Music Preview: Fire still burns in The Ex

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Xavier Hallauer
The Ex's stop here is its second date on its first U.S. tour in two years.
'The Ex'
With: DJ Rupture, Allies, Xanopticon.
Where: Garfield Artworks.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
Tickets: $15; $12 at the door, 412-361-2262

It seems like the natural course for a band is to become more commercial or, at least, more accessible over time. It happened to Gang of Four. A decade later, it even happened to Sonic Youth.

And then there's The Ex.

When so many post-punk bands greeted the '80s by toning down or turning to disco, the legendary agitprop punk band from Amsterdam started to stir in avant-garde jazz, industrial, noise and influences from Africa and even Kurdistan.

It was a fiercely uncompromising course for a band that never had its eye on rock stardom.

"That generation of punks sold out very quickly," guitarist Andy Moor says referring to The Clash and The Sex Pistols. "It started out as a powerful movement and very quickly the record companies scooped them all up. Even the second generation, the post-punks, though less than the first, went in that direction. I actually found that period of punk, from '79 to '83, much more interesting. You had The Slits and The Fall and Gang of Four and The Birthday Party. Their first records were all experimental. The Pistols and The Clash sound like rock music to me, a bit like the Stones or something. But that next generation sounded like something new and really fresh. But they didn't seem to last. I guess The Mekons and The Fall are the only bands from that time that still operate."

The Ex came to life in 1979 as squatters playing primal anarcho-punk with frantic beats, stabbing guitars and political rants about "Stupid Americans," racism, oppression in El Salvador and the arms buildup -- similar topics as the Clash, but without the hooks.

Rather than spoonfeed these messages to the public with the sugar, The Ex chose the route of noise terrorism.

"I think it's because maybe we took the message of punk seriously," says Moor. "The message was to do it yourself and [bleep] the majors and not get caught in this corporate loop. It's like you sign your death contract when you do that. You get money, but you lose control of your musical destiny. The Ex took that idea seriously, especially the message that Crass put out: that you can do it on your own and you can survive on your own and make music you want to. The Ex wasn't offered any deals from majors anyway, so they never had to decide."

Moor thinks Dutch culture, so different from British and American, played a role in how The Ex operated.

"There's a practical level to how the Dutch do things that's fantastic. They're thinking is, you can do anything yourself, whether it's repairing cars or building bits of your house, so the idea of DIY existed in a much more real way."

Moor wasn't in the band while The Ex was making those first leaps beyond punk. He was in a Scottish band, Dog Faced Hermans, that operated in very much the same way as The Ex.

"The Ex were my favorite band before I joined them. We were like kindred spirits. When we saw them for the first time, in Sheffield, we were completely shocked. We couldn't believe how close we were."

When Dog Faced Hermans took a hiatus in 1990, The Ex invited Moor to join them in Holland just in time for their collaborations with avant-garde cellist Tom Cora. He says they found common ground in the '90s with avant-garde and jazz musicians, who were also very autonomous and free.

"We were drawn to that and they were probably drawn to us in a different way. They could see we were not jazz musicians and nowhere near as virtuosic as they were but that we had a great passion for music and were very free when we played."

That same sense of adventure and improvisation extends to the band's latest project, a collaboration with Getatchew Mekurya, a 75-year-old saxophonist from Ethiopia. Moor and Terrie found a cassette of his several years ago while in Ethiopia and had never heard anything like it.

"It was like a saxophone replacing a voice, just singing these melodies, and then a piano and bass and snare and an organ. Very, very nice tunes," Moore says. "We heard this and listened to it for a few years. You wouldn't imagine an Ethiopian sax player would be interested in The Ex. But he saw us play and he liked it. For him it was was uncompromising loud music and there's nothing like it in Ethiopia."

The Ex-Mekurya union, which spawned a tour and the CD "Moa Anbessa," is just one of the projects occupying The Ex and its members. The band also just released "Singles. Period.," a collection of songs from 1980 to 1990, and is the onstage band for a Dutch-language version of "A Clockwork Orange" in Holland. Moor has also been working with Barcelona's DJ Rupture, who will open the show at Garfield Artworks on Saturday.

It's the second date on The Ex's first U.S. tour in two years, and the band will turn up as a four-piece, without recently departed bassist Rozemarie. Although The Ex has gone through so many different ventures, some things haven't changed.

"We still make music in the same way as we always have which is going into the practice room with big question marks over our heads, wondering what the next set is going to be," Moor says. "There's hardly anything every planned in advance. We just start improvising and build from that. I guess our playing has developed a bit, I hope, after 27 years."

The politics, he says, remain as passionate as ever.

"It's less black and white, but it's still very heavy politically, especially about U.S. policy and a new Dutch liberal tolerance that's a disguise for something else. We're not political activists because we're busy making music, but the text is still very strong and the way we work is still the same. Not one tells us what to do."


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