“We thought, ‘why don’t we do something that involves the most work possible?’ And the most rehearsal, trying to figure out how to do these damn songs that we kinda gave up on a long time ago,” says X singer/guitarist John Doe with a laugh.
Said damn songs spewed forth starting in 1977, and by 1980, one of Los Angeles’ most innovative and lauded bands unleashed what would become one of rock’s most beloved and enduring albums — Los Angeles — bringing both the city and the band into sharp relief. With three more records in as many years–Wild Gift, Under the Big Black Sun and More Fun in the New World–the pioneering quartet’s promise was fulfilled and expanded. Thirty-four years later, the self-same lineup–Singer Exene Cervenka, Doe, drummer DJ Bonebrake and bassist Billy Zoom, are playing select cities, doing four night stands featuring one album per night.
Doe, calling from his Northern California home, furthered the band’s current raison d’etre. “We have four records that people have pointed at,” he begins. As for the songs that haven’t seen the light live? “Some were emotionally difficult, because a few of them dealt with Exene’s sister [her older sibling Mirielle was on her way to an X gig when she was hit by a drunk driver and killed instantly] and others were physically impossible,” he explains of songs that featured vibes, saxophone and keyboards. For these gigs, however, X add sidemen to help duplicate the later records live.
That said, X’s impassioned, raw, and angular musicality and poetic, literate lyrics sung by former couple Doe and Cerenka, is the band’s métier, and, as Doe notes, “You realize what’s rewarding for the audience; the audience usually has been rewarded by playing some punk rock stuff. The distinguishing X characteristic: punk rock, rockabilly, poetry, and some crazy vocals. The first record was strictly punk but there were some slower songs,” he recounts. “The second had a few more nods to country music and early rock & roll; by even 1981 we were starting to branch out, and by the third record we got signed to Elektra. It was, ‘ok, let’s have Billy play sax.’ We were never purposely obtuse,” furthers Doe. “We always had an eye toward traditional rock & roll, with an eye toward being about to communicate to a fairly broad audience. It’s pretty rewarding to do that four-record thing and to see some people who are there for each show. You feel as though you haven’t wasted your life, and you have some range.”
Cervenka, sometimes noted for a caustic personality, waxes just as grateful and fan-oriented as Doe, telling the Voice in 2012, “the show is the audience. They see four people; I see 800. It’s beautiful.” Still, her outspokenness caused a kerfuffle among those fans and the media when she decried the May 2014 Santa Barbara school shooting as a “hoax” and brought up conspiracy theories.
The ultimate effect of her rants, Doe observes, “was negligible. The short version is: people are surprised that lead singers are controversial?” he snorts. “I do really feel a lot of kinship with Exene in this matter because nowadays there is such a clampdown on journalism; what you can say along with if you say anything about a conspiracy or that the government is a little suspect or the way press has closed down into 10 outlets, then you’re a nut.”
Doe, who comes across as laid-back and approachable as his band is urgent and seminal, prefers to live life offline, generally not reading the X’s reviews/press, concluding, “I’m much more interested in walking the earth and seeing things with my eyeballs.”
X play 8/21-24 at City Winery.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 21, 2014