The Ex: Catch My Shoe
It’s one thing to pioneer and propel a sound, and another to give it to the people. In a 30-year career, the Ex has remained dedicated to social causes and worldly influences and maintained a devoted, pan-cultural fan base. Rooted in the Amsterdam squats of the ’70s, the band made its reputation in the punk community with a string of 7" releases, a graffiti campaign, and vocalist G. W. Sok’s signature chanted polemics. Over the years, the band has incorporated various exogenous textures into the punk template, notably free-jazz improvisation and pop rhythms from Ethiopia. In the last decade the Ex has also brought musicians to that country and collaborated with local artists like saxophonist Gétatchèw Mèkurya and bandleader Alèmayèhu Eshèté.
Even for a band that invites innovation, change hurts. But while Sok’s departure in 2009 might have seemed like an irreparable crack in the Ex’s foundation, it has allowed them to create one of their most expansive releases in years. Sure, Sok’s absence is noticeable on the self-released Catch My Shoe (distributed by Carrot Top in the U.S.), but it’s not the end of the cultishly beloved band. At the head, guitarist Arnold de Boer echoes his predecessor with clipped delivery and a penchant for repetition—he’s something of a funk-punk yogi. Formerly of Dutch punks Zea, de Boer supports long-time members Katherina Bornefeld, Terrie Hessels, and Andy Moor. As a quartet, with some friends along for the ride, they’re every bit as vital.
On Catch My Shoe, captured live to tape by Steve Albini, the Ex’s frenzy is broadened by trumpeter Roy Paci. (Catch My Shoe was recorded following a tour with Brass Unbound, the collective of Paci, Mats Gustafsson, Ken Vandermark, and Wolter Wierbos—hand-picked by the band.) Riffing on the Ex’s now-familiar verbal firebombs, de Boer’s opening statement, “All the pilots get rich / All the passengers pay for it” (“Maybe I Was the Pilot”), expands with tempered rhythms and horn; and topping out at a relatively lengthy five minutes, it affords the band extra legroom. “Why take a risk when you can take a vacation?” he asks. Bornefeld’s Afro-inflected thump and maximal percussion turn “Pilot” into a pop song with broad improvisational strokes. It signals a new direction for the band and sets the tone for an intense ride. “Eoleyo,” a staple of Ethiopian Gurage music, runs on circular guitar and Bornefeld’s plaintive vocals. With the melody of an old folk song she shows a rare frailty.
De Boer himself offers a melodic take on “Double Order,” adding depth to the lucid “Some say my body’s gone / And some say I ought to vent / Well what are your variations? / And who are your news agents?” Touching on global warming, capitalism, and technology, the group’s taut, jazzy romps echo the thunder of their live performance, which is Catch My Shoe’s greatest strength.
It turns out the band is scrupulous about its set, as Andy Moor explained to British online magazine The Quietus: “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.” Watching a gig, you have to take in one element at a time, much the way Bornefeld plays the drums without many fills: one pattern and then the next and then the next. To take it all in is to be completely overwhelmed, like inhaling a four-course meal. Whatever the Ex does, they heighten awareness. So pay attention or you might miss something.
The Ex performs at (Le) Poisson Rouge on Thursday, March 10.