Slow Change Will Pull Us Apart: A conversation with Jon Howell of Ex Everything
Supergroups have always been an intriguing yet simple concept; put together successful and established artists in a room together and let their creative juices flow in order to create something new and unique. And although on paper it may sound like a perfectly sound and foolproof idea, that is not always the case, especially in the more mainstream side of things. But in the underground scene, the story is much different, as there are countless examples of great supergroups, ranging from Avantasia and Bloodbath to Brujeria and Iron Reagan. Ex Everything is no exception to that rule, and while the band itself might not like that particular label, you cannot deny the tremendous musical acumen that is within the group. So, what exactly do you get when you mix current and former members of such esteemed bands as Kowloon Walled City, Early Graves, Mercy Ties, Minot and Tartufi? In the band’s own words, you get technical weirdness and agressiveness, something that is a complete opposite to what each member as done prior to Ex Everything.
Last week, Ex Everything released their phenomenal debut record, Slow Change Will Pull Us Apart, and it is still spinning at our homes and in our heads. Not wanting to get free from it so soon, we spoke with guitarist Jon Howell about what led to the creation of Ex Everything, the creative and recording process behind Slow Change Will Pull Us Apart, and what the future holds for the band going forward.
Tell me a bit about the story of Ex Everything – how did you guys meet and where did the decision to form the band come about?
The band was formed a while ago; we actually started and sort of consolidated as a band in the Fall of 2019, pre-Covid. And the band essentially started because Dan Sneddon, who is the drummer of Kowloon Walled City and someone that I’ve known for 20 years, as I had played in bands with him previously to Kowloon Walled City, before he joined, he sent me a text saying, “hey, I wanna play some heavy, weird music”. I’m the guy he came to for that because he knows that’s kind of what I do. And I love playing in Kowloon Walled City, but that is only an outlet for about half of the music I create because I also want to create fast, technical music. It’s part of what I love and it’s part of what I want to do. And so, Dan and I were like, “okay, let’s do this”. I had already been playing with Ben Thorne, who is the bass player of Ex Everything, and at that point, in August of 2019, we started writing music; we wrote an album over the course of the next couple of years. As you know, in February and March of 2020 was when Covid started, so working on the Ex Everything music with Dan in our practice space, masked up and on opposite ends of the room was how this record was written, and that was pretty interesting.
So, lastly, Dan and I have known each other for a long time and we play together in Kowloon Walled City. Ben Thorne, who is the bass player, I’ve also known him for a long time; he has been in a bunch of great bands; when Kowloon Walled City released the album Container Ships, one of Ben’s bands Minot opened that show, they were incredible. And he is also in a band called Tartufi, which we are big fans of. And then finally, over the course of the years since the band started, a number of people who were going to sing came in and ended up leaving. At one point, we were so frustrated that I was going to give it a shot, and it’s really good that didn’t happen. There is a sheet of lyrics with me trying to figure out where I would have placed vocals on top of my guitar playing, it was a bad idea. Andre Sanabria, who is the vocalist of Ex Everything, is someone that we have also known for a long time. He was the drummer of a band called The Abominable Iron Sloth, and then, more personal to me in particular, he was the singer in a band called Mercy Ties. And me, Mercy Ties, some of my previous bands and Kowloon Walled City, we go way back. He had moved to the Bay Area from Seattle, which is where he lived previously, and I just realized, “oh, Andre is here, I should reach out to him and see if he was interested”. So, with Andre joining, the band finally coalesced around this particular line-up and then, we could just go. When Andre joined, the album was written, the instrumentations were written, so he just came in and he was able to apply his lyrics and his vocal cadence to it, and it worked out great in the long run, we are really happy with the album.
“As you know, in February and March of 2020 was when Covid started, so working on the Ex Everything music with Dan in our practice space, masked up and on opposite ends of the room was how this record was written, and that was pretty interesting.”
Were there any particular influences that you guys talked about during that process of forming the band and recording Slow Change Will Pull Us Apart?
I would say one of the main ones was early-period Black Flag. The purpose of Ex Everything was to play fast, technical music, but it was also to play live. With Kowloon Walled City, we are very selective about the live shows that we will do and the touring that we will do, and as someone who has been doing this for a long time, I like playing lots of shows. Performance is animating for me, and so, I wanted a band that would be able to do that. And so, what the reference point was for the music was early Black Flag, because they would hit the stage like a bomb. You watch some of the old footage and it’s just incredible. So, that kind of energy, that was definitely a reference point. And then, we were also looking at other bands that just have that kind of aggression when they hit the stage, like Hot Snakes, for instance; anything Rick Froberg and John Reis spanned was a reference because of the intensity of the music and how they could just kind of assault the audience with that music. It’s so high energy and so fun, we wanted to do that.
You mentioned the aggressiveness, the weirdness and the technicality of the music, but what were some themes you guys wanted to explore with this record? Did the pandemic impact the lyrics in any way?
So, Andre’s lyrics tend to be fairly philosophical; they’re dealing with big issues, and they’re generally anti-capitalist and anti-fascist. And I would say that Covid, the lockdowns and all of that didn’t so much impact the lyrics. What it did, as we all know, is that Covid kind of exacerbated some of the issues that the lyrics are about. You know, the disparity in wealth and how ultimately different countries or different groups within each country were able to weather the storm of Covid. It increased the differences that have been imposed on people, and so, I think that certainly made it a lot easier for Andre to find inspiration for the lyrics that he was writing.
Recording and mixing duties for Slow Change Will Pull Us Apart were handled by Scott Evans. Being that you play alongside Evans on Kowloon Walled City, how do you feel he helped you guys find the right sound for Ex Everything?
I’ve recorded with Scott for 20 years, including bands prior to Kowloon Walled City, and I will never record with an engineer who is not Scott. And that’s because he is someone who allows your band to be what it is, he is not trying to impose any kind of version of the band on you. You come in, you sound how you sound, and he is looking to capture that. And because Scott is a friend, a bandmate and we have recorded together for so long, he is also a trustworthy source of like, “okay, now we need an opinion, now we’re not sure about something, what do you think”, you know? So, recording with Scott is great because he allows the freedom of the band to exist as it is, as it wants to be, and then is able to shepherd the recording process through very efficiently. Considering we are funding all this ourselves, there are time constraints and we only have so many days in the studio, he is able to help us get a record done considering those constraints.
And since you guys know each other for a long time, if you want a certain thing, he knows exactly what you need, he knows exactly what you are looking, which I imagine is the same when recording with Kowloon Walled City.
It is much easier for him, for instance, to record both me and Dan because he’s had so much experience recording both of us. We know how to work with each other and he knows how to capture our sound. And so, being able to then just layer Ben and Andre on top of that to complete the Ex Everything sound, he is really good at what he does and it’s a real blessing to have him involved in this project.
The artwork for Slow Change Will Pull Us Apart was done by Demian Johnston of Great Falls. When choosing the artwork for this record, did you select it from an existing piece that Johnston had or did you commission the work?
We commissioned the work; we are big fans of Demian’s artwork, he is incredible. And actually, Demian and Great Falls are from the Seattle area, so Andre knows these guys from way back as well. Again, this band is just a lot of connections with the West Coast and the Pacific Northwest music scenes. And so, Demian was a really easy person to go to when it came to figuring out the artwork, and ultimately, what we did was we just provided him with the lyrics, he got early demos of the record and, with not a ton of direction, he came up with the artwork. I think the only real direction that we gave him was that we wanted it to be very simple from a colour palette perspective, so it’s just black and red. We wanted the artwork to feel like an 80s punk flyer, just something that is kind of raggedy.
That is exactly what it reminds me of, because you mentioned the early-era Black Flag as the principal influence and it reminds of that instant pop that the artworks of those records had.
I don’t think we specifically said that we wanted him to emulate the style of [Raymond] Pettibon, but he knows that music, he knows that style and so, what he was able to come out with, we were just incredibly happy with.
Do you always seek to create a connection between the cover of a record and the music within it?
For us, it has to be there, the visual must speak to and accentuate what you are doing with the music, in part because that’s fun. The idea of having a disjointed connection between the visuals and the music, that doesn’t feel like a finished product to me, and so, for us, it’s important to get that right.
After the release of the record, which is absolutely amazing by the way, what does the future look like for Ex Everything?
There is an impending tour based around the record release, we are going to do three dates in the Pacific Northwest; Portland, Seattle and Tacoma. And then, we come back and there actually has to be a little bit of a break because Kowloon Walled City is doing some touring and playing some shows. So, with the exception of any local shows that may occur, after the Pacific Northwest tour, Ex Everything is going to probably hold off on doing anything until next year. Now, next year is when we really do get to take advantage of whatever happens with this record. You’ve heard the record and I’m so happy that you love it; no one else has heard it, right? When it comes out, if it resonates with people, that is going to create opportunities and Ex Everything is just looking to take advantage of those opportunities when they show up. I do think that we’re going to be doing some additional US touring because, again, Ex Everything has only played four shows, I think. So, we want to get out there more, playing is great and then, beyond that, what we would like to do is we would like to come over. We would like to come over to Europe, we would like to go to the UK, I think the music will resonate with folks over there as well. But we will see, we are in a little bit of a wait and see approach until the record comes out, and once it’s out, we will be able to make more decisions based on how people respond to it.
I think the main thing is that Ex Everything is a band; it is not a project, it is not secondary to Kowloon Walled City. Kowloon Walled City is obviously an established band and with Ex Everything, we are trying to make it an established band, something that we can just do until the wheels come off. That’s the plan, you know? So, we will see what happens, we will see what opportunities come our way, but also, if opportunities are not presented to us, we will make our own opportunities. We will plan the tours, we will come out because this is fun, you know? This is fun for us, this is what we want to do with our spare time, this is meaningful, and so, we will pursue it until we cannot physically do it anymore.
It is interesting that you refer to Ex Everything as not being secondary to Kowloon Walled City; do you have any sort of anxiety about people thinking of Ex Everything as an offshoot of Kowloon Walled City and not liking this new record as much because of the expectations that might come with that assumption?
I think it was important that Ex Everything sonically, and in terms of the songs and the music that we are creating, is not like Kowloon Walled City. And because of the disparity in the sound, I think that it will minimize any sense of expectation. I mean, when you start the Ex Everything record, that’s what you are getting for thirty minutes, but when you start a Kowloon Walled City record, it’s very different. And I think that will allow both bands to exist independently in a way that if the bands sounded too similar to each other, with the listener’s expectations for Ex Everything, I would understand them being a little disappointed. But hopefully, we have created something that is so different that it just resonates with a different part of the listener’s brain compared to someone who loves Kowloon Walled City.
“We will plan the tours, we will come out because this is fun, you know? This is fun for us, this is what we want to do with our spare time, this is meaningful, and so, we will pursue it until we cannot physically do it anymore.”
Interview by Filipe Silva
Photo by Scott Evans, courtesy of Ex Everything