[14 February 2008]
In September 2004, the Ex, Holland’s longest running anarcho-punk collective, traveled to New York City to play an incendiary show at the Knitting Factory. Tensions were simmering in the big Apple, exacerbated by the three-year anniversary of 9/11 and augmented still further by the Republican National Convention’s cynical use of this milestone to further its agenda. Enter the Ex, whose cathartic performance on that night is the subject of this bare bones but engrossing documentary.
The Ex was born in the anarchist squats of Amsterdam in the late ‘70s. Its original members chose their instruments by drawing straws, and settled on a band name by considering how quickly they could spray paint it onto a city wall. Over the next nearly 30 years, the band broke out of its punk niche repeatedly, exploring jazz, improvisation, ethnic music, and other genres. The music was ever-changing, the serious engagement with politics was not. If US punks forgot how to protest along about 1981, the Ex remembered all along. They appeared at countless punk squats and benefit shows for liberal causes, and their lyrics, delivered in a snarl by G.W. Sok, retained their sardonic bite and fury.
So, when the Ex landed on US shores at about the same time that President Bush set up camp in New York City to make the dubious case that 9/11 and Iraq were essentially the same thing, one might expect a bit of vitriol. Bands like the Ex were born to skewer situations just like this. And yet, as evidenced by Building a Broken Mousetrap, the band managed to avoid the soapbox, the obvious points, the rants.
Instead this rather affecting film, juxtaposes the Ex’s frenetic concert performance with low-key images from New York City. There are some shots, particularly during “Henry K.”, of protest marchers and police in riot gear, and a few bitter asides. But for the most part, the band relies on its cathartic music to make the point. This is no sermon. It’s a concert.
The DVD, directed by Fugazi documentarian Jem Cohen, is divided into two sections, the first in black and white, the second in color. It’s two-parts seem a bit arbitrary, however. If you were watching the disc on a black and white TV (assuming such things exist anymore), you might not be able to tell where one part ended and the other began. The only clue is accidental. The color film seems to be shot at a lower resolution, so that the players appear almost in stop-motion, their heads and fingers blurring as they execute rapid-fire riffs and rhythms.
The first image you see is not of New York, but Holland, a grey industrial port dotted with cranes and railway lines and muddy construction sites. The footage, accompanied by melancholy, scratchy bowing noises, establishes at least one fundamental fact: the Ex may come from the Netherlands, but it is a far cry from the postcard Netherlands of tulips and windmills. The film briefly switches to color as we catch our first glimpse of the band, Terrie Ex’s battered, paint-peeling guitar edging into the frame, bristling with uncut strings…like everything else on stage, more functional than pretty.
A terse introduction flashes on the screen, “The Ex are a band from Holland…In September of 2004, they came to play a show in New York,” and the band explodes into “3:45 a.m.” The cut, like most of the disc, is all raucous, galloping, sawing rhythm, singer Sok throttling the mic and spitting angry rhymes, Rozemarie, the delicate yet crew-cutted bass player bows frantically on a stand-up instrument. (Classically trained and a member of the Koninklijk Concertgebouw Orkest and Nieuw Ensemble, Rozemarie was only in the band for a year or two, and joined them after their collaboration with Ex Orkest in 2002.) And long-time drummer, Katherina Ex pounds joyously on the drums, rampaging over toms, snares, cymbals and woodblock to craft the band’s trademark boxy beat.
An Ex song essentially sounds like a wind-up toy gone psycho; its regular, almost mechanical beat pushed to mad speed, its strummed rhythms full of compressed rage, its shout-sung lyrics powerful but without the ease of melody or sustained notes. Everything clatters along at a breakneck pace, precise but frantic, and the various members push their instruments into sounds and techniques not generally seen at a rock show.
Guitarist Andy Moor (ex of the Dog Faced Hermans) coaxes a high-pitched eerie whine with a metal stick on his guitar bridge in one song; in another, Terrie Ex pulls his guitar strings completely off the neck and strikes them with a stick; in a third, transistor radios pull in static, bits of music and talk from the air. The music combines jazz-like dissonance and extended technique with the confrontational energy of punk. It is challenging in every sense of the word.
Here the tunes are intercut with footage of the streets of New York, taxis, people walking, bits of sky glimpsed between buildings. At first, the commentary is oblique, perhaps tied to the song, perhaps only a establishing a sense of place. However, with the introduction to “Henry K.” (Sok describes it as a song about “the disease that’s called Henry Kissinger” the footage turns more pointed. There are shots of the Republican Convention, police in riot gear, and people marching with posters of President Bush, Vice President Cheney and others identified as war criminals. Very little of this is verbalized, though. We are left to draw our own connections.
The performance video is pretty basic – three cameras, no effects and only very occasional shots of the audience. Yet it is enough to capture the hectic, sawing energy of “Sister”, its post-classical bass bowing spliced between robot-steady rhythms of drum and guitar and hoarse voiced intonations, “I was standing on the corner/She was standing in the corner”. The whole thing explodes near the end, spiraling into feedbacky jams of drum sticks banging guitar strings and dark swoops of bass. It devolves finally into an extended bout of straight up and down strumming, every stringed instrument on stage pounding at the eighth notes mercilessly until they all pull up short in one final zzzzzzzzzzap.
After “Sister”, the band turns down the volume, but not the tension, with “IP Man”, a romp pierced through with the otherworldly whine of Andy Moor sawing the strings at the bridge of his guitar with some sort of metal stick. It is an unsettling, uneasy sound, lending tension to an already edgy mélange of plucked bass, clamped guitar strums and high clanky cymbals. The singer steps back from the mic to play some sort of wind instrument that sounds like a blade of grass when you whistle through it.
The disc’s second, colored half, begins with “Confusion Errorist”, a piece which seems somewhat paradoxically to be quieter, greyer and less flamboyant than the music up to now. It begins with the same shipyard imagery as before, this time in color, and a quasi-classical interlude of sustained bowed bass notes. In this and other songs, the band is not shy about big themes—justice, freedom, oppression—and yet the music moves so quickly, and with such Rubik’s cube complexity that the message never seems simplistic.
The Ex has long been interested in ethnic music—collaborating with Turkish and particularly African musicians since the mid-‘90s. In early 2004, about six months before this DVD was recorded, they spent three and a half weeks in Ethiopia, and a year before that they had toured with the Congolese mbira innovators of Konono No. 1. They close, rather stunningly, with an interpretation of the “Konono No. 1” song, incorporating its African drone into a pyrotechnical display of the Ex’s punk angst and instrumental prowess, using and abusing and reinventing the guitars. Over the credits, the band performs a more traditional African tune, drummer Katherina singing and clapping her hands in time to its unadorned melody.
All in all, Building a Broken Mousetrap provides a fairly striking entry into all the things that make the Ex great: their extraordinary energy and politically-engaged passion, their encyclopedic knowledge of musical styles and their willingness to experiment with unorthodox techniques. This is not an elaborately-made DVD, and it has no bonus materials or features. It focuses relentlessly on the band, showing little interest in how a packed house is reacting to these visceral, exciting tunes. Still its very simplicity feels strong and true and in line with the band’s rigorous principles. Here’s a band that’s been challenging audiences for nearly 30 years. What do they need with fancy camera work and tour diaries?