n 1981, Philip K. Dick wrote VALIS, which is basically a diagram of a man cracking up. Or having a revelation or evolving; it’s a goopy tangle.
“That was the one that drove it home for me,” John Fell Ryan tells me. “I was reading Burroughs and listening to Bowie and picking up schizophrenic shit on the street, and everything just came together for me. It’s self-obsession to the point of becoming magical.”
“That’s where I felt like maybe it was too much,” I tell him. “I mean, I actually remember putting the book down, thinking ‘I understand this too well, it feels too close. Maybe I need a break, maybe I need a walk.’ It felt really alive in a scary way.”
“See, I did the opposite.” His eyes bug out and he makes a vague gesture that resembles diving into a pool. “I remember thinking that everything else could just fuck off. That mirror world of obsessive thinking was just it. It took a few years to figure out how to make money. But for me, that was the goal, what Philip K. Dick was up to. And I’ve just been burning in that world.”
Excepter are some guys with synthesizers and microphones, but calling them a band, even if they resemble one more and more, would be crass. They’re a totem. The music they play—improvised, half-dead, a-melodic, slightly nauseating, with soft-toothed reggae and dance rhythms; the aural equivalent of fevers and tremendous boredom and anxiety attacks—has struck me at times as the worst put-on by the meanest jackasses, and the most sacred, intuitive stuff I’ve ever heard hang in air.
Before that night, I’d spent a lot of time with 2005’s Self Destruction, which is either their worst or their best album. It sounds private, like puking or getting dressed; and because voyeurism is pretty advanced as far as self-loathing goes, I usually feel awful whenever I listen to it. (Even John is confused: “It’s a record about being completely fucking miserable. I mean, why would you want to hang out for that?” I don’t even bother to ask the obvious: Then why did you make it?) The music is rife with negativity, but they approach it as a gnostic truth, something preexisting and waiting to be accessed: “There’s a sense of what’s a good sound and what’s a bad sound. But you’re basically going out there with a rocket that might explode in your face. And more often than not, it does. We’re waiting for our lab to melt.”
And at the same time, there’s something addictive about it: the deep, quiet feeling that they might know something you don’t, and what they know is ugly, and you want to know it because you’re a truth-seeker, and all of the sudden all this ugly stuff starts to sound great, like they illuminated a dark part of the world you ought to know about even if it makes you a little bit sick and your friends are wondering why you are all of the sudden taken with sucky-ass knob-fiddling and some guy moaning. It feels dangerous like VALIS felt dangerous; like drugs. What’s funny is that John doesn’t seem to notice. I tell him that, well, most Excepter fans are probably slightly masochistic. He stares right through me. Not in a mean way. Like he has no idea what I’m talking about.
For a long time I wondered whether or not Excepter was a sham. It helped to think of it that way because then they seemed funny. John’s getting married soon. “Here’s this ceremony coming up. And my approach to ceremony is totally driven by this Excepter idea. And so in my mind, I’m thinking THUNDER OF THE GODS—WHITE PILLARS OF JUSTICE STRETCH OUT BEFORE YOU, but, you know, you can’t do that in front of your family because they’d fucking put you away.” It’s a relief to know that he’s not totally unselfconscious about his performance. A few minutes later, he tells me, “Our early shows—well, I wouldn’t even tell the band we were playing. They’d show up, intervention-style. I’d fall asleep onstage. We’d get in fights—physical fights—and the audience couldn’t care less. But it was, like, a serious argument between lifelong rivals.” It’s bullshit because bands are supposed to play music, it’s not because the fights were scary, it’s both because they let it be that way—he used to think of Excepter as “my sadistic project to torture people.” He really believes in that other side, and knows the costs of getting there. Excepter is reality TV. “I read the gossip page every day,” he gushes.
Excepter is a certain reverse image of New York: the glossolalia of the homeless, the anti-sociality, the mysterious trash, the perverts at midnight—and most importantly, the possibility that the sum of all of it is dangerous, unpredictable, possibly useless, possibly awesome. We talk excitedly about public access in New York; John’s a gestural speaker, but at this point he jumps out of his chair, waves arms, turns on: “I remember living in Manhattan. Public access was amazing. You’d see these great homosexual porn films, these guys with golden crowns and hard-ons doing yoga in front of each other—what the fuck? And you’d think, Hey, it’s public access, it’s for the people—democracy, man, you can’t stop it!” And local politics!: “This year I went to the polls and there was this guy, his party was just the RENT IS TOO DAMN HIGH party, and he had this great theme song. I mean, I voted for him.” He fought bitterly with his landlord when they first moved to New York. Many of the songs on last year’s Alternation seemed to deal directly with the grating alienation of not even getting along with the people next door.
John was from Seattle. “I ran with horror from the whole West Coast vegan and riot grrl environment. It was like a Nazi purge, a real kill-the-intellectuals black/white mentality.” There are dark hippies and light ones; the dark ones are the ones I like, the ones that don’t withdraw, the dissatisfied ones, sometimes a little mean, always looking for inconsistencies and instabilities and crazy, ecstatic pockets of life rather than a pillowy out to nest in. Excepter constantly agitates. When every would-be documentarian was slobbering over anything from Brooklyn, Excepter were actually considered up-and-comers. Now, John says, “We’re one of the few bands who have a guaranteed no-future.”
Of course, they never will. Which is fine. There’s always going to be that potent midnight to repeat and delve deeper into, that inexplicable thing that has drawn kids from Texas to Germany to sleep on John’s floor and watch them play, that mirror world that they’ll get shocked in and out of (“At the office, they think I’m from space,” John says. “Everything that comes out of my mouth is like”—he grabs his hair with one hand, widens his eyes, and points exaggeratedly). The band has released over 24 hours of live music via podcast in the last year, which they call STREAMS; their next release will be a two-disc set, curated by a rabid fan. They make a place, a really paradoxical, often unpleasant, difficult place. Going there feels like a bad habit; leaving an Excepter show sometimes makes me confused and upset. I dip and dip out.
Kiss comes on.
“I always hated Kiss,” John says.
“It just reminds me of my disappointment as a young kid—I’m 34—thinking about music in the late ’70s. I became musically conscious around ’79. And Kiss album covers, Journey covers, Asia, Iron Maiden covers, they all promised this amazing world. And what do they sing about? I’M AT THE GAS STATION, YEAH! CHICKS! SNAP INTO A SLIM JIM! And I was just like, ‘What? Where are the fucking flying scarabs and pyramids and stuff?’”