By Nicholas Jason Lopez
It’s almost guaranteed nobody else from Boston sounds like these guys.
The duo of Bo Barringer and Reuben Bettsak make up Ex-Hyena, a dark-pop outfit that have crafted the art of “easy music for hard times.”
With several albums already under their belts, Ex-Hyena use their music to create their own fantasy universe – a “ruined city” vibe loosely influenced by COVID-19 and Westworld’s third season.
The Music Bugle had the chance to talk with them about latest happenings and more, which you can check out below.
Music Bugle – How did you decide on the name “Ex-Hyena”?
Reuben Bettsak – Sometimes, I create names of bands and songs just for the fun of it.It’s also a way to trigger lyric ideas. Bo and I recorded three songs and knew we had something cool we wanted to delve into further. I sent him six band name ideas and we decided “Ex-Hyena” really fit the sound and vibe we were creating.
Bo Barringer – Reuben gave me that list of names about a month into the project and Ex-Hyena jumped at me right away. I didn’t think a lot about it at the time other than it having a nice ring to it, which is the most important part, but it did seem to conjure a post-apocalyptic landscape where all that remain are scavengers, like hyenas, cockroaches, maybe a few cyborgs…
Music Bugle – How would you describe Boston to someone who has never been there before?
Reuben Bettsak – I’ve always been fascinated with Boston and this area – even before I moved here. Some of my favorite things about it include its historical architecture, lighthouses and beaches in the area, vibrant art and music communities… and there is always lots to discover – area towns, beaches, trails, etc.. Obviously, there are things that are intense about it. It can be a bit expensive and people get squeezed out of certain areas because of rising rent, house prices, etc., but overall, it’s a great area to live in.
Bo Barringer – It kinda feels like winter from about mid-October until early-May, but the summers are beautiful. It’s a strange mix of conservative lifestyles and political progressiveness. Traditionalism mixed with new ideas. A lot of weird contrast here. Super expensive, but not super posh or trendy. There’s an underdog vibe coexisting with a general feeling that we’re better than everyone else, but generally, there are a lot of intelligent people here. You gotta look really hard to find the real dumbbells and that goes a long way.
Music Bugle – What excites you the most about your style of music?
Reuben Bettsak – While Bo and I have always experimented with different ways of writing and creating music, Ex-Hyena is unlike anything we’ve done before. Bo has become such a great producer and has an endless river of beats and ideas. When he sends me an idea, I’m able to instantly latch into it and melodies pour out of me naturally. We are constantly writing, creating, experimenting and most importantly, surprising each other. He sends me new things that are so fresh with interesting, unpredictable turns. The music we are creating does fit into electronic and dark styles of music and that in itself is exciting, because we come from playing in rock bands, but I think we are both first and foremost about writing awesome songs that do not easily fit into any one style.
Bo Barringer – Beats and basslines. Repetition. I tend to really get hypnotized by the mechanical aspects of electronic-based music. Totally lost in it. Watching the wheels spin. Watching the gears grind, but that doesn’t always create a song that people can hum along to. Working with Reuben in this project is great, because he can make sense of the music I send him. He’ll look at a track I send him from a completely new angle and always manage to find an actual song buried in there somewhere. He gives it meaning, context and narrative – and he makes it catchy as fuck.
Music Bugle – What is the biggest challenge you face in being a musical duo?
Reuben Bettsak – I think there are mostly advantages to being a duo. Everything gets done so much faster, like writing, recording, scheduling things, etc.. The main challenge is really finding ways to keep enhancing the live experience. We wanted to incorporate things like banging on drums/percussion and building the whole live experience. We are two people, so there are limitations, but sometimes, limitations create great art/experiences.
Bo Barringer – The biggest challenge we face is that we tend to make records as big as we want them to sound and then have to reproduce them with spontaneity and accuracy. You wanna nail the vibe of the record, but you also want it to feel in-the-moment. It was difficult when we first started doing livestreams, but we’ve gotten a lot better at it.
Music Bugle – What was it like putting together your 2021 debut album ‘Artificial Pulse’?
Reuben Bettsak – Bo and I had played together in Future Carnivores a few years back, so we did have a musical brother connection already. I moved to Atlanta for three years and when I moved back to Boston, COVID hit half a year into being back. A few weeks before the pandemic hit, Bo and I decided to collaborate on a few music ideas. I went over to his house, added guitar to two beat-driven ideas he had brewed and then a few weeks later, we were stuck in our houses. He took those two ideas, molded them into songs, sent them over to me, I added vocals, sent them back to Bo, he added vocals and those two songs were “Shades” and “Fortress Supreme.” We were floored with how those two songs came out. We also knew we had stumbled into a very exciting sound with a lot of possibilities. The fact that we were isolated in our houses provided the ingredients to make ‘Artificial Pulse’ come together fast. Bo sent a bunch other song ideas and each week, I would add lyrics, record vocals, maybe guitar to one of those ideas and send it back over to him. Each song was coming out great and had a life of its own. At the same time, it felt like the songs were really forming an album. I think lyrically, since I was writing on a weekly basis in a suddenly altered world, I was able to tap into some interesting futuristic, sci-fi themes – and it’s like not only did all the songs fit together to form an album, but we felt we had created a bit of a music universe with Ex-Hyena and ‘Artificial Pulse.’ Three of the songs felt good as instrumentals and “Motorfreaks” was a hint as trying out different things early on. For that one, I created a repetitive kraut-rock style pulsing beat. He took that and added some “Blade Runner” meets “Beverly Hills Cop” theme, with a bit of cyberpunk motorcycle action and I went with that dystopian motorcycle vibe with the melodies and lyrics. I think making this album really helped us mentally deal with the pandemic at that point in time.
Bo Barringer – It was easily the quickest, easiest from conception-to-finished-product album that I’ve ever been involved in and probably the best. Ironically, it also felt like the most spontaneous, even though we were not in the same room once during the whole process. There’s something about sharing files and having to commit to what you’ve done before you hit send. There’s a certain purity or honesty to it that’s hard to put my finger on exactly.
Music Bugle – What did you miss the most about performing live?
Reuben Bettsak – Our first two shows were virtual shows we recorded. Those were really fun, because we had to find a way to take the music we created remotely and play it in the same room. Playing live in front of people felt so good. I think the thing I missed the most was feeding off the energy the crowd creates when they are dancing or connecting to a song.
Bo Barringer – At first, I didn’t miss it. At all, really. I was pretty content to go down to my basement and make tracks, send them to Reuben and wait to hear his vocals. We finished two full albums in less than a year that way and only did a couple live streams, from that same basement. I was loving it, but I think what I didn’t miss was load-in, standing around the club in those hours before the show, trying to decide if it’s okay to start drinking yet or not, load-out, trying to balance everyone’s schedule for band practice, etc., but playing live is great. The thrill of knowing you could totally screw everything up or totally move a mountain. The bass vibrating your whole body. The sheer volume of the music drowning everything out. Stage nerves and feeling them go away halfway through the first song when you know that you’re nailing it. The possibility of failing publicly and not. Turning mistakes into happy accidents. Seeing those mistakes into something way cooler than what you’d rehearsed a hundred times.
Music Bugle – Who are you listening to right now, music-wise?
Reuben Bettsak – Always listening to loads of stuff, new and old. Stuff like Darkside, Who Made Who, Lake Turner, Child of Night, Minuit Machine and also loving the bands on Hush Club Ltd..
Bo Barringer – Nicolas Jaar, all day every day. Whether it’s “Darkside,” “Against All Logic” or his solo stuff, Nicolas Jaar is never far from my ears these days. Also loving Weval and I also discovered Kerala Dust and can’t get enough.
Music Bugle – What’s a quote that motivates you to keep doing what you do?
Reuben Bettsak – Robert Pollard from Guided By Voices has always been a great inspiration to the way I approach writing music and creating art. He once said, “Writing is easy. It’s an ongoing process, like eating, breathing, or sleeping. It shouldn’t be painful or difficult. It’s a report on the state of the soul and like the soul, should be continuously evolving. It does so through inspiration. From people, books, film, music. When inspiration is lacking, you get writer’s block.”
Bo Barringer – “Inspiration is a word used by people who aren’t really doing anything,” from Nick Cave. It sounds bitchy as hell, but to me, it feels like he’s saying that if you sit around waiting for inspiration to strike you, you’re not gonna get a whole lot done. I don’t know if I’ve ever written something because I’m “inspired, man.” I sit down with an instrument and start fucking around and pretty soon, I come up with an idea. Sometimes, they’re great. Sometimes, they’re garbage. I run into a roadblock, I put it on the shelf. Work on something else. The only way to get something done is to put in the work.
Music Bugle – Does social media help or hurt musicians?
Reuben Bettsak – Social media can be a double-edged sword, but can definitely help a band, but it’s always about balance. I think interacting and making connections with people, bands, bloggers, DJ’s is the best part. Promoting your band is part of it, but I think the most rewarding part has been making these great connections and musical communities. That aspect of it is so exciting, because it makes us want to meet some of these people and bands for real sometime in the future. Also, interacting with others on socials has given us the chance to do some remixes and contribute songs to benefit compilations, etc., but I think you also can’t take it too seriously, or approach it like a big business machine. We started Ex-Hyena during the pandemic, so we were not able to hang out with bands at shows in Boston. Interacting via social media was a way to connect, so, the way Ex-Hyena has approached social media has been different than any of our past bands.
Bo Barringer – Both? Neither? Indie musicians create their own little ecosystems in every era. People find ways to connect. People adapt. Social media seems very well suited to meet this need, especially in this day. It’s certainly easier to make connections and get heard across the globe. Social media is probably not great for humankind, but musicians seem to have harnessed the positive aspects of it.