You Are Not As Punk Rock As X’s Exene Cervenka

Exene CervenkaAsk any punk rock, or left of center, band who their major influences are, and they might say the Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Clash, or The Ramones. But I would  bet money that many of those musicians also cite the Los Angeles band X as a staple of the American punk sound and a major influence. Elaine Cervenka, John Doe, Billy Zoom, and D.J. Bonebrake took their influences and found the thread that runs through punk, classic rock, and country music married them together and came out with a hybrid that was all their own.

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The band have released numerous records, with their first two the gritty Los Angeles and the equally tantalizing Wild Gift hailed as their best. The Doors organist, Ray Manzarek produced and played on their record, guitarist Billy Zoom played with rockabilly crooner Gene Vincent, they are good friends with The Cramps, and all overall pretty badass. X is right in the middle of their 40th anniversary tour, with all four original members, stopping in Orlando at The Beacham,  on May 13th, and St. Pete, at the State Theater, on May 14th. We had the absolute pleasure to sit down with lead vocalist Exene Cervenka to discuss the band, the state of the music industry, and her love of country music.

Cheers:

You have embarked on the band’s 40th Anniversary tour, which is pretty amazing. X is named as such a major influence on so many bands from so many musicians.

  • Exene Cervenka – “It’s nice, it’s nice to be appreciated by people, it means that they like our music, and like us. 40 years is amazing.”

What would you say to the bands that are coming up about longevity in the music business?

  • Exene Cervenka – “Stay alive, don’t die. That’s what we did. We stayed alive for 40 years. And I don’t know how we stayed alive, that I can’t tell you, you can try to be really, really good, and you can try to not overdose, and you can try to keep it in check, but if you do, you do, and there’s not a lot that you can do about that. And… not to be flip about it, but we worked really hard, had our ups and downs both in our career and personal lives. Billy had cancer twice, and left the band for a while in the 80’s, but we got back together and we realized that we are very grateful that we can still do this, and we love doing it. We’re grateful that people still want to come see us and that they care about us so much. It’s really the best situation that you could ever have. If you’re gonna be in a band… do what we did.
  • “People will come to us and say ‘you guys never really had a hit record, and never really got famous’, and I say well, if we did, we may have this, and that, but probably not… We’re OK with what we got.
  • “Nirvana was one of those great bands that was truly original, truly great, really amazing, and also hugely influential, and hugely successfully, that is really rare. To be all of those things.”

What kind of influence did Los Angeles and Southern California have on X when the band was first getting together?

  • Exene Cervenka – “It was a counter culture, most of it was John and I, and then Ray (Manzarek) produced our first four records, I think the influence was that, at the same time John and I came out to L.A., DJ grew up in the valley, but Billy was always here, by the time John and I came out, a bunch of other people were mecca’ing to L.A either from the valley, or from different states. People were just finding each other, and I think that was happening in Austin, and San Francisco as well. Cities were still liveable then, you could still go to the city and find an apartment. So, we took that chance, you really can’t now. I did, I got into a car with somebody with $100 and we got here fine with no problems. L.A. had so much wealth, and I never lived in a big city. St. Pete was the biggest place I had ever lived, and it’s not what it is now, it was pretty small back then. So, I never was in New York, I never really knew what a big city was like, so it was very influential when you’re 20 and you’re a writer. To see limos, rock stars, and excess, and things that are just amazing. When I moved to Hollywood, there were still remnants of the old silent movie, heyday stuff, and you could so see things that were still there, and people that were still alive, and it was amazing. I just loved it.
  • “There were a lot of hippies, a lot of (Charles) Manson people hanging around, you would still see them every once in awhile, a lot of barefoot girls, a lot of Hells Angels on Sunset Strip with bikes lined up in front of the Whiskey where you’d have to walk the gauntlet between the Hells Angels and their bikes. And L.A. back then, and California in general, was the land of freedom and letting your freak flag fly….. And of course, it’s the complete opposite now…over-taxed, over-regulated, most expensive….don’t say this, don’t say that, too many people, and it’s kind of a nightmare now. But back then it was something else. You could get on the freeway and just go.
  • “L.A and San Francisco are like two-sides of a $100 bill. But San Francisco has pretty much been ruined too, many people would disagree with me, but Silicon Valley has really taken over and turned it into a nightmare, with the difference in rich and poor, it’s like the rest of the country. Where are the farms? Where are the small towns? Where is America? Where did it go? Look what Neil Young, Willie Nelson, and John Mellencamp did in the 80’s with Farm Aid, trying to save the family farm, you could build it now to stall the inevitable, and you might buy some time, but what do you do when the big-business takes over? You become organic farmers and take your crops to Farmer’s Markets, which is the best solution in the world. People in this country always find a bubble around that.”

How did (The Doors) Ray Manzarek get involved in producing your first four records?

  • Exene Cervenka – “Figure this….The Doors ran until 1971 when Jim Morrison died. This was in 1976, a few years later the whole punk scene comes up, and Ray is in LA, he has been doing some solo stuff, and recovering from the end of The Doors, and has a nice wife and kids, and then…bam, here comes another form of really amazing  music scene, so of course he was right there, and he came to see us play. And if you think about it, it’s such a huge divide between the punk, and the whole classic rock / hippie thing, but in reality there wasn’t. They are just connected by a thread. Classic rock didn’t become classified until 1980. In 1980 what happened with radio was…. Our bands died… Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison all died, and we weren’t going to let go of our music, we were never going to let it die, this movement is it. Ray was right in the middle of that, and yes he was producer, but he also played on our first record.
  • “The only band more punk than The Doors were The Beach Boys, when Brian Wilson meaing so out there. I mean…. California is so dark. And so it went right into Charles Bukowski and other things, the Beats, and the Hippies, and darkness, and so… that’s what California was. The other side of The Beach Boys music, was this darkness, drugs, sex, all those things that were happening in California, so Ray fit right in. He was smart, wonderful, amazing, spiritual kind of guy. He was this supreme kind of being, almost like a spiritual being rather than a human being.”

I am also really intrigued by the fact that you are a poet and a writer. Was there a certain point in your life where you decided to take your poetry and turn it into music?

  • Exene Cervenka – “That switch was when I met John because I was writing, and then I met him and I had written a song, that was like a poem, I made up the melody for it. And he was like ‘I should do that song in my band’… and I was like ‘no, you can’t take my song’, and he said ‘but you’ll get credit’, and I still told him no. I was living hand to mouth, and I have this little apartment, and a job, and now I have something of value, and you can’t have it. We went round and round about it and finally he was like ‘I guess you can sing it’. And I told him ‘I can’t sing’, and he said that didn’t matter so there you go.”

And it worked out well for you?

  • Exene Cervenka – “There might have been something that we could have done different, but that’s life, you know. You sit around and think, ‘this is what your life could have been’ so, you don’t know. You look back on your life and look at all the stupid choices you made and then you say ‘are you good where you are?’ cause if you didn’t make all those stupid choices where would you be?”

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Do you still write in your spare time?

  • Exene Cervenka – “You never really give it up, you know… I’m busy, there is a lot of other stuff going on that I am doing at the moment, so I don’t always have time for that, but I do write things every once in awhile. I’m actually doing more art now to tell you the truth rather than music and writing. I’m still being creative, but I’m not doing that at the moment. I’ll get back into it at some point. The hard part about writing is that you may get inspired by something that someone says to you and you don’t know what to do with it.”

The 40th Anniversary tour is pretty special, how has the camaraderie between the band changed?”

  • Exene Cervenka – “I don’t think anything has really changed. I think we are the same exact people. Billy is the smartest, most funny, and interesting person I have ever known. I never get sick of talking to him he has such a great, dry sense of humor. We have such a long history together we would say something, and no one would get what we are saying and we just kind of smile and it would be referring to something that happened 35 years ago, that was a one sentence line that says everything.
  • “We talk about things that have happened in the past. Not a lot of animosity, we get along pretty good, we disagree on certain things. We have been non stop touring again since 1995. A lot of bands try to get back together because there is money to be made, they had a hit record and haven’t played together in 20 years, and there were a bunch of solo records, and you get that band back together, you will be able to play like crazy, but they only generally do it for a short period of time, and then they remember that they hate each other and the reason they broke up in the first place comes back. But so far for us that hasn’t been the case.”

What are your thoughts on the current state of the music business?

  • Exene Cervenka – “You have to look at everything through the eyes of a globalist. How do you consolidate power, and how do you control perceptions? These corporations control all media, including newspapers, magazines, TV, movies, and radio stations. There are some independents out there, but they get sucked up into it eventually. Everything gets owned by Warner Brothers. How do you control behavior? You do that through media, through the news, through propaganda, which is legal now and can be used against the population. So that is like… people like Beyonce, she should be on the Super Bowl, and athletes coming out for political candidates, it’s all coming out at the hands of the corporations.
  • “But then you have punk, which is one of the blueprints for the counterculture, this anti-corporation thing. And that template is still there if you want to use it. All of the best bands aren’t on major-corporations lists. All the bands that I like are completely independent and putting out their own records through independent labels. These people are touring and playing music for the right reasons. I think in the 90’s there was a divide… if you were a really great band, we wanted to sign you. We had all this money going around, and everyone thought they had money, and money to spend, so all these great bands were getting signed, and then it turned into… bands that could make money, and then we all had to go back to doing it for the love of music. If there was billions of dollars to be made in poetry, everyone would be a poet. They would have to wear bikini’s and have sex tapes, but they would do it, and be terrible poets. It’s just a control mechanism.”

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Do you feel that it is liberating to be able to steer your career, doing it yourself rather than being tied to a label?

  • Exene Cervenka – “It’s always been that way for us. We had Elektra put out some records for us, but we never got tour support or the right promotion for out records. In the 80’s it wasn’t a big deal. We have been totally ripped off by the labels. We have always been on our own. It’s normal… but we don’t know anything else. We’ve never had someone telling us what to do, or putting us on a promotional tour, or having someone tell us we were going to open for a big rock band in stadiums or whatever, so we wouldn’t really be able to know.
  • “Would we have liked to make money…. Sure I would have liked to be able not to worry about what is going to happen in the future financially. We would like to know that we are going to be able to pay our bills, everyone would like that. But… it wasn’t the driving force behind it. I think a lot of bands should have made a better living from the music. I think people should not have to worry about how they are going to pay their medical bills. I think that people should get paid for their work, not ripped off by the labels and the publishing companies.
  • “I don’t think Pandora and Spotify should be allowed to exist, I think MTV should have paid for usage, which they never did. I think that artists should have been treated better, but it’s the history of the arts. There is a graph out there that shows you how many times your song needs to be played on streaming service to make minimum wage, I believe that it’s a million plays to make minimum wage. You get a small amount of money per song stream, and then you have to spend that four ways. And that is only if you wrote the song, own all your mechanicals, own the publishing, which no one does. You’re better off having a job and playing music for fun. Whoever you plug into the streaming services to listen to, they are going to eventually lead you to a band whose music they want you to buy. They have the algorithm all figured out. You are going to end up with the Allman Brothers, or the Eagles, that is just the way it is.”

What about your major influences on your art?

  • Exene Cervenka – “No, I was never one of those people that fell in love with an artist and wanted to be just like them, or wanted to be a painter because I saw some paintings in a book. I love everything, and I love what I do, and it’s not the same. I try to be as independent of other’s people work as possible. I think that is the worst thing possible, when someone says ‘your work reminds of of so and so’ that’s just no….Marcel Duchamp is amazing, I wish I was that good, but I’m not going to try to be him.”

What albums or musicians did you listen to growing up vs what you are listening to currently?

  • Exene Cervenka – “I absolutely love music, I will always listen to the old music, cause I like it more than the new music. Any country…. Buck Owens, George Jones, Sammy Smith, Gene Shepherd, but mostly country music is what I listened to. Gospel music from the 50’s and 60’s and even older. Anything past the mid-70s I don’t listen to much of, but then I listen to newer music like Shovels and Rope. There are some new bands I like, but I’ve been listening to John Prine lately, and he is so amazing. You need catch up on someone’s catalog sometimes. I’ve been listening to other new stuff people have been recommending. I really like outlaw country. We were a rockabilly band, Billy played with Gene Vincent, he’s a real rockabilly guy, not just a guy who listened to it growing up, and that is what he played in the 50s and 60s, he has been around awhile.”

What’s next for X besides the 40th Anniversary tour?

  • Exene Cervenka – “We have some plans besides the tour, this is a year long tour so we’re gonna try to do some stuff in conjunction with the touring, but there are  all kinds of things to do within the next year.”

Check out tour information about X here.

Check out Exene Cerenka here.

RARA’s Farm is a rock music blog keenly focused on sharing killer rock music news to the rock music fans who visit our site. Make sure you Like / Follow Us below to keep in the loop on new music worth a listen, or just to be nice to us.

Rock On!
Brian Furman

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