There aren’t too many acts out there that can say they brought punk to Ethiopia. That is, however, one of the more colourful entries in Dutch group The Ex’s pretty darn colourful CV.
But just because you bring it, doesn’t mean anyone actually wants it. “No one had ever heard of punk; they’d heard of hip hop and jazz, but none of them knew our type of music,” recalls guitarist Andy Moor, originally of these shores. “They found it quite amusing – there was a lot of laughing.”
In the interests of balance, it is worth pointing out that punk is something of a misnomer. Sure, The Ex started out in 1979 (of course), fitting in nicely with the likes of Gang of Four, The Slits and Birthday Party.
But when Moor joined in early 1990s, bringing with him a love of African and Eastern European music, the band were set on a more experimental course. Moor identifies meeting and collaborating with American cellist Tom Cora as a real turning point, and soon The Ex found themselves invited to play at jazz festivals.
“The Ex grew out of the punk scene, but mutated into its own thing. It’s hard to define, but we don’t have to!” (Attempts by others range from anarcho-punk to ethno-punk to jazz punk.)
Many collaborations have followed, some with popular acts – the likes of Sonic Youth and Tortoise – others with less well-known jazz artists (depending on who you ask) such as Han Bennink or current collaborator, saxophonist Ken Vandermark.
It is these collaborations, Moor explains, in combination with the band’s own (untrained) spontaneity that drives their musical direction. “We don’t want to have a jam with every musician in the world; we’ll just hear a sound that appeals to us. They don’t even have to be great players.”
His favourite joint project is the work the band did with legendary Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekurya. “It was his idea – he saw us playing after we’d invited him to Amsterdam to play with the Instant Composers’ Pool (ICP). He came to us after, and said, ‘I want The Ex to be my band.’ We started rehearsing with him – none of us could speak Amharic, he couldn’t speak English, so we just communicated with hand signals, music, smiling, laughing. Somehow it worked – we were playing his pieces, songs he’s been playing for 40 years. That was my favourite maybe because it was so unlikely.”
One of the reasons The Ex can enjoy such musical freedom is their refusal to get involved with the trappings of the music industry – they have never had anything to do with a label or any type of management (now that’s pretty punk).
“I think the music industry has nothing to do with music. There’s great music that comes out of it, but the shit you have to deal with … we decided we’ll do it ourselves.”
It’s a fairly gruelling approach, Moor admits, which means they have to tour to live, and one which also means, he admits, they aren’t as well known as they might be (except, apparently, in France).
This might be read also as a political gesture as well as an artistic one – and indeed, the guitarist happily admits The Ex are a political band: “You sing about love, you sing about football, or you sing about your beliefs – we get frustrated, we see lot of shit happening around us – we manage to release a lot of that anger, but there’s also positive energy too. Ultimately, it’s a celebration of music – we want to make music we’ve never heard before, and music that we love. It’s simple.”
The Ex perform at Oslo, Hackney Central on 19 August 2015