Exene Cervenka on the Pending Alien Invasion and the Decline of Authenticity
Courtesy of X
"I feel like we've been abandoned in the Universe of all forces of good and they're just watching us self-destruct," says X frontwoman, Exene Cervenka from her Seattle hotel room. "It's saddened me because I really thought something would have come around and said 'Nonononono, these people are all going to be imprisoned, in a zoo, and made fun of for the rest of their lives. And Earth's going to be restructured to its former glory.' Period."
Hearing such a genuine sentiment in interview seems odd and refreshing. And that's the core of Exene's message: Not that aliens may or may not occupy Earth, but that we've abandoned all forms of authenticity, from dialog to art and music. That we've been conditioned to gravitate towards the safety of banality, to submit to the easily consumable and to fall in line with global corporatizing. The result? A once brilliant world blending to beige, destined for the universe's refuse bin.
X were an integral part of an exciting time. They sparked a musical turning point in L.A. during the late '70s and '80s. Rooted in punk but fueled by rootsy rock and roll, the albums she, John Doe, Billy Zoom and DJ Bonebrake created carry a kinetic vibrancy that's held up strong for 30 years. Since that experimental era, Exene has watched the course of live music veer, dissolving into second and third wave tribute movements, cartoonish parodies of an original idea.
Exene spots that mediocrity in everything, right down to the garbage lining our streets and blames it on a complicated web of shrinking small towns, corporate greed, youthful stifling and general complacency.
So, we talked about everything from mosh pits and crafting with Paul Reubens to why aliens don't think we're worth the intergalactic gas money. And yes, it's a bit long and weird -- but Exene Cervenka shouldn't be overly edited. She's responsible for making some of the most influential music in rock and roll history. If Exene believes we're on destruction's brink, I want to know why. Just think of this interview as that zine you lost way back behind the toilet. You might want to read it over a complicated shit.
X recently played the State Fair with Blondie. The band returns to Dallas on New Year's Eve when they'll headline a gig at Gas Monkey Bar N' Grill, with support by My Jerusalem and The P-Town Skanks. Don't be a pussy: Go see X.
Now, here's Exene Cervenka.
DC9: What did you think of our State Fair of Texas?
Exene: Oh, I had such a good time at that. I have friends in Dallas and it was pouring rain and my pants were soaked up to my knees. It was so much fun. I ate a bunch of German food. We just had a really good time, it was wonderful.
Did you try any of the crazy fried foods?
I didn't really have time, but I did buy one of those T-shirts that said "You had me at Fried."
The State Fair show was interesting. I'd never seen you play in an open-air, family-friendly environment before. Are you guys doing a lot more of those, or are the bulk of your gigs still in bars and clubs?
Naw, we play music halls and all over the place, and we open for people, and really just do every type of venue you could imagine. Obviously bars aren't my favorite because we're just too loud. It's difficult to do our shows in them.
Before the Fair, I saw you a decade ago in South Florida. None of us could believe you made the drive.
Yeah, it's hard living in places where people don't normally go! And it's not because bands don't want to, but The Guy says, "If we send you down there, you'll lose two days and we can't afford it."
You were a teenager in Florida, right?
Uh-huh. I lived there from when I was 13 to 20.
Were you makin' music then?
No. There weren't bands then. I mean, there was the Doors. Then there were crappier and crappier bands. So I didn't have any interest in music.
What spurred it?
Well I moved to California, moved in with a friend, I got a job program grant because I was a high school drop out, and there were poetry workshops and John [Doe] went the same night I went, and we met.
He'd just moved there from the East Coast and he started telling me about how there were bands playing and stuff. Like, I knew who the Ramones were and that kind of scene. But I moved to California with $180, so I didn't have any belongings -- no car or any of that. We started going to shows and moved into a house in Hollywood with a bunch of people, and I wrote lyrics to a song -- I made up a little melody for "I'm Coming Over."
[John] thought it was really good and said, "That could be a song." He and Billy were playing together, and he said, "How about that song? I could put bass on it and we could do it."
And it's not like I'm a mercenary, as anyone could tell you: I wouldn't be broke if I was. But I realized instantly -- not in a selfish way -- that "Well, wait a minute. If you think that sounds really good and you want to sing it and play it, then maybe it has some value. I have nothing of value. If you're telling me I have something of value and you want me to just give it to you, are you out of your fucking mind? No."
He was like, "Well, OK. Then why don't you sing it?" And I was like, "Damnit, I will."
So in other words, I never wanted to be in a band. I never tried. I was just protecting my property. But of course it was fun and immediately became something I wanted to do. It was just great.
What do you think is worth getting excited about in new music?
Well, over in Texas I like Not in the Face, from Austin. They're my favorite band: They're amazing. And there's these two girls in this band called Skating Polly whose record I produced and they were like 11 and 15 when we made the record.
But I think the thing most people find exciting is the same thing people always found exciting. If you went to see Iggy Pop, or you went to see the Doors or you went to see X or any band that was real people making real music and anything could happen, they'd written these great songs and were either going to let it all go and be as passionate and crazy as they'd like, or not.
You could see a great show, a terrible show, or see someone do something amazing. Just spontaneous expressions of creativity.
Now everything's pretty flat and formulaic. You know, like mosh pits and stuff. I was there when those things started happening, and those weren't "mosh pits": They were just people dancing around up and off the stage wanting to be part of the audience, part of the band, part of the audience, part of the band. Then it became a male-dominated bullshit thing. That's not a spontaneous expression of anything, that's just a football game.
And there are all of these people who haven't been to a show except to see Miley Cyrus or Lady Gaga. It's just so sad: They've never seen an actual person sing. [Those types of performances] remind me of when I was a kid, watching the Ed Sullivan Show and they'd present these women who would do a little dance and everyone would clap. It's just so ridiculous. A choreographed spectacle for people who can't get up out of their chair.
I didn't know much about your art until more recently. I stumbled onto it through a friend with ties to DCKT. When did you start making art?
I started when I was a small child, and somehow they never managed to beat it out of me, so I kept going. But you know there's this small percentage of people who have so much money it's unthinkable and they buy only the most expensive, "important," suddenly popular, hippest thing. Whatever they can make the most money on, or seem the coolest to own, they buy. Everyone else is kind of left with nothing.
But my fans, and people like me, can't buy art. So I have to wait for some really rich person to come and buy anything so I can sell my stuff for less to people who don't have money.
It's really gotten difficult. When I started out in the arts and music, there was definitely a middle area. But that's gone.
You make this folksy, Americana, sort of DIY mixed-media, zine-inspired work with direct painting, silk-screening and collage elements. Do you know any of the people in your work, or are they all found objects?
"Happily Ever After" 2008 mixed media on canvas panel 12 x 9
Oh yes, they're all found objects.
There's a shrine-like quality to them, a sort of honoring the dead. Does that link to your Catholic upbringing?
I don't know, but it's really sad when you go into a thrift store and you see a box of photos that have been thrown away by someone's family. I've been going to thrift stores since I was 12 and that was my first mind-opening experience: seeing all of this antique type stuff that was just for a quarter. "Here's Grandpa's old overalls." I'm like, are you kidding me? It's people's lives, just being discarded like that.
While I think that stuff is inherently beautiful visually, I think it has this other power because it has life. It's real, not manufactured crap.
Have you always collected scraps and trinkets?
Yes. Years and years of that stuff. I'm trying to get rid of it now because there's way more than I can ever use in a lifetime of art. And I didn't know why I was keeping it. But when I used to look on the ground, the garbage was different. Now I look on the ground and all garbage is the same.
It used to be that you'd look down and think "Oh, what is this? It's an old horse racing form!" Or a political thing from Philadelphia or place mats from a chicken place that only existed in rural Kentucky.
Do you think that's the dumbing down of life, as told through trash?
I don't know. It's the elimination of everything real, that's for sure. What's obvious now is that the second we started destroying small-town America it started with "We're just going to put in one big store." It was really "We're going to turn the world into one big store. And we're going to destroy the history and culture of your people." Because that's what the corporations do, they make sure there's nobody alive who can remember when things were not this way. "Oh, we had real food? Oh, we had stores that weren't Walmart?" It's this destruction of anything real that angers me.
You're old friends with Paul Reubens, right?
Do you guys ever do crafts together?
I like the crafty stuff he does. Nooooo, we don't. That's really funny though, that would be great, wouldn't it?
I like thinking of the two of you hanging out, crafting together.
We'd probably make some kind of Rube Goldberg together ...
Are you still doing much songwriting or has art replaced that?
If you write a song today, you might as well invite the Devil over for dinner, because you publish the thing, then They steal it. You cannot get paid. Like I got this song on television but my publishing company got absorbed by a huge corporation, which sucks because they're great, and I get this song on a show and I never got the money. They sold me to another company as some asset. Then I have to go to this other company and try to get my money. So I'm not putting anything else out into corporate America.
With art, if they buy it I'll take that and put it in my pocket but I won't pay the music system. No. I expect them to come over and take all the change out of our couch tomorrow.
It sounds like I'm complaining about me and how hard it is for us, but we as a people are under attack. It's everyone.
Are there any solutions?
Yes, there are three. There could be a divine intervention, and by that I mean a godlike, goddesslike savior -- I don't give a fuck who the hell it is. There could be a military coup. Or there could be some kind of inter-dimensional, extra-dimensional, or extra-planetary force that says "You know what? You guys are really screwing up and we're going to move in and take care of business." But I think that if any of those things were going to happen -- and they're all within the realm of possibility -- they would have already happened.
So I feel like we've been abandoned in the Universe of all forces of good and they're just watching us self-destruct. It's really saddened me because I really thought something would have come around and said "Nonononono, these people are all going to be imprisoned, in a zoo, and made fun of for the rest of their lives. And Earth's going to be restructured to its former glory." Period.
Do you think we aren't even worth the energy? We aren't worth the intergalactic gas money?
Apparently not! I mean talk about a ghetto: And by that I mean we've become a place where we live in trash and are rude to each other. I can't believe it. It's such a great planet, it's a shame. I hate to see it go.
Even though there are trillions of planets out there and some contain lifeforms, they're all unique. And whether it's a god or creator, something made it, and it just seems that it's worth saving. It will all be wiped out of the universe completely. And there won't be people to remember their grandpa or great art or rock 'n' roll because it won't be anymore. It will be vaporized.