The Ex at Monty Hall
Just across the Hudson River in Jersey City, directly opposite the World Trade Center in what might best be described as a parallel universe, sits Monty Hall, the live music venue run by free-form radio station WFMU. Open since July of last year, the hall is named in part in reference to the street it sits on—Montgomery—as well as in tribute, in typically ironic WFMU fashion, to the eponymous game show host. When I first learned about the opening of Monty Hall, I imagined it to be in some remote, inaccessible place in another state. Well, it is in another state, but it turns out to be just over four miles, as the crow flies, from my Park Slope apartment—surprisingly, it’s closer than Union Square.
On Saturday, October 23rd, I made my first trip there, to hear the legendary Dutch experimental anarcho-punk band the Ex. Founded in Amsterdam in 1979 at the height of the punk era, the Ex has continued to perform and record without pause for thirty-six years and counting, though not without some changes to the lineup. To call the Ex an institution, though perhaps paradoxical, would not be incorrect. Functioning as a staunchly independent, self-managed, and self-published entity throughout their career, they have few peers. In its current incarnation, the band includes longtime guitarist Terrie Hessels (since 1979), drummer Katherina Bornefeld (since 1984), and guitarist Andy Moor (since 1990), with the more recent addition of guitarist and lead vocalist Arnold de Boer, who replaced original lead singer G.W. Sok in 2009.
Their roughly one-hour set was spirited and energetic, possessing all the power and rage of punk, but with a friendlier, more open-hearted sense of idealism. With three guitarists, their sound is decidedly guitar-heavy, though Moor often plays the baritone guitar, which adds an element of bass while also contributing to the buzzing, distorted punk texture. Holding it all together is the precise and athletic drumming of Bornefeld, whose style emphasizes intricate multi-drum patterns and incorporates a good deal of cowbell and other percussive accents. Sounding at times like the original post-punk of the Fall, Wire, or Gang of Four, with noisy improvised interludes that evoke early Sonic Youth, the Ex’s sound is ultimately defined by their tribal and mechanical rhythmic groove. The vocals are mostly handled by de Boer, though Bornefeld also sang several songs, and their lyrics generally address socio-political topics—critiques of fascism, capitalism, technology, and racism, among other subjects. Unlike many bands, however, it’s clear they want their lyrics to be heard and understood, as both singers sang clearly and strongly, with considerable animation.
Throughout its history, the Ex has also been notable for the breadth of its musical interests. Drawing inspiration from various world traditions, most prominently African music, the Ex routinely collaborates and performs with other groups and musicians. On this night, Chicago-based saxophonist and former MacArthur Fellow Ken Vandermark joined them. Alternating between various saxophones and clarinet, he wasn’t always loud enough to be heard, but was generally a welcome and appropriate addition as he augmented the main melodies and rhythms. He was most at home, however, during the set’s improvisational sections, and it’s an enduring thread throughout the Ex’s history that they work well with musicians from the free-improvisation community. Vandermark is in fact one of their most frequent guests—its website’s extensive concert database lists seventy-three appearances by him, as of 2014.
Though the Ex also played closer to my home the night before, at Brooklyn’s Bell House, it felt especially appropriate to hear them at WFMU’s house. The radio station is perhaps the band’s greatest champion in the U.S., having hosted it numerous times for in-studio performances and other station-related live events. WFMU’s music director, Brian Turner, has been a particularly avid supporter, and it was under his regular weekly show’s banner that the event was presented—all of which lent the night a feeling of a homecoming, as the band profusely thanked the station from the stage and recounted some of their extensive history together. Near the very end of their encore, de Boer even shouted, “Thank you WFMU forever!”
And one might imagine both the band and the radio station could go on forever. The Ex certainly seemed to be at the top of its game and showed no signs of fading. And WFMU would seem to be in a golden period of its own, with this new venue, a recent documentary film about the station’s history entitled Sex and Broadcasting (2014), and what I gather is a continually growing audience, both locally and internationally. Whatever the future holds, it’s inspiring to see these alternative musical models continue to thrive in an environment increasingly hostile to their survival.