Interview: Exene Cervenka of X
X's 13 x 31 tour hits New York and the Fillmore at Irving Plaza on Saturday, May 24th while the day before Cervenka's exhibition of recent collages, "Sleep in Spite of Thunder," opens at the DCKT Contemporary art galley on the Bowery.
"What happened to our audience was Mothers Against Drunk Drivers was happening, and so all the states were changing the drinking age from 18 to 21 so they were wiping out two-thirds of our audience. I'm not saying that's a good thing or a bad thing, but that's what happened."
In 1977, 21-year-old vocalist Exene Cervenka met 23-year-old bass player John Doe at a poetry workshop in Venice, California. Very shortly afterwards --along with guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebrake--they would form X, a band as representative as any of early '80s Los Angeles punk.
But those three-plus decades have not, by any means, followed a straight line. For starters, Doe and Cervenka married in 1980, then divorced in 1985. Zoom quit the group in 1986 and didn't return for a dozen years. But that's all higher (and unnecessary) math. This year X moves across America with their 13 x 31 tour, celebrating not only the band's "unlucky 13, fuck the world" philosophy but also the 31st anniversary of its inception.
After a successful early spring run through territories west of the Mississippi, X took a three-week, mid-April rest stop before traveling east. And while we have no idea how Doe, Zoom and Bonebrake utilized their time away from the van, we do know that on Friday, April 25--rather than writing or recording with one of her many side projects (including the Knitters, Auntie Christ and the Original Sinners), working on spoken-word or her collaborative projects with fellow artist Lydia Lunch--Exene Cervenka spent the morning planting flowers in her Jefferson City, Missouri garden, and at least part of her afternoon talking to us. (Beginning with conversational pleasantries regarding plant life and the respective weather reports for New York City and central Missouri).
VV: Tell me something that you've never ever done before in your life.
EC: I've never driven a race car.
Tell me something that you've done once and one time only.
Oh, flown in a helicopter.
The name of a book that you've read at least twice.
The Gnostic Scriptures.
The name of a movie you've seen at least three times.
The Day The Earth Stood Still.
And do you own a rake?
You would almost have to if you were out planting flowers this morning, wouldn't you?
I have more than one rake.
How many rakes do you own?
[Laughs] I don't know. Probably three or four. We've got different kinds of rakes for different kinds of jobs, and then we buy a lot of tools at auctions and things like that.
Most of your interviews that I've read appear to almost avoid the subject of music in favor of--oh, I don't know--something akin to your opinions on cultural philosophy. Does it seem that way to you at all?
I think there's a measure of that. I don't know if it's an overwhelming amount. Like they want to know more about you as a person and they want the music and the songs to just be, you know, there. They want this insight into you. Not necessarily advice. Like it's not like, 'Who are you going to vote for so I can vote for the same person.' It's more just like, 'Gee, I wonder who you'd vote for.' That kind of stuff.
It seems those kinds of questions are geared less towards Exene the musician and more towards Exene the alternative icon. I mean, you're almost symbolic in a way, aren't you?
Well, I don't know. I don't feel like I am. I'm just a regular person. You know, I think that being around a long time as an artist definitely puts you up with some respect from people, you know. I hope so anyway, because that's where I'm headed and I'd like to have the respect of people rather than not.
So you don't feel like people see you as a symbol?
I think, as a woman and as a punk-rock woman, I think I am a symbol of something to them. I don't know if I am to all people that like our band, you know what I mean? Like, I think a role model for young women or whatever you want to call it, I definitely see that. Which is great. I'm real happy about that.
I want to ask you one musical question that doesn't have anything to do with X. On the last Original Sinners album, you covered Jeffrey Lee Pierce's "Ghost on the Highway."
Yeah, I did.
I'm a big fan of his Wildweed album, and I don't think his name comes up as often as it should. Can you take a minute and tell me about your experience with Jeffrey Lee Pierce and his music?
Well, Jeffrey Lee Pierce was a writer and singer for the Gun Club, and he was this kind of wild guy who got too wild at the end. My favorite thing Jeffrey Lee Pierce ever did for me--and this is a selfish moment --was he gave me a Purple Heart medal that he had gotten in Vietnam when he was over there with his girlfriend doing drugs. He had bought it at a flea market. And I just thought that was so neat. I got a Purple Heart from someone who went to Vietnam, but it was Jeffrey Lee Pierce [laughs]. So I thought that was great. He had a good sense of humor about doing something like that. I thought was really funny.
He's very underrated, I think, as a songwriter. I know his family and I was pretty close to Jeffrey. You know, he was one of those punk rock, mixed-up kids and he was into the blues and he was great.
I'm also kind of a setting freak. And in several recent interviews you take the time to say some pretty unflattering things about Los Angeles. Like, 'It's the most superficial city in the world.'
Yeah. Everybody knows that, though.
Oh, I know. But here's where I was going. X recorded a song called "Los Angeles," an album called Los Angeles and I would imagine that most fans see Los Angeles as an integral part of the band. Do you feel like Los Angeles is a part of you as a person?
Huge. Huge. I mean, John [Doe] and I both came to L.A. from the East Coast. I came from Florida and he came from Baltimore. We met at this poetry workshop in Venice, California where Jim Morrison used to hang out and where the skate kids were hanging out in '76, and we hit it off immediately. And he had already met Billy [Zoom] and the band started. Like, punk was starting, the band was starting, poetry was happening. It was amazing. And in the meantime you had Fleetwood Mac, Linda Ronstadt, the Record Plant--which is a recording studio--cocaine, limousines. You know, swimming pools, movie stars, the whole thing, right? And we were part of these poverty-stricken people trying to make it as alternative beings in the universe. So it was a love/hate thing from the day we got there. And it's always been a love/hate thing.
But what's happened to Los Angeles, which is really sad, which isn't the same thing as in New York and a lot of other cities, is they tore it all down. So very little remains of Hollywood or the bungalows or the Jim Morrison era. There's very little there architecturally that resonates Hollywood. It could be any place. It could be anywhere. And that is what I don't like about it.
My son's 20 and he likes living there. He spends most of his time in New York and then the rest of the time in L.A. But he's never seen old L.A. I mean, to him L.A. is just an exciting place. And I think that's part of it. When you're 20, L.A. is an exciting place.
But if L.A. is so much a part of your identity, are the adversarial L.A. comments in any way self-negating?
No, I don't think so. The last time I was there I stayed in Huntington Beach for two days and I had the most idyllic time and I just loved every second I was in L.A. I just thought it was the most beautiful place with the most beautiful plants and all my friends were there and it was really fun. I kept making jokes about moving back.
But I needed a break from it. I'd been there for 30 years except for three years when I lived in Idaho with my husband [Viggo Mortensen] and my son. I spent all that time in L.A., and most of that time it wasn't exactly a picnic, you know. I lived there plenty long enough to know that I was tired of it.
You mentioned Fleetwood Mac, and you've brought them into discussions before. Was Fleetwood Mac, or the idea of Fleetwood Mac something that you thought of consciously? Were they were something to work against?
Oh yeah. It was that whole era of the Eagles and that kind of country-rock, laid-back California singer/songwriter thing. Not just the L.A. bands but the whole laid-back singer/songwriter, easy listening kind of not rock and roll. And then the bigger bands.Peter Frampton. Just that whole thing, you know. Yeah, it was definitely a reaction against all that stuff. And now, of course, you put Fleetwood Mac on the radio and you go, 'And what is so bad about Fleetwood Mac? [Laughs] I mean, this is a fine song. This Fleetwood Mac song is not a bad song at all.' You know, the Eagles, I'm still, you know, not a huge fan but I've seen them play live. I went and saw them play, you know.