X__X is pronounced “Ex Blank Ex,” and their 1979 debut release—a 7” with an A side titled “A” and a B side called “You’re Full of Shit”—was already posthumous. The group existed for all of six months in the fertile late ‘70s Cleveland ur-punk scene; the electric eels’ singer/antagonist John D Morton knew he’d be moving to New York, and decided before his move to form an intentionally short-duration band. To that end, he recruited guitarist Andrew Klimeyk, bassist/future ‘zine publisher Jim Ellis, and drummer/future Golden Palomino Anton Fier. The only evidence of their existence lived in the form of two 7"s, the aforementioned, and 1980’s “No Nonsense / Approaching The Minimal With Spray Guns.” Those singles are unruly and just plain unholy blasts of spiky, disordered, nihilistic art-punk—had this band been birthed in New York, they could have been No Wave icons. X__X did make that move, but petered out without attracting much notice.
As seems inevitable these days, X__X’s music has been exhumed recently, by the Full Contact imprint of the Finnish label Ektro, who last year released the compilation X Sticky Fingers X, which included both of the singles and a slew of live recordings and rehearsal tapes. Finally reaping some overdue accolades, Klimek and Morton put together a version of the band to tour, with Rocket From the Tombs bassist Craig Bell and drummer Matthew Albert Harris, a band that opted to continue making new music as X__X. In a phone conversation, Klimeyk discussed the band’s initial dissolution, and its decision to move forward on reuniting.
When the archival album was becoming a reality, we started putting feelers out to everyone. We thought a reunion would be good to promote the release, and just an interesting thing to do. I was hoping to do it with as close to the recorded lineup as possible, but it was something I was interested in doing anyway. When we moved to New York there was a plan to keep the band going, and that didn’t happen. John moved up first, then Anton, then me, but Anton got involved with the Feelies and Lounge Lizards so his plate was full. John and I did get together a little, but it fizzled out.
We want to keep going with it, definitely, I wouldn’t pursue this if we were only going to play old songs and do gigs just based on them, I would get bored with that. We’re already looking ahead to different things.
The band’s first proper album, 37 years after forming as a temporary why-the-fuck-not, will be released by the Smog Veil label in November. Named Albert Ayler’s Ghosts live at the Yellow Ghetto, the title is no bullshit—the band actually covers “Ghosts” by Albert Ayler. It’s a fit move, as Ayler was a fellow CLEperson, and his divisive, skronking sax style which privileged timbre over pitch made him something of a No Wave forefather. He was definitely a hero to John D Morton, who talked to DM about that inspiration.
I was 14 when I got the the ESP Sampler for 99¢. I knew the Fugs, I knew Sun Ra a little, and I knew William Burroughs. The sampler had just a little clip of every song, and one of them was from Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts,” and I’d never heard anything like it. I mean I was 14, just getting out of the Beatles and looking for more interesting things. “Ghosts?” I was totally flummoxed by it, but I smiled when I heard it. And I went on to discover more about music, and I actually bought an Ayler album. I didn’t even know he was from Cleveland, then I found that out, and eventually I realized that when I play, the way I think about music, that little clip of Ayler was always in my mind’s background, especially in my thoughts about anti-music. There are a lot of similarities, when you think about it, between free jazz and punk. They’re both angry, or at least I think so, they can both be funny, and they’re both like “fuck you, I don’t care if you like it or not.”
So while we were on tour, Craig said that we’d become a “real band,” and on the way back from Detroit, Andrew told us he made arrangements for us to record. So knowing we were going to stay together and record, I thought about “Ghosts,” and I tried to work it out to see if I could do it. I don’t know the scales on purpose, and sax has different scales anyway, but I was able to learn it. And I knew that doing it was audacious, and it had to be really good if we did it, otherwise it would be laughable, embarrassing. It had to be right. Some songs are great, but some bands shouldn’t do ‘em. I got through the first three melody parts that make up the piece and got to the free jazz part, and 20 seconds in to that, I knew I could do it. Teaching the guys to play it, they were looking at me kind of askance, like “we’re REALLY going to do this?” and Craig said “oh, this could kill us.” But part of the basis of Smog Veil’s interest in releasing the album was the cover of “Ghosts,” so it had to be there. We met up in Cleveland like five days before the recording to practice, we hadn’t been together since the tour. We got through “Ghosts” and I said “we got it, we can do it,” and they all looked at me like “I don’t know if we played it right.” I said “You can’t play it wrong.” But after we recorded it, we all agreed it was the right thing to do. The fact that Ayler’s from Cleveland, I feel a debt and affinity there. I’d heard free jazz by Coleman, and others, but Ayler was the ghost that spoke into my ear.
Here’s X__X’s dizzying and jagged take on Ayler. I love how it starts off in chaos before it coalesces toward the end. It’s followed by a live-in-studio video of the band recording a take of it at Negative Space studio in Cleveland, USA.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Pere Ubu, DEVO and more seminal Ohio punk on two new compilations