Excepter Talks Mourning, Survival and New Album, Familiar
“I think the one thing humans are good at is surviving disaster.”
A lot has happened in Excepter's world since the release of 2010's Presidence. In February of 2011, Clare Amory, a core member of the long-running, militantly avant-garde New York electronic collective, lost a long battle with cancer at the age of 35. In the words of founder John Fell Ryan, the event "just blew the band away"; Nathan Corbin, Amory's partner, left the group and moved to New Mexico, Ryan and his wife Lala moved to Los Angeles and the impact of the tragedy was such that no one seemed to know whether Excepter would withstand it. After a long period of mourning, multiple line-up changes and one serendipitous email later (from Throbbing Gristle manager Paul Smith, founder of the legendary UK experimental label Blast First Petite), though, the group is currently gearing up to release Familiar, its first LP in four years.
Recorded on tour in Europe in 2012, during a week-long stopover at Faust Studios in Prague, Familiar is the closest that Excepter has ever come to penning a collection of straight-up "songs," with articulated vocals, lush keys and a more pronounced melodic backbone, perhaps best encapsulated in the below cover of This Mortal Coil's "Song to the Siren." It feels like a far cry from the untethered, shamanic marathon jams that the group has become synonymous with in its decade of existence, but Excepter still sounds as post-apocalyptic as ever—just post-apocalyptic in a clear-eyed, more survival-oriented sense. Familiar is out next Monday, October 6th via Blast First Petite.
Before you went in to the studio to record, was there any discussion of what you wanted the album to sound like? JOHN FELL RYAN: Well, the album title was predetermined. In fact, it was predetermined in 2005, when I had this vision of nearly all the Excepter albums, and what their tone would be. Familiar was originally going to be called Feelings, and the idea was that it would feature acoustic guitar and be more of a band playing, with singing. Emotional singing. But then Animal Collective put out a record called Feels, so we couldn’t use Feelings anymore. Then I was just like, “We’ll call it Familiar.’” We had talked about it before Clare got sick, and just soldiered on with the concept. In my mind, there would be these songs. Even though the songs weren’t fully written, I knew that I could draw songs out of our in-studio improvisations. .
Song songs. JFR: Yeah, and using classical acoustic instruments. Using guitar, using piano, using the snare drum, using familiar sounds. That was the idea. LALA RYAN: Having the keyboard instruments there already made it a little more formal and song-y, because it’s kind of hard to get totally wild when you have the keyboard there. JFR: Yeah, and also using the same drum sound for every track, which Jon Nicholson provided. LALA: Jeff would tell me what themes he wanted me to make up lyrics about. So there would be themes.
What were they? LALA: For “Palace to Palace,” he told me, “This song is about leaving and saying goodbye.” JFR: “Sunburned Kids” was about remembrances of family vacations when you were young. The idea of a sunburn kid is a kid who is exposed to the elements. LALA: Just being alone on the beach as a child for family reunions, for too long, for way too long.
What’s the story behind the first single, “Maids”? LALA: “Maids” is based on the “One, Two, Buckle my Shoe” poem. We’re always reading poetry at home because we have a little boy, and I had never read 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18 until we got the Mother Goose book. I just thought it was an interesting, catchy rhyme, and then I’d just been really obsessed with melody and writing a lot for my solo thing in LA, and it was going to be a light song, but then Jeff commandeered it for Excepter. It was just about playing with melody, playing with what is considered to be powerful intervals. JFR: Excepter’s always had nursery rhymes.
Do you mean ever since you guys had a kid? JFR: Well, before that. “Knock Knock” [from Excepter’s 2006 album, Alternation] is based on “Froggy Went a-Courting” and “Icecream Van” [from that same album] is based on “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” I have this thing about playground music, like songs that kids just sing, or like skip rope stuff, and hand jive, just the rhythms that kids [like]. “Ring Around the Rosey” and the whole thing… They just carry it on. A folk tradition that’s not connected to technological broadcast but spread by word of mouth. There’s a real folk music that’s just made by hands and your body. Being parents, we spend a lot of time on the playground. It’s a bittersweet feeling being there, ‘cause you think about yourself as a kid, you think about your parents, think about what they were thinking while you were on a playground with a kid.
How has being a parent impacted your art? JFR: Well, it’s made the practical part of it a lot more extreme. LALA: We get a sitter for shows. Actually, I think I’m way more efficient now that I’m a parent. When I think of my days before I had our son, I think of all the time I just pissed away. Now, everything is planned out. JFR: If you listen to the actual music we’ve been making. It’s gotten darker. Even if you look at the covers. Since 2008, things have just gotten darker and more extreme in Excepter land.
Why do you think that is? LALA: We’ve been though a lot. JFR: I don’t actually think that has to do with us being parents. That has us to do reacting to the world around us, so it’s not like we’ve become Raffi or whatever. LALA: I think this is the most focused we’ve ever been. Because we had to be like, “Okay, we are in a studio for a week; we have to really come up with some actual, final ideas.” We had to be very focused, and there’s ideas you can grab on to more easily. There’s one longer song, “Destroy,” that Nathan Corbin contributed to the album. What’s the story behind that one? JFR: Yeah, well, Nathan was invited to go along [on tour], but he just couldn’t go for emotional reasons. I mean—and I think this is okay if we say this—he associates Excepter with Claire. It gets too painful for him. So for him to perform with Excepter, it’s just… LALA: No way. He can’t do it. He doesn’t think it would be appropriate. I completely understand. JFR: But then at the same time, he’s such a big part of the band. I was like, “Would you like to be involved on any level?” And he thought for a while, and then he gave us this one recording and was like, “This is what I would like to contribute to the album.” And it was a recording that he made while Claire was sick. LALA: She listened to it. It was the last thing they worked on together, in their old apartment that they had together. JFR: It’s called “Destroy,” and it was made in an attempt to destroy her cancer. You listen to it, you’ll be destroyed. LALA: It’s really emotional. There’s no words. It’s very hard to listen to—if you know what it’s about, or even if you don’t know what it’s about.
Would you say you drew inspiration from pop music for this album? LALA: I’m not sure if it started out as an inspiration, but it ended up being really poppy-sounding. For sure the most poppy Excepter record I’ve heard. We’re obsessed with Kelly Clarkson songs and what makes them work, and country songs and what makes them work, and we talk about it all the time, actually. Like why Robyn’s songs work so well: she’s got a super emotional voice, and she’s always talking about betrayal or love triangles, and she’s just a genius at delivery, too. Katy Perry. Every hit song she does is like, “Whoa.” We can break it down, Jeff is like, “Okay, here’s the formula.” JFR: Her “Teenage Dream” is A B C, A B C, C-prime, C D, C D. LALA: It’s all about the C-prime. Great chorus. JFR: The B part is the annoying, catchy part that brings you in before the chorus. The chorus is when they drop the bomb and bring in the big guns, and that’s when you hear those Excepter sounds.
What do you mean by Excepter sounds? JFR: The weird machine noises that come in when it gets really loud. Pop music took the Nirvana-style distortion stomp box chorus and infused it with strange techno. And like, grunge and techno are pretty big influences on Excepter. Grunge for the vocals and emotional content, and techno for the texture and fundamental makeup of the instruments that we use. Though we don’t tend to use the verse-chorus [structure]. It’s more of a trance jam, and then vocal riffs. You’ll have lines that repeat but it’s not in a fixed way.
You lost two core members of the group a couple years ago. Obviously, the Excepter of today couldn’t possibly be the same band it was back when Clare and Nathan were playing, but what are some of the aspects of it that have endured? LALA: Clare is not physically there, but the way she performed has always been really inspiring to me: like her courageous improvisation style, and just like owning what she was putting out. Just maintaining eye contact with the audience and being brave like that. And doing her incredible modern, avant-garde like dance moves, and just being able to own what she did without looking back. That spirit I hope is still there. I have listened very closely to a lot of what Nathan has done, and it has definitely affected the way I make music, too. JFR: I think it’s a standard that everyone in the band understands—that there’s this historical standard. Also, just Nathan’s attention to technical detail: like constantly building on the system and incorporating new and different instrumentation. Jon Nicholson and Jon Williams—every time they play it’s kind of a new set up. You know, always improving. And with the band as a whole—you know, things falling apart, things coming together—that’s also kind of a standard. I mean, it’s within performance: the idea of losing things and keeping on going. Plus, we have electronics, and things are always breaking. LALA: Like a drop of beer dropped into one of our sequencers at our Santos show last weekend, and nothing worked. And also, just kind of going out of time on stage, creating this other concept of time. I think that’s a constant in Excepter. JFR: Yeah, and things falling apart, surviving apocalypse. It’s always been the Excepter watch word. And I think the human watch word. I think the one thing humans are good at is surviving disaster.
Catch Excepter at tonight's record release party at Trans Pecos in Brooklyn.