Sometimes a band takes large steps early in its career and finds the sound it wants right away. Sometimes it reinvents itself slowly over the course of a few phases. But it’s rare that a band proceeds, in the space of just a handful or releases, through a definitive arc that swings from meditative minimalism to lush improvisation.
Brooklyn-based, experimental hardcore band Ex Models, who make pop songs to wreck cars to, have made this sweeping arc. With their psychedelic atmospherics, and the crash-and-burn aesthetic of their mutilated guitar sounds, the band has managed to maintain an identifiable style while progressing through a series of radically different philosophies. Their music is a drum-heavy mix of noise manipulation and song craft. They have the sound of a more industrial, beat-heavy Sonic Youth, pre-Sister, and the intense fury of psychedelic grindcore bands like An Albatross or Some Girls.
Originally influenced by the No Wave groups of New York in the early ’80s—a movement that thrived on breaking down as many stylistic walls as possible—Ex Models have matured through numerous genre-shifts and arrived at their own true sound. The journey to this avant-pop stasis seems like a perfectly natural one for Shahin Motia, the only constant member of the band.
“At first, when I was writing in college, I had a conceptual goal,” Motia said. “I wanted the music to be a soundtrack to postmodern philosophy. I would drift off in theory classes and wonder how these concepts would sound.” But that goal changed drastically with each album, and with each change to the band’s lineup. In fact the only constant was the bands hyper-aggressive style, with Motia using drums to design his songs. On the band’s first record, Other Mathematics, the songs were written to be played live. They were worked out ahead of time, and the band’s performances were carefully planned. Each member had a role, and the songs were trimmed down to the essentials so that every note counted.
With the second album, Zoo Psychology, about twenty percent of the album was written ahead of time, according to Motia. The rest was left open for improvisation and studio embellishment. With the progression of each album, the music slowly turned from trim and carefully planned to more experimental and lush. Motia has decided to let his listeners decide what they are listening to, rather than directing them himself. According to Motia, the concept makes for a more interactive experience.
On the newest Ex Models album, Chrome Panthers, almost nothing was premeditated. “It was essentially a live recording,” Motia said. And the newfound spirit of improvisation brought new concepts in sound design for the band. This time around, drums played a role both in and out of the studio. The band toured the album twice. The first time around, Motia toured using a pre-programmed, industrial drum track; the second time, he toured with two live drummers. Because of this, he was able to reinvent all the songs, keeping the core intact but working out new parts live.
Motia, who lived in Brooklyn with the rest of the group for around seven years, now lives in L.A., but the current band members are still based in New York. He feels that this only helps the movement toward spontaneity. “At this point we are on different coasts, so I have to think about things differently,” Motia said. “We have to throw stuff down during studio time. Book shows now and figure out how to play the songs later.”
Far from the meticulous calculation of his early work, Motia doesn’t even worry about how a song will sound live now. He uses the improvisation to reinvent the album tracks. This makes a live Ex Models show something incredibly special. You may recognize the songs, but the total experience of the music will be made up on the spot.
While basking in the L.A. sun, Motia is working on new material and new gigs for Ex Models. He is getting by solely on his music. “We are going to have a summit in Brooklyn and record stuff in April,” he said. “But we’ll see how much gets done.
RAY MCDERMOTT is a cultural anthropologist who teaches Education at Stanford University.