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The Ex Factor

Holland's Punk Collective Improvises Anew

By John Sewell | Posted 6/20/2001

No one ever said it was easy being a paragon of righteousness, especially in the world of rock 'n' roll. Even the most overtly political bands tend to get bogged down in their own righteous rhetoric (see Rage Against the Machine), and fans can be fickle--this week's savior can easily become next week's charlatan. But over the course of more than 20 years, the Netherlands' the Ex has evolved from an earnest if somewhat naive punk band into an ambitious, all-encompassing musical collective, all while gaining fans and maintaining respect as a proponent of musical, political, and cultural agitation. In short, the Ex is a European counterpart to America's DIY standard-bearer, Fugazi.

The Fugazi comparison works because of each band's incendiary live shows and strict adherence to a code of self-reliance. (And apparently, it's not just a kinship imagined by critics; the Ex has toured with Fugazi as its opening act.) But sonically, at least in its current permutation, the Ex has a lot more in common with bands like Can, the Pop Group, early Chumbawamba, or English anarchopunks Crass and the Poison Girls--groups that likewise never followed the dictates of the rock 'n' roll treadmill.

Unlike many of their contemporaries from punk's past who seem content to rehash the same old formula ad nauseam, the members of the Ex have never been satisfied to stick to the same musical blueprint year after year. Instead, the band has continually honed its musical skills, creating an ambling, rhythm-dominated sound that has incorporated any number of new ideas and influences while remaining distinctively its own.

"In a lot of ways, the band hasn't changed," lead vocalist Jos says by phone on the eve of the band's upcoming U.S. tour. (Just "Jos"--though he uses the moniker G.W. Sok in his recordings and writings, he's vague about his actual name. "It really doesn't matter what you call me," he says.)

"When we started out, it was just for fun," Jos says. "It was not such a serious thing because we had no idea if it would last or not. At a certain point we felt like, hey, it's not a throwaway thing anymore--this is basically the thing we want to do because it's our way of communication and where our hearts are.

"We bump into new opportunities and new challenges, and that has allowed [the band] to survive. You get a lot of education out of playing with other people, and that's how we've chosen to work."

Some of those new challenges have come from musicians outside the band. Over the years, the Ex has worked with some of the brightest lights of indie rock and the avant-garde: Tortoise, Sonic Youth guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, the late cellist and improviser Tom Cora, madcap Dutch jazz drummer Han Bennick, and recording engineer/Shellac guitarist Steve Albini, who has recorded the two most recent of the band's 17 albums. The Ex's collaborative efforts have definitely widened the scope of the band's work, Jos says, though most of the partnerships have come about through happenstance.

"In general, it's hardly ever planned," he says. "Sometimes we'll play at festivals and hear other musicians or whatever. Or we'll start a conversation with another musician and we'll find out we have something in common. We just bump into people and sometimes ideas grow ou t of that. We never look for musicians because that never works. You just meet people and it clicks."

The Ex's newest album, Dizzy Spells (Touch and Go), features only current members Terrie, Andy, Luc, Katrin, and Jos and does a great job showing the band's ongoing growth. Albini's studio skills are perfectly suited to the band, particularly in the way he emphasizes the drums. Drummer Katrin continually pushes the band forward with ceaseless rolls and flourishes that resemble tribal rhythms. From this foundation, the rest of the band hits an interlocking guitar groove far removed from the usual punk-rock power chords. And on top of it all rides Jos' neo-beatnik poetry, more chanted than sung. The songs are tightly wound and powerful, an end result of improvisation and interaction.

By serving no masters and keeping a sharp eye on business practices, the Ex has retained its creative autonomy and built a growing fan base while maintaining its rabble-rousing political ideology. Early on, the band bludgeoned its audience with crudely played songs and bold proclamations. Now the textures are more subtle, the lyrics more oblique.

"When we started in the early '80s, there was a lot of anger," Jos says. "In Europe, there was a lot of unemployment, boredom, and horrible bands. In the Reagan era, we really reacted to the political climate. But I got to the point where I didn't want to say 'fuck the system' every time. I also wanted to say other things and find other ways of saying them. I learned to do it in a more poetic way, or through telling a story or whatever."

Even so, Dizzy Spells is still rife with anti-corporate, anti-materialistic, anti-government sentiments, from the explicit ("Burnsome" goes after PR firm Burson-Marstellar, which has put a positive media face on, among other things, mad cow disease, Three Mile Island, and the Bhopal disaster) to the more poetic ("Nobodies' Dream," based on a text by Eduardo Galeano, centers on the line, "A flea's dream is to buy a dog"). "Walt's Dizzyland" holds up Disney as the embodiment of Hollywood's corporate cultural imperialism and still manages to make a super-catchy chorus out of "Are we fucked/ are we nice/ are we ducks/ are we mice."

"Because we talk about things that concern us and the people around us, and because we sing about political topics, we're considered to be a political band," Jos says. But the band's stand goes beyond taking stances on particular issues: "The music itself--the way we play and how we want to construct our music--we think that's also a political statement because it protests the status quo of pop music. We want to play what we like and we're not so concerned whether it's considered hip or if it sells well.

"I think I am less cynical about the state of things now than I was a few years ago," Jos continues. "In the last couple of years, with the anti-global movement . . . and things like the protests in Seattle and Prague, these movements are all seeming to come together to stop the global dominance of the big companies, and that gives me a bit of hope for the future. I feel like the new action thing is more practical and I feel good about it."

Though the Ex is allied in spirit with many of the protesting factions on the extreme left, the band is wary of being affiliated with a strict political ideology. Generally anti- authoritarian in nature, the Ex purposely avoids following any dogma to the letter.

"We consider ourselves to be friends of anarchism," Jos says. But "the label 'anarchist' is not totally accurate for us. I mean, the way we organize ourselves and the way we live and the things we do with the band, yeah, that's an anarchist thing. But it's not disorganized and it's certainly not chaos.

"I find these labels always a bit confusing. We get labeled as a punk band, and I can see that. But when I see what is called punk nowadays--I have nothing in common with all that Green Day stuff. But the idea of controlling your own life, for me that is punk or that is anarchist. The labels themselves mean nothing to me. You try to live as free as possible."

The Ex performs at a show co-sponsored by Monozine and City Paper at Lithuanian Hall (851 Hollins St.) on June 22; Quix*o*tic and Ink open. The evening begins at 8 p.m with a discussion led by Dan Sinker of the zine Punk Planet and Mark Andersen, a Washington-based music writer and founder of the political nonprofit organization Positive Force.

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More from John Sewell

Beer Thousand (5/16/2001)
Will the Bottle Let Guided by Voices Down?

Zine Pool (3/28/2001)
In the primordial days of DIY publishing, the term "zine" didn't exist.

Zine Pool (2/21/2001)
These days there seems to be at least one zine about each and every topic imaginable.

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