The Ex have the distinction of being the most prolific[i], and simultaneously, the most obscure Punk Rock band I’ve ever listened to. I mean this not in the sense that The Ex take the absolute crown in either attribute, but rather that they represent the strongest paradox. Consider this: in their 35 years together as a band, the Dutch Anarcho-Folk-Punks have released over a dozen full-length albums[ii], along with countless EPs, splits, live albums, and collaborations[iii]. Starting in 1998, The Ex began recording their full-length albums with greatly beloved/ deeply loathed recording engineer Steve Albini. The Ex is a group that remained mostly intact through its long decades. In fact, it was a mournful occasion for me (and I have to imagine for a number of other Ex fans out there) when long, longtime vocalist G.W. Sok left the band in 2009. So how did I find out about The Ex? A very progressive friend of mine recommended them to me during college (I’m still thankful). Apart from him and maybe a couple of our shared friends, I’ve never, ever, in my whole life since, met anyone who has heard of The Ex[iv].
But The Ex’s obscurity goes way beyond people I run into not knowing of them. There’s a weird unavailability to the band that’s downright disconcerting at this juncture of The Information Age; it’s difficult to find many of the Ex’s fine songs on Youtube or anywhere else on the internet, and damn near impossible to find lyrics for any of their music anywhere. There has been some scholarship on the band, but what is available has a fragmented quality, like clues to some moment that only lives on in memory, passing away with the firsthand, those in the know, and remaining a mystery to everyone else. This kind of shadowiness would be interesting if it was intentional, but it isn’t[v], and it doesn’t make a lick of sense, because The Ex are still together, AND THEIR MUSIC IS REALLY GOOD AND EVERYONE WHO LIKES PUNK ROCK AND PROGRESSIVE POLITICS SHOULD LISTEN TO THEM.
It’s hard to pick just one great Ex song for the tangent, but one that always impresses me is “Soviet Threat” from 1985’s Pokkeherrie. The song begins with a cacophony that sounds for all the world like some sort of weird folk-rock, full-band blastbeat. This peters out, and a subdued, workmanlike Luc Klaasen bass riff emerges, played high in the register and contrasting with Katrin Bornefeld’s detailed, fleet-wristed percussion. Guitarist Terrie Hessels’ arrives like a radicalized Andy Gill, spattering strange, trebly strokes of discord across the fabric of the song. Rather than singing or shouting stanzas, G.W. Sok narrates what seems at first like a mundane, everyday scene:
“It’s a lovely morning again,” the man said
Looking through the hole in his newspaper
Situated by the window
He kept a steady eye on the falling rain
Or so it seemed
Then he sat back, and relaxed
“Wonderful,” he resumed. “Wonderful weather indeed
“To keep them off the streets I mean…”
It is the height of The Cold War, but not as we know it in America (or as they do in the USSR). The Ex’s story takes place in an ambiguous in-between territory – a Europe unsure of who to trust, of who has the upper hand, and of what victory and defeat mean to either side, if they mean anything at all. The simplistic dichotomy of the home country and the sinister other side simply does not exist here. As far as The Ex (represented by Sok) are concerned, East and West are both evil empires. The buffoon in the narrative however – the man with the hole in his newspaper – is stanchly pro-West.
“Whiskey or wodka?” he asked
When I passed on the way back to my table
“Is it whiskey or wodka you’ve got there?” He asked again
“Who cares,” I said, “it’s only a drink”
“But no it’s not!” he cried out loud
Then he lowered his voice
“It’s not you know, I mean I just happen to know
from a person of my profession one might say that
consuming wodka can be seen as a support to communist ideals…”
“Soviet Threat” does depart from the vignette to kick up some serious noise during the choruses. “Tell me do you want to face the enemy? / Well is it CIA or KGB? / For what goes on behind your back / Can’t you see it’s simple surprise attack?” Sok howls, Terrie’s free-range guitar going wild, Katrin filling and tom rolling, Luc strumming thick chords to hold it all together.
The song also contains a number of strange excursions not on the rubric. Terrie sounds like he’s improvising throughout, and there is a strange series of dust-ups around 4:30 where it sounds like Katrin is playing blast beats over Sok’s best impression of an agitated pigeon.
The lasting impression of “Soviet Threat” is that it has mood in spades, capturing a certain feeling of gloomy paranoia and jittery mistrust. Terrie’s guitar is abrasive, urgent and unpredictable, threatening to spill over into the narrative, and yet showing enough restraint to stay just out of the way. The chorus is catchy in a Punk-Rock-slogan kind of way, but it’s the verses that do most of the work – Sok giving us a narrator who is contemptuous of the pro-American fool before him, yet has nothing to offer himself – besides the mistrust and paranoia he has cultivated for both sides.
In the end our narrator loudly implicates the USA’s agents in the same sort of shady dealings as the Soviets, which obliterates whatever uneasy camaraderie might have existed between the men. The man turns away silently and Sok slinks out into the rain, taking petty, bitter solace in “Making him waste his time again.” “Well this is the way the world ends,” Sok laments on his way out, “not with a bang or a whimper, but a stab in the back by a so-called friend.”
I would be remiss not to mention some other great songs by The Ex. There is the nightmarish stomp and churn of “Sister,” the rollicking, clever 13/8 call-to-pastry agitprop of “The Pie,” the rising everyman desperation of “Little Atlas Heavyweight,” The screeching industrial absurdist satire of “Headache by Numbers,” the barreling Sonic Youth-ish roadtrip elegy of “Thunderstruck Blues” and the scratchy, lo-fi screed of “Weapons for El Salvador,” among others. I could go on all day, but instead I’ll just say that The Ex are one of the best bands you’ve never heard of. Their impressive, important body of work represents a very unique blend of punk, folk, guitar experimentation and humanitarian ethics, and is well worth exploring for anyone that enjoys uncompromising music that can make both artistic and political statements with equal measures of grace.
[i] I mean this in the sense of an active band with somewhat steady membership that continually released music of a certain quality and inventiveness, in an earnest artistic spirit. Fugazi would be a good example of this. Let’s not even talk about Bad Brains cashing in at festivals and releasing backward-gazing albums that will never come close to their early work, or Black Flag shambling litigiously onward (see last year’s lawsuit against “Flag”) with a bunch of middle-aged men fighting their way in and out of the lineup, eventually putting out a featureless, painfully irrelevant album that fails to even serve as decent vehicle for punk rock nostalgia.
[ii] The Ex’s discography isn’t quite as gargantuan as those of bands like the Melvins, The Fall, Guided By Voices, or Frank Zappa, because The Ex isn’t really that kind of one-or-two-masterminds-surrounded-by-semi-interchangable-musicians band. Plus, in my humble opinion, The Ex’s releases are more focused, purposeful and memorable.
[iii] Including a 1986(!) collaboration with Chumbawumba(!!), In the Fishtank collaborations with Tortoise and Sonic Youth, and a 1990 collaboration with Dog Faced Hermans – another underappreciated powerhouse.
[iv] A dialogue that commonly ensues is:
“You mean X, from LA?”
“No, it’s The Ex. ‘The’ and ‘E-X’.”
“Oh. Never heard of them. I like X though.”
[v] The Ex hardly seems like ones for self-promotion, but nothing I’ve seen suggests that they are actively hiding any aspect of their activity as a band from anyone.