Sardonic Smile: Exek Interviewed
The world of Exek is a bitter one. Amidst noirish, dub-dilated post-punk, the words of founding member and frontman Albert Wolski are sardonic, disaffected, mired in disdain. Situated in a reservoir of space echo and assisted by the heavyweight bass-and-drum brunt of Henry Wilson and Sam Dixon, Wolski conveys an oblique, literate nihilism that resembles both a sneer and a smirk. Wicked turns of phrase are spiked with black humour and surrealism as the rest of the band summon sparse, reverb-drenched runs of percussion and a thickset low end prone to detour and dysfunction. In this Exek come close to the sinister riddim enforcement of PiL’s ‘Death Disco’ if its hulking and agonized qualities were infused with something more crooked and macabre. The likely consequence of an Australian punk band being sent to record at Black Ark with David Cunningham.
On their latest and finest LP so far ‘Ahead of Two Thoughts’ Exek evoke all of this and more, emerging as a fully formed entity after a string of early EPs, split releases and a prior LP which, in many ways, pointed towards this fulfilment. On the latter, entitled ‘Biased Advice’, a whole second side of the record was given over to ‘Baby Giant Squid’, a sixteen-minute odyssey of creeping transcendence. Here dub is tarnished with coarse textures and slowed down to a steady crawl, evoking something dour yet sublime.
With ‘AOTT’ the band revisit and expand upon these feats with a record made in Wolski’s living room amid late night drinking sessions. Although steeped in bitterness and menace there’s plenty of enjoyment to be derived from a production full of ruses and misdirection and a lyricrism engaged in sly, dreamlike wordplay and an excess of stoic contempt.
On ‘U Mop’, they open with an overture of exasperation and ridicule that ascribes the relentless noise of the tedious to a mess you can’t clear up, or more succinctly, to a hail of ‘incessant shit’. Sounding like a Ze Records edit of The Lounge Lizards it could easily represent a universal gripe for a very 21st century form of vanity, an inspired and scornful response to the more narcissistic culprits of ‘the feed’.
Elsewhere the band reach hard won higher states. On ‘Punishment’ they shift from a condemned dub skulk to a swift and phantasmal motorik that reaches a stunning unity of purpose. Like ‘Baby Giant Squid’ there’s the sense of a gradual and absorbing deliverance but here motion becomes adrenalized. There’s also some terrifically dry one-liners (‘Dreams of vandalising public housing/are dreams I find increasingly arousing’) Beyond these moments highlights are different and many, from the brooding depravity and malevolence of ‘Weight Loss (Henry’s Dream)’ to the frayed, ruminative final act of ‘Actress Practice’. Yet for all these flashpoints ‘AOTT’ is a record of even, cohesive intensity.
With the project’s origins dating as far back as 2010 there’s the sense that this has been a long time coming. But, as Wolski reveals in our conversation, he already had a firm idea of what the band would sound like at this early point of inception. Ideas have evidently been in a constant and gradual process of refinement ever since.
In conversation he reveals a sense of conviction when discussing Exek. Concise, unassuming and amenable to offhand humour, Wolski breaks with the projections his lyrics, on a surface level, may suggest; droll rather than earnest, contented as opposed to sullen. Underneath the performative misanthropy he’s not taking himself too seriously. As for music he indicates an eclecticism that runs throughout the band and doesn’t deny the anxiety of influence. Instead he gives the impression of someone who harbours no delusions and is quietly and determinedly building a world for a project that is emphatically coming into its own.
I know Exek as a project had gestated purely in your head, at least initially, in that you had written songs but had no one to play them. Like speculative fiction or something. When did these ideas begin to form and what inspired them?
The concept of EXEK began around 2010. I was aware of the direction of the project prior to writing any music and had specific sonic textures in mind.
How would you describe the project to the uninitiated?
Production heavy punk music.
Does lyrics or music tend to come first? How does that chronology usually play out?
Music. Always. Lyrics are just sounds.
Where did you grow up? What were your first encounters with music?
I grew up in Sydney, and moved to Melbourne around 7 years ago. I think. My dad played Viola in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, so as a kid there was always music filling the house.
What made you want to convert those early ideas and encounters into a living reality like Exek? To what extent did those ideas change in the process?
Though EXEK still remains primarily a studio project, the goal was always to flesh it out into a band. So we could do it live. I’m pretty happy that the project has retained the vibe I had in mind from day one. Nothing much has changed, apart from band members.
How did you meet the other guys? How much did their ideas, attitudes and tastes accord / differ with your own?
Random encounters brought us together. Sam had just moved down to Melbourne from Brisbane, so as the case is with drummers; snatch them up before anyone else does. Henry had never played bass before. So I fed him a steady diet of bass heavy music. Sam and Henry have been there from the start. Other members and instruments may come and go, but bass and drums are integral.
You’re based in Melbourne. As a place what kind of impact has it had? If you were living elsewhere do you feel you would’ve made the same sort of music?
Melbourne was important to get the ball rolling, but this record could definitely have been written and recorded anywhere on the planet. The only thing that binds it to Melbourne are the layers of squealing trams in the outro of U Mop. We try to be as internationally focused as possible, and currently, as evident through the choice of photo on our album cover, we’re trying to tap into the lucrative Bulgarian market.
What’s the balance between work and creativity like for you? How does Exek play into your daily life? I know there are young bands in DIY circles who with other commitments fluctuate between considering their creative ventures a struggle and an escape…
I work full time, minimum wage, on one of the outer rings of the music industry. I don’t have to take my work home with me, so making music is definitely an escape that fills up a lot of my free time. It’s an itch I need to scratch.
How did ‘Biased Advice’ come together? How do you perceive the record in the light of ‘Ahead of Two Thoughts’? How does its inspiration and execution contrast?
BA consists of two sides. The first being the tracks from our debut tape. I felt we had to redo them as they weren’t exactly what I intended. In the week leading up to our first show, Sam broke his hand and immediately became the most useless drummer on the planet. So I recorded some primitive Casio drum presets, and they ended up on the tape. When Sam returned back on full kit duties, the tape seemed like it wasn’t a correct representation. Another Dark Age approached us to do a record cos they loved Baby Giant Squid, which had previously come out on a tape. So I suggested we re record the debut tape, and on the second side bestow Baby Giant Squid the wax treatment it deserved. Looking back on BA, those songs all seem unintentionally quite slow. Very codeine’d out. We play them a lot faster live.
Can you chart the making of ‘Ahead of Two Thoughts’? Where was it recorded? How would you describe the time in which it was made? Can you recall any particular highlights / lowpoints? There was a reference recently to it being a four-year process, the record you always intended to make…
AOTT was all recorded and mixed in my old living room. Some of the songs were written before BA, but I just hadn’t ironed out the creases in them. The recording was a series of long nights spent drinking with Henry. As the nights progressed, so did the flow of odd non-instruments. It was all a highlight.
I was listening to ‘A Hedonist’ and to ‘U Mop’ and was thinking these lyrics are quite targeted and the characters very well drawn. Are these songs about anyone or anything in particular? More generally, what are your lyrics driven by? Have you found yourself drawn to particular themes / characters? Do you envisage a world that your lyrics evoke?
It’s difficult for me to admit if these songs are about people I know. Not because it may offend them to find out, but more importantly because I am unsure I actually am targeting specific individuals. They are obviously a tad blown out of proportion – my negativity is overwhelming in them, ha. The people in these songs exist everywhere. I know lots of these jabronis, and I don’t necessarily hate them either. What I do hate is the chore of mopping a floor. Can’t fucking stand it! The act is futile, as it just pushes mud around. I don’t think humans have developed a method to successfully clean a floor. We have to wait for Apple or Google or Uber to design something that will probably be digital.
Following on from that I was thinking your lyrics seem to come from quite a dark and disdainful place but there’s black humour too. They’re expressed in a very particular way. Does this chime with your intentions? What kind of voice did you set out to formulate with your lyrics?
The lyrics are just a way for me to voice my complaints. I am yet to arrive at an age where I can call a talk back radio show, or leave reviews on websites and online forums. Apart from RyanAir. So, like all comedy, I’m bitching about something, but garnishing it with humour in order to validate it, and justify it having any merit of being entertaining.
There’s a few lines in ‘Punishment’ that stand out, particularly ‘Unanswered calls for appeals/What’s the charge for succulent Chinese meals?’ – which seems like a reference to this classic viral clip – and in ‘Weight Loss (Henry’s Dream)’ too: ‘Tied up, tied down by my ankles and wrists/exercise with some exorcists’. What’s your approach to coming up for ideas for lyrics? Do you have any routines / quirks that encourage inspiration?
As the bare bones of a song are constructed, I find certain words will fall into certain places. I never fight against this, as the phrasing and rhythm of these key words are integral to the development of the song. Then I simply connect the dots, and find myself arriving at completed verses. I write the overwhelming majority of words whilst travelling. I need to be moving or doing something, something that distracts me from the act of committing to write. So walking home from work has both its physical and mental rewards.
There’s quite a heavyweight use of dub and dub effects throughout the Exek material. How would you describe your respective engagements with dub and reggae? What kind of approaches to production did you adopt, firstly on ‘Biased Advice’ and then on ‘Ahead of Two Thoughts’? Are there effects / treatments you favour?
Everything gets fed through a Roland space echo. Sometimes it gets pretty wild, and heavily dubbed out. Even when delay or reverb is uncalled for, I feed almost all instruments thru it, just in order to warm up the sound and get a little bit of natural tape compression. On top of that, as mentioned, there’s a lot of trinkets that pop up. Toys, and things from the kitchen, are used for percussive emphasis. You can hear that on a lot of dub reggae too – babies crying, doorbells, and the thunderous clasps of a spring reverb tank. Sounds that are fundamentally alarming and unsettling are stripped of their inherent meaning, and enjoyed for their pure sonic qualities.
‘Post-Punk’ as a term is one that’s banded around a lot – with varying accuracy – and is often attributed to you, how do you perceive its relevance both to you and to its broader currency in a contemporary era? Are you ever aggravated by the terms people use to describe your music? I think you have your own identity yet in the reviews I’ve seen a lot of writers are overstating your similarity to PiL etc…
I agree. Post punk generally is an umbrella term that is batted around by lazy journalists. Fortunately for them, they are correct in labelling us as that. Ha. Likewise is the PiL reference. I get it. But there’s also a lot more. If AOTT was accompanied by a mix tape of my influences, that corresponded with the sequencing of the album, it would include the following artists: Essendon Airport, Scratch Acid, NEU, ESG, John Carpenter, Kraftwerk, Heldon, Swell Maps, This Heat, Terje Rypdal, Butthole Surfers, Portishead, Roedelius, Michael Rother, and Eno. Map those acts out and we arrive at AOTT. And I don’t really understand the continuous reference to The Birthday Party. Way too over dramatic than EXEK.
What have you got coming up? Where are Exek at now and where do you see the project heading?
The third record will be entering the mastering stage hopefully by April. The forth record is written, sequenced, and a few instruments already recorded. Should be done by August. Somewhere along the way is an EP of short electronic compositions. And a tour of the States.
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