The Ex: Forty Years of Innovation and Rebellion
In 2019 the legendary Dutch underground band The Ex is forty years old. As befits this whimsical group, always changing their image, they’re celebrating with both feet firmly planted in the present. As ever, socially critical, faithful to their DIY principles and with a musical view of the world.
The Ex: the name says it all. There’s a past they’ve extricated themselves from and now a new future awaits, in new surroundings, with new people. The band bearing the name The Ex in 2019 is in many respects completely different from The Ex in 1979. To start with, of the four current members, only guitarist Terrie Ex (pseudonym of Terrie Hessels) was present for their first performance at a punk festival in Castricum, when they only had a name and no instruments, let alone any idea how to play them.
Forty years on, that’s certainly changed. Yet on the latest album 27 Passports, produced in 2018, the band still play as if they’re coming up with their fresh, angular sound on the spot: the drums go in fits and starts, the guitars are atonal and wild, and the catchy tunes of guitarist and singer Arnold de Boer have the same simple effectiveness as those of the Ethiopian and Ghanaian musicians they regularly tour and play with. In forty years they may have created an awe-inspiring oeuvre between them, but during the anniversary festivals of which they’re organising several this year they’re exclusively playing numbers from 27 Passports. The Ex doesn’t play its old repertoire; as they freely admit, they would struggle to remember how the songs even went.
It’s remarkable that in 27 Passports the melodies of De Boer are so defining, as he only joined the band in 2009, replacing G.W. Sok (pseudonym of Jos Kleij), who had been the face of the band for thirty years, with his biting spoken singing, strongly engaged lyrics and Dadaist word games. Where most bands undergo such a dramatic transformation at most once in their existence, it was a piece of cake for The Ex. Band members have come and gone over forty years, partly because their tour schedule remains intense and depends more on enthusiasm than financial stability, partly to stay fresh artistically. There’s a reason why The Ex’s best-known and best-selling album is Scrabbling At The Lock, produced in 1991, a collaboration with American avant-garde cellist Tom Cora, in which hints of Eastern European folk melodies clash with grating post-punk. Equally popular are the two albums the band made with Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekuria, Moa Anbessa and Y'Anbessaw Tezeta, cocktails of driving riffs and exotic jazz.
Do it yourself
Guest musicians form themes that permeate The Ex’s oeuvre. Initially they were largely friends from the Amsterdam squatter and punk scene; later the band discovered kindred spirits in jazz improvisation. The ambitious double album Joggers & Smoggers (1989) includes trombonists Ab Baars and Wolter Wierbos, alongside Sonic Youth guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo. The experimental album Instant (1995) even consists entirely of short free improvisations with Baars, Wierbos, improv drummer Han Bennink and percussionist Michael Vatcher. For guitarists Terrie and Andy Moor, interest in jazz improvisation goes even further. They have played increasingly freely and regularly take part in the free jazz circuit, among others with their side project Lean Left, including free jazz drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and saxophonist Ken Vandermark.
If there is something that unites the world of 1980s punk and jazz improvisation, it’s the Do-It-Yourself, ethic that permeates everything The Ex does. Hessels, Kleij and drummer Kat Ex (Katrin Bornefeld) met in the Amsterdam squatting scene of the early '80s and Hessels still lives in an abandoned villa in Wormerveer. Producing records, designing covers, organising performances; The Ex have been doing it all themselves since the very beginning. Even the many guest musicians can be explained by this principle: in the end those wanting to work outside the establishment need friends.
Oeuvre of anomalies
It may also be down to the DIY approach and constant transformations that despite their solid track record much of The Ex’s work has been forgotten. The band doesn’t have a single undisputed masterpiece and their records are therefore constantly forgotten when journalists compile lists of classics. One of the few think pieces to be found about The Ex is an essay published in 2015 about the record Mudbird Shivers on the Chicago blog Popmatters. Mudbird Shivers (1995) is one of The Ex’s many forgotten records, a strange, experimental masterpiece from a brief period in which Hans Buhrs joined the band as second frontman and pulled the sound towards Beefheartian blues; the kind of expansion involving hierarchical shake-up on a scale that only a band like The Ex would so much as consider. The record is an anomaly within an oeuvre that on closer examination consists solely of anomalies, and in that sense it’s just as suited to be The Ex's Great Masterpiece as any other of their records.
Limited discography of The Ex
Playing for connoisseurs
In 2019, music is all about beginners and legends: young bands receive all the attention until they are written off after their second or third album. The pitch is otherwise reserved for musicians who have been going since at least the 1990s and are carefully exploiting their own history. Pretty well every band that has lasted longer than ten years has already been on tour playing a classic album from start to finish, often accompanied by a luxury reissue with bonus tracks and a replica of the guitarist’s first plectrum. So far only The Ex have carefully sidestepped their own canonisation – even in an anniversary year such as this – because it is diametrically opposed to their own artistic philosophy. It’s a stubbornness that means the band will always continue to play for an audience of connoisseurs, whom they have had to find for themselves and who are attracted by that stubbornness. It remains to be seen whether they’ll reach the history books that way, but it doesn’t much matter. The Ex are playing now. Go and see them.