Listen without context to X__X's 2015 EP Albert Ayler's Ghosts Live at the Yellow Ghetto and you might walk away hopelessly baffled. Only the title track comes from avant-garde saxophonist Ayler's seminal 1965 free-jazz masterpiece; also included on the 18-minute set are "I Am an Instrument," an extra-celestial recitation of Sun Ra's poetry; "Tool Jazz," 40 seconds of a whirring power saw; "My Terranean Home," a chopped and screwed 50-second slice of Bob Dylan's classic "Subterranean Homesick Blues"; and "Transmography," which starts off with a gentle cover of Neil Young's "Needle and the Damage Done" before launching into a propulsive stew of '70s proto-punk.
Which speaks to the precise roots of this iconoclastic band. Founded in 1978 by John D. Morton, best known for fronting another cult-fave band from Cleveland called Electric Eels, X__X lasted just six months in its original iteration. But two sought-after 45s of confrontational art-punk, four infamous live appearances that ended with the rousing anti-anthem "Cleveland Sucks," and the most Dadaist name in musical history (it was pronounced "ex blank ex" so that anyone could place their own interpretation into the blank) cemented the band's spot in punk rock's early anti-everything legacy.
In 2014, thanks to interest from boundary-pushing record label Ektro (from Finland) and Smog Veil (from Ohio), Morton and fellow X__X founding member Andrew Klimeyk reformed to test the limits of today's niche market for antagonistic music. "The way I see it, we took a 36-year hiatus," Morton says. "I was working the whole time but nobody was paying attention. Now they are, which is great."
Other original bandmates Jim Ellis and Anton Fier declined to join the reunited group but gave their blessings to new recruits Craig Willis Bell and Matthew Harris. X__X played a few Midwest and Northeast shows in 2014 before holing up in a dilapidated yellow house to record Albert Ayler's Ghosts in the kind of ragtag fashion that Morton thinks would make the notoriously difficult Mr. Ayler proud. "I had the desire to do Ghosts but no idea whether I could even transcribe it or teach it to the band," Morton says. "Here we are crashing on couches in primitive living conditions across from a bar called A Touch of Class, practicing on the back line at another bar called Maple Grove Tavern. We got through Ghosts once and the guys looked at me and said, 'We're not sure if we played it right.' And I said, 'You can't play it wrong.'"
Morton adds that the audacity of the project provided all the allure he needed. "There's an obvious relationship between punk and free jazz – it's angry music, it's funny, and it's also a real career killer. If you play free jazz, nobody will listen to it. Playing punk back in the day, nobody listened to it. We used to have audiences of seven; now, we play and people clap. It's like, 'What is this? What just happened?'"
Of course, X__X still knows how to provoke an audience. "Because I'm a visual artist, there isn't a demarcation between one type of performance and another," Morton says. "Pushing things forward has always been important. I used to saw 2-by-4s onstage, and now I saw pieces of bamboo. We did it in December in New Haven, Connecticut, and it was like the old days – after one song, the audience just stood there with their mouths open, not knowing what to do. I said, 'Did you forget something? Maybe clapping?' And they all started clapping."
This all plays into Morton's reputation as a nihilistic artist with a dark sense of humor – in 1978, he told anyone who would listen that he moved away from Cleveland because a critic told him, "I hate myself for liking your work." But with 20 years of sobriety under his belt and newfound success for X__X, Morton admits that he's mellowed out. During our interview, he was even sanguine about being denied entry into Canada to spend the winter with his girlfriend (his upstate New York cabin doesn't have heat or running water) because of a past arrest stemming from what he calls a "PTSD episode that was downgraded from resisting arrest to disturbing the peace."
"It's funny but true," he laughs. "My girlfriend said doing this interview while sitting homeless in a motel room in Niagara Falls would be good – just as a reminder that things are not all bleak." Morton says. He's excited about X__X's tour, too, because it will provide the band (including new drummer Lamont Thomas of opening act Obnox) with "live practice sessions," and also because it'll give him a temporary home. "What a great idea for a proto-punk band to tour the South playing free jazz," he says. "Makes perfect sense, right?"