Liberation Music: Terrie Ex & Thurston Moore Live At Incubate
, September 12th, 2016 08:52
The spirit of punk rock is not to be found in obscure band T-shirts, screaming distortion, authentic sounding lyrics or pedal boards, argues John Doran. The real fireworks are created by nakedness and a true philosophy of liberation
With thanks to Joost Heijthuijsen
I had, for the longest of times, been convinced that Les Paul was, for all intents and purposes, the father of the electric guitar. That the tireless innovator and 20th Century audio maverick was the first to see the potential in attaching an electric pick up to a six string. That he had taken the revolutionary and counterintuitive step of abandoning the resonant hollow body in favour of the solid “log” design back at the dawn of the 1940s. But tonight, standing in the Little Devil metal bar near Tilburg’s train station I realise that there is no way that this can be true as Terrie Ex appears to be playing an instrument that is clearly several hundred years old.
I’m not a gambling man but I would stake money that this guitar was fashioned from part of the hull of King Henry VIII’s warship, the Mary Rose in 1503 and now must be sprayed with a fine mist of filtered, distilled water every night lest the timber it is hewn from shrinks and cracks. However the heavy amount of oxidation to the pickups, (surviving) machine heads and strings - what kind of guitar has rusty strings!? - suggests prolonged exposure to extremely wet conditions… those of a flood… an actual biblical flood. It seems entirely reasonable that when a dove carrying an olive branch was spotted from the lookout nest on Noah’s Ark, Shem used this very guitar to play an antediluvian rendition of ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ to the appreciation of many pairs of animals.
I’ll tell you how old his guitar is. Even members of NOMEANSNO and Charlie Harper of UK Subs would look at his instrument and go, ‘Damn… that is one ancient-ass guitar.’ Dear reader, I don’t want to stretch your credulity beyond breaking point but this guitar DEFINITELY features on the Bayeux Tapestry sticking (fatally) out of Robert The Magnificent’s chainmail bodkin; it ALMOST CERTAINLY is depicted in the Lascaux Cave Paintings, as the means by which Stig The Taciturn beats to death a mastodon; and it was VERY PROBABLY thrown arcing through the air by an angry hominin ape man called Ug while squatting in front of a large black monolith in the Kenyan Rift Valley at the dawn of humanity itself.
And it’s not just the age. Man alive, this instrument has seen some action. I’ve seen trebuchets, pyramid-shaped wooden DaVinci parachutes and scolds bridles that have weathered the centuries better than this… Les Paul? Fender? Flying V? BC Rich? It’s so worn down, it’s hard to tell. It’s an axe that looks like it’s been literally attacked with an axe. The bakelite scratchplate which was once obviously rectangular has been strummed violently so many times that it now looks like the exact outline of the state of Texas.
Over the years I’ve met some musicians who take a slightly cavalier approach to the care of their instruments. (Most memorably Jono Podmore of Metamono and Spoon records who admitted that he used his guitar stock to revitalise the glowing coals in his fire because he didn’t have a poker, giving his instrument a very authentic charred look.) But Terrie seems to have raised this to an artform.
And this characterful instrument is perfect for tonight’s show. Terrie, frontman of the brilliant and progressive NL punk band The Ex and a tireless ambassador for Ethiopian music in the West, is performing a solo show of guitar improv. I’m no expert in free improvised music played on the electric guitar and when watching it live often find myself counting techniques than actually losing myself in what’s going on. If I count past ten, I often find myself thinking, ‘Well… that’s something at least.’ With Terrie I get up to 20 before losing count entirely and then losing contact with the rest of the audience.
This is an artful and energetic performance which while dressed up as a utilitarian demonstration of hard work and technique, is also pure entertainment - the two things not being a binary choice. Terrie, dresses as if for a stint at the coalface with hobnail boots and three quarter length heavy canvas trousers. He stands, tensed in a parody of a rock iconoclast like Pete Townsend or London Calling-Paul Simonon, knees bent inwards, tense, ready to spring into action, muscles in forearms bulging, brow dripping with sweat. But everything about this is playful and not workmanlike. There is just a guitar plugged into an amp and nothing else. (There are two small props which get used toward the end but more of this in a second). But within this simple set up he explores a countless number of ideas. Every single inch of the guitar is a noise generating potential - including even the guitar strap which is pulled, yanked and whipped into generating sound.
This is fun but fun that is extracted at a physical price. His hands are evidence of this. They look exactly like my Dad’s hands when he still worked in a factory - a riot of welts, toughened skin, cuts, cracked nails and scar tissue. They are his interface with the machine. He uses a drum stick to beat out a reverberating echo of tone on the body of guitar but elects to jam his index finger between the fretboard and the bass strings of his guitar and then wrench it up and down the frets as - quite frankly - it seems less likely that his finger will splinter and snap than the drumstick.
Everything is valid. He picks up a poundshop glass tumbler decorated with bunches of green and yellow grapes to use as a slide but quickly abandons it for the much more effective stage edge (inadvertently clattering a photographer who gets a little bit too close to the action). The abstract finger tapping and string scraping, strumming and pummelling of every single part of the guitar - which makes contact with nearly every surface of his immediate environment - eventually becomes a hypnotic drone groove created by his tracing of a pattern on the stage with the headstock of the guitar. I look up to realise that half of the room - myself included - are dancing. The switch from abstract noise to groove happened without any of us noticing.
He stops to much applause and then says (in Dutch) something that amounts to: “I was supposed to be playing an improv duet tonight but the other person couldn’t make it, so now I’m going to play a duet with some fireworks.” He then gets a long strip of firecrackers, lights them and puts them in a large tin can. They ignite almost immediately and have finished making noise before he even manages to put his guitar back on, let alone play a single note. Acrid smoke pours out of the tin can and fills the entire venue, causing the audience to flee for the doors and an irate stage manager rushing to open up the fire exit to let the smoke out. Terrie leans against a wall with tears streaming out of his eyes beaming happily and shouting, “Sorry!” in English. And thus ends a short but brilliant set - one of the best of the weekend.
I’m not sure who was supposed to be duetting with Terrie but presumably not his old pal (and no stranger to electric guitar improv himself) Thurston Moore who is just down the road in Belgium playing a gig. The Thurston Moore Group are another shining highlight of Incubate festival when they headline 013 on Friday night.
Thurston Moore and Terrie go way back. Sonic Youth supported The Ex in the Netherlands back in the day, Thurston and Lee Ranaldo are guests on Joggers And Smoggers (1989) and in 2001, partial line-ups of both bands (along with members of the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra) recorded the In The Fishtank 9 free rock/noise LP together for Konkurrent. But more importantly than this, they share a philosophy which has remained enshrined - punk rock as the energy of liberation not a set of boring codified genre rules. And it is in philosophy only that their sets are similar.
Every large town and city in all of America and Europe (and many other places besides) has a band which is indebted to Sonic Youth - you can probably name ten off the top of your head without breaking a sweat. Ostensibly they sound Sonic Youth-esque but never get it right. What they play is "Sonic Youth" music. The TMG are a parallel group to Sonic Youth at their best sounding and not "Sonic Youth" sounding at all - European facing, clean (no distortion - the thing the copyists always get wrong; this is Krautrock not heavy metal or punk), an egalitarian mix of pop and the avant garde. As with Terrie’s set, there is a nakedness, a desire for the audience to be able to see and hear exactly how everything works. Nothing is hidden behind noise or texture - especially not the free ‘noise’ sections themselves. Everything is sculptured immaculately and sounds like a million dollars.
A lot of the material is new and earmarked for an album due out in 2017. I neglect to write down any of the titles and due to age and mental degradation I forget all of the song titles by the time I get home but this is great gear, like Glenn Branca teaming up with Michael Rother’s current live group to perform tracks that reference Sister and Evol, with great swathes of hard, ambient electric guitar noise. Moore has great support. I really like My Bloody Valentine but my suspicion that Debbie Googe is sometimes under utilised in that band is given some credence by the laser-sighted controlled aggression she applies to her role tonight and James Sedwards is, in many ways, the perfect foil for Moore.
One new track is dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite and exists in sublime harmony with the film the band play in front of depicting the violence of the surface of the Sun. I find the set exciting but, admittedly it does seem to divide the audience - with a small number of those hoping for some "Sonic Youth" perhaps leaving slightly early and slightly disappointed. Nevermind. I hear those Urban Outfitters Goo T-shirts are really good for soaking up tears.
Elsewhere at Incubate there are ‘real’ authentic punk shows to attend if this is your thing. They feature punk bands, manned by punk musicians who play punk songs and sell punk merch to punks after the show is over. They sound variously like Black Flag, Integrity and Suicidal Tendencies. It’s impossible to feel annoyed about this kind of battle recreation music and to attack them would be like attacking a perfectly nice bag of pickled onion flavour Monster Munch for not being a three course meal at L’Escargot.
One former punk musician playing the festival however, has strode intrepidly in the opposite direction away from nakedness, away from liberation towards codification and tiresome authenticity. Shadwick Wilde of the Quiet Hollers spends an eternity at the Cul De Sac venue sound checking, glancing at a massive pedalboard that flashes and blinks like the main control panel of the International Space Station. It sure does take a long time and a lot of expensive equipment to make a band sound like they’re a Pure Prairie League covers group who’ve just rocked up to a venue in a flatbed and are ready to kick some country rock butt, y’all. “There are a lot of other bands playing this festival”, says Wilde after the first song. “Are we the only ones using, y’know, words?” Haw haw haw. Yeah, those crazy avant garde groups with their crazy 'instrumental' music. One can only assume that Wilde neither declared his genius or his originality when passing through Dutch customs on his way to this gig however. This panic-ridden, middle aged hunt for authenticity was bullshit when Lou Reed released Growing Up In Public and it’s bullshit now.
Elsewhere, not using words and not worrying about any kind of authenticity that I recognise, Sam KDC of Grey Area, creates an astonishing mix of future facing techno, that eschews four to the floor rhythms, jaw dropping sound design, mind-boggling use of rhythm and, importantly, all noise and distortion. It is one of the most exciting, bewildering and heavy experiences I’ve had in years. Earlier the same day Trio Qasyon play (mainly) instrumental music from Egypt, Greece and Syria. Sisters Jawa, 19, and Shaza Manla, 12, play the oud and kanun (a type of Middle Eastern zither) respectively and are undoubtedly the overall highlight of the weekend. A year ago the pair were living in Aleppo. They were two of the lucky ones who managed to get away and find a country willing to take them in, to the extent that they can still play music and attend school - all of the stuff that most of us take for granted. Jawa is already a prodigy by any reasonable standards. She apologises for her excellent Dutch - a language she has picked up over the last 12 months. These are the people being described routinely in Europe's newspapers as vermin. These are the people we are trying to keep at bay in a NIMBY fluster.
I won’t do either the Syrian musicians or the American techno DJ the disservice of describing them as punk but they too, tower above the battle recreationist HC bods and the awful country rock plodders as true artists - those who make beautiful music that is both liberating and about liberation.