The Ex

EVERYONE was on tour in the States and I was staying at Southview House on my own. Alice and Dan were playing stadiums for MTV with Aerosmith and I was working in Belle Isle. But at least I got to hang out with Derek the dog.

IMG_1596One morning, hungover as hell, I stumble out of my basement bedroom and head upstairs.

I discover the Ex cheerfully bouncing around the kitchen with what I have come to understand is their customary enthusiasm and vigour, laughing and joking with each other in high-volume Dutch while frying cheese and mushrooms with abandon.

The people in Chumbawamba and the Ex had been friends for years – in fact Coby did the live sound for the Ex before she moved to Leeds and began working with the Chumbas – and they’d let themselves in after playing a local gig somewhere the night before. It was that kind of house.

Thanks to my interesting but precarious and low-paid job editing a new listings magazine, I was on a temporary hiatus from a chaotic extended rave period where I’d ended up going almost fully nocturnal. Despite having a job, I didn’t have much direction, I was single, I was skint and I was feeling a bit sorry for myself. I wasn’t much of a morning person either.

By contrast, the Ex were clearly the very worst kind of morning people, exhibiting the exact same irrepressible good humour I’d seen at a gig at the Duchess a few years before, where they’d played with Dog Faced Hermans and Jackdaw with Crowbar.

I remember very little else of my earliest encounters with the Ex other than a vague impression of energy, positivity and very loud noises.

Though I’d bought their Spanish Revolution EP, the Antidote single they did with the Chumbas, and their Pokkerherie and History is What’s Happening albums back in the day, I never really got any further in than that. I think we can safely put this down to a marked lack of musical sophistication on my part rather than anything to do with the Ex.

I checked on the YouTubez and can confirm that those records still sound fierce and urgent and fantastic now. Needless to say, I have no idea where any of my Ex records ended up.

And that was it for me and them until one afternoon about 15 years later, at the Big Chill. Leathered again and walking back to the tent for a mid-afternoon siesta, we cross a field and notice a band onstage. They’re playing a very angular kind of guitar-driven punk rock while leaping around an old but sprightly tenor saxophonist firing off supercharged freeform jazz licks.

It turns out it’s the Ex and long-time collaborator and elder statesman of the Ethiopian jazz scene, Getatchew Mekuria. Of course it is.

I heard them before I saw them, and it still took me a while to work out where I knew them from. Thanks to the influence of Mekuria, it was all very different to anything I’d heard from them before – but it was still recognisably the Ex at its heart.

They were a lot of fun, and provided a welcome respite from the generally chilled, generally electronic, generally middle-class vibe of the festival itself. Not that I was complaining – the Big Chill was a great festival – but seeing the Ex that day was all the better for being so entirely unexpected.

And it was just lovely to see a political punk band who’ve been around since the late 70s still doing interesting things 30 years down the line.

Fast forward another decade and a couple of lifetimes later, and it turns out that the Ex continue to do interesting things, the best part of 40 years after they drew straws to decide who played what in a band named on the basis of how fast they could spraypaint it on walls.

Their close 10-year working relationship with Mekuria was no one off and, as well as touring with the likes of Fugazi, Chumbawamba and Fendika, they have collaborated with Iraqi Kurdish group Arawa, Malian kora player Djibril Diabate and Ethiopian begana player and singer Zerfu Demissie, among others.

They’ve also worked with more familiar names such as NYC cellist Tom Cora, Thurston Moore, Jon Langford, Tortoise, Brass Unbound and Steve Albini, who produced three of their albums, as well as, closer to home, the DansWerkplaats Amsterdam contemporary dance company, French sound-poet Anne-James Chaton, and ex-Ajax player and Dutch international-turned-author Jan Mulder.

The Ex are big on collaboration but, it seems, only genuine and meaningful collaboration, between equals.

As their website puts it:

“The adventurous, innovative Dutch band the Ex exists 39 years this year and is still going strong. New projects, new songs and new adventures”.

I find out they have a new album, 27 Passports and they’re on tour in the north. Me and my old friend Pete head over to their gig at Wharf Chambers in Leeds one sunny Saturday evening in June.

I don’t remember the venue from my time in Leeds – it’s a former pork pie factory apparently – but first impressions: it seems great, like a more accessible version of the 1 in 12 Club.

We see plenty of friendly faces from the Leeds Other Paper and the city’s veteran punk community, including a sizeable contingent of former Chumbawambas, and, perhaps best of all, a gratifyingly large number of the actual young people.

It feels like a family reunion where you discover everyone had kids years ago and, incredibly, none of them are annoying – in fact, they’re all brilliant. It’s lovely. Me and Pete have a ball.

In an entirely pointless show of bravado to prove to Pete that I’ve still got the bottle to front bands at gigs – as if this is somehow important – I mistake some Irish people for the Ex, and insist that they let me interview them. It takes me a good five minutes to realise they’re not just putting on comedy Irish accents, they really aren’t the Ex, and that they have very little to say about the Amsterdam squat scene in the 1970s.

How we laughed.

The band make their way onto the stage. While they have made a habit of working with other people, tonight they are simply the Ex.

They start off slowly, almost sedately, and just steadily crank it up before, a couple of songs in, you realise they’re suddenly producing a very big noise indeed. There is no bass but the three guitars weave in and out of each other in such an affecting manner that you don’t really notice (bass players are over-rated anyway), underpinned by some really particularly absorbing and complex drum patterns.

Everything seems very precise and controlled – for the moment – but there’s a very exciting underlying wildness to what they do.

Terrie Hessels stands on the left-hand side of the stage, looking like he’s stepping up onto the monitor after each riff. He would, no doubt, be horrified at the very thought of participating in such a hideous rock n roll cliché. On closer inspection, he’s actually standing on his toes, looking over at Andy Moor on the other side of the stage, before returning his gaze to his guitar.

Seen from the back of the space, this gives Hessels the appearance of a meercat, his head popping up above the crowd, nodding along to the music, and then popping back down again.

By contrast, Moor, stage right, moves his whole body from side to side as he slices away at his guitar, almost like he’s responding to Hessels continual positivity by shaking his head in gnomic disapproval. He tries – and just about manages – to keep control of the errant instrument struggling to break free from his grip.

I’m not sure which one is Yin and which Yang – although, given their jerky stage moves, maybe we should be asking which one is Bill and which Ben. Either way, it’s mesmerising. You get the impression that they can barely restrain themselves from sprinting from one end of the stage to the other, dropping to their knees and skidding along the floor like kids at a wedding.

Tucked away at the back of the stage, Katherina Bornefeld gracefully sways and rolls, practically sit-down dancing around her kit, more often than not beaming. She makes it all seem sublimely effortless.

The queen of the cowbell, Bornefeld gives the Ex their dancefloor edge, bringing to mind the rhythmic minimalism of Paul Hanley, Jaki Liebezeit, Jim Walker, Stephen Morris and Mo Tucker – the best drummers in the world, basically – but with a style all of her own. Bornefeld also somehow brings a subtly melodic edge to the Ex’s decidedly non-rock rhythms.

Meanwhile, many of the actual melodies in the Ex’s come from third guitarist and main vocalist Arnold de Boer. While he sometimes seems like he’s on an entirely different flex to everyone else, many of the moments that make the Ex’s songs truly memorable – the singsong vocal hooks, the seemingly low-key harmonic counterpoints that blossom into huge, inescapable slabs of noisy wonderment – get their direction from de Boer.

Compared to the Tasmanian-devils-with-guitars on either side of him, he is practically rooted to the spot, time and motion fans, covering approximately one quarter of the distance his fellow guitarists travel around the stage.

There’s something very straightforward, direct and honest about what they do on stage.  Without getting into all that dignity of labour shit, they’re grafting, pure and simple. When people call a band workmanlike, they rarely mean it as a positive but it feels right for the Ex.

They are workmanlike, albeit super industrious workers who take pride in their work and who are really fucking good at what they do.

There are so many things to love. They somehow find space for hugely emosh key changes within the maelstrom of clanking, discordant mechanical repetition. At one point, someone’s guitar sounds very much like vintage Una Baines keyboards. And they have some right tunes. I recommend The Heart Conductor and Silent Waste, wholeheartedly.

And this one:

One of my most favourite moments comes with Birth, when Bornefeld channels Joan Baez, and her wonderful turn for the soundtrack of seminal space-hippy enviro-flick, Silent Running in particular. “A new Earth must be born” indeed.

There’s something very organic and real about the Ex sound. A couple of times it gradually develops into something really intense, and fiercely compelling and beautiful and, I dunno, almost mystical, transcendental even. And then they end the song and break into wide grins, shattering the moment, wonderfully.

They are incredibly engaging and invigorating, appealing to your eyes and ears, your head, your heart and your feet – all at the same time. Me and Pete are just blown away by them. I’m gutted when they leave the stage. I’ve not enjoyed a band as much in years.

We still have time to make the last train back to Pete’s place in Mirfield if we hurry. Instead, Pete gets more beers in while I tell Boffo how much I love him and how he’s always been my favourite Chumbawamba. Boff gets rid of me by introducing me to Terrie.

The week before the interview, for some reason that evades me now, I’d tried and failed to find some kind of connection between the Fall and the Ex, beyond a shared love of repetition. So, rather than kicking off the interview by simply asking Terrie if he was sad that MES died, I try to make some big point about their shared ‘independence of spirit’.

Terrie tells me that the first time he saw the Fall was in 1979, at the Electric Ballroom in London, alongside the Mekons, Gang of Four, Stiff Little Fingers and the Human League.

“And then the Fall played,” he giggles, “and this skinhead got on stage and grabbed Mark by the throat, and Marc Riley got his bass and bosh! He hit the skinhead on his head. And then the gig just went on, it was so funny.”

It turns out the Ex played just one gig with the Fall, “at some festival, not so very long ago. He was inspirational, of course. He wrote down his address so that we could visit him, but it never happened.”

That’s amazing. I’m sure he didn’t do that for everyone.

“We were very surprised,” says Terrie. “It was very sweet.”

At this point, I probably should’ve said something like: MES would have appreciated the discipline of what the Ex do, the repetition, the non-arty artiness, the dedication to keeping it tight and precise and then just letting go. I probably should have told Terrie that MES would have described them as very professional.

Instead, I just said: But you’ve got that same bloodmind .. bloodymyness .. bloodymindymess. Basically, it’s just a series of noises.

When I do manage to spit it out, Terrie’s not sure what I mean by bloodymindedness – not his fault, his command of English was much better than mine at the time – so I eventually have to settle for ‘independence of spirit’. This appears to be my phrase of the day.

“For us, that kind of attitude we also find in Ethiopian musicians, or crazy free jazz guys. That’s what’s so fantastic about music, that you can go all over and hook up with these kind of independent spirits and organise stuff together. You get inspired.”

I can’t find the half dozen interesting, amusing and engaging questions I sweated blood over – obviously – but the previous week I’d asked Dunstan if he could think of any good questions to ask Terrie. He did and luckily, those I could find. Eventually.

This is one of Dunstan’s, I tell Terrie. Apparently, Einstein once said that creativity refers to generating new ideas, the capability of conceiving something original that others have missed, a form of expression, a way of solving problems. However, alone it is just not enough. You need to be able to do something with it.

Creativity is contagious, pass it on.

Thanks to the horrific near-total recall afforded by modern digital recording eletrickery, I can confirm that I am spectacularly inarticulate by this point. It takes me about five minutes to read out all of the question, and only then do I realise there’s no question mark at the end of it.

There is more.

This resonates for me with what the Ex have always done and are doing even today, continues Dunstan, via the medium of an incoherent and unreconstructed fanzine ediot.

I think what the Ex do is implicitly political.

Can you talk about how your approach has changed over the years and how you manage to keep yourselves interested and excited? And how you respond to the ever-changing political environment?

Terrie grins and says: “That’s a huge question”.

That’s Dunstan for you. He’s all about the big questions. Fucking hell, Dunstan.

“You find this kind of independent spirit in every kind of music. And also outside music, of course. And we somehow have an instinct for these free spirits. They attract us. And we attract them.

“That means we can travel all over the planet and meet these kind of people. We played in Turkey at the beginning of this year, in Istanbul, with people who were totally underground. They’re very brave and they take a lot of risks. When we play America also, we keep it independent by playing with free people, who are doing something against stupid America. It is fantastic. And it works also in Ethiopia.

“It’s sort of a weird subject, because you throw many things together and it works somehow. What we have is not about making money, it’s about creating something.”

Instead of pursuing this thread, and perhaps talking about the Ex Festival they are curating as part of the Paradiso’s 50thbirthday celebrations in September – when the venue will be filled with “diverse, stubborn and crackling music, all handpicked by the Ex from artists they’ve worked with in recent years” – I decide to ask Terrie about anarchy. At least, I think I did. It’s quite difficult to work out what I’m saying.

There’s no need to go into the details. I mean, it’s fucking painful. Transcribing this shit was a genuinely distressing experience for me so God only knows what poor Terrie thought.

“That’s also very big question,” he says with a resigned smile, perhaps also beginning to realise the full enormity of the situation in which he finds himself.

“I think the most important thing is that you keep doing your own things, and by doing that, on your own instincts, without even too much political theories, you do something that attracts these kind of people, with this kind of instinct. It’s more intuitive than actually formal or theoretical.

“It’s hard to explain to some people.”

I’ve no idea what you’re on about.

“It’s also good to realise that we’re not going to solve the world’s problems,” he continues, gamely. “We are very small. We are very clear, and strong, and hopefully inspirational for many people, but it’s also small. It feels almost weird to talk about world problems, at too big a scale. Then you’re lost also.

“It’s very important to do your own things, and be very strong about that. It can be very small – about supporting a cook in a small restaurant, that maybe attracts 10 people. It’s very small but it’s very strong also.”

the-ex-2017-600

What makes a good Ex gig?

“That’s another difficult question. Tonight was a great one. But that’s a very abstract thing, also in music, when it’s going really good. I mean, we always play kind of good” – he shrugs, it’s true, they do – “but sometimes, with a little energy from the audience, with a great sound, and other little things you can do, sometimes zzzzooom, you can rise to a kind of magic level sometimes.

“And tonight, some bits were almost there, it was like wow. It was something happening. It’s special. And it’s hard to define.”

“Where the gig is not happening. You forget everything and go raaaaaa, and in the end, you make something. And sometimes for us, with an uncomfortable gig, where you don’t have a great sound, you end up playing a great gig. That’s what you’re aiming for.”

In a brief moment of lucidity, I tell him that me and Pete used to watch bands in Scunthorpe and everyone would just go utterly bananas. We were just grateful that anyone had bothered turning up. It meant that it was a massive big deal every time someone played in town.

“That happens a lot in weird towns in Poland, or some crazy little village in Ethiopia, where they’ve never seen any electric guitar before. Wherever it is, you get together with the audience and you create something good”.

They seem happy to adapt to the circumstances they find themselves in – not unlike Terrie tonight, in fact.

On one tour in Ethiopia, they recorded versions of songs by their favourite local singers and released them on a cassette that came with the new Ex album on the other side – although many of these tapes simply seem to have been donated to local taxi drivers who act as mobile soundsystems in a country not overburdened by infrastructure, entertainment media etc.

As marketing initiatives go, giving tapes to taxi drivers is not really up there with Nestle handing out free milk formula, but I guess we’ll see its success or otherwise in a few years when the Top 10 is dominated by thoughtful, energetic, life-affirming Ethiopian post-rock jazz bands doing sensitive cover versions of They Shall Not Pass, White Liberals and This Car is My Guest.

“Africa has 55 countries, I think, at the moment, and Ethiopia is the only one that has never been a colony” says Terrie. “It makes a big difference. They’re very themselves. We took a Christian Ethiopian musician on tour, and he was unbelievably anarchic in his head. We play somewhere and they’ve never seen anything like it. It’s very different and very happening.”

I ask another of Dunstan’s questions. How do you respond creatively when all around you the world is going to hell in a handcart? I add my own trenchant analysis: I mean the Ex are antithesis of Trumpworld.

Imagine how long it took me to wrap my tongue around the word ‘antithesis’.

“In our whole 40-year career,” begins Terrie, before correcting himself. “Er, career? I’m from Holland. I don’t know what that means!”

“In our whole 40 years of playing, 40 years of being rockstars – there, I said it – always the countries where things have gone really bad, then when you go and play, it always seems to have some great effect.

“We’d be in Switzerland where it was all boring and stupid and funny, and then you get to America, and it’s crazy. It means something. At the end of the Communist times, we went to Russia, which was kind of kind of underground, we were the first western band in Poland, and we played illegally in Czechoslovakia, but all these countries where it is very difficult, the music is even stronger. It means something more. It’s fascinating.

“Despite your struggles, it gives you strength. When people get together, it allows you to make something beautiful. That’s what makes the best gigs. That’s the whole point.”

“Around the world, you have all these new rock clubs and venues, with dressing rooms four storeys high, and you have to go in the elevator, and they are horrible places,” says Terrie.  “Then it can be very hard to make it all happening. I’d rather play here or in simple places, outside of that, where you don’t have security kicking everyone out after the gig. It’s fucking stupid.”

There’s a part of me that thinks that, climate change aside, the world isn’t any better or worse than it has ever been. It just seems like everything is going so spectacularly tits up because, with Brexit, Trump and Putin, it’s starting to happen to us in Europe and America.

The Ex have always worked with people at the sharp end, people who have to deal with everything in their lives changing overnight simply because some salaryman on the other side of the world puts profit before people once again. The Ex’s approach to dealing with the world today is probably exactly the same as it has always been – listening, talking, creating a dialogue, and seeing what happens next.

In the UK, we are fortunate that we have yet to experience the level of upheaval that people in Congo, Kurdistan or Ethiopia deal with on a daily basis, but sometimes it just seems like a matter of time. The only difference between us and them is that they’ve been living through this shit for years.

There are plenty of things to talk about. We’ve just seen them perform entirely new material that at first hearing (and on reflection), sounds as good as anything I’ve ever heard from them before. They seem like they’ve never been more relevant and yet, I’m still going on about how things used to be, which is perhaps even ruder than turning up pissed.

Inexplicably, I suddenly get worked up about soaping stamps so you could wipe off the postmark and reuse them, and how that’s very different to digital distribution. It’s insightful stuff. And all of this has something to do with people now being more aware of the links between commercial, political and military power, even though we knew about them then and really, when you think about it, the 70s and 80s got us nowhere.

Yeah, me neither. Terrie is just straight up laughing at me now.

Fortunately, he knows a good deal more about this whole subject than me, having attended his first demo – against the Vietnam war – in the mid 70s.

“In the 80s, in the squat movement, you’d always get the people who want to change everything. But I meet Muslim Ethiopian musicians with much more of a free spirit than some of the activists I know.

“For us, it is much more moving to improvise your ideas, using fantasy and humour, and in the end, that’s strong also. And often much stronger than the political ideas. But it’s good to have different people, including political people, involved. They bring their own energy and their own fantasy. Do you know what I mean?

“I meet people from Ethiopia or Congo or wherever, who only know people from their village, and yet still, from that little information they have, there’s this incredible free spirit, and you learn from that also. They don’t know Donald Trump, they don’t know America sometimes even, they do things differently. They haven’t been told.

“And they can be more anarchist than someone who has been studying it. That’s a fascinating, moving thing. And that is the attitude we have in our music, I think.”

This is the last question, I tell a clearly relieved-looking Terrie. That famous Dutch tolerance can only stretch so far, and he’s been very patient.

Who inspires you?

“We’re lucky that we know this jazz drummer – Han Bennink, he’s called. He’s 75 and he’s been playing since he was eight. He can only play drums. He is a total free spirit. Whenever we do something normal, he moves out of it. Ah! He’s 75, and every day I learn from him.

“And Getatchew Mekuria. He came from the countryside in Ethiopia, he never went to school. He just heard a saxophone on the radio and decided he wanted to play saxophone. When he was 15, he went into a police marching band. And then he made jazz records.

“Yeah. Those people are interesting.”

Actually, this is the last question. No, really. And it’s another one from Dunstan.

I quote: Please could you do a cover version of Taylor Swift’s Look What You Made Me Do? I’m not even joking, it would be fucking awesome.

Terrie laughs long and loud.

“Yes, you are right Dunstan!”

Thank you very much Terrie.

“Oh, it’s finished?”

 

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