Exene Cervenka: I'd Stay Up All Night Writing New X Songs

Place a finger on the 1980s punk scene and one band is still having impact some 35 years after forming: X. Mixing driving punk energy with rockabilly riffs, staccato rhythms, unexpected dual vocal drive, and socially conscious lyrics, X was a defining voice in the punk movement. Their uncompromising ability to defy perceptions and expectations keeps the band going today.

Founding vocalist and songwriter Exene Cervenka isn't surprised X--bassist John Doe, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebrake--still commands a strong following. Up on the Sun caught up with Cervenka at her Los Angeles home to discuss the band's longevity, Zoom's departure and return, and why the band hasn't produced any new music since 1986.

Up on the Sun: Your bio states you were "a poet with no ambition of being a singer." So, how did this happen that you ended up a vital part of X? Exene Cervenka: "I had a job at Beyond Baroque. It was a literary art center, did poetry workshops, and stuff. I lived upstairs; I could just walk downstairs and go to a workshop. The first night I moved in I went to a reading, and John was there. He sat down next to me and we started talking.

Afterward, we went next door and had a drink, then went back to my apartment. We talked about the punk scene and what was happening and we just became friends. We talked all night. I didn't even know there was a punk scene in LA. 1976, I had no idea. John told me about that.

Well, he liked my work and wanted to hear a song I wrote. He liked it, thought it was really good, and wanted to do that song with Billy, since they were starting a band. So I had like $50 to my name, living in this little apartment in the ghetto, and he said, "You've got something of value, and I'd like to take that and do something with that."

I said, "I have something of value? I'll hang onto that." So he said, "OK, you can be in the band." He wanted me to be in the band because he thought I could write good. And back then, if you wanted to be in a band you could. It was cool. The issue was how compelling are you--back then it was all about intuitive stuff. There was no MTV, no video, no internet.

Once the band got going and you the poet were up on stage, were there ever any reservation about doing it? Did you feel like it wasn't for you? Yes, I felt that way a lot. I was in a band with John, DJ and Billy--people who'd been playing music since they were children. Billy was like a musical genius, [and] here I come along and I'm just this raggedy little punk. I'd never sung before. They were intimidating because they were so talented.

X has been going now for 35 years. What do you credit for the longevity? We're still the original band, but it's incredibly hard to keep three or four people together on the same wavelength. Your mood changes, your ideas change, your personality changes. You start out all happy, and then it gets more miserable and bitter, and you decide you can't stand someone any more and you split up. You have a marriage that doesn't work or other issues. All kinds of stuff.

We're lucky; we just like doing it. I love doing it, and I'm grateful to be doing it, because the last time could be next week. You know hard it is keeping a band together when you're living hand to mouth? And then to do it for 35 years, there's so much baggage.

But the band did break up at one point. Billy didn't really want to do it anymore. So, I don't know...we were trying to keep playing without Billy. We had Dave Alvin and Tony Gilkyson, but I don't know if it was the greatest idea.

I think we should have taken a long break from it and then maybe jumped into that instead of rushing into another phase. Looking in the mirror, it was a disaster. I don't think our songwriting was anywhere as good as the original us. Then we took a break for five years.

Then Billy came back when [X-Files show producers] wanted to do a commercial for the X-Files, and wanted him to do the music. He was a fan of the show. Billy hadn't played his guitar since the band broke up, and so he said yes because he liked the show so much. He didn't want to do it himself, so he asked if I would do it with him. It came out of nowhere.

So I went down to where they were filming and he showed up with his amp and silver guitar and silver jacket and it looked just like Billy. It was, "Oh my gosh." It started from there. They never used the commercial, though.

Then whoever owned our catalog [Elektra] put out a box set [Beyond and Back: The X Anthology] and someone suggested we go down to Tower Records (in L.A.) to do a signing. Almost 1000 people showed up. We were surprised people still cared about us; it had been so long. Billy was back in the band then, so we decided to play some shows.

Unlike a lot of bands that split up, then reform at some point, X has not released any new albums or material. How come? Is there a fear that new songs won't hold up to the early material? I'm not saying I feel this way, but there's a fear it will happen again--what happened when Billy left. Let's just keep it pure and simple the way it was: these songs, this band, these people playing the best they can. It's what we are, it's what we were, and if we write songs now it won't be the same.

I disagree with that completely. I think to challenge that would be so much fun we would succeed. It'd be, "Guess what? After 37 years we surprised you and we've got a couple songs that are better or as good as the old ones. Ha ha!"

I can't quite swing it with everybody else. I think there are reasons to move forward. We're still around, so why not? I say this because I don't want people to think I didn't want to do it. I do want to do it, but I can't get the band to do it. I don't mind saying it, even if it's a little contentious with band politics and relationships, but I want to do it. It's an idea that gets brought up, but it never happens. Maybe if people keep asking us, maybe we'll get there. I'd stay up all night writing those songs.

I'd like to defy that expectation of disappointment. I think we can put together songs that [hold up to the back catalog.]

You know, some bands from that time period are still touring, but when you hear them, they sound dated. You hear their music and sort of shrug like, "who cares." Hearing X, on the other hand, marks a place in time, I think, because the music holds up and remains vital even today. That said, how do you keep your tours from being simply a nostalgia trip? We only play the first four records. We never play anything past Billy (leaving), and we never run out of songs. We play mostly the same songs every night, but it's what people want to hear.

You know, if there was a band as good as The Doors on the planet right now, we'd all be there watching them play. That band does not go out of style in any way. They never go out of style because they are so good, and we have some of that goodness too, I think.

A great example is "More Fun in the New World." We've been singing that for 30 years, saying we'd all be better off with what's-his-name, and everytime I sing that song I think, "Oh, it's true. We do have a president that nobody can really say who he is. He's 'what's-his-name.' He has different names."

It's, like, really bizarre because it's the first time in history you can't really prove who the president is. That is not dated, it's almost futuristic. If you're around long enough you're going to have those moments as an artist when things come true and things make sense. You might defy the odds, and artist longevity is the greatest gift. You can have rewards and all that, but longevity is the greatest reward of all.

X is scheduled to perform at Crescent Ballroom Friday, November 29.

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Glenn BurnSilver
Contact: Glenn BurnSilver