The Ex: The Wavelength Interview

Purveyors of: Avant-garde, transcultural punk explorations.
File Next To: Getatchew Mekuria, The Mekons, Instant Composers Pool
Playing: Wavelength 670, Tuesday June 23 @ Hard Luck Bar with Swedish azz feat. Mats Gustafsson, Brodie West & Fleshtone Aura

Founded in the why-not-us spirit of punk’s first wave, The Ex have evolved/endured/mutated to this day, their music incorporating idioms ranging from free improvisation to rap — and from Hungarian folk songs to Ethiopian pop. Along the way, they’ve crafted a singular discography, both on their own and in collaboration with Dog Faced Hermans, The Mekons, Tom Cora, Tortoise, Sonic Youth, and many more. Following local appearances with Brass Unbound (in 2011) and Getatchew Mekuria (an all-time classic Wavelength event in 2009), the group returns with just the core quartet of Terrie Ex and Andy Moor (guitars), Katerina Ex (drums) and Arnold de Boer (vocals/guitar). Joe Strutt spoke with Andy Moor online about longevity, collaborations, cultural exchange and freedom.

Just so we can all get our bearings, where are you now, and what’s up?

I’m in Amsterdam, where I’ve been living now for the last 16 years, though I’ve been in the Netherlands for 25 years altogether. We’re having a three-week break from touring, during which time I’m spending most of the time hanging out with my almost two-year-old son Elio, which is a sheer joy… and organizing travel, tax waivers and work permits for the next Ex tours in Canada and US, which isn’t a sheer joy. A real glamour-filled life it is.

The Ex have just released two 7″ singles, one with the amazing Ethiopian azmari group Fendika and a split single with Danish band Selvhenter. As well as this, we’ve just put out a DVD of a wild three-day event we curated in Cafe Oto in 2012, and in a few weeks we release a double CD of The Ex at Bimhuis (1991-2015), a selection of live recordings from 24 years of gigs at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam. When we find time, hopefully end of this year or early next year, we will record a new CD/LP… it never ever ever ever stops.

The Ex had already been a band for more than a decade when you joined in 1990. Did you have any notion then that it would still be a going concern 25 years later?

No, but at the same time I had this feeling that The Ex would last forever, but I didn’t imagine I would be in it for so long.

I’m guessing that one of the things that has kept The Ex pushing onwards has been their penchant for collaborations. How do they tend to come about, and how do they change the energy?

We meet musicians while touring at festivals or concerts and usually make friends with them before playing any music together. On other occasions we’ve been invited — two of our biggest and longest-lasting collaborations were ones where we were invited, with Tom Cora and Getachew Mekuria. In both cases they saw us live first and later made a proposal.

The Ex & Brass Unbound grew out of a great opportunity we were given by Qu Junktionsbooking agency based in Bristol UK, who managed to secure funding for an extended Ex project of our choice. In this case we chose musicians that we knew and had played with before in some combination and we felt very lucky to be in such a position to invite our favourite players (Ken Vandermark, Mats Gustaffson, Wolter Wierbos, and Roy Paci). In this case, we really wanted a full-on horn section playing parts… this needed players who were familiar with our music and could deal with the volume and intensity. For me, Brass Unbound amplifies the energy of The Ex and gives it another layer of exuberance and intensity.

With Getatchew, the whole game changes… we play his tunes but our way, and give a lot of space to him. We play the same pieces over and over — he’s been playing them for 60 years and each time he plays them it feels fresh. That’s a very different way of approaching music.

It was a great challenge playing with Getatchew, as he has very clear ideas about what works and what doesn’t, but within that he is very open and flexible — and all of this has to be communicated without language as he doesn’t speak that much English and our Amharic is worse… if you play something wild and discordant at the right moment, he loves it, though he’s never played with musicians like us before… but if you play a duff note in an important melody or scale he will stop the music and say “broken sound.”

We play with many different musicians, but we choose them very carefully — it’s not just a case of making a list of all the people we want to play with and then trying to tick them off the list. It really happens by an amazing combination of choice, focus, spontaneity and luck.

Brodie West [Hamilton, Ontario-based Ex collaborator] has told me some really amazing stories about going on tour in Ethiopia. What was the experience like for you?

I’ve been to Ethiopia about 10 times, so it’s hard to just write a few words about this. Each time we visit, we go with a different combination of musicians and we play in different places. We’ve toured around the country a few times and on other trips stayed in Addis Ababa [capital city] the whole time. The colours and smells and sounds and tastes are more vivid and intense than anything I’ve encountered in Europe, and at 2500m above sea level the air feels very different. The coffee is so strong and delicious your heart starts beating at double the pace. The food is very strong tasting, not only the spices but the actual taste of the vegetables, fruits, and meat.

The people are very warm, generous, and humourous. They make fun of us a lot, which is great if you can laugh at yourself (or if not, you’re doomed). We travelled around Ethiopia on one tour setting up concerts on the day we arrived, by contacting the local police or councillor and making publicity with posters and a megaphone three hours before the gig.

It’s great to play our music in a country that has given us so much music to listen to and love. When we play Getatchew’s songs, for me it’s simply a celebration of Ethiopian music… we’re not trying to interpret or play in any kind of authentic way, we play it because we love it. It’s beautiful music and great fun .We are there to exchange ideas — musical, cultural, political, social — and it really feels like an exchange. We learn a lot from the people in Ethiopia and hopefully we have something to give back with our music and our way of working together.

The Ex obviously were and are “political,” but not in a particularly didactic way. Do you think a lot about how the band’s music functions as a critique? Is the way you go about making music at one level a statement about how bands can have an enduring career without serving the music industry status quo?

It can be a statement if you interpret it that way… we try not to make statements. We follow our common sense and try and find ways to work that keep us as far away from music industry vampires as possible.

It’s hard… we pay ourselves below the minimum wage for Holland, so we don’t have much buffer. If we don’t play gigs, we don’t eat and we can’t afford to hire managers or publicists, so we do it mostly ourselves. But there are many musicians doing this in our community, and we help each other out. It’s simple: there’s no waste and nobody is being ripped off or fooled into buying our music or coming to our concerts… this may seem obvious but actually most of the music industry doesn’t work in this way. That is “political” because it proposes a different way of existing as a band and has nothing to do with flag-waving, slogans or fashion. We must be mad to work as hard as we do for the amount that we earn, but the music makes it worthwhile.

Han Bennink once said he doesn’t get paid for playing music. He asks a fee for all the travelling and stress and work connected to the music, and the one hour he plays is for free.

Bonus political question! Did you get caught up in the referendum in Scotland last year?

I followed it, but didn’t get caught up. Scotland isn’t my native country — I’m half-English, half-Italian and a little bit of German thrown in — but I started my musical life in Scotland [with Dog Faced Hermans]. Colin, the bass player of DFH, is Scottish and he said something that I agree with regarding the referendum: that if you ever have a chance in your life, and probably it will only be once, to vote for your independence you would be mad not to take it and vote yes. I guess there’s a lot of mad people there, but the Scottish people were also blackmailed and manipulated by the government and the media, which is no surprise. I guess they got some kind of revenge in the general election. Actually, the Scottish Labour party really blew it by siding with Tories against independence… very weak and pretty dumb strategy on their part. I’m curious how things will develop…

After some special event appearances hereabouts, this is going to be a “Ex Quartet” show with just the core four-piece. You said before you never expected to be a part of this group for so long — at the end of the day, what do you think causes the spark that keeps things going with yourself, Terrie, Katerina and Arnold?

[laughs] Many things, some private of course… I think we all approach the music with the same slightly-childish energy, one that keeps us curious and wondering what’s
actually going to happen next. We always enter the rehearsal room not really knowing what will happen and somehow this helps keep a freshness and excitement in the music. We’re also in our fifties — Terrie’s sixty — so we know ourselves and each other a bit better which can be helpful. We always got a massive amount of energy back from the audience, from promoters, festival organizers and from many other musicians and this is vital to our survival.

Thanks so much for your time! I’m really looking forward to the gig.