The Clash, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols — all have come and gone, but legendary L.A. band X may have a claim to being the last authentic and pioneering punk rockers still standing.
“I think what keeps us going is just the preposterous idea that we’re still together doing this,” says vocalist Exene Cervenka. “I’m like, ‘Wow, you’re in the best band in the world, and we’re still together.’
Cervenka, John Doe (bass/vocals), Billy Zoom (guitar), and D.J. Bonebrake (drums) have persevered over 41 years of ups and downs: big-label signings, breakups, solo projects, illnesses, and minimal radio play aside from L.A. alt rock station KROQ. Their initial four albums, produced by Doors keyboard legend Ray Manzarek, showcase the band’s versatility, from Los Angeles and Wild Gift — both featured in Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums of All Time — to the dark pop of Under the Big Black Sun, and the populist soul-and R&B mashup More Fun in the New World.
When you front a band with Zoom’s cool rockabilly-shredding guitar, Bonebrake’s marching band metronome throttle, and Doe’s crisp bass and “voice made of gold” as referenced by an early Red Hot Chili Peppers number, it could be intimidating to fit in. Yet Cervenka has held her own among the likes of fellow West Coast punk progenitors like Henry Rollins, Jello Biafra, Keith Morris, and Darby Crash. Her disaffected, off-key, soul-infused, country singing style set the band apart, and with Doe and Cervenka's off-kilter harmonies, they are the Johnny Cash and June Carter of the punk generation.
Cervenka's reasoning for how the band have stayed together for so long is simple.
“You just get that really great feeling about it and I also know it’s not going to last forever, and times getting short, and we’ll do it as long as we can. And, we’re happy to be doing that.”
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Once a staple of the L.A. punk circuit and brief mid-'80s stadium rock shows, X hardly partnered with other punk or alt rock headliners, usually ending up as headliners supported by up-and-coming acts.
“Opening for bands is something we tried to do for our whole careers," says Cervenka. "For some reason, nobody would have us. We were like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ People would tell us it’s because they’re afraid you’re going to be too good. We could never figure it out.”
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Some 18 years after their last studio release, Hey Zeus, they hit the road with the Pearl Jam in the late '90s and then again in 2011. Since then they've co-headlined with the likes of Psychedelic Furs, Blondie, Garbage, and, on their current tour, Violent Femmes, all bands that have experienced more mainstream success.
“We were not on the radio like the Violent Femmes, etc., so we’re there to really boost the bill,” Cervenka notes. “So, we’re very, very happy because we’ve accomplished a lot of the things we want to do with our band. That was one just one of the last things they we felt we never really got to play before new people.”
“You’ve got to love it, you’ve got to want to do it,” she adds. “And, you’ve got to be able to walk away from it, if it doesn’t work out, while you’re going to college or you sorting out life. That makes it less scary and intimidating, and ‘Hey, let’s just do this for fun,’ which is the reason a lot of bands started. I think that makes for better art.”
X and Violent Femmes. 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 7, at The Van Buren, 401 West Van Buren Street. thevanburenphx.com. Sold out.