In 2016, four versatile, passionate, and highly-experienced musicians started a band called Ex Eye. A metal band. A jazz metal band? An undefinable band that their label Relapse records, aptly describes as an “instrumental, post-metal quartet.”
There’s Michigan-born, Montreal-based musician Colin Stetson on saxophone (who knew all the band members individually and reached out to them). Colin Stetson has collaborated with Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, TV On the Radio, Feist, and many more. And New York-based percussionist Greg Fox on drums, who drummed with metal band Liturgy. Toby Summerfield is the Michigan-based musician and composer behind Never Enough Hope. On synths is Shahzad Ismaily, who owns the Figure 8 Recording studio in Brooklyn. He’s been part of the bands Secret Chiefs 3 and Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, and has worked with Laurie Anderson, Yoko Ono, and Vieux Farka Toure, to name a few.
To get us ready for their Phi Centre show on November 30, the band offered some wise words on metal, catharsis, intuition, and the fun and ease of making music together.
The video for "Xenolith; The Anvil" is quite thrilling and really captures the drama and fun of the four of you playing together. What was it like making that video, and what can Montreal audiences expect from your live show?
Colin Stetson: Aside from each of our particular voices and technical proficiencies on our respective instruments, this band is also a combination of four very distinct and disparate characters, in personality and in aesthetic. I love that video, visually how it represents us as individuals and as the one pulsing Ex Eye being. And yes, it looks fun because we were having fun. We have a lot of fun together.
Greg Fox: Sometimes making a music video can be a huge pain in the ass. This was not the case in this instance.
Shahzad Ismaily: I enjoyed making that video so much. I know I’m strange in look and feel. And it was a pleasure to explore that visually. I appreciate time shared with my bandmates very much. Montreal can expect to be taken up the spiral, left without weight, and see as a bird sees. Perspective is nice.
Toby Summerfield: The video was a blast. Being around these dudes is really, really easy, and we seem to select other folks (videographers, engineers, helpers) who are also easy. The record was recorded before we’d played a lot live, and there’s a different sort of swagger now that we have so many more shows under our belts.
Without pigeonholing you into any single genre of music, metal is such an amazing style; the energy and culture can be so powerful and aggressive yet the music can be so intricate and hypnotic and mathematical. When did you first get into heavier sounds? What do you love about them as a musician and a human?
CS: I was raised on the classic rock of my father's generation, Hendrix, Zeppelin, and Tull were my earliest and strongest influences. This led to digging into metal at a relatively early age; around ten, eleven years old I started listening to Metallica, Maiden, Slayer, Megadeth, pretty standard metal listening for a reclusive, D&D gaming, pre-teen. However, I’ve never been one to limit my consumption of sounds on the basis of genre, and I’ve always listened to “a bit of everything,” as they say. Though I will say that there’s a level of power and of raw emoting that I’ve always been drawn to as a listener and a player. The extremes of things, be it the rageful precision of Meshuggah, the focused rejoicing of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, or the thoughtful patience of Mamoru Fujieda, have always interested me.
SI: I got into heavier sounds in my very late teens. I have always been very very angry. And when I first heard loud, noisy, pummeling music, I felt the potential for catharsis, to be consumed by the wave. At its end, the monsoon leaves you wet, exhausted, purified, grounded.
GF: Disillusionment and a severely rude political awakening after 9/11 opened me up to the full gamut of heavier sounds.
TS: I’ve been playing complicated, aggressive instrumental rock for 20+ years, whether it was “prog” or “math” or “post” or “fusion” (choose your own modifier). I started to play in 1986, so there was a lot of hard rock on the radio, and alternative music hit right in the middle of my teenagerdom. Alongside that I do a lot of improvising, and have been drawn to the “firebreathing” sort of free music. I think both affect a similar catharsis in the listener and player, an opening up to the terrifying truths of existence. On the ground, a friend’s older brother giving me Mr. Bungle led directly to Zorn.
Each of you gentlemen has a very impressive and inspiring musical background; each must certainly add something incomparable to the band. What's the most surprising element (musical or otherwise) that one of your bandmates has brought to this project?
CS: Greg’s dedication to a relentless, physically transcendental pursuit on his instrument, while not really a surprise to me, has nonetheless been a source of inspiration and drive in me and my own similar pursuits. Though maybe the most surprising thing about the band might be just how well we all get along and how intuitive our collaboration and friendship has been these past two years.
GF: The most pleasantly surprising thing for me about the band (not that I doubted this would happen, but I underestimated to what extent) is how much we laugh when we are on tour and how dumb yet hilarious all the jokes are. In my experience, this is the sign of a very successful circumstance.
SI: Toby is clearly a very, very good father to his children. And from the beginning I was surprised by the monolithic presence of his gentle humanity. It’s a thread I lay my synthesizer on.
TS: There is a line that Shahzad plays that follows exactly the difference tones created by a two-note melody I’m playing. A subtle, instinctual choice that nobody else would have made, and that wasn’t revealed until we were mixing the record. His decision to play synthesiser, also, reveals his deep intuition and sensitivity—he can match or contrast timbres with me and Colin in a profound way not available on something besides a synth. That also allows us to swap roles and functions within the material in a natural and pretty unusual way.
And, for yourself, what has Ex Eye brought you musically so far that's influenced the rest of your non-Ex Eye musical work and projects?
TS: Ex Eye has let me embrace a vocabulary I would normally eschew. Operating in the postmodern musical era, it’s refreshing to unironically really fucking rock.
CS: These guys are the best at what they do and they keep me motivated to make sure that I’m bringing absolutely everything I have, musically, physically, and in my ability to be understanding and cooperative, in the process of making music that I’ve been wanting to make my whole life.
GF: I look up to and admire all three of my Ex Eye bandmates in different ways, so it is just constantly educational and informative to spend time playing with them, influencing the way i approach all the other music I make, and the way I think about being a professional musician.
Can you please tell us more about composition and how it relates to your music and writing process? How does improvisation come into play?
SI: At this moment, I find composition difficult. I am more at ease with intuition, I write music in the moment I am sparring with my instruments and the sounds around me. Sometimes my compadres say, "What is that, I like it, stay with it,” and then the momentary impulse/ phrase becomes set—composed.
TS: Writing music in a band context always involves improvising, (though it gets called “jamming.") Every band I’ve been a part of has worked like this; there’s a germ of an idea which everybody mulls over, and after a while the shape of the song reveals itself. Parts get added on, new ideas are sparked, people comment musically, write supporting or opposing lines, the song reveals itself. My work as a composer strives to include the sensation of being in a room with my friends, seeing how they fit their voices and ideas to mine. Being improvisers informs our ability to support an idea, to fit ourselves around ourselves and forge a whole.
CS: Yeah, as we are a band of four musicians who each have an extensive background and experience in improvisation, it’s definitely a means that we employ to generate music, and to get closer to the truth of songs once they’re begun. As a consequence, the way we got to each of the songs on our record were all completely different from one another. Something like "Xenolith" was a pretty well-imagined composition that Toby brought in to the band, and through playing it, and mapping it onto the ways in which we all play individually and into our strengths as a group, it went on to change quite a bit in its form and presentation. The original integrity of the piece is still there, but with a character and feel that is decidedly of the four of us. "Anais Hymnal," on the other hand, was written completely in the opposite, as it was based on an improvisation that we recorded and then gradually, through inspection and rehearsal, got codified into the song we recorded for the record.
Speaking of Montreal, and of Brooklyn, how do these, and/ or other places, fit into the Ex Eye world? What was it like recording at Shahzad's Figure 8 Studios?
SI: These are geographies to pass through. I’m not personally impacted by them. I love recording at my studio, it’s comfortable, sounds great, and i can walk there from my house, then walk home, then take a nap.
TS: I think there are deep truths about place in music making. Since the four of us live different places, I think the band doesn’t speak from one region. That said, there is a sense to me—being the least New Yorking of all of us—that there’s a hurriedness to the music, that feels New York-y to me. I have always noted a difference between Coastal musics (NY or CA) and Midwestern music, especially rock music that includes minimalist tendencies. (I lived in Chicago for 12 years.)
Ex Eye play the Phi Centre on November 30. (Sheenah Ko opens the show.) Their self-titled debut album is out now.