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X to mark spot at Music Box with four albums in four...er, three, nights

Iconic punk-rockers X to play four albums, four nights at Music Box Supper Club in Cleveland
Iconic punk-rockers X to play four albums, four nights at Music Box Supper Club in Cleveland
X

“There are certain songs I can’t even play unless I’m up to the feelings and memories that keep rushing in,” said Henry Rollins of preeminent L.A. punk band X.

DJ Bonebrake and X to mark spot at Music Box Supper Club
Frank Gargani

The ex-Black Flag singer was just one of dozens of celebrity X fans who contributed liner notes to the band's outtakes collection, Beyond and Back: The X Anthology, in the late 1990s.

This writer doesn’t remember X’s late ‘70s ascension from the bustling L.A. scene (hey, were barely out of kindergarten at the time). We caught on later, playing catch-up with X and other pioneering punkers during our high school and college years, when we discovered just how massive an impact the quartet—founded by singer / poet / artist Exene Cervenkanova (aka Cervenka) and bassist John Doe—had on the musical status quo. They were just rocking out, doing what they did best, but they left an enduring impression on most punk and hardcore acts who popped out of the West Coast in the ‘80s.

The group’s 1980 debut, Los Angeles, found Exene and Doe chronicling their streetwise experiences in rapid-fire fashion, blending their distinctive voices over Billy Zoom’s jagged Hornet guitar and drummer DJ Bonebrake’s frenetic, whiplash beats. It was one of those rare efforts praised by fans and critics alike: The LP made year-end best-of lists even commercial-minded trade publications like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. When filmmaker Penelope Spheeris focused her lenses on L.A. for her documentary The Decline of the Western Civilization, X was one of just a handful of acts (The Germs, Circle Jerks) featured. The group played Dick Clark's American Bandstand...and even turned up on Solid Gold.

Wild Gift (1981) and Under the Big Black Sun (1982) saw X expand its sound (and audience) by embracing their melodic sensibilities, rather than stymie them for the sake of preserving anyone else’s idealistic notions of who they were and what they were on about. More Fun in The New World (1983) and Ain’t Love Grand (1985) furthered the cause, but their take-no-shit transmissions started becoming garbled in an age dominated by corporate radio and MTV. Zoom flew the coup, leaving the band to sally forth with surrogate six-stringers Tony Gilkyson and Dave Alvin.

The discs—now being created by a duel-guitar ensemble—were still potent, but came less frequently: 1987’s See How We Are and 1993’s Hey Zeus! were snapped up by the faithful but overlooked by the masses. Periods of inactivity (at least on the X front) set in. The in-concert acoustic effort Unclogged gave enthusiasts a taste of X’s stripped-down oeuvre whilst simultaneously thrusting a middle finger at then-trendy “unplugged” phenomenon.

Issued in 1997 on the Elektra label, Beyond and Back provided samplings of the demos, rehearsals, and radio sessions anyone might’ve missed the first go-around. Joining Rollins in lavishing praise and sharing positive memories about the band in the exhaustive notes are no lesser luminaries than MOBY, Keith Morris (Circle Jerks), Donita Sparks (L7), Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin (The Go-Gos), Matthew Sweet, Joan Jett, and Joey Ramone.

“I know all the lyrics,” claims actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. “I sing ‘til I ache. Exene’s beautiful harmonies…Mr. Doe has a voice that reaches deep inside me, makes me cry.”

The band went on hiatus at the turn of the century, but X members occasionally jammed with Alvin and others in rockabilly offshoot group The Knitters. They played the occasional festival (SXSW, North By Northeast, Voodoo Experience, etc.) in the late 2000’s—then joined Pearl Jam on tour in South America and Europe. Doe, Zoom, and Bonebroke all recorded solo albums or pursued peripheral musical interests when not on the concert trail. Exene devoted more time to writing; she published a few of her poetry journals and traveled with exhibits of her mixed-media artwork.

Today (almost forty years since the band’s inception) X is now enjoying an unprecedented resurgence. All four original members have reunited for a North American tour that sees them dipping deep into their catalog. In select cities—including Cleveland—they’ll perform albums like Los Angeles in their entirety, alongside other memorable X-tras. They’ll deliver at least one full album per night when they play the new Music Box Supper Club (Flats West Bank) September 10-12. ***

*** X was to play its debut album on September 9, but that show has been scrubbed so the band can participate in a Q&A at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum (details below) instead. Fans who bought tickets for the Sept. 9 will automatically receive a ticket for the two-album gig on Sept. 10, or they may a receive refund at point-of-purchase or X-change for one of the three remaining X-shows. For those with September 9 tickets who are unable to attend the Sept. 10 performance, please contact the Music Box (216)-242-1254; or email stephanie@musicboxcle.com for information about refunds. For those already in possession of tickets for any of the additional X shows at the Music Box, please contact the venue (216-242-1254; stephanie@musicboxcle.com) for refund info.

Texan terrors Not In the Face will support X all three evenings at Music Box. The doo-wop / R&B punk quartet formed five years ago as a goofball side project, but now they have new EP—the GG “Garth” Richardson-produced Brass Tacks.

Watch Brass Tacks video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=rK9Ebx5zgUY

We spoke with X stick man DJ Bonebrake by phone in advance of the Cleveland show. Fresh off a string of shows in the Big Apple, the iconic drummer effused an excitement for X past, present, and future that transcended mere nostalgia. The versatile percussionist never really stopped playing, even when X was off. On the contrary, DJ’s been sharpening his skills in countless jazz, R&B, and cow-punk side groups. His passion for music has been a constant, and he cites his (and his bandmates’) open-mindedness and blue-collar work ethic not just with keeping X afloat in the 21st century, but with rejuvenating their spirits as creative people.

CLEVELAND MUSIC EXAMINER: Hey, DJ! Thanks for talking with us about X’s up-coming four-night stand in Cleveland. According to the tour schedule, you guys are in Massachusetts now, right? How’s it going so far?

DJ BONEBRAKE: We’re out in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. It was so frustrating—we came in from New York and drove through Boston, and I was thinking to myself, “Yeah, we’re staying near Boston.” But then we kept driving another hour. So here we are, out in…I don’t even know what city it is [ed. note: Cambridge]. But yeah, it’s been going well. We played four nights in New York, and we did the four-album deal there at the City Winery, and that was really, really great. It’s enjoyable doing that.

EXAMINER: Cleveland is one of only four or five cities on the tour schedule where the band is doing this multiple albums, four nights deal, right?

DJ BONEBRAKE: That’s true. It’s really satisfying doing it. We play the record, and then we take a short break. Ten minutes. Then we do a bunch of other songs. But I think for us, it was good to learn some of the songs we hadn’t played for years. Kicks us in the butt, you know? It’s interesting. On a couple things, we play different instruments. I play vibes on one song, then come back. And Billy actually plays guitar and sax. He picks up the sax, and I take over on his guitar part. Little bit of vibes. It’s pretty fun!

EXAMINER: Apparently each night you perform one of the first four albums—but then you also throw in some other X classics. So it’s fair to say fans don’t have to sweat over what night to attend, since they’re gonna get a lot of great stuff regardless of what album is being showcased.

DJ BONEBRAKE: Definitely. And the good thing is, even if they go on the first or second night, they’ll hear some of them—not all of them—but some of the songs we haven’t played for years. They’ll hear stuff from maybe three albums, with songs we rarely play. There’s always hope for the next night! But we’re mixing them up. We have more songs to choose from. But that’s true, what you said [laughs]!

EXAMINER: The first album, Los Angeles, distills a lot of the late ‘70s L.A. scene into the material. Can you tell us a bit what it was like back then, starting up the band and using music as sort of a mirror to reflect on all the social and creative dynamics of the time? I mean, you guys may not have known that the album would become an enduring classic—but it’s taken on that kind of legendary status: A groundbreaking record well-received by fans and critics alike that really captured the zeitgeist.

DJ BONEBRAKE: I will try my best. It was a small scene there. I was from the San Fernando Valley, which is like, North Hollywood—a suburb. And I just started coming into the city in the beginning of ’77, and I met The Eyes. They were another band. They saw me play somewhere, and they asked if I wanted to play drums with them. I said, “Sure!” So I came, and started hanging around the Hollywood scene, and that’s when the punk rock scene started there. The Weirdos were playing. There weren’t that many bands. There weren’t a lot of clubs, but the one that eventually became The Masque—that was the hangout. There were maybe, 200 to 500 people who came and went. But it was a small scene. We saw ourselves as outsiders. Eventually I heard The Eyes play. They’d lost a drummer and were looking for a drummer. I joined the band probably at the end of ’77, early ’78. X was totally a part of the scene, but they weren’t your typical punk rock band. But that’s what I liked about them, because they had a variety of influences. At that time, a lot of bands were trying to see who could be the most punk. It was limiting. With X, they had a larger palette. They were doing some ballads. They were doing “Adult Books,” and people were going, “What are you doing ‘Adult Books’ for?” As if this was a bad thing. But they’d say things like, “You’re Elvis Costello.” Or “You’re New Wave!” That was like, the worst epithet you could bestow on someone! But that’s what I liked about the band. They said, “We’re gonna play this,” and did it. It took a while for people to really accept us, and they accepted us as scenesters. But it took a while longer for people to go, “Oh, I see what they’re doing!” It’s hard to describe what happened, because it was a crazy time and we were all so young. There were a lot of bands. It was step-by-step. Sometimes you just don’t know anymore. You go, “We played some gigs, and eventually people started coming out and standing in line to see us!” I think that started happening around 1979 or so.

EXAMINER: Ray Manzarek from The Doors produced the first few albums—the ones X is doing on these four-nighters. At first blush that might seem like an odd combo, having The Doors’ organ player working with a punk group. What was it like working with him?

DJ BONEBRAKE: It was pretty amazing. I was a Doors fan as a kid, because my older brother played the records. And his band, they did their own version of “Light My Fire,” and we were all impressed. But with X, we were playing The Whiskey a Go-Go, opening for some other band, and Ray was there with his wife, Dorothy. They were there to hear the other band. But I heard later that Ray had heard some mentioning of X. He really didn’t know anything about us. We’d do a version of “Soul Kitchen,” but it’s like, four times faster than The Doors version! We started playing it, and apparently Dorothy kind of elbowed Ray and said, “Listen to what they’re playing!” But Ray didn’t recognize the song [laughs]! He was just like, “Huh? Wha?” But he was impressed with a lot of the poetry and the music. So he came backstage that night and said, “I like you guys, I’d like to produce you. I’ll use whatever influence I have, and maybe we can get a major label deal.” So he used all his influence to try to get us signed—I still have the A&M Records notice that says “Sorry, but at this point we’re not interested.” So Ray just said he’d produce us and put out a record any way he could, and we got an offer from Slash Records—which at the time, they were just a local fanzine. But they had released a couple records, I think The Plugz…maybe a Germs record. I forget. But they had a couple things out. And basically, Ray worked for free on that. He said, “I don’t need to get paid.” It was low-budget. He took maybe 5% later. He was very generous. I think the best thing he did, was that he didn’t…he helped us with certain arrangements, but mostly he just let us do what we did. He knew there was a certain magic in the band, because he’d lived through it. There’s a magic that you don’t want to change. You don’t want “We have to get a hit, so we’ll change your whole style…” thing. So he just got the good performance, and that’s what we’d wanted to do, and why he produced these four records that we’re playing now.

EXAMINER: Yeah, you read all about these producer / impressarios who “discover” a band, and then they step in and give them a complete makeover in hopes of cashing in big. They only end up ruining what was so special, often without realizing what they’re doing. Better to just give a band leeway to do their thing.

DJ BONEBRAKE: Yeah. He would just try to get us comfortable. He changed maybe a couple things. Like, the beginning of “Los Angeles”—he said, “That’s a great line, but do the intro twice.” You know, the [DJ sings] dun-dun-dun-dun. There’s a recording we did earlier on where there’s one, but after that it was twice. So it was little musical things like that. Like, “Why not play the chorus longer?” But not changing the entire band, you know? Not bringing in side musicians. Well, he was a side musician [laughs]; he sat in on a few numbers on the album. That was funny, because we’d go on the road, and people wouldn’t know what was going on. They’d be like, “Well, where’s Ray?” because they figured he was in the band!

EXAMINER: What got you started playing drums?

DJ BONEBRAKE: I’m 58 years old now. I remember listening to the radio. I had two older brothers, for one, so that was an influence. And they were musicians, too. And at the time, I was listening to AM radio. KRLA, KHJ were a couple stations. KFWB. And they were playing Motown stuff, Beach Boys. Then The Beatles—I was really influenced by The Beatles, like everyone else. And the British Invasion, and then the psychedelic era. I was maybe twelve years old when Hendrix was out, so I was really into that. I think I started technically playing drums when I was twelve. Maybe not taking lessons yet, but playing. My family would call me The Plumber, because I’d take out all the pots and pans and play them. But I think they got it wrong; I have pictures of me, and I think I was testing the sound. I still do that at the Home Depot, and my wife wants to hide because I want to hit all the metal and paint cans and stuff. It almost sounds simplistic, but you’re kind of born with that. You’re nervous, and you want to hit things. So I was playing before I was twelve. After twelve, that’s a whole different story. I was in this Buddhist Marching Band, and they taught me how to play drums. Then I was in the school band and orchestra, and I played in multiple garage bands. It was a typical thing in that way. You’d do whatever you can, play with the neighbors. My older brother was in a band. So we’d just play for years and years, playing everything we could. And somehow I ended up playing punk rock. But it’s a little more than punk, you know?

EXAMINER: I know what you mean by “more than punk.” Earlier you alluded to how you saw X as being more than just that, and how you saw Exene and John Doe kind of embracing all kinds of styles. That carried over in X, and into everyone’s solo projects. Can you talk a bit about some of the side work you do?

DJ BONEBRAKE: Yeah. I don’t purport to be the greatest jazz musician, but I’ve always played it. And I’m an okay jazz drummer. I played in the college jazz band, and I can read music, and I’ve played in orchestras. I do it for fun, really, and also…with these projects, in between tours…. It’s a tough business, being a musician, and you always think you’re never gonna work again. You work really intensely for six months, and then six months you’ll have to create projects, and you’re like, “Isn’t anyone going to call me?” So you get interested in things, and through this whole process of being a musician, I’ve taken lessons quite often. I was a mallet player—I was a marimba player when I was young—so in the early ‘90s I started taking lessons again on vibes. I have a band called The Bonebrake Syncopators, where in the ‘90s I tried playing jazz. It’s like a ‘30s jazz band. We have a record out. We don’t play as much as we used to, because we lost a couple members. They moved out of the city. Then I had another band that I started jamming with a friend, called Orchestra Superstring. It used to be called the Cal Tjader Memorial BBQ. It’s based on Cal Tjader, who had a Latin jazz band. And in both of those, I played vibes. Did that for a number of years. I do that because I love to play vibes. I got to a point where I could play pretty well, you know? I’m not gonna take over the world. And later on I had other projects. I have one called The Strip Miners; we’re putting out our third record. Brett Anderson from The Donnas is in that band. It’s a side project where we’ve played some gigs. It’s hard to do gigs. I have a band called Frictional, which is my—we haven’t released anything yet—but we’ve got two great veteran players. That’s with Doug Lunn [bass] and Mike Hoffman [guitar]. They’re guys who are my age who’ve played with a lot of people, and we just fool around like kids. It’s great! We may not get any attention, but they just come to my house and we write songs. It’s like, “What do you want to do? You wanna write something with an odd time signature? Okay!” So that project is fun. We’ll see what happens with that. And I play with another band called World Cakes, out of Philadelphia. They did an album, and we opened for The Meat Puppets. I just play in so many projects, because people go, “Are you free?” The Devil’s Brigade—that’s with Matt Freeman from Rancid. I did a record with them about four years ago, with Tim Armstrong playing guitar. We did a record, then Matt hired another drummer to go to Europe with them—he thought I was too expensive [laughs]! But I just rejoined the band, and we’ve been playing some shows. We did Punk Rock Bowling in Vegas, and a festival in Montreal. Some local gigs, too. So yeah, I just try to keep busy. It’s good to make money, it’s good for visibility. Good to keep in shape. As a musician, you want to play all the time. If you just sit around all the time, it’s no good. And the other thing I do—sorry—I have an online recording business. If you check my website [link below], I offer online recording, I do the live drums. I go into a professional studio. I have a friend who’s an engineer, and—for not much money—I’ll play to them. A lot of folks do home recording, and they put a fake drum machine on there or something, and they send it to me, and I can do it pretty fast, with really good sound. So that’s exciting, too. I love doing that! I love getting something and thinking, “How do I make this sound great?” So that’s kind of what I do [laughs]!

EXAMINER: In keeping with the diversity of music in X, you guys brought on a couple other guitarists in the later years who are known more now for psycho-billy rock and even Americana music: Tony Gilkyson and Dave Alvin. Dave, of course, was from The Blasters and has a successful gig of his own now. I caught him in town a couple years ago. And I’m familiar with Tony’s sister, Eliza—she’s a terrific singer / songwriter.

DJ BONEBRAKE: Aw, yeah. She’s great. I recorded with her once. I was lucky enough to do that.

EXAMINER: Oh? Which one? I mean, what album?

DJ BONEBRAKE: I forget the name of it—it was probably in the early ‘90s. I’m not sure which one it was [ed. Note: It was 1997’s Redemption Road]. But yeah, those guys were great. Billy had quit the band, and Dave Alvin joined the band for about a year. He did want to go solo, wanted to be his own boss because he’d been in The Blasters long enough. But it was great playing with Dave. And of course, The Knitters, I play with him in that, and you can’t get anyone better than that. And then Tony joined, and for a while we had the two guitarists. It was awesome. Really unbelievable, having that much power. So we recorded See How We Are, and then Dave went off and did his own thing, and Tony was in the band for quite a while. Tony’s just an awesome player. I love the stuff we did with him.

EXAMINER: Looks like your schedule is pretty well booked through the end of the year, with the current tour, a few festivals and one-offs, and some holiday shows. Any plans for early 2015?

DJ BONEBRAKE: If you want to know what it’s like to be a musician, when I answer you with “I don’t know,” it’s [not me being facetious] [laughs]. I have a couple things. But basically you go, “Wow! I have work this year! What are we going to do next year?” And usually around December or early January you start getting calls. You never think you’re gonna work again. Then somebody goes, “Maybe we should try to do a tour!” So I don’t know! X did what I call semi-acoustic tours, where we did these two-week tours. I think we want to do some more of that on occasion. It just depends. If people want to hear more of this four-album thing…by the end of the tour it’ll only be the four cities. So maybe we could do that in certain cities. I think The Strip Miners were gonna put out a record. The Devil’s Brigade, we’re gonna start recording new material. Usually you just kind of speculate: “Do we rehearse, try to record some songs and see what happens? Let’s see if we get some offers for gigs, or festivals, maybe go to Europe with it!” With The Devil’s Brigade we could, with Rancid, and we get okay offers. So that’s a good question. Usually as a musician, you take it abstractly. You try to pin things down, and you go, “Maybe I should start practicing, just so I’m ready for it.” Like if you start jogging everyday. You want to be in shape six months from now. So I’ll take out my drum books and practice every morning. It’s like that. You think, “If I’m good enough, maybe I’ll get a gig!” It’s kind of pathetic [laughs] to think that way, but kind of good to think ahead. So the real answer is “I don’t know [laughs].”

EXAMINER: Well, we’re looking forward to your Cleveland shows. I was too young to see X back in the day, so this’ll be a first for me. Plus, you’re playing Music Box Supper Club, which is a new venue here. X was one of the first acts they booked. So these shows will be a completely new experience for a lot of people.

DJ BONEBRAKE: Really? That’s interesting. This has been a little different for us. A sit-down dinner place, I mean. That’s new for us, doing that. In the past it’s been difficult, just because you’re worried people won’t be able to dance. When we played City Winery, people really enjoyed it. It sounded good, and they let people stand up if they wanted to. Also, we got used to it when we did the acoustic tour. That was frightening at first, because you’re so used to getting a visceral response from the audience. And you’re so emotional, too. You’re playing these songs, and you kind of…you don’t need that, but you expect it. So I think we just need to acclimate to that, and think, “They’ll enjoy it. They may not be thrashing around, but they’ll still take in the lyrics and enjoy the power.” Like that.

EXAMINER: I haven’t been there yet. But I get the sense that people can rock out at their spots, and needn’t stay glued to their chairs. Or they can just have a food fight.
DJ BONEBRAKE: Yeah, I make an announcement that you if you can’t stand up, you can still play with your food! It can be food anarchy! Stir it around, like a dance floor! Like The Three Stooges [laughs]!

X (with Not In The Face). September 9-12, 2014 at Music Box Supper Club (1148 Main Avenue, Cleveland OH 44113). Tickets ($35.00-$40.00) available now at

www.musicbloxcle.com
www.xtheband.com
www.djbonebrakemusic.com
www.notinthefacerocks.com

Tue, Sep 09
X at The Rock Hall:
Q&A conducted by Dr. Jason Hanley at the Rock Hall 7:00pm
All original members: Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Billy Zoom and DJ Bonebrake
Free with a reservation from Rock Hall ticket system: https://tickets.rockhall.com.
Limit is 4 seats per reservation. Rock Hall members will have the first opportunity to RSVP starting on Tuesday 9/2 at 10:00 am. General public will be able to RSVP starting on Wednesday 9/3 at 10:00 am (assuming there are any spots left)

Wed, Sep 10 Music Box Supper Club
X Plays "Lost Angeles," “Wild Gift” + Other Hits
All original members: Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Billy Zoom and DJ Bonebrake
Concert Hall
Dining begins: 06:30 pm
$35 Advance, $40 Day of Show
08:30 pm
Tickets http://bit.ly/1oIRsex

Thu, Sep 11Music Box Supper Club
X Plays “Under The Big Black Sun” + Other Hits
All original members: Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Billy Zoom and DJ Bonebrake
Concert Hall
Dining begins: 06:30 pm
$35 Advance, $40 Day of Show
08:30 pm
Tickets http://bit.ly/1oIRjHT

Fri, Sep 12 Music Box Supper Club
X Plays “More Fun In The New World” + Other Hits
All original members: Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Billy Zoom and DJ Bonebrake
Concert Hall
Dining begins: 06:30 pm
$35 Advance, $40 Day of Show
8:30 pm
Tickets http://bit.ly/1oIRsex