YEAR ONE: Exene Cervenka hadn’t sung a note until she was 20.
The world of punk rock would undoubtedly be a far less spirited and dynamic place if X hadn’t come along in the late 1970s. Founded after John Doe and Exene Cervenka met at a Venice, Calif., poetry reading, the band’s raw, wallowing songs about the pains of love and societal disintegration have forever altered the landscape. Along with DJ Bonebrake’s stellar drumming and Billy Zoom’s rockabilly-tinged guitar, what makes X stand out especially has always been the vocal interplay between Cervenka and bassist Doe.
“I hadn’t sung in any way shape or form my entire life until I was 20. John Doe and I would sit around and sing old songs. Hank Williams. George Jones,” says Cervenka on the phone from a farmers market in Anaheim, shopping for cilantro and onions to make Mexican food for a friend’s wedding. “Singing was incredibly difficult for me. I had to make up my own voice, and I’m glad I did because my least favorite thing in an artist is imitation. I would not want to sound or do or be or act anything like anyone else. I just don’t believe in it.”
It’s a philosophy that has worked wonders for Cervenka. Nearly 35 years after X began, they continue to put on explosive live performances for a multigenerational fan base. Though X haven’t recorded a new album since 1993, they don’t phone it in for their galvanizing live shows, something Cervenka attributes to respect for their audience.
Cervenka says that she holds out hope that the band will work on new material at some point, but in the meantime, she’s got more than enough to keep her busy. Her latest solo album The Excitement of Maybe came out on Bloodshot Records in March to good reviews. A multiple sclerosis flare-up forced Cervenka to cancel a short Southwest tour last month, but she’s been organizing hootenannies near her home in Orange and continues to do spoken word out and about in Southern California, along with touring with X and their alt-country counterpart the Knitters.
“I always make the best of it and I don’t give up with anything,” says Cervenka. “I represent myself as best I can. Not as a role model, but as an example to people of what you can do. I do a lot of things I’m not supposed to do. I get up onstage and sing. You don’t have to force it and be ambitious and be angry if things don’t go your way. You’re just an artist. You don’t have to have any pressure other than that. That’s plenty right there.”
X play with Devil’s Brigade (featuring Matt Freeman from Rancid) on Thursday, June 16, at the Uptown Theatre. 1350 Third St., Napa. 7pm. $35. 707.259.0123.