Rock and roll is a curious beast. For some bands, it is merely one half of the equation (e.g. rap-rock); for others, it's a general category to fall under because of the presence of distorted guitars, but every once in a while there are bands that can, despite all others' attempts, only be described as quintessentially rock. The first example I think of is At the Drive-In, who has created a critical frenzy to find their replacement since they broke up. And after seeing the Ex-Models open for the Dismemberment Plan on Thursday, I think they deserve a mention in the latter category as well.
Their live show, as described by guitar player/singer Shahin Motia in an interview I did with them over the phone a couple of days before the show, is "really fast, really hyper, really messy, then it explodes, and then it's over. Some things get unplugged, and many pants get soiled, on stage and in the audience, but mostly in the audience." Looking a bit like they had just woken up, the band quickly transformed into a shredding, jumping, shrieking machine. There was not a member in the audience that was not a little in awe of the energy these guys put into their performance.
And energy is what they are going for. "Zach-O," the bass player/singer for the band, says their new material is more focused on "straight ahead energy," as opposed to Motia's original idea to, in his own words, create "a project to write certain kinds of songs to serve as a soundtrack to early 20th century, continental philosophy." "I remember thinking, 'Hey, you know what guys? We're going to write these real fast, real hyper rock songs. We're going to write about obscure French philosophers. We're going to write the songs on sequencers and cover the songs that we wrote on the computer,'" says Motia. Thus, the Ex-Models were born from the idea to deconstruct and reconstruct the models for songs that were on the computer in a live or studio setting.
The new approach to writing has been that of a more typical band - getting everyone together and fiddling around until an idea for a song is formed. This approach has not only benefited their live show by letting them focus more on performance than the perfection with which they recreate the songs from the computer, but it will also be an asset in their upcoming trip to the studio. After the tour, Ex-Models will be going in to record their second full length album, the follow-up to 2001's Other Mathematics, with Martin Bisi, the man who produced Sonic Youth's EVOL.
Motia describes the band's newer sound as "noisier and more subtle in its complexity," and to get this new sound out there, they have been touring non-stop for quite a while. When I talked to them, they had just wrapped up a tour with Les Savy Fav and Pretty Girls Make Graves, which allowed them to get a glimpse of the people who come to their music from more of a pop paradigm. "Touring with different bands brings out different aspects of our music," says Zach-O.
Now please don't get me wrong. Despite all this talk about quintessential rock music and the comparisons to the Velvets and the Stooges, I am not saying that the Ex-Models are the next saviors of rock and roll. I think the world has had enough of those recently, especially from New York, which happens to be the Ex-Models base of operation.
Speaking of the New York scene, when asked about their take on it, the guys were humble and refused to talk smack about some of the other bands in the area. While Zach-O described it as simply "bad karma," Motia says, "It never occurs to me to begrudge anyone their popularity. Many bands are bad, but rarely because of popularity. Often, the reverse is true." Still, Ex-Models set themselves apart from their Big Apple contemporaries musically, being more influenced by 80's "no wave" than 60's or 70's experimental rock.
For more people to be won over to the Ex-Models' camp, I think one of the biggest obstacles for the band to overcome is their offsetting lack of accessibility. With the majority of their songs being under one and a half minutes, they are a great soundtrack for the frustrated, spastic, or insane, but they are hard to enjoy on a deeper level. Nonetheless, seeing them was a refreshing experience in a way. The four of them, including drummer Jake Fiedler and Motia's older, guitar-playing brother Shah, are all pretty smart guys. They not only went to college, but graduated, and with degrees in fields like philosophy and politics. Seeing them check that at the door and just rock out was exciting, and they definitely get points for the couple of songs in which they played their guitars (including the bass) with drumsticks, an action reminiscent of Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel's solos. While they may not be the saviors of rock, the next big thing, or the new face of music to come, the Ex-Models are damn entertaining.