(We) play what actually sounds good instead of playing just to show you’re a fuckin’ musician. I’ve always thought of rock ’n’ roll as more religion than music’ — what they lack in spelling skills, The Ex-Boyfriends more than make up in pure rock passion
If you ever show up late for a show by Calgary’s The Ex-Boyfriends, you might wonder who’s singing. Onstage you’ll see an airtight rock three-piece laying waste to the audience, but the voice that blasts through the PA might seem disembodied.
At some point before you got there, the band’s front man and local rock icon Don Davidson leapt off the stage in a frenzied flail (possibly wearing spandex or fishnets) and started crawling across any semi-stable piece of furniture to work the crowd from within the crowd. Davidson has even been known to perform part of the set while standing on the soundboard. That particular brand of offstage presence makes for a slightly different dynamic for the band, according to guitarist Michael Paton.
“I probably end up being a visual focal point just by the sheer fact that he is off the stage, and lots of people don’t actually know where he is,” he says.
It’s not a problem. In fact, that’s what Paton signed up for when he joined the band in 2000. Davidson, also known to many as Djewel from his tenure as rock ’n’ roll mixmaster at more than a handful of local clubs, had been using The Ex-Boyfriends moniker to play one-off shows of all kinds around town. With an ever-rotating membership that has included members of The Cripple Creek Fairies, The Puritans and The Mants, The Ex-Boyfriends were making waves, mostly thanks to the band’s charismatic front man. Paton counted himself a fan, and when he heard that their guitarist was departing, he didn’t give Davidson any reason to look elsewhere.
“I thought Don would be great if he had a guitar player with him who wrote songs and tried to match his unique vocal delivery by having instrumental hooks,” says Paton. “I basically told them that I would be the guitar player from now on.”
Even with Paton on board, the lineup was still in a state of flux. While Glynnis Ewashen was always a going concern on bass, no fewer than four separate drummers filled the seat behind the kit before The Summerlad’s Dean Martin became a fixture. At that point, the band released their 2003 EP Painless Bleeding, but even with a solid lineup, their output remained sporadic.
“In the past, we’d keep it fresh by never, ever practising,” says Paton. “We’d play shows without having practised for months, and it definitely kept things seeming brand new.”
With their seemingly endless lineup changes and not-so-regular practice schedule, The Ex-Boyfriends have certainly beaten the odds. Most bands break up before ever releasing an album, but Paton and Davidson have clocked almost seven years together, and they show no signs of giving up anytime soon.
“Don and I just definitely need to do it,” says Paton. “We will not be happy people if we are not writing music and getting to let it out onstage. Also, recording is really important to me, too, so it’s not really an option to quit.”
Which is why the band is now proud to offer up an honest to goodness rock ’n’ roll long player. Recorded with the now ubiquitous local producer Arran Fisher, Coming Before the Next One is a bombastic slab of riff-heavy gems. Blending all the best aspects of Davidson’s record collection, the album balances propulsive grooves, epic solos and Davidson’s unparalleled vocal delivery. From the two-minute blowout “Use the City” to the epic, seven-minute “Statues of Stupid Men,” Coming Before the Next One is nothing short of a rock ’n’ roll blitzkrieg. Paton says the strength of the album comes through a relentless commitment to quality control.
“We tend to throw away things that aren’t working,” he says. “If I wasn’t in this band, if I was hearing it on the radio, would I like it, or would I switch to a different station? Unless we can say we definitely would like it, we don’t bother with it.”
Songwriting is the first half of the equation, but in Paton’s opinion, when you are putting together an album, how it is recorded is just as important. “When I write a song, I’m thinking about how it’s going to record right away,” he says. “I’ll have the main thing and I’ll be able to play it live with just the three-piece band and vocals, but I’ll be thinking about the second guitar part and what different tone it will have when we eventually record that.”
Paton’s love of the studio and Fisher’s enthusiasm for the project proved to be a perfect combination. While Paton was writing multiple guitar lines in his head, Fisher was enlisting the help of guest musicians and tweaking the arrangements, much to the chagrin of the band.
“He played the cowbell in the second song, ‘Father’s Clothes,’ without anyone’s knowledge or consent,” says Paton of Fisher’s covert recording tactics. “He added bells to the bridges, and that was a big point of contention. I was really fighting that because it was setting my art-rock alarms off. We’re paying you by the hour here. You are wasting your money. But he won on that, and I’m glad he did.”
Bells and whistles aside, the album is as explosive as you would expect from a band with such an impulsive live show. Add to that each member’s decade-plus tenure in this city and their innate musical abilities and it’s no surprise that The Ex-Boyfriends are everybody’s favourite breakup.
“We might not be the tightest band in the world,” Paton says, “or very good at remembering how our songs go after a few drinks, but we can make something rock.”
The Don of rock
Don Davidson: Incomparable front man for The Ex-Boyfriends. DJ and proprietor of Djewel’s funhouse. A man so legendary he was immortalized in The Neckers song “The Don of Rock.” We talked to this Calgary icon to find out what makes him tick and what makes him rock.
Fast Forward: How does being Calgarian influence your sound?
Don Davidson: Offhand, I can't think of a single Calgary band that's had a damn thing to do with our sound. As for the city itself, well, it has no identity does it — other than "not Edmonton"? I dunno. Maybe knowing that no one in the world now cares or is ever likely to care about any band from Calgary allows for a little less of the conformist pressure that seems to affect bands from, say, Toronto or Vancouver. We don't have to suck to "make it" since "making it" ain't gonna happen anyway.
What does it take to make something rock?
Respect for yourself and for some imaginary perfect audience member. Lack of being afraid to look or seem stupid. Not playing down or playing up. Play what actually sounds good instead of playing just to show you're a fuckin' musician. I've always thought of rock ’n’ roll as more religion than music.
What is the trick to taking something as universal as rock ’n’ roll and making it your own?
Speakin' for my own self, I've been blessed with a pretty unique "singing” voice that pretty much makes anything I sing my own. As for lyrics, I ain't sayin'.
Your influences date back a few decades. How do you make it contemporary?
Great art is always contemporary.
What makes a perfect riff? A perfect solo?
Ask Keith. Ask Lou