Exene Cervenka: High Priestess Of Punk
by Keith Valcourt
Forty five minutes outside of Los Angeles, in an area known as The O.C. (which is nothing like the crappy night time soap opera) sits the sleepy little burg of Old Towne Orange, California. An idyllic little community that seems frozen in a kinder, gentler time.
Apart from the two Starbucks locations, main street looks as it may have in the 1950’s. People smile and say hello as they stroll past the many mom and pop shops that fill the storefronts. Look, there’s Watson’s soda shoppe, which has been here for over eighty years! And there’s Mr. C’s, all-vinyl record store! This may be the most perfect place on earth! Unspoiled by corporate greed and overdevelopment is just the way L.A.’s punk rock earth mother Exene Cervenka likes it. This is her home. We met up at a coffee shop (No, not the Starbucks) to discuss her legendary band X, and her latest CD, the lovely ”The Excitement Of Maybe.”
Rocker: How did you end up in Los Angeles?
Exene: I had to get out of Tallahassee, Florida, and I read that Jerry Brown, who was Governor of California – then and again now – had set up this program to give women, who had no education like me. It was training so they could get a job. It sounded great and I needed to get the hell out of Florida so I found a friend who was driving to California, and he agreed to let me come along if I had money for gas.
Rocker: What do you remember about the first time you met John Doe?
Exene:I went to a poetry workshop at Beyond Baroque. I was the first time I had ever been there and also the first time for John as well.
Rocker: So there was an instant connection? Was it love at first sight?
Exene:An instant connection? Yes. But not love at first sight. That is a dangerous term.
Rocker: Previous to that night did you have any aspirations about being in a band?
Exene:All I knew was I needed to get the hell out of Tallahassee.
Rocker: How soon after that first meeting was X formed?
Exene:Almost immediately. John had already met Billy Zoom (X Guitarist),… A lot of people think John Doe and I formed X but it was really John and Billy. One night we went to (seminal LA punk club) The Masque – back then you would just go, didn’t matter who was playing, you just went – and the band The Eyes was playing. John said, “That’s the drummer we need for the band.” It was DJ Bonebrake.
Rocker: What was the punk scene like then?
Exene:It was very fractured.
Rocker: When did you realize being in the band was going to be your career?
Exene:Career? This isn’t a career. I’ve never made any money being a musician. But this is all I know how to do. I’m an artist and I have to create.
Rocker: How hard was it to continue on in X after your marriage to John Doe ended?
Exene:It was impossible. Stupid really. We should have stopped for a while when the marriage broke up. Instead we made a terrible album (1985’s ironically titled “Ain’t Love Grand”). It took a while to get over everything and move on.
Rocker: How did you get to a point where you could work together?
Exene:Because with me and John nothing is more important than the music.
Rocker: What’s the relationship like these days?
Exene:Fine. Me and John are fine. Thing is John and I are soul mates. His daughter and my son were born in the same hospital delivered by the same doctor on the exact same day. You can’t plan something like that. It just so happened the he and his wife had sex and me and my husband had sex on the same day and nine months later it happened. How do you plan that?
Rocker: A lot of the bands that had hits in the 80’s when you were with X are content to be nostalgia acts. What motivates you to keep making new music?
Exene:Because that’s what I do. Look, I don’t begrudge anyone who had a few hits to go out and play them and try to make a living. With X, I can play those songs anytime. I know those songs inside and out. And when X plays a show I appreciate it because I know each show could be the last one we ever play. I keep wanting to do a new X record but John doesn’t want to write any new songs. I don’t know why. He will write songs for our other band The Knitters and for his solo records, which he invites me to sing on, but no new X songs. I wish he would.
Rocker: Where did the title of your new CD, “The Excitement Of Maybe” come from?
Exene:A friend of mine said it one day at random. It stuck. I said, “I’m working on a new album of love songs and that’s it. That’s perfect. Thanks for the title.”
Rocker: The new record is beautiful. Full or hope and love. Are you in love?
Exene:No. Not particularly. I’m glad you like the record because I worked hard on it. I care about it a lot.
Rocker: In the song, “Alone in Arizona” you sing about “Missing California.” Were you missing the state or a person?
Exene:I never give the literal meaning of what my songs are about. I always say that all my songs are about two things. They are about me and they are about you. If you listen to the song “Alone In Arizona” and you think it’s about missing a person, then that is what it’s about. It’s about what you as the listener takes away from it. You decide.
Rocker: How do you promote a new record these days?
Exene:I do what I did when I put out my last record. I go on tour and play in these mom and pop record stores. When I play, I ask people to bring their kids and all their old records and stuff. Lets say two hundred people show up. For free. They bring their X records and I sign them. I take pictures. I talk to everybody. I hang out. I play songs. The kids come. I meet all the kids. Half the time they don’t know why they’re there. The record store orders my records and Bloodshot, my label, sells them records. The store had a good day. Two or three hundred people in their store is a good day. I sell some t-shirts and stuff. Make a couple hundred bucks to pay for my hotel room then go on to the next town. After the tour you don’t come home with any money, but you don’t lose any money. Not only are you selling your record but you’re getting people to give it a chance and listen to it for an afternoon. People leave happy. That’s what you have to do these days. I got to work for a living. I can’t just sit at home and wonder what is happening with my records.
Rocker: Where did you record it?
Exene:In the valley. That’s where all the good studios are. In the sixties and seventies a lot of studios were built in Southern California. Way before home recording. They’re abandoned now. This guy David Bianco who co-produced the record with me, got an old R&B studio out there that was falling apart and he restored it. Put all this equipment in there. You can’t replicate the sound of a seventies R&B studio. You can’t build that new. His studio is awesome! Everyone should have the chance to record someplace with really good microphones. Everyone involved did it for the right reasons; for the love of music, not to make money.
Rocker: I’m shocked to hear you never made any money after all these years in music?
Exene:Nope. No money.
Rocker: I find that hard to believe.
Exene:Let me ask you this. How many records do you think X has sold in our history?
Rocker: I’m not sure. Somewhere around…
Exene:How about this, did the album “Los Angeles” sell five hundred thousand copies?
Rocker: It had to…
Exene:Then why don’t I have a gold record? Why don’t I have any gold records? Creative accounting by the record companies. Look, I can’t say anything bad about the labels. Elektra? Who can say anything bad about Elektra? And Rhino? I like what they do. And with my latest label Bloodshot, I trust them. They get it. But how about Slash? It’s funny because all the record companies we were on – Slash, Elektra, Rhino – are all now part of Warner. We tried to hire some lawyers to go in there and figure it out, but they’re not interested unless there are hundreds of thousands of dollars to be made. They said it wouldn’t be worth their time to just get fifty thousand. It would be worth our time! Fifty grand split four ways would give us each some money.
Rocker: I know you said you’re an artist and this is all you can do. But if you hadn’t become a musician, what would you be doing?
Exene:I would probably be an organizer. Organizing woman’s groups. I am involved with Girl’s Rock Camp, I volunteer with them. The most important thing is building self-esteem. The camp instills confidence in the girls. You don’t have to be the best. Just getting up there and doing it.
Rocker: What is the biggest misconception about punk?
Exene:The biggest misconception is that punk was nihilistic and negative. If you went to your therapist and your therapist said, “What you’re doing is total bullshit. You’re about to lose everything and fuck yourself up.” Would you call that negative of two hundred dollars of advice? You can look at Punk and say, they think the world is all fucked up. And it is.
Rocker: Wasn’t punk a call to arms to try to get people to change things?
Exene:That’s what punk was. I think most people have been trained to be hopeful that they are going to be huge stars some day. They’re going to be on television on all the shows, on the radio, They’re going to make billions of dollars. They’re gonna have their own perfume. Everyone is going to end up like Britney Spears! And that’s what people are seeing in the arts. They see that and that’s what they go for. It’s always been that way. I don’t think it was that way in the 20’s, and it wasn’t that way in the 60’s. It wasn’t that way until the megabucks started rolling in. Like with the pro athletes. Baseball players. What did Sandy Koulfax make? They played baseball because they loved baseball and that’s what they were good at. It’s all screwed up.
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