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A Quietus Interview

Brass Unbound Tour Preview: The Ex Interviewed
Frances Morgan , January 28th, 2010 11:34

The Ex and Brass Unbound tour kicks off tomorrow night, so Frances Morgan had a chat with the band's Andy Moor

In Dutch director Johan van der Keuken's 1993 documentary Brass Unbound, musicians from former colonial countries reappropriate the brass instruments used by military bands and cobble together their own marching, dancing, collective music. It's easy to see how this meeting of pragmatism, defiance and joyful, hard-edged sound appealed to van der Keuken's countrymen and women The Ex, who've borrowed the film's title for their upcoming tour with brass and wind musicians Mats Gustafsson, Roy Paci, Ken Vandermark and Wolter Wierbos.

Emerging from Amsterdam's anarcho-punk scene in the late 1970s, The Ex quickly dispensed with the idea that radical music need be ascetic, clumsy, restricted; instead, vocalist GW Sok's free-ranging polemical lyrics were set to collisions of spidery guitar and insistent percussion, Balkan-influenced wind and strings, concrete sounds and tensile funk. Collaborations throughout the last three decades with musicians ranging from Thurston Moore, composer and cellist Tom Cora, free jazz drummer Han Bennink and Ethiopian sax legend Geatchew Mekuria have not only kept their music ebullient and fresh, but also traced a kind of cartography of free music and what that term means, across genres and continents.

The thirty-year story of The Ex is not one of meteoric rise and fall, nor of obscurity and rediscovery, but one of perpetual and purposeful motion – travelling, to use the phrase that titles their recent compilation release, forward in all directions. I caught up with guitarist Andy Moor, formerly of The Ex's Scottish compadres Dog Faced Hermans, in the brief period of time between his latest trip to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and the Brass Unbound tour. A new single is out on 8 February, then the band – currently a four-piece consisting of Moor, guitarist Terrie Hessels, drummer Katherina Bornefeld and new vocalist Arnold de Boer – will be off to Chicago to record a new album with Steve Albini.

The Ex will make you feel lazy. And then, galvanised.

What were you up to in Ethiopia?

Andy Moor: It started off that we went there to play: that was an entirely spontaneous thing suggested by Ethiopians we knew who lived in Amsterdam. Bands hardly ever go there, so we went to check it out and try to organise things – that was in about 2001. We just came with all the equpiment and the van and pretty much set gigs up as we were going. Since then we've been going back and bringing other musicians. Usually we play a bit, and last year we brought Silent Block, a French electroacoustic band that has all sorts of contraptions for making sounds. This year we decided to bring horns. It was great because we also brought someone who to repair horns, which we hadn't done before.

Was that because you had noticed people with instruments, but not enough places to get them fixed?

AM: Yes, it was really obvious it was needed. And for Friso [Heidinga, of Amsterdam Winds repair shop] it was amazing because he had never been to any African country before. He has people coming into his shop in Amsterdam all the time, jazz musicians complaining about a little bit of play on one of the valves or something, a micro-millimetre out, and suddenly he has people with valves that haven't worked for ten years, and this saxophone player could play again who hadn't been able to for so long. He worked quite quickly, doing rough repairs, but it really made a difference. There is one good saxophone repair guy there, but he just didn't have equipment, so Friso gave him some things and some advice. And he wants to go back and do more! He was only there a week, with so many people coming to him – he was like a doctor!

When you've invited people to Ethiopia, have you mostly found that they want to go back, that you've started a momentum there?

AM: It depends on the person. Some people are really into it, and some people got complete culture shock. They started amazed by it, but after a while they went a bit quiet and you could see that they were experiencing culture shock, which I really didn't think people experienced anymore.

Did you experience that yourself when you first went there?

AM: I loved it. I think I experienced a bit of culture shock, and it was quite overwhelming. But I'm used to travelling a lot as a musician, and also I travelled a lot when I was young anyway, so I know what that feeling is, when it's a bit overwhelming, and the difference is whether it overwhelms you to a point where you start panicking and you don't feel like leaving your hotel room. And I never had that, and the same with Terrie. I think that's because we're used to travelling and ending up in a different place every night when we play.

So what kinds of places did you play in Addis Ababa?

AM: We played in a jazz school and the music school, and also in the National Theatre. Also there's a French bar called Batteau Ivre which is nice. I mean, it's changing a bit there. There's a big music industry, but it's completely Ethiopian – thousands of CDs are coming out, there are some artists that sell a lot, but it's all Ethiopian language stuff.

What's it like? is it pop music or more traditional?

AM: The singing is very traditional still, you can hear that it comes from traditional music. But they use a lot of quite cheesy synth and drum programming because they don't have much experience...I think they go in the studio and use what's there, and the producer says, you should try this and this. The music is great but sometimes the sound and the production are awful. We were thinking next time one idea could be to go there and start showing kids how to record stuff and make their own sound.

Have you ever thought to do a guitar trip there, as a guitarist?

AM: Actually, we haven't done that... it's a bit to do with the kind of guitar I play: it's never occurred to me to teach someone else to play the same way Terrie or I play, because it's personal and it's not really to do with technique or virtuoisty, so I wouldn't know what to teach. I've been asked a couple of times to do workshops and I often think, I don't want you to play how I play, and I don't want to teach you scales...I usually end up talking a bit or just playing together.

I think anyone who plays guitar, however they play, it's quite a personal, introspective instrument, even just the way it's held, for instance. Whereas brass instruments have this history of being played in big groups. Brass to me symbolises communal music.

AM: That's a good way of looking at it. Either big ensembles, or jazz, it's immediately associated with jazz too. But then it's nice to find musicians who have a personal sound – that's why we chose the ones we did, because they feel to me like they really have a character. Also when we play with Getachew Mekuria, the Ethiopian saxophone player, you can hear right away that it's him, he approaches it in such a personal way. It's not to do with virtuosity, that's really not our interest at all.

So how did the group for the tour come about?

AM: Well, it's not a band that existed before. We just chose those musicians and gave it a name: Brass Unbound is the name of this film about horn bands all over the world – in Surinam, in India – and it's mostly also horn bands who made their own horns. We chose [the musicians] because we know them and we've played with all of them a lot. John Butcher was also considered, but the volume would have been a bit much for him – it's going to be a loud band, and I think all these horn players are able to deal with loud volume. But they're still really senstive musicians, it's not like they're just into volume or playing hard.

Is it mostly going to be improvised or are you going to start from particular songs?

AM: We're working with Ex songs we've already written, so it's going to be a mixture of them playing horn section lines that fit with the arrangement of the songs, and bits where we leave it free and open. The idea is that it ends up being like – we met this taxi driver once, in Dublin, and he was asking us, how would you describe your music? And we couldn't really describe it. He said, I think it's loud, but fragile. And I thought that was a good way of describing what we hope it'll be: it's not only to do with being full-on and powerful, it should also be open and delicate.

To me the word "fragile" suggests the quality of communication, because if one of you stops communicating, or steps outside the group in some way, it'll all go wrong.

AM: Yeah, and it's with musicians who are quite powerful, especially with the horn section, they have quite powerful egos, so the idea that we have to stay together as a group and keep in constant communication – that's a fragile balance, always. It's not a given that it works; just because you put together your favourite musicians it doesn't mean that you get your favourite music. So basically we have two days of rehearsal with everyone, and we have to work on that! But we chose those musicians because they can do that. They will also sometimes pull the carpet out from underneath us, and do something completely unrelated, but that's also interesting. I have no idea how it's going to sound! [laughs]

In The Ex you have this long history of collaboration, it's been such a big part of the group, so I guess the practice of collaboration, of finding the right people, must be something you're used to.

AM: Choosing the right musicians, and making the kind of set that works with those people, and also the order – the order is very important, because we think in terms of songs, but also in terms of one large tension build for the whole set. The order of the songs is as important as the songs themselves, and how we connect them, the spaces between them, because then people have a whole experience from a gig. That's why we don't stop between songs, because we're trying to build a whole story. There shouldn't be these big, long gaps where people are tuning up, because for us that always feels like the tension completely drops.

That idea of a narrative that goes over a set, that's something I often find talking to bands in which people haven't come to music through traditional routes or training. You often find this sense of narrative instead. You were talking earlier about playing the guitar in your own way, as Terrie does also, and I was wondering how you communicate with musicians who've perhaps had a more trained background.

AM: Well, I guess what happens is that we make fun of each other a lot! [laughs] I think when we were younger we were a little bit afraid of one another...As you get older you can find a way of communicating sort of by teasing or by pushing. Like when we play with some of the jazz musicians and we do something a bit rough, they'll just go, ah, typical punk rocker, or something, and we'll say, we're not a jazz band! We make jazz/punk jokes all the time; in a way we communicate with each other by doing that, and it works. But for me, the main argument is that when we make a set which has this kind of tension, and we don't want gaps between the songs, sometimes a musician who isn't so sensitive to that will say, look, I think the music speaks for itself, you don't have to worry about the gaps, you're caring too much about the audience. And I think the opposite: I think that you have to care about the audience, totally. The music does speak for itself, but sound is also important and tension is important and the energy you give out is important. It's not like all those things are a given just because the music is written and it's good. For me that's not enough. The great concerts that I've seen are when all those things combine and they work together. But that's quite hard to argue with someone that's had a really classical training, where they believe that the beauty of it is the actual composition.”

What's your relationship with improvisation, seeing as you started off playing punk rock? How did you come to be interested in other forms of music?

AM: Well, the thing is, I never started off playing punk rock [laughs]. I don't even think The Ex did. They started the band in the punk era so it was more that they started a band at that time. But quite quickly they realised that that's not all there is. I started playing music live in 1983, which is much more like the New Wave time, and we [Dog Faced Hermans] were listening to jazz, to Don Cherry and Art Ensemble of Chicago. We saw them play in Edinburgh, in Queen's Hall, and we'd never seen anything like it. But we wanted to play electric instruments. In Dog Faced Hermans we had a trumpet, drummer, bass and guitar, we played Don Cherry songs and Roland Kirk songs, but very, very loud and quite fast, so it sounded like punk. But we never described ourselves as punk because we felt that would limit what we were. We have it a bit still, that people think The Ex is an anarcho-punk band.

I think the reason we got into improvising was because the way we were making our songs, the creative source of it was improvisation. We would go into a rehearsal space and we didn't have any ideas in advance. We would start playing and record it and listen, and over a few months we would make a set. We discovered in the beginning that we were improvising, and at a certain point we thought, let's try to do that on stage. We hardly ever do that with The Ex as a band, but as individual musicians, like me and Terrie did our first tour where we just went on stage as duo and played for 20 minutes without knowing what we were going to do. At first it was terrifying, in a way you're really exposing yourself, but we had some kind of confidence because we'd been playing together long enough to know that on some level it would work.

The Ex has been playing most recently as a four-piece, with a new vocalist – how does it feel without Jos [GW Sok] in the band?

AM: It feels like a relief in a way, because the last few years we could feel that he wasn't very inspired. So in a way we've experienced a big loss, but we've also experienced a liberation a bit: he feels liberated and I think we do too. It's hard when you do something for so long to leave – partly because it's terrifying, and partly because you don't want to let the rest of the musicians down. At first we thought we would start just as a trio, instrumental, but there's so much instrumental music, and the thing about The Ex that I like is this focus on a singer with words. We were lucky to find Arnold.

You've played with him before, is that right?

AM: Yeah, we knew him. He'd also been to Ethiopia with us once. It was also good timing because he was splitting with his group [Zea] at that time. We make music in a similar way.

You're recording an album this spring with Steve Albini. Do you feel like you're ready for it yet, or are you still working things out?

AM: We've been playing with Arnold for a year now and half the songs that we play with him were songs we were playing with Jos that we'd never recorded. We tend to play the songs live for at least a year and then record them because they change – they just get better and better from playing. So we're definitely ready to record!

For full details of the The Ex and Brass Unbound tour, click here