Interview: Exene Cervenka of X
X's 13 x 31 tour hits New York and the Fillmore at Irving Plaza on Saturday, May 24th while the day before Cervenka's exhibition of recent collages, "Sleep in Spite of Thunder," opens at the DCKT Contemporary art galley on the Bowery.
"What happened to our audience was Mothers Against Drunk Drivers was happening, and so all the states were changing the drinking age from 18 to 21 so they were wiping out two-thirds of our audience. I'm not saying that's a good thing or a bad thing, but that's what happened."
In 1977, 21-year-old vocalist Exene Cervenka met 23-year-old bass player John Doe at a poetry workshop in Venice, California. Very shortly afterwards --along with guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebrake--they would form X, a band as representative as any of early '80s Los Angeles punk.
But those three-plus decades have not, by any means, followed a straight line. For starters, Doe and Cervenka married in 1980, then divorced in 1985. Zoom quit the group in 1986 and didn't return for a dozen years. But that's all higher (and unnecessary) math. This year X moves across America with their 13 x 31 tour, celebrating not only the band's "unlucky 13, fuck the world" philosophy but also the 31st anniversary of its inception.
After a successful early spring run through territories west of the Mississippi, X took a three-week, mid-April rest stop before traveling east. And while we have no idea how Doe, Zoom and Bonebrake utilized their time away from the van, we do know that on Friday, April 25--rather than writing or recording with one of her many side projects (including the Knitters, Auntie Christ and the Original Sinners), working on spoken-word or her collaborative projects with fellow artist Lydia Lunch--Exene Cervenka spent the morning planting flowers in her Jefferson City, Missouri garden, and at least part of her afternoon talking to us. (Beginning with conversational pleasantries regarding plant life and the respective weather reports for New York City and central Missouri).
VV: Tell me something that you've never ever done before in your life.
EC: I've never driven a race car.
Tell me something that you've done once and one time only.
Oh, flown in a helicopter.
The name of a book that you've read at least twice.
The Gnostic Scriptures.
The name of a movie you've seen at least three times.
The Day The Earth Stood Still.
And do you own a rake?
You would almost have to if you were out planting flowers this morning, wouldn't you?
I have more than one rake.
How many rakes do you own?
[Laughs] I don't know. Probably three or four. We've got different kinds of rakes for different kinds of jobs, and then we buy a lot of tools at auctions and things like that.
Most of your interviews that I've read appear to almost avoid the subject of music in favor of--oh, I don't know--something akin to your opinions on cultural philosophy. Does it seem that way to you at all?
I think there's a measure of that. I don't know if it's an overwhelming amount. Like they want to know more about you as a person and they want the music and the songs to just be, you know, there. They want this insight into you. Not necessarily advice. Like it's not like, 'Who are you going to vote for so I can vote for the same person.' It's more just like, 'Gee, I wonder who you'd vote for.' That kind of stuff.
It seems those kinds of questions are geared less towards Exene the musician and more towards Exene the alternative icon. I mean, you're almost symbolic in a way, aren't you?
Well, I don't know. I don't feel like I am. I'm just a regular person. You know, I think that being around a long time as an artist definitely puts you up with some respect from people, you know. I hope so anyway, because that's where I'm headed and I'd like to have the respect of people rather than not.
So you don't feel like people see you as a symbol?
I think, as a woman and as a punk-rock woman, I think I am a symbol of something to them. I don't know if I am to all people that like our band, you know what I mean? Like, I think a role model for young women or whatever you want to call it, I definitely see that. Which is great. I'm real happy about that.
I want to ask you one musical question that doesn't have anything to do with X. On the last Original Sinners album, you covered Jeffrey Lee Pierce's "Ghost on the Highway."
Yeah, I did.
I'm a big fan of his Wildweed album, and I don't think his name comes up as often as it should. Can you take a minute and tell me about your experience with Jeffrey Lee Pierce and his music?
Well, Jeffrey Lee Pierce was a writer and singer for the Gun Club, and he was this kind of wild guy who got too wild at the end. My favorite thing Jeffrey Lee Pierce ever did for me--and this is a selfish moment --was he gave me a Purple Heart medal that he had gotten in Vietnam when he was over there with his girlfriend doing drugs. He had bought it at a flea market. And I just thought that was so neat. I got a Purple Heart from someone who went to Vietnam, but it was Jeffrey Lee Pierce [laughs]. So I thought that was great. He had a good sense of humor about doing something like that. I thought was really funny.
He's very underrated, I think, as a songwriter. I know his family and I was pretty close to Jeffrey. You know, he was one of those punk rock, mixed-up kids and he was into the blues and he was great.
I'm also kind of a setting freak. And in several recent interviews you take the time to say some pretty unflattering things about Los Angeles. Like, 'It's the most superficial city in the world.'
Yeah. Everybody knows that, though.
Oh, I know. But here's where I was going. X recorded a song called "Los Angeles," an album called Los Angeles and I would imagine that most fans see Los Angeles as an integral part of the band. Do you feel like Los Angeles is a part of you as a person?
Huge. Huge. I mean, John [Doe] and I both came to L.A. from the East Coast. I came from Florida and he came from Baltimore. We met at this poetry workshop in Venice, California where Jim Morrison used to hang out and where the skate kids were hanging out in '76, and we hit it off immediately. And he had already met Billy [Zoom] and the band started. Like, punk was starting, the band was starting, poetry was happening. It was amazing. And in the meantime you had Fleetwood Mac, Linda Ronstadt, the Record Plant--which is a recording studio--cocaine, limousines. You know, swimming pools, movie stars, the whole thing, right? And we were part of these poverty-stricken people trying to make it as alternative beings in the universe. So it was a love/hate thing from the day we got there. And it's always been a love/hate thing.
But what's happened to Los Angeles, which is really sad, which isn't the same thing as in New York and a lot of other cities, is they tore it all down. So very little remains of Hollywood or the bungalows or the Jim Morrison era. There's very little there architecturally that resonates Hollywood. It could be any place. It could be anywhere. And that is what I don't like about it.
My son's 20 and he likes living there. He spends most of his time in New York and then the rest of the time in L.A. But he's never seen old L.A. I mean, to him L.A. is just an exciting place. And I think that's part of it. When you're 20, L.A. is an exciting place.
But if L.A. is so much a part of your identity, are the adversarial L.A. comments in any way self-negating?
No, I don't think so. The last time I was there I stayed in Huntington Beach for two days and I had the most idyllic time and I just loved every second I was in L.A. I just thought it was the most beautiful place with the most beautiful plants and all my friends were there and it was really fun. I kept making jokes about moving back.
But I needed a break from it. I'd been there for 30 years except for three years when I lived in Idaho with my husband [Viggo Mortensen] and my son. I spent all that time in L.A., and most of that time it wasn't exactly a picnic, you know. I lived there plenty long enough to know that I was tired of it.
You mentioned Fleetwood Mac, and you've brought them into discussions before. Was Fleetwood Mac, or the idea of Fleetwood Mac something that you thought of consciously? Were they were something to work against?
Oh yeah. It was that whole era of the Eagles and that kind of country-rock, laid-back California singer/songwriter thing. Not just the L.A. bands but the whole laid-back singer/songwriter, easy listening kind of not rock and roll. And then the bigger bands.Peter Frampton. Just that whole thing, you know. Yeah, it was definitely a reaction against all that stuff. And now, of course, you put Fleetwood Mac on the radio and you go, 'And what is so bad about Fleetwood Mac? [Laughs] I mean, this is a fine song. This Fleetwood Mac song is not a bad song at all.' You know, the Eagles, I'm still, you know, not a huge fan but I've seen them play live. I went and saw them play, you know.
I completely understand the anti-Eagles thing. And I suppose Fleetwood Mac could easily represent a certain kind of excess and hedonism, which is something you would likely resent if you're kind of living hand to mouth.
There wasn't resentment. We didn't want it. We thought it was stupid. We laughed about it. We thought it was dumb. The furthest thing we wanted was a limousine to drive us around. Now I'm sure there were some people in the punk scene that did, but not the people I hung around with. We just thought that it was stupid.
Are there any Fleetwood Mac albums in your house in Jefferson City, Missouri?
No, there are none. They're not on my iPod either, and I don't have any vinyl. I mean, I have vinyl. I just don't have any Fleetwood Mac vinyl. I've got thousands and thousands of records. I've got more space in my parlor than you probably do there, huh?
Probably so. My apartment's just a little bigger than a walk-in closet.
I think that living in New York City is a magical experience, though. That's great.
Okay, so why Missouri?
I like Missouri because it's in the middle of the country. I like farmland. I grew up in Illinois. I like the Ozarks. It's close to other cities that I like. It's halfway to New York or halfway to L.A. instead of all the way across the country. And I found the right big stone house with the right barn and the right land around it.
Like I said, I grew up in Illinois and then I was in Florida for six years, then I moved to California, then Idaho and so regionally I've kind of mapped it out and I'm really familiar with the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest and the South and the Midwest, so I had this kind of more bucolic than desert kind of mood when I started to move. And in five years I might decide to move down to Florida. I don't know. But right now I'm happy where I am.
The first four X albums got such critical acclaim. Every single one of them . . .
Well, actually the first two got tons of critical acclaim and then it dropped off on the third one and then by the fourth one it was like, 'Okay, X put out a record. Okay, fine.' So I don't think that's true.
Well, maybe I'm operating on hindsight, but I'm looking at this website, allmusic.com, that uses a five-star system when they're rating albums and Los Angeles, Wild Gift and Under the Big Black Sun are all five stars and More Fun in the New World is four and a half.
Oh, is it?
That's not bad, huh?
You really couldn't do much better. So maybe we should say that most of the people who get paid to look back and then run off at the mouth about music, that most of those people seem to be quite fond on your first four records. Do you agree? Do you feel like that's the best work that X did?
Well yeah, it's definitely the best work X did. However, you've got to be careful when it's about you not to take it too much to heart, because if you believe all the good stuff then you have to believe all the bad stuff. And I know I'm not a horrible person, and I know I'm not a terrible artist. I also don't believe that I'm the greatest genius who ever wrote music since the Doors, or whatever else you want to make up. I think I'm somewhere in the middle of what I do, you know. I don't think a lot of people do what I do, but you can't let reviews drive you forward. And that's really tough, you know. It's tough not want to know what people are saying, but it's better not to sometimes. Although I've gotten some good constructive criticism out of some of those reviews.
Those artistic glory days, do they come about because of the time and the place? Does it have to do with being so young that you have absolutely no fear and you don't know any better than to just go out there and swing for the fences and hope that it works? Or is it some kind of large combination of all those things?
It's a large combination of all those things. It's meeting the right people at the right point in history in the right city. It's almost like being dropped in with pinpoint precision into a situation and location that you couldn't even wish for, you know. You couldn't even make it up, so you just always have this sense of overwhelming gratitude.
[The Doors'] Ray Manzarek, of course, produced those first four albums, and he often gets the credit as the guy who "discovered" X. What does "discovered" actually mean?
It means, I think Ray Manzarek is more famous than the band that he worked with so I'm going to tell people that he discovered them. Because that's how people think, you know. I mean, I don't know why people would say that. He was hanging out at a show. He went to see us play and he liked the band a whole lot and we thought he was really cool, and he talked about producing us and, you know, we were young and looking for someone to produce our record and it sounded like great idea. But, you know, I mean we were already kind of famous and stuff by the time we met him.
Did you already have the record deal with Slash at that time?
If we didn't we were about to. I think we probably already did.
Okay, so he produces the first four albums. Which by some measures is a long time to keep a producer around. On the other hand, if you were happy with his work on the first four it seems a little strange that you'd ever let him go. So here's two questions: why did you keep him for so long and why did you change producers when you did?
Well, that's a good question because you'd think maybe we'd work with Ray on the first two records and then we'd try somebody out to change our sound. And if we were going to work with him for four records, why not just stick with him forever, you know. If four isn't enough to indicate where you're headed . . .
I think it was a really terrible time emotionally. John and I were splitting up, Billy didn't want to do X that much anymore, the music business was changing and the audiences were changing. What happened to our audience was Mothers Against Drunk Drivers was happening, and so all the states were changing the drinking age from 18 to 21 so they were wiping out two-thirds of our audience. I'm not saying that's a good thing or a bad thing, but that's what happened.
You know, I haven't thought about that in a long time. I was booking a bar in a college town and for a while I could bring in anybody I wanted, all kinds of great bands, but then almost overnight the drinking age went up to 21 and three-quarters of my crowd couldn't get in and I couldn't afford to bring national bands anymore.
That's exactly what happened to us. Our audience dropped off considerably and the college towns brought less revenue, and so we couldn't hit all the college towns. It just became kind of really hard all of a sudden, and a lot of people had drifted off. The punk scene had kind of fractured and all that. We were kind of more of a national act than a local L.A. act. We were really lost and didn't know what to do and the record company was pressuring us and pressuring us and pressuring us to make this kind of record with this guy so we said, 'Okay, well, we'll try that and see what happens.' You know, just try it and see what happens. And, you know, we got into it and it just turned into this nightmare at the end. Which it didn't have to be.
I have to say that there were some songs that didn't sound like that when I left, so I figure that it was remixed a little bit too much. Some good songs. Not a great record. Probably the biggest mistake of our lives. The other records that we did after that I think are okay, but I don't think they compare to the first four. Or the first three anyway. They're okay records. I don't think they're terrible records.
You know, my favorite record is Under the Big Black Sun, so everything else is kind of . . .
Is it difficult to be objective about your own work? I mean, is Big Black Sun a better album in your eyes or was that a time that you felt good about yourself and the band?
No, I didn't feel good about myself. It was the toughest time in my life. I think . . . I am being objective. I'm saying if I had to sit down in a room and put on an X record--which I don't generally do--I have recently listened to some X records but I generally don't listen to myself--the record I would pick to listen to would be Under the Big Black Sun.
One of the band's strengths is yours and John's harmonies. Can you get as excited about singing a good harmony part as you can about singing lead?
Oh, the harmony parts are the best part. I love both parts. I'm really happy that I get to do both because singing with John is fantastic, you know. I just love it. And I love singing, too. Who doesn't want to get in a band and sing, you know? It's so much fun. But yeah, we have spooky coincidences and all kinds of weird things. Like, we both completely change a part at the same time to two different parts that work and it's just so weird, you know. We have a lot of weird coincidences.
And that's not only experience but also kind of that kind of right place, right time type of thing we were talking about earlier. There's a connection that can't be explained.
Well, yeah, you know. That's me and John. We had our kids on the same day and all that. You know that, right?
Even the same hospital, right?
Same hospital, same doctor, same day, but not the same due date. Like, you can't plan that.
I would hope not. That would be more than a little weird if you had planned that.
Well, we couldn't have. There wouldn't be any way. Yeah, it was just so odd.
John still writes and you still write. Do you not write together anymore?
Well, we're writing together now because I wrote a bunch of songs and then I gave them to him, and then he went over all the songs and picked some that he wanted to work on or leave alone, you know. Like, 'That sounds fine the way it is.' We've got three or four songs now and now he's writing and he's going to send me some stuff. So when we're on the road together we can write together, which will be in about two weeks. But until then we're just kind of talking on the phone and sending stuff back and forth. So yeah, we're working on stuff for sure.
You're obviously physically farther away from John nowadays. Is the songwriting process anything like what it used to be?
Well, it's exactly the same because I would write a song like "Your Phone's Off the Hook" and I would give it to John and he would have some music. And so he would sit there with the bass and then he would make the words fit into the song. In other words, maybe he would take out a word or change a line to a different line or something like that, you know, but at the end of the day "Your Phone's Off the Hook" was a song. So that's exactly how we did it. I mean, I can't play the bass so once I write my song it's, 'Here you go, John.' Now I play guitar. Back then I didn't so I got all these songs done with guitar so he doesn't have to write the music. But he can change it if he feels like it.
When you write a set of lyrics, is there a tune in your head? And if there's a tune in your head do you share it with John or do you see what he comes up with before you interject the music part?
It's both. Now I write more music and more melodies than I used to, so generally speaking I do the writing of the melody and the music and he does the bass and arrangement.
If you take the production and the performance aspect out of it and look at the X catalogue only for its songwriting, is there a song or a group of songs that you're particularly proud of? Something that represents about the best you could do at the time?
Oh yeah. But some of the songs that I'm the most proud of are the ones I didn't write. I'm proud of John for writing "Blue Spark." I think that's the greatest song, you know. And I didn't write that song. He wrote it. But I love what it's about and I love singing it every night. I could sing it forever. So I would say almost all the songs I'm proud of.
I'm not proud of the production on all the songs. We had some songs that were good and they got too fast or too slow or somebody decided to put something on there that wasn't supposed to be on there--it could've been me. Whatever. Too many vocals or whatever--and ruined it.
It's not easy to make a fucking record, either. You're in there and everybody's saying, 'Do this, do that, do this, do that' and you're trying to think of what you want. Or you tried it and it didn't sound like you thought you heard it in your head. It's tough.
The band's been around for 31 years, but this is a different group of people than you were back then. You're older. And rather than all living in one city you're spread across the country. After 30 years, as you're riding from show to show, is there anything left to talk about?
You know, there's everything to talk about. There's 'Remember when this happened, remember when that happened.' Or, 'Oh my God, remember that building that used to be there burnt down.' Or 'Guys, we haven't played here in 20 years. It's great to be back at this auditorium or this hall or something.' It's great. And we talk about our families and our kids and our friends and our lives. And we have a really great crew. Some of them have been with us for many years, and our manager is our road manager and he comes with us. And we all travel together and if we get sick of the band then we switch to the truck for a day and if we get sick of the truck we switch to the van for a day. Generally speaking, we all get along really well.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.