Perfect Sound Forever

The Ex

Photos from Ex MySpace page

Interview & tour log by Billy Hell
(April 2010)

Excellent, exuberant and exhilarating are three words the Ex could have abbreviated their appellation from. These three words describe well the quality of their music, the character of the band on stage and the effect of their performances on their audience. However the name was actually chosen way back in 1979 for brevity; it could be spray painted on a wall very fast. Such are the anarchist origins of a band of Dutch squatters who over the course of thirty years have mutated into an international collective, open to collaboration and improvisation, the ultimate anarchic form of musical expression. Only half the current quartet is actually Dutch; drummer Kat Bornefeld is German and guitarist Andy Moor is British. Like British stalwarts The Fall, only one musician from the original line up remains, however guitarist Terrie Ex is rather less egotistical in his approach to band politics. Vocalist GW Sok had been vocalising his discontent with the state of the world via the Ex for their first thirty years, but recently retired to concentrate on graphic design and writing, so now Arnold De Boer of Zea has joined the other three long-scrabbling musicians, cutting in words at jaunty angles to the jagged clatter of The Ex.

It was hard to believe that until February 2010, it had been six years since The Ex had toured England. The first time I saw them was at the Manchester gig on that tour and I was so enamoured of their energetic performance that I decided I had to see as many gigs as possible on their winter tour. After all, I might be waiting another six years for more! For this tour they hooked up with a four piece brass section called Brass Unbound, comprising saxophonists Mats Gustafsson and Ken Vandermark alongside trumpeter Roy Paci and trombonist Wolter Wierbos, who were both part of Ex Orkest, an expanded orchestral project documented on the fantastic 2001 live album Een Rondje Holland. This alone meant that it promised to be even better than the previous tour, but they'd also brought along the brilliant Bristol-based Zun Zun Egui as support.

Travelling to Birmingham, Brighton, London, Manchester and finally Liverpool where I interviewed the Ex before the gig, something that became apparent was that they attract a great friendly crowd to their gigs. More people were dancing at Manchester's Deaf Institute than any other gig I'd been to there, and in Liverpool it seemed the whole room was moving to the music. Kat was so enthused by that crowd's reaction that she thanked us all for dancing so much. Even the freezing temperature of the unheated venue and the drunken man loudly banging a beer bottle out of time couldn't spoil the atmosphere. It was nice to run into a fair few folk who I hadn't seen for a while as I travelled the land.

This is the setlist from the tour, which I've annotated with the releases where the songs can be heard in recorded incarnations:

"Maybe I was the Pilot" (recent 7" single) "Cold Weather is Back" "Double Order" "Our Leaky Homes" (recent 7" single) "Bicycle Illusion" "Hidegen Fujnak a Szelek" (Scrabbling at the Lock) "State of Shock" (Scrabbling at the Lock) "Eo Leyo" "Aha Begena" (Moa Anbessa) "24 Problems" "Theme from Konono" (Turn)

In Manchester and Liverpool, they also played another song, which I think, was from "Moa Anbessa" but Arnold has written down as "Speedband Song," and there's no song with that title on my LP! I think it was actually "Musicawi Silt?"

Some memories of the Ex and Brass Unbound February 2010 tour:

Birmingham Hare and Hounds: Who should walk into the tapas restaurant where I ate before the gig but singer Nancy Elizabeth, who I've also interviewed and who was playing at the same venue in another room. I hadn't realised until I'd arrived that this was happening. Once the Ex kicked into their current single "Maybe I Was the Pilot," the realisation that this tour was going to be even better than expected.

Brighton Audio: I was at the point of collapse due to lack of sleep, being kept on my feet by the energy of the music. The smallest stage on the tour meant Terrie was ducking and diving whilst Wolter swung his trombone slide out on either side of Terrie's head. London Tufnell Park Dome: I was at the front and had left a plastic water bottle on the edge of the stage. Suddenly Terrie veered across the stage towards me, with his guitar headed for the bottle. He stopped dead with the head of the guitar about a centimetre from the bottle. Spit flying out of Mats Gustafsson's sax landed just short of me, so maybe it was fortunate that the Dome had a much bigger stage than the other four venues!

Manchester Deaf Institute: Mats Gustafsson's sax solo going on longer and going deeper than previous gigs before Ken Vandermark joined in and then the rest of Brass Unbound before the Ex carried on Exing. This gig was also notable for the crustiest, punkest crowd to ever roll up at the Deaf Institute. The gathering got dancing to "State of Shock," then didn't much let up on the movement, and the band played an extra song. Also the guy at the front who remarked, "I wish I knew what it meant" after Kat sang the Hungarian folk song "Hidegen Fujnak A Szelek" should pick up the album the Ex made with Tom Cora in 1992 Scrabbling at the Lock as there's an English translation of the lyrics printed on the back of the sleeve.

Liverpool Kazimier: There was a walkway high above the stage, and Wolter decided to go for a stroll playing trombone from up on high. Maybe the smallest crowd of the tour for the first Ex gig in Liverpool, but definitely the most enthusiastic reaction and consequently they played longer renditions of the songs later in the set.

Upstairs in Kazimier, a former trendy nightclub that the police have tried to shut down due to some gigs going on past their bed time, I asked Andy Moor, Terrie Ex and Arnold De Boer some questions.

PSF: The thing that's changed most obviously since last time the Ex toured is that GW Sok is no longer the vocalist. Did it come as a surprise when he decided to leave?

AM: No it wasn't a surprise. It was something that had been happening slowly, so we were aware of what was happening. It wasn't a big shock. He'd talked about it for a year or so.

PSF: Was it obvious that Arnold should take over?

AM: It was very natural. I think either Kat or Terrie suggested it and I just thought that was perfect. I hadn't really thought about it. It happened at a really good moment.

PSF: Did you put out the 30 compilation to coincide with the fact that GW Sok was leaving?

AM: It wasn’t related to that at all. It came from the fact that we were thirty years old. We though it'd be a good idea as we've never really put a compilation out. We thought we should just put the Ex logo on the cover, which was perfect.

PSF: Terrie, you've been playing guitar in the Ex since the beginning; could this band be the Ex without you?

TE: I've never thought about that! As long as there's a group of people who think they're the Ex, then it's OK.

AM: We'd just have to give him some royalties for his retirement.

PSF: About half the set you've been playing is going to be recorded in March for a new album. Are you going to be recording with Brass Unbound?

AM: Not in March. We've just started doing this brass section thing. It's the first tour we've done with them. We'd been working in the songs before we had the idea to tour with them, but we will probably record with them at some point.

PSF: So they'll be different versions of the songs from what we've been hearing?

TE: Two of the songs are already on the 7" single without the brass.

PSF: Are they going to be on the album as well?

AM: Yeah, probably.

PSF: You're going to Chicago to record with Steve Albini. Obviously the way he records the Ex is the way you like it to be. Is the way you record pretty much you playing live in the studio?

AM: Yeah, in a way, he's a great recorder. He's got a fantastic microphone technique, a very organic approach to recording. He really records us the way we sound, but he's not going to mix it, he's just going to record it. So he gives us the raw material and we trust him to get our guitar and drum sounds. He's a great guy to work with. I think he really understands our music and its great to play when he records. He's from the same generation.

PSF: In the past, he's championed analogue recording. Does it matter to you whether you record analogue or digital?

AM: If it sounds good, then we're happy. We don't have a purist approach. We just recorded our single on a laptop and it sounds good. If it didn't sound good, then we wouldn't have released it, so we really had to work to make it sound good. We know when we record with Steve that he's good with his equipment whether it's analogue or digital, that it'll sound good. Part of the reason is that he's a musician. He's so fast and he's so sharp.

TE: His ears, that's the most important! And how he knows the consequence of every mike, exactly what it does.

AM: And it is great to play when he's present, it gives a kind of energy. And it’s nice to go to Chicago. It's a really great city!

PSF: It's big, isn't it?

AM: Chicago? It's massive! It's really spread out. We’re playing one gig with Shellac a few days before the recording.

PSF: You've played gigs with Shellac, Fugazi and Nomeansno, but would you consider collaborating with them to make music like you did with Tortoise for "In the Fishtank?"

TE: It's better when we play separately I think. It's also that way with some of the musicians we met in Ethiopia. Collaborations are not always going to work. Sometimes it's better to leave it the way it is!

PSF: Sonic Youth invited Ian Mackaye to play on one song and that worked well...

AM: Yeah, but that's not really a collaboration, that's more like inviting a guest to play on one song. It's not something we've thought about actually. It'd be a lot of guitars! We're seen as the same scene but musically they're very different, Fugazi and Shellac.

PSF: Shellac's music is very pre-planned whereas I guess the Ex are more open to improvisation?

AM: Yeah.

PSF: Do you think you'd ever make more music with Tortoise?

TE: No.

PSF: I thought "In the Fishtank" worked really well!

TE: Do you!? The problem is when you play with a band like Tortoise, it's almost too easy. They just do something, then we do something. It's not really a challenge. It's boring in a way. It doesn't spark enough. There's nothing negative about that. They do what they do and we do what we do and it's not difficult and it doesn't challenge you.

AM: We did one concert with them in Paris and it was much better when we played alone. That was a case of putting two bands together that ended up essentially weaker than when we do stuff on our own. A fusion of bands isn't a guarantee that you're going to be twice as good.

PSF: What tunings are your guitars in?

TE: A normal tuning with two high G's. E A D G G.

AM: Terrie only has five strings. G D C A# F G is the tuning of my baritone guitar. It's basically the same tuning as a normal guitar in that the relationship between the strings is the same, but it's dropped down to a low G so it's three notes higher than a bass, so it's almost as low as a bass.

PSF: When you play you seem to use a lot of open chords.

AM: Yeah, it sounds good! When we make songs together we don't really think about open chords or bar chords. We think about the sound and how it works together and maybe we end up with that. It's nice with this baritone guitar because I can play chords that with a bass would start sounding messy, but with the baritone it's still really clear.

PSF: When you're playing guitars, do you always know exactly where you are? I noticed you're very precise. In London I left a water bottle on the edge of the stage and your guitar head stopped about a centimetre from it after moving fast towards it.

TE: It's mysterious how that works!

AM: I guess when you've done it for thirty years, you develop some kind of skill.

TE: When you play, you get hypersensitive about these things - it's very bizarre. Also when there's someone annoying in the audience and you decide to grab them, it's always the right one. Stuff like that.

AM: It's really annoying when people put bottles of water on the stage! (laughter)

PSF: Have you ever collided with each other?

TE: Not very often have we bumped into each other.

AM: Once in a while it's happened. One time we really head butted each other.

PSF: Did you manage to keep playing when that happened?

AM: Yeah I think so. His head's harder than mine so... it was quite funny!

TE: We were not bleeding or anything.

PSF: Have you ever had any disasters during a gig that have stopped you from playing?

TE: Oh, my knee broke! I leapt off the drum stage then, "Futch!"

AM: I wasn’t there. It was before my time.

TE: You weren't there?!?

AM: It was in America, no? The tour just before I joined.

TE: Falling through the stage happens quite often, relatively speaking.

AM: There was a broken cymbal and a little piece of metal flicked off and cut Terrie in the ear. I saw his ear bleeding and thought he'd blown his eardrum. Luckily it was just a cut but it really looked like he'd blown his eardrum.

TE: Once we had a big military rattle and Jos (GW Sok) hit Luc and blam! A black eye!

AM: Yes, we have had quite a few injuries but nothing really serious. With the horns, it's rather scary because there's this long fragile slide, and if you hit that...

PSF: Wolter was playing the trombone slide either side of Terrie's head whilst he was moving about, which was funny.

AM: Yeah it's great.

PSF: I couldn't believe it was more than six years since you last toured England.

AM: Is it really six? I would have said it seemed more like two and a half.

PSF: That's how it seemed to me as well. What are the strangest places you've played gigs?

TE: The weirdest one for me was in Czechoslovakia, still in the communist time. We had an illegal meeting with some guys for a concert but we didn't really find that we had a meeting place (I think Terrie meant that they didn't have a venue to play the gig). Suddenly, we heard some music so we went in and it was the demonstration of a synthesizer. It had nothing to do with us, but since we were there, we asked if we could play. The only thing was they had to remove all the chairs after the demonstration of the synthesizer. But then the next day was May the first so all the police went to the parade in Prague and we went to this farm. It was completely dusty, everything covered in dust, and all these hippies with beards and long hair were jumping up and down. Our stage was like two metres fifty high so it was a very bizarre gig. We've had many.

AM: One of the strangest for me was when we played inside a police community hall in Ethiopia. It was the only place we could play. We asked the chief of police of the town if there was a place we could play and he said we could play in their community hall for fifty Birr (Ethiopian currency).

PSF: Are you going to carry on playing and touring with Brass Unbound after this tour?

AM: Probably, yeah, it feels like a project that could continue. Everyone's incredibly busy so I don't know if it'll happen a lot. Playing in England, the reaction has been amazing, a great turn out at the gigs.

PSF: London was sold out, wasn't it?

AM: Yeah, we've never sold out in England before. We've never sold out gigs hardly anywhere really!

PSF: I heard the Scottish gig in Glasgow sold out too earlier in the tour.

AM: And the Bristol gig. We reckon it's because of Roy Paci. He has a secret fan club.

PSF: Turn seemed to have quite an African theme- was that intentional?

AM: I think that was coincidence.

PSF: Would I be right in thinking that "Sister" is a story about a woman being taken away by police in Africa?

AM: "Sister?" I think it's South America. I don't think we had a conscious African theme. We'd been listening to a lot of African music over the last few years so it ended up kind of creeping into the music.

PSF: Presumably "The Idunno Law" is lampooning an African dictator denying allegations of violence or corruption?

AM: Yeah.

PSF: "The Pie" has one of GW Sok's funniest lyrics and gives a recipe for a sweet potato pie and advice on how to throw it in the face of a "responsible irresponsible... The puppeteers and the powers that be would always agree, that stones are no arguments, and meanwhile they hit us with batons and bullets, and invite us to their wrecking-balls, with distorted truths and teargas, slander, lies and tanks. No thanks, we understand and that is why we wanna globalise the pie." Who is it pictured with pie on their face in the photo in the Turn CD booklet?

AB: Bill Gates, in Amsterdam.

PSF: Why was the album called Turn? Not because the CDs turn? (laughter)

AB: The RPM of a CD is 524 I think.

AM: I think Kat came up with the name. It was something to do with us changing direction, as if we were on a road and we turned off. That was partly because we had a new bass player, Roze, playing double bass.

TE: Maybe the next album should be Turn Off!

AB: "Turn Again!"

AM: "Turn Back," "Turn Over," "Turnip!" (laughter)

PSF: "Turnover" is a Fugazi song. Was "Dizzy Spells" chosen as an album title because it summed up the sound of the Ex music well?

AM: "Dizzy Spells" is weird because it could mean different things. When people get old, they have dizzy spells. I don't think we were thinking of that when we chose the title but I can't remember. When we make songs, we build them up over time and sometimes we discover what the lyrics are about much later. It's not like we'll have some concept of what the title of the CD is in relation to the music. We just choose a title that everyone likes.

PSF: Are you going to do more music to accompany theatre productions?

AM: I don't know. We enjoy doing it but I found it difficult touring in theatres. It's very different to touring with just music. I wouldn't immediately jump into it; it depends on the people. If the people were great and the project was interesting, it's possible. It's hard work, a lot of rehearsing. We were asked to do more performances but it was too much. We'd have had to give up three or four months of the year to do it.

PSF: Do you remember the first record you bought?

TE: "Love Me Do" by the Beatles. (Terrie sings the chorus out of tune)

AM: I didn't know that! I bought seven records and a record player off a friend. Bowie Changes, Queen A Night at the Opera, Bob Dylan Desire and some other records.

AB: Gerard Koling. I was seven or eight in the eighties.

Wolter Wierbos: Led Zeppelin Houses of the Holy and Deep Purple Live in Japan.

AM: I had those two records as well! That's our musical connection.

Kat: The first record player I got was in 1985. I wanted to be able to listen to my first record with The Ex: Pokkeherrie. The first record I bought after that might have been from The Fall or Wire...

AB: My first concert was Lee Powers, he's like the Dutch Frank Sinatra.

AM: The first gig I ever saw was Thin Lizzy.

TE: Mine was Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

Colin McLean: Wishbone Ash or Led Zeppelin. (Colin is The Ex soundman and played bass on "Moa Anbessa.")

PSF: Your song "Our Leaky Homes" takes its title from a chapter from George Monbiot's book "Heat (How to Stop the Planet from Burning)" about climate change. Is that book something you'd recommend reading?

AM: It's bloody scary actually. The thing is, he now thinks he was wrong and he was too optimistic when he wrote it. It's now worse in reality than he predicted it would be, but he offers really practical solutions, it's not just negative and scary. You should read his blog, it's great. He went to Copenhagen but he wasn't involved in the main meeting. He did a couple of amazing speeches where he basically said no governments are taking climate change seriously except the Maldives.

PSF: And they're drowning already as the sea level rises! There's another book called Six Degrees by Mark Lynas that goes through all the likely environmental changes as the world temperature rises by one degree centigrade until at six degrees, most of the human race will not be able to survive. He tried to end with some positive suggestions too.

AM: And six degrees doesn't seem too much does it? "Our Leaky Homes" is a chapter about how, especially in England, our homes are so badly insulated, we're actually heating the street. So much heat is wasted using these electric heaters that waste so much electricity. The government should give money to make sure homes are insulated properly and make it law like in Holland and Germany. In Germany, the cost of electricity is two or three times higher so people use less and insulate their houses and are more careful with their consumption.

PSF: Do you have any suggestion to help prevent climate change? Play acoustic guitars?

AM: Read George Monbiot, he's got much better suggestions than me!

There are a lot of albums by The Ex, and I still haven't heard the first four, but if you want to check them out a bit further than the 30 compilation I'd recommend starting with Turn, Moa Anbessa and Scrabbling at the Lock and then working backwards historically with the Ex Orkest live album, Dizzy Spells and so on. Only 30 and Scrabbling at the Lock have been 24-bit remastered so far. Better still, go hear them at a gig if you can. Their new album should be released in September on Ex Records. There is a detailed history of the band on their website.

Also see our other Ex interview

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