Music Interview

Interview: We Told X’s Exene Cervenka To Listen To Cloud Nothings & Coheed and Cambria


Los Angeles punk legends X have been a force to be reckoned with for over forty years—an unprecedented run. While they have toured regularly since reuniting their original lineup of Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Billy Zoom, and DJ Bonebrake, the band released their first album of new material in 27 years in 2020, ALPHABETLAND (which we quite like). This past April, the band hit the road for a tour of smaller, intimate shows on the West Coast to test out some new material for their next record due out next year. Merry-Go-Round had the privilege to speak with singer Exene Cervenka after the band wrapped up their West Coast gigs and prepared for their Summer tour.

I caught you guys at the Teragram Ballroom a couple of weeks ago. How was that tour playing the new stuff?

Exene Cervenka: It was great—you know, you always have to take a little bit of a risk and try new things. We’ve been together for so long now that it’s really important to just say, “Okay, we’ve got these songs pretty much down, but we need to play in front of an audience to really know what our real parts are going to be and how it’s going to sound.” When you play in front of people, you sing differently, you play differently, it’s just a whole different thing. It makes a song more realized than if you rehearsed it 100 more times. So you don’t really know them completely, you’re gonna make a mistake. And the first couple times we played them, there were a lot of mistakes, a lot of stops and starts, looking at papers and whatnot. And I’m fine with that. Because when I do a poetry reading, I would look at the paper so why not during the song? We have a lot of songs I’ve got to remember! I thought they went over and I just wanted to play them to the best of my ability.

I thought it was really cool you guys played in some smaller rooms to test them out. It was rad when Billy brought out a music stand and you pulled out your papers for the new stuff. No starts and stops for our show, everything sounded solid!

EC: Yeah, I think by then we had it a little better. We have five new songs done, but we only played four of them. And then we have four more that we’re working on. And there’s plenty more to write, you know? There’s a lot more than I’m going to put together. I’ll pull out some old writing and do some new writing and put them together. So we should have plenty more than we need by the time we get in the studio.

So the plan is for a new record?

EC: Yeah that’s the plan. A couple years ago, we put out ALPHABETLAND, right when the pandemic happened. So we waited all those years to put out a record and then it was completely shut down. All we could do was put it out as soon as possible and not tour. And it got great reviews, and people found out about it, but it wasn’t like what we had planned, which was to tour behind it and all that. So it kind of made it so that we had to do it again; you know, it’s like well, darn, now we have to make another record and do it right and just pray that nothing bad happens again.

I love ALPHABETLAND. You guys were the first concert I went to when everything slowly started to open back up. The show was sold out and you could feel how excited everyone there was to be able to see live music again. It’s really exciting to hear that you guys are continuing to work on new stuff. What’s it like to work on new songs together, and what changed and made you guys willing to give it a shot?

EC: Well, it was a relief for me, because I’ve been pushing for this for the whole time. The reason we didn’t do it (when we initially reformed) was because of this fatalistic attitude, which was, well—why should we do that? If it’s just going to be free online, and if we’re not gonna own it, why should we do that? Who’s going to put it out? Why should we spend $50,000 of our own money to make a record that will just end up being free on the internet. What happened over the years was artists and lawyers got together and bombarded the entertainment industry with a petition to let artists get their records back after 35 years, but really I think it should be like 10 years. Up until pretty recently, we had to sign in perpetuity contracts so Warner ended up owning everything we ever released via Elektra. Everything we ever put that was on Warner Brothers, so they could license it and keep all the money, and they were getting all the money from streaming and while we got nothing—well, you know, maybe not nothing, but that was the deal we signed. I’m not blaming them. It’s the deals we all signed. Kind of like the vaccine you didn’t really have a choice. Do you want to work or not?

That’s so crazy. But everything is yours now at this point?

EC: Right, five years ago we got all our records back, and licensed everything to Fat Possum. So now that we own all our music we can make a record and not get totally screwed. We can do this in partnership with some really great people at Fat Possum. And put out some really good stuff and not have to feel like we’re being screwed. So it all worked out. The timing is not in our hands. It’s in a higher power’s hands. But as far as I’m concerned, everything is going according to plan.

That’s a great way to look at it. So is there a timeline for the new record?

EC: Well there are more songs to write, but we’ll go into the studio at the end of the year, and it will probably come out next year. We have two short tours this year, but we are hoping to add more. Whether it’s opening for someone or more headlining, the possibilities are really endless.

Right, you guys are coming back to the Pacific Amphitheater this summer with the English Beat. I’m looking forward to that.

EC: That’s pretty neat huh?

I love seeing you guys there, it’s pretty much the only way I’ll go to the OC Fair. This last tour was really cool though to see you guys in a smaller setting. I’m from Orange County, and a lot of my family are really big X fans. It was like a right of passage when I turned thirteen that my dad and my uncle took me to my first X show and I’ve been seeing you guys ever since.

EC: That’s so nice. Where was that first show?

At the old Anaheim House of Blues at Downtown Disney? We had such a blast we came back the next night for the second show. 

EC: Oh wow. Are your parents still with us?

Yeah, we go every chance we get. My dad was supposed to go with me to this past show, but it was a weeknight and it’s hard for him to rock out on a school night. But what I was going to say about seeing you at a bigger show like at the Fairgrounds versus seeing you play a general admission show at Teragram, I was surprised that there were a couple moments where the pit really got going and I was like oh shit, people still get down!

EC: Yeah, but they’re nice about it at our shows.

Oh totally, nobody was trying to hurt anybody.

EC: That’s the way it was supposed to be all along. It just got waylaid for a couple of decades. But in the beginning, it was just, you know, a friendly kind of dance party.

I actually feel like I learned pit etiquette at one of my early X shows. We took a buddy one time and he was kind of being a dick, just getting a little rough—we were maybe, like, fourteen—and this older punk mom just grabbed him by the ear and pulled him aside and was just like, nope, that’s not how we do things.

EC: *laughs* Oh man.

So now when I see people just going apeshit in a circle pit, I look around for some other older people to check the vibe. A lot of people think there are no rules, but there definitely are.

EC: Exactly, just like civilized society. You don’t treat people with disrespect or go out of your way to hurt anybody.

Exactly. And you hold up the shoe if somebody loses it.

EC: There you go. Just be nice.

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So I wanted to talk about some of these new songs you were workshopping this past tour. There were some songs on ALPHABETLAND like “I Gotta Fever” and “Delta 88 Nightmare” that have been around for a long time but just never got released officially. Have any of these new ones been around that long?

EC: Nope, These are all new. There are no more old songs. Maybe John might pull one out from somewhere that we forgot or somebody else might but I’m pretty sure that catalog is empty, though.

I took some notes on my phone for the new tracks at the show, and I want to see if I’ve got the titles right. But please correct me if I’m wrong. First one I’ve got is “Drink to the Bitter End.”

EC: *laughs* No

Okay see, this is why I have you here!

EC: That is so great that you said that because I’m a sober person.

Hey, me too!

EC: “Sweet to the Bitter End.” Sweet, Bitter, get it? Little play on words there?

*laughs* Oh man, I wrote sweet under drink, I just can’t decipher my own notes.

EC: [singing the melody] “Sweet to the Bitter End.” Keep going, this is fun.

Okay up next I have “Smoke and Fiction”?

EC: Smoke AND Fiction? Did you say Broken Fiction?

No, I’ve got “Smoke and Fiction.”

EC: Oh okay, because I like Broken Fiction, that’s good.

I do too, I might use that. Third song was “Flip Side?”

EC: “On the Flip Side,” correct.

And the last one was “That’s Just The Way It Is.”

EC: Ding ding! You got three out of four!

Hey, that’s a passing grade, I’ll take it.

EC: That’s really good!

Well let’s talk about “Sweet to the Bitter End” because I got it wrong. Who brought that one to the table?

EC: Lyrically, I wrote that one and John [Doe] did the music. Our agreement right now is I want to do things as simple as possible musically, so we can all dance and make it fun. And he’s doing a great job.

That one was really fun, I like that you and John are alternating lines. That one and “That’s Just The Way It Is” had real surfy vibes to them.

EC: Oh, yeah. Well, that would make sense with Billy [Zoom] and DJ [Bonebrake] in the band.

These new songs and the newer ones off ALPHABETLAND just blend so seamlessly with your classic songs that you guys have been playing forever. They go over so well with the crowd. It makes sense that you guys wouldn’t try to rewrite the book at this point and do something so totally jarring, but I just mean to say it’s really cool the new ones stand right up there with the old stuff.

EC: You never know with us though. Look at the curveballs over the years, like when John pulls out like “Hot House” or “Adult Books.” You know, every once in a while, it’s just like, yeah, we’re gonna do this rootsy jazz odyssey and we’re like, okay let’s try. We do plan on doing some more vibe and sax new ones though. So expect a couple of those. DJ already wrote the music and I’m super excited about it.

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“I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” is one of my favorite X songs and I love this extended jam version you guys have been doing with DJ on vibes and Billy on sax. It is so cool.

EC: I do too because I get to go and watch the band and it’s like oh wow, these guys are so great!

They really are incredible. How do you guys go about choosing a setlist these days?

EC: John does all the setlists, he always has and he’s really really good at it. So we just let him do it. Right now it’s tricky because we want to do some ALPHABETLAND songs and the four new ones So that doesn’t leave as many of the classic songs people are coming to see in there. So you might have to ask us for a second encore if you want to hear more songs and I would suggest that the people do! *laughs* I’m only kidding. I would say that the best way we can do it is to do “White Girl” one night and “Blue Spark” the next, “Los Angeles” every night and “Your Phone’s Off The Hook” one night and “World’s A Mess” the next because we can’t do all of those songs in one set now. I’m okay with that because I think the newer songs are good but yeah, we could maybe throw in an extra song or two to our regular set to just to extend it maybe I don’t know. I mean he’s been doing it so long he just knows. He knows the keys and he takes into account does this song go into the next song, are these two certain songs too similar? And should we do one more we both sing or one where I just sing, there’s just a lot of variables. I look at it and go, “There is no wrong sequence to these songs, just put them in there!” What difference does it make, they’re all good just put them together.

There definitely can be a science to a set list. But a quick ‘1, 2, 3, 4!,’ and you can get into anything.

EC: I suppose there could be some bad segues but he’s just really good at it. So that’s one thing none of us ever worry about except that once in a while where we’ll go, why are we starting with that?! And he’ll be like really? Why don’t you do it then?

How long before the show does he show you guys the set for the night?

EC: Well, they aren’t really going to vary that much, but they’re never the same. You know, we try to get him to do the same set twice in a row and he never wants to. It’s like, could we just do it the same way for two nights so we know what’s coming?! But they’re kind of similar. I think it’s a really creative part of the band that he loves, it shows that he really cares about how the show goes, to make it exciting for people and unexpected and to do it so that it’s inspired.

That’s really cool. I could definitely see how having a locked-in set night after night could be appealing to a band, but from a fan’s perspective, it’s cool to go in not knowing everything you are gonna get, and makes going to multiple shows more appealing. We talked earlier about how putting out a record and the recording process has changed, but how has touring changed for you guys?

EC: Oh, we are so low key that I don’t know if it has ever changed for us.


EC: There were a couple of years in the mid-‘80s, maybe, where we had buses but because it was cheap. It would be a crappy bus with a crappy driver—don’t get me wrong—but it was still a bus and you can tour with that. We had good people and you could put all the equipment somehow in there and all the merch.

Actually, I think back then we didn’t really sell merch—bands didn’t have merch. It was, “get the amps and drums in there and you’re good to go.” Now we tour with two vans because there’s no other way to do it—you can’t afford a bus. You can’t afford the diesel! You can’t afford the driver! And they’ve changed the rules for drivers and buses now so that you don’t really get that 16-hour shift to get somewhere all the way across the country anymore. So all the money would go to a bus and a driver, that’s insane. We’ve worked too hard to do that. We stay very budget, staying at Holiday Inns and we have our two vans and we stay outside of the cities. Because the cities aren’t safe for band or van. We just do it as smart and as effectively and inexpensively as possible without killing ourselves. You know, we’re not sleeping on people’s floors, but we’re not staying in fancy hotels.

It works out because we have it down to a science. If we were a little bigger, and we had to have a bus and a trailer, we wouldn’t make any money, and this is how we live. So, I love the way we do things. Like I said, our manager has it down to a science and I try to be grateful every day I’m out there. Sometimes it’s hard. What’s hard is getting in and out of the van, going in and out of the hotel, going up and down the stairs at the club 50 times. Sitting in the van is not that comfortable, but it’s fine. All of that stuff is much harder than playing a show. And so you just kind of have a really good attitude and be grateful. Sometimes it’s a little hard but you do it.

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It’s awesome that you have that kind of attitude about it. Whenever I talk to bands for something like this, they have similar things to say about making a living as full time musicians. I think you guys are living legends, so it’s a bit a bummer to hear that you guys deal with the stuff that smaller newer bands deal with, but it’s great to hear that you’ve got it all worked out to function where you want it to.

EC: I think that we are in a sweet spot, because if we were not doing as well as we were, I don’t think we could afford it. And if we were doing better than we are, I don’t think we could afford it. Do you understand? I’m fine keeping things at the level where we are at.

When I saw my extended family over Easter, I was telling my mom and my cousins I was going to talk to you, and they were all so hyped, and then there was my cousin’s girlfriend who was like “Who’s X?” So we found ourselves trying to explain what a big deal we think you are. Sometimes you guys feel like a well kept secret. How do you explain what you do?

EC: Well, we’ll play much smaller places in smaller cities and it’s really great because you don’t want people to have to travel to see your show all the time. And sometimes people who don’t really know what I do hear that I’m a singer, and they say, “Where do you sing, like, at weddings and things like that? Or cafes?” And I go, “no, I’m in a band and we tour around.” And they’ll say “Oh, wow, what kind of music do you play?” And I say, “well, we play our music.” And they go “Okay, but what is that?” And I say, “you know, there’s really no other way to explain it. It’s based on American music, primarily. Some people think of it in the punk rock world”—but I can’t really say that because the people I’m talking to probably don’t know what that is. And I don’t want them to get the wrong idea. But I would just tell them it’s original music. It’s our music. I don’t know what else to tell them.

That’s so great. I love that.

EC: It’s weird because you know, people just think—I don’t know what people think!  And it doesn’t matter what those people think, that’s the thing. I never think about this stuff unless I’m talking about it for something like this. It just is what it is, just like everybody else’s life. You just are who you are. It’s no big deal.

Of course, but when you’re a musician, you almost feel like you need to have some kind of dumbed down, three word answer when someone asks what kind of music you make. And you’re like, it’s this, this and this or whatever, but you don’t really feel that way. You’re just trying to figure out how to explain this to someone who doesn’t make art or maybe isn’t that into music.

EC: Well yeah, that can happen. But you know, music and art have to be experienced right? If you wrote a novel and people said, what’s it about? It was about this woman, but it’s not really about her. It’s really about her father, but actually it’s about her grandparents. How do you even start? Or a painting. How do you describe a painting? Well, it’s made of oil. So anyway, people just need to know I’m in a band, come see us, you might have a good time.

I would highly recommend that anyone come see you guys. I’ve brought a handful of people to your shows over the years, and when they start asking too many questions I tell them they just have to watch.

EC: Isn’t that just the best? I have a couple of bands like that in my life that I tell a friend, hey I’ve got tickets to this show, do you want to come with me. And they say, okay, well who is it or whatever, I go “yeah, I’ll drive!” Come on, we’re going to McCabe’s, we’re gonna see my favorite band, and then just sit there and watch them go. Oh my god, they’re so good. That’s the best feeling really, isn’t it?

It really is. When you finally get them to agree to just trust you and come along, and you see the moment where their eyes just open a little wider and it clicks. It’s amazing.

EC: You know, when people ask me if I listen to any new bands, I get kind of stumped, because for me, new is anything that’s happened in the last 30 years. So I don’t know, do you have anyone that has really blown your mind or that you’ve gone to see a couple of times that you want to recommend?

 *laughs* Oh god. I do yeah. There’s this band that I absolutely love who I am so used to people telling me they don’t like them. And I get why they don’t, and I can’t really explain why I’m so obsessed with them. They’re called Coheed and Cambria. They’re from New York, and I’ve seen them, like, 30-something times. The singer has a high pitched voice which I think is a turn off for a lot of people, but they are such talented musicians. They cover a lot of the rock spectrum, and the music is conceptually tied into a series of comics that the singer Claudio Sanchez writes, but you don’t have to read them to know what’s going on.

EC: Coheed and Cambridge?


EC: Oh, Cambria. Okay, I’m gonna write it down.

*laughs* I can’t believe I told you to listen to them. I’m gonna have some people asking what the fuck is wrong with me. If you do actually listen to them, please reach out to me. I know it can be over the top, dramatic, and weird, but something about them just clicked with me when I was 13 and I’ve followed them ever since.

EC: I’m going to check it out.

Let’s see who else. There’s a band called Cloud Nothings out of Cleveland that I really dig.

EC: Oh, that’s a great name.

They are killer live. They’ve been around for a while now too.

EC: I love that name so much that I would buy a record just because that’s their name. That’s intelligent beyond my expectations.

Yeah, they’re really sick. The most recent band I’ve been really into is a goth/post-punk band out of Athens, Georgia called Vision Video. Just a very good, very fun band channeling all the best parts of those early post-punk bands.

EC: I’m writing all these down. Are you familiar with Skating Polly?

I haven’t heard of them.

EC: I’ve known them since they were like eight. It’s two sisters and a brother in a band. And now they’re kind of grown up people in their twenties, it’s insane. My son did a documentary on them. They’re pretty popular in Europe—well actually, they’re pretty popular everywhere. But they’re definitely the kind of an underground band along the lines of, I don’t know what you would call it, maybe the Breeders a little bit? But I mean, just loosely, just to do that weird comparison thing. They’re originally from Oklahoma, but they’re in Washington State now. They’ve got like six records. I produced their second record when they were like 12 and 16.

Whoa really?

EC: They are so good. I just met these kids in Oklahoma one dreary day when they were little kids. And they said, we have a band, we’re gonna make a record and I said well, you send it to me when it’s done, and then I was blown away. So I just love them. And they’re really, really good. My son directed a movie about them, it’s called UGLY POP. That’s how they describe their sound.

Oh, I like that.

EC: I think you would like them. Most people have turned them on to end up loving them. They’ve done six or seven records in like 10 years, and they run the gamut of really aggressive stuff to sweet acoustic stuff. So check those guys out.

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I definitely will. That’s a pretty crazy turnout of releases. It seems like bands take more time between records then back in the day. I mean with what you were saying earlier about being concerned about a new album just being on the internet for free, it makes sense that bands a couple years on the road for each release instead of hitting the studio every eight months to make something new.

EC: It used to be that you could do both. When you’re young you want to be out on the road, and you want to see all the other bands and tour with them, see your friends and have fun and party and just live your life. It’s so much fun. If you can last as long as we have, for 45 years, and you can eventually get the rights back to everything you’ve ever recorded, including like, even solo records, you can have a really good career. You get a song in a movie here and there, or you tour with some bands opening, you sell some merch, and then you’re doing okay. As long as you keep working hard and as long as you have someone going. You can’t just sit in your house. You have to have people working really hard. It’s a wonderful life and I have no regrets about any of it now. I mean, I could have taken it more seriously and been less of a wild child, but whatever. I did what I did, and I have really no regrets. It’s a great miracle. All those thirteen year olds like you coming to the shows, God bless ‘em. It’s wonderful.

Do you think you’ll try out any more new stuff on this upcoming summer tour?

EC: I do not know. I think we’re gonna rehearse before we go on tour, but John lives in Texas. It’s hard to rehearse the stuff every day. What we’re doing is just sending songs back and forth, writing and kind of encouraging each other and being like, that’s great. Thank you. I love that. Then what we’ll do is write a little bit but you know, with this tour we are probably just gonna play the set we have, we’re not gonna have time to practice four more new ones. Who knows? We’ll see if maybe we pick up a few, we’ll add them in.

That’ll be awesome. I’m looking forward to seeing you guys again this summer.

EC: Thanks! I’m glad that people like the new ones. It’s great that they have faith in us and we’re not going “oh no, oh God.”

You can catch X on tour this summer and buy all of their music over on Bandcamp

Jake Mazon
Jake Mazon is the host of The Final Sound radio program on VPN, as well as a co-host on THE REAL ROCKER THEATER and WHAT'S YOUR RECORD? podcasts. There's a really good chance that he's already read the new article about what offensive thing Morrissey said this week, so please stop sending him the links.

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    1. Best interview I have ever read. Very connected conversation…so good. Thanks Jake and Exene!!


    2. Coheed And Cambria rule!

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