Modern garage rock may be spiraling toward oversaturation, but a band like Ex-Cult easily separates itself from the pack. This Memphis five-piece combines the nervy jangle Wire with the frenetic desolation of Black Flag, the psychedelic leanings of ‘60s classic rock, and the DIY propulsion of latter-day garage saints Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees.
But it's the snarling lyricism of lead singer Chris Shaw and the prickly dual-guitar fireworks of J.B. Horrell and Alec McIntyre that help Ex-Cult punch above its Memphis-born weight. Two LPs on hometown label Goner Records have shown a band willing and able to progress at breakneck speed, jumping from jittery and muddle on the 2012 self-titled debut to more expansive and sonically textured on 2014's Midnight Passenger. "Every time we go in the studio, we take a big step up from what we did before," Shaw tells Folio Weekly. "We have a new EP coming out in February called Cigarette Machine, where we focus a lot more on the mixing process. The production is probably the best we've ever had. But it still sounds like Ex-Cult."
That sound is unmistakably bleak, riddled with guitar-spiked anxiety, and seemingly hopeless as Shaw's self-described "voice from the sewer" shouts about shootings, suicides, "the future of nothing," the delusions of modern society and how "you can't keep pretending all your scars are mine." But Shaw says he's been surprised by how many critics have focused on Ex-Cult's outlook. "What punk band doesn't have dark, negative lyrics?" he asks. "I don't know too many that are singing about how great the world is, so our lyrics and the subject matter we cover are not very out of the ordinary. That's the kind of music I grew up on, and that's the type of music we're trying to create — as a lyricist, those scenarios have always been easiest for me to draw on."
If you want to see Shaw, Horrell, McIntyre, Frank McLallen and Michael Peery draw on them with the combined force of a sweaty, swaggering wild animal, an Ex-Cult concert is the ideal place to do it. Midnight Passenger didn't fully take shape until the band had on the road non-stop for 18 months "in countless dive bars, disgusting motel rooms and on dozens of dirty floors," Shaw says. "When we started the band, we were hell-bent on making our live performances as intense as possible. That only picked up the more we toured; the first time you go somewhere, people might just sit around saying, ‘What the fuck is going on?' But by the second or third time, you play and the whole room is moving. The more you hit a spot, the better of a response you get, the crazier the shows are."
Ex-Cult's November tour through the Southeast was on track to include its first visit to Florida — until September, that is, when organizers from the Don't Stop St. Petersburg Music Festival reached out and convinced the band to play a one-off there on Oct. 18th. "It's funny that it took us four years to make it to Florida," Shaw says, "and now we're playing there twice in a really short period of time. We're also excited because we'll be touring with home state heroes Golden Pelicans, an awesome rock ‘n' roll band from Orlando that just put out its first LP."
With those kinds of tight relationships formed thanks to non-stop touring, a heightened national profile, and the aforementioned Cigarette Machine EP coming out next year on San Francisco label Castle Face, the future looks bright for Ex-Cult. And that refutes this writer's claim that garage and punk rock are reaching a point of critical mass. "Working with a label like Castle Face is awesome because they put out reputable bands that then bring attention to their smaller bands, too," Shaw says. "That's good for the overall underground music community since it helps the bands we've been friends with for years get some recognition from outside of the small scene they belong to."
Asked about Ex-Cult's roots in its own storied Memphis scene, which has given rise to still-active pioneers like The Oblivians and Reigning Sound, along with fallen heroes like Jay Reatard, Shaw demurs. "The ideal situation as a band is to push it, so we knew that the bigger we got, the more we would be gone from Memphis. And that was a consequence we were all fine with us. We've all lived in the city for a long time, and we like being up on what's going on when we're home. But I think all of us would rather be out of town and on the road."