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Feature: X-Mas Tidings with Exene Cervenka

| December 10, 2022

Exene Cervenka of X (center)

It’s not like Exene Cervenka has suddenly been transformed — through the charming stop-motion animation process of Rankin-Bass — into a warm, fuzzy feel-good protagonist this year. But the formerly feisty X firebrand has chilled out, post-pandemic, and actually become one Humble new Bumble as her four-decade-old combo heads out on its annual X-Mas Tour with Los Straitjackets this month. In fact, she’s feeling so unusually festive, she might be persuaded to top your Christmas tree with a “Rudolph”- delicate star. And it’s quite refreshing. At a moment when she might otherwise be scrolling down 2022’s endless Naughty List, she’s chosen to concentrate on niceties instead. “We’ve all worked really hard to make differences in life, whether it’s through music or life in general, just helping people or whatever,” she says of her uplifting new philosophy. “So we should all take a second to be very proud of that, and then reassess what’s important, and what’s important is each other, and that’s it. That’s what’s always been important, if you look at your life.

And according to Cervenka, any day on this side of the grass is not too bad — particularly if you’re still playing and recording with the same California punk musicians you started out with — like guitarist Billy Zoom, bassist/co-vocalist John Doe, and drummer D.J. Bonebrake, a quartet that sounds as vital as ever on its recent Rob Schnapf-produced “Alphabetland” comeback, complemented by a bonus-track release called “X-tras.” And at the end of the interview, the Los Angeles-based singer is “There’s always tomorrow”-jubilant.“We’ve solved all the world’s problems simply by avoiding them!” The old X motto of “Fuck The World” no longer means what it used to, she adds, now that the world has indeed, been thoroughly fucked by the coronavirus. “It doesn’t mean that we don’t care,” she clarifies. “It means we care more, and we should love everyone that we can love.” What better seasonal message could there be?

IE: How’s everything going for you this holiday season?

Exene Cervenka: Well, you have your ups and downs. I just came back from the vet…but it’s just stuff. We’re still here, we’re still doing this (X) thing. But you know what? That’s it, that is life. And life is a gift. And I know it sounds corny and all that, but it is a gift, and we have to treasure it and we have to appreciate it. And that’s kind of a crazy idea, because sometimes we just don’t respect life.

IE: Traditionally, you’ve always had kind of a skeptical, somewhat suspicious view of humanity, particularly during the holidays.

EC: Well, I’ve never been a cynic. But I think the ‘70s, the ‘60s, and the ‘80s — and you know, you live up in San Francisco — all the positive things that everyone has worked so hard to achieve? That was done out of love and care, and it was great. So despite who’s president, we can’t fix the big stuff, but we can help each other. And that can make such an impact — to just help people.

IE: But we also had almost three pandemic years to pause, reflect, and rest. But Humanity, it seems, has learned nothing.

EC: You know, it’s the human condition. And I think the thing to do is realize that life is a gift, and you can make a big impact on the people around you. We can do miracles in our lives with people, and it’s actually a beautiful world. We can’t fix things at the very top, with the corporations or the pharmaceutical companies, or the governments of the world or the people behind those thrones. And sometimes fighting that just makes you angry and small. So it’s best to just be grateful every day, and be of service to others, because that’s really life. That’s what life is.

IE: Have you noticed the good will rippling through these annual X-Mas shows? Fans really look forward to them.

EC: Well, it’s just great, because every show we play, we can’t believe we’re still playing, and that people are still coming. It’s so nice. And especially since the pandemic, the fact that we’re all in a room together, listening to music and actually being together? It reminded me so much of the early punk days, when we first started playing — after that long time when no one could play, everyone was just like kids again, like, “Yay! We’re here! Yay!” I mean, that’s how I felt. And again — not to get too spiritual on you — but that is that feeling of gratitude. So I’m happy. And also the venues that we’re playing this time around are some of my favorite venues, and really intimate.

IE: You’re at the Great American Music Hall in SF. The late Townes Van Zandt once told me that he and his band recorded an afternoon sound check there, and then played the evening’s show and jumped on the tour bus headed up to Portland. But when they played back that sound check tape, there was a phantom keyboardist playing along, in perfect tune, with every song. They freaked out.

EC: There is a ghost there! I’ve had an encounter with a ghost at the Great American Music Hall myself. There was a woman in the downstairs (backstage) bathroom. I was in the bathroom by myself, and I was suddenly not alone – there was a woman in there, crying. And I asked somebody who worked there, and they were like, “Oh, yeah! Her!” So that place is very interesting to me, and San Francisco itself has this real…Barbary Coast quality, something no other city has. And that city must have just kept all those people alive, because whenever I’m there it seems like I’m living back in the 1800s.

IE: So it’s a whole new you this Christmas, then?

EC: I’ve grown up a bit. I’m a grownup now. I’m fine, and I’m not gonna complain about anything. Every day, I wake up and go, “Well, I can look at life as crap, or I can be really happy.” It’s like, I really thought that we’d all be dead by now anyway, but we’re not. So I’m not gonna complain about a thing. I had COVID last Christmas. And I had my house decorated, and I had people coming to stay with me, and I was gonna see my son and other family and friends. There was all this stuff going on, and I was so excited, and we had all these (X-Mas) shows booked. But I got COVID, and we had to cancel the last show of the tour, and I had to be home by myself that whole time, while keeping everybody out that I’d planned to be with. And there my house was, all decorated. But I wasn’t very sick, of course, but I still couldn’t go anywhere. And I was kind of like, “This is what I’ve been so worried about? This is why I have to stay home, because I basically have a cold?” And I could have succumbed to that, but do you know what happened? There would be a knock on the door, and there would be a friend standing there, with all kinds of food and cookies, and people coming by and putting things on the porch or constantly calling me. And it turned out to be this really beautiful Christmas, even though I was just with my dog. So I count my blessings now. Every day. And I thought, “Of all the people who had lost someone this year, for whatever reason, I’m not truly alone. And it was okay — I’m not sick sick.” So yeah, it was weird. But now I count my blessings, every day. And the other thing is, I feel like the solstice Christmas time of year is bigger than it used to be. I love Charlie Brown, and I love the traditional Christmas. But I also love the idea of where we are — it’s an ancient time of celebration and meaning. It has a lot of meaning on a lot of levels, and in a lot of different cultures. So I like to think about it that way, as well, and I like to give people little presents or whatever.

IE: What’s new in the X world, coming up?

EC: Well, you know we did that record, Alphabetland, and it kind of got a little waylaid because we couldn’t tour. But we were so happy with that record, and just delighted at how easy it was, and fun it was to make that record. So we’re working on more songs now, and it’s really great, because it’s going equally easily, and I’m like, “Oh, my gosh! We could keep doing this! Why didn’t we do this sooner?” So I’m also working — not just with John, because John [Doe] and I are working on songs separately and together, and sending files back and forth, because he’s in Texas — but I’m also working with D.J. [Bonebrake] on songs, which I’m really happy about, so that’s different. So expect more weirdness in the future from X. More musical weirdness. And who would have thought, ya know/ I am so, so fortunate that we’re still doing this, and that people still care. I can’t say it enough — it fills me with awe that people still wanna see us. But anyway, there will be a new X record next year — we’ve already got the studio time booked, and we’re doing it with Rob Schnapf. He is back, and we love him as a person, and a great producer. He’s kind of like Ray (Manzarek) in that way, where he can just sit and listen and be really happy to be there, and go, “Wow! You guys are great!” And then he can make just a comment on one song that completely changes it. And we’re like, “Oh! Oh yes! You’re right — let’s do that!” He doesn’t interfere, and he makes everything better.

– Tom Lanham

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