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Saxophonist Colin Stetson Goes Metal With Ex Eye

On June 29, 2017

You’ve likely heard saxophonist Colin Stetson through his work with Bon Iver and Arcade Fire, among numerous other indie bands. He’s not a name you’d associate with metal, even with New York’s fertile experimental metal scene. With Ex Eye, he’s made an entrance to that world, and what an entrance it is. Their self-titled debut full-length on Relapse is the jazz-black metal slammer of the summer, with four pieces that travel through anger, ecstasy, mystery and dreamlike horror. Black metal’s hypnotic repetition meets free jazz’s curiosity and rage; this record feels more at home with the two seperate forms than previous jazz-metal fusions, excavating its own possibilities. Even at an already brisk 37 minutes, it flies by like Reign in Blood, making open space feel more tightly contained than it looks. Ex Eye are methodical and cerebral without dousing that natural fire, a common link between the best metal and jazz.

The quartet was born through working with Liturgy drummer Greg Fox—one of contemporary metal’s true powerhouses—on Sorrow, a reimagining of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3. Independently of one another, they inquired about playing festivals together, and Bon Iver’s Eaux Claires festival and Roskilde in Copenhagen took interest. Stetson recruited guitarist Toby Summerfield and synth player Shahzad Ismaily for these fests, and the group was solidified. These dudes have known one another in some capacity—Stetson has known Summerfield since college—and the secret to Ex Eye’s prowess is just how well they click with each other. Stetson is the clear leader, but Fox’s force makes him a second-in-command with equal footing. Though Summerfield thrashes away, he subverts metal by setting himself toward the back, letting Stetson and Fox bring the fury.

If you know him through his more commercial work, you’re about to enter a dimension you didn’t think was possible. If you’re already a fan of skronks and blasts? You’ll find something new too.

I talked with Stetson about how modern black metal has influenced him, how Ex Eye toys with the concept of time and the power of solitude.

VMP: Was there an intention with going the composed route with Ex Eye, as opposed to jazz improvisation?

Colin Stetson: My solo music has been almost entirely composed for years; there are certain skeletal frameworks that you could reason that there is “improvisation” happening when there’s pushing and pulling within structures and forms, but I don’t classify it as such. I don’t really consider taking solos over forms as really improvising. In a jazz context, improvising usually means in the moment, just spontaneous creation. In that regard, there isn’t any improvisation on this. We wanted to approach this like we were building a repertoire; these are pieces of music that have a relationship to one another. “The Anvil,” the first track off the record, is completely composed and there’s nothing that could be construed as being improvised. That is a solid four-minute form.

Something like “The [Arkose] Disc,” the third track, is as much of an improvisation as we put together—that one was born of an improvisation, and then it became a codified form. We went back and listened to the recordings, tightened up things here and there, but left it more or less that way. Although it was born of improvisation, now when we play it—the form can get stretched and pulled, and there isn’t any prohibition on doing anything out of the form—we tend to play to that form, to the existing structure there, so it’ll always have the shape, feel, and melody and harmony. We weren’t going for an improvised group, we wanted to have something where there was a structural integrity and character to the compositions.

"This by design was going to be a much more demanding, cathartic, all-inclusive experience for myself and the other guys as well. There’s a lot that’s going on in every moment that passes in the music."
Colin Stetson

How do the pieces relate to one another?

When you’re building the record, the behind the scenes is, we’re all together in a room for days and then weeks and then months crafting things and things aren’t all compartmentalized into the building of particular songs in a vacuum from one another. A lot of elements from certain songs may bleed into other ones, and there might be a conscious effort to having one piece of music, knowing when you’re writing it, be the first thing on a record, the first part of a particular arc, or maybe it is the penultimate moment or the climax. We’re really writing to the record, we’re not simply writing to the individual song. There is a lot of that relationship built into the composition of all these tracks and the performance of them when we recorded it all.

Do you see this project in the same vein as Last Exit or John Zorn’s more “metal” projects like Naked City and Pain Killer, groups that merged free jazz with heavier elements?

I know that is a comparison we’re going to hear, but it is not consciously where we’re coming from. We’re definitely not patterning it after any other groups that could be compared with us given the instrumentation. I kinda feel like instrumentation is most of the extent of our similarities with any of those groups. I find more kinship with Krallice or Wolves in the Throne Room, contemporarily speaking, than Last Exit, but I always know we’re going to get that comparison because of the nature of [the band’s] parts.

What about Krallice has influenced you?

It’s very impeccable music that’s been crafted to a degree that shows—I’ve always found them to be this crystalline perfection to what it is, but also a cathartic emotionality that’s over-rage that is present in so much good post-black metal. And a certain beauty aspect that is one of the key strengths also of Liturgy. Hunter [Hunt-Hendrix, Liturgy guitarist and vocalist] was able to take the character of the vocal stylings that have been such integral part of black metal and turn it into something full of longing and of a kind of beauty for lack of a better term that I respond quite deeply to. Simply not just looking into the dark, protesting aspect of a lot of that music, but taking that and partnering it with things that are quite universal to the human experience—sadness and loss and the quality of solitude. These things are alive in most of the metal bands I am really loving these days.

Were Wolves and Liturgy your introduction to black metal?

To black metal specifically, I came through it modern and dug back a little bit. I was raised more on the traditional stuff that everyone is into when they’re 12 or 13, a lot of Slayer and Maiden and Metallica. Gradually that bloomed into Meshuggah and Dillinger Escape Plan. I don’t think I had too much of a modern take on black metal because I never got the bug, it could have been for any number of reasons—proximity to the music, and because I was spending more time on other things in the early 2000s. The thing that incited a new passion in me for the form was Liturgy’s Aesthethica, and then kind of bloomed into me delving back into everything and having a more comprehensive understanding of where that stuff had come from and where things were going.

"Simply not just looking into the dark, protesting aspect of a lot of that music, but taking that and partnering it with things that are quite universal to the human experience—sadness and loss and the quality of solitude. These things are alive in most of the metal bands I am really loving these days."
Colin Stetson

What about black metal has resonated with you?

It’s a combination of two things: dealing with a density of information that I’ve been very fascinated with and dedicated to exploring in my own solo music. On top of that, there’s this element of a longing and solitude that is pretty much at the heart of everything. To boil me down to one kind of emotional space, that would probably be it, if I was gonna pigeonhole myself. It’s at the core of any and all wonderings on the human experience and the human condition. No matter where you start, you’re going to get back to the fact that we are all independently a chaotic thinking brain inside a skull that is separate from everyone and everything else. When do you explore that, it is quite profound but also a terrifying prospect to known you’ll never be known. That’s where a lot of this stuff orbits for me.

How does Ex Eye specifically deal with solitude?

What we are doing is exploring a kind of maximalism of dealing with the properties of minimalism—[a] slight shift over a long period time, but we’re doing so with an intention of over-saturating every moment with huge amounts of information, melodically, harmonically and rhythmically. What we’re trying to accomplish is breaking open or bore into perceptions of the passage of time, and in doing so, if one is successful at manipulating that, then once that time has slowed or become pulled off in some parallel, then you can start to play the emotionality of the thing. I’ve been obsessed with this passage of time idea, there’s something about getting into someone’s experience and manipulating that one aspect. Once that’s accomplished, there now is a separateness and total isolated experience for the listener. What we’re trying to get at is to create those reactions, doing so with an overwhelming approach and time-play, and hopefully the end result is people are simultaneously pulled into their own little world and able to self-perceive in a way they haven’t before and in doing so, like in a meditation, realize the flip side of that, which is the interconnectedness of all things and ultimate illusory aspect of the consciousness in general. So to get deeper, more fundamental aspects of the condition, but through an overload of information. That’s the longest-winded version of that I’ve given (laughs).

How do you compare this work to your work in more popular groups like Bon Iver and Arcade Fire?

I’ve never thought about it in comparative terms. This really was born out of a desire to do specifically what this is doing. For my role in this group, I wanted a group that I was going to be challenged and present physically and musically as anything that I do on my own. That certainly isn’t the case in a lot of these other groups, where’s that kind of responsibility of sound is not necessary, because you’re really just serving the particular songs and those songs don’t need me to play at the extent of my abilities at every moment. This by design was going to be a much more demanding, cathartic, all-inclusive experience for myself and the other guys as well. There’s a lot that’s going on in every moment that passes in the music.

Profile Picture of Andy O'Connor
Andy O'Connor

Andy O’Connor heads SPIN’s monthly metal column, Blast Rites, and also has bylines in Pitchfork, Vice, Decibel, Texas Monthly and Bandcamp Daily, among others. He lives in Austin, Texas. 

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