The Ex are the longest-running band about whom it's impossible to say that their early stuff was better, and about whom it's reasonable to say that their newest stuff is actually their best. Formed in Amsterdam in 1979 by ranter G.W. Sok and guitarist Terrie as an anarchist punk-rock collective, they've rarely taken more than a few months off since then, and the core of their sound is still Sok's burning-eyed shout and Terrie's high-friction guitar attack. But force alone isn't enough to sustain a band for 25 years, and they've spent the last 15 of them expanding their tension and power beyond its punk origins.
In the '90s, after guitarist Andy (from the Scottish band Dog Faced Hermans) joined the group, the Ex collaborated on two extraordinary records with the late American experimental cellist Tom Cora, briefly added a second vocalist, and played with musicians from the Dutch improvisation scene. That project culminated in an album and tour credited to Ex Orkest, on which they were a 20-piece band including most of the country's free-jazz luminaries. They formed a particularly close bond with improv drummer Han Bennink, who'll be joining them on stage on this month's West Coast tour. "He's a wild card," Andy notes. "He does what he wants, and it's up to us to keep it together."
2002 saw the group's biggest change in a decade, though: bassist Luc, who'd been playing with the Ex since the early '80s, left and was replaced by Rozemarie Heggen, an upright bass player who'd played with the Ex Orkest. As Ex-members tend to do, she gave up her last name on joining the group; as the Ex always do when the lineup changes, they threw out their entire repertoire and started writing from scratch. Not that they've ever been too attached to their old material, Andy explains: "Whenever we make a new set of songs, we dump the whole old set, and maybe keep one or two. Everyone feels it when we've played them enough. We just go back in the rehearsal room and spend two or three months reinventing the band. We never have the thing where if the audience doesn't like the new songs we start playing the old hits."
The result of months of woodshedding was the ferocious new double-album Turn (Touch and Go). As usual, Sok's lyrics butt heads with headlines—there are frontal attacks on that other G.W. and on Henry Kissinger—and subtly funny, as in "The Pie," a how-to on throwing pies at corrupt politicians: "An alternative flan of action flies in the face of promises not kept," Sok barks, and yes, that's "f" and not "p." And Terrie and Andy continue to play guitars like they're percussion instruments—they've got hundreds of grades of sandpaper in their repertoire.
But the new ideas that turn up on Turn aren't just from Rozemarie's half-bowed bass parts. There are echoes of pop music from Ethiopia and Congo, where the Ex have toured a few times over the past few years. "We went back to Ethiopia for a month just before Easter, which is a really good time of year to go there—they serve amazing vegetarian food all over the country," Andy says. "Before we left, we spent a while learning old Ethiopian songs we liked from the Ethiopiques series and recorded them very roughly, and we made a cassette that we gave away on the tour." A couple of pieces from their Ethiopian repertoire ended up on Turn: a cover of the Eritrean liberation song "Huriyet," which drummer Katherina and Rozemarie sing together, and "Getatchew," an instrumental inspired by the Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekurya.
Mekurya's returning the favor. He'll be performing at the Ex's 25th anniversary party in Amsterdam this November, a two-night festival featuring musicians from France, Britain, Japan, Italy, and the U.S., as well as installation art, DJs, sound-poetry, dance, and Ethiopian food. The other headliner will be the Congolese band Konono No. 1, with whom the Ex struck up a friendship a few years ago. Andy explains: "A guy called Tony van Ecken had seen them play in Kinshasa and managed to arrange a tour in Europe, but he didn't want them to play in the world-music circuit where they'd be exhibited like a museum piece. He knew that we'd had some experience being in Africa, and thought it'd be a great alternative. The first show they did with us was in Groningen—they showed up five hours late and played this amazing two-hour set. Terrie recorded that gig by accident, and now he's releasing it through his label, Terp Records." The Ex, in turn, borrow a monomaniacal, jerking two-chord riff from them for Turn's "Theme From Konono," and punt it straight through the ceiling.
So how have the Ex managed to stay together for 25 years? "A lot of it has to do with the fact that we don't overplay," Andy says. "We don't do these megatours where you spend two months together in the van and then split up. We've never burned ourselves out—we keep it to 50 or 60 gigs a year, and live quite simply, and we don't play the same old songs for six or seven years. We all have other projects as well. I've been playing improvised music with Yannis Kyriakides and Kaffe Matthews. And we're also good friends—we like each other. We've been through the hard times already and survived them."
The Ex play Neumo's with Electrelane and Han Bennink at 8 p.m. Sun., Sept. 26. $10 adv./$12.