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There's a focused single-mindedness to every Excepter song that hints at humorlessness behind the decks. So it's a pleasant surprise, during a recent telephone exchange, to discover that front man John Fell Ryan is as amusing in conversation as he can be free-associative and indecipherable with his lyrics, as personable as Excepter songs are sometimes arctic.
"Don Johnson's always dressed like some sort of gay samurai," he quips about the Miami Vice DVDs he recently bought. A while later, he marvels, "It's not even cinema, you know?" about Christopher Guest's dunderheaded comedic improv in the 1984 mock-rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap. "It's not even funny -- it's funny because it's weird because he's making up his own logic."
Ryan spent several years -- while still a member of the enigmatic No-Neck Blues Band, an experience he'll speak little of -- coming up with hisown musical logic prior to forming Excepter in 2002.
"I'd spent a few years by myself just collecting equipment, learning how to use it, learning how to record, how to use Pro Tools, mixing, and programming; a lot of [Excepter's] records are me trying to learn how to make electronic music," Ryan says.
While the group's recording sessions are largely democratic, Ryan designs the packaging, handles the bulk of the mixing, and determines when and in what forms Excepter music will be released. For the majority of bands, high staff turnover yields inconsistency; in Excepter's case, it's resulted in an increasingly more intriguing catalogue. A steady progression can be traced from the numbingly claustrophobic, churning generator vibes of Ka (Fusetron, 2004) and Throne (Load, 2005) -- acid-test albums that linked Excepter to NYC's chaos-theory noise scene and upstarts like Gang Gang Dance and Black Dice -- to the house-music workouts of Self Destruction(Fusetron, 2005). The present-day lineup of Ryan, Nathan Corbin, Dan Hougland, and new member Jon Nicholson can cut a hypnotic, tribal-borg groove like nobody's business, but former members Macrae Semans, Calder Martin, and Caitlin Cook certainly played important roles in nurturing the group's unslottable sound. (Semans left in 2002 to study art; unhappy with Ryan's glacial record-to-release pace, Martin and Cook took off last year.)
According to Ryan, the Sunbomber EP, issued via 5 Rue Christie in January, represents the fastest DAT-to-store-shelf transition in the band's history. The product of an hourlong improv session and relatively unmolested -- Excepter recordings generally are tweaked, edited, and otherwise compromised for years prior to release -- the 30-minute Sunbomber was the band's first stillborn delivery.
The forthcoming Alternation (out July 25 on 5 Rue Christie), on the other hand, is the curious result of fermentation overkill. It consists of songs the band has been polishing and honing since day one, pulsing dance-mix journeys like "The Rock Stepper," seven funky minutes of liquidy synths that squish back and forth like a squeaky swing set and mumbled, unspecific singing courtesy of Ryan. It sounds like Calvin Johnson remixed by the DFA, and it's incredible -- danceable, even. Alternation is both Excepter's most direct record and its most concise -- the human percussive rhythms, syncopated synths, and preset sounds are boiled down, while Ryan's vocals are situated front and center for the first time.
"We used to do more [songs where] someone else would be doing the echoes on someone else's instrument or voice -- then we got more into 'People should be echoing themselves,'" Ryan explains. "I mean, we had definitely had our statements with echoes. I wanted Alternation to be more like a Bob Dylan record -- just someone who's in a room with you, talking to you. Each record should have something you haven't heard from us. I definitely want the records to be able to be listened to over and over again, but you don't want to repeat yourself too much. Each record has a purpose."