Things Falling Apart: Excepter and the Changing New York Landscape

Things Falling Apart: Excepter and the Changing New York Landscape

“Brooklyn: there are streams in its name, and flow is certainly part of it.” - John Fell Ryan

Before I knew about Excepter-- or much other music outside the sphere of things mentioned in School of Rock-- I had already satisfyingly mapped out, in my head, a timeline of New York bands that seemed representative of the city, at least according to how it was viewed by a tween-age kid from Chicago. It all started with The Velvet Underground, who I didn’t necessarily love but knew were objectively “cool” and “New York-y.” Then, The Ramones. Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, and then ‘90s Sonic Youth. The Strokes took this timeline into the twenty-first century, and it all ended, firmly, with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. “Cool,” for me, didn’t exist outside downtown Manhattan, and by 2004 or so, it seemed to me like cool bands were on their way out of New York altogether. But then, yeah, I found Excepter.

I’ll cop to learning about the group from Dominique Leone’s Pitchfork review of KA, which gave the record a Best New Music tag and which was published shortly after I discovered that site while searching for information about this incredible new band my sister had shown me called Animal Collective. Leone used a lot of big words and concepts that flew over my head, but what I took from the review was that there was some sort of subculture now that sounded a little bit like how I pictured downtown New York in the ‘70s to be: all destitute and violent and drug-fueled, but maybe even weirder. The “songs” on KA were like depraved, self-contained landscapes, equal parts harrowing and inviting. Each one was just an expansive mess of sound; there was no structure, and if there was a beat, it was distorted and inconsistent. The vocals were gargled and mumbled and moaned rather than sung. Every new sound that would enter the landscape was foreign and mysterious to me, and I was forced to imagine where each of them might have came from, which gave the listening experience visual and tactile components. As far as I knew, there’d never been music like this. It wasn’t long before I discovered Excepter’s predecessors and contemporaries, but for a time, their music-- and theirs alone-- seemed to come from some perpendicular universe, light-years away from my quiet north Chicago neighborhood. So where was all this happening? And how?

According to Leone, a lot of this crazy shit was going on in Brooklyn, which housed bands like Excepter and Gang Gang Dance in addition to my newly beloved Animal Collective. I’d never heard of those first two, so like any weird kid with an internet connection, I started to dig. (What a rabbit hole, huh?) Anyways, these groups quickly blew my mind, showing me not only that Animal Collective wasn’t created in a vacuum, but also that that lineage of New York City cool that I’d confidently drawn up was incomplete. Indeed, Excepter and their contemporaries made me rethink both “cool” and “New York.” Was this what New York sounded like now? Or was Excepter just an anomaly-- an outsider collective that just happened to live in the Big Apple?

Imagining where they came from and how they made the sounds they did occupied much of my conscious thought in eighth and ninth grade. And, I should note, my unconscious thought. If I know my Freud (which is arguable), I know that dreams are supposed to depict your unconscious desires. So what does it mean that, in the mid to late 2000s, I had recurring dreams based in Brooklyn, starring me and, uh, John Fell Ryan? (Probably something about my dad, right?) Anyways, the Brooklyn I imagined based on the things I’d read reached its debased apotheosis in these dreams. All fire and brimstone and record stores, the borough was a dystopian netherworld-- part Ulro, part Arrakis, with a little Detroit thrown in. (But also really fuckin’ fun.) In that initial Brooklyn dream, which is the one I remember best and which occurred when I was a very innocent and naive thirteen year-old boy, I crossed through a ring of fire, climbing across detached auto parts on my way to a “Brooklyn warehouse,” which were very common art spaces according to the blogs I’d read. I wandered around the warehouse, running into all sorts of deformed art-people and wild animals, hearing horrible industrial noises and sweating nervously and then stumbling into a room where a band was playing. That band, of course, was Excepter. I watched them for a bit, just me in the room. Then John Fell Ryan offered me a spot in the band. I accepted. Then I woke up. What was initially nightmarish ended up being a quite pleasant little dream, and over breakfast that morning I couldn’t stop thinking about how I needed to move to Brooklyn to create-- and, more importantly, to experience-- something real.

Alas, by the time I got to New York, in 2011, that “realness” didn’t hit me like I’d hoped it would. I knew from the internet that western Brooklyn had been going through heavy gentrification, and therefore expected that my first trips to Williamsburg and Greenpoint and Bushwick wouldn’t be the harrowing post-industrial journeys I had dreamt about in my earlier teenage years. I knew that Gang Gang Dance and Animal Collective had taken their show all over the world and sold a hefty amount of records. And I knew that Excepter was sort of laying low-- John and Lala (also a key member of Excepter) had a kid, and soon after I arrived in New York, I believe, they moved to Los Angeles. Despite that foreknowledge, I was still initially disappointed by Brooklyn. I like record stores and artisanal foods as much as anyone, and Bushwick especially still had some of that diversity and “grit." Still, the borough, or at least the parts of it where the music was, was a little heavy on cute coffee shops and a little light on bombed-out warehouses, flaming mountains of rotting metal, and other things I had voyeuristically craved. That imagined Excepter spirit-- the new kind of New York City cool-- was greatly absent, at least from Brooklyn's visual landscape.

But disappointment turned to contentedness quickly enough, and my false, dystopian vision of Brooklyn transformed into a strangely utopian one. Here was a place where all the bands I liked played all the time in cool places (warehouses full of positivity, not dread) with cool people and good food and good beer. There was a sense that you could walk the streets and stumble upon some incredible artistic haven on any given block. Of course, this was a utopianism based on the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too principle, wherein you can live where you want and indulge in a consumerist lifestyle without having to confront any problems of imperialism or capitalism, all-the-while maintaining your social status of being “cool” and “informed” by getting mad at racists on Twitter and seeing a lot of good bands. This is reductive, sure, and these qualities don’t make someone a good or bad person at all; however, their prevalence among North Brooklyn’s young adult population leads the area to be endlessly idealized and aestheticized, by both its inhabitants and outsiders, whether they know it or not and whether they like it or not. (Williamsburgers might know that “Brooklyn Bowl Las Vegas” is stupid, for instance, and they might make jokes at their neighborhood’s expense-- but that doesn’t change the fact that an increasing number of them live in a capitalist utopia and enjoy it very much.) 

Anyway, I reveled in that capitalist utopia for a bit, escaping the real world of school and Occupy Wall Street and whatever, and having lots of fun and listening to a lot of music. Brooklyn had been demystified, in many ways, but it had also become mystical in others. Alas, this spectacularity-turned-pseudo-hedonism proved unsustainable-- for my wallet, ears, general mental health, etc.-- and last year, perhaps not coincidentally around the time Excepter announced two upcoming new releases, Christisland and Familiar, I found myself becoming frustrated with Brooklyn. 

So, yeah: enter Excepter again, with their idea of being a “Synthetic Protest Band Engineered to Erase Cultural Distinctions through Polarized Confusion”-- a motto placed confidently at the top of their Facebook page and the bio on their website. Their performances, which were sometimes 17 hours long, certainly always presented that earlier New York City mischievousness-- that Fluxus-style abstract protest, where on the surface it looks like they’re just trying fuck shit up for no reason, and maybe they are or maybe there’s some deeper meaning. Where they’re clearly raging against the machine without you knowing how or why. In that regard, they felt different to me in the mid-2000s than many of their contemporaries (Animal Collective, Black Dice, etc.), who presented a more art-for-art’s-sake aesthetic and with whom John Fell Ryan contends Excepter didn’t have much in common. In that regard, Excepter felt utterly necessary to have back in New York in 2013.

Brooklyn was, in 2013, a place where “cultural distinctions” reigned supreme: one where highrises were being built further and further into the borough, and where there was a sort of indirect backlash to the DIY scene taking over long-standing minority neighborhoods, probably erupting most forcefully with the shooting outside of and subsequent shuttering of Big Snow Buffalo Lodge. And much of the music coming out of the borough continued to reinforce that, with the increasing influx of homogenous indie-pop bands that should live in Manhattan but don’t-- and more importantly, with art that refused to interact with its socio-political landscape. I wasn’t looking for pointed political attacks or anything, but the escapist tendency among Brooklyn’s artists and patrons seemed to have gone a bit too far.

New Excepter music seemed to promise a change in the cultural tides: a “return” to the vanguard New York City spirit. Talking to John Fell Ryan, though, helped me realize that the idea of a “return,” in that sense, is precisely what perpetuates this dangerous, regressive idealization of “New York City” or “Brooklyn.” And it’s what separates the “New York Bands,” like The Strokes or even LCD Soundsystem, from the actual inheritors of the New York radical tradition passed down through people like George Brecht, The Velvet Underground, Arto Lindsay, Sonic Youth, and Ryan’s group before Excepter, No-Neck Blues Band.

Excepter started conceptualizing their upcoming record, Familiar, the day he and Lala Harrison moved to Los Angeles, which in and of itself is symbolic in the context of Excepter’s story and discography, both of which are predicated on locations and movement (changing lineups, extensive touring, Ryan’s stage gyrations, etc.). One change in this interim period, certainly, weighed most heavily on the band: the passing of member Clare Amory in 2011, and subsequent, understandable depature from the band of her partner, Nathan Corbin. But restless movement is a way to cope with loss-- not to forget, by any means, but also not to dwell. Form something new. Keep shifting where you are and what you’re doing in time and space. Honoring via living, experiencing. Excepter did this as best they could; they crossed the Atlantic Ocean and made great music. The band recorded Familiar in a nice studio in Prague during a break in a European tour, and they did a similar thing with their late 2013 EP, Christisland, but in Copenhagen.

Now, Ryan and Harrison live once again in Brooklyn, in what Ryan semi-jokingly refers to as “East Bushwick,” playing on the idea of people calling Bushwick “East Williamsburg” in order to make it more appealing to investors and whatnot. But, though he’s critical like me of the changing Brooklyn landscape, he's actually helped assuage some of my cynicism. He can appreciate Brooklyn’s changes, the inspirational aspects of which I’d failed to notice. In my search for this specific mystical land called “Brooklyn,” I’d missed the point of it all, skidding past what makes New York such a crazy and exciting town: not the places themselves but the sheer fact that they go away. It’s transitory-- what’s thrilling is the constantly shifting landscape, in and of itself.

See, according to Ryan and other people I’ve talked to, the Brooklyn that I idealized when I lived in Chicago-- that never really existed as such. The Brooklyn that people, outsiders and insiders alike, idealize now-- it doesn’t really exist either. The hellish warehouses that I would fantasize about just became spots like 285 Kent-- a warehouse, but approachable-- which is now closed and across the street from a quickly-rising luxury condominium building. But imbuing this mystical quality upon specific spaces is exactly the problem. “Clubs open up,” says Ryan. “They close. Big places, small places. I don’t wanna use the word ‘hipster’ because it’s so loaded, but let’s just say, where music fans congregate-- where they live, where they go to play out-- it’s always different.” For Ryan, having lived in New York for the greater part of the last couple decades, what makes New York an incredible place is the constant change, the constant confusion-- and that factors into the music he makes. Each record finds Excepter building new sonic structures and tearing down the old ones in real time. “We do mirror the transitory nature," he says. "The movement of money and culture through New York with respect to real estate and architecture.” New York City real estate, to borrow Ryan's example, isn’t solely about up, up, up-- it’s about what’s hot and new, and what’s not, and those distinctions change by the minute. Excepter blurs those distinctions, making it known that they’re aware of the hot and new-- or high-art-- but also pulsating continuously between that and the “not,” the low culture, or even the culture that’s removed from the high-low continuum and just is, like muzak or, I don’t know, the north Bronx.

Landscape-- not just of Brooklyn, but of New York City at large, and the world-- is paramount in Excepter’s catalogue. And their ability to sonically navigate the crumbling and rebuilding structures they encounter on their journeys is largely what makes them-- like The Velvet Underground, with its mix of German philosophy and downtown sexuality-- a quintessential New York band. From the industrial found-sound quality of their New York-y early releases; through Alternation, which Ryan describes to me as being about Brooklyn’s different neighborhoods; to projects they made while in California about that state’s coastline; to their last EP, Christisland, with its geographical name and icy, Scandinavian feel-- Excepter’s music always has a strong connection to its place. That’s why it changes so much, moving up and down and around through different sounds and locations and lineups-- not for better or for worse, just flowing.

And it does seem like, in certain parts of Brooklyn and many parts of Manhattan, people resist this flow without really realizing. There’s a stasis-- a sense of too much comfort-- in this utopian consumer culture, even though it’s born out of transforming the landscape. Erecting a fancy building in an impoverished neighborhood does indeed contribute to the overarching flow-- but the people who live there, it seems, do so in order to enter acomfort zone, to live in a nice and safe building in a “cool” neighborhood. These cultural distinctions, then, that Excepter protests against are those ones that really stop the flow.

Still, Excepter’s music-- and art like it-- isn’t presenting a specific, clear message; that’s not an effective mode of discourse, and in the twentieth century, it tends to seem disingenuous when a band takes an explicitly political stance. “We’re not the type of people who are gonna be writing very easy-to-read messages,” says Ryan. “‘Hey ho, De Blasio’s got to go!’ is not something we’re gonna write.” Rather, confusion is the key to good protest: making the listeners engage with its process and with its surroundings, pushing them out of their comfort zones. Constant movement is the purest form, it would seem, of protest-- and that’s something that’s been a part of New York forever, and probably always will be. Here, Ryan points to another New York figure-- one who didn’t make it on that aforementioned “lineage of NYC cool” that I constructed in junior high school (but should have)-- which was Bob Dylan. “Remember when Bob Dylan was changing out of the folk protest tradition and into a more poetic, psychedelic style-- impressionist style?” he asked. “And the guys are like, ‘So you don’t make protest music any more?’ And he was like, ‘All I do is protest.’ In a way, it was a joke answer, but it was also true that he was in a fractal rebellion, where he was like, ‘I’m not gonna do what society wants me to do. And I’m gonna act against it-- and also the society that’s built up that’s acting against the greater society that’s built up, I’m gonna be against that. Also, I’m gonna be against myself.’ And you keep going down and down and down and down. And that’s a New York tradition that Dylan exemplified that I also identify with.” Maybe that’s exactly it. Maybe New York isn’t about utopia, and it’s not about a certain scene or aesthetic-- it’s about the attitude passed down from Dylan (and George Maciunas) through Sonic Youth (and the No Wavers), skipping past The Strokes and into the soul of Excepter, not through the city’s exact geography per se, but through it’s continually built-destroyed-rebuilt landscapes and ideas. “The vibration,” Ryan calls it. “Things falling apart and things being built at the same time.”

But a lot of people look at the crumbling structures of ‘70s downtown or pre-gentrification Williamsburg (and the Brooklyn of my dreams) and see, like, a better time. They see a mystical quality, an ideal. They want to “return” to that, in some way-- because it’s more “authentic.” The quest for authenticity, and resulting comprehension and definition of an “aesthetic,” is precisely what perpetuates the comfortable utopianism, because it keeps people from embracing the flux. The great New York artists, meanwhile, who people will forever try to replicate because of their perceived authenticity, aren’t concerned with what’s “real” or “better.” “The ‘synthetic’ [part of the ‘Synthetic Protest Band’ motto],” Ryan explains-- “it’s a tip to the electronic nature of things but also the fact that we’re not real, we’re not authentic. ‘Synthetic protest’-- it’s like a fake real thing.” He added later, speaking of the authenticity of neighborhoods and spaces in Brooklyn, that “This is America. Nothing is authentic. Everything here has been invaded and colonized.”

But whether or not I agree with that idea, which might forgive some of the most regrettable facets of gentrification, it’s hard to deny that the sentiment echoes Bob Dylan’s restless and continual-- almost selfish-- movement, both as an artist and as a human being. This-- the synthetic stuff-- all comes back to the American tradition of wearing a mask, of hiding and shifting your identity, as an artist or merely as a unique character. This is doubly prevalent with New York artists, from Walt Whitman to Andy Warhol to Moondog-- people who, in their creative process, become someone new. The mask could be blackface (in its early minstrelsy origins) or changing band lineups or the adoption of a stage name. Robert Zimmerman becoming Bob Dylan. John Fell Ryan being the name of a guy his friends actually call Jeff-- or the fedora and suit he always wears, which make a statement, but I’m not sure exactly what they say.

The mask, which obscures intentions and reality, ties to the go-against-the-grain mentality-- and those qualities mark New York City artists and great political artists, in general. Excepter had them in my middle school fantasies, and now they’re back in new York making records, and they still have them. Their new record is relevant, important, necessary. It’s title, Familiar, suggests the historical aspect of flow, of looking back up-river-- and of being a New York City artist. You need to know what came before you, not so you can replicate it, but so you can destroy it. Excepter is wearing the mask like Dylan did, and it suits them well. Which is why it was so prescient that, at the beginning of our interview, Ryan, noted, while holding up his kid’s new Lego toy (a Chima figure), “The weird thing is that the [Lego] animals have animal faces, and then they have a mask of their animal face over their face. Which would be great if that were a new style for humans-- humans would wear an enlarged mask of their own face.”

Tagged: Features, Excepter
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