Writing a pop song is easy. All you need are three chords, a snappy chorus and a bridge. Top it off with an unforgettable hook, keep it under three minutes, and friend, you've got yourself a hit.
Writing a good pop song is an entirely different story. After a century of major developments in popular music, coming up with something that still sounds fresh after hearing thousands of other songs is an uphill battle. There's always the risk of making something that's underdeveloped, overcomplicated or inadvertently borrows the melody from a Tom Petty song (see: Sam Smith). All of which is to say that making an effortless pop song only looks easy.
When I asked Laura Harris, drummer for Washington, D.C., power-pop trio Ex Hex about the difficulty of writing songs as simple and straightforward as her band's, she confirmed it emphatically.
"Fuck yeah! Yeah, totally," she says in a phone interview with CityBeat. "The songs we were listening to when we were recording this record were '70s power-pop songs, and '80s pop."
"But not like radio pop," she clarifies. "We all love Roky Erickson, and there's something about a lot of his songs that are like magic. How did this fucking guy write this little perfect idea? You can really just repeat that one part of the song for three minutes and it would be really awesome. I also do illustrations and cartoons and stuff, and one line can fuck up a whole drawing."
On Ex Hex's debut album Rips, released last year on Merge Records, you won't find a single note out of place. Each of its 12 tracks is concise and streamlined (not a single one pushing the four-minute mark), and there are almost no sounds on the record that weren't made by guitar, bass, drums or human voice. Harris, guitarist Mary Timony and bassist Betsy Wright stick to a pretty simple method on the 35-minute LP, and true to its name, it most certainly rips.
Ex Hex play May 16 at The Casbah.
Taking inspiration from power-pop bands such as The Cars or The Nerves, and early punk in the vein of The Buzzcocks or The Heartbreakers (Johnny Thunders, not Tom Petty), Ex Hex place a high premium on strong melodies and, above all, fun. A track like "Waste Your Time" is just a simple, three-chord, mid-tempo strut, and yet it doesn't sound like it's missing a thing. Meanwhile, opening track "Don't Wanna Lose Your Love" is built on heavy layers of riffs, reverb and attitude. It's likely that most of these songs will remind you of one band or another, but Ex Hex make certain each song has a modern spin on a classic sound.
"We just wanted to play simple songs," Harris says. "It's something that was more exciting to us. We all love the Runaways and the Heartbreakers. We're into all that stuff and we thought, Why can't we play stuff like this?' That was the running theme that kept us focused."
Each member of Ex Hex has been in other bands— Harris in The Aquarium, Wright in The Fire Tapes, and Timony in Helium and Wild Flag, just to name a few. And over time, they've set some pretty high standards and expectations for their own music. The three musicians have developed a pretty strict work ethic to ensure that they're writing the best songs they possibly can. If an idea isn't quite good enough, it's likely to be jettisoned. For that matter, they make that extra effort to show their work by getting it all on tape.
"We record everything," Harris says. "We record practices and we record demos. We're kind of constantly talking about that stuff. What doesn't make the cut are just parts—like little ideas. Maybe this drum fill doesn't need to be there. Or this guitar lick, ah, that's not working.' We're just really strict about editing. It's easy for a song to become overthought or overcomplicated. We're just not that kind of a band."
As hard as the members of Ex Hex work on making music that satisfies their high standards, Harris repeatedly emphasizes that their ultimate goal is to create something fun. The word "fun" comes up over and over again during the course of the interview, and it's hard to hear Rips as anything but. The added benefit of putting so much blood and sweat into tightening and refining their concise, loud and catchy-as-hell rock n' roll tunes in the studio is that, by the time they're ready to tour, they're a well-oiled machine.
And playing these songs live, Harris notes, is the best part.
"It's, like, the most wonderful feeling in the world, playing live," she says. "You could be having the shittiest day—we've been touring nonstop for the last year and a half, and there have been times when we've been sick, or driving for 11 hours. And maybe you slept on a kitchen floor the night before. But it's all better when you're playing, and there are people there that are happy. And they're into it.
"It's the best.""