Beyond and Back: X frontwoman Exene Cervenka talks punk with Xpress

Earlier this month, Mountain Xpress conducted a phone interview with Exene Cervenka, frontwoman of revered L.A. punk band X, who play the Orange Peel Wednesday, May 28, on their 31st-anniversary tour. Cervenka discussed the much-storied L.A. punk scene of the ‘70s, her poetry and visual art, her attraction to antiquity, and the vanishing America that she chronicles in some of her work. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Mountain Xpress: How has X been able to keep the live energy up, especially over these recent waves of shows?

Exene Cervenka: I guess we love doing it. I love playing live, touring, and seeing friends. Seeing all the kids in the audience and all the people that have seen us a million times. It’s pretty exciting up there. I think that makes for a more exciting show, just the fact that you want to be there. There’s nothing worse than seeing a band that doesn’t want to be there.

When the band started in 1977, how long did you envision that it would last?

Oh, we had no vision of it lasting or not lasting.

Besides enjoying it, what was the spark that got you guys started again? Writers attribute the return of X to the rise of alternative rock, and that seems oversimplified.

Oh no. It was ten years ago, in ‘98. We got asked to do a commercial for the X Files. They were doing this series of commercials with people saying “I’m going to watch the X Files this year, aren’t you?” or something like that. And they asked Billy [Zoom] to do it, not knowing that Billy hadn’t really been in touch with the rest of the band very much. [Zoom left the band in 1986, and they recorded one album, See How We Are, with Dave Alvin in his place before disbanding. X then reformed with Zoom in ’93 to record Hey Zeus! and has toured on a periodic basis since.]

And [Zoom] showed up for this thing with me. He said he would do it if I did it. He showed up with his silver jacket and his guitar and his amp. And I showed up just being me. They filmed us on the street. I got along really good with Billy and we decided to get back together after [Elektra] released an anthology [Beyond and Back] and wanted us to do an in-store and about a thousand people came. It took us a while to decide “should we be playing, or what should we do?”

Now it seems like a pretty casual arrangement with the on-again, off-again touring — 2004, 2006, and now. The obvious difference would be that the band is not the main focal point of everyone’s career. How much of a toll did any sort of pressures take when this was the main thing you were doing?

It’s a lot easier now. There’s less at stake. We’re not selling a record, we’re just playing shows to play shows. I think there was more pressure in the beginning to sell records and we never did, really.

You’ve said that you wish you had appreciated it more.

Yeah. I mean, I appreciated it to some extent, but now I really value it. Because when you’re young, you just don’t think it’s going to end.

Speaking of appreciating, how much should fans be concerned that this might be the last time they’ll ever get to see the band?

That’s not true. We’re going to keep playing until we can’t play anymore.

With everyone having done other things over the years, everybody’s grown as players. How much do you think the music comes across differently or more seasoned now?

I think we make up for the lack of physical energy. You can’t be 23 again. You just can’t. But you make up for that by playing better and having emotional intensity.

And having life experience, one imagines.

If that can come across live. I’m not sure if it does. Maybe the emotional intensity comes from that.

In the book Forming: The Early Days of L.A. Punk, you’re quoted as comparing the L.A. punk scene to the hippie generation, and as saying that “it wasn’t about the bands; it was about people being bohemian even though they didn’t know what bohemian meant.” What’s your take on punk being made now, and what would you say the equivalent of punk is today?

You’d know more than I would. I’m not real well-versed in what’s happening around the country in every city, as far as scenes. But I think there will always be a bohemian underground.

Some people are comparing what’s happening on the internet to that spirit, like that community sense has moved online.

In some people’s eyes I’m sure that’s true. But it’s not quite the same thing. You can’t really replace interacting in a place that you’re not supposed to be — like a club or a bar or a streetcorner or an alley — with four or five other people that you just happened to stumble across who have the same views, sharing a bottle in an alley because you can’t get into the club, you don’t have the money. I don’t think the internet can replace that.

As people who weren’t from L.A., except for Donald [drummer D.J. Bonebrake], how much do you think the band’s take on that city resonated because it was coming from outsiders’ eyes?

It’s Day of the Locusts, that book. It’s about coming here to making it big, and ‘going west, young man.’ That’s what California’s all about — arriving there with rose-colored glasses and having them quickly removed, seeing the squalor. We had a love-hate relationship with L.A. for sure. But coming there from an outsider’s point of view was everything, really important for songwriting.

You’ve talked a lot about how superficial the place is, but it’s funny that you lasted living there for such a long time.

I lived in Idaho for two-and-a-half years for part of that time, but other than that, yeah, I did live there for 30 years. [Cervenka now lives in Missouri.]

Reading things you’ve said about how sleazy and superficial it is and how everybody goes there to “make it,” it almost struck me as the antithesis of the way the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith were so taken with New York.

Oh yeah, it was the complete opposite of the New York scene, what happened in L.A. We had a lot of bands in common. But New York embraced its artists. Los Angeles did not, not initially. Not for five years.

You moved to Los Angeles from Florida with only enough money to pay for gas for your ride — like $80 — to get to your friend’s house. I know you ended up living above and working at [poetry workshop] Beyond Baroque, but how did you make that work once you got there?

I got a job right away — and I kept my job. I worked at Beyond Baroque and then when I finished that, I worked in a shoe store. How I kept myself afloat was I just hit the ground running, you know? [Laughs.] It was cheap to live. When I moved to Venice, it was a ghetto and my rent was $180 a month for a two-bedroom apartment at the beach. And I was making about $200 a month. [Laughs.] I don’t know what I was making — probably $300.

The way you were just talking about L.A. — go west, and all that stuff. A lot of Americans almost have like an immigrant experience there.

It is, definitely.

I wanted to ask you about Magical Meteorite Songwriting Device, your book of collages that came out in 2006. In the preface, Kristine McKenna writes: “In the end, each piece Cervenka has made is a valentine to a fragile America that’s disappearing before our very eyes.” I know you’ve said that garbage you find on the street isn’t exclusive to where you are anymore, that it’s all been homogenized, but what aspects of American life in particular are disappearing?

Well, the past is disappearing. When I started touring in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, it was almost like the ‘20s in some places! You’d still go through towns that were just like neon paradises, with neon signs of people hammering nails that would move and art deco buildings. Small-town America before Wal-Marts and MTV, that’s all gone. Now, you go to Alabama, it looks like Missouri; you go to Missouri, it looks like Kentucky; you go to Kentucky, it looks like New England. Not every part of it, but there’s housing developments on all our farmland. That’s disappearing. I’ve always just been a big fan of the past. I dress in old clothes, I wear old jewelry, I read old books, I listen to old records. Everything I do — my house is old — is a recreation for me of different eras.

Now, your second New York solo exhibition opens this month. You’ve been making visual art for like the last 30 years in your journals and stuff. But when did you start making collages in particular, and what is it about that medium that has been grabbing you lately?

Well, it’s perfect for me, because it’s a mix of the past and the present. Everything Americana that I can find that I like, I can make art out of. It’s perfect. The possibilities are endless. The mixture of coincidence and intent is just genius, I think. I think the medium itself has got its own genius in it. Because there’s all this coincidence. You just find something off the street and you incorporate it in your art and it becomes this running theme. And then you have this whole new place to go. I’m very creative in Missouri too because there’s lots of auctions and old things and memorabilia — what they call “ephemera” in the art world — that I can work with. It’s still a place that has its history, to some extent. It still has the old way of life. It still has farms, farmland. And I like it.

Maybe collage is an artform that’s closest to what someone’s actual thought process is. If you were to take a snapshot of someone’s thoughts and feelings over a minute, there’d be all sorts of jumbled things in there. As opposed to a film or something that pulls you into its own tunnel.

I see what you’re saying. I’m telling a story, though. With collages, you’re still telling a story, it’s just not a very long story sometimes like a movie. It’s a short, little story. Like, an image of a young girl with a flower in it can be an entire collage, but if you do it right you’re telling a story about the girl or the flower. There’s content there.

When can we expect more poetry from you?

It’s not on my list of top-five projects, but I sure would love to do another book. Right now, I’m working on a kids’ book called Bedtime for Punks. It’s lullabies. That’s going to be really exciting. It comes out next year sometime. And I’m doing a record for Bloodshot in 2009, so I’ll be recording this summer.

You’ve said that doing spoken-word appearances is harder than being in a band, and that your poetry comes across better when someone reads it than when you do a reading. How do you deal with that?

It’s hard. I just did a spoken-word engagement at the local high school, which was really fun. They responded a lot differently because they didn’t have the life experience to get some of the references, but they got a lot of it, and they appreciated it. Something like that is really special, so you just do the ones that you think are special. Or, if you can do a spoken-word tour with a bunch of other artists, that’s really rewarding. But just to go out night after night by yourself and read what your thoughts are? Nah. I write a lot about what happens in my life, too, and in some ways I don’t want to re-live that every night. It’s different with songs.

With songs, you can put it in a frame that it’s less emotionally demanding to step back into. You can ornament it a bit.

Yeah, and plus I have John [Doe, bassist/co-lead vocalist, and Cervenka’s ex-husband] there to sing with. It makes a big difference. It’s much more fun when you’re with a crew or a band than when you’re out by yourself.

How do you continue to function creatively with someone after a divorce or a breakup?

You just do. It’s more important. It’s the most important part of the relationship, so you don’t throw it away.

How difficult was that for you and John?

It was hard at first. It got easier. It’s easy now. I’m glad we maintain the connection. There’s only a few John Does in the world. There’s only a few Exenes. I’m not gonna meet a guy like that again, so I should hang on to the one I got.

— Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a freelance writer based in Rochester, N.Y

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2 thoughts on “Beyond and Back: X frontwoman Exene Cervenka talks punk with Xpress

  1. I have my ticket. I’ll be the guy pressed up against the front of the stage with an ear-to-ear grin, singing along at the top of my lungs.

  2. supermom

    I’m gonna do what I have to do
    Say what I have to say
    I’m gonna be what I have to be
    Won’t you come along with me?
    Won’t you come along with me?

    I can’t wait!

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