X’s John Doe and Exene Cervenka Talk American Punk and ’70s Los Angeles

The iconic L.A. punk band will play at the Annenberg Space for Photography August 9

Since their formation nearly four decades ago, it seems ’70s L.A. punk rock band X has finally been embraced as the luminaries they always deserved to be. Not only do they tour consistently, but they’ve received a Certificate of Recognition from the City of Los Angeles for their contribution to the city’s music and culture. With classic albums like Los Angeles and Wild Gift, X arguably defines this city’s punk scene better than any other band before or since.

On their most recent tour, X reworked some of their better-known songs, making them softer, more musically nuanced, and topping them off with sax and vibraphone. They had been touring with the material but were forced to stop after guitarist Billy Zoom was diagnosed with bladder cancer on July 8 of this year. Zoom took a step back to receive immediate chemotherapy, but the band decided to soldier on, performing across the country and creating a Go Fund Me to support their 67-year-old bandmate (they’ve managed to raise more than $90,000, well over their goal). X has an upcoming free show at the Annenberg Space for Photography on August 9, at which fans can expect the group’s regular, live-wire punk rock fare.

We caught up with bandleaders John Doe and Exene Cervenka to chat about Zoom’s treatment, revisiting their early work, and how they chose their unusual name.

I was sorry to hear about Billy’s recent diagnosis. How is he? How are you all handling the news?
John Doe: We’re handling it like everybody handles that. We’re taking it a step at a time. His prognosis is good; it was caught pretty early. He’s having a localized chemotherapy. And since he’s got to make ends meet, we’re still on tour, and we’re giving him his own share, his rightful share, even though he’s just going through therapy. We’re out here working. I hope he doesn’t get used to it! (Laughs)

Exene Cervenka: He’s doing very well. A lot of people helped him out financially, which we’re very grateful for. We’re hoping that after we finish our next tour he’ll have recovered from the treatments and will be able to start playing again.

You guys recently did a string of shows in Orange County where you played some of your albums straight through. Is that something you guys do often? Do you enjoy doing it?
JD: Umm…no and no. (Laughs) We’ve done it four times, and I think those Orange County shows will be the last time we do it. It seems like it would be easy, but its incredibly difficult. The pacing of a record is very different than the sequence that you want to do live. So that’s confusing. And for some reason, emotionally and physically, it’s harder than just playing a regular show. I don’t know why. It’s just too hard. It’s more than we’d rather do.

Many people have called X the “seminal LA punk band.” What’s it like to carry that title? Is there any pressure?
EC: You know, we’ve been doing this since ’77, and if you read your press and listen to what the media says about you, you will lose your mind. Some people will say you’re the best thing that ever happened, and that you’re a genius, and that you’re super important, and other people will say that you’re terrible and overrated. And then most people will be in the middle somewhere.

JD: No pressure at all. Sorry! I think it’s just recently, in the last ten years, that we’ve understood some of the effect that we’ve had on people and music, and certainly the sentiments are really touching. But no…if you thought about that then you wouldn’t do anything. You’d start being much too self-conscious. You couldn’t get up in the morning. How does an icon get up in the morning?

You named your first album Los Angeles, so it seems like L.A. has had some impact on your music.
EC: When John and I came to Los Angeles, it was so great for us. He came from the East Coast; I came from a rural background in Florida. It was jolting to see the wealth and celebrity. Back then it was kind of a golden age—hippie girls and bikers and freedom. It’s not a very free state anymore, so it’s kind of different, but there’s a lot I love about Los Angeles—downtown L.A., Olvera Street, Chinatown. I like that kind of old-fashioned stuff.

How did you guys come up with your band name?
EC: One day John and I were driving down Santa Monica Blvd. and we saw the Starwood [a former nightclub on Santa Monica and N. Crescent Heights that hosted many punk and metal bands]. There were some names up on the marquis, the something-or-other’s, the blah blah blah’s. So we went by and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s so stupid. Why do bands even have to have names? If I had a band, it would just be a big black X up there.’ And suddenly I was in a band, and we called it X. It’s a good name and a bad name; it’s a funny, different type of name. But we’re just X. And we’re kind of anti-establishment still, as far as the way we think. We just never seem to do it the way you’re supposed to.

It seems to have worked out for you.
EC: Pretty much.