A Young Person’s Guide To Hitting Things: Katherina Bornefeld Of The Ex Interviewed

Our man in Rotterdam Richard Foster talks to Kat Bornefeld about her new album of healing music, Angeltalk, and a cassette called Abflug that has been many decades in the making

Portrait by Ineke Duivenvoorde

We are sat backstage in one of the many rooms at WORM, Rotterdam, the place I’m lucky enough to call my work. I’m announcer and DJ for the Rotterdam leg of The Ex 40 Festival; an anniversary tour of one of Europe’s most vital bands. As is tradition with The Ex, there is a pre-show coming together over food for all those involved with the production; from sound crew to hospitality, to the likes of artists such as Trash Kit, Zewditu Yohannes and Thurston Moore. People wander in and out, or tarry to catch up or to get better acquainted, to eat together, or to plan new schemes. The accent is on friendship. I can’t think of a better place to be.

I’m also here to interview Katherina Rijcken-Bornefeld, drummer for The Ex since 1984. Like everyone else in or connected with the band, Kat is a genial, down-to-earth soul, not much given to promoting her talents in the wonderful world of music business. Normally content to hammer out the life-affirming rhythms that inform so much of the band’s work, Kat has just released two LPs, one documenting past life and one concerned very much with the now. The first, Abflug, is a wonderful document of a time long past. The second, Angeltalk, recorded in the legendary (and often overlooked) Next To Jaap studios just north of Leiden, is an essential and deeply regenerative listen that documents another side to her life, that of a sound healer. This mesmerising release consists of two pieces that are as out of time as Steve Hillage’s Rainbow Dome Musick or T-Dream’s Zeit, and has found a home on Thurston Moore’s Daydream Library label.

I’ve known Kat for quite a while but never really had the chance to have a proper chat. Which says a lot about the mechanics around meeting up with popular musicians, where encounters are normally staged, rushed or frustratingly disparate. Resolving to put this right, we grab a seat in a corner and turn on the app…

Divine Energy

Kat, I open this new record Angeltalk, and see a set of instructions to take a lotus position. Then we are bombarded with Tibetan bowls, and gongs and rain sticks and a lot of other things. This is not what I was expecting. Tell me about this other side to you. I’m not sure many will know about this other music you make.

Katherina Bornefeld: [Laughs] Well, now you know! I call it healing music because next to my work in The Ex I have always been doing healing. These are my two passions. I always did them next to each other. And I have some education in healing and here, for me, music and healing come together. The yoga references you see in the sleeve notes are there because the yoga group I am in asked me to do a session with the Tibetan bowls. The meditation aspect of yoga fits in very well. I was able to use their room so I laid down on the mat and used the bowls, and gongs and a rainstick and an ocean drum. And started to work with the group.

I just feel what people need. It’s not premeditated, or a [musical] “composition”. It’s receiving in the moment. Normally it’s one-to-one and I can feel a person’s energy. Now of course there is a group energy [sat backstage at The Ex] and I can’t really tune in to all of it. But with this music, every time I play I wait until I have an idea of what is next. Then the music is gradually created in this manner.

Which is a very different way of looking at music, isn’t it?

KB: Oh yes very much so,

Normally people have an idea they try to perform and there is an endpoint. I’d presume musicians know vaguely where it is. But with this there is a sense of “blind drawing”.

KB: Yes, this is a totally different approach. But with musicians who are improvising it’s more or less the same, because you are trying to catch the energy in the moment. That’s not too far off. And if you are sensitive you can feel it, you have an idea what the audience wants. This feeling translates into my Tibetan bowls, I feel the energy that people come with.

How do you feel this energy and the resultant sound, is it communicated in colour, or a form of energy, or something else? How do these things make themselves manifest to you?

KB: Well to begin with I let myself take a lead. I start somewhere and new ideas come in all the time. I get the feeling, “Oh, now this ball wants to be played.” And I then have a variety of things I can do. I can hit them, or make them sing; you have these tools you can use on the bowls. When you rub them around the bowls and they produce this kind of ringing sound. With a gong I have mallets and rubber balls. You can makes noises which are really weird or spacey, they sound like a whale or dolphin.

On one level you never really escape the decision-making element of making music though. I just want you to define something; how do your decisions to act, to create sounds, resonate with the human being in front of you?

KB: Human beings are made of water; approximately 60 percent. And this water has an effect, a kind of ripple effect between us. How we healers see it, if a person has some problems or is ill, what it means is the energy is not flowing properly. That is illness. Illness means the energy is not flowing, it is restricted. You cramp up if you are fearful, or have sorrows. And that is what you can help with, and heal with sound. People relax with sound and music, because it helps them get back into their flow. And when you are back in your flow, that creates space for your core; for your heart and soul. Once you surrender the layers of pain and sorrow you can access everything what you need. In your inner core, you know what is best for you. You just have to allow it.

Maybe this helps explain The Ex to me a bit more. The Ex are open minded, not just a punk band. And maybe the centre of the Ex is your drum stool then. You set the spiritual course for the soul of The Ex. Will the others kill me for saying that?

KB: [Laughs] No, not at all! We, The Ex, are one body. Which means we are receptive, we interact with each other. What I do inspires the others to do something else. We always create this one thing happening. My part is the shamanic drumming. That is what I love and it comes naturally to me. I love the repetitive, trance stuff. And the band dynamics are great because of that [approach]. It brings you into other states of being where you can surprise yourself, when you let go. When you have a night where you can let go and the audience understands, it lifts everyone up, and you access another state of being. And I love those moments!

One more thing about the new LP Angeltalk, part of the Daydream Library series on Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace label. I always thought, what a great name for a label. And your record fits perfectly, because it is the sound of ecstatic peace! How did the release come about?

KB: I love this record coming out now on Ecstatic Peace! As you now know, apart from music, healing is my passion. I’ve recently been giving more and more ‘sound baths’ with my Tibetan bowls and gongs and so on. It’s a perfect way to release stress and to make space for your inner truth and knowing about what is good for you. And I’m happy to get the opportunity to provide this healing music to a broader audience. I think it’s needed.

And released at the same time as Abflug, on Terrie Hessels’s label.

KB: That is a total coincidence. Now, Terrie for ten years or more has been saying, “Oh this cassette, it should be released!” But there would always be another project that had to come first. And this is the weird thing, suddenly this year was the time to release. And at the same time, I had the record with Thurston. You know of course that we’ve worked with Thurston before. So it was one of those things that happens, we just got talking, Eva and Thurston and me. And when The Ex played in London they came to me and said, “Hey we’d love to make a record with your healing music”. And we just made it happen [laughs]. The really great thing is they come out in the same month! But I would say that is divine timing!

I love the links between the two, starting with the names, Angeltalk and Abflug. Both are very much drawn from the sky. We’ve been talking about one element, water, and here is a second. Is that a fair question to see the two LPs connected through their titles?

KB It’s total coincidence! The first title was determined in 1983, when we recorded the cassette. In those days, if you were in a new band, it was common to make a cassette and hand it out. In our case, my girlfriend Io and me, we had already decided to leave Stuttgart and abflug means take off, which was perfect because we were literally taking off to have a life somewhere else. And what is funny, last year, after 35 years I moved back to Germany! I need the hills and nature and scenery where I can rest and recharge myself and work.

Sometimes I feel in terms of geography that it’s a bit like a sensory deprivation tank here in the Netherlands.

KB: Every country has another energy because of how it is made. And now, in this time in my life I felt I really needed this nature. The kids are grown up, so I am free again to move. I need that “rough” nature. Holland has a lot of nature of course, but where I am now there is wild forest and I love walking through it with my dog, feeling the smells and sounds. I use it to charge and rest so I can do my work. Nature tells you everything about life. All my questions are answered in nature. It’s a good teacher!

Hitting Things

About your work. You have got this need to hit things Kat. Why was it that making a beat, or making a sound by striking something was your primary artistic reaction?

KB: Well, you know my first instrument was the piano, which I played at home. Later I learned the guitar. When I was 19, I was asked by my girlfriend Io, if I wanted to play in this band. And I said yes. I could play guitar. And Io said, “Ah no we need a drummer the drummer has left”. So I thought, "Yeah whatever. Let’s do it."

Back in 1980-83, there was a punk and squatter scene in Stuttgart, where I lived at that time. More and more people got involved in a struggle for more freedom and equality, so it was exciting to start a band. And there were regular opportunities to play an event. I was playing drums in a band called Leblose Black together with some friends. When the singer and the guitarist left, me and Io (who played bass) decided to ask my mother to join us on violin. I had played with my mother before, but that was with acoustic guitar and we had to convince her that it would be great to join us. So she had to learn to use a pickup microphone and play through an amplifier. And it worked, she did great! Also she had to get used to being the oldest among all these young people, but it was also a time where it was important to drop old belief systems and conditioning.

There was still a strong punk feeling back then. And I discovered that I loved that – hitting things, and the power that gave you. Now I also love to sing, I love songs and melodies. So I started to tune the toms in a melodic way. And now we don’t miss the bass because my toms are making the bass line.

How did you join The Ex?

KB: After almost 18 months in Amsterdam I met The Ex, in December 1984. They were looking for a drummer and I was looking for a band. I gave my phone number to a girl band called The Wanda’s and the singer happened to live in the same house as Jos, the [original] singer of The Ex. And so my number was passed on to them. I still remember Terrie’s enthusiastic phone call: “Hi I’m Terrie from the Ex do you want to join our band?” [Laughs]. I said: “Yes, nice, I’m looking for a band. I’ve never seen you play, but I’d like to give it a try!” So we came together and the first rehearsal went very well immediately and the decision was made instantly.

The Netherlands has changed so much since that time. I often wonder (walking down Spuistraat in Amsterdam for example) if the tourists were suddenly whisked back to 1980 they wouldn’t know where they were! What do you feel has been lost?

KB: Back then there were many squats that gave young people the opportunity to develop themselves with like-minded people. That was a great benefit and for many a “diving board” to develop their skills. It’s something which is lost and there are not many alternatives left. Young people have more opportunities now but less budget and there is also more pressure to succeed.

So, maybe are things are both better and worse now?

KB: Yes. There must be a reason for the many burnouts people have now. It’s a clear sign that something isn’t going well. People have too many choices, life goes faster and faster and the ideal of the ‘perfect life’ causes a lot of stress. Get back to basics and back to nature is my advice!

Did the band change your ideas or work practices around drumming?

KB: Before The Ex I only had a few lessons on drums, from friends. The rest I learned by experience. From the start I loved to play patterns, which were great to train both arms, equally. Later I learned to use dynamics. I feel most connected to African music and its rich rhythms and driven energy. The band has definitely inspired and challenged me to play in ways I haven’t played before. You learn from each other, which is a great gift.

Gods Of Chaos And Order

I once had this thought about The Ex, and forgive me here, but you lt remind me of a lot of the Scandinavian gods, Thor, Odion, Loki, the three lads doing their mischief in a line and you as Freya sorting out everything at the back! [Laughs.] Chaos at the front, and order at the back.

KB: Exactly! You are totally right and that is how life works anyway. On one hand you have order and on the other you have chaos. But these things are two sides of the same coin. This is life! The universal law means there is constant movement. If you would only have harmony there would be no movement, and the same with chaos. They need each other, to keep life moving. You know from your own life, we humans, we always want things solid and sorted. And of course it’s very nice to have feelings of security. But if you want to grow in life you sometimes need the chaos. You need to find a balance between order and chaos yourself.

You say you are primarily a one-to-one person, especially with your healing work but I always thought you were a communal person. I remember, we once talked before and you said you enjoyed the communal aspects of The Ex and friends eating together before a gig. That is also an integral part of your world view isn’t it?

KB: Yes it is a very important part of being a human. It is how it should be, to share the nice things of life, to help each other out and such. It’s getting lost in this modern society and leads to a lot of unhappy people. It’s time for a major change.

How do you see The Ex developing over the years? What’s changed? (I mean outside of a change of singer and other personnel changes.)

KB I think we are all sensitive in the band. The others also sense or react to what they sense. And I like that.

Is that why the band has lasted so long?

KB: Yes. Because it is like an interaction which keeps it alive! And that is a healthy thing, that you don’t just want to do your thing but keep an openness to see what is happening. And that is all of us.

We learned a lot just by doing. We rolled from one project to the other and from one tour to another and our network got bigger and bigger. How we create the music – when we start by improvising which later shapes the song – has never changed over the years. But we always tried to invent something new to us, a new challenge. That kept it exciting. We operate like a music collective, there’s no leader, we all take equally part in decisions and we take our parts in organising gigs for the band. Over the years we got more experience on many levels and that shaped our rough diamond into one with many beautiful faces, I would say!

The music business is irrelevant to The Ex isn’t it? When people come into The Ex’s circle you instantly relax, you feel as if you are part of a family.

KB: Exactly! We store up a lot of human energy. We are busy with our friends and families and that energy inspires and informs you. And when we come together these different backgrounds flow into the band. It’s not all thought here, it’s felt. You can approach music in a different way, a preplanned way. But as I said, we create out of feeling. We sometimes have poor timing in terms of releasing records as we do nothing strategically. We do things when we feel good. It is all about going with the flow with us.

Talking of feeling good, who’s the best cook in the band?

KB: Andy (Moor) is the best cook I think, he can make fantastic pasta dishes. It’s best to ask him for a recipe. My favorite food since childhood are pancakes. That’s why I love Ethiopian food so much!

Angeltalk is out now on Daydream Library Series/Ecstatic Peace and 3 Musketiere: Abflug is available on Terp Records. The Ex play a three day residency at Cafe Oto in November

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