The rain’s just started to spit as I bomb down Ullet Road, on the lookout for an EX-EASTER ISLAND Hideout. Locking up my bike by the outbuildings, I wonder whether the damp is making this grand merchant’s villa look a little shabby, or the summer evening is stopping it appearing dilapidated next to its neighbours. I’m greeted by residents Ben Duvall and Ben Fair and we brew up. Duvall is drinking a tumbler of something brown with, appropriately enough, moai-shaped ice cubes. The huge kitchen betrays the house’s past as a care home, and the box of records on the worktop its current existence.
“We’ve lived here for around seven years. People come and go; all of Outfit have lived here at some point. There was a period when there were four or five bands at once. It was, like, kick drums going 24/7,” explains Duvall as we embark on a tour of the house. I’ve been promised a glimpse into their creative centre, the Ex-Elusinian Mysteries. Perhaps I’m being purposely disoriented to keep the secret intact.
“We’re quite isolated from our neighbours, so we can make a lot of noise. But we have a curfew now, no playing after 11,” adds Fair, drinking tea from a Brecon Mountain Railway mug. “Ben,” he starts after taking a right at the top of the stairs, “I don’t think I’ve ever actually been in this room…”
We go along ever-smaller corridors and down staircases, past piles of old hi-fis and dusty bicycles – there’s a box with a yellowing computer keyboard and something by Aphex Twin on VHS sticking out of it. Feeling like Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings, I’m led through to the inner sanctum. In a tiny basement lined with mattresses and amplifiers, the Ex-Easter Island Bens take their places around a guitar and a bass laid flat on a trestle table, and the tinkering begins. Knitting needles, splintered drumsticks, expanded polystyrene, and an inanimate carbon rod: if it’s not being trapped under the strings, they’re using it to pelt the instrument and generate the rich sonorities that the three-piece are known for.
“We’re very keen on not buying gear, pedals, that sort of thing,” explains Duvall as he (de)tunes the two handheld radios that are also running through the amp. “We just use the guitars and this cheap shit.” In this environment of experimentation, it’s clear that new sounds don’t just sound cool, they contain the germ of entire new compositions in the players’ ears and minds. Even the tidy, erudite Fair practically squeals with delight (“LOVE it!”) as Duvall unlocks some new bass harmonic. “I’m performing a solo piece in London in August, and I’m using all borrowed kit, amps. That’s the challenge. It’s kind of a game, setting our limitations.” He sets about untangling cables. “I’m far too untidy a person to be in this band…” There are a lot of cables to untangle down here.
“We’re a Liverpool band, but we’ve not played in Liverpool regularly for a while, so people might not have heard of us, or those who have haven’t heard us yet.”
Too right. It’s been a busy year for Ex-EIH so far. Besides their triumphant IMMIX show at The Bluecoat in June, they’ve played with the BBC Philharmonic at Salford Cathedral (“Manchester and Salford have been really good to us,” says Fair), collaborated with an international dance company in Birmingham on a project for non-dancers and live sculpture, and played Stewart Lee’s ATP, which, despite well-publicised woes, was clearly a cakewalk for the band, with a positive Guardian review and a guerrilla gig (on YouTube) which proved that Pontins’ balconies are not just for watching Prestatyn FC play without buying a ticket.
“The three-piece, rock band side of what we do is pretty fixed now,” says Fair. “We spent our early days figuring out what line-up we should [settle on]. But for a long time, audiences have been really receptive.”
The band have also recorded a trilogy (Mallet Guitars I, II, III) and Large Electric Ensemble (as performed at Islington Mill in February), which are available on Low Point Records. The next six months are looking just as busy: with help from the British Council, they have a burgeoning relationship with Berlin-based American composer Arnold Dreyblatt, and a trip to Germany, mixing business and pleasure – like everything this band does – is imminent.
“The fundamental process, the state that seems most valid to me, is the guitar on the table. After seven years, we are finding new sounds from this instrument. It’s a textural language, and we’re still learning to write using that vocabulary,” says Duvall about their approach to the common-or-garden Telecaster.
We’re still in the basement, exploring the boundaries of fun, science, and the skill of the good guys at Fender guitars. Third man Jon Hering, who’s been burning the midnight oil at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra office, appears and, despite being obviously worn out by the day’s work, his eyes light up at the new sounds throbbing around the rehearsal space. For long stretches, neither player says anything to the other, instead latching on to a beat or letting a wave of feedback grow, daring it to lose control. Infrequently, one will turn a tone pot or volume knob a few degrees. Sometimes they turn it back.
If you’re thinking that this sounds like self-indulgent school laboratory antics, you’d be wrong. The pair always have the audience in mind. They skip through the minefields between rock venues and the concert hall so you don’t have to. “There are times when we’re rehearsing and we seem into it,” admits Fair, “but then we think, ‘no one’s going to get this’. There’s no harm in having a groove. A lot of what we do is actually more melodic.” He drops the mallet and gently tickles the bass with his fingertips.
“[Twenty-Two Strings] is taking everything we’ve done so far and putting it in one place.” Ben Duvall is right to speak proudly. Named for Ex-EIH’S line-up (this self-proclaimed power trio play – count ‘em – three guitars and a bass), their first full-length record comes out on 5th August, but the switch will be thrown to bring the whole machine glowing and humming into life at the Philharmonic’s Music Room on 18th August. It’s an appropriate homecoming, smack in the middle of their annus mirabilis and Liverpool’s music scene, which they’ve been a part of for over a decade.
“We have this support network from 15 years of music making; it’s really lovely,” Duvall continues. “We had a lot of help from Merseyside Arts Foundation, who got us the connections and the resources that enabled us to record the album at Parr Street Studios.” Combined with the house’s unofficial status as a suburban musical parliament, the affection the Bens express for any number of local bands and musicians gives off a cosy sense of Liverpool now having the scene to see off the erstwhile rivalry of the 60s and 80s.
Heading back upstairs, the way is blocked by something squat and Victorian. “Found this harmonium for £30 in a charity shop. They delivered it this morning,” says Fair, doing his best David Dickinson. “We were moving it here,” his bandmate adds as he starts up the wheezing keyboard, “and found someone’s carved two swastikas and the word ‘shit’ on the back.”
We end up sitting on the porch. This is the deep south of town, after all. It’s dusk and the rain has stopped. We talk a bit about music, venues, future plans. Considering how original their approach to the guitar is, they aren’t ones to bleat on about it. There’s no mention of a ‘USP’. It’s time to start properly interviewing these two. They are, after all, proper musicians in a proper band. What do audiences get at an Ex-Easter Island Head show?
“A performative element; very theatrical,” replies Duvall, rolling a cigarette.
“People can see how we make the music,” adds Fair, tenting his fingers after a thoughtful pause. “That’s where the fun is for us, and hopefully the audience too. The image of a guitar laid flat is curious.”
It’s nearly nine o’clock by now, but it’s July and still so light it could be any time. Cycling back into town, I wake from a trance. The last thing I remember is staring down the gaze of an impassive Polynesian ancestor, the sound of fret noise and Ben Duvall saying, “It’s a hypnotic, mesmeric thing.”
Twenty-Two Strings is out on 5th August on Low Point Records and available to buy from lowpoint.bandcamp.com.