Forty years ago, three ex-pats born and raised east of the Mississippi—Baltimore’s John “Doe” Duchac, Tallahassee’s Exene Cervenka and Illinois’ Tyson “Billy Zoom” Kindell—coalesced in Los Angeles over a shared love of early rock ’n’ roll, avant-garde poetry and establishment-shaking performance art. Dubbing themselves X, they recruited drummer DJ Bonebrake and fired the opening volley for the West Coast’s diverse punk scene, digesting country, hardcore, blues, jazz and rockabilly influences into an amalgamation that resisted the rigid rules of punk written on the streets of New York, D.C. and London.
Most important, X blazed an assertive trail that’s still unmatched to this day: political without being declamatory, eccentric without being unlistenable and, most important, presented through a female-fronted lens unheard of at the time. Many critics, now and then, described X as one of the few outfits that could “convincingly stake a claim to The Clash’s status as The Only Band That Matters,” as Noisey said last year. And each member of X adopted John Doe’s rule about remaining fluid and flexible, cycling in and out of legendary if short-lived bands like The Germs, The Weirdos, The Go-Gos and The Screamers.
The difference is that, even while only releasing seven full-length albums and taking multiple hiatuses, X remains nearly the same in 2017 as it was in 1977. With its original lineup intact, they retain the power to put on head-scratching, jaw-dropping performances. And each member’s understated approach to X’s legacy means they’ve remained tirelessly prolific, with the 64-year-old Doe releasing a seminal book on West Coast punk history in 2016.
Folio Weekly: So what does X’s 40th anniversary mean to you, John?
John Doe: Well, we play all the time. We average 40 shows a year, but this year, we’re doing about 80: a full month in May and September, then the holiday tour of the West Coast we always do. It’s a different kind of show than most people might expect, though. Punk rock is our bread-and-butter, but we’ve been adding in songs we’ve never played before. We added another member to the lineup so that DJ can switch from drums to vibes; Billy Zoom plays sax on a few songs. We do “Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” and “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” while reimagining songs like “Unheard Music.” It’s more like a concert—punk rock at the beginning and end, with deep cuts that we never played live because they were too complicated in the middle.
That will certainly satisfy longtime fans. Do you think X’s music can still blow the minds of new listeners today the way it did in the late ’70s and early ’80s?
I don’t know [laughs]—that’s a big question. I do know that we represent a good role model. We care about what we do. When I see a 16-year-old woman watching Exene perform, that’s inspiring. We have a stick-to-it-iveness—many people have called us the last punk rock band standing. We still have our original members, and we still get along—we like each other enough to not have disintegrated.
Everyone in X decamped to Los Angeles for different reasons, but the common thread seems to be a desire to escape the strictures and cultural norms of the places you grew up. Does the West Coast still offer that sense of limitless freedom?
Oh, definitely. And you can say that for more than just music. That’s why Silicon Valley started here, for better or for worse. It’s that attitude: “You say I can’t do that? Check this out. Watch me.” The West Coast has always been like that. West Coast punk rock now is more accessible. Bands like Green Day are in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But I like Green Day—Billy Joe’s a great songwriter, and they have a lot in common with what we were doing early on in West Coast punk rock. There was nothing going on in the East Bay where they came up, so they just made it happen like X did.
You and the band opened for Dwight Yoakam earlier this year. How does punk rock royalty connect with a trad-country/rockabilly icon?
We were all coming up at the same time, so Dwight’s been a friend for a long time. We both do our own thing without compromise. We keep our own counsel. The only thing we require in X’s music is that it has something to do with American music. That was the whole idea behind punk rock, to bring music back to what rock ’n’ roll started out as: immediate, fun, a little dangerous, not reliant on virtuosity. It was just cool.
How cool were things in the state of Florida when X first visited in the ’80s?
Our first show in Florida was probably 1982 in Ft. Lauderdale. We were doing sound check, and suddenly our stage crew went missing. There was a wet T-shirt contest going on in the front part of the bar, and at that time, we were scandalized—“Really? They actually have these?” The fun part was, we had both men and women on the stage crew, and they all enjoyed the wet T-shirts. Until we hustled them back to work.
Each member of X has pursued solo acts, side projects and supporting gigs over the years. Do you think you all will ever write new music together again?
Exene and I are doing some touring with Blondie and Garbage this summer, so maybe we will. X’s stuff was always intuitive, though—we weren’t playing all the notes, chords and arrangements that we could because we wanted to keep things simple and in a certain style. We wanted to write intuitively instead of intellectually. Which is actually complicated, though. [Laughs.]