Perfect Sound Forever

Exene Cervenka

Photo courtesy of Bloodshot Records

Interview by Robin Cook
(October 2009)

Exene Cervenka is one of punk's most restless performers. When not trading off vocal harmonies with John Doe in X, she's published books, exhibited journal collages, fronted other bands (Auntie Christ, Original Sinners) and left Los Angeles for Idaho and, more recently, Missouri. Exene has also shown a more introspective side on acoustic solo outings, like Old Wives' Tales and, twenty years later, Somewhere Gone (now out on Bloodshot). She was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, but, as she makes clear in this interview, it isn't slowing her down.

PSF: I wanted to start off by asking a couple of questions about the new record, Somewhere Gone. Was it a conscious decision to do a low-key acoustic record this time around?

Yeah. I wanted it to be (more about) the songs more than about a band.

PSF: I noticed that thereís a parallel between this and your first solo album, Old Wivesí Tales. Back then, youíd just moved to Idaho and switched gears musically, and now youíve moved to Missouri and youíve returned to sort of a folky sound.

Yeah, thatís true. I did do an Original Sinners record, which was a rock and roll record, when I first moved to Missouri. But yeah, it is interesting, isnít it, that I didnít even think about it, the fact that I moved to Idaho and then did an acoustic solo record and I moved to Missouri did a [similar] record. Thatís pretty funny. I think youíve got something there. I donít know what it is.

PSF: Iím wondering what prompted your move to Missouri.

I was really tired of Los Angeles. Iíd been there for 30 years, except for a little bit of time in Idaho. And I really wanted, always, to try living out in the country, way out in the country, in a big house, you know, with a barn and stuff like that. But I have decided, actually, I spent the summer in Los Angeles, in Southern California, I should say, and Iíve decided to come back here.

PSF: What made you decide to go back?

You know, because thereís people I want to be with. And itís more about people than places, and I think thatís my big lesson. Although, I gotta say, (living in ) Missouri for four years, making art and music was fantastic.

PSF: Whatís the music scene like there? Have you been following it?

Thereís a music scene in Missouri, thereís some bands. Ha Ha Tonka is from there. And thereís a great studio in Springfield where I recorded and thereís a lot of great musicians in Springfield, Missouri. Columbia has some great nightclubs and everybody plays there. So I got to keep up on really good stuff and meet some cool people.

PSF: I just was asking because it seems that when people think of music scenes they might think of Chicago, LA, New YorkÖ

Oh, itís nothing like that. But I didnít want a music scene. Iíve been in the music scene my whole life. I can come back and go to Chicago and hang out, and go to New York or go to L.A. and hang out and be part of the music scene in any city. So I didnít feel like I needed that for a period. Now, I feel like I need it again.

PSF: Penelope Houston once described the Avengers as a folk group. Her quote was: ďWe were just playing music that we made up for our friends. Folk music is music thatís played by regular people.Ē Do you agree thereís a parallel there between punk and folk?

Oh, Iíve been saying that myself for thirty years. So has John (Doe, Xís bassist). Weíve all been saying that. Itís just faster. Punk rock is just fast folk music.

PSF: I remember seeing you play guitar on Xís ďHey ZeusĒ tour (in 1993). When did you first pick up that instrument?

In the Ď80ís. í86, something like that.

PSF: And I also know you were the sole guitar player for Auntie Christ. What was it like doing that, being the guitarist?

It was nerve-wracking, but it was fun. But I wouldnít want to do it againÖIím somewhat of a guitar player, but everything that goes into it is just so much. I mean, I donít want to get mundane in the details, but itís hard, itís hard to do.

PSF: For this record, I noticed it has a lot of relationship songs, which is a departure from the topical and the political stuff youíve done in the past.

Iíve fascinated by that...

PSF: Iím wondering what it was like to start writing songs without John Doe. Were you at all nervous about that?

No. I started doing that in the late Ď80ís. Songwriting is like solving a puzzle. Every songís like a little puzzle, and if you like puzzles, and you like creativity and you like stretching your brain out, I think songwriting is one of the most rewarding and fun things you can do. I think. I love it. I love writing songs by myself. I love writing songs with John. I love writing songs with other people, so thatís been really fun.

PSF: Do you feel you have to be in a certain mindset or a certain mood to write songs?

No, I donít have to.

PSF: Thereís also a traditional song on this record, ďThe Willow Tree.Ē Do you listen to a lot of traditional folk singers like early Joan Baez?

Yeah. I sure do. Bluegrass and stuff like that. I love that type of music. And I love gospel and old country.

That song originally, I knew Amy Ferris was coming in to play violin and cello and fiddle and so I just thought it might be fun if we worked that out. So I just recorded it. I probably did one take or two takes- which of course people would say, ďSounds like it.Ē Anyway, then I asked her to play fiddle with me, and we thought, ďWeíll put it on the record.Ē

PSF: Do you listen to any British folk artist like Fairport Convention?

You know, I havenít in a really long time. Itís something Iíve always been drawn to because itís harder to find and you have to go out to find that.

PSF: Recently youíve performed with the Knitters again after two decades. What was that like?

The Knitters was just pure enjoyment. We have such a good time in that band, I canít tell you. Everybodyís a crack-up in that band. You wouldnít know, but Dave Alvin has one of the best senses of humor of anyone Iíve ever known. Heís so funny, and so smart. Being with him is always like a privilege. And the same is true of the rest of the band. I love those guys. Itís great, great, great times. Weíre gonna play the Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco this October, so weíre very excited about that. But Iím more excited about Dave Alvin and Guilty Women, who are on tour right now.

PSF: One thing I think is remarkable about a lot of the bands like X and the Blasters is that there seems to be a camaraderie between a lot of the bands in that scene.

Oh yeah. There still is. I see Robert Lopez from the Zeros- you know, El Vez. We see people all the time that are from the early days. Keith Morris. I love all those guys.

PSF: Youíve also had an exhibition of some of your journals. How did that come about?

Well, I do a lot of art now, a lot of collage art and assemblage art. And I put my journals on display... Itís just something else I like to do.

PSF: These are journals, just something very personal. Were you originally a little apprehensive about that?

I chose the pages. I made sure the pages werenít anything (too) personal. I like to give people a little bit of a personal thing.

PSF: Can you see yourself doing another solo album in the same vein as this one?

Iím going to start recording really soon my second record with Bloodshot. I have people and everything lined up. I canít wait.

PSF: I do notice this record has more of an old-timey sound than any of your previous solo material.

Yeah, the first two solo albums were more high end as far as sonic quality and stuff, and this is more raw, folky. But thatís what I wanted.

PSF: What about another Original Sinners or Auntie Christ album?

No, not happening.

PSF: I also wondered, you recently revealed that you were diagnosed with MS, and Iím sure a lot of fans want to know how youíre doing.

You know, itís a challenge, but itís a blessing- because of my friends, of all the people whoíve written to me and called me. I donít even call people Ďfansí; I hate to call the people that like X Ďfans.í I kind of consider them friends and neighbors. Iíve gotten to know so many people over the years, and when I came out with that diagnosis, I got so much mail from MySpace and so many letters of help and prayers and gifts and thing. It diminishes the impact of the disease. It makes it like a blessing... Iím doing great. Iím on medication and take a lot of vitamins and supplements. Iím really healthy otherwise and very happy.

PSF: I understand X has done some concerts for the charity Sweet Relief as well.

Yeah, we donate tickets and posters and records and stuff when we play for Sweet Relief. Which is a coincidence, because... that was started by Victoria Williams who has multiple sclerosis, who started Sweet Relief because of that. And Iíve spoken to her a few times and Iím continuing to work with them.

PSF: Have you been listening to any newer artists lately? Is there anyone whose work youíve been following?

No, gee, thatís hard to say. But I really like Justin Townes Earle a lot and I guess heís a newer artist.

PSF: What about any older acts that you might have recently discovered?

I like the Dexter Romweber Duo. Bedrock West.

Also see our other interviews with Exene from 2002 and 2000

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