X: Mark That Spot

“Punk rock royals X still going strong”

By Katy Dang

Boise Weekly | March 26, 2008


There’s something to be said for longevity.

Venerable punk rock band X has been at it for 31 years. Who would have thought they’d still be playing today when they started in 1977?

“I wasn’t sure at the time,” says D.J. Bonebrake, drummer for the band. “I mean, I thought we’d be doing a 30th reunion tour, but this band’s so weird …”

As pioneers of the punk rock scene in Los Angeles, X has inspired legions of friends and fans to live their lives independently, outside of the mainstream. They have inspired people to make their own way in this world without bowing to convention; to be creative and expressive; and above all, to rock.

Fronted by bassist and singer John Doe and singer Exene, the four-piece band has traversed the landscape of the human experience with intelligent, incisive lyrics and a unique sound provided by Billy Zoom’s explosive rockabilly guitar and Bonebrake’s steady, propulsive beat. Their presence in underground music has been dominant, based on their classic albums Los AngelesWild Gift and Under a Big Black Sun, and on their exceptional live performances. Through a career that has spanned three decades, they have always stayed true to their music.

Bonebrake has always been the backbone of the band, providing a solid beat for the other members to build upon. He has been there with them since (almost) the beginning and has helped create their defiant sound: It’s nothing fancy, but it certainly moves you.

“OK, long story short,” says Bonebrake about his introduction to punk. “I was playing in a band called Rocktapus. We had a gig in Hollywood and had a really bad night because our singer was drunk. Charlotte Caffey (later of Go-Go’s fame) and Joe Ramirez says, ‘We have a band that’s better than this.'” The band was The Eyes, and they introduced Bonebrake to a whole new world. This was in early 1977, when punk was just starting on the West Coast. “I knew nothing about it,” he says. “The Sex Pistols must have had a single out, because Joe told me, ‘Oh, you’ve got to buy this single,’ and ‘Oh, you’ve got to listen to the Ramones.’ And I thought, ‘Hmmm, this is different.’

“Isn’t that how it happens?” says Bonebrake. “You know, these little moments. This is what brought me into the scene, these little tragedies, like the lead singer getting drunk on tequila.”

Bonebrake started playing with X the following year. The band had started when Doe and Zoom independently placed ads in the Recycler newspaper. Zoom was looking for a bassist and Doe for a guitarist. Doe’s poet girlfriend, Exene, came along as part of the package, and a new sound was born.

“I just came in and did my interpretation of what I thought the songs should sound like,” says Bonebrake. “I tried to find a balance between the natural things that you want in a song, and then put a little twist on things, just a little something to make it different. But you don’t want to just get fancy. You want it to rock.”

Simplicity has been the defining quality of his work with X.

“Drummers have a tendency to get too fancy, to go, ‘Look at this,'” he says of the tendency to over-flourish. “It makes me think of the Cat in the Hat, where he’s doing eight things at once and none of them make any sense, you know? Just play the beat.”

He has been credited with creating a defining sound of the era but is modest about his contributions.

“I did one thing that was interesting: Billy was turning me on to all this rockabilly stuff and they would put reverb on the snare, so they’d hit once and the reverb would go ‘doot-doot-doot.’ I found myself doing that in the studio; I would bounce the stick on the snare, so instead of one beat it would be two or three. Instead of just two and four, there’d be a couple of extra beats in there.” Those extra beats gave the rhythm a driving force that propelled the band’s sound.

X earned a place of honor in the pantheon of rock. They have been called the godparents of punk and are considered punk-rock royalty by most music journalists. As far as really understanding where they fit in, Bonebrake says he doesn’t have a clue. He goes about his life, does new things, and is humble about it. When someone mentions the importance of the band, he just says, “Thank you. That’s cool. Oh, you’re going to buy me a beer? That’s great.” This is the attitude that has kept the band true to their original ideals, where there are no rock stars and the band and the audience are equals.

“I know that we were part of a really interesting scene,” he says. “I guess just being there is half the thing—being there and surviving.”

It doesn’t surprise Bonebrake that they are on the road so many years after they began. The idea of having a long career was shaped as a teenager in the 1970s by seeing jazz drummers still playing as they aged.

“The ones who didn’t OD on heroin ended up having long careers,” he says. “Buddy Rich might have been 50—I thought he was ancient—and he played his ass off. No one could touch him. He was just playing really, really, really hard. I realized then that you’re not just playing for a couple of years. It’s your life’s calling, and you do it no matter what.”

X is still attracting new fans, young and old.

“I love the young punk rockers in the front row,” says Bonebrake. “We’re kind of an oddball punk band; we were always a little different.” Even as part of the scene, they were always stubborn.

“We didn’t want to dress like the English punks or have mohawks. We felt like that was a uniform,” says Bonebrake. “So when I see someone in the audience who is almost a little cliche, I feel like I want to impress them. I really want to show them just how good we are.”

All of the members of X have been involved in other projects during the span of their career. Doe and Exene are both formidable solo talents, and Bonebrake plays in numerous bands, both as a freelance drummer and vibraphonist. He currently plays ’30s jazz with the Bonebrake Syncopators and in a ’60s-style salsa band, Sabor Latino.

But X always brings them back together. They decide when they can all get together and then look for an excuse. This year, it’s celebrating their 31st anniversary, the mirror image of lucky number 13. The 13:31 tour rolls into the Big Easy on Friday, March 28. Right now, X is in a van somewhere on a highway in the middle of America, making their way to the next gig. One thing you can be sure of is that gig will rock. Those extra beats will make your heart pound just a little bit faster.