If your band makes smart-assed, impulsive records, endures the marriage and divorce of two key members, spawns a country side project, and still hasn't completely wrecked itself after 30 years, maybe randomness is a safe lifestyle choice. It still more or less works for X frontwoman Exene Cervenka. On top of recording and touring with three other bands—The Knitters, The Original Sinners, and Auntie Christ—she's released spoken-word records, published books of collage art, and worked as an elementary-school teacher and librarian. Cervenka spoke to The A.V. Club about the disarray of her career and why she's happy with it.
The A.V. Club: How much stuff do you have on your plate at any given time?
Exene Cervenka: Well, last year was really, really busy. I worked all year, I toured all year, and it was just too much after a while. But then when it came to January, I couldn't believe it, I had no work and it was the first month off that I'd had in so long that I was completely out of my mind. It was like, "What am I doing, what am I doing?" And I was painting and drawing, doing art and stuff, but I have to have a lot going on or I just don't function well. So we've got the three bands and the art-world stuff going on, and books, and writing songs and stuff like that. It's good.
AVC: You're still writing with mostly the same sense of humor that you had in X. Have you tried to change much about your songs?
EC: I would say nothing has changed. I think that there are varieties of songs that come and go, like families of songs. "Because I Do" is a certain type of song, and "New World" is another type of song, but there's gonna be songs that revolve around a certain type of things at some point. But I don't want to change the way I write my songs, I like the way I write my songs, so I keep 'em the same. I'd like to write more country songs, but other than that, I'm pretty good where I am.
AVC: Did most of the humor in X come from you?
EC: Well, John and I wrote the words, so it was both of us, but I definitely had a sense of humor, 'cause it was all very funny at the time. And the sad stuff is funny. You always have to write sad stuff as funny stuff. You can't just write it as sad. Well, when somebody dies, then you get to write it as sad.
AVC: But there are definitely X songs and solo songs where you're pretty serious. Is it hard to balance that?
EC: No. I get very snide… You say about somebody, like, I don't know, when someone has a drinking problem or something, or when someone is too egotistical or something, you just find ways to put them down in the song. 'Til death do we party—that's the idea of his commitment. It's mostly about love that you can get really funny about.
AVC: How do your audiences change with different projects?
EC: There's four audiences. The X audience, the Knitters audience, the Original Sinners audience, and the art audience. But you know what? Some people like art and some people like the Knitters, and some people don't like X and they like the Knitters, and some people don't like the Original Sinners and they don't like the art, and some people, the only band they like is the Original Sinners and they're sick of X. I've been really lucky that anybody cares at all. It's been really great.
AVC: How do you collect all the stuff that goes into your mixed-media work?
EC: Oh, I found that stuff before you were born, probably, and I keep finding it. And my sources will remain secret, but normally I just find things on the ground, thrift-store stuff. It's harder now to find stuff, so I'm glad I collected things my whole life, so that I wouldn't have to suddenly start collecting things to make art, 'cause I've been making art for a really, really long time. There's something really great about making collages, which is primarily what I do, because you focus so intensely on what you're doing that it's everything, and when you get that focus, you can find the perfect piece, but at the same time it's almost just like you let go and let it make itself. So you're doing this intense, controlling focus, and you're also at the same time letting that the universe find that orange piece of paper for you. It's very fun.
AVC: It's taken a while for people like you and Henry Rollins to get wider recognition for their non-musical work. Before that happened, was there much of a support base for branching out?
EC: I started doing poetry readings before any of those people. Henry Rollins used to open for me. I started doing performance-art shows and readings in 1975. It wasn't hard at all, because we had a literary tradition in Venice [California], where I was living, that was really supportive. It was poets and stuff like that, it wasn't just people who wanted to be in bands; then when we got in bands, those worlds all mixed, and the whole Southern California thing just turned into this big music and poetry and art thing.
AVC: What kind of people do you surround yourself with now?
EC: Well, most of those people are dead, or gone on some other level. I don't surround myself with anybody, really. I have friends, but I'm kind of an isolationist now. I kind of work on my own.
AVC: By choice?
EC: Yeah. When I get together with the Knitters or X, it's always really fantastic and fun, and we work on songs and stuff like that. But as far as, do I have runaways knocking on my door at 3 in the morning asking if they can stay there? No, not anymore.
AVC: A lot of people classify X as a punk band, but it never had a strictly punk sound.
EC: So many bands were doing that in the early punk days, and then it became this reactionary, rigid mentality, that punk had to sound a certain way, and that kind of interfered with that process of openness for a while. The only thing I remember is how eclectic punk was in the beginning and how great it was; then that faction came, and I didn't like that.
AVC: Do you still think of yourself as an L.A. figure?
EC: I'm not anymore, and I'm glad about that, because I don't really like L.A. much anymore. It's a hideous city. The weather's nice sometimes. It's just too crowded for me and too claustrophobic and too aggressive and too scary, and too chaotic. Did I say chaotic already? I like the country. I like quiet. We're trying to get to this place, my son and I. We have to confer about how the hell we're going to get off the freeway.
AVC: What are you working on next?
EC: The next [Original Sinners] record's gonna be a psychedelic record. Whatever ideas we come up with that we think are interesting and weird and beautiful and scary, we're gonna put them down and make the words howl around them. I don't know how it's gonna come out yet, but it's in the planning stages. I've never done one, and I love that stuff so much. The Butthole Surfers, they're one of the best ones. Even though it's not psychedelic, I count The Doors in as an influence of that kind of idea. I think things never got psychedelic enough. Acid rock was cool, but it's all blues-based.