Call it Punk Rockhausen: Excepter

The band was several minutes into their set before I realized they had started. At first I thought it was the beer—I was a couple of drinks in at that point, as it was well after 1:00 a.m. on a weeknight. But that wasn’t it.

The four members of Excepter took the stage at Baby’s All Right individually, and in no hurry. They began their sound check, communicating through hand gestures with the sound man in the back. Someone programed a loop, modulated the sound until it was just right, or close enough, then moved on. The loop continued though, and eventually receded into the background as other sounds from different pieces of equipment came in: a sequenced drum pattern, synth washes, mic checks. Eventually, and without any introduction, these sounds became the first song.

Baby’s All Right wasn’t particularly full that night. There were the obligatory friends of the band, all standing together. There were a few die-hards: the experimental and noise scene regulars nodding along, drinks in hands, or hands in pockets. And their girl- and boyfriends they had brought along, unsure of what they had been dragged into. The space below the stage was clear, both because it wasn’t that kind of show, and because there was a guy with a collared shirt and spiky hair occupying at least twenty square feet of floor in front. He was high on who knows what, dancing like an inflatable stick in a used car lot, bumping into people. He had come with a girl too—she was making out with a stranger in the corner—and I think he was trying to demonstrate that he was over her. (After all, it wouldn’t be the first time dance was revenge-based). And somehow, it all fit. This is the effect of the Excepter experience: disorientation.

Excepter is an experimental band based in Brooklyn. To describe their sound would be difficult, as no two Excepter records or shows sound the same; they are, consistent only in their reliable inconsistencies. When I think of them, their sound, I think of the phrase “Punk Rockhausen,” as in punk rock meets Karlheinz Stockhausen. Electronic experimentation meets bar band ethos.

John Fell Ryan is the leader and only consistent member of the band over its near fifteen 15-year history. I met Ryan at a bar in Greenpoint on a Monday night in March. I was interested in talking about the band from the beginning, how as it has evolved with Brooklyn, and how Brooklyn has evolved alongside, or despite, it, and where it stands now, several waves of experimental music later.

***

We’re in an era now in which we are no longer talking about great New York bands, but great Brooklyn bands. Excepter is a great Brooklyn band. And one of the most quintessential: the band’s trajectory is not dissimilar from the Williamsburg-defined wave of Brooklyn gentrification in the 2000s. In some ways, Excepter played a small part in defining it. After finishing grad school at Columbia, John moved to Williamsburg. This was the late 1990s, when the neighborhood was one of the largest communities of Hasidic Jews rather than hipster transplants, and long before the Bedford Avenue stop became a tourist destination. In the early 2000s, as he was trying to start Excepter, he was literally pulling people off his street to audition them for the band. He was collecting equipment at the time, trolling pawn shops for old Roland TR-606 and 808 drum machines, for used Juno and SH101 synthesizers. This was that brief era before craigslist and eBay, the one old scenesters wax nostalgic about, before every post-college Brooklynite was “buying a synthesizer and an arpeggiator, [and] selling [their] guitars and buying turntables,” a trend that Excepter helped inspire. Then, when Williamsburg became the faux-hemian hub it is now, and rents rose with the buildings, John and the band moved to Bushwick, into a place that came to be called 382 Jeff Street (named after the Jefferson Street L train stop).

The other three current members are: Jon Nicholson, a more or less consistent member of the band since 2003; Jon Williams, an old friend and the newest member; and Ryan’s wife, Lala, who has been involved since 2006. Excepter’s size has run the gamut, from a trio to an octet. Relationships and marriages have existed in and because of the band. So have breakups. It’s a labor of love; there’s no money made. Everyone in the band has day jobs: Ryan works for a moving company, Lala teaches music to children in Manhattan, Williams is a computer programmer, Nicholson is an art handler. Says Ryan, “A good show will net each person maybe a little over a hundred dollars.” A lack of money has never not always been a problem for the band, and yet it has never stopped them.

***

Ryan said that he likes to think of the band’s various iterations less like chapters in a book than as different destinations on a map. The first destination in the band’s history would be 2001 – 2003. Excepter was one of a handful of experimental noise-loving bands of this era, part of what Ryan calls the Class of 2003, with bands Animal Collective and Black Dice. The early records of these bands do sound markedly similar: rhythm-heavy, improvised compositions—they feel like the music of a child’s imagination, or like the wild and heavy footsteps of someone still thrilled by the idea of being able to move independently, concerned less with the efficiency of travel than with movement itself. Excepter’s records from this period, while adventurous, are more serious. Says Ryan says about this, “I don’t like [those bands’] version of childhood. Like crazy kids banging on the dining room table with forks and knives, making noise.”

Excepter released its first proper album with a label, Ka, in 2003 on Fusetron. A psychedelic trip, full of heavy panning, the album plays like the soundtrack to the conception scene in Rosemary’s Baby. Or maybe the surreal moment just before: Rosemary inexplicably in the middle of the sea, afloat on her mattress, rocking back and forth.

The album isn’t ashamed of its weirdness. The tracks are long, and indulge the group’s jam-band tendencies. It has a lo-fi feel—many of the tracks were done live, others recorded straight to tape. Virtually everything is run through a delay. It sounds like a drunk reimagining of an early Stereolab record, playing on repeat in the back of some smoke-filled room.

Destination two in the band’s history would be from 2004-2006. Perhaps their most prolific era, preferring productivity to perfection, the band was constantly putting out new music: a CD-only release, Throne (LOAD, 20065); an LP/CD release, Self-destruction (Fusetron, 2005); the Sunbomber EP (5 Rue Christine, 20065); OP, a “collection of various rarities from the years 2005-2006” (internet release, 2006). There was even more: limited edition cassettes and CD’s, often released through the internet or via small labels that folded as quickly as they were formed.

In 2006, the band released what Ryan considers their pop record and one honest attempt at reaching a wider audience, Alternation (5 Rue Christine and Fusetron). Songs like “Ice Cream Van” and “Rock Stepper” have all the pop song trappings—4/4 drum machine beats, actual melodies—though everything sounds as if it’s been run through a washing machine.

Alternation is more playful than the material that preceded it. At the beginning of “If I Were You,” Ryan says wryly, “I’d like to introduce our machines to you / But I forgot their names. I’d like to shake hands with each and every one of you / But I’m on stage.” His voice trails off and a basic drumbeat comes in: the song is aware that it both belongs on the pop music spectrum and is far too weird or clever for it. Alternation was perhaps Excepter’s biggest release: they launched a full campaign to promote the album, including advertising and live events. But it didn’t do as well as they hoped; it was neither a critical nor financial success. The album is still $10,000 in debt, which, for a polarizing band in a niche experimental Brooklyn scene, might as well be a million.

***

Ryan considers destination three the band’s peak era. It’s also the saddest. They released several records during this time, most on the Animal Collective-founded label, Paw Tracks: the KKKKK EP (2007); another EP, Burgers / The Punjab (2007); an LP called Debt Dept. (2008); a 12”, Black Beach (2009); and the LP, Presidence (2010). This period marks a stylistic shift for the band, perhaps the most significant and noticeable to that point. Presidence has more in common with the industrial chug of Throbbing Gristle’s 20 Jazz Funk Greats than anything Animal Collective ever did. Their sound is grittier, though of a higher quality. It’s still difficult to penetrate but for different reasons than before, lost not in reverb and delay but in the songwriting itself. The band seemed to have reached an artistic peak.

But at the beginning of 2011, everything changed. One of Excepter’s oldest members, Clare Amory, died of cancer on February 24. She was 35.

The band almost broke apart. I asked Ryan about this:

It completely effected the band … it blew the band apart … At that point we had kind of reached this peak of playing, looking for the next step. [Clare] was getting her own business together. Then she got sick. And got really sick like that [snaps fingers]. Her death threw everything into question. The band was splintered. We just felt weakened by the process. So this happening just blew us all away. We felt we had to get out of New York … It’s like that thing, when you’re drowning and you don’t know which way is up, and you end up swimming deeper.

The band took time off. John and Lala moved to Los Angeles. They found new days jobs and focused on raising their newborn son, John Victory Ryan. For once in the band’s noisy history, everything was quiet.

***

Eventually, though, John and Lala moved back to Brooklyn, and everything started to pick up again. Now they’re going full swing: this is the fourth and most recent destination on the band’s trip. They finished up a European tour in April, and are back in New York now, playing shows again.

Their new album, Familiar, is coming out this year, the release date of which is as of yet unannounced. The album sounds like a product of a great deal of time. The recordings sound clearer and of a higher quality, the songs more patient, less anxious to prove their avant-garde impulses. “Destroy” is an exercise in synth stab turned noise murder: saw waves are engulfed by distorted frequencies and feedback, by siren squeal. “Holy Girl,” a droning track built on a bass-heavy synth loop and panning vocal ad-libs, sounds like a clairvoyant vision of impending doom.

Of all the noise and strange sounds on the album, though, the most surprising moment is the one of quiet vulnerability. The last track on the album, “Song to the Siren,” is a cover of a Tim Buckley song from 1970. It’s a ballad and love song. There are no drum machines or manipulated samples, just John and a quiet synthesizer, an articulated chord progression, recognizable lyrics. When I first heard the song, I stopped completely. For a band so predictably unpredictable, this was truly disorienting. And spooky, as the song’s themes are resonant with the life of Ryan and the band. He sings:

Long afloat on shipless oceansI did all my best to smile'Til your singing eyes and fingersDrew me loving to your isleAnd you sangSail to meSail to me

***

This current destination is the most triumphant, characterized not by acquiesce or devolution but by perseverance and, ultimately, total devotion. “That’s definitely our story,” says Ryan. “We just keep going.…You have to be severe to cut it. And people are saying, Ah, I can’t afford to live here. And I’m like, you can, but you just have to be severe. Totally fucking severe. You have to work all the time.”

Excepter will never make any money. They will likely never mean much to many people, especially those who live outside of Brooklyn or who never got the chance to see them play in person. While contemporaries have come and gone around them, some making it big, others returning to day jobs, Excepter has stayed the course. They’ve never stopped making the music they want to make.

Toward the end of our conversation, an Excepter song came on in the bar. It was “When You Call,” the last song on Presidence. Admittedly, I didn’t recognize it; it sounded only like a different kind of static than that occurring behind us. Again, maybe it was the beer—John and I were several drinks deep by that part of the night. But maybe it wasn’t, maybe it was just the music. Ryan looked visibly pleased.