Dutch Punks Age Gracefully
Portrait of the Ex by Grant Siedlecki
The first time I saw the Ex, they were playing to a crowd of slack-jawed Long Island skinheads who probably wanted to kill them. They were at the Roxy, the club where Madonna had spent nights snorting coke with the Rock Steady Crew fifteen years earlier. And they were opening for Fugazi, I band who I loved totally and completely and who I'd never seen live before. I sort of hated the Ex. When you're nineteen and you're waiting to see your favorite band, you could be forgiven if you didn't want a bunch of middle-aged Dutch anarchists shouting at you about how you should stop buying stuff over tense, jazz-damaged skree. You might not realize how wrong you were for another couple of years.
The Ex takes some getting used to. The band formed in Amsterdam in 1979, the year I was born, and they've spent something like twenty albums developing and refining their ascetic clang. The Ex might be angry and tight-wound, but there's joy in their beats: they ride cowbells relentlessly and repeat their fractious, jittery guitar-lines so often that they become mantras. If they seem monkish and joyless onstage, it's because you're only paying attention to G.W. Sok, the singularly intense singer. Sok's voice is a rigid blurt, and he delivers it standing wire-straight. When he's not singing, he stands off to the side of the stage, intently playing drums on his thighs or clasping his hands and staring at the ground. If you only pay attention to him, though, you're missing the two guitarists bounding around the stage and drummer Katherina grinning huge and howling. Last night's Knitting Factory show was the first time I'd seen the Ex since their bassist left, and so their shifty assault was even more trebly and urgent than usual. But one of their riffs sounded like a decaying Eastern-European waltz, and Katherina took center-stage a couple of times to play martial stand-up drums and wail gorgeously. And when Sok screamed through a megaphone at the end of one long instrumental passage, it felt like a rare and cathartic moment of theatre. The songs are long, and tension never quite becomes release, but the band's rage and alarm are so precise and intuitive that they're somehow comforting. By the end of the hour-long set, all four members' shirts were soaked through with sweat.
I worked the box office at the Knitting Factory a few years ago, and my old boss was at the show last night. He told me a story about how the Ex had played the venue's old Houston Street location years earlier and how a mob of gutterpunk squatters had showed up demanding to be let in for free because the Ex was their band, how the venue's owner just sighed and let all of them in. A band doesn't become anyone's band if it can't do anything other than grim hectoring. Still, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the people in the Ex grind their teeth in their sleep.
For some reason, DJ /Rupture rests his turntables on rolls of toilet paper, which means they're totally off-balance all the time. I don't know if that makes beat-matching harder for /rupture, but it sure seemed like it when he played his blend of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" and J-Kwon's "Tipsy" and neither song's tempo came close to matching up with the other. /Rupture overlaid the blend with swarms of drill-n-bass drums and creaky-door sound-effects, and it felt like he was using pop music to attack us, which is pretty much what /Rupture's always done; now that I think about it, Girl Talk sort of stole his whole ground-up pop-culture thing. Some of /Rupture's connections feel warm and effortless, like when he layers Middle-Eastern flutes over dubstep beats. And some of them feel intentionally damaged, like when he played the vocal from "It's Goin' Down " over some weird reggae track and nobody did the Yung Joc motorcycle dance. Either way, it's weirdly exhilarating to see a crowd full of people there to see an ancient art-punk band bugging out to Crime Mob and Justin Timberlake, in blenderized form or no.
Voice review: Andy Beta on DJ /Rupture's Special Gunpowder Voice review: Piotr Orlov on DJ /Rupture at the Knitting Factory Voice review: Jon Caramanica on DJ /Rupture's Gold Teeth Thief
/Rupture might've just been a guy onstage playing records, but his set was about a million percent more interesting than that of openers Aloha, whose fuzzy and vaguely dissonant indie-pop nearly put me to sleep. I liked basically nothing about this band: their busy drumming, their halfassed Chick Corea keyboards, their mewling vocals. But I couldn't bring myself to hate it, either; it was just too boring. I can't fathom what makes a group of guys leave their families at home and travel the country in a cramped van playing that nonsense. If Aloha really wants to get anywhere, they'll have to start grinding their teeth in their sleep.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.