Interview: Greg Fox (Ex Eye, Liturgy)
Greg Fox, best known as the drummer for Liturgy, has woven his impeccable craft into a new project, Ex Eye, whose self-titled debut was released on June 23. Also featuring acclaimed saxophonist Colin Stetson (previous collabs include Bon Iver, Tom Waits, and Arcade Fire), Ex Eye isn’t short on musicianship. But even as an instrumental album, it remains decisively jammable. Fox earns credit here, his beat-driven approach supplementing an aggressive groove and a penchant for climaxes.
Fox is fastidious. His playing balances delicacy and intensity, hyperbolic but composed. He’s a drummer’s drummer, but there’s a catchy and unpretentious flair to his style for broader appeal. Check out his other project Guardian Alien, even more drum-focused and ethereal than the more-rounded-but-still-pretty-out-there Ex Eye. Regarding Liturgy, a band that’s sometimes divisive, Fox unabashedly but unassumingly holds his own.
In collaboration with Ex Eye’s other members, the aforementioned Stetson, plus Shahzad Ismaily (synths) and Toby Summerfield (guitar), Fox helps create energizing but meditative music. The unconventional saxophone and copious synth add atmospheric qualities which Fox wildly grinds into the music’s framework. Arguably, Ex Eye has brought out the best (and loudest) in his artistry. We talk with him below about the band, the album, and also the lazy river of life.
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What brought Ex Eye together, where did you guys come from, and was there a brainchild or was it a connection you made through something else?
Colin and I met a bunch of years ago and really hit it off — he’s known Shahzad for a really long time — and I do a lot of playing with Shahzad in other contexts. All of us were at Colin’s wedding, and we talked about it there for the first time (all four of us). That’s when I met Toby also. Colin and I had talked about wanting to do something heavy for a while, Shahzad and I talked about trying to do different things together. Before we even had our first gig booked, I got hit up by Roskilde Festival and they asked me to do three projects there, and I was like, well, I’m starting this band with these guys, and how about that’s one of them? So we had to get together to write music (and come up with a band name). We had a lot of lead time, they booked that festival way in advance.
What’s it like working with Colin? You said you built up to putting something together, but in terms of his style or the way he plays, what drew you to his presence in a band?
The first time I saw him play — I was super impressed by his music, of course, but also the physicality of his music, which is something I care a lot about. A lot of the music I do is about that, too. I’m a fan, I really admire his playing and his dedication and discipline. Playing with Colin is great, I played with him on the Sorrow record. It’s just a pleasure to play with him and it’s a real honor to call him a friend. Not only is he a great collaborator, but also he’s a really good band mate. Even when it’s playing his music with him, he’s a very good person to work with. We have a lot of fun playing together, it’s been a real highlight for me these past couple years.
How does playing with him, let’s say compared to the work you’ve done with Liturgy or Guardian Alien — has his influence driven you to new technical skills or styles?
They’re all different bands, so there’s different reasons for that music. I’ll tell you this. The first time Colin and I played together was a trio: me, him, and Trevor Dunn just improvised stuff, and that was really fun. That situation with him was the first time I’ve ever been in a context like that where I was surrounded by classical musicians or very well-trained musicians, or these people who can read music, and I’m playing a piece that doesn’t even have a drum part, let alone sheet music for it. I don’t come from that background, I’ve had teachers over the years but certainly not enough classical or formal training. To be exposed to all these great musicians — including Colin — to be in their presence, interpersonally and also musically, is super inspiring and challenging, challenging you to always bring your best to the situation. There are so many different aspects of all three bands. With Ex Eye, we’re just scratching the surface. I’m really proud of the record, and the band is really satisfying, as well as the physical pushing I want to get to with this project.
I think you could categorize put Guardian Alien, Liturgy, and Ex Eye in the same but very broad — not psychedelic, but I would call it transcendental — “way of thinking” about music: there’s a lot of emotive parts, blast beats which come out intensely. What’s your input into that way of making music? What parts of the album feel like they’re yours?
Guitar parts tend to inform a big part of this music — and to answer the second part of the question first: there are parts I like digging into more than others. I think about the music I like to make — and maybe there’s an aspect about it that’s like playing hard and that being satisfying, looking for ways both to physically put a lot into it, use a lot of energy, but also doing it in a way that sounds good.
I know there’s an emotional resonance, that’s a super important aspect of things. I think a similarity or line between the three bands has a lot to do with physicality. When it comes to the emotional aspect to all these different kinds of music it’s about tuning into those things while making the music. Initially, learning it, but later on it becomes more about executing it, but it still comes from that place that’s solidified by the emotional, resonant space that’s created when you’re working on this stuff.
Putting Ex Eye into a category was difficult, but I don’t want to call it experimental because it feels really familiar from the start. What would you say about experimentation — at least playing drums — on the album?
I don’t feel like anything’s changed as far as my drumming, there wasn’t a lot of conscious thinking like, “I’m going to try this weird idea here.” It kind of just feels whatever we’re doing, there’s a slow, creeping new expansion into new territories. There have been eureka moments over the twenty years I’ve been playing, but I wasn’t thinking about it a lot on this record. There’s definitely some straight-up challenging, like coordination-wise challenging, parts. Some muscles that were a little more atrophied than others that needed some strengthening. I think the cool thing with this band is that we all wanted to do it, and just see what it was. We were all like, “let’s do a band,” it just came from the desire to do it in the first place. I like that it falls into a place that’s uncategorizable. Part of the reason why I’m really excited to have it come out is I’m really interested in what people think. Though somebody will tear it apart, I’m curious to read that too.
This [Ex Eye album] is one which might catch on to a certain extent, because it’s interesting, but fun. There’s some jammable parts, there’s some really catchy — barring any negative connotations of that word — bits. But also it’s a serious album with a lot of musicianship going on too.
I think the good thing about it is that we all take playing music really seriously, but we don’t take ourselves as a band that seriously. It makes for a really nice combination of freedom in the music and also just enjoying the hang, and enjoying the creative process together. We goof around a lot — it’s a really important thing for a band to be able to goof around with each other. With freedom, you can really land somewhere you wouldn’t have if you didn’t feel as comfortable. I’m so tickled to be able to get to do this band with these guys, I think they’re some of the best musicians I’ve ever played with. It’s nice to arrive at this place where it feels like the people I’m doing this with know how to do it in a way that will contribute to being able to thrive.
You mentioned that this band has physicality to it, and that reverberates well live. If you look at other bands — Meshuggah, though this isn’t a Meshuggah band in any way — but Meshuggah live has that physicality big-time.
Oh yeah. I’m really personally satisfied when I see a band that’s really going in on what they’re doing, really intense and fast and heavy, or even just more focused, whatever, this sort-of combination of seeing the musician really do this thing well, but also enjoy it. I like that in my music. I think one of the things that’s good about the band is you see we’re all taking it seriously, but it’s clear that we’re enjoying it. That’s what I like to see when I see a band, I don’t want to see a band that’s not having a good time.
When you guys play live and you feel that intensity, do you see that intensity in the faces of the people watching, or do you feel that reciprocated in their reactions?
It’s the best when you do, that’s for sure. That’s why I think it’s important to be able to see the crowd when you play. Sometimes a big stage or a way a venue is set up can sometimes discourage a situation, but when people are really feeling it — and you can see that — that is definitely the best. When that cycle is happening, that’s when things really elevate, that’s when it’s at its most satisfying and fun.
It sounds like you’re breaking out of any constrictions you might have had and just doing what you want to do with the drums, in the presence of other excellent musicians. I think that’s what builds into how natural Ex Eye feels, especially for a debut album. A lot of debut albums, bands are trying to do this or that, or try to put something out there that really makes a difference, but they forget that playing an instrument is enjoyable.
That’s my favorite thing about it. The cool thing about this is that there have been a lot of little things that have happened, like getting to play with this person, or getting together with these people and doing a session. All these little potential possibilities of some of the people I love to play with. We all can do it, everybody is putting time into making this happen. There’s a freedom about this band, and the fact that it came together because we all wanted to do it together. I’m just really thankful to get to do this.
Related to how you said Ex Eye came together, do you believe in fate at all?
I believe that everything that’s going to happen, happens. I don’t know about predetermination, my inkling is that it’s more about being free, and the more free you are — you have to free yourself — the more you free yourself from various things that control or hold you up, the more open you are to these possibilities. Making the things you want happen, but also discovering things you didn’t even know you want and having them be the things you want more than anything. There’s this constant “work” of things that you’re dealing with inside yourself. So I don’t know about fate, but maybe everything’s fated. I’ve definitely had flashes of the future that haven’t happened yet, but sometimes deja vu happens to. Maybe I’ve done this before. It’s a good question, what do you think?
It’s tough, I take the agnostic viewpoint. It’s like, do you really know? The more you untie yourself from external bounds, the happier you end up. Lots of people get caught up in what’s prescribed, or what’s the norm, or what’s stated. But instead if they focus on pure emotion — like enjoying yourself — then you end up finding things that you didn’t expect to find. I think there’s joy in that, and that’s what brings joy to life in general.
You know the lazy river ride, like at the water park? You kind of float down the river and not grab onto stuff. But then sometimes you have to paddle. You don’t want to go over the waterfall.
Or some guy behind you pisses in the water and you paddle real hard to get the hell out of the way.
Yeah, I don’t know to avoid pee in the water — it seems like you’re just in it. I think you’ll just have to accept that there’s pee in the water. You can extend that metaphor. It’s like the lazy river ride in all the ways that it is. You get attached to yourself when you get attached to these things in your life or you get attached to ways of thinking. I’m so attached to so much and trying to work through so much stuff — I think that work just keeps going forever. Clenching and unclenching.
From the band: “Ex Eye makes music of power, control, motion and intention; music composed with precise, clockwork intricacy and ecstatic abandon. It is hard, heavy music — aggressive, cathartic, and thrilling.” Learn more about Fox here. Stream and purchase the album here.