To call Exene Cervenka a “punk rocker” doesn’t begin to describe her complex and multi-faceted artistic career.
It’s true that Cervenka is a vocalist and songwriter for the band X, a pioneering Los Angeles punk group that formed in 1977. But Cervenka is not just “punk” or “rocker”: she’s also a folk musician, poet and visual artist who thinks about what it means to create art as she gets older.
Cervenka, who will appear with the original line-up of X at Harlow’s on Dec. 29, talked to The Sacramento Press about plans to make new music with the band and her thoughts and emotions relating to her work. In the interview, she also talked about her recent diagnosis of multiple sclerosis and how it has led her to a greater appreciation of her friends and kind strangers.
For starters, Cervenka is not letting her diagnosis get in the way of her tour with X. She said she hopes that this tour will not be any different than previous tours. “So far, so good.”
Cervenka also explained a June 2 statement she wrote on X’s website — that she was “choosing to see the positive” in the diagnosis.
“Well, when you have a transformational life change and you realize that you have amazing people that love you so much who don’t even know you, or people who you love and now you realize that your friendship is even deeper, or whatever it is … that kind of stuff is extremely positive because it changes your outlook on humanity,” she said.
While the diagnosis gives her a stronger appreciation of people, it makes her reflect on her mortality. “I am a human body, after all, you know,” Cervenka said. “Because nobody believes that until the day it comes. Everybody thinks they’re 21 … and we’re not.”
While X has not made a studio album since "hey Zeus!" in 1993, Cervenka said she plans to create new music with John Doe, X’s vocalist and bassist. She noted that X recently created versions of the Christmas songs “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Jingle Bells.” As for original new songs, she said that she and Doe will need to take a block of time to create music.
“I think the only hang-up is that John and I just haven’t made time to stay at each other’s house for a week and write songs together, or go spend the day in downtown Los Angeles, hanging out,” she said.
While they haven’t yet coordinated their plans, Cervenka says she and Doe “have every intention” of writing new music.
Cervenka also addressed the question of whether X can be considered a “heritage band” because it hasn’t produced new work in many years. “I think we are unique,” she responded. “And I think that uniqueness is that we have a body of work that is still timely and vital. And, at least in my mind, it’s better over time. I like being in X more than I did in the early ’80s, when I was all fucked up and a mess.”
She noted that the band doesn’t want to make an album that is not as good as its previous albums. In her view, X is going strong. Plus, Cervenka said she believes that a new album from X — now that the members are aging — could show that older artists continue to be innovative. “I would love to [make a record with X] at this late stage in the game because it would prove something to me that I’ve always wanted to prove,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to prove a lot of things to myself, but one of those things is that artists don’t always suck as they get older.”
Cervenka said that many musicians who made albums in the 1960s had “amazing” hit songs, and then “for some reason” did not make music again. Still, she thinks it’s inaccurate to assume that artists will have a major creative period in their lives followed by lesser work. “And I think there’s a misconception that you have this brilliant moment and then you burn out,” she said. “And I think for some people, that’s true … But it’s not always true.”
Cervenka, 53, already may be proving that artists can have a lifelong creative streak. In October, she put out a solo album, "Somewhere Gone," for which she’s the writer, vocalist and producer. (She describes producing as a “harrowing” job.) She also has a new band that will work with her on solo projects.
“I love my new band, it’s called California Mothership,” she said. “And we’re just getting ready to go back out on the road, so that’s great. And I’m doing a lot of art right now, and showing a lot of art, and making a lot of art — and that’s really exciting. And then we got a bunch of shows with X. So, I couldn’t be happier because I like to do more than one thing at a time. So, I focus on everything equally, with a lot of joy.”
Photo of Cervenka courtesy of http://www.exenecervenka.com
Photo of X courtesy of MAD Ink, PR
Kathleen Haley is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press.