Scattershot ballet: The Ex + Tom Cora | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Scattershot ballet: The Ex + Tom Cora 

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Rock and rollers have distinguished themselves from the pack since the music was born by adopting trademark stage moves: Elvis Presley's swivel, Chuck Berry's duck walk, James Brown's impossible splits, and more recently, Michael Jackson's crotch grabs. Veteran Dutch punkers the Ex, though less well known, have some pretty distinctive moves of their own. During a recent show at Lounge Ax, a Chicago debut for the 15-year-old band, they ran, leapt, staggered, and swung around each other with a reckless abandon that was as thrilling as the music they played. But the movement was more than just shtick, like Bruce Springsteen jumping on top of a speaker stack; it was a visual metaphor for the musical values they espouse.

The Ex started out in 1979 as part of Amsterdam's squatter community, a thriving city within a city with a population of 10,000 and an anarchic zeitgeist that fostered artistic and political ferment. Squatters occupied abandoned buildings, not just living there, but opening restaurants and businesses, publishing newspapers, and putting on concerts in commandeered quarters. Like most late-70s punks, the Ex were militant anarchists. Unlike most of their peers, they meant it. The Ex have always recognized that with freedom came responsibility, and they've used their music to address political concerns like human rights, Kurdish oppression, the war in El Salvador, and the British miners' strike of 1984. The Ex not only sang about their concerns, they organized benefits and stuffed their record sleeves with pamphlets, leaflets, posters, and even books circulating their views. For the miners they went further still, organizing a Dutch vacation for the strikers' children.

Perhaps alone among their peers, the Ex have always maintained the do-it-yourself ideal. They've never signed to a major label and have put most of their music out on their own Ex Records (in the U.S. it's been coreleased by the Chicago-based independent label Fist Puppet).

Originally the Ex's music wasn't as radical as their attitudes. Like many punks, at first they couldn't really play their instruments, but they turned that limitation to an advantage, developing unique and idiosyncratic ways of using the familiar guitar-bass-drums lineup. Rather than discrete notes and chords, they produced textured slabs of sound, with a very loud bass overwhelming a harshly scraped guitar. Their instrumental skills have since improved, but not in the direction of conventional virtuosity. Andy, an accomplished guitarist from the Scottish quartet Dog Faced Hermans, who has played with the Ex sporadically since 1990, says that Ex bassist Luc and guitarist Terrie (most of the Ex decline to give last names) still don't read music or know the names of chords. But with the help of odd props like screwdrivers, strips of duct tape, heavy metal bars, and the stage floor they generate an astonishing range of sounds.

But politics and unusual techniques can only carry a band so far. The Ex developed a reputation as one of Europe's most exciting live bands during the early 80s and sustained it throughout the decade, but they had difficulty capturing their onstage sound on record. Using concert recordings or playing live in the studio, they compiled a catalog of albums that handily documented their harsh, bracing attack, but the band and their fans agreed that the excitement didn't quite translate to vinyl.

As the 80s drew to a close some changes that had been brewing in the Ex's music came to a head, and the music took on an increasingly cosmopolitan hue; Brechtian theater music, free jazz, and folk music from around the world suffused their arrangements. The band abandoned their efforts to document their live sound, and punk rock as their primary musical currency, and put out an ambitious double album, Joggers and Smoggers, that incorporated their diversifying interests. It featured contributions from 19 guest musicians, among them Sonic Youth's guitarists Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore, with some of the Ex's squat mates contributing percussion and bagpipes. They also recruited celebrated Dutch improvisers Wolter Wierbos (trombone) and Ab Baars (saxophone), musicians who had never played rock and roll before. Much of the record couldn't be reproduced onstage but its creation had opened the door to new, more collaborative working methods.

One collaborator who didn't play on Joggers and Smoggers but was acknowledged in its credits was the American cellist Tom Cora. Cora, who's usually identified with New York City's Lower East Side avant-garde community, plays with the jazz and free-improv groups Curlew, Nimal, and Third Person. Cora learned his instrument under the tutelage of a student of Pablo Casals, and most of the music he has played is worlds away from the blunt punk rock of the Ex. But in the mid-80s he played with Fred Frith in Skeleton Crew, a duo whose improvisations were based on ersatz folk songs and whose lurching rhythms were an apt preparation for negotiating the Ex's monolithic sonic assault.

The band invited Cora to play on Joggers and Smoggers but their schedules didn't mesh. They did consult him by mail about the record's arrangements and subsequently joined forces with him for a jam session in 1990, which led to a lasting partnership. Under the title The Ex + Tom Cora, the expanded group has recorded two albums, Scrabbling at the Lock (1991) and And the Weathermen Shrug Their Shoulders (1993), that reveal an intoxicating chemistry. The Ex push Cora to play more directly than usual, while his improvisational chops and broad musical vocabulary have facilitated the live realization of the promise shown on Joggers and Smoggers. On "Sukaina" Cora lays down a drone as compelling as any bagpiper's, and his delicately plucked accents articulate the Oriental flavor of "Okinawa Mon Amour." He may be only one player, but he has an unusually broad and exotic musical vocabulary, and with his assistance the Ex can now improvise and successfully interpret European and Asian folk songs onstage.

The Ex + Tom Cora were scheduled to play here in February 1992, when the combo made its first foray across the Atlantic. They came over on tourist visas, which border guards between the U.S. and Canada didn't buy. How many tourists travel in a van filled with guitars, drums, and amps?

Two years later, taking the stage at Lounge Ax, lead singer G. W. Sok wryly apologized for the delay: "It's a long drive from the Netherlands." Then Cora sawed out a dramatic cello line while a twin guitar strum built tension for a half minute before the group exploded into "The Big Black," a song from And the Weathermen Shrug Their Shoulders.

They were an unlikely looking crew: Sok, Terrie, and Andy, with their close-cropped hair, nondescript clothes, and ageless faces, still looked the part of punks, but bassist Luc looked more like a farmer than a rocker in his boots, suspenders, and hopelessly baggy jeans. The pale and fragile Cora, seated to one side, looked more like a concert musician staying home for a day of woodshedding than a player in a blistering postpunk band.

But when drummer Katrin pounded out the tom-tom beat that kicked off "The Big Black" they all looked, more than anything else, like rush-hour traffic in a busy intersection without a stoplight. Luc, Andy, and Terrie pitched about the stage, grappling frantically with their instruments. Cora, seeming considerably less frail, leaned hard into his cello, mouthing the song's angry words, while Sok leaned out over the edge of the stage and hectored the crowd like a soapbox orator; bodies flew back and forth behind them. While the proceedings onstage could have been mistaken for anarchic chaos, the scattershot ballet wasn't that random. Though each musician moved spontaneously, no one ever collided; they've played together long enough to know how to avoid each other. Though their mad dancing wasn't exactly synchronous, it was cooperative.

Throughout the night the players were constantly in motion: when the music was most agitated, the guitarists careened about the stage, narrowly missing each other while each one engaged in a private wrestling match with his instrument. When the music was calmer, Andy and Terrie swayed and drooped their guitars toward the floor, sometimes leaning the necks of their instruments against the stage to distort the sound. They also produced an arsenal of noise-making props, though they weren't loath to bash out simple, driving rhythms. Cora put sticks in between his cello's strings to get a percussive, drumlike sound. Sok, not to be left out, sang one song through a scrunched up mineral-water bottle. But the players' sonic manipulations were never gratuitous; they were apt adornments for Sok's jagged declamations.

On record Sok's ranting often dominates the songs; onstage he became just another thread in the band's riotous tapestry. Not that he couldn't be heard; his singing and Cora's cello were always audible. But during the many instrumental passages he danced around the back, giving center stage to the staggering guitarists.

Even Cora, whose instrument kept him seated for most of the night, was far from stationary. He took advantage of the gaps in the stop-start structure of "Total Preparation" to hop up and take a jig about the stage, then returned to his seat just in time to play his next part. As the song progressed the guitarists started throwing towels at each other, big grins on their faces. This illustrated another aspect of the Ex that doesn't show up on their records; they looked like they were enjoying themselves immensely. On record, the Ex's sense of humor is only evident in the bitter ironies of Sok's lyrics, but onstage the fun they have playing was evident.

Drummer Katrin turned out to be the group's linchpin. Her playing was simple, but it defined the songs' structures, allowing the other musicians to bash away free of any concern that the music would devolve into chaos. And when she stepped to the front of the stage to sing, she nearly stole the show. She clattered out the rhythm to "Stupid Competitions," a song that celebrates a woman who refuses to bow to convention, with two cooking pot lids and danced with abandon around the microphone like a shadow-boxing clog dancer. She stepped up front again during the encore to sing the Hungarian folk song "Hidegen Fujnak A Szelek" and was similarly animated, looking both exhilarated and winded by the tune's end. When the group finally left the stage two songs later, the audience was in a similar state.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/James Crump.

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