Across the Spectrum; An interview with Ex-Eye’s Colin Stetson

Believe it or not, there used to be a time when you could waste all that hard-earned lawn mowing money on a cassette that sucked. I know, I know, sounds like some far out Black Mirror episode, not being able to read five reviews while you listened to something mere seconds before you bought it! It’s true, though. You could spend an entire afternoon getting lost in the city because you couldn’t read the map you bought at the gas station, all to inhale a million years worth of dust and dander from thumbing through the entire Herb Alpert discography ten times over, only to have, thirty plus dollars later, the thrill of finally laying hands on the Atomic Rooster record you’ve been fetishizing for the past two years completely dashed when it turns out that that record actually kind of sucks.

Once in a while, though, those blind choices sure did come through, like having a copy of the first Dead Boys album rip through your teenage brain or having the weird smelly dude at the basement record store slip you a Die Kreuzen tape and feeling the strict metal-only confines of your ear drums melt away. It hardly registers as much of a concern when compared to the vast moral ambiguity embedded in any and all conversations regarding streaming, but the loss of these tactile moments, when an album could change the very way one defines themselves, truly brings a tear to the eye. Ex Eye’s forward thinking aural patchwork of post-black metal, free jazz, and textural noise is the perfect modern equivalent to exchanging one’s allowance for a blown mind, if there was still such a thing as surprise in this digital age.

While there are precedents for some of the aspects of Ex Eye’s sound, from the sheets-of-noise Coltrane years through the blunt force of Last Exit, those were still records made with a jazz audience in mind. Likewise the sheets-of-noise Napalm Death years or the industrial clamor of New York’s noise rock scene, all records with a specific audience in mind. From the pulsing syncopation of “Opposition/Perhelion; The Coil” to the densely gauzy black metal of “Anaitis Hymnal; the Arcose Disc”, Ex Eye’s subversively unique idea of ‘heavy’ is invested evenly across genres, belonging to many but not beholden to one. It is a sound that isn’t so far-reaching as to alienate, but certainly takes enough chances that it could only exist in the present.

“We are living in a much more borderless world now, comparatively,” saxophonist Colin Stetson says. “When I was in high school in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there was Tower Records. You went to your section and you perused the genre that was your identity. Most people had a few, some of us had quite a few that we frequented, but it was a very different world in terms of people’s listening habits, and even the kind of things particular musicians would do. There was this kind of unspoken rule and understanding that when you’re making music you’re making a kind of music for a kind of listener. The delineation was much more stark. With something like what we’re doing, if you want to break it down into its components, it’s dealing with the post-black metal and intense free jazz aesthetics merging, as well as what I would call some pretty standard classic metal influences harmonically, and the classical element coming into play with my background. It’s not something that would have happened in any configuration of musicians back then. We’re living in a different time, the lines are blurred and these things very much fit under the same tent, it’s finally being recognized.”

The collective members of Ex Eye have an insanely bustling pedigree, although one that may not have exactly foreshadowed the metallic intensity present on Ex Eye. Stetson has been quite prolific, lending his talents to albums by Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, and Tom Waits to name but a few, as well as putting out many a fantastic solo album (Never Were The Way She Was, with Sarah Neufeld is a great place to start). Greg Fox is a member of Liturgy, among others. Keyboardist Shahzad Ismaely spends time with Secret Chiefs 3 and Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog. Guitarist Toby Summerfield’s free-guitar output is too prolific to list. Again, not exactly the line-up that springs to mind when ‘free-jazz-black-metal-improv-skronk-heaviness’ gets bandied about, but the group meshes flawlessly across every minute of their debut.

“I was a pretty established metal head since my early teens,” Stetson explains, “and really all through my life, along with a lot of more aggressive improvisational and noise music, so it’s not really out of left field in that regard. I think a lot of the solo music I’ve been doing, for me at least, in the way I approach and feel it sonically, this kind of melodic harmonic and textural density is something I’ve been dealing with on that front for years. Obviously, I guess it doesn’t translate as what the average listener thinks of as ‘heavy’ because there haven’t been guitars and drums blaring alongside it. This is really something I had been wanting to do for many years, probably since I was a kid and just one of those things that I decided had to happen.”

Ex Eye came together through the mutual desires of Stetson and Fox, and in an alarmingly short amount of time, although that is less of a problem when you gather this level of talent into one room, to be sure. “Specifically, this group came together because Greg and I had been talking about putting together a band, exploring the heavier aspects and the denser world of music that we had already started to touch on in live settings. We’d been developing these areas of quote unquote Maximalism and I found myself really wanting to put together a group that was dealing with what maybe touched on the quasi-metal world, but really just exploring melodic and harmonic noise and a different kind of density. We’ve all played together in various configurations. I met Greg maybe five or six years ago, and we’ve been doing a variety of projects. I’ve known Toby since I was in college, and I’ve known Shihraz for almost twenty years now. In 2015, Greg and I mentioned the concept in mixed company, without a name and not really existing concretely, and we got several high profile festival offers. So we quickly brought Toby into the fold, made up a name and set up rehearsals. Six months later, we had our set and we started playing. I think, to a certain degree, everything that you do if you’re playing music and you’re doing it in the frequency that I think a lot of us are doing it, you just kind of live with deadlines and goals that have to be materialized on a very regular basis. So it didn’t seem like something that was too far out of reach.”

Ex Eye perfectly illustrates the myriad of new and different ways musical ideas can and will be mutated, and for those listeners always on the hunt for ways to have their minds shaken loose from the moorings tradition, a fantastic addition to Stetson and company’s already boundary pushing output.   “I feel like inspiration comes from across the spectrum. There were things that came in almost completely intact, like ‘Zenolith,’ that Toby brought in and we we finished off as a group. ‘Anaitis Hymnal’ is the other end of the spectrum. We record everything at rehearsal and certain improvisational things just happen in the moment that are so perfectly formed that it was codified from and improv and rehearsed to explore all the dynamics and the shape of it. For me personally, it was to take the Never Where record, which for Sarah and I was an opportunity to bring an unadulterated version of both of our solo personas together and merge those concepts, and bring a lot of what I’ve been developing in the solo context and have a way to bring those things to a group context and really push it to its limits.”

Words by Andrew Lampela

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