On June 26th 2002 I had the excruciating pleasure of interviewing Exene Cervenka as well as Jason Edge live on my show Brownian Motion. Both were in KZSU's studio promoting the debut album and tour of their new band The Original Sinners. The conversation included much talk of the new band, but, at the risk of being disrespectful of Jason, I couldn't resist bringing up subjects close to Exene, such as her past in X, her present publishing career, and her general views on life.
Top photo, left to right: Jason Edge, Mike Vavak (Nitro Records), KZSU dj Kathleen, Exene, KZSU djs The Big Chief, Your Imaginary Friend
Photos by Smurf, YIF
Your Imaginary Friend: Did you ever have an Imaginary Friend, Exene, when you were a child?
Exene: No, I never did.
YIF: You didn't?
Exene: I don't know, I think it's a nice concept. I was thinking about it; it would be a good thing to do.
YIF: So, I understand that you were really busy yesterday doing the "Walk of Fame" induction for X?
Exene: Well, since you brought it up, if you don't know what that is, there's this place in LA on Sunset Boulevard called the Guitar Center and they have hand prints of bands and things out in front, kinda like Grummans Chinese Theater but for Rock and Roll. The Ramones are there and Carl Perkins and a lot of really great people. They inducted X in there yesterday which is kinda the first time that we've ever gotten any kind of award or recognition on a kinda mainstream level. So, that was pretty weird, like, you know, declaration of importance or something.
Jason: Which means that not only do they have handprints, now they have high heel prints.
Exene: Yes, I put my high heel in, in the cement!
YIF: So how does it feel to be put up there with Carl Perkins and people like that?
Exene: It makes you feel really, really good, and it was, uh, I just love it. I think its great. A lot of dead people though, so it makes you think about your mortality. Its kinda like a cemetery plot. But what're gonna do?
YIF: Yeesh, yeah everybody's gonna die sometime right? Hopefully later, than sooner.
Exene: Hmm, they become the same thing after a while.
YIF: Well, Exene, before we talk about the Original Sinners we have to talk, at least for a few minutes, about the history of X, simply because a surprising number of people I told about this upcoming interview said to me "Exene? Who's that?" or "X, yeah I've heard of them, weren't they some 80's band?" I could go on but I rather it come from you.
Exene: X was a band that started in Los Angeles in the late 70's. There was a real revolutionary punk rock scene going on there at the same time New York and London were happening, and San Francisco and Tucson and Minneapolis and all those cities, Austin, they all had their scenes. It was before MTV, none of the bands were on the radio. But when X came out with Los Angeles in 1980, we sold like 100,000 records the first year. But we could not get played on the radio because the radio was exclusively the domain of current rock like Fleetwood Mac or classic oldie kinda rock, and they refused to play any of those bands (like X). Every once in a while they'd play Blondie or Tom Petty or something but that's about as edgy as they got. It became kind of a running battle with the mainstream, which we never won, which nobody won. Two movies about that time are The Decline of Western Civilization, and The Unheard Music, which is kinda hard to find, which was a documentary on X. There's a million great records out of that scene, Black Flag came out of that scene, the Circle Jerks, a lot of the hardcore bands, and bands like the Plugz, the Gun Club, and Blasters. The Go Gos were actually part of that scene. The reason people don't hear about it was because it wasn't, it wasn't really, people didn't conform. I mean the New York Times and the Village Voice and the LA Times, those papers wrote about it, but Rolling Stone didn't take it very seriously and, you know, it was just really hard. So I'm not surprised that people don't really know about it, even though we've sold like half a million records of those records of that time. They still haven't heard of it. It's, you know, our culture's screwy.
YIF: That is a, uh, you heard it here first!
YIF: There's a quote. Well its funny that you say that, because it seems like the more things change the more they stay the same. Its actually weird for me and I'm sure for you living these days, you know the early 80's with Reagan/Bush I and all the anger that we lived through and how it felt all that time that at any moment we could all die in a nuclear holocaust. And now we are basically in Reagan/Bush II and instead of dying instantly in a nuclear holocaust it feels like we're all gonna die a slow poisonous death. Exene, you've been doing this more than 25 years, does it feel like anything's changed from what you're saying, at least as far as the media goes?
Exene: I think society, like the environment, is in a slow steady decline and I think that people deserve what they get. I think that most people are not smart enough or selfless enough to control their urges and they just feed off each other until everything's gone, they're like locusts. I sometimes just wonder why I'm even here and I just hate being here so much. But then there are so many redemptive bodies of the human race and the art and the people that do try to fight those things are great. I think it's inevitable, I think it's futile. The only thing you can do is try to help individual people. I mean, "Save The Earth" and all that kinda stuff, I don't know. I think its over.
YIF: While we're on that line of thought; you have a child.
Exene: I have a son. He's 14.
YIF: What kind of world do you think your legacy to him will be? I know that's kind of a cheesy question, but honestly, what's it like for him having a mother who's Exene? Is he a musician, or a College Republican?
Exene: I don't like to talk about him too much, 'cause I respect his privacy, but thank you for asking about him. I think when he gets older he'll do some really good things. He's a really good person and I'm proud of him.
YIF: I can respect that. Lets talk about the Original Sinners.
YIF: So how long have you been together?
Exene: This exact incarnation is about 7 months, maybe, at the most, a year with Kim (Chi) and Matt (Young). It was me and Sam (Soto) just fooling around for awhile. Then we got Kim and Matt, the rhythm section. Then Jason joined right before we made the record.
Jason: That's probably why it feels so fresh. It really is new.
YIF: How long were you in the studio?
Exene: I think it was about 2 weeks, but we couldn't work around the clock We mixed (the record) in three days.
Jason: We even came across shows; like, what are we doing? We're playing at the Troubadour we're supposed to be in the studio!
Exene: Was that when we did that benefit?
Jason: Right, the West Memphis Three, with the Rollins Band, Wayne Kramer.
YIF: Wow, there's a good cause for you.
Exene: Yeah, that is a great cause. And Henry Rollins is working on a kinda top-secret project that'll be out in October that's gonna benefit the West Memphis Three defense fund, and its gonna be really good.
YIF: Great! You heard it here first folks.
Jason: Someone we know is going to be on it, October 8th.
YIF: Uh huh. So, when I first heard the Original Sinners self titled CD just a couple days ago, to be honest I listened with a little bit of trepidation and with fear that you were just gonna be a rehash-band living on name association or the fame of your name, Exene
Exene: No, I already do that in X, so I don't have to do it in this band!
YIF: Ahh! Okay, but the bottom line is, and I don't mean to stroke you up or anything, but this is a genuinely rocking CD, and it does have elements of X, you can't deny it.
Exene: It totally does.
YIF: Its got that punky rockabilly swampy thing going on, and if you ask me that's one thing that kept X from becoming just another hardcore band, another washed up sound, and it makes me realize just what gives rock and roll the longevity that it has. The country and bluesy elements, those things just don't seem to ever die.
Exene: They don't ever die. To me it only gets stale with the genre-nazi kinda version of it, where it's really rigid, like the microphones have to be the microphones that they used in the rockabilly days, and the hair has to be the rockabilly hair. I love it when people mix. Which is why X was good I think because Billy (Zoom) was a bona fide rockabilly guy, grew up then, played with Gene Vincent. That's the music he liked. When the Beatles came out, to him that was the end of music; that ruined everything. When Buddy Holly died that ruined everything. Me, being the young punk rock girl, mixing those two things and the rest of the band; I think its good. What we did on this (Original Sinners) record was everybody just played what they thought sounded good and what they liked and we all had similar enough tastes.
YIF: How in god's name did you find each other? It seems that in that hellhole of LA, of the industry and people with ulterior motives, how did you hook up?
Exene: Oh god, you hit the nail on the head. Well, the good people stand out in a town like that. Jason came from St. Loius, so he wasn't perverted and polluted by LA by then.
Jason: I wasn't spoiled! I grew up just north of Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans.
YIF: So you play the guitar, and the slide?
Jason: I am the slide on the record.
YIF: So your growing up in New Orleans influenced you musically. Exene, how about you? Did you grow up in Florida?
Exene: I grew up in Illinois and lived in Florida when I was a teenager, came out to California when I was twenty.
YIF: Do you think that had any influence on you as far as your appreciation of
Exene: The Allman Brothers and Lynrd Skynrd? Nooo! I used to get all of my records out of the Goodwill, I listened to Fanny Bryce and people like that. I was not into anything that was on the radio, even David Bowie. There was nothing happening. Like after Led Zeppelin's first couple of records I was done with current music. I think everybody in the band has a good musical knowledge, pretty much drop any name and they know who it is, throughout any kind of musical era.
YIF: I think you can tell that just by listening to the record.
(The conversation turns to Exene's involvement in Spoken Word and her writing, publishing, including the book, Just another War)
YIF: maybe you should tell the listeners about that book.
Exene: Just Another War. A photographer named Kenneth Jarecke covered the Gulf war for Time and he took really incredible pictures of dead Iraqi civilians and things like that, lying on the ground and in their jeeps and cars when they were bombed on the road on Highway 8. He would send his stuff to the states, and apparently at that time it would go straight to the wire services where someone decides do we send this out to the Detroit Free Press, do we send this to the LA Times and that person is the point person. If they say no, it goes to no papers. No one can make the decision, "Do we run this in our paper?" Does San Francisco want to print these pictures? Yes. Does LA? No. They don't make that decision, its made for them. And he was really angry because none of his stuff was getting printed in Time. So he looked me up 'cause he liked X and he asked me to write the book. I'm not a soldier, I've never been in a war, I didn't know any of the people in the book. I'm political, but it was a daunting task for me. So I ended up, strangely enough, sympathizing with the (American) solders and the people in the pictures equally, the soldiers and the Iraqi troops and the victims. Kinda seeing it as more of a human situation than as an "America is a bad imperialist nation" kind of thing. 'Cause there were things about that war that were much more of a human drama than George Bush Senior being "bad" or something.
YIF: Yeah, chilling, chilling images when you are not used to seeing things like that in the mainstream press.
Exene: Yeah, and those pictures were printed in all of the European papers, like front page. They give out three Pulitzer Prizes every year and he got one of the three. He didn't get the first one, that was a photo of an American soldier in a body bag with someone crying, which was also a moving picture. His stuff was a little too gruesome, so he got the second place prize award, which he put in his garage 'cause he felt so bad. He didn't want to get a prize for taking pictures of victims of war. You don't get a prize for that, in his mind.
YIF: It was something that needed to be reported, I think. One thing you didn't mention is that those deaths on Highway 8 were retreating soldiers who were heading back to Iraq (from Kuwait) under an agreement with the United States, but they were bombed anyway.
Exene: Yeah, and you see these soldiers who were dead and they're wearing, like, dress shoes. I mean they would just walk into a town, grab all the men, throw them in a truck and take them out to go fight. They were not soldiers, most of them. I mean they were just guys. They were truly victims. And you know that war is still dragging on.
Jason: That book, Just Another War and Virtual Unreality, is still available at Exene's website, Exenecervenka.com.
YIF: So do you foresee yourself continuing writing forever?
Jason: I hope so.
Exene: I will.
YIF: You ever feel like just hanging it up? (muffled sound of unrelated laughter from outside the studio)
Exene: (laughs) That was my Imaginary Friend's laughter at the question because it was so ridiculous. No, You don't have the option of hanging it up, and what would you do if you did? I mean what could I do besides that? I'm not qualified to do anything else.
YIF: That's why I'm asking. A lot of people do hang it up, they just say "enough". What I mean, is there ever a feeling where you say "I've had it, I'm gonna go live in a cabin on the Continental Divide. That's it."
Exene: I did that. It didn't work.
YIF: That's the answer that I'm looking for.
Exene: I would wake up in the middle of the morning with songs in my head that I had written in my sleep. There was no way.
Your Imaginary Friend
would like to thank DJ Kathleen as well as Mike Vavak from Nitro records for
making this interview possible.