Discussing the incredible journey of the legendary LA band X, with lead singer, Exene Cervenka
“We represent individuality and I think that’s the highest art form on the planet. Being you is the greatest art form there is.”
About 10 minutes into our conversation, X lead singer, Exene Cervenka, delivers a thought that beautifully captured what has made the legendary Los Angeles band thrive for 40 years strong. They are four unique individuals who have brought nothing but their true selves to their craft. Ultimately, this has allowed Cervenka, vocalist/bassist John Doe, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D. J. Bonebrake to combine their creative spirits; resulting in music that is original, fun and moving.
2017 is a big year in the history of X as it marks their 40th anniversary. Their story is one of great fortitude. Unity and passion have served as common themes that have allowed the group to trust the board they all surf upon, sometimes without knowing what wave would be next.
X is currently on an anniversary tour that will take them through September. Before, taking the stage in Kansas City, I had the chance to speak with Cervanka about the emotion of 40 years, the key moments along the way and the next chapter for X.
Does this feel like a reflective anniversary tour so far?
Not really because we’ve been touring constantly for so many years. It’s more shows. The shows we’re playing now, we are certainly aware of the 40-year mark, but I don’t think it’s changing anything about the show or the audience. It has been something to think about though, because we made it something to think about — that we made it to 40 years. When we are on stage, we make sure that we are completely in the moment.
How would you capture the emotion of 40 years as band? What does it mean to you?
It’s the same feeling I had when I was 21 and I looked around at the masses and everything went into this zone in my head where I thought — this is the most amazing thing, remember this forever. It was a moment of bliss and Zen that just entered me. I feel that way now, but it’s a more extended and wider feel. It’s more all-encompassing as opposed to internalized. It’s something you think about all the time, like, — wow this is crazy, I can’t believe we are still doing this. I am very grateful. I have this constant reminder that this is really happening and we are really here. It’s very profound. I felt it last year as well, especially with Billy being sick. It’s a lot about hard work and dedication. Our foundation was strong from the start. We always loved what we were doing. The guys were great musicians and I was a great intuitive. We truly applied ourselves. We practiced, we made flyers, we played shows, John and I worked on vocals constantly and we were always writing. Then going away from each other and coming back only helped the foundation. It’s also simply luck that we are still alive. Not everyone has that. You have to have every component work out.
If you take a step back and think about your surroundings, how do you feel Los Angeles influenced you individually and with your music?
The LA scene was very important to us because of the sense of humor to it. It was very different from other cities in that it didn’t always take itself so seriously. It was OK to be that way. Our lyrics were very humorous; we weren’t serious about the future and we didn’t feel like we were intellectuals. We were just people living in the moment and having fun. The city of LA was most important to John and myself. We were the ones that took in the literary space of it with all the rock stars, limousines and places like the Roxy. It was something you could look at and admire. It was also something you can absorb or laugh at and reject. Coming to LA for me was completely startling. The Doors were big reason why.
When you think about some of those first tours you embarked on in the late 70’s, what are some of the main differences compared to touring today?
There’s only one difference and that’s experiential. When we first started touring, if you wanted to know what we looked like or you wanted to hear what we sounded like you had to come to a live show. There was no video, we weren’t on radio, there were very few records and photos. We’d get to sound check, get out of the van and there’d be 200 people in the parking lot wanting to see what we looked like. We wanted to see them also. Who were are fans? What were they wearing? We noticed, people that came to our shows were all very different from each other. There was a little bit of everything. Nobody had a uniform and nobody knew what to expect. It was just a bunch of individuals. I still think our audience is one of the smartest, best and individual audiences you will see. We have so many fans that have been with us almost the whole time and I think it’s because we too are individuals. We represent individuality and I think that’s the highest art form on the planet. Being you is the greatest art form there is. Imitation is not the highest form of flattery. It’s plagiarism. I don’t think imitation adds to anything.
It’s different now because people have seen 40 years of us. Even if it had just been one year, now within that year, people can see how you look and sound instantly. It’s all mass reveal as compared to individual reveal. I don’t like the modern world as much, but on the other hand, without the internet we wouldn’t have kids discovering music, books or ideas from a long time ago like they can now. It’s like your best friend and your worst enemy.
You have a deep history in the world of poetry. Was migrating into the music scene and becoming a singer something you always desired to do?
I never once in my life thought about being in a band. I was a big Doors fan. “Light My Fire” — the long version, rewired my brain. I thought the short version was amazing and then I heard the long version and that was it for me. I was no longer a 12-year-old girl in the middle of nowhere Illinois. When I came to California, I had no idea what I was going to do. My plan was to live with my friend, get a job and continue writing poetry. That was all I thought about doing.
It’s fascinating because all of this comes together, you end up being a singer in a band, and you link up with Ray Manzarek from the Doors. That must have been mind-blowing.
It was weird because it didn’t go with the punk thing at all. We were doing Soul Kitchen. Ray Manzarek had no idea we were playing. He and his wife came to see us at the Whiskey because they had read about us in the paper. He approached us and asked if we are going to make a record. We said yes we were planning to and he said, “You want me to produce it?” We talked about it and the next thing I knew we were working together. Who would’ve thought this little girl from Illinois was going to go to LA, would be in a band and meet Ray Manzarek? In the 60’s, nobody thought like that. It wasn’t like now where everybody’s dream is to be famous.
Ray was a great guy. I like to think of him in a spiritual sense. He was otherworldly and very real. He helped us out a lot and I’m so glad we got to know him.
He brought such an interesting perspective to your music because you have the punk component, but then on a song like “Nausea” you can hear Ray Manzarek’s touch.
It’s funny because he played on that song, but he didn’t have anything to do with the writing. We were playing “Nausea” long before we met him. It wasn’t his approach to change anything, he just wanted us to be as good as we could be. On a song like “Los Angeles” he’d suggest we do the main riff twice instead of once because he thought it was good, and then we would do that. We still play it like he suggested. It was never anything like taking songs apart and doing different choruses. It was more of, telling us we were great and wanting to capture the best version possible of the song we had written.
Throughout the journey to this point, where there any other mentors that have had a significant impact on you or the band?
People avoided us. We met Bob Dylan once. He came to see us in Minneapolis. No super important, legendary music figure paid much attention to us. In the late 90’s when we got back together, Pearl Jam asked us to open for them. That was a big deal. Then we opened for them in South America, Europe and a few other shows here and there. It was huge for us. It was the second-best thing besides meeting Ray. It gave us the opportunity to meet this new audience that we were begging to get exposed to. People told us all the time that they didn’t like us because they thought we were punk. They thought we were Black Flag. We also did a tour with Blondie, which was so great. People would come up to me after the show and say, “You know, I came to see Blondie. I had heard of you guys, but thought you were too punk. It turns out you are really a great band.” The punk label just got us in so much trouble because apparently, it can mean four bratty people who can’t play. We are still fighting that and we were never that. We’ve always had this energy that was positive. It’s taken all this time for these new audiences to say, “Wait a minute, they are actually good.” I thank Pearl Jam and Blondie a lot for helping us have a wider acceptance.
What was it like for you when Wild Gift came out, with all the attention and “Record of the Year” nods it received?
The New York Times and Village Voice gave Wild Gift “Record of the Year.” Both that record and Los Angeles made us feel like — what is happening?
What I’ve always loved about Wild Gift is how diverse it is musically. The individual influences shine through and it touches upon multiple genres — whether it’s John sounding like Elvis, some R&B tones, straight-ahead rock, punk and some very bluesy guitar parts.
Well, Billy played music before all of us. He grew up in a time where the radio was playing music before the Beatles and he was very influenced by it all. He’s never been afraid to show the stuff he grew up on and I love that. In my opinion, he created this whole other thing that made X some sort of synthesis. It’s not one thing and it’s not old. It’s new. That’s a very hard thing to do. I can’t imagine doing it now. It’s a challenge for people to come up with new stuff now.
Another unique element to your music was the way you delivered the message in words. Your song titles for example; you may think some songs like “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not” or “When Our Love Passed Out on the Couch” are just humorous, but they are really a creative way to get your point across.
Those were my doing. I came up with those titles. I would just hear those things in my head. I was very much influenced by country music. There was humor there for sure, but of course it’s not only humor. It’s irony and its dark humor. The kind you can relate to at a funeral. A sophisticated humor is the best way to describe it, I suppose.
How do you feel about the hiatuses the band has gone through? Was it was a necessary recharge where if it wasn’t for that time, you may not be where you are today?
There were some times in the mid to late 80’s that were difficult. We played with a few great artists and made some records, but I was not happy at that time. I moved to Idaho with my husband and my son for a few years. I needed a break from work, work, work. I ended up going back to LA and got involved with solo stuff, art, poetry and spoken word. Luckily, I could make somewhat of a living doing that. Around the time where that all ended, Billy got back in the band. We were pretty lucky. I never thought of it, but probably that time of not being together, got us back together. If we had kept playing through that, we probably would have given up. There was a chance to get back together with Billy and we all wanted to try it.
What have been your biggest challenges throughout the journey to this point?
I think we had normal hurdles that anyone else would have had. Billy’s health issues were very difficult, but we’re past that now. Getting older is always hard. Physically, it takes its toll because it’s demanding. But it doesn’t matter, you are still there, people still appreciate that you’re there. We have a van for the equipment and van for the band. We stay at the Holiday Inn instead of a fancy hotel. We put the money into the bank and back into the band. I prefer it that way. I don’t see any reason to change that even if we were making tons of money.
It’s challenging to play at the same clubs and audiences year-after-year. You always want to make them happy they came and want to see you again. That’s on us though, because we don’t have tricks, a light show or a new album every year. We are trying though. We are not making apologies. It’s very much — this is us and these are the songs we are going to play. We’re real and it’s the same thing we’ve always been. We seem to being doing OK at it.
How are you going about crafting the setlist on the current tour? Are you featuring songs from your entire catalog?
John makes the setlist every night. He always has. We have Craig Packham with us too. He’s a great musician and great guy — very smart and very funny. He fits in perfectly with us. He plays drums and rhythm guitar sometimes so Billy can play sax and DJ can play other instruments. That allows us to play some songs we haven’t really played live before, like songs from our third record. So, that’s a little different. We do songs from each of our first four records. We have a lot of songs to pick from. John changes up the set every night.
You’ve also made an effort to reach out and connect with younger bands that you’ve admired along the way, like Skating Polly who is opening for you now.
I met Skating Polly when they were 9 and 14, right before their first record came out. Now their brother is in the band too — it’s Kelli, Peyton and Kurtis. They are just amazing and they were amazing when they were little children. They can play all these different instruments and they are self-taught. They just live and breathe music. In addition to being sweet and intelligent people, they are so hardworking. If they are not playing music, they are writing, listening or going to see other bands. They just love it. My son is actually making a documentary on them. It’s made me so happy to see the audiences respond to them. We always pick good people to play with us. We know what that means for a band to get a chance to open.
The fact that you do that is very admirable because you don’t have to. You can easily just go about your business, but showing you’re interested in helping other younger groups has an impact. It’s an inspiring gesture.
I want a good fun night as well. I don’t want the promoter to pay some local band $50 to open for us. We care about our audience and want it to be an overall great experience. It’s expensive to go out so we try to keep our ticket prices down and do anything we can do to make it memorable. It’s a thrill to have bands like Skating Polly and Folk Uke with us. The type of audiences we have want to see something new and great. It’s very rewarding to me to be able to give it to them.
Bringing this full circle, after the 40th anniversary tour, what do see as being the next chapter for X?
I have high hopes for this year. The Grammy museum is going to be having an X exhibit — June through February of next year I believe. It’s going to have everything — clothes, artifacts, instruments and song lyrics. It’s a big honor. I was amazed when I went down there and saw the plans. We’ll see what else we can do. It’s 40 years, let’s have fun with it and let’s celebrate it.
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