Inquiring Minds: Exene Cervenka on Losing a Friend, Weeping Willows, Albums as Collage and Her Good Buddy Biscuit
Ali Smith/Bloodshot Records
Exene Cervenka is one of those musicians who makes an interviewer nervous; like, you hope the questions you come up with are good enough not to piss her off, or worse, laugh at you. Besides a published poet and accomplished visual artist, Cervenka and now-ex-husband/recurrent musical collaborator John Doe founded arguably the seminal U.S. West Coast punk band - and certainly one of the first - in X. The Southern California firebrands seared their rockabilly-influenced, surprisingly humorous (at times, anyway) gut-check rock into a pre-Alternative Nation's earholes via albums like 1980 debut Los Angeles, '81's Wild Gift and the next year's Under the Big Black Sun, which spawned piss-and-vinegar anthems including "Johnny Hit & Run Pauline," "We're Desperate" and "The Hungry Wolf." After X cooled down, Cervenka and Doe joined up with Blasters buddy Dave Alvin to form the country (but still rockin') combo the Knitters; she then went on to record solo albums and take her place at the head of the '90s riot-grrrl pack in Auntie Christ. Most recently, she released Somewhere Gone (Bloodshot), an intimate, acoustic collection of love-and-loss songs (check out "Trojan Horse") recorded with a cast of musicians including ex-Skeleton Lou Whitney, current touring partner Dexter Romweber and late Austin-born violinist Amy Farris. As it turned out, Cervenka, reached last week at her home in SoCal, was exceedingly pleasant and willing to talk about anything, from how the loss of her friend Farris has affected her set list and the similarities between her collages and making an album to her admiration for Texas musicians in general and the wild nights she and X had with the Big Boys and their late singer, Cervenka's close friend and fellow visual artist Randy "Biscuit" Turner.
Rocks Off: Where did this batch of songs come from? Exene Cervenka: Ooh. It came from isolation - living in Missouri and being real isolated and having a lot of time to write songs. The main thing about these songs to me was I wanted to write songs you could hear the words to. I wanted it to be arranged and produced in a way that wasn't like X, you know, or like my other bands that I've been in. I didn't want to make a rock and roll record or a traditional-sounding record, so I wrote the songs with that in mind. RO: How did you wind up in Missouri? EC: Ooh. I wound up in Missouri because I wanted to go someplace completely different from L.A. I grew up in Illinois, and I love small towns and I love rural America - I love the Midwest, I love the South. I decided to try it for about four years and see what would happen, and it was really good for a while, but then after that, it became really not good after a while and I moved back to California. RO: Now that Amy Farris has passed away, do you think it will be difficult to do some of these [Somewhere Gone] songs live?
EC: We did ten shows in California after the record came out, and it is difficult, and I'm not doing a lot of the songs on the record because of that. I'm doing "Somewhere Gone" and a few other songs. I have a band that is really great, and can play all my songs, but there are certain ones that I'll never play again, like "Bury Me Beneath the Willow," for instance, where she played fiddle and I played guitar and we both sang it. It's great - I'm so glad that's on my record.
She was an amazing friend, above all her talents as a musician and singer and songwriter. She was the first person to call you when something bad happened. She was just an amazing friend, and that's what I miss about her the most is her friendship, more than even her musical talents. Every day she crosses my mind, and I'm sad.
RO: I was going to ask you about that willow tree song. What made you pick that for the album? It's the only one you didn't write.
EC: My heart and soul is in that music. I just love that song, and it was appropriate for me because that's how I feel sometimes. I write a lot of love songs - most of my songs are love songs. Some are really happy and joyous, some are really sad and, you know, the waiting - the song where you're waiting for someone, or the song where you've lost someone or the song where someone doesn't want you. But there's a lot of really positive love songs that I'm writing right now.
RO: What is the history behind the willow tree?
EC: What do you mean, as far as in music in song?
EC: You know, I don't know where it came from, but I have it in my mind too, that there's a willow tree on a hill and someone I love is buried there and I go and visit them. That's what it is, it's like when you don't have a marker. That's what it means to me, anyway. And the willow tree, of course, the weeping willow.
RO: But the song itself, you're not sure what its origins are?
EC: No. But like a lot of that traditional music, it's from a murky past on some level. I'm sure it can be traced back. Mine was on a bluegrass record, and I'm sure that song's way older than a bluegrass record.
RO: Tell me a little about this painting you did for the cover.
EC: I didn't do the painting. I did the collage. I do collages. That's what I did on the front and back covers. I collaged some stuff together and put it on there. I don't do paintings. I can't paint at all. I have a pretty good art career going on. I do a lot of shows in New York and L.A.; I've done some museum shows and stuff like that. It's going really well.
RO: Do you see any similarities between doing art collages and an album as a collage of songs?
EC: Yes. You're the second person that's pointed that out to me, and I think that's really true. I think when you make a record, it's not like it starts and it ends, and it's a seamless progression that goes from writing the songs to recording the songs to mixing the songs. It's all over the place in the middle. It's like you paste it and put it together as things come up, just like in a collage, if something doesn't work, you have to put something else in there. But I want to record the next album live, so that'll be less like a collage.
RO: How often did X cross paths with some of our Texas bands like the Dicks and the Big Boys?
EC: Big Boys? All of the time! The Big Boys and X were like teammates. We always played with the Big Boys, and I loved them. Biscuit was one of my closest friends in the world. I miss him so much.
RO: I lived in Austin for a long time, and remember seeing you at the Biscuit tribute show after he died. Tell me a good Biscuit story.
EC: One night they played with X at [Austin's] Club Foot, and they had just come back from opening for - oh God, that really famous, she's African-American, I can see her face, she had that... Grace Jones. I don't know what they were doing. Anyway, Biscuit wrapped himself in Christmas-tree lights and plugged them in, and people started throwing beer on him, trying to electrocute him. And I just couldn't believe it. I was at Club Foot, which was the best club in the world.
That was one of the first times he played with us, and I was just like, "This guy is beyond anything." You know, Austin specifically but Texas in general has produced the most out-there music of any other state in the country, even including California. I have so much respect for the Texas musical history, you know, the Butthole Surfers, the Big Boys, Swineking, Roky Erickson, everybody. Nowhere else in the world does music sound like that than [what] comes out of Texas.
RO: It's a strange place all right. I always thought so. I asked a friend of mine that was a Club Foot regular, and she said she was there one night when Chris Gates from the Big Boys jumped onstage - somebody had torn your dress.
EC: Yes, I remember that very much.
RO: I was going to ask you what you remember about that night.
EC: I just remember it was this housedress that I bought. It had pockets on it, and someone ripped it. It was one of my favorite housedresses in the world, like from the '30s or something, and I got really upset. Yeah... I think that it turned into this big thing, but I don't remember what happened after that because I was drunk, you know? [laughs] We were all drunk.
RO: Any further plans for X or the Knitters in the near future?
EC: Mm-hmm. The Knitters are going to go on tour in May and June, and John and I are going to do some shows together and we're working on songs. That's all I know. I don't know where those songs are going to end up - if it's a John Doe & Exene record, an X record, a Knitters record or what the heck is going to happen. But we are working on songs.
With Dexter Romweber, 8 p.m. tonight at the Bronze Peacock Room at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline, 888-402-5837 or www.hob.com/houston.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.