Five years in the life of Excepter: As seen through the eyes of (((unartig))) and narrated by Nick Sylvester, writer and editor of the downtown zine Perineum.
[Nick Sylvester | Perineum Zine]
The first time I saw Excepter was five years ago at Tonic, a small experimental music venue in the Lower East Side that slowly went under as the condos went up. I don’t think I had moved to the city yet but Excepter would be one of the reasons I’d be doing so eventually. The group performed something like musical theater that night: Caitlin Cook, who I remember being tall and blond and beautiful (I only saw her this once, so don’t hold me to it), wore a short fur coat and walked on and off stage into the audience, seeming aloof and murmuring into a microphone whose signal was treated with considerable delay and reverb. When she took off the coat, revealing a backless dress, you could count every one of her vertebrae, from the top of her neck and all the way down. I had never seen anything like that before. John Fell Ryan, who I am nearly certain was wearing his linen suit and a bucket hat, also looked the part of prophet, while the rest of the band played bass guitar, a drum set with torn cymbals, and a small drum machine. Sometimes the sounds made sense together, other times they did not. Each player held the other in quiet disregard. The crowd, which had been wall-to-wall, thinned out considerably. But for whatever reason, I had the distinct feeling that night of wanting to understand–who were these quiet, disregarding people, what did they read, what did they listen to, what food did they eat, where did they get their clothing, what did they worship, what did they think of the walls closing in around them.
This might be the last band I’ll ever have that kind of blind-trust relationship with–where if I didn’t like some new development of theirs, such as when Caitlin and Calder parted ways with the band (Cook had the best ‘haunted vocals’ in Brooklyn), or when newcomer Jon ‘Porkchop’ Nicholson abused his microphone privileges and nearly ruined the band’s show at Northsix, or when the band moved from swirling kraut-like head music and into something more industrial, I assumed I simply didn’t get it. Nate Corbin and Dan Hougland were meticulous beat makers and the stage was theirs by divine right. That was indisputable–no? John Fell Ryan was above the rules of mankind and simply could do no wrong. “I’d like to introduce our machines to you, but I forgot their names,” he said. “I’d like to shake hands with each and every one of you, but I’m on stage…”
Part of me suspected their performance was a gag on spirituality and ritual, not unlike a Kenneth Anger film or Jim Shaw’s Oist movement, but I still went to Church every Sunday. Like a Christian faced with biblical contradictions, I listened to the band’s early streams–MP3 recordings of several hour-long improvisations–and tried hard to justify the parts that dragged. You need the bad parts so you know what the good parts are… a nugget I had stolen from the Beavis and Butthead soundtrack. The last shred of taste credibility I had with Bob Christgau, Dean of Rock Criticism, I lost at a different, particularly flaccid Excepter performance at Tonic. The night Excepter were ‘banned’ from the Knitting Factory was an unbelievably difficult day for me. Here was evidence that this entire city was on Ritalin, that no one had time for anything he didn’t grasp immediately. As I re-read my own account of the incident—it involved a showdown on top of a bar, and some manner of loud, stoned shouting outside the venue, and Excepter were clearly in the wrong–I can’t help but laugh at how vehemently I took the band’s side.
Granted, my devotion to Excepter didn’t mean I didn’t voice some frustration. For a good while I struggled with my doubts as to the Meaning or Point of Excepter in the pages of the Village Voice and Riff Raff, the daily music blog the paper let me write. My concert notes (I took them at all their concerts) were manic attempts to divine the secret messages in what I refused to believe were anything but cosmic dispatches for better living. It’s no wonder that Dan Hougland, who had a friend at the Voice, relayed that he could never tell whether I really liked the band. The record reviews were even worse: “Side A moans and drones like their three earlier sets, but set to broken gear grinds and sawdust kid stutter, Excepter sound like toddlers humming overtones along with mall bells, or rock-star dads with the lawn mower,” I wrote about 2005′s Self-Destruction LP. “The band’s latest Sunbomber EP works that pop-through-bongwater angle everyone’s wanted them to do forever now.” Both these were supposed to be tall compliments, but I ended the piece with a hedge: “Maybe I’m just a mark.”
For all the words I’ve put down about Excepter, I don’t think I once said the full truth: This band changed the way I experience music. As a writer, I take a colossus of stimuli and whittle it down into a narrative–beginning middle end–leaving out less important details that might distract the reader, bringing others to the foreground because I want the reader to feel a certain way. And as a young music critic, I admit to having approached music in a very writerly way–trying to place meaning onto a song, or band, or concert experience, which is not unlike putting a muzzle over a wild animal’s mouth. I credit Excepter to beating that impulse out of me–to teaching me how to let things be.
I owe them one more. When I let my ideas get the best of me and humiliated myself at the Voice in early 2006, John Fell Ryan, his fiance and bandmate Lala Harrison, and the rest of Excepter came to my rescue. They named a recording after me, as if that show, which happened around the day I was offed, had some cosmic connection to my own unrest (“The Ballad of Nick Sylvester”). Maybe they were poking fun at me, but the fact was that my favorite band knew who I was, and they wanted me to know that. I was a pariah, to put it frankly–but still, John and Lala invited me into their Bushwick home for dinner and a private performance in conjunction with the release of Alternation, which might be my favorite Excepter album. They really didn’t have to. I was worthless to them at this point, and worse, my fuck-up may have caused them harm by proxy. It was one of my favorite nights in New York.
Over the next few months I would be lucky to have conversations with John about his creative process, the nature of happy accidents, the psychic toll of always taking the long way home–all ideas that inform my own attitude these days: Slow down. Get out of your own way. Let it happen.
That was three years ago–and as I finish off this piece, watching the roof of the building next to mine slowly sag from the weight of snow, checking the internet far too frequently as reports come in that these last ten years were the worst in American history, and now taking a second to remind you that the fantastic Clare Amory is also in this band, though I wish I knew her better–I worry I’m talking about this band as if it’s in the ground already. This is not the case. Their last two albums–Debt Dept. and Black Beach–are so different and wonderful in their own ways. The former is filled with gritty Chris & Cosey-like techno jams, the latter a minimally treated field recording of percussion and flute as waves crash the shore, with beautiful video accompaniment. The last time I saw Excepter was at The Maze at Death By Audio in September 2009, and it might have been the most compelling I’ve ever seen them.
But my favorite show of theirs was at Monkeytown on February 22, 2008, a/k/a Excepter Presents “Science.” As people sat on low-lying benches and ate three-course meals around the room’s perimeter, the band performed a live soundtrack to the space movies they projected onto all four walls of the vast white art space. (Monkeytown, I’m saddened to hear, is also closing soon.) The band had begun before people were let inside–a slowly throbbing, low-frequency rhythm that wrapped around us like a cocoon. It was the night I learned that Lala was pregnant; she was just beginning to show. It had been a difficult night for me so far: My longest and most significant relationship collapsed on the walk over to the venue. For reasons I forgot, we decided to stay together for the performance anyway. Something about Lala that night, moving carefully around the microphone wires, picking up her flute, putting it back after a few inspired notes… It is hard to explain, as it is so often with this band, but it made me feel better.
Nick Sylvester | New York City, December 2009