THE EX: TURNING BRAINS UPSIDE DOWN
illustration by angie samblotte
Genre-spanning Dutch quartet The Ex have a 35-year history of forward thinking experimental collaborations and thrilling live performances. Though their instrumentation has remained rooted in rock—just bass, guitar and drums—they’ve managed to interweave elements of European folk, African rhythm and melody and free jazz in thoughtful and fresh ways, often as a consequence of the places they’ve traveled and friends they’ve made. The Ex ooze positivity, take care to avoid the pitfalls of nostalgia, and offer some very sound advice for anyone hoping to keep the punk fire burning after decades on the road. (Hint: eat well.) They perform on Fri., Oct. 30, at the Roxy. This interview by Christina Gubala.
What is your favorite album of all time?
Arnold de Boer (vocals): The first thing that comes to my mind—it’s always different for me, personally. Tomorrow will be different from today. But right now is Ethiopiques Vol. 14—Getatchew Mekurya. It’s a series of Ethiopian music and it’s from the 60s and 70s, the golden age of the Ethiopian jazz and swing music. And in this series there is number 14 with all the music of Getatchew Mekurya, the saxophone player that we’ve also played with and made two albums with. That record, I think we all agree, is super special. The story is that they made it with the intention of making an album that was really good to play in restaurants! It’s totally screaming and obnoxious and urgent and also super beautiful, and a keyboard that is like a rock ‘n’ roll organ, and then Getatchew really going all the way and breaking all borders you can imagine. It’s a fantastic album.
The Ex as a band—and you specifically—have affiliations with Ethiopia, but there’s also some Ugandan riffs that were referenced in some earlier projects. Are there other destinations in Africa you hope to travel to and explore the music?
Arnold de Boer: Terry, the guitar player, with Emma, his girlfriend, wife, they traveled through the whole of Africa for a year, more or less—they were seeing almost half of the countries. There is a village in the Congo that has a lot of Ex cassette tapes. There’s exchange anyway with them! This was in the mid-90s. It’s complicated, but at one time, the car they were with got stuck, and a lot of people from the small village helped them to push the car out of the mud. And in exchange to thank them, Terry left a lot of Ex cassettes in that village. None of us has ever been back there, but maybe …
There’s a passionate fan contingent there?
Arnold de Boer: You never know who is inspired by the Ex! We played in Egypt a few years ago. That was quite interesting because it was a festival of new music, set up by the people after the first revolution on the Tahrir Square. At the point they decided to do the festival, they were super happy because it seemed like there was gonna be some sort of a change and more freedom. So they invited us to play the festival but at the moment we came to play, there had already been a regime change. On the one hand, it was great to do the festival. On the other hand, all the people involved knew this was the only time they could do it and next year—the year after—it’d be impossible to do it again. It was a bit of an intense situation. But it was great to play. There were a lot of people and we played in an old cinema—it was fantastic.
It sounds very bittersweet.
Arnold de Boer: In a way—the moment you can do something and that night and the exchange with the music and the people there and all the stories, in itself was of course fantastic. So that’s good.
I can’t think of many bands that have played a festival on the eve of revolution. I would love to hear more about this. What’s it like for such a politically literate band to be put in that situation?
Arnold de Boer: People involved in that festival came from different countries from North Africa and the Middle East. Some of them lived in Europe before and had seen the Ex. The invitation was not based on The Ex’s political outspokenness from the 80s albums. I think those things lay more subtle and I think it was mostly a musical choice. It has to do with who we are and how we do things. That fits with a festival like the one in Egypt much better than with Lollapalooza, for example. We are part of an underground metro network and we ourselves are a station, too. We travel from station to station and these people set up a station in Cairo and we fit there. And Cairo was full of surprises too for us—we were not confident and outspoken, we were curious and surprised and went fully into the sound on the Friday at midday when the prayers came from hundreds of mosques.
You have a lot of experience on the festival circuit—how has festival culture changed in the last fifteen years?
Arnold de Boer: That’s a hard question to answer. Every now and then, we end up in festivals that are really special—not connected to LiveNation or something. Imagine a small village somewhere in the mountains where the local people are preparing calamaras and there’s no security and there’s only one cop who got really drunk the night before because he liked the music so much. That kind of festival culture … that’s from all times. Sometimes if we think there aren’t any good festivals around then we organize our own festival. That’s what we did last year. We called it the Ex Festival. Every now and then, luckily we end up quite a lot of times in places where people create festivals on a very simple human level. Not a big blah-blah-blah.
What is the least festival-like festival the Ex ever played, and what happened?
Arnold de Boer: I think of our show in Ankara, Turkey, which was not informal at all in the first place. The reason for the invitation was 400 years of cultural and trade relations between Turkey and the Netherlands. A few people working at the embassy were Ex fans from their youth and they suggested the Ex to come and play. All was well-organised but the place where we played in Ankara was tiny and we had to improvise with the sound system. Andy had to stand in front of the entrance since the stage was too small so people bumped into him all the time. But a hundred people were there and went wild, dancing and shouting. The people from the embassy were happily surprised, and it was a great night. This formal informality is great—there is always a way to leave the paved road with the signs and rules and that’s very important in music.
Why has the Ex lasted so song? What keeps you going?
Arnold de Boer: Making exactly the music you like to make, and keeping changing and don’t get stuck in some way mono-minded thing. That helps—variation helps. Not doing really long tours helps to survive! Eating good food helps. Like we’re having now for Kat’s birthday a very nice meal! And on tour also, playing in places where you meet people who have a heart for the music and do their best not only to get loads of people into the venue but also organizing it really nicely—having a good meal and a whole entourage of people, and as you go from place to place you are welcome. You have a direct human connection with the people who set up the show. Some people became really good friends through the years. That really helps as well. One thing is to always work on new music and to never create any borders, or accept any borders. And not doing any super-long tours. And Terry is also saying—what is quite important is not trying to have your band in some sort of expansional growth, a thing that you have to get bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger within two years or three years or blah-blah-blah. Try to not work with managers and lawyers. And don’t sign any contracts! Security is always dangerous! We don’t like security at the gigs, and they are there anyway! They don’t understand that we don’t like them to be there. Sometimes it gets a bit irritating on both sides. They usually have no idea what kind of situation they are in, and they behave like they’re in a warzone while the opposite is true—they’re in a place where music is happening. Then they start doing things that work so against the whole evening and the whole thing going on, and we don’t like that so we start to send them away. And of course they think they are the people who should send people away, so then they get confused and then we usually win! It happened a few times that security started to push the audience, and then we start pushing the security and then … it’s not something brag about! But that’s a thing that can be annoying.
The Ex has always had a political undertone. Do you find yourself leaning toward the political when you compose lyrics?
Arnold de Boer: I write the lyrics but it’s not something I do completely alone. Because the four of us are … we make the music together, so when I write lyrics, I write things that come to my mind, of course. But it has to do also with the four of us. I’d never use some lyrics that the three other people don’t connect to. And sometimes Andy comes with ideas or just says something in conversation that triggers an idea for lyrics. Because we speak English most of the time in the band because Andy is from the U.K., it’s not just only me and something that comes only from my mind. Then again, I don’t see it directly as a pure political thing. It’s more collected with the way we do things anyway. And that’s independent and everything. If some people think the ideas and the words that are in the song are political, that’s their take on it.
So more of a personal politics?