At first listen, the sound of Ex-Cult could be described as abrasive — even unpleasant. This is a band that once went by the moniker Sex Cult before being asked to cease and desist, electing to drop the "S."
In the course of two full-length albums — with "Midnight Passenger" released April 29 — and a handful of singles, the Memphis, Tenn.-based punk outfit has been layering guitar fuzz and slack-jawed vocals over a propulsive, borderline-hypnotic rhythm section in the tradition established by such scuzz progenitors as the Stooges and Wire.
As with those bands, Ex-Cult's music has roots far beneath the patina of surface grime. A dark, lyrical preoccupation and a sort of psychic connection to a long-passed era, for starters, coupled with an almost frightening immediacy, anchor the songs at a bedrock level.
These sorts of dichotomies — surface and depth, past and present — are familiar territory for the band, whose drummer, Michael Peery, pulls double duty in the breezy, twee-pop band Magic Kids, while vocalist Chris Shaw marshals several years' experience fronting the hardcore band Vile Nation. Ex-Cult is vast and contains multitudes.
"Midnight Passenger" picks up where the band's debut left off. Angular buzz-saw guitars abound, occasionally soaring into realms of the ethereal. Pounding rhythms still drive each number, but the straightforward punk slips now and then into a psychedelic mode, recalling, among other things, the frantic onslaught of Love's "Seven and Seven Is." The band is clearly confident in its sound, but new horizons nonetheless are being felt out, however tentatively.
In the brief lull before this month's U.S. tour, Shaw offered some insight into the band's direction. On the road, without constant access to the Internet's hype machine, he says, you're less likely to fall into anxiety about whether the public at large is on board with what you're doing.
"When you go on tour for a few weeks, you learn what kind of band you really are pretty fast," he says. "You pretty much live and breathe being in your band at that point, so there's a lot of time to focus on writing new songs."
The band's previous album was recorded in a single week in San Francisco and produced by garage-rock polymath Ty Segall. When I bring this up, Shaw shrugs it off, saying, "I don't think we will ever shake the intrigue that people have between Ex-Cult and Ty Segall, and I'm fine with that."
He goes on to say Segall is "simply a fan of the band and likes recording his friends," and opines that Ex-Cult would be more than happy to record with him again if the band's schedule permits.
"One thing I will tell you about Ty Segall," Shaw continues: "I didn't know you could buy mushrooms with a credit card until I met him."
The recording of "Midnight Passenger," which took place in the band's hometown, was less hurried. "It would be a bad sign if [it] wasn't a little more relaxed," Shaw says, "regardless of where we recorded it."
Otherwise, Shaw says the band's Memphis heritage doesn't exert an undue influence. "I think people can read a little too much into the whole Memphis lineage thing," he says. "Someone reviewed our debut single and said we passed 'the Jay Reatard litmus test.' I thought that was such bullshit."
Waxing vexed, Shaw seems to share a commonly held disdain for the industry's infatuation with increasingly narrow subcategorizations of music. "I think we are a punk band," he says. "That's it."
Which is a designation that explains some of the less-than-savory subject matter of Shaw's lyrics. Songwriting is "a tool for getting out thoughts and ideas that I couldn't personally act on or say out loud," he says. Examples: "'Lights Out Club' is about escapism through alcohol," he says. "'Knives on Both Sides' is about someone who kills for fun." Enough said.
Ex-Cult's appearance at Strange Matter is a first for the group, which previously played in Harrisonburg. Getting back on the road seems to suit the band just fine, where Shaw says there are fewer distractions than in civilian life.
Actually, he puts it in terms so complete as to seem almost Zen: "All that matters is the show you're about to play." S
CORRECTION: The original version stated that the group had never performed in Virginia when it had indeed played MACrock fest in Harrisonburg this past April.
Ex-Cult plays Strange Matter on Monday, May 19, with Hot Dolphin, the Ar-Kaics and Gunboat. Doors open at 9 p.m.