What a joyous racket this is!
Except itâs not a racket really but a machine of discordant guitars and stunning, tumbling drums combining with a brass section in a series of songs that combine completely different types of music into something so startlingly original and powerful that it has a packed room dancing
The Ex are onstage at ATP and the room is packed and everyone is smiling or dancing to this most unlikely of dance bands who have defied everything to become, along with Shellac, the key band at the whole festival.
Somehow the Ex have managed to take their clanking, grinding machine like groove and turned it into some kind of highly original, post punk party music. Without watering down those abrasive edges they play a music that somehow manages to combine their initially very harsh, rhythmic Dutch take on punk rock with Ethiopian rhythms, rolling African drums and elements of folk and street musics from round the planet and tonight they are armed with this outrageous brass section that skronks and grunts and free jazz’s itself all over them. It then swings across the whole damn thing and makes a stunning rush of a sound that should be blasted out from Jools Hollandâs Later as proof that being inventive and original don’t get in the way of a good time.
The Ex have 33 1/3 years of history behind them and sound fresher than most bands starting off a few months ago. There is such a joy about their playing and their creativity that it makes your hair stand up on end even more than usual and the room is full of sweaty grins.
The Ex came out of the post punk band punk scene in Holland- a surprisingly fertile and vibrant wave of bands of all styles of punk with the Ex initially taking the Crass road and sound tracking the vibrant squat scene of the time. They quickly found their own sound with Terrie- the original aural geurillaâs scratching, scraping, battered guitar becoming a marker for the band sound and a constant mainstay in the fluctuating line up.
By the time the Membranes played with them in the mid eighties the band were several albums in and were the musical representatives of a whole lifestyle.
Those squat gigs we played together were something else- a squat in the UK was usually a drugs den- in Holland it was a nation of its own, with TV stations, rehearsal rooms and a whole alternative lifestyle being lived to the full. There were squats in banks, there were squats in power stations and all the time the Ex were central to it all with their stripy shirts and big Maloney boots and those half mast trousers and those endless colliding riffs.
We played many gigs with them in Holland and in the UK and I was always stunned by their musical brilliance and the making of that sound with their scratching, scraping guitars, they were fascinated by our drummer, Coofy Sidâs, cowbell which he discarded a couple of years later whilst the Exâs Kat turned it into an art form. In those days they would stand stock still on stage but within a couple of years would have that zigzagging across the stage in an anti rock set of moves that define them now with their bodies twisting into approximation of those incessant zig zag wandering riffs.
We would always stay in the squatted house in the middle of the Dutch countryside in Wormer which, when we initially went there, was in the middle of nowhere with a lake behind it full of croaking frogs. It seemed like a magical place and even had its own priest hole which I slept in one night.
These were the days of the band driving around Europe in their fire engine and their crazy dog called Pelon with its teeth growing backwards though its head.
They had that sense of possibilities that self taught musicians have- that lack of fear of the impossible, that lack of restriction, some of the songs are improvised, some of the are set in stone around those taut wire grooves.
Since those days when they were the key band of the squaterati the band have gone through several line up changes before settling on Terrie. Andy from the Dog Faced Hermanâs and Kat on drums- this core is decades in and the tight machine of the twin baritone guitars of Andy and Terrie is marvelous to behold. Hands fly and and these shrapnel rhythms switch backwards and forwards but itâs Kat’s drums that are really mind blowing- she is one of the best drummers Iâve ever seen with a barrage of complex rhythms played in a way that makes them danceable and eerily simple. Her rhythms are a long way from the 4/4 of contemporary rock and incorporate so called world music and mainly African rhythms into a chemical soup that becomes very much her own sound.
New singer Arnold De Boer from the band Zea replaced the great Jos, who was one of the band originals, and has put his own stamp on affairs with a more melodic and less direct, punk voice that gives the songs a new flavour. His sweat-shod frame is quite a contrast to the intensity of Jos- not better just different.
The Ex in 2012 are some beast- they take all their styles tonight and really push them with the brass section, there is a Hungarian folk song that sounds magical when sung by Kat’s beautiful voice, an Ethiopian Ethiopiques cover, tracks off the current album sounding like real monsters with those infernal twin guitars clanking and grinding, there are Ex classics like State Of Shock which is twisted again by the brass section or the more current Double Order with its simple beep beep guitar motif and twanging sections being one of the best things they have ever written- it all sounds wonderful.
This is a band at the top of its game, operating outside any rules and making their own highly original music that has the added inventive magic of a unit that have played together for years.
The first time I saw them play his festival it was in this very room when a handful of people enjoyed them- a decade later they ram the big hall out. Itâs a victory for all non conformists- The Ex, with zero hype and bullshit and with zero bending to the muddy pond of fashion have become pretty popular whilst their music still carries the spirit and the hope of the squat culture they grew out of and they carry the real message of punk from all those decades ago- that there are no boundaries and no permissions needed to create great artâ¦