Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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My latest for Tikkun: Dutch Treat

My latest music piece is now up on Tikkun's website. Whereas the previous one on Sufjan Stevens took me less than a day -- check out the interesting comments thread for my entry about that one -- this feature on Dutch punk band The Ex drove me batty. I always struggle when I have a full-length interview to work with. The gap between potential content and the space I actually get to use freaks me out. Still, the experience wasn't all bad, since I really enjoyed talking to the band's singer and lyricist G.W. Sok and got to listen to many of the band's albums over and over. It's rewarding to immerse oneself in a particular artist's oeuvre, not least because the practice runs counter to the shuffle-mode listening that has become the norm these days.

In the end, I was able to mine the cover image from The Ex's first full-length for the conceit I needed to structure the piece:

I suppose it's possible to write well about music without resorting to tropes, but I seem incapable of doing so. Without the infrastructure of a metaphor returned to repeatedly, I feel like my sentences spin off into space:
In contrast to the relaxed, sunny tone of Sok’s speaking voice, The Ex sound like gray skies, threatening to break open at any moment. Constructed out of pulsing, fractured rhythms and a bevy of dissonant notes, their music resists every notion of “easy listening.” The title of their first full-length album, Disturbing Domestic Peace, (released in1980) is an apt description of their art. The cover photo shows five policeman in riot gear, one of whom is about to lower his axe onto the entrance of a building. The image reminds us of the violence the state is willing to unleash on anyone who resists the status quo. Coupled with the album’s title, it underscores the limitations of concepts like “disturbing the peace.” While it is the people inside this building who are likely to be taken into custody on that amorphous charge, the police are clearly the ones doing the disturbing here. By itself, then, the cover functions as a simple yet effective critique of the ruling order’s hypocrisy.

Listening to the record makes things considerably more complicated. Like almost all of the music The Ex have put out over the years, Disturbing the Domestic Peace is angular, edgy, tense. In short, it is meant to disturb. When we hear songs like “Rules” or “New Wars,” we feel that axe poised in mid-air and grow desperate for the blow to be struck. But that desire aligns us, not with the people inside the building, but with the policemen who are about to discipline them. While Sok’s lyrics make classic anarchist points with the detachment of the pamphleteer, the melody-sparse sounds that propel them forward remind us how readily passions can override political reason. The impulse to break down doors always has the potential to free itself from any order we impose upon it. Sometimes the longing for the blade transcends our sense of belonging. This is why art still matters. We need to feel the urge to identify with power without acting against our own best interest. And that is a task for which rock music is especially well suited. The Ex have always understood this, producing music that is taut with pent-up primal energy, refusing to settle down.
This piece was also an opportunity for me to revisit my favorite themes: what do you do after you've been doing something for a long time. I suppose my interest in this topic has something to do with my age and situation, but I've been thinking about it since high school. The way careers play out in the media and the work that can be done to redirect their course have preoccupied me since I spent hours as a thirteen-year-old meditating on the relationship between The Beatles' White Album and the psychedelic era it says goodbye to. I'm not happy with the ordinariness that permeates much of my piece on The Ex, but I'm pleased that, after so much struggle, I was able to come up with a conclusion that tied together loose ends by using Sok's own words to reinforce my conceit:
Like many other punk bands, The Ex fully support the DIY—“do it yourself”—approach. In their case, that means doing everything from releasing records on their own label in Europe to applying for grants to perform their work in unusual ways. While there’s always something entrepreneurial about start-ups, in the case of bands like The Ex, the best analogy is not the small business but the small non-profit, paying its employees relatively low wages but freeing them from the ideological and professional pressures of the corporate environment. From this perspective, the band’s two trips to Ethiopia look less like a concert tour and more like the sort of educational outreach that the best NGOs aspire to make possible, where the line between vendor and client, teacher and student, privileged and underserved starts to blur in moments of cross-cultural exchange.

“I don’t think it’s healthy to stay only in your own little subculture and close the door. You have to open the door so people can see how you live and what you’re doing.” And, however alluring the prospect of doing the job with an axe might be, a twist of the doorknob will be just as effective. “When we started with punk, we thought it meant, ‘Everything is possible.’ If you have an idea, just do it. See if it works or not. We still believe in that little idea. What happened was that, within a couple of years of our forming the band, punk became a sort of brand name. All these bands started saying, ‘Oh, you have to play according to the punk rules.’ But we thought that each song can have a totally different structure. Every time it’s your own decision how it can be. That gives you much more freedom than if you have to stick to verse-chorus-bridge.”

Sok lets the irony of this rule-bound punk and the formulaic anarchism that accompanies it resonate through the rest of the interview. The Ex may have made remarkably consistent music over the course of their career, but not because they were following anyone else’s rules. The lesson is clear. Freedom doesn’t free us from ourselves. It intensifies what was already there. We can break on through to the other side without losing what matters most. Over twenty-five years of making music, The Ex have crafted a legacy that shows us how to open the door to possibility without fear, to stop worrying about what has already been done, to do it now.
What I admire most about The Ex is their willingness to think what happens after the revolution in consciousness that the spirit of punk promotes. If you break down the door to the future, you expose yourself to the winds of the past. But if you adopt a less violent approach, you can stay warm without barring the passage back to the place you were before.
Tags: clips, music, punk

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