Exene Cervenka could care less about resting on laurels. She's fronted X for more than 30 years, stoking a dynamo of L.A. punk, poetry and American roots music alongside singer/bassist John Doe, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer DJ Bonebrake. With such a robust career in music, Exene could easily cash in her chips and retire with plenty to be proud of. But she hasn't. And she won't. Far from holding steady, Exene has turned her attention to bands like The Original Sinners, The Knitters and Auntie Christ, playing with formats like country, rockabilly, folk, punk rock and glam. She's also acted in films, mounted visual art exhibitions and built a reputation as a spoken word artist.
In 2009, Exene released Somewhere Gone, her first solo music album in nearly two decades. "I wanted to do something quiet," she explains, "to be able to hear the words." It was also the year she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Exene got the news just a few months before the album came out. But it's not slowing her down, she says. Why would she do a thing like that?
In a bus loaded down with guitars, banjos and mandolins, Exene was in between Atlanta and Nashville when she spoke with the Alibi.
What’s your set-up for these solo performances?
Well, there’s two acoustic guitars. I’m singing, of course, with Cindy Wasserman who sang on the record. And then I have a bass player who plays banjo also, and the other guitar player plays mandolin. The instrumentation is a lot different than the record, but the songs are still the same mood.
Will Dex Romweber be joining you on stage like he did on Somewhere Gone?
No, we haven’t worked out how to play with each other live. I played on his record and he played on my record but we just haven’t had the chance. It’s been kind of like: Drive to the town, set up and play, drive to the town, set up and play. We haven’t worked out those songs.
You’ve been doing collaborative projects nearly your whole career, yet you describe yourself as a loner.
Yeah, well, I am alone. Everyone is, you know? But I’m happy where I can play music with other people. It takes the songs out of the mood they were written in and makes them a little bit more giving—you’re giving away something to the audience and the people you’re playing with. It’s not just about you and your feelings any more.
You were also diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2009. Was it was a relief to get that diagnosis, after living with the effects of the illness?
It was a big relief, you’re absolutely right. It was nice to know that there was a name for it and there was some medicine I could take that would help me, and that I could also relate to other people who have it. But it’s not something that I’m affected by every day, so I don’t really think about it that much.
It’s interesting that you didn’t know there was a name for your symptoms, and yet X has been doing benefit work for an MS charity since the ’90s.
Sweet Relief is one that we work with, and that was started by Victoria Williams after she got MS. It was just kind of a coincidence that we decided to work with that charity on our tours and that it happen to me. It was just weird. … I knew there was something wrong with me for 15 years, I just didn’t know what it was.
Do you make a distinction between your poetry and the lyrics that you write?
“I knew there was something wrong with me for 15 years, I just didn’t know what it was.”
I do make a distinction there. Songs are not poems. Songs ... just come out all at once. So do poems, so does art. But I know what the emotions are and where they’re going to be directed before I do it. I can tell the difference between the feeling that turns into art and the feeling that turns into a song, so I know which way to go.
“It’s just like trying to find a vintage dress. Stuff gets used up.”
You've said that it’s getting harder to find material to incorporate into your collage pieces.
Well, you know. It’s just like trying to find a vintage dress. Stuff gets used up. But when I say it’s harder and harder, there’s still a million things out there. I just have to find them, that’s all. I’m always on the search for something.
Maybe it's because as a culture we’re creating less interesting—
—the garbage is not interesting any more, no. Nothing’s regional anymore, everything’s all the same everywhere you go. It’s just the way it is.
Have you had any vocal training?
I took lessons for about five years, which is why I never lose my voice. So I am professionally trained.
John Doe has said that your voice and harmony style, coming from this rawer place, is what makes X what it is.
Yeah, which is great. But what you want to do is keep the rawness and the original place you come from, and you want to back it up with some skill or technique so that you don’t fail at being an artist. Because you can only go so far with intuition and talent. You really have to have discipline.
“What you want to do is keep the rawness and the original place you come from, and you want to back it up with some skill or technique so that you don’t fail at being an artist.”
How did working with a psychedelic legend like The Doors' Ray Manzarek so early in your career affect your approach to music?
He produced four records for us [X], so that was a long time of knowing him. ... It was bizarre. I was a big Doors fan, it was just really bizarre to meet him and produce the records. It was really strange, because I was kind of in awe of him. I think The Doors have some of the best orchestration of any band. They’re brilliant, you know? He was very, very good to us in that he kind of guided us a little bit in the studio. But he didn’t have to do too much—we had to just play and be us, and he had to make sure that he got the best thing out of us that he could.
Why do you think he was attracted to X?
Well, he was excited that there was new stuff going on. Because ’76 was only a few years after Jim Morrison died. The hippie thing and the beatnik thing and the punk thing were all in the same 20-year period—’55 to ’75 all happened together real fast, and then there wasn’t much since then.
Did he see X as an extension of the movement The Doors was a part of?
“You know, I don’t like to cite influences or heroes or heroines because we all like stuff, and that doesn’t have anything to do with what we make.”
He saw it as an extension of what he had done in the ’60s, but he also saw it as a complete breakaway from that—which he loved.
On the other end of the spectrum, Lou Whitney recorded your solo album. Even with all your time in the industry, did learn anything from working with him?
I learned a lot from working with Lou. He’s fantastic. He was a real good guide for me. I needed someone there to say, Stop singing now and go home. He’s just really bright and experienced and kind and intuitive. He’s a great engineer and a great guy to work with.
Growing up, were there any artists who compelled you to put yourself out there?
No. I wasn’t inspired to do it by other people who were doing it until I met John and Billy and the people in the punk scene. Then I started to want to do things. But when I was growing up and when I was younger, I didn’t listen to the radio and go, I’m going to do that someday. I never really pursued any kind of musical avenues. I was just writing, and I didn’t really know what I was going to end up doing with my writing at the time, I just knew I was a writer. When I met John, he wanted me to put the stuff I was writing to music with him, and it kind of fell into place. And that punk scene was happening, so we had a place to do it.
“Instead of a handshake, it was a snarl. Just brattiness like, How the fuck are you? We wanted to dismantle everything. And we really thought we were going to.”
What about other writers?
You know, I don’t like to cite influences or heroes or heroines because we all like stuff, and that doesn’t have anything to do with what we make. I like Flannery O’Connor. I like Diane Arbus. I like Anna Akhmatova, who was a Russian poet. I like Nat King Cole. I like Glen Campbell. I like Roger Miller. But I’m not really any of those people, and I don’t want to be any of those people, so I don’t get stuff from them. I just try to like what they do and do my own thing.
When X was featured in The Decline of Western Civilization, there's a part where you complain that Debbie Harry from Blondie was being snooty to you.
She was just being punk rock. We’ve always been friends. I haven’t seen her in a while. But, you know, we were all very bratty towards each other. It was just ... instead of a handshake, it was a snarl. Just brattiness like, How the fuck are you? We were just that way. We wanted to dismantle everything. And we really thought we were going to.
So you started on each other.
Yeah, we started on each other. And we did dismantle each other quite well. Frequently and quite barbarically sometimes. But we’re good.
You pretty much have your pick of bands to work with. What do you look for in a band when you’re putting something together?
“You have to pick the right band to play with and the right band to be in. Otherwise, your life is hell.”
Well obviously, you have to like what they do. And you have to hope—because you can’t tell—that you’re going to get along and have a good time together. Because part of touring is who you’re touring with. It’s a huge part of it. And that’s like your support through everything, so it has to be right. You have to pick the right band to play with and the right band to be in. Otherwise, your life is hell. You don’t know until you get out there what you’re in for.
Who’s a band that you would love to tour with again?
Pearl Jam. I liked it when X opened for them, that was great.
Speaking of which, who are you paying attention to musically these days?
Nat King Cole. Kay Starr. Reggae, really old reggae. Women. Mostly women. But not anything new.
Who would you like to see play Exene Cervenka in a movie about X?
Well, I’m not a big movie fan and I don’t watch TV. And I don’t know who anybody is. So I would like it to be someone that nobody knows, someone that’s never done a movie before, instead of somebody that everyone goes, Oh, so-and-so is playing that part. I think it’d be better that way. Part of me is flattered by that, and part of me doesn’t care at all. Most movies are pretty bad, frankly. And I would be going completely insane, because I’d be like, I never wore that! I never said that! I didn’t do that! My hair wasn’t like that! I didn’t look like that! She’s not drinking enough; that can’t be right! So I probably wouldn’t even see it.
I’m going to do an in-store at my friend’s head shop ... isn’t that funny? At the Zone. I’m not going to be doing a performance, but I’m going to hang out the day of the show and we’re going to have a little party over there, ’cause I’m in town and I know the owner. We’re friends from Texas.
And you're meeting up here. That's classic Albuquerque.
Yeah. Well, everyone dreams of moving to New Mexico, right?