Body of Christ
Exene Cervenka Returns as the Auntie Christ
By Michael Henningsen
AUGUST 18, 1997: Exene Cervenkova (aka Cervenka), DJ Bonebrake (X) and Matt Freeman (Operation Ivy, Rancid): the holy punk trinity--who knew? But Auntie Christ, fronted by Cervenkova and currently marching their way across the United States in support of their Lookout Records debut, Life Could Be a Dream (incidentally, bassist Freeman is not playing this leg of the tour due to Rancid duties), have quickly made a name for themselves amidst a punk rock landscape that has become rather saturated. Why are Auntie Christ standouts? It certainly has much to do with Cervenkova's illustrious history and star power, but more than that, Auntie Christ play music that isn't just close to the real thing, it is the real thing.
Cervenkova is the woman who, some 20 years ago, gave us all a reason to stop asking the question, "What is the role of women in rock?" It was with the legendary, catalytic punk band X, of course, that Cervenkova made her initial howl, starting a ball that's still rolling. Wild Gift and Los Angeles, arguably X's two best records, sent thousands of kids into the stratosphere and hundreds of others off to their local music stores to buy guitars and eventually form bands. X, along with bands such as Dead Kennedys, the Ramones, JFA, the Nuns and a handful of others, exemplified punk rock at its essence--raw and unabashed, with an emphasis on individuality, the balls to take a stand and the responsibility to speak out against a corporate-run government operating behind the charade of freedom and democracy.
But as an in-touch cult following gradually became legions of fans attracted to punk rock more for the uninhibited social atmosphere it provided than to the political undertones that were its origin and motivation, punk became as salable as a Big Mac. And as punk rock began to wind down in the mid- to-late-'80s, so did X.
Following the initial breakup of X, Cervenkova made a string of solo efforts that barely managed to bubble under, including her collaboration with Blasters guitarist Dave Alvin in the underappreciated country-laced project, The Knitters. A brief X reunion eventually followed, but it soon became clear that Cervenkova and drummer Bonebrake were destined for a different road.
Surprisingly, that road led to the formation of Auntie Christ--the most X-like project since ... well, X. And hence an important resurrection of the ethics and laurels that sparked West Coast punk two decades ago. Weekly Alibi spoke with Cervenkova last week about both the history of punk and its future and where Auntie Christ fits in.
Do you think a lot of people in general are cynical about punk rock?
They're not cynical about punk rock, they're cynical about something they assume is punk rock. Punk rock was never exploited or ruined or destroyed. Some of the original aspects we created--some of the fashion aspects and the tattoos and some of the musical styles--have been exploited, but the actual essence of punk rock, what it stands for and especially what it stands against have never actually been discovered by the public. So I'm not cynical about it.
According to you, what is the essence of punk rock?
According to me, and I should know, it's being an individual, frankly. It goes past that, but just as far as the individual carries it. If culture comes from up above you, from corporations like it does now, and you're told what to wear, what drugs to take, what computer to buy and how long to sit in front of it like a zombie, then you're not an individual.
With much of modern music and pop culture being prepackaged, and crammed down our throats, it has become increasingly difficult to create one's own identity, even as an artist.
If you're making music and watching MTV, reading Rolling Stone and Spin and paying close attention to what's on the radio, then you're probably not an artist. Because an artist is someone who can create in a void.
What role do politics play in punk rock and how vital is it?
Everything about it was political. We used to have songs about the Hillside Strangler, Son of Sam and whatever mass murderers were out there doing their antisociety thing--if punk rock was happening now, there'd be songs about the Unabomber and that sort of thing. It wasn't because we thought those people were heroes but because it was a comment on the ills of society. But you don't hear any songs on the radio about the Nike Corporation or about NAFTA. I'm sort of in league with Jello Biafra these days--we're sort of like political survivors. It's just amazing to us how nonpolitical art has become. Especially music and especially with the younger generation.
Being that the punk rock landscape has changed so much and regardless of whether what's happening now is "real" punk rock or not--the kids think it is, they say it is and they buy the records--how can the punk scene, or punk itself, be revitalized?
Well, I think there are some real punk bands. I think Green Day is more of a pop band in the same way that Nirvana was. But definitely Rancid is, because they came out of a real working-class, desperate, alcoholic world. They're purists and believe in it. It's just if you believe in it or not. I know it when I see it. Punk can't be spoiled by people who believe in it, can't be spoiled by fashion designers and advertisers. It can't be spoiled by the kids, because they love it. It can be revitalized by people becoming individuals again and stop wearing what they're told to wear and acting like they're told to act. A lot of people are being led around by their nose rings. People shouldn't spend so much time reading magazines. They shouldn't care what models are wearing. Who wants to be a corporate slave?
Speaking of the media, are there any worthwhile publications out there?
Yeah. Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting puts out a good publication called Extra. They kind of police the news for lies and they're saying that 18 corporations control all of the media in the country--print and visual. So you see the same things in the newspaper that you see on TV and in the movies. That's why you get this homogenized culture where everyone likes all the same stuff and says, "Gee, isn't it great how popular stuff is?" But the choices are so limited.
What about zines and so-called alternative media?
There are some good zines. A lot of them are new to me, but there are some really good ones. And Flipside is good on a national level. Anything like Option that just tells you what's out ... you know, if a kid's writing about you and they say, "This is total shit. These people should be killed. It does sound like the Ramones, though, for what it's worth," that's great, that's a fine review. But when you have some pseudo-intellectual writing for the New York Times describing why (a particular record) doesn't have a cultural impact or why it does, then it becomes useless.
What worries you most about today's music?
I'm worried about kids who are wandering around in their little peasant outfits and nose rings and purple hair, thinking that they're punk rock doing heroin and not knowing who I am and who Jello (Biafra) is--not really knowing what the motivation was. I feel bad for people who are lost.
What opportunities do you have with Auntie Christ that you didn't have with X?
I think because I write all the songs and play guitar and sing 'em all, I have total freedom of expression. And that's really beyond value. X was one of the greatest bands of all time, but this is just fun for me, as an artist. Hopefully, I'll make some revolutionary movement happen. But otherwise, it's really just great to be in control.
I think everyone who hears Life Could Be a Dream is impressed by your guitar work. Had you played much before Auntie Christ was formed?
No. This band was in existence for six months when the album was recorded. It was done in seven days, and I think it's just a really good example of punk rock at work--you just pick up a guitar and learn it. And you just write your songs and play. I think it's easier than people think.
I guess it has a lot to do with how intimidated one is by the instrument.
I was intimidated (by the guitar) for so many years, I can't tell you. But guitar playing, of all the things I've ever done in the arts, is the most plateau-oriented experience--you play for a while and then you just don't improve and that happens a couple of times and then suddenly it all falls into place.
What's the future of Auntie Christ? With Matt Freeman juggling two bands, what's the plan?
Well, Matt is doing Rancid stuff right now, and what he wants to do is come back and play guitar because he wants two guitars in the band. And I think that's a really great idea because he plays like Billy Zoom. What I would really like to do with this band, if I get to do two or three tours, is know that each tour is going to be really different. Maybe with different people. Auntie Christ should be an ongoing thing that changes. We're playing to intelligent people, and they can expect to be surprised and challenged.
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