“People have to take action the way the world is at present. A band, or music in general can’t change the world, but a band can provoke you to think about the world around you – or at least they can help to get a conversation going. If there’s one theme behind our record it’s to get people to WAKE UP! They’re letting themselves get screwed out there.” – The Ex Senators’ singer/ guitarist Dmac.
It’s been too long since we’ve had a real, live rock’n’roll band we can believe in: the kind of band that touts values like passion, urgency and a desire to communicate rather than towing the line and doing exactly what their paymasters require of ‘em. But miracles can happen – we’ve got one to be proud of at last! Please welcome all the way from the windy city of Chicago THE EX SENATORS: five intelligent, fiercely outspoken dudes sitting on a fantastic, self-titled debut album which not only has the ability to lob killer hit singles around like Molotov cocktails, but it also damn well gets you off your arse and makes you think about everything that’s wrong on both sides of the Atlantic.
The band’s ambassadors – frontman Dmac and guitarist/ co-songwriter Van – recently landed in London for the first time. Though ostensibly here for a meet’ n ’greet press tour, they also turned in a couple of memorable acoustic performances at The Crown Tavern (where two previous well-known agitators you might have heard of in passing called Lenin and Stalin were once believed to have had a secret meeting) and at Shoreditch’s Brazilian-themed Floripa Bar, where W&H witnessed a set shorn of the LP’s full-on electric raunch, but none of its inherent passion and intelligence. Colour us impressed.
The following morning, we’re at the band’s hotel, where Dmac and Van are the very epitome of affability and hospitality as they give us the lowdown on how The Ex Senators came into being and what they’re here to achieve. Because, believe me, they will achieve. Mark my words when you read this: you’re going to be hearing a lot more of these guys.
“At first calling ourselves The Ex Senators was just a joke,” reveals Dmac, starting at the beginning.
“If you search that name, you just get a long list of embarrassment. I mean, being in this band is about having no rules, that’s what Van and I agreed from the start. We’d been playing together for a few years in and out of things, him in LA and me in Chicago. When Van moved back to Chicago in 2007/2008, we started writing together and it seemed to work, so...”
Strangely enough, though, the catalyst that brought the future Ex Senators together for the first time was an Irish wake, of all things.
Dmac: “A very close friend of mine passed away, unexpectedly, in September 2009. He was still a relatively young man, but he’d got a pretty significant resume from working with lots of well-known musicians. All the guys now in our band knew him, so amongst about 300 musicians attending the wake, the five of us got up to jam together for the first time and really enjoyed it.”
“About a month later,” he continues, “(Phabulous) GJ, our other guitar player called Van and me and suggested we get together in the studio. Clyde Davis, our drummer, also got involved and we discovered the energy we’d had playing together the first time was still very much there. It was really cool.”
From there, producer Chris Steinmetz (Alice In Chains, Kanye West, Paramore) got involved, along with bassist Bryan Doherty. And a highly proficient rock’n’roll unit was born.
The first song that really sparked was ‘The Kids Are Trouble’, a rowdy, infectious anthem that went straight to college radio in the states. However, due to the five Ex Senators outside commitments, it would take another two years to bring the debut LP to fruition. Still, when you consider those commitments included sessions for names like Sting, Mary J. Blige and Janet Jackson, you soon understand how an ‘unknown’ band cold make such a highly-proficient and versatile ‘debut’ LP. Guitarist Phabulous GJ, for example, has played with Janet Jackson and Erykah Badu.
“It’s a lot of fun playing with GJ,” says Van. “He’s from a funk/ R’n’B background, whereas I’m totally from rock and blues, so he does stuff I would never think of to do, but then likewise, I can surprise him too, and then when we meet in the middle with what Dmac brings in, it’s really cool. We’re not competing with each other, so there’s no stepping on each other’s toes.”
That’s a rare thing in such an ego-fuelled business, surely?
“Yeah, it’s a great thing, “replies Dmac, “and it’s our band in a nutshell. Like I said earlier, there are no rules and that means we’re open to anything. Even in our covers – we’ve been thinking of a mash-up between Rick James’ ‘Mary Jane’ and The Damned’s ‘Fan Club’, for example.”
Ambitious, but it could just work! With such flexibility, it’s no surprise that ‘The Ex Senators’ takes everything from smouldering, widescreen anthems (‘Angel’) to day-glo Chili Peppers’ style punk-funk (‘Psychotropic Love Freak’) and the balls-y Glam stomp of the UK debut single ‘Start A Fight’ in its stride. What with the band’s name and hard-hitting tracks like ‘United Corporations of America’, though, it’s no surprise that that Politics with a capital ‘P’ regularly comes up in interviews.
Would you describe yourselves as political animals?
“I think we all are to a degree,” Dmac considers. “It would be disingenuous to say otherwise, but we don’t want to be pigeonholed either. First and foremost, we’re here because we wanted to make a great rock’n’roll record, but one with some political commentary and also some social commentary too.”
“If the record has one over-arching theme it’s for society to WAKE UP!” he continues.
“It seems like a lot of society is asleep at the wheel and that people are allowing themselves to be sold down the river by corporations, politicians and the fact they’re all in bed with each other.”
“That’s what’s happening now in the European economy, the US economy and the greater Global economy. The fact that Greece is being compared to Goldman Sachs...it’s literally similar, but at least the EU has the chance to do something about Greece and Spain. With Goldman Sachs and Lehman Bros, it was a case of everything being leveraged beyond reach and them then playing a gambling game with everyone’s mortgage...and not telling anybody about it, except the former secretary of the US Treasury, who just happens to be a former CEO of Goldman Sachs. How convenient.”
How about ‘United Corporations of America’ – was there a specific starting point for that song?
“Yeah, that came from the American Supreme Court’s decision to allow Super PACs...”
Excuse me? What’s a Super PAC?
“It stands for Super Political Action Committee. They’re basically not-for-profit organisations allowing you to take unlimited donations from corporations to fund political awareness campaigns – and they don’t even have to report where the money’s come from.”
“Exactly. But where do you think the money’s coming from to get Mitt Romney into the White House,” says Dmac.
“A year ago, Barack Obama said he wasn’t going to take Super PAC money for his re-election campaign, but now he has to. How else can he possibly have a chance to battle the amount of Republican advertising out there? If you saturate people and inundate people with enough advertising, they eventually believe it, whether it’s true or not. When the Supreme Court announced its decision, Mitt Romney very famously said “Corporations are people, my friend” which pretty much says all you need to know about him.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of America and I believe in what America stands for,” he continues after a pause.
“But the question people should be asking is this: is America owned by the people still or is it slowly being bought out by the likes of Goldman Sachs and a handful of other large corporations? The world’s real wealth is controlled by a handful of all-powerful individuals anyway...another one who springs to mind is Rupert Murdoch. All he’s missing is the white cat to stroke.”
Van and W&H threaten to dissolve with laughter at this Blofeld-style image. Do you think Mr. M has the tank of piranha fish yet?
“Yeah, he’s like Dr. Evil, isn’t he?” chuckles Dmac, adopting a Dr. Evil voice: “All I wanted was sharks with lasers – why can’t I have them?”
Genius! But what do The Ex Senators feel about being included in a lineage of politically-minded pop firebrands such as The Clash and Billy Bragg, two artists they personally rate very highly indeed, as does this writer...
“But the thing is, both The Clash and Billy Bragg wrote great personal songs too,” replies Dmac.
“Take ‘Lost In The Supermarket’, for example, that’s all Mick Jones and it’s not remotely political, but it’s brilliant. Even something like ‘Rock The Casbah’ – later it turned into a political football, but that initially came from Joe having his balls busted by (Clash manager) Bernie Rhodes. That first line in the song: “The King told the boogie men, you gotta let that raga drop”, that’s Bernie complaining because everything they were writing was too long, like a raga,” he laughs.
“But I also feel that, as artists and musicians we have a voice and if we want to use that for political or social commentary, that’s fine and that’s your right, but you’re falling into a trap if you limit yourself and feel everything you write should be political.”
Very true. Indeed, two of the most resonant tracks on ‘The Ex Senators’ are highly personal songs: the gentle, ballad-like ‘Good Rain’ which – ironically – was written on the rooftop of a sun-drenched LA hotel – and the magnificent ‘Disappear’: Dmac’s tribute to his late friend, whose death had inadvertently brought the five Ex Senators together.
“I found out about my friend passing away when I was touring, and I was in St. Louis,” he remembers with some poignancy.
“Like ‘Good Rain’ it was written in a hotel. Early the next morning, after I heard he’d died, I put up the recorder on my iPhone and basically played what is the start of it into the recorder. Essentially it hasn’t changed much since. When we recorded it, we did four or five demos of it but it wouldn’t quite come together as a band. In the end, Chris (Steinmetz) suggested we start with me playing the song on my own and then the band playing to a click track. We wanted to let it go, add strings, let it take its own arc.”
“It’s about appreciating what you’ve got in the moment, really,” he says quietly. “’Cos, you know, we’re all gone in the blink of an eye. It’s all there in the lyric. Performing it live is a whole different thing though. I told the guys that at the time that we wouldn’t be doing it live.”
What The Ex Senators will be doing, though, is playing live on their own terms. They joke amiably about “world domination within five years, but if not, at least some beachfront properties,” but they’re dead serious about taking this project as far as it’ll go.
“We’re on fire working together,” says Dmac with some passion.
“The thing is, we have enough friends in the industry that we don’t have to just slog around America aimlessly playing to seven people a night on record company say-so. We’ve done the slogging around America in a 15-foot Ryder truck, sleeping in it and travelling thousands of miles for little return and we got the head wounds to prove it (laughs), but we’ve all been there before and bought the T-shirt. Now it’s time to do it our way.”
“Yeah, for me, I just want to be able to keep making records, getting out and travelling, seeing the world with my buddies,” Van interjects.
“That’s it,” nods Dmac in agreement. “Sure this is a job, but it’s a blast and it wouldn’t be the same with different guys. Chris has already got the studio booked and even though we’re naturally studio rats, we wanna get the next record down live and fast and get back out there. That’s what rock’n’roll is still about, even in these dark times.”
Indeed it is. So let’s kick out the apathy, get this fight started and elect The Ex Senators to rock’s top table ASAP.
‘The Ex Senators’ is released on Heatshield Records in August.
The Ex Senators online
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