X, with new album, stays home for the holidays

‘Tough times make for good art’ says Exene Cervenka


Courtesy of the 2020 pandemic lockdown, this is the first year in recent memory when Exene Cervenka’s iconoclastic punk outfit X is not on the road on its annual “X-Mas Tour,” now a seasonal rite of passage for many Bay Area rockers. On the phone a few weeks ago, she wasn’t sure how she felt about it. On one hand, the band (fronted by Cervenka and co-vocalist John Doe) released one of the most propulsive pile-drivers of its four-decade career, the Rob Schnapf-produced “Alphabetland” on April 22, its first new studio album in 27 years and eighth overall. That’s reason enough for a string of festive dates. But on the other hand, it’s always proven difficult for the members to catch the spirit of the holidays when they work through them. “You come home on the 23rd of December and think, ‘You know, maybe I should have gotten a Christmas tree. Oh, well,’” she says, as she prepares to finally deck the X halls properly for once.

Listening to “Alphabetland”— and watching your ex-husband Viggo Mortensen chew up the scenery in the amazing 2018 film “Green Book” — it’s great to see artists doing their most inspired work after years of practice, instead of getting complacent or quitting.

Yeah. “Alphabetland” was a, uh, baby born late in its mother’s life, I guess. And something really cool about it is the fact that it happened at all. But you know what? I think it’s kind of perfect for these times. And I did see that movie, too, and that was always what I was hoping would be the case. Because you should never give in to that feeling that you can’t do your best work past a certain age. Of course you can. You can do your best work at any point in life.

The album’s single — with a fun animated stick-figure video by Keith Ross of Tiny Concert — is the eerily-prescient “Goodbye Year, Goodbye,” which was penned pre-pandemic, right?

Yeah. And some of the writing goes back 20 or 30 years. There are things that I wrote down ages ago that I turned into songs and worked on with a melody that I was singing. And then I handed it over to John, and then he put bass on it and helped me fill all those empty spaces. So it was just crazy, fortuitous timing for all kinds of things. Like “Goodbye Year, Goodbye” — John had that song for quite a while, about a year. And our last day in the studio was March 10, so it wasn’t like we just wrote these songs all of a sudden. These are old writings that have been turned into new writings, new music, and it came out really good, I think. It was just a perfect lucky moment.

Have you immersed yourself in any other work this year, like painting or writing?

I’ve done some creative stuff. But mostly, I’ve just had this whole year to be at home with my dog. And I’ve never had that before. So in a way, it’s kind of like a blessing. She’s a little dog, but she’s really sweet. And one thing’s for sure — your dog is always happy to see you. So I do some art, a bit of writing, and I’ve actually been sending mail to people, kind of reaching out through the U.S. mail. And I’ve always bought stamps. But I feel really lucky to have all these friends, and we all periodically write each other, out of the blue. So I’ve been doing that and cooking my own food and cleaning my own house and taking the dog for a walk. And I’ll go to the farmers market every once in a while, and that’s it.

Over this summer, the TCM channel was showing concert films, and “The Decline of Western Civilization” was one of them. You guys all looked like teenagers.

I was 23, I think. I haven’t seen that movie for a long time. But there was a time back in the ‘80s when it was hard to keep track of where things were going in the L.A. scene. It was quite the crazy vortex of really powerful energy spinning around a crazy group of people, drawn together by no technology whatsoever — people just wandering down the street, finding each other. If we did it without technology, people can do it again with all the social-media connections we have now. They can find each other, be in a group, and have that same great feeling. Because now more than ever — when the world is going crazy and people are feeling really unsteady — that’s when you need that kind of community. Tough times make for good art.

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