X guitarist Billy Zoom says his band is based on business, not friendship.
“We have a good working relationship. We’re not buddies,” said Zoom. “If I had something else that would pay better, I would do that. We get paid pretty well.”
The L.A. punk pioneers, formed in 1977, visited D.C. to collect a paycheck in 2009, and I spoke with Zoom, then 61, before the show.
An electrical engineer and the inspiration for a line of tribute Gretsch guitars, Zoom was already an accomplished player when, inspired by the Ramones, he decided to start a band that blended rockabilly with punk.
Fronted by dueling poets, vocalists and spouses Exene Cervenka and bassist John Doe, the resulting band, X, was critically beloved and influential, but never had a hit song, and Zoom quit in 1986 because he wasn’t making enough money. A lucrative series of reunion shows kicked off in 1998 and has continued intermittently since.
Zoom said that the band has not worked on new material since ’98. He said he would like to do another record, “but only if the band was willing to work on the songs together for as long as it took to get ’em good. It stops there, usually. The discussion ends.”
When interviewing Zoom, one starts to perceive resentment of Doe, who wouldn’t listen to live recordings the Zoom made of X and who (with Cervenka) gets songwriting credit for material Zoom says the whole band came up with.
“John would probably want to do [another album] with no rehearsals, in his friend’s garage, in two days. That’s the way he does his solo records. It costs him $800, and he thinks that’s a great deal. But that cuts the rest of the band out of the equation, because we don’t get to contribute anything and it sounds like crap.”
Zoom admits, however, that he hasn’t heard most of the bassist’s solo work. They’re not friends, after all.
What are your favorite X lyrics?
I don’t really know the lyrics (laughs).
So when you talk about how much you liked John’s songwriting, it’s just the songs you’re talking about, not the lyrics, obviously.
I like “Blue Spark.” I like “It’s Who You Know,” too. I know bits and pieces of ’em. I thought we worked well together. Did I really say that? (laughs)
It gave me stuff to put music to, you know?
You came up with the guitar part for the song “White Girl,” right?
Well, parts of it. It’s hard to explain. You mean that riff in the beginning?
Yeah, John came up with it on bass.
So, I guess you don’t really want to talk about how you guys came up with those songs and how those songs were developed.
Well, it was like 30 years ago. I’m not trying to avoid ya – he came up with that riff and we just kinda jammed around.
And that’s probably how most of the songs were developed, right?
Nah, it depends. Different people came up with different things. He’d bring in some fragment and we’d all gang up on it. It depends – there wasn’t any one method. Sometimes it would just be a line or a riff, sometimes he’d come in with a song almost all ready to go. Sometimes he’d come in with a song he thought was all ready to go and we’d go, “Nah – we’re going to have to change that.”
How come the songwriting credit wasn’t shared on the songs that you all came up with?
I don’t wanna talk about that (laughs). I’m not gonna open that can of worms.
Yeah, I’ve seen you asked that before, but I figured I’d give it a shot.
What’s the most successful album you’ve produced?
Well, none of them have been real successful. I’ve done a lot of indie stuff. A lot of the early stuff I did back in the ’70s – the rockabilly stuff – got a lot of action in Europe and Asia.
How about the soundtracks and the commercials that you’ve done? Are there things that our readers would know that you’ve created in that vein?
There isn’t anything lately. I did a Nike commercial – that was a long time ago though.
Sorry, I’m trying to give you good answers (laughs), I haven’t done a commercial in a while, though.
That’s fine. So, obviously you’re reasonably busy with X these days, but when you’re not working with X, what kind of stuff are you working on?
I do a lot of electronics engineering. I just designed a line of amplifiers and effects pedals and I did a couple amps for Gretsch right before that. I design audio products for a lot of different companies.
Do you think it’s correct to call X a punk band?
Yeah, but I think it’s incorrect to call what they call “punk” punk. I’ve had young punkers telling me the Ramones aren’t punk, and if the Ramones aren’t punk, what is? The word was made up for them.
We fit into the ’70s mold of original punk. We don’t sound anything like hardcore.
Some of those early songs are pretty close to hardcore, I’d say.
Oh man. I’m not sure, but I’ve been listening to a bunch of the early stuff and some of it has that slower, stomping feel to it – the song that’s on the beginning of “The Decline of Western Civilization” [“Nausea”].
I don’t know what’s on “The Decline.” I’ve never watched that movie. Sorry. I don’t think we had anything in common with hardcore, though. We didn’t listen to it or care for it.
What does punk mean to you?
Punk was breaking away from the over-produced, overly serious, arty crap of the ’70s and a return to the basic roots of rock ’n’ roll and pop. It was really stripped down to the basics. It was kind of a retro, roots thing. It was trying to get back to the origins of rock music.
… I thought he [Johnny Ramone] had a brilliant concept and it was brilliantly executed. I never saw him flub a note. And he stayed very true to that concept and forced the other guys to, too – keep the jackets, keep the haircuts. He never deviated from that one thing.
When you were first starting out, in the ’70s, what band in L.A. were you guys closest to? Who did you see as your peers?
No one. We were right in the beginning. There were other bands starting at the same time. I always thought we were better than they were. Alley Cats and Plugz were good.
Do you think it’s accurate to say that you invented punkabilly?
Yeah, probably. I guess it was kind of the concept. I put an ad in the paper to start a punk band. I think I did describe it as “Eddie Cochran meets the Ramones,” so I guess I did.
In another interview, you said, “We really changed things. We’re a really important band.” What do you think you changed?
I think we influenced a lot of bands and influenced the direction that music went. I think we inspired hundreds and hundreds of other bands.
Like Social Distortion?
I’m sure we did. I never asked them, but I’m sure we did.
I know you played on that Mike Ness record, “Cheating at Solitaire.”
You’ve said playing onstage is not supposed to be fun. I think that’s a unique perspective. Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?
Did I say that?
Yeah. Do you want the direct quote?
… Oh. I mean, you’re doing your job. It’s a job – you’re putting on a show. I enjoy it – I enjoy my work, but it’s serious stuff.
I love my work. I would say that some parts of it are a lot of fun. The fun part is doing the interviews and the work part is typing the interviews up.
(laughs) Yeah. I guess being onstage is a lot more fun than the other 22 a half hours a day. That’s pretty grueling.
You’ve been pretty outspoken – and I think it’s refreshing – you’ve said that you’re playing these X shows primarily for the money. Do you still feel that way?
I don’t know that anybody actually understands that comment. Why would I do it if it wasn’t for the money? Doesn’t everybody go to work for the money?
I think some people could have more lucrative careers, but they pursue a particular career because they feel that it’s the right moral choice or because they feel it’s something they enjoy more than other things that would pay better.
I think if I had something else that would pay better, I would do that. We get paid pretty well.
Better now than ever before, right?
In your bio, Exene calls John a genius. Do you agree with that?
No, but I’m not going to elaborate on that. She calls John a genius?
I’ve never read any of these quotes. You’re pulling a lot of things out that I’ve never heard before or really don’t remember.
That’s in the bio your publicist sent to me.
Yeah, I don’t see any of that stuff.
You’re known for being a conservative. What do you think of Obama?
(Sighs twice). Is that a good enough answer? I’m still suffering from post-election stress disorder. I can’t really talk about that.
I think everyone should be forced to take a class on political science or government before they’re allowed to vote, so they actually understand what they’re doing.
You told Mark Prindle, “If I had it to do over again, I would have a much worse reputation than I have, because if I had it to do over, I would have been a lot more of a hardass about a lot of things and I would have made a lot fewer compromises.”
That’s absolutely true.
Could you elaborate on that? What kind of compromises do you feel you made?
After the success of “Los Angeles,” if I’d had the cajones, when I realized that we didn’t have an engineer and didn’t have enough money to make a second album and that it was going to sound like crap, I would have said, “No, I’m not going to play on it,” and waited until we had the money.
The production on the records, some of it was just appallingly horrible. It’s too bad, because the songs were really good and the arrangements were really good and the records could have sounded 200 percent better, and I blame myself for not sticking up for what I knew. I knew better.
You know, stuff like that: stupid business decisions, putting up with managers that were ripping us off, because they were friends with someone in the band.
You would think that with all the experience Ray [Manzarek, keyboardist of the Doors] had, he would have been able to do a good job producing those records.
Well, Ray doesn’t have any experience producing records. Ray doesn’t even remember having made any of those records. You ask him about it and all he’ll tell you is how many drugs they were on – and that he doesn’t remember.
So, I guess if you had it to do over again, you wouldn’t have chosen him as the producer.
I would have let him produce the first record. I wouldn’t have ever let our live soundman engineer our records – whether he was friends with somebody or not.
Things like that – I would have been more of a Johnny Ramone and kept on top of the business more and made people toe the line. I admire Johnny for that, man. It must have been an insane mess that he held together all those years.
Talk about being a hard-ass – he was a legendary hard-ass, wasn’t he?
Yeah, but somebody had to be.
Did you guys talk about politics much?
No, we didn’t ever talk about politics. No politics; no religion. That was one of the original rules. We just don’t go there.
Within X, you mean?
Yeah. Did you mean me and Johnny?
I meant you and Johnny.
Johnny and I used to talk politics, sure. Johnny and I had a lot in common as far as politics and the music that we grew up with and a lot of things. We had a lot in common.
Why do you see the Ramones as the greatest rock band of all time?
Haven’t you heard ‘em?
In the ’50s, it was Elvis. In the ’60s, it was the Beatles. In the ’70s it was the Ramones.
How about the ’80s?
It was still the Ramones, because they were banned from the radio, so people were still discovering them in the ’80s.
Are there contemporary bands that you like?
Not like the Ramones. Not that I think are world-changing. I don’t hear that many new bands. I’d really like to pull a name out – I can’t think of anybody.
It doesn’t have to be rock. I know you listen to a lot of soul and R&B, right?
Most of the people I listen to are dead though. Memphis soul and old country and old jazz; I still listen to Dave Brubeck and Gene Vincent more than anything else. I like Coltrane and Miles Davis, stuff like that.
Your publicist told me that you guys are working on new songs. Is that true?
I haven’t heard any (laughs). I don’t think so.
Are you interested in putting out a new X record?
I would, but only if the band was willing to actually sit down and rehearse and work on the songs together for as long as it took to get ’em worked up good – only if the band was willing to take the time and spend the money to make a really good record. I wouldn’t do another one that I was ashamed of.
Is that something you guys have talked about?
It stops there, usually. It doesn’t go any further – the discussion ends.
Because they would want to do it in a different way?
John would probably want to do it with no rehearsals, in his friend’s garage, in two days or something. That’s the way he does his solo records, and it costs him $800 or something, and he thinks that’s a great deal. But that cuts the rest of the band out of the equation, because we don’t get to contribute anything and it sounds like crap.
So I guess you didn’t like the sound of his solo records?
Not the ones that I’ve heard. I haven’t heard most of them.
So this Total Request tour that you’re doing now, whose idea was that?
Our manager’s. I think it’s a good idea. We have a really dedicated fan-base and most of those people have already seen us a couple of times. It’s just a way to make it special to them, because we let them pick the songs and they can come to an X show and hear their favorite X songs.
It’s a nice thing to do and it gives us a reason to play songs we usually don’t. The rule is: If any of the four members aren’t real hot on a song, we just don’t do it, which means we leave out some of my favorites.
It’s a double-edged sword, because now we have to remember songs that we haven’t played in 20 years.
It’s really interesting: The songs they’re voting for are totally different in each city. There’s no continuity. There’s no two or three favorites. In Boston, they seemed to really want to hear all the slow and medium paced songs. It’s hard to hold the intensity up when you do that, but that’s what they wanted to hear, so we did it. They seemed to like it.
The format of this tour must have forced you guys to practice a lot more than you normally would before going on tour.
Well, twice as opposed to none. We don’t usually practice. We hadn’t practiced in years. Sometimes we run through stuff at sound-check. Sometimes it helps (laughs).
You never play around with new stuff at sound-check, though?
Do you think it’s accurate to say that a creepy or ominous tone is a key part of X’s sound?
Yeah, our music’s a little dark. I use a lot of chords that punk bands usually don’t – diminished chords, major 13ths – things they usually consider jazz chords. And I make it sound a little ominous, a little sinister – much more so than just straight major and minor chords like most bands do. There are only three or four songs that just have barre chords. I don’t strum rhythm – I’m playing parts the whole time and experimenting with different voicings.
So when you were first starting the band, was that your idea – to make it a little darker, a little more ominous?
A little more creative as far as the chords and the structure of the songs, yeah – I don’t think I was thinking “ominous” so much as using what I knew to create a song with a little more texture. But John’s songs were kinda dark, so it’s easy to work that in.
Do you still write a lot of music?
That’s a trick question. Did I ever write a lot of music? I write some, every once in a while. I’ve never been a prolific songwriter. I’ve designed lots and lots and lots of electronic circuits. I only write songs if I need to – if I have a project or a deadline or something.
You never get inspired and feel like you have to write something down?
And as far as the Christian music, did you ever release a Christian record or anything?
No. The whole record industry went south and I just never had the extra capital to invest in a major project like that. I’d still like to someday. It would have to be a situation where I know I’m not going to lose a whole lot of money. I’ve got two little kids to support now, so I’m a little more careful with my projects.
Sleeping on a couch doesn’t cut it anymore, huh? [He used to sleep on John Doe’s couch]
No. My wife hardly ever makes me do that (laughs).
Are there any other goals or things that you’d really like to accomplish in music?
I’d like to make one really good X album, but I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen. I’d like to have a hit record. I’d like to do a TV commercial or movie soundtrack that made me a load of money.
When you talk about making a really good X record, do you mean an X record that’s really well recorded?
Yeah, one where the band got together and really rehearsed and made a joint effort to come up with really good material and then recorded it well.
I guess the only thing missing on the first couple of records was the recording quality, huh?
Well, the first record is pretty good. That was really produced by Rick. Ray was more of a cheerleader than a producer. Rick had just opened a new studio and he gave us $40,000 for the $10,000 Slash [Records] had and he basically engineered and produced it and I think it came out pretty good.
“Wild Gift” was a disaster. Slash was out of money. We couldn’t go to a good studio and in those days we were still banned from most of the studios – they wouldn’t let punk bands in to record. And we didn’t have the money to hire a professional engineer and we didn’t have enough money to pay for recording time. Slash basically went broke.
The whole problem with Slash was “Los Angeles” sold way too well and they got caught by surprise and were undercapitalized – couldn’t even come up with enough pressings of “Los Angeles” to satisfy the demand. Then when it came time to make another record, they didn’t have the money, and we tried to make due and I think that was a mistake.
It’s a hard call, because you want to come up with something to follow-up the success of “Los Angeles,” which did really well – you don’t want to just let that go away. On the other hand, you don’t want to come up with something mediocre, which is what we did, which is a shame, because some of the best songs are on that record.
Do you ever think about re-recording those songs with a competent producer and engineer?
I have, but I don’t think the rest of the band would ever do it.
I don’t know. I think it would probably not appeal to their artistic integrity or something.
I’d like to do that. I’d like to get my hands on the original masters and remix ‘em.
But when it’s recorded so poorly, there’s only so much you can do.
That’s true, but I’m pretty good, pulling the tricks out. I have a state of the art recording studio. I’m pretty good at fixing things. You’re right: There’s only so much you can do, but I’m sure I could do quite a bit.
Are you happy with how the live DVD came out?
It came out OK. There were some production problems. There were some problems with the company that we had. The surround-sound mix sounds pretty good. The regular stereo mix sounds pretty bad, because it was never mastered. They didn’t think it was worth spending the money on it.
It’s a shame that these songs were never recorded properly. I guess you could do another live record and try to get it right that way.
You know, when we did the first reunion tour in ’98, I brought along a digital 16 track and a board and had my own engineer there and we recorded the whole tour with the intent of releasing an X reunion album, and then John decided he wouldn’t do it.
He wasn’t getting any front-money, I think. So those tapes just eventually got thrown out. They sat around until they weren’t playable anymore and then they got thrown out.
That’s a shame.
Yeah, they were really good, too.
But because he wasn’t getting any front-money from a label he wouldn’t do it?
I think basically that was it, yeah. He never even listened to the tracks.
That must have broken your heart.
Yeah, but you know, that’s the music business.
Would you say you’re friends with everyone in the band?
I think we have a good working relationship. We’re not buddies.
It’s more of a business thing than a friendship thing?
Was that the case right from the beginning?
Pretty much. I don’t start bands with friends. I did that in high school. It never works out and then it ruins the friendship. It’s better to just find good players.