Photo by Ali Smith, courtesy of the Exene home page
I first encountered Exene Cervenka while watching The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization, Penelope Spheeris’ 1981 documentary about the late ‘70's / early ‘80's Los Angeles punk scene. X, the band Cervenka fronted alongside husband / bassist John Doe, stood out among the hyper-charged aggression and testosterone-fueled rebellion of the mohawked masses. Their lyrics tackled issues beyond post- adolescent frustration, Cervenka and Doe sang like they were either fighting or making love, and the band, which also originally included guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebrake, could actually play their instruments.
Interview by Amy Phillips (Sept 2002)
After recording two classic records (1980’s Los Angeles and 1981’s Wild Gift) for local indie Slash Records, X signed to Elektra and released four more studio albums (1982’s Under The Big Black Sun, 1983’s More Fun In The New World, 1985’s Ain’t Love Grand and 1987’s See How We Are) and a live album (1988’s Live At The Whisky a Go-Go). Billy Zoom left the band in 1986, and was replaced by ex-Lone Justice guitarist Tony Gilkyson. X took a long hiatus from 1988 until 1993, when they released Hey Zeus! Since then, the band has released a live album and a two-disc hits-and-rarities collection (Beyond & Back in 1987), and all of their early work has been reissued on CD by Rhino. The band continues to tour sporadically, with Zoom back in the fold since 1998.
Cervenka has pursued a solo career concurrent with and after X, releasing two roots-rock albums (1989’s Old Wives Tales and 1990’s Running Scared) as well as various spoken-word recordings and books. She has also collaborated with Lydia Lunch, Wanda Coleman, Rancid bassist Matt Freeman, Red Aunts, Old ‘97s, and Extra Fancy on record and in print. Her new band, Original Sinners, which includes ex- Distillers Kim Chi and Mat Young, released its self-titled debut in June.
What fascinated me most of all, that first time I saw Cervenka on screen, was her mysterious, highly feminine presence. Who was this woman who wore lots of jewelry and eyeliner and was shown beaming over her collection of evangelical Christian propaganda pamphlets? Who was this wild-haired gypsy with the little-girl-gone-to-hell voice wailing "last night everything broke!" over blistering, stop/start rockabilly in "We’re Desperate"? Backstage at the Knitting Factory in New York City in early August, I was given the chance to find out. On tour with Original Sinners, Exene chatted about music, the city of Los Angeles, the Unabomber, feminism, and more. Check out www.exenecervenka.com or www.xtheband.com for further information.
PSF: Many of your songs, especially on the early X records, concern the dark, seamy underbelly of the golden Southern California myth. In your opinion, has Los Angeles changed much you first came there in the late '70s?
The people haven't changed. In fact, I feel the same recently as I did when I first moved there. Because when I was a young woman, when I was 20, 21, 22-- that's a real victim, preyed-upon age in a place like that. I wasn't a porn star / stripper / beauty / model kind of girl, but when I moved there, if you were younger, and you were kind of naïve, you had to deal with guys all the time being sleazy and weird. You never knew what anyone's motives were. I got into the punk scene really early, which was such a great family, and so safe, so I got away from that. We wrote about the rich people, the Fleetwood Macs of the city and all that, from an outsider's viewpoint. Now that I'm older, I'm the outsider again. Not as an artist, but as a human being. Because truly, L.A. is the most superficial city you could ever imagine living in.
PSF: More so than New York?
I don't even believe you can make that comment. Have you ever been to L.A.? It wears you down like nothing else I've ever known, except the Catholic Church. It destroys your sense of self-image so thoroughly that you just feel like, 'why am I not dead? Why do I even live here?'
PSF: Yet you've stayed there for a very long time.
I stay there because of personal reasons. I have a child, and he's not grown up yet, and that's where he's being raised, and that's where he goes to school, and he's in a great environment. Other than that, I cannot wait to leave that town. And Hollywood-- all the things that were great about Hollywood, old Hollywood, glamorous Hollywood, the old restaurants, the old 'that's where so-and-so used to live, that used to be the gardens of bablyon'-- those things have all been torn down and turned into strip malls. All the drive-in restaurants, all the car culture stuff, is gone. There's places in Pasadena, in the Valley and Orange County that still have that weird, '50's L.A. culture, surf culture, but it's not an overall feeling. So there's very little redeeming qualities about it. It's all transient culture, it's all people coming there to become famous, and they're all very shallow, superficial.
PSF: Why did you first move to Los Angeles?
I came there originally because I got a ride from Tallahassee by a friend of a friend who was going to California, where I knew somebody. And I had to get out of Florida. I had enough money to help pay for gas, and get to my friend's house in Los Angeles, and that's all I knew, and that's all I cared about. I had no dreams of anything, I just had to get out of Florida. If it had been a ride to Chicago, I would have gone to Chicago.
PSF: If a young person came to L.A. now, do you think he or she would be able to find anything like the community you found in the early punk scene?
I think so because a lot of people are moving there and I think they're having a really good time. Now I don't know if having a good time is the same thing as finding community. I'm really judgmental and really negative about the times in which I live, whether it's when I'm 20 or 46, doesn't matter to me, I'm always gonna be judgmental about everything I'm surrounded with. I'm always condemning young people and older people. I just think that when you're 20, it's an exciting time no matter what you're doing and I think you find your bands and your friends in whatever time you're in and create a family. I think that's always gonna happen. The only thing I wish is that people could be more original now. I realize that gets harder as time goes on. It was easier in the fifties and sixties and seventies than it is now, and that's just luck of the draw for when you're born.
PSF: You've said in other interviews that you had no musical background when you started X, and that you thought that was beneficial to creating your sound. Now that you've been writing and performing for over twenty years, has your approach to making music changed at all?
I think at the time when X started, it was a great thing to have a guy who knew everything about rockabilly and American music, a guy who knew everything about classical and big band and jazz, and a guy who knew everything about all kinds of popular music and country and western, and me, who just knew what I heard on the radio growing up as a kid, and punk rock, and that was everything I cared about. I don't know about now. I still like the same things I always liked. If you give me a jukebox and it has the old sixties bands on it, like the Seeds or just like the old, weird stuff on the radio, not so much the common stuff, like the Motown stuff, and some country and western, and some punk rock, I'll still play the same songs. I really haven't changed.
PSF: Who are your favorite artists of all time?
Roger Miller. Buck Owens. Throwing Muses-- Kristen Hersh, my hero. She's a great guitar player, great writer, great singer. Everything about her is amazing. I saw the last show they played in L.A., at the Whisky. They just sat down on stage, they didn't have a set list, and they just asked people to name out their favorite songs. They played for like two and a half hours. I was at the very front of the stage at the Whiskey, right in front of her for two and a half hours. She's amazing. She is really like one of my heros.
PSF: What have you been listening to lately?
I've discovered some punk bands that I didn't know existed, like Squid Vicious, and the Crucifucks, who I never listened to until I met (Original Sinners guitarist), Jason (Edge), and he turned me onto all this great stuff. What I listen to a lot right now is - you know the Flat Duo Jets? Dexter Romweber has a new record-- well, it's been out for about a year. I think, regionally speaking, my favorite music comes out of Texas. Historically, from the Big Boys to Butthole Surfers to Fuckemos, Swine King. Roky Erikson, Jesus Lizard. Crazy music out of Texas, I love that stuff. But I mostly listen to really old gospel or country.
PSF: I remember reading a few years ago that you were changing your last name to Cervenkova, but then you didn't. Why did that happen?
My name is Bohemian. Bohemia is where Prague is now, which became Czechoslovakia later. My father's side of the family is very insistent that we're not Polish or Czechoslovakian, we're Bohemian. I went to do a bunch of spoken word performances in that part of the world. Every time I went on the radio, or was introduced in a club or something, they would introduce me as 'Exene Cervenkova,' because there's no such thing as a woman with just an 'a' at the end of her name. 'Ova' is always the way it's pronounced. So everyone called me that, and then people kept going, 'why do you have a man's name'? There were people coming to see me play that thought I was a man, and it was a really weird thing. So I thought maybe I should change it, and then everyone in America was like 'are you out of your mind? Don't change your name now. Maybe when you were fifteen or something.'
PSF: It was around that time that you released a recording of a reading of the Unabomber Manifesto. What was the story behind that?
I did it with my friend John, and we just did it in his living room, together, with the TV on and banging on a guitar. We got the Unabomber Manifesto when it was published, and we just thought it was such a throwback to that whole like Patricia Hearst / SLA / Charles Manson kind of culture, the bizarro part of American culture that makes people freak out. It wasn't a tribute to him in any way. His stuff was so smart and then so incredibly convoluted and stupid, it was just like 'you've got a point... wait a minute, you're out of your mind!' His methods were terrible. The reason we did it was just... I don't know, a silly thing to do, a very punk rock thing to do. Yeah, our society's fucked up, face it. And the day it came out, he got caught! People were going, 'why did you try to capitalize on it' and I'm like, I wasn't! I thought the guy was never gonna get caught! I thought he was some weirdo guy who was gonna be at large forever. We didn't mean for him to get caught, we didn't know.
PSF: Do you have any spoken word projects in the works?
I'm trying to focus on this band, pretty much. Spoken word is a lot harder than being in a band. It's a more demanding thing. I'm more of a visual writer, I like to illustrate the things, so when I read them, they're good, I think, but I'm not a performance poet. I just think the words should be enough, so when I read it, it isn't as powerful, maybe, as seeing it.
PSF: I ask this question to every female artist I interview: would you call yourself a feminist?
No, I would never call myself a feminist. I would have in the '60's and I would have in the '70's. Women had to fight for Roe vs. Wade, and that's what women nowadays do not realize. I think that the way feminism has gotten turned around against women is just totally shocking to me. I think sexual liberation is fine, but I think that when women make the choice that it's better financially to be a stripper than front a band, I just part company there. I think this whole Camille Paglia version of feminism is just fucked up, and I think the Andrea Dworkin version of feminism is fucked up too. I hate the left, I hate the right. I think people should just be people. I don't understand why they can't have self-respect and just be artists. I don't get it, I don't get what's going on right now with women. They've surrendered totally to that whole concept.
PSF: What concept?
I mean pornography is so mainstream now, but women are not on the radio. So they're thinking they're liberated, but how are they liberated?
PSF: So you don't agree with the argument that if a woman chooses to take her clothes off for her own personal benefit and enjoyment, she's empowering herself?
Well you could argue, what's the difference between saying poetry in front of a crowd for money or taking your clothes off in front of a crowd for money? But if you think about our society's relationship with that, men don't do it. Why don't they do it? Why don't men do that? Why aren't there an equal number of strip clubs for men and strip clubs for women? I try to sort it out in my mind, and I just can't. I'm so conflicted about all that, because I understand that the generation of younger people today haven't gone through the social struggles women my age have. They haven't had to fight for jobs or for abortion rights or for birth control. They haven't had to fight to not be sexually harassed on the job like I had to all my life. And to return to that role, to me, is insane. Now they feel that they're taking their own power or something, but to me it's like black people calling themselves 'nigger.' It's like, wouldn't it be better if we just got other people to not use that word than to go 'I'm empowered now because I call myself a nigger, and if you do it, it doesn't mean anything, because I can say that about myself'. I don't get it. It's a very strange concept to me.
PSF: You have recorded for several different record labels of varying sizes. What have been the advantages and disadvantages of being on a major versus an indie?
Well, I've been on several independents. I've been on Slash, which was independent, and I feel we got totally ripped off by that label. Completely and totally, yes. We were on Elektra, and I thought they treated us really fairly, and the only mistakes we made with Elektra were that we spent too much own money making our own records, and that's why we didn't ever make any money. That was our fault. I thought they treated us really well. They never interfered with us until the very end. They were totally like 'do what ever you want'. I was on Lookout! Records-- great label, really, really nice people, really fair to artists. I was on Kill Rock Stars-- great. Nitro, fantastic. Great label. Nitro's the best of both worlds. They have money, they're professional, but they're small and they let you do what you want to do.
PSF: Do you have any advice about labels for new bands that are just starting out?
I think it's different for every band. The thing is, there's no excuse now to not be on a small label. When Slash was around, there was one national distributor and they were like organized crime jukebox distributors. So when they took over independent distribution, they didn't what they were doing. We would go to Boston to do an instore, and there would be 300 people there, and there would be no records in the store. But nobody's an amateur anymore, everybody knows how to get records to every store in America. Everybody's got Soundscan. There's CMJ, there's networking, there's promotional stuff. There's no reason to be on a major label, unless you're the Strokes or somebody like that. That's the logical place for them, and that's fine for them, I'm sure. I think it's so totally a personal decision. I don't think it matters anymore. There's downsides and upsides to both.
PSF: You've been making music for over twenty years. After so long, is it still worth it?
It's worth it, but don't forget that this is what I do for a living, just like a doctor or a teacher. I look at being an artist that way, as some sort of contribution. I feel there's a virtuous aspect to what I do. I hope that doesn't sound too pretentious, but I feel like that's a lost thing in our culture. I feel good that I can add a little of that here and there.
PSF: Out of all the bands you've been in and all the music you've made, could you pick a favorite song or album or time period?
You know, something like that would negate other things, so I couldn't. It's just so odd. One of my favorite tours that I ever was on was Auntie-Christ [1997 one-off collaboration between Cervenka, Rancid bassist Matt Freeman and X drummer DJ Bonebrake] and [San Francisco girl-punk band] Stone Fox. It was just us with no crew. And it was so low-budget, and you couldn't slack at all because it was so important that everybody remembered the cords-- I mean the actual, physical cords for the guitars, on stage. One of my favorite things about that tour was when we played in Lubbock, Texas, we played at an underage club, and everyone in there was literally under the age of eighteen. There were probably fifty-five kids in there. And at the end of the night, I was paid in change. I was paid like sixty dollars in one dollar bills, and twenty dollars in fives, and then like a pound of change. It was insane.
PSF: Is there anything you've done that you absolutely hate in retrospect?
There are things I absolutely hate, yeah. There are things that I realize are my fault because I compromised what I thought was right, and I listened to what other people told me and I didn't speak up for myself, like, 'no I'm not doing that.' But then on the other hand, there are times even worse, when I said 'OK I'll do that' without even judging it. You know, I don't give myself that hard of a time. I cut myself a break. 'Cause everybody makes bad choices. The situations that I've been in, I'm my own navigator. I'm not emulating anyone. I'm just trying to do the best I can. X started out at a time when there was uncharted territory as far as punk rock and major labels. After Billy left the band, when we got to the late '80's, it was just a dead zone for music until Nirvana came out. Everyone was just struggling to survive, nobody knew what to do. It was like 'sure, we'll do that. Whatever.' And it was just crazy. We should have just stopped. But I don't have any major regrets. I think I'm OK.
And if that wasn't enough and just because we love her,
here is yet another Exene interview done in 2000 and yet another interview from 2009
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