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Hello My Name is…Exene

| December 14, 2020 | 0 Comments

X – 2020 (D.J. Bonebrake, Billy Zoom, Exene Cervenka, John Doe) Photo by Kristy Benjamin

It’s not like Exene Cervenka, and her bandmates in the Los Angeles proto-punk quartet X are just sitting around their respective houses, idly twiddling their thumbs this enforced-lockdown December. But they are coming to surreal grips with the fact that for this Yuletide season, at least, they will not be the hardest-working band on the road. Since, of course, no bands are on the road at all and may not be for quite some time. So their annual “X-mas Tour” has been summarily canceled, the singer says, just when they — and fans — needed it most. In April, X released its first new studio album in 27 years, the guns-blazing, Rob Schnapf-produced Alphabetland, one of its strongest yet. And its eerily-prescient material, like the current raucous single “Goodbye Year, Goodbye” (complemented by a spartan animated stick-figure video conceived by Tiny Concert’s Keith Ross) was all written and recorded pre-COVID-19 — five songs in 2018 and another seven in a session that wrapped on March 10, just before the quarantine. Otherwise, this would have been a banner year for the group, which also signed a special merchandising deal with designer John Varvatos. “But it’s very hectic playing shows during the holidays because, for everyone else, it’s just part of the seasonal fun,” she admits. “But we’re trying to have holiday fun with our friends while we’re working, and sometimes it isn’t easy. And then you come home on Dec. 23 and think, ‘You know, I really should have gotten a Christmas tree. Oh, well…’ But I do love playing those Christmas shows, and I’m really going to miss it this year. So it’s, er, a little odd.”

IE:  Left to your own devices, how will you be celebrating this holiday instead?

EXENE CERVENKA:  You know, I kinda like Christmas. So this year, I’m celebrating the solstice and all of it, the whole season. To me, it’s like, “This is the dark-season time of the year, so let’s reflect on life.” Do you know what I mean? It could be a real spiritual time if you let it. But I’m going to be celebrating a bunch of holidays, straight through. So I’m going to go from solstice/Christmas to spring/Easter/equinox and then on to the fourth of July. So I’m just going to keep decorating and having fun with my mementos and my antiques and my little vintage things that I keep finding everywhere. So I’m trying to make my habitat safe but also amusing, and I seem to be doing a pretty good job of that. So let’s hope I can keep it up.

IE:  Have you immersed yourself in any of your other pursuits? Painting? Writing?

EC:  I’ve done some creative stuff. But mostly, I’ve just had the whole year to be at home with my dog. And I’ve never had that before. So in a way, it’s kind of like a blessing because she’s older, and it’s been great to be able to spend all this time together. She’s a little dog, but she’s really sweet. And one thing’s for sure — your dog is always happy to see you. So I dunno. I do some art, a bit of writing, and I’ve actually been sending mail to people, kinda reaching out through the U.S. Mail. And I’ve always bought stamps. But I feel really lucky to have all these friends, and we all periodically write to each other, out of the blue. So I’ve been doing that, and cooking all my own food and cleaning my own house and taking the dog for a walk — that’s it. And I’ll go to the farmers’ market every once in a while, but mostly I just stay home. I’m just about like everyone else — I’m still hangin’ in there. I try to get as much information as I can. And generally, with information, you have a million pieces of information, and none of them overlap or match up, so it’s really hard to make any decisions. Whereas if you have TWO pieces of information — like, this is the positive, this is the negative, this where we’re at — people can look at that and make an informed decision. So I guess what I’m trying to say is, nobody really knows what’s going on or what to think, and even though we know it’s bad, we just don’t know where it’s headed. So it’s kind of tough.

IE:  But none of Alphabetland resulted from this situation.

EC:  No. And some of the writing goes back 20 or 30 years. There are things that I wrote down that I turned into songs, then worked on and had a melody I was singing, and then I handed it over to John (Doe, bassist/co-vocalist), and he put bass on it and then helped me fill in all the empty spaces. So it was crazy, fortuitous timing for all kinds of things. Like that song “Goodbye Year, Goodbye” — John had that for quite a while, about a year. So it wasn’t like we wrote all these songs all of a sudden — these are old writings that have been turned into new writings, new music. And it came out really good, I think. We’re very happy with it. It was just a perfect lucky moment there.

IE:  And you’re not a fan of social media.

EC:  I’m not on social media, so I don’t hear as much news, and I don’t know what some other people might know. I’m kind of sticking to a very small group of people that I intermittently hang out with. And that’s the thing — some people forget to tell you stuff if you’re not on (social media), so you’ll eventually find out about certain things, but not always in a timely fashion. But that’s okay. But I think we’ve kind of lost our veneer as a civilization — over the last few years; it’s thinned considerably. So I think it’s actually much more important just to be a good person, keep to yourself, try to make better changes in the world, be supportive of others, and not get too pulled into the whole online thing. And do it with no negative thoughts — that’s the other thing. And it’s tough to do sometimes.

IE:  Are you telling me that I, ahem, must not think bad thoughts?

EC:  Yes! And if I have to tell you, then that means that you already are. But basically, I’m just saying that you have to concentrate your efforts on what you actually have control over, which can be painful, too, at times.

IE:  Listening to Alphabetland — and watching your ex-husband Viggo Mortensen in the amazing film Green Book — it’s great to see artists doing some of their best work after many years in the profession.

EC:  Yeah. And I did see that movie. But that was always hoping what would be the case, so you should never give in to that feeling that you can’t do your best work past a certain age. Of course, you can. You can do your best work at any point in life.

IE:  Speaking of movies, the TCM channel showed summer concert movies, and The Decline of Western Civilization was on one night. And you guys looked like kids!

EC:  I was 23, I think. And I haven’t seen that movie for a long time. But there was a time back in the ‘80s when it was hard to keep track of where things were going in the L.A. scene. But that was quite the crazy vortex of really powerful energy spinning around a crazy group of people, drawn together by no technology whatsoever — just by wandering down the street and finding each other. And I think people right now are leaning more towards social media just to get culture, politics, and information. But if we did it without any technology, people can do it again with all the connections we have now. They can find each other, be in a group, and have that same fucking great feeling. And now more than ever, when the world is going crazy, and people are feeling really unsteady, that’s when you need that kind of community. Tough times make for good art.

IE:  How did you hook up with the Keith Ross guy?

EC:  We got information on the “Goodbye Year, Goodbye” video concept, and we all saw his preliminary sketches, and we thought it was a great idea. I know the video just came out, and I haven’t seen the final version yet. But I know that it’s making people happy and that the animation is great — I know that much. And it was such a gift. And anytime anybody releases anything now — like a video they did themselves or something, whatever it is — it’s just wonderful. It’s like a present from the universe.

IE:  And the John Varvatos campaign? That was unexpected.

EC:  That’s another one of those things where they just approached us, and it sounded like a great idea. So why not? Why not, indeed? It’s just funny how these things happen. And I love those connections when people cross-fertilize like that. I think it’s great.

IE:  Well, Alphabetland is sort of a wild gift in itself, something fans were not expecting this already surprising year.

EC:  Yeah. It was a, uh, baby born late in its mother’s life, I guess. But something really cool about it, I think, is the fact that it happened at all. But you know what? I think it’s just perfect for the times.

– Tom Lanham

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Category: Asides, Columns, Weekly

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