Emerging from Los Angeles in the late ’70s, X, along with groups like The Gun Club and The Blasters, infused Americana into three-chord rock to create a unique country-punk hybrid. Steeped in an appreciation for poetry as well as folk music traditions, Exene Cervenka and fellow lyricist John Doe inverted the trope of a shiny, happy city of angels on their debut album, Los Angeles, with sordid tales of hope lost in the urban underbelly. Propelled by DJ Bonebrake’s pounding rhythms and the rockabilly-tinged ferocity of guitarist Billy Zoom, whose omnipresent grin has always been as much a hallmark of X’s live shows as Doe and Cervenka’s discordant yet on-the-mark harmonies, the nine tracks’ exploration of sex, drugs, racism, violence, and high-society snobbery remains a critically acclaimed gem, despite having received virtually no airplay upon its release.
Produced by former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek (as were X’s three subsequent records), Los Angeles was released in April of 1980 by Slash Records, who also released their follow-up, Wild Gift, less than a year later. For its third album, Under the Big Black Sun, the band struck a major label deal with Elektra Records. A blistering collection of songs written after Cervenka’s sister Mirielle was killed by a drunk driver on her way to an X show, the album proved the group would not be taming its output for the masses—at least not yet. The latter half of the ’80s saw X delving deeper into the roots side of its sound, but with commercial success continuing to allude the band, they parted ways after 1993’s Hey Zeus! Recording a makeover of The Doors’ “The Crystal Ship” for The X-Files film soundtrack in 1998 resulted in X reuniting. And though they haven’t made any new music since, they’ve continued to tour and play live.
I caught up with Cervenka two days before the band kicked off its current “How I Learned My Lesson” tour in Orange County, where they’d play the first four X records in their entirety. They’re finishing off their remaining dates without Zoom, who is currently undergoing treatment for bladder cancer. (Texas guitarist Jesse Dayton, who has worked with artists ranging from Waylon Jennings to The Supersuckers, is standing in.) We had a chance to talk about her estate sale last year, where she unloaded a lifetime collection of her signature vintage clothes, artwork, posters, and collectibles in anticipation of a since-nixed potential move to Austin, as well as the state of the music industry and whether or not X will every cut a new record, among other things.
I heard you broke your wrist. What happened?
Exene Cervenka: I was walking my dog. I was walking pretty quickly, and I tripped on a little sprinkler that was sticking out. I didn’t recover very good from the falling part, and I mashed my hand on the ground. I sprained my finger and broke a bone beneath my thumb.
Bummer. The right hand?
EC: Yes, it’s my right hand, my good hand. But you know what? It’s great because when you have to use your left hand for everything, it changes your brain around a little bit, and I think that’s kind of cool. I’m kind of enjoying the changes.
I read that you were moving to Austin. Are you in Austin now?
EC: No, I was going to about two years ago. I was going to move to Austin, but of course, just like everywhere in the country, anywhere cool has been kind of… I don’t want to say ruined, because Austin will never be ruined, but places like that are becoming so expensive, with so many tech people, and it’s like a certain minority of people have all the money. It’s just impossible to move anywhere, so I’m just going to stay where I am. I live in this kind of a historic little town in Orange County, which is kind of a strange little area.
But you had your estate sale, right?
EC: I sure did and I just realized it’s impossible to move. I always tell people the best move you can make is a lateral move, and by that I mean is you’re moving sideways—you’re not moving up. A lot of places don’t have rent control anymore so you take a chance even moving to a place like that.
Was there anything you had a hard time letting go of in the estate sale? It sounded like you had some amazing stuff there.
EC: I had this fur stole, and it was really kind of big on me. I’m not a fur person, but someone gave it to me and I thought it was kind of cool. It was really, really old. I’m not one of those people that has to throw blood on people if I disagree with them, so I was just like, that’s cool, it’s a historical kind of thing, whatever. So, I sewed some patches on it to make it more cool. I sewed an L7 patch on it and some kind of B-2 bomber patch. Anyway, it never fit me, and I didn’t really want to wear fur. Later I was at an L7 concert and someone turned to me and said, “Oh my god, I bought your jacket with the L7 patch on it!” And I said, “I sold that?”
It was a fur coat?
EC: No, it was a fur stole. There’s a huge difference between a fur coat and a cheap, little fur stole made of whatever. And it was really, really old so it’s not like I went out and bought a fur stole, of course. Nowadays, in the age of this ridiculous amount of insane political correctness and censorship where no one’s allowed to say anything anymore, you have to be so careful because it’s pretty much like every minute of every day is like a witch hunt, you know? It’s not like I’m a bad person or anything, but even the most careful and nicest people in the world are accused of so much weirdness these days—it’s just difficult. I was afraid, and when you’ve got to be afraid to go out of your house wearing something, that’s pretty bad. But that’s the way it is.
So you guys have four shows coming up in Orange County where you’re going to play the first four records in succession. Which of those X records is your favorite to play live?
EC: I’ve never really thought about those records being “this is this record and this is that record and this is the order they’re in.” I think of them as songs that we play. There are songs that I like to play more than others because to me they are more powerful, either musically or lyrically or emotionally. The ones that emotionally I like—those are my favorite.
You were, as I think you described in another interview, a “kid” when you wrote a lot of those songs, new to Los Angeles. Which ones are your favorites?
EC: Sometimes I just like singing the songs that feature John because I love to just zero in on the harmonies and focus on adding on to what he’s doing. Other times I really love like “World’s a Mess” because I can really sing like crazy. And then there are other songs where because of what Billy plays I’m just so happy to be there and I’m not really thinking of anything else except how lucky I am to be in that band.
I think it’s tough for me to pick a favorite. I think I feel the same way—there’s definitely different elements that you home in on with each song.
EC: I guess I really like the songs. Now that I’m really much more of a singer than I once was, I really like the songs we can really sing on like “Unheard Music” and “Blue Spark,” where you’re really creating this mood in the manner of a traditional kind of performer/singer. It’s just beautiful if everything comes together the right way.
I was reading in another interview from about five years ago that you had designed a tattoo for a fan. I thought that was pretty cool. Does that happen often?
EC: Designed a tattoo or did they say “write your name on my arm?”
It said that you had drawn something on the fly for the person and given some recommendations for how the tattoo artist could finish it, in Seattle about five years ago.
EC: Did I say that?
The writer said that.
EC: I did not do that. You have to understand that does not sound anything like me at all. First of all, if someone came up to me and said “I want to get a tattoo,” the first thing I’d say is “Are you sure?” I don’t want to be the one who draws something and then you get a tattoo and later you don’t like it or you stop liking the band. I don’t want that responsibility. I will draw something for you, but I’m not saying anything about getting a tattoo done. I would never even offer recommendations on how to get a tattoo, unless I was really, really drunk and it was someone who was really drunk and we were just goofing off.
What’s the nicest thing you’ve ever heard from a fan?
EC: I would have to say my entire career. After all these millions of years of us still being together and playing, I can’t think of anything better than the cumulative experience of being in a band like this and so many people appreciating what we do, not just musically but emotionally. There’s just so many people that say they relate to the song “Come Back to Me” or to the songs about when my sister died because they lost a sibling or a mate.
You mentioned the songs about death and loss really resonating. I rewatched X: The Unheard Music last night. “Come Back to Me” is the most emotionally affecting part of that documentary. The way they set that up, the story’s told very beautifully.
EC: We’ve been playing that song live, which we never did until last year. We’ve also been playing “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” and like three or four other songs we never ever played live, and the saxophones and vibes live are pretty cool. You know, we’re just trying to give everything we have left.
One of the big themes of the documentary, which is marking its 30th anniversary next year, is the struggle of your band getting radio play in an era when bands you’d now hear on classic rock radio, like the Eagles, were the only thing anyone would spin. With so many different distribution channels today, what do you think a band like X…
EC: There is no distribution. Music is free now thanks to Pandora and all those streaming things. When people come up to me and say, “Oh, I heard you guys on Pandora or I’ve been playing you,” I say, “Thanks a lot, why don’t you just watch MTV? They pay the same amount!” I think Pandora is a penny more. We’ve always only made our money playing live shows and selling t-shirts. That’s the only way we make a living. We’ve never made royalties. We signed really stupid contracts with Slash, Elektra, and Warner Bros. back then. Now everyone’s getting the rights to their stuff back because people realized those “in perpetuity” contracts, where record companies say, “Here sign this and we’ll give you 10% of everything you make for the rest of your life, but we own it forever,” are illegal. They’re called odious contracts, just like what happened with Greece—that’s an odious debt. It’s a legal term for “really fucked up and unfair.”
So in a year or so we’ll start getting all our stuff back, but we’ve never really made royalties. I mean, you get a check for $400, that’s not really going to help you out much. For all the records we’ve sold, Los Angeles still hasn’t been given a gold record, and I think that’s because when Slash started the bookkeeping there was no ledger. Then it went to Warner Bros. and then it went to this and then it went to that, and every time it’s like they’d start over. So the last that I heard we sold 300,000 or 350,000 copies of Los Angeles in all these years. We know that’s not true. Anyway, we get a pittance, and it’s really hard to even get that, so the way we make a living is only through playing. If people don’t see us, we don’t pay our bills.
The problem, though, is people say, “Why don’t you make a new record?” If we were going to make a record or even put out a song and it’s on live streaming, you’re only going to get 10 cents every 10,000 times it plays. It’s basically free to the public, so why would we go out of pocket to make a record only for it to be given away? People make records to promote their tours—that’s what the big artists do—but now the big artists aren’t selling records anymore either. So they’re touring more and a small festival that we used to be able to co-headline will put us down on the bottom or not book us at all because big bands are playing all the festivals. So now we’re playing festivals with bands like No Doubt and stuff like that. Nothing against them—they’ve got to make a living—but pretty soon we won’t get those. It’s difficult at best. The music business has always been a racket. It’s like war. I guess it always will be. If you can write your own ticket, you’re good, and if you can’t, you’re screwed.
Has X discussed recording new music?
EC: We have, but we realize there is no point.
Certainly fans would love to hear it.
EC: You know, what’s the point? It goes up on live streaming and then it’s over. If they want to pay $20,000 for us to go in the studio so they can get it for free, that’s fine, but we can’t. We don’t have money to just go make a record and then give it away to the public.
What about Kickstarter? I’ve seen bands do that.
EC: Well, then you go out hat in hand, “Please give us some money so we can make a record.” Then you do it and then it’s free and then it’s over. It’s a lot of work for us, and I don’t think we’re compelled to write songs right now. However, I would love to do some new songs live and then sell them at the show or on a 45. But it’s difficult for us right now to do that. If it comes around that we can, we will, but I don’t see it happening.
Makes sense. It’s certainly a different era than when you guys started.
EC: Even if we just wrote a couple of new songs and played them live, people would videotape them and put it on YouTube. You know, the media thing and the tech thing—it’s in the hands of the public. Controlling the means of production, it’s a great concept, in an old-fashioned kind of socialist sense. You just have to embrace the fact that if everything’s free, everything’s free. That’s just the way it is.
I read a comment you made about how you can’t even use an X song if you want to put up a video of your son or something on YouTube.
EC: You can’t. DJ Bonebrake’s wife put up a video on her YouTube and she used an X song in some kind of family thing. It’s not like she has a bunch of followers, she’s just doing that for her friends. And Warner Bros. swooped in and took it down. That’s all they do. They have more lawyers than they have A&R people. They have more lawyers than they have artists, probably. All they do is “go get money, go get money.” And then also all the publishing companies, record labels, and newspaper outlets, the free presses that are free in every city—those are all tightly controlled by corporations so you can’t even kind of wiggle around in there anymore.
Is there anyone over the course of career that you can think of that you were most excited to meet, someone you admired who you actually got to meet in person?
EC: I’m not one of those people. I don’t read biographies. I like songs, I like music, I like stuff like that. I don’t want it ruined by reading every detail of someone’s intimate life, but I liked meeting Willie Nelson because of Farm Aid. We played the first and second Farm Aid (in 1985 and 1986). Those first Farm Aids were amazing because Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, and everybody was there. They were right there where we were, and it was insane to see Johnny Paycheck and George Jones on the same stage. I think Willie is everything a human being, an American, and an artist should be. I’ve gotten to know his daughter Amy. She’s in a band with Cathy Guthrie called Folk Uke that plays with us a lot, and they’re the most beautiful people. I’ve met two of his sons, and that family is the nicest family in the world. And he’s the greatest. He’s one of the greatest singers, songwriters, and guitar players of all time. He’s in his early eighties and he’s still touring. He has a roadie who’s like 90 or something and is the world’s first roadie. He’s still working! And what he did with Farm Aid, how he feels about marijuana, and freedom and America—he’s just the greatest person I can think of that I’ve ever run across and had the opportunity to be in a room with.
That whole country world is what I relate to the most because that’s kind of how I came up as a kid—that real world that people make fun of because they don’t understand it. Except for Merle Haggard and Willie and maybe Dwight, that kind of country no longer exists. I heard some new country in the grocery store the other day, and they were singing about drinking Bud Light. I was thinking, “Get off the radio now!” It’s a corporate cartoon like everything else.
You said people make fun of country music?
EC: They always have. They say, “Oh, you married your cousin and you’ve got a possum in your pickup truck and you’re shooting up signs with your shotgun.” No, it’s about humans. It’s about humans with broken hearts. It’s about humans with issues and struggles and poverty and wanting and yearning and devastation and sorrow and death. It’s not about fucking marrying your cousin. It’s like everything else people love to make fun of: America, Christianity, and everything else. People like to ridicule what they don’t quite comprehend.
What are you working on? What’s next beyond X?
EC: I had a one-person art exhibit up in Santa Monica, California. That was really great, and I do those periodically in different cities. Everybody has different stuff and different music that they do. John and I do a lot of shows together, which are usually pretty cool. It’s just whatever comes up. We just did a television thing yesterday, X did, on Comedy Central, on a show called Children’s Hospital. I don’t watch television, but I’m slightly aware of what’s going on. It’s pretty funny, I’ve got to say. It’s a pretty absurd funny thing, so we did that all day yesterday.
What was the premise?
EC: It’s about us, kind of. It’s an absurdist kind of take on someone who works at the hospital and us. We played a song. The exciting thing about being an artist is the feast or famine thing. Like if the phone rings, is it a bill collector or is it Hollywood calling? Is it Pearl Jam saying, “Hey, you guys want to go to South America?” or is it someone else calling to tell you your tour’s been cancelled? You never know.