Nine Minutes with Exene Cervenka

On January 5, I had the odd pleasure of a telephone interview with Exene Cervenka, lead singer of the quintessential Los Angeles punk band X. For those who aren’t familiar with X, here’s a crash course: Founded in 1977 by vocalist and bassist John Doe, guitarist Billy Zoom, drummer DJ Bonebreak, and vocalist/artist/writer Cervenka, X combined poetic lyrics with rockabilly arrangements and eerie harmonies to create a sound no one had ever heard before. Four years after forming, X released Wild Gift, which was named “Record of the Year” by Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and Village Voice. To date, the band has released 13 albums (most recently 2009’s Merry Xmas From X), and was featured in The Decline of Western Civilization, a 1981 film documenting the beginnings of the Los Angeles punk scene.

While playing a born-again Christian in Salvation!, (a 1987 film spoofing televangelism) Cervenka met and married Viggo Mortensen, with whom she has a child. (Cervenka and Mortensen divorced in 1997).

In June 2009, Cervenka released a statement after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. “I am choosing to see the positive in it. I, and X as a band, have supported the Sweet Relief charity (started by singer/songwriter Victoria Williams, who also has MS, in 1992 to assist uninsured artists) since the mid-1990s; the irony of this is not lost on any of us.”

Upon relocating to rural Missouri, Cervenka found inspiration in the simplicity of country living and began writing her first solo album in 19 years. The product, Somewhere Gone, is a surprisingly sweet and thoughtful foray into folk and country music that’s perfectly in keeping with Cervenka’s highly personalized style of musical storytelling.

Hours of preparation for this short conversation with the “godmother of punk” seemed to fly out the window the second she picked up the phone.

Exene? Good morning, it’s Bryan Rindfuss from the San Antonio Current calling.

I’m sorry, I forgot you were calling. `Pauses`. I’m here.

If I sound nervous, it’s because I am. I’m a huge fan, and I really appreciate you taking the time to speak to me.

That’s OK. Don’t worry about a thing.

Have you ever played in San Antonio?

That’s a good question. I’ve been there. `Pauses to think`. Played there with Swine King from Austin, Texas. Played Taco Land. `Swine King was a side project for Randy “Biscuit” Turner of the band Big Boys`. That was fun. That place was cool. In some ways, that was like the acme of my career.

What year was that, more or less?

Maybe 1995?

I was so sorry to hear that you have MS.

Thank you, I’m fine. Everyone has something, don’t we all? Fortunately, I have insurance right now. A friend of mine waited 10 years to have knee surgery; she waited until she had insurance. That’s the kind of country we’re living in.

Yeah, it’s pretty tragic. A friend of mine suggested that I ask you if you have any particular memories about Peter Ivers and his show New Wave Theater?

That was the first punk-rock TV show. Yeah, we

were on that show. You know, there were a lot

of people that blazed the trail and tried really hard to help the bands, and help everyone get across to the public, and get the music out. He was one of those people. You know, we’ve all been doing that for 30 years — trying really hard to get this music out to people, and you know, it’s still the scary, hard, difficult music that no one wants to know about. You know, they do want to know about the Clash and Blondie, and they want to know about Green Day and Rancid, but they don’t want to know about us.

As a 10-year old, I fell in love with More Fun in the New World, but when I went back and bought Los Angeles, I didn’t get it. I love it now, but I guess it’s not as kid-friendly.

Well, it’s dark and scary.

I’m fascinated by your love of journaling. Have you considered publishing an anthology of your journals?

Oh, God no. It’s all scribbling and doodling and drawing and stuff. It’s not for public consumption. I let people see pages sometimes, but it’s not really that fancy. I’d like to do a book, like a life-story book, like a biography that’s more like a scrapbook. Someday.

I’d go crazy without a journal, and I never leave home without a glue stick.

It’s a good thing, don’t you think? Sometimes I don’t prepare, then you over-prepare for tours sometimes, you bring like everything you own. Then the next time you go on tour, you don’t bring anything and you want everything, then you don’t have anything. Anyway, I digress.

As a poet, who do you most admire?

Anna Akhmatova. She’s a turn-of-the-century Russian poet who wrote these love poems that are still relevant 100 years later.

Has she inspired your writing at all?

No, it’s all me.

I’m curious about all your side projects. Is there anything in the works for Auntie Christ or the Original Sinners?

No. I enjoyed doing Auntie Christ, though. That was with Matt Freeman from Rancid.

How about the Knitters `a country-punk side project with members of X and other bands`?

We’re supposed to play some shows in May and June. I don’t know where that’ll take us. Whoever wants us can have us — let me put it that way.

I saw X at SXSW recently. The crowd was trying to get you to play “Burning House of Love” without any luck. Are there X songs that you refuse to play?

No, there aren’t any songs we refuse to play, just ones we’re too lazy to learn. I love that song; it just wasn’t on the set list.

Can we expect any surprises for your show at the White Rabbit?

Well, I won’t be playing any X songs, that’s something people should know.


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