It would make the ideal rock-and-roll bio. A ragtag gang of graffiti artists, squatters and anarchists (1) starts a self-taught punk band, (2) records an endless string of critically adored albums, (3) collaborates with acclaimed avant-garde musicians from Han Bennink and Ab Baars to Tom Cora and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, (4) tours the dusty corners of the globe, and (5) eventually upstages the likes of Fugazi in packed auditoriums.
And the crowd goes wild.
Nice. Neat. And, in the case of veteran Dutch band The Ex, entirely true. But thankfully the story doesn't end there. More than two decades after they formed in the heat wave that followed punk's initial Big Bang, members of The Ex still generate energy like young upstarts. Their new album, Dizzy Spells, shows them in peak form. G.W. Sok's yelping rants about capitalism's bull market smashing up humanity's china shop are as evocative as ever. Terrie and Andy Ex's entwined guitars cut with the startling sharpness of free-jazz surgery. Luc and Katrin Ex bump and clatter with bobbling bass lines and clanging junkyard rhythms that don't sit still for a millisecond.
That's only the canned version. Live, The Ex are a terrific force of nature. Sok sways like a marionette while the guitarists' manic, dissonant riffs dance around each other, with Terrie often abrading his strings with brushes or scrap metal. The helter-skelter drumbeats keep everything together even as they seem to stray into chaos. It's intense, irresistible, unstoppable.
Chatting with Andy Ex in Amsterdam via international phone lines, it's clear the group is still as excited to play as it is exciting to watch. Recent solo jaunts have not only brought new influences (African folk, gypsy dance, electronica) to the table but have kept the members fired up to expand Ex music into radical new areas.
Here's a quick glance at some truths they've learned over the years:
*Knowledge is power: "Without patting ourselves on the back, I think we have a really sophisticated knowledge of music. We don't know how to read music, but the level of knowledge we have about all different kinds of music from all over the world, I think that is sophisticated. And I think that knowledge is our strength. That's what we take from, what we feed from."
* It's a small world, and getting smaller: "If I've been listening to Ugandan folk music for six months, it's somehow seeped into my brain on some level. And when I go to play with The Ex again, some of those things come out. [But] unless you're an incredibly knowledgeable person about that music, you would never spot where some of the influences are coming from. And they're coming from all sorts of different areas. It's not just world music. It's also hip-hop...or jungle...or...."
* The center must hold: "We found it important when [Terrie] came back [from a year in Africa] to really pull ourselves together and make a strong core thing first, before bringing guests in again. That's what The Ex is first. That's the starting point to any adventure we go off into. It begins with us five--then things happen."
* Don't burn out, don't fade away: "I think the reason it's lasted so long is because we're not touring six months of the year, stuck in a van together. It's paced out quite well, so we don't get saturated by our own music and by each other. Everyone is doing their other [projects] as well, and they can use what they learn from those other things, contribute that back into The Ex so it changes it and feeds it."
* No shirts, no sales, no problem: "Most people think we sell much, much more music than we do. You'd be surprised at the small number of CDs we sell in the States. It's much less than Fugazi or Shellac. Like, much lower--10 times less. Somehow our success live doesn't translate into CD sales. It never has. I think if someone wants to spend $10 on The Ex, they'd rather see the gig than buy the CD. Which is fine by me. My main drive for doing it is playing live."
* The masses are not the medium: "I really have the feeling that music shouldn't be played to giant numbers of people. My favorite gigs are in small places where there are 100 to 150 people and you can see everybody and everybody can see you. Then something happens between the band and the audience. The room gets a bit full of the whole thing...this electric atmosphere... that can only happen in a small space. It's important because I think that's how people measure success of a band. The fact that I can still enjoy playing a small space after having played for 15 years, for me, that's success."
Unwound, The Ex, Uz Jsme Doma, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum
Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W Burnside St., 225-5555, ext. 8811. 9 pm Friday, June 29. $10. All ages.
Terrie Ex recently released a collaborative record with legendary drummer Han Bennink. Andy worked with sampler-wrangler Kaffe Matthews for a forthcoming album of improv guitar and electronics. And The Ex just released an album by the 20-piece Ex Orchestra--Ex music rearranged for horns, woodwinds and even groovebox.
Inspired by the music and culture (and food), The Ex is trying to plot a tour in Ethiopia. "I have no idea what Ethiopian people will think of Ex music," Andy says. "But I think it's a
good experiment to try."
Get the full scoop at www.theex.nl .