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Classic Lineup of Punk Band X Returns to Studio for First Time in 34 Years (EXCLUSIVE)

“I wasn’t exactly sure what we were gonna get,” admits producer Rob Schnapf (Elliott Smith, Beck), “and it was like: ‘F---, we got X!’”

X is a preeminent example of a band that’s gone “Beyond and Back” — to borrow one of their vintage song titles — but there’s always been an asterisk on the “back” part. There’s been no shortage of chances to see L.A.’s preeminent punk-era group on tour over the last 15 years, with the original lineup reunited and blazing through their most poetically rip-roaring catalog material from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. But the setlists rarely if ever included anything post-1983. Coming up with any new material for X, as they have all along for their solo and side projects? Not even a consideration, seemingly.

That’s about to change. The original foursome just went into the studio together to record fresh material for the first time in a third of a century… since 1985’s “Ain’t Love Grand,” to be exact. Five songs were recorded over the course of two days at the top of the new year with producer Rob Schnapf, who’s back in the studio mixing the new tracks this week. And, after decades’ worth of hesitation, everyone sounds thrilled with the results.

“It was great fun being in the studio recording,” says Exene Cervenka, joining John Doe for a phone call with Variety. “I’m so happy and excited that we did it, because it’s something I’ve personally wanted for a long time, and I know our followers, our friends and our family all do too. It just got started because the time was right.”

As for what form the new material will take, Exene says, “I’m not gonna characterize it as a ‘new album,’ mostly because it’s not 1982, and I don’t know about making a ‘new album.’ But we’re recording songs, that’s for sure. … We’ll see what we release, or how we release it, or when we release it, if we release it. Well, that is not really true, but you know what I mean.”

“I’ll say it’s pretty likely we’ll release something this year,” offers Doe.

“Oh, yeah, for sure,” Exene affirms. “Well, it’s January! That’s a good bet, yeah. But I don’t want to put a time limit on it. Maybe we’ll put out a triple album in 2020.”

So whether this might come out as an EP or form the first part of a full-length album (or triple) remains to be seen — but Schnapf is ready to cast his vote. “This was this was easy, you know?” the producer says in a separate interview. “Really easy. I suggest: Do more!”

Schnapf has a ready-made thumbnail description for what the new material sounds like. “I wasn’t exactly sure what we were gonna get,” he admits, “and it was like: ‘F—, we got X!’”

No one’s going to say they picked up exactly where they left off, because where they left off, with “Ain’t Love Grand” in the mid-’80s, was not that great a place. That attempt at reframing the band in a bigger commercial context was ill fated (even though it resulted in a radio hit with “Burning House of Love”), and guitarist Billy Zoom left the band shortly after that, while the group soldiered on for two more studio albums with new members. But all indications are that this marks a return to what everyone considers the four canonical albums that had Ray Manzarek producing, albeit with a slight sonic upgrade that provides a more authentic capture of what X does live. That’s something that never completely came across even on the discography’s core four, althose albums helped established them as the greatest band ever to come out of L.A., or at least as in a ballpark with the Beach Boys and Manzarek’s Doors.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” says Doe. “Thirty-some years after what was a hard time for us doing ‘Ain’t Love Grand,’ to go back in the studio with Billy, and for everyone to be enthusiastic and to get it done, the word that came to mind was gratifying. We went in there and it’s like, ‘Holy shit! We sound like X! That’s cool.’ Because that could not happen, you know? It could be like Crosby, Stills and Nash.” (Exene politely chimes in: “We don’t have to make comparisons to other people. They’re great, too.”)

Says Schnapf, “When someone hasn’t recorded as a band in such a really long time, there’s so much that can go wrong. But this was effortless. We didn’t have to talk about it a lot. And it doesn’t sound like some big production or anything. It’s visceral. And I think they’re all in a place in their life where they know what X is and they know who they are, so it’s easier to tap into. It’s not like, this is the solo project featuring X. This is X. And it’s not like, ‘Hey, let’s get back together and make some money,’ or some bad conceptualized idea of ‘Hey, I like you again. Let’s write some songs.’ That’s not what they’re doing. They’ve been out there living it, and they’re playing all the time. They have their sea legs.”

Adds the producer, who’s most famous for working on all of Elliott Smith’s albums as well as Beck’s “Mellow Gold”: “I’ve been doing this a long time. I’m pretty jacked up on this one.”

The band, too. “A lot of people don’t realize the producer is kind of like the choke point between you and your fans,” says Exene, “and it has to be absolutely right or it can just send things off in the wrong direction so quickly. And oftentimes you don’t really know till you’re almost finished with the project that ‘Oh, wait a minute, maybe we went the wrong way.’ So we just knew that Rob Schnapf was going to be the right guy.”

Producer Rob Schnapf and X's Billy Zoom in the studio
CREDIT: Mike Rouse

Schnapf had known Zoom (both pictured, above) since 1988, and the group’s manager for many years as well; the subject of a new album had been “kicked around” for years, he says, without ever taking hold. Then he met Exene in the process of producing and mixing a “Live in Latin America” album that was promoted in 2017-18 as a Kickstarter exclusive. (Pearl Jam had taken X out as a support act on a 2011 tour and surreptitiously made master recordings of their wildly received opening sets in South American stadiums, then gifted the group with a hard drive at tour’s end, which became the live album. It’s reported to be the best X live album on record, though there’s little way of verifying that, since it was pressed in such limited quantities for Kickstarter that few fans have heard it.) Their faith in Knopf being able to render their sound came out of that live project, although he and Doe hadn’t met till it was time to go into the studio.

“I’m excited for people to hear it, too,” says the producer. “There was a young band next door to my studio and they heard stuff through the door, and they were like, ‘Man, what is that? Who are you working with? It sounds like X!’”

Both of the band’s frontpeople are reluctant to speculate what comes next. “I personally am a little reticent to talk about it because you don’t want to jinx it,” Doe says. Adds Exene, “When you’re making art, the last thing I believe you should think about is the outcome of what’s gonna happen when it’s done. And even this time, it’s the same thing. I’m glad people are excited about it, but thinking past recording music and the band loving what we’re doing right now, that’s where you get in trouble. I think I love this because it’s so much like the early days. You just go in the studio and make a record and you don’t have a clue what people are gonna say.”

But Doe says it’s not a huge stretch to imagine who might put out new X product. “Now that we own the masters to [the first four classic records], we’re re-releasing ‘em on Fat Possum, and that also gave us a little bit of a platform to do this: ‘If we record some stuff, then there’s a record company that we’ve signed with to do these other records that can release this thing.’ And that platform or home for it is kind of an extra reason [for recording]: Okay, I have an idea where this might go.”

“I guess we did a good job on our (early) records, because they’ve never gone out of print, and that’s a battle these days,” says Exene. “ Maybe one day we’ll get a gold record for ‘Los Angeles’ (their 1980 debut). You never know — we may sell 500,000 copies someday. I’m laughing, because we probably sold so many more than that, but no one can kind of keep the record straight on that one.”

Exene and Billy Zoom of X in performance at the Grammy Museum, 2017
CREDIT: Chris Willman

This probably signals an end to modern-day X setlists being frozen in a galvanizing form of amber. “I would love to play live songs that we either haven’t played in forever or new songs,” Exene says. “I mean, I never get sick of our songs, because they’re great songs and I love singing them and can sing ‘em differently every time, and John and I sing together, so it’s always a different dynamic. John and Billy and D.J. (Bonebrake) are such great musicians and so much fun to listen to and watch, I could never not want to do this. But it would really be fun to add some more songs, whether they’re cover songs or new songs.”

Side projects will come to the fore for a bit — Doe is about to go on tour with a reunited version of the Flesh Eaters, another group that hasn’t made a new album together in about 35 years — so it’ll be May before X fans have a chance to learn whether the new songs are yet making it into the set. They’ll start that month opening for the Violent Femmes and finish it with headlining shows of their own, with further touring planned for the remainder of 2019.

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