In early March, the four original members of X sat in the mixing room of an Eagle Rock recording studio recounting the how and why of “Alphabetland,” their first studio album as a quartet in 35 years.
Arranged in a semicircle on a couch and in a few chairs, John Doe, Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom and D.J. Bonebrake were taking a break from a long day of mixing and overdubbing the 11 hard, fast and distorted new rock ’n’ roll songs — the kind that first ignited the city on X’s 1980 debut album, “Los Angeles.”
“Exene and I talked about writing some songs five to seven years ago together, but we weren’t sure where it would go,” Doe, 67, said of collaborating with his ex-wife and longtime writing partner. (The two were married from 1980 to 1985.) “We were doing other creative stuff, and whatever creative force you have goes into whatever’s in place, right? Whether it’s building a car, making a garden or writing a song.”
Now an Austinite, Doe was wearing cowboy boots, blue jeans, a Western-style button-up shirt and a bolo tie. “So Exene and I just kind of got busy and said, ‘OK, we’ve got a place to put it.’”
When Doe finished speaking, Cervenka, 64, who was lounging on her side of the couch with her eyes half-shut, lifted her head: “Actually, I’ve been writing X songs for 10 years, and finally everybody decided to make a record. That’s the real story.”
“Alphabetland” arrived out of the blue on Wednesday. Landing months sooner than the band had originally planned, it was recorded with producer Rob Schnapf (Elliott Smith, Beck, Joyce Manor) during two sessions in the fall of 2018 and January 2020.
Doe‘s and Cervenka’s competing narratives on X’s creative return mirror the call-and-response tension that has powered their work since “Los Angeles” came out. X was scheduled to play that Ray Manzarek-produced debut from start to finish for a 40th-anniversary celebration at the Wiltern on Saturday.
Instead, after teasing fans on their Facebook page with a photo of wrapped presents (wild gifts?), X surprise-released “Alphabetland” to Bandcamp through the indie label Fat Possum.
At just over 30 minutes long, its 11 hit-and-run songs are as driving, poetic and accomplished as anything X has ever done. The album will land on the other major music streaming platforms on May 1. The band hopes to tour behind the album in the fall.
Featuring guitarist Zoom’s electric guitar riffs and solos, drummer D.J. Bonebrake’s wrist-snapping rhythms and Doe’s tugboat bass lines, songs including “Water & Wine,” “Strange Life,” “Delta 88" and “Angel on the Road” move with a focused fury. Gone is the country twang that accented X’s post-Zoom album “See How We Are” and the alt-rockish “Hey Zeus” from 1993. Back is Cervenka and Doe’s tag-team invective.
“It sounds like an X album,” said the oft-stoic Zoom, 72, on the couch beside Cervenka.
“People ask, ‘How can you be playing rock ’n’ roll for so long?’ ” Doe said. “Well, because that’s what we do. It’s a thing.”
“The same way that they keep sending me a bill for the mortgage every month,” said Zoom, who survived a bladder cancer diagnosis in 2015. His arms were crossed, and he was wearing a black Ramones T-shirt. Partway through, the affable Bonebrake, who lives in Los Angeles, sneaked away to address a drum issue with a studio engineer.
Across a furious five-year period, X recorded five essential rock ’n’ roll albums: “Los Angeles,” “Wild Gift,” “Under the Big Black Sun,” “More Fun in the New World” and “Ain’t Love Grand.” Through songs including “The World’s a Mess, It’s in My Kiss,” “White Girl,” “The Once Over Twice,” “We’re Desperate,” “The Hungry Wolf” and “The New World,” the band was a crucible for the Hollywood scene of the late ’70s and helped draw the blueprint for West Coast punk. The first four albums were recently remastered for streaming platforms. The records never broke through on a commercial level but they remain among the most enduring Los Angeles documents of the era.
A few shuffled lineups — Zoom left the band in 1985 and returned in 1998 — dozens of years and hundreds of shows later, X plays with a telepathic sense of momentum. Songs ignite, then burn for a few hot minutes until the energy’s spent.
Noting that she hadn’t made solo music in years, Exene, who is spending isolation in her Orange County home, said she’d been pushing for a new album for so long in part because she has a harder time writing without purpose. “You can write all day long,” she said, adding that her creative aim was simple: “I was hoping that we would be able to make a new record if I kept writing really good lyrics — so I just started sending stuff to John.” She also included her sung melodies. Doe, along with Zoom and Bonebrake, then added music.
“I think, in some way, we all thought we might make a record years ago,” Doe said. “But it was like, ‘Where? How? When?’”
It’s not as if they hadn’t had the time to figure it out. In 2019, the band logged more concert dates than they had in decades. Touring remains the primary source of income for its members. Doe last issued a solo album, “The Westerner,” in 2016. In the interim, he published two well-received books about the rise and fall of L.A. punk: “Under the Big Black Sun” and “More Fun in the New World.” Bonebrake has his own old-time combos, including the D.J. Bonebrake Trio and the Bonebrake Sycopators. Zoom is all in on X.
In late 2018, X converged at Sunset Sound in Hollywood with Schnapf to record five songs. Working on a combo of early ideas and, in the case of “Cyrano deBerger’s Back,” the reimagining of an old one, the session marked the first time the four had been in a recording studio to make an album since “Ain’t Love Grand.”
The success of those initial sessions wasn’t assured. All of the band’s classic work was cowritten by Doe and Cervenka, which has long meant that they earn songwriting royalties that Zoom and Bonebrake don’t. To assure parity and lessen friction, all four members receive songwriting credit on “Alphabetland.”
“They got to see if they could all work together in this creative way again,” said producer Schnapf. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, let’s do this because we’re all great friends.’ There’s still that creative tension in the band, and it comes across.” Describing the stress as that rub, the mood was such that “everybody gets along fine but nobody gets a free pass. And just because someone has an idea doesn’t mean it automatically has to happen. You get that push back and forth.”
That dynamic manifests itself in Zoom’s Gretsch-powered chords and Cervenka’s lyrics, which on the new songs only further confirm her place as one of music’s most accomplished writers: “There’s a heaven and a hell / And there’s an, ‘Oh well’ / Who gets passed to the head of the line? / Who gets water? Who gets wine?” she wonders on the politically charged “Water & Wine.” “Where did I put my wings? / I can never find those things,” she sings on “Angel on the Road.”
In “Star Chambered,” the band riffs on Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons”:
I played sixteen bars and what did I get?
Another town over and covered in sweat
Almost run over
With another hangover and drunker in debt.
Her head resting on her arm as if she were a recovering damsel, Exene echoed Doe as the band cued up an unmixed version of the title track: “It sounds like X.”
“Alphabetland” was originally scheduled to come out in August. But in mid-March, as the COVID-19 coronavirus spread, Fat Possum and the band began discussing a surprise release. Speaking on the phone from Austin, Texas, earlier this week, where he has been in quarantine with his longtime partner, artist Krissy Teegerstrom, Doe said the rationale for the early drop was twofold.
“Let’s give people — at least our audience and maybe beyond that — something that is upbeat. Something that’s new and vital.” Logistically, the early release made sense too: With record and CD manufacturing plants shuttered, Fat Possum couldn’t guarantee hitting the planned August release date. So X and the label opted to drop the album on the same date that “Los Angeles” was released 40 years ago.
Lines penned and recorded before the pandemic, especially those about class, hope and loss, resonate anew. Asked about those connections, Doe at first brushed off the question. “When you get your heart broken, you think every song on the radio is about your situation,” he said. “However,” he added with a laugh, in January he started writing “Goodbye Year, Goodbye,” which he said was a song about “what it’s like to start a new year and think about the old one,” a theme that rings true as the coronavirus has marked a kind of end of an era.
“But it’s not like we knew something,” he said. “A lot of our lyrics have been about extreme situations and extreme moments. ‘The World’s a Mess,’ ‘It’s in My Kiss,’ ‘I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts’ — all those songs are relevant to any situation you think has gone bad or it isn’t the way that you hoped that it would have evolved.”
Reciting Exene’s lyrics for “Water & Wine,” Doe added, “‘Who gets sent to the front of the line? / Who gets water? / Who gets wine?’ That’s timely, prophetic.”
Pausing to connect the dots, Doe added of the current quarantine, “You know, the one funny and wonderful element to this is when you see celebrities saying that we’re all in this together. No, we’re not. You’re on your boat. We’re here.”
It sounds like an X song.