grow up listening to?
Jos: I listen to new albums in this amazing series of Ethiopian music, called Ethiopiques, issue 12, 13, and 14 (which) have just been released. Next to that: old Motown soul, Strokes, PJ harvey, Spoon... Whatever is there next to the cd-player. I have no idea what is hip right now and what is not. Nancy Sinatra (These Boots! great singles compilation). When I was young I listened to Slade ("Cum on Feel the Noize"), and after that it was David Bowie (til "Let's Dance"), early Roxy Music and Van der Graaf Generator.
PSF: Any outside projects that you're involved in? What's the latest?
Jos: Terrie has a label called Terp, on which he released some African music and a series of duo-CD's where he joins forces with Han Bennink, with whom he also does duo-concerts. Andy is involved in the Unsound label and occasionnally plays gigs with Kaffe Matthews. Rozemarie has still a couple of projects going from before she joined us. Kat works on a solo-CD. I am doing some lay-out now and then for Dutch band De Kift and I am busy with a book (in Dutch) that I wanna put out in late 2003... Also, there are plans to do a big theater-project with this amazing company called Alex d'Electrique, scheduled for the summer of 2004.
PSF: What do you like to read?
Jos: Good books, if possible. At the moment, I'm reading stuff by Kurt Tucholsky, Luther Blissett, Gogol, and the Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. Other faves of mine include Celine, Louis Paul Boon, Kosinski, Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, Cervantes, Elsschot... Too many to mention...
Also see our other Ex interview
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