“X is the band that most people have heard of but never heard,” Exene Cervenka, of legendary Los Angeles punk band X, said with a laugh. “When we were playing with Blondie, there were so many people who came up to us after the show and were like, ‘OMG, I came here to see Blondie and I heard you guys were really terrible, but you’re really great! I stayed through most of your set!’ And we’d be like, ‘Ohhh kaayyy!’ Blondie has a big following from across a wide spectrum, so we’d get that a lot on tour with them.”
When X return to play New York City on Saturday night, though, there won’t be any mistaking who everyone’s lined up outside Irving Plaza to see.
“We’re just grateful that we are all still here and we’re still able to do this after 40 years,” Cervenka said of X’s current U.S. tour.
Make no mistake—X is still every bit as loud, dangerous and intense as they were when they first emerged from the L.A. punk scene in 1977.
They hit the Sunset Strip with the sharpness and sudden danger of a switchblade. And when the original lineup of Cervenka, guitarist Billy Zoom, bassist/singer John Doe and drummer DJ Bonebrake take the stage at Irving, they will be delivering a sonically expanded version of that dangerous sound they pioneered nearly 40 years ago, coming to perhaps the most comfortable middle ground between their trademark style and the countrified leanings of The Knitters (their longtime side project with Dave Alvin of The Blasters) than any stage show they’ve produced after spending the last decade or so touring in support of such acts as Blondie and Pearl Jam.
Much of X’s vitality is thanks to the fact that this particular trek marks the triumphant return of original guitarist Zoom, having recently been granted a clean bill of health for now following his battle with bladder cancer—his second time at the big casino in five years (he was diagnosed and treated for his prostate in the mid-2000s).
The Observer recently spoke with Cervenka and Bonebrake about X’s history of playing Manhattan, the time a certain member of The Doors was so impressed by one of their concerts he just had to record them, the band’s little-publicized roots in jazz and, most importantly, an update on the health of Billy Zoom as they make their triumphant return to NYC.
Was there much of an overlap between the hard rock and punk scenes in Los Angeles?
DJ Bonebrake: There wasn’t much. At the time we came in, the scene was still in flux. There was the disco scene and there was the scene left over from the ’60s and ’70s, which was kind of this FM radio stuff and some of it was good and some not so good. If you went into Hollywood, which I never did until I started playing with The Eyes, there was a lot of glam rock and a lot of love for David Bowie. I did, too, but from a different angle.
We came in as outsiders. For one thing, you almost needed a record deal to survive. In L.A., if you got a record deal, then you would go in and record something that allowed you the ability to do a showcase. If you were an outside band, forget it.
I think that’s why the scene happened: because it was so difficult to get into the clubs and recording studios were really expensive to book. Plus, they didn’t want the punk bands; they would tease us if we happened to get into the studio, telling us not to break anything and were really condescending.
As a fan of both scenes from Los Angeles, I always felt like I heard an element of X in the likes of early Motley Crue and Hanoi Rocks, definitely.
DJ: There was crossover in the scene, but we weren’t part of it. But within the punk-rock scene in California, we weren’t the premier band coming in. It took a while for X to get going. I didn’t join them until ’78, when I went from The Eyes to X.
There were groups like The Weirdos and The Screamers who were the really happening bands in L.A. punk back then. DEVO made it out here from Ohio and made this their home. But it took us a long time to put our first record out. It wasn’t until 1980, when we met Ray Manzerek. He came to a Whisky show to see someone else, but he came up to us and went, “Hey, I like you guys! Let me produce you.”
But the one thing I think we did that was smart was that we began traveling early. We put out a single when I joined the band in ’78, and we were like, “Let’s go to New York.” So we drove out to Manhattan. Exene’s sister lived there, and she managed to get us two nights at CBGB’s opening for someone. It was so funny, we drove 3,000 miles almost straight. We did stop in Texas because we were running out of gas and had to stay overnight. But we just drove it through, taking turns driving.
And we get to CBGB’s, and while it’s a historic and classic place where so much great music came out of, it was by and large a dump [laughs]. And you get out of the car and you can hardly walk from car atrophy and you’re like, “Now I have to play music?” After traveling for four days straight, it was crazy [laughs].
How were those shows?
DJ: I’m sure they were fine. They were difficult, but we made it through. The people who were in the scene all came out. And then we played Max’s Kansas City, where other people came to see us. I think it was a positive deal to be seen by the New York scene, especially since the L.A. punk scene wasn’t really on anyone’s radar at the time. There were only a couple of singles out, and I think just one band was signed, The Dickies, to a major label. But mostly it was a local scene and nobody was really interested in it but those who were in it.
Exene Cervenka: We played Hurrah’s a lot. We used to go to the Peppermint Lounge a bit as well. We played with Blondie once. James Chance. The Cramps. Lydia Lunch. I remember meeting Debbie Harry and Chris Stein really early on, because they knew my sister, who managed Teenage Jesus and The Jerks.
When we drove out from L.A. to New York City, there was really no other place to play in between except Cleveland, where The Dead Boys came from, and Devo. I think the L.A. scene and the NYC scene, in my mind, had a lot in common, but at the time we were the only band to play Manhattan.
When did country music begin to come into play with X?
DJ: I remember both John and Exene really getting into country when we started traveling around more sometime around 1980. And we’d be driving around in a van and they started playing it. I know Billy was into that and rockabilly as well, which he added to the sound of X. Then it morphed into The Knitters, because John and Dave Alvin [of the Blasters] were buddies and had similar interests.
The Knitters happened organically. Phranc, who describes herself as “your typical Jewish lesbian folksinger,” she started putting on shows at the Whisky and managed to get people in the punk scene who wanted to do different stuff to get up there and expose a different side to them. I think that’s how The Knitters were born, from something at a Phranc show. But we would make it rock.
It’s interesting to learn that Dwight Yoakam was a fan and actually played on bills with you guys in the past.
Exene: I think his first show in L.A. was when we were playing with Dave Alvin as The Knitters. We were gonna play our show at Club Lingerie, which even by our standards it was small; it held only like 400 or something like that. We were putting a bill together, and Dave suggested this guy Dwight Yoakam who had just come out from Kentucky and he was looking for gigs. So it was The Knitters headlining, and then Los Lobos second and then Dwight first. It was quite the night.
Seeing him reminded me of the first time I saw The Blasters. I was like, “Oh, thank goodness, somebody actually knows how to play country music.” Most Americana music was just so pretentious. I still listen to him all the time, he’s great. We still play some shows with him, but I wish we could play more steady gigs with him. That would be great.
How are you guys approaching the music on this particular X tour? Is it going to be full electric, acoustic, both?
DJ: We’re going to do something in between; it’s a hybrid. We started doing some acoustic things just to break it up, and we liked them so much we started incorporating it more. Actually it started that it wasn’t rocking enough. Some of the quiet songs and the variety that we do we really enjoy. We can do “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes” and we can do “Come Back To Me”. I play vibes on three numbers, so that’s the less rocking stuff. And then we have a fifth member who comes in and plays drums on those three numbers and acoustic guitar just to supplement the sound. It gives us some versatility.
So on the vibes, I’ll play “Come Back To Me”, “Bad Thoughts” and “The Unheard Music”. But it also gives us freedom to play different songs with the acoustic guitars; we can play “Drunk In My Past” and some of the deeper cuts. But then we can play the classics at full throttle.
We finally figured it out. Billy is playing an amp that’s a little bit smaller so he’s not blasting out the people in the front row. So we can rock out and our soundman Leslie can put the guitar in the mains and put them through the house speakers. So we’re doing something in between. We’ll rock out and then we’ll play some quieter numbers.
Exene: It’s not really acoustic because everything is amplified, but DJ plays vibes and Billy plays saxophone and we have Craig out on the road with us to play drums and guitars so they could do that. A lot of the songs are still the same as they were live, but others have different arrangements and new versions of certain songs.
DJ, you playing the vibes is one of the best scenes in the X documentary The Unheard Music. You’ve been playing for quite a long time now yeah?
DJ: [Laughs] Actually, when I saw that scene recently I thought to myself I should start practicing again. I practiced it for a couple of years as a kid. But now as time’s gone on, I’ve taken more lessons and practiced. I’m still not the best player in the world, but I’m trying my hand in jazz and have been playing with some local bands. It’s really enjoyable. I know I’ll never be Lionel Hampton or Milt Jackson or Cal Tjader or any of those guys, but I can play the thing [laughs].
How is Billy on the saxophone?
Exene: Both DJ and Billy are such great and super-talented musicians, and we’ve been playing like this for the last two years. Maybe less than that.
DJ: That’s what Billy did when he was younger. He played a lot of saxophone. He doesn’t have the chops that he used to have, but I can only imagine what he was like in the ’60s. That’s what he did. He was a sax player. He had a lot of experience playing saxophone. A couple of years ago backstage, actually, he said to us, “You know I took lessons from Stan Getz.” We were like, “What!” Billy was in a summer music camp and Stan Getz was one of the teachers, and there were eight sax players that he taught over the summer.
How is Billy doing these days?
DJ: He’s doing great. Last summer was a tough one, because he had the operation and went through the chemo. But he got through it, and he came back in December. I was worried because it’s a lot to go through, but he wanted to come back and play. And he sounded and felt so much better. He beat the cancer. Well, I don’t know if you’ll fully beat cancer, but he’s on a maintenance program where he gets these short chemo treatments every two months, and he might have to do that for a long time.
The doctors said initially it would only be a year and a half, so we’re basing our tours around what he can do, because it takes a little time to recover from the treatments. We’re doing this tour of August and not going back on the road until December, when we play the West Coast. Next year is our 40th anniversary as well, so we want to try and do something to commemorate that, and we want Billy healthy for it.