X set itself apart from its first-generation punk contemporaries with Exene Cervenka and John Doe's dueling vocals and a serious dose of roots and rockabilly in its sound.
X has a difficult and fascinating history. Cervenka and Doe started the band as a couple, got married, divorced, wrote a few albums together, went on hiatus, reformed X, Cervenka married Viggo Mortensen, both singers started side projects, Doe did some acting on the side, and Cervenka got sick. In spite of it all, the band continues to tour.
We recently caught up with Exene Cervenka to discuss multiple sclerosis, touring with Pearl Jam, and an ongoing struggle with Warner Brothers.
Up on the Sun: A doctor diagnosed you with multiple sclerosis, and another said you were misdiagnosed. Is there any news on the medical front?
Exene Cervenka: Fifteen years ago, I got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, can you believe that? And then another doctor said, 'No, you don't [have it],' so I went with the doctor who said, 'No you don't.' About six years went by and something else weird happened, so I went to this doctor who said, 'You definitely have it and you're going on this medication.' I had to start giving myself shots everyday for a while, and then I ran out of money and had no insurance, and the shots are really expensive -- $7,000 for three months. So I just said, 'Well, I may have it, I may not,' but I can't take the medicine anymore because I cannot afford it.
I did a picture collage for someone I didn't know, and her friend's brother is the head of neurology at a hospital near me. He agreed to see me for free -- he's trying to figure out what it is. It's a very hard thing to diagnose and I'm finding, from being public with my diagnosis that many, many women are coming to me and saying the same thing happened to them. They were told they had this, that, or the other, but it's some immune system thing that people can't quite pin down. The systems are similar but nobody knows what it is. It's weird. I'm just going along trying to be healthy.
I think it's remarkable that you continue to tour in spite of all of this. How has the runaround affected your outlook?
Nothing affects my outlook. I have a straight line in front of me and I stick to it. It's all you can do.
You guys just wrapped up a tour with Pearl Jam. What was it like touring with them and playing in South America?
I can't even put it into words what it was like. On certain levels, playing with Pearl Jam -- which we've done before -- is awesome because I love the band and I really love them as people. Their organization is really good, and their crew is excellent, and they took really good care of us. They made it really easy for us to come along and enjoy the tour and all of them.
But South America, the audiences [are] not comparable to the United States, so I don't even know where to start. They're so over the top that they sing along with the guitar solos. We come out and there's 50,000 people there. They know that that's the beginning of the show, that we're some American punk band that Pearl Jam must like, or we wouldn't be in South America.
It was this joyous exchange of energy that you could feel physically, but it wasn't brainwashed, like, "Oh we're all gonna dance around in a circle with our shirts off because we're young guys" -- and that's what young guys do. It was this spontaneous explosion of love energy flowing toward you. I've never felt anything like it, and I'll never forget it.
Again, playing with Pearl Jam is really fun. [And] we were really good because you have to be. You can't go out there and 'just play' in front of an audience like that. You've got to give them 190,000 percent.
Each city has its own peculiar ways of responding. In Mexico City, they do this thing with lighters and cell phones, where this whole area of the 70,000 people just kind of lights up at once like a million fireflies and goes out, and then it starts again next to that area, and then above that area, and then it goes out, then somewhere else in the stadium, a whole bunch do it and it moves around the stadium in big waves.
What someone explained to me is in that world, people have no rights, but they have total freedom. Here we have rights, but we don't have any freedom. I thought that was a very interesting statement. Even going through airports in South America, you don't have to take your shoes off. You walk through the metal detector, it doesn't go off, you grab your bags, you go to customs, they stamp your thing and you walk through. Then you come back here, and to get on a plane it's like, oh, my God . . . It's just not a police state.
These are supposedly -- South America, Central America, Mexico -- countries we consider Third World horrible countries or dictator countries. Not anymore. There's a horrible underclass poverty thing going on down there and a terrible wealth factor. An Illuminati, kind of higher echelon of the world people. There's also a middle class, and their economy isn't doing as bad as ours. It was a real confusing situation to walk in to, to tell the truth.
At your shows, do you tend to see a lot of the same people coming time after time, or do you have a lot of younger people getting into your music as well?
It's never changed. There's always young people, middle-aged people, all kinds of people. There's as many young people now as there ever has been. Thank you to the Internet for making it possible for bands like us to still exist.
But, I should bring up right now that the Congress of the United States is going to pass the Protect IP Act, which will take down anything that any major corporation construes to be a copyright violation. So, goodbye Betty Boop cartoons, goodbye 78s, goodbye movies, goodbye sharing a file with a CNN news clip on it, goodbye showing something about the World Trade Centers falling down, goodbye exposing any truth. It's all going to go.
So, for instance, let's say someone puts an X song up there. Someone else, a third party, not me, can say, "Oh, that's a copyright violation. Take that down." It doesn't have to be the copyright holder who takes it down; it can be anyone. So, it's over. The only reason it hasn't passed is because one congressperson is holding it up.
I was at Occupy L.A. last night and you had one in Phoenix. Is it still happening?
We had about 1,000 people show up for the first event.
That's great. All the cities did it, and it's great. Now, everybody's got the idea it's time to occupy your street, occupy your house, occupy your electricity. Turn off your electricity and light candles and go to bed at night. It's time to fight back.
What happened at Occupy L.A.?
Last night, I was there until about 10:30. They were supposed to shut it down at midnight. There was the regular 800 or so permanent people. I want to estimate about 1,000 more people came. They arrested four people, and they let them keep the camp because they fought back.
They're going to do a surprise at a surprising moment.
How do you feel about fans downloading your music?
I couldn't care less. They can do anything they want with my stuff. If they want to listen to my music, or look at my art, or download a poster or a book, I say go for it.
I'm not going to get paid anyway. Do you think Warner Brothers is ever going to pay me a penny for any records I ever made, or Slash Records? I don't get paid for those. They're protecting the rights they own on my work so that they can make money, not that I can get paid. They don't pay me, the laws are not in my favor.
They have so many restrictions on payment. Let's say you sell 50,000 records and in the stores, there's another 10,000 floating around. They won't pay you on the 50,000 because they say, "What if those 10,000 get returned? Then we'll have a loss, so we can't pay you." It's ridiculous.
Slash Records is now part of Warner Brothers, so all the records [Slash] sold don't count now. We have not gotten a gold record for Los Angeles, which means we have not sold 500,000 copies. We sold well over a million copies of that record, but they just say that we haven't, and there's nothing you can do.
It's really difficult to get paid. So, yeah, I say, "Steal it all. Steal it all." I make my monthly bills. I don't care. I don't need more than what I need. I'm not looking to be a millionaire. It would be nice if those situations weren't corrupt.
You guys are celebrating the 31st anniversary of Los Angeles. Is there anything special about the number 31, or is it a continuation of the 30th anniversary?
Well, it's just another successful year where we're still living and we're still doing it. 13-31. Thirteen was always a number that we liked to play with -- it's like the backwards 13. I celebrate everything I can. I celebrate my birthday and anybody's anything. In rich cultures that are still intact in the world, celebrations are very important, and there's celebrations all the time for things. For us it's like, "Oh, it's Martin Luther King Day. I don't have to go to work, yay."
The songs on Los Angeles were written during a very different time. How have your opinions of the city and the punk rock scene changed since then?
The punk scene was only a couple years old, and then became a bunch of other stuff, but what's happening now, I think, is people have used music as a communication and a device to bring people together. That's the new music movement. I don't care if it's punk rock, or grunge rock, or folk rock, or whatever it is. If you're getting people together and having a celebration and a meaningful experience that transcends just playing a song, that's a new movement. That's the important movement, that's what punk was.
What about L.A. itself? I've read in some interviews that you have mixed feelings about it, but now you're back in Southern California.
Yeah, but I'm not in L.A. Even though it's a big city with millions of people and it's real crowded and there's a lot of exciting things going on, and I go there frequently -- I was there last night -- it's a little too crowded and confusing for me right now. It's not the city it used to be. I don't want to live in a city of 9 million people.
Between struggles with Warner Brothers actually paying you, health problems, and being married and divorced to John Doe, you guys have had your share of troubles. What motivates you to keep going after all these years?
It's the same thing that would motivate anyone else. There's really nothing you can do about trouble. The IRS might come after you, or your boyfriend might come after you, or you might lose your job -- it doesn't really matter.
The important things are your family, your friends, and your work. You just keep going because that's what makes you happy. That's what you live for. All that other stuff, you just have to laugh it off and go, "Oh, my God, guess what happen to me today?"' and think, "Oh, that's funny." I don't know anybody that's not in the same boat I'm in on so many levels.
I'm not down. I'm not cynical. I'm very honest, very upbeat, very excited about the time I'm living in. [I'm] ready to go, ready to do whatever I need to do to move this whole humanity forward, to help move me forward, to help move my friends forward, and to do it with laughter and love, because I think that's the only solution. I never try to feel negative.
What advice would you give to an aspiring female musician?
Don't get married.
Specifically to someone in the band, or don't get married period?
Don't get married, because there's a dynamic -- and I don't care how hip you are; I don't care if you're walking around barefoot and you love your girlfriend, and she's the coolest singer and songwriter in the world -- [that] once she starts working full-time devoting herself to her work, problems start.
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I've never seen it not be that way. I'm not saying anything about men; I'm just saying our society has a dynamic where women that are working really hard on their own thing get guilt-tripped and side-tracked and thwarted, and they end up not being who they should be. If you want to be a musician, singer-songwriter, artist, painter, whatever it is, you'd better devote yourself to that.
That's my number one piece of advice. You can call me sexist, you can call me anything you want, but my advice is do not get married.
I am an artist. I should be able to do anything I want any time I want without anyone telling me, "No, that's not a good idea because it doesn't work for me." No one should ever be able to tell you as a woman, as an artist, "No, you can't go on that tour because I'm scared you might meet a guy."