When X formed in Los Angeles in 1977, four like-minded and wonderful weirdos looking to create something subversive yet arty at the dawn of the L.A. punk scene, they could never have imagined that, 40 years down the line, those same four people would be preparing to celebrate their ruby anniversary.
Sure, they’ve taken breaks. Other people have joined the band and then left over the years. But the fact that original members John Doe, Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom and D.J. Bonebrake are still touring as a unit as we prepare to enter 2017 is extremely rare in the volatile world of music, never mind punk rock.
Still performing together is one thing. But still enjoying it, retaining a freshness and sense of excitement about playing the same songs over and over again — that’s another thing entirely. After all, X hasn’t released new material since 2009’s Merry Xmas From X EP. The last new album was 1993’s Hey Zeus!
“Did we expect The Rolling Stones to still be playing?” Doe asks. “Hell no. But I think you secretly hope that you would be. You secretly hope that you would have enough stamina and creativity to feel that people want to see what you’re doing. We’re playing these songs that are a little bit quieter and we’ve reimagined some things. It offers the audience a chance to hear how good Billy plays, and the ins and outs of the way Exene and I weave each other’s minds while we’re singing and stuff like that.”
That’s the trick. If you’re not releasing new music, you have to reimagine the old songs in many different ways to keep yourself from going crazy. For example, recent years have seen X invited to play folk- and bluegrass-heavy festivals, as well as art spaces and seated theaters. A full-on punk show, Doe says, didn’t feel appropriate, so they played with the sound — filling it out where necessary, or perhaps taking an acoustic route.
“I’ll tell you what, it’s a challenge to sing the songs every night and make them completely different, by singing different melodies, different harmonies, different lines, different ideas, different movements of your body, all that stuff,” Cervenka says. “It’s fun for me — I really love doing that every night, and I love the songs.”
Local fans have the opportunity to see X's continued evolution for themselves, as the band are playing four consecutive shows at the Roxy to end the year, culminating on New Year’s Eve. The Sunset Strip provided the backdrop to much of the early craziness, not only for X but also for brethren The Germs, Screamers, Avengers and the rest. For Doe, any event at the Roxy is tinged with sadness now, because it was there that he last performed with late Doors keyboardist and close friend Ray Manzarek. Both Doe and Cervenka say their most vivid memories of the venue are of seeing other shows there, rather than performing their own.
“I remember going to see T Bone Burnett in ’77, and Robert De Niro was there,” Doe says. “I got to watch De Niro pass by me, and that was very exciting when I had been in Hollywood for all of six months. I remember the backstage being so crammed when X played there, you couldn’t walk through it.”
Cervenka was the subject of some controversy in 2014 when she suggested via Twitter that the Santa Barbara school shooting was a hoax perpetrated by gun-control activists. She soon removed the troubling tweets, but the damage was done. Now, postelection, she won’t discuss politics with the media at all, referring to it as a “no-win” endeavor. Doe is a little more forthcoming, particularly regarding the idea that there will be some exciting punk written during the Trump presidency.
“I would just warn the people writing the songs not to use his name, because then it becomes dated,” Doe says. “We can still sing ‘The New World’ and it can be sung about anyone because it says, ‘It was better before they voted for what's-his-name.’ It wasn’t calculated or smart. The narrator of the [song] doesn’t actually know who it was — he can’t recall because he’s a hobo. But the song seems to be more universal as a result.”
The internet has been alive with talk of X recently, but not necessarily this X. A movie, We Are X, was released this year about the Japanese theatrical hard-rock band of the same name (now called X Japan in the States). Doe and Cervenka shrug when talk turns to the film.
“My son saw that at a film festival,” Cervenka says. “They’re more of a hard-rock band, and I think they’re kind of popular. We got a letter from their label in 1984, saying we had to cease and desist using our name. We were just like, 'That’s funny.' We thought, 'Please sue us so we can make money and pay our bills,' but they didn’t. They couldn’t make us stop using our name. There’s also an X band in Australia.”
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Here in L.A., of course, X will always mean our hometown, experimental punk troupe. In 40 years, they’ve managed to excite and infuriate. They’ve polarized opinions, like any good punk band should, and they’ve kept their fingers on the pulse of modern music. They've made wonderful new music and, when they tired of that, they've continued to play wonderful shows.
Frankly, we still need X around the place.
X play the Roxy Dec. 28-31.