In 1977, music changed and LA punk was one of the driving forces in that change. X stood out in the pack because they could actually play their instruments, write music AND still embrace the chaos and nihilism that was punk rock. Guitarist Billy Zoom infused their music with a taste of rockabilly and a sense of humor. When I watched Decline of Western Civilization in the early 80′s, it was my first exposure to punk and it absolutely changed my life. It was a thrill to get an opportunity to converse with Billy about X, punk rock and the LA scene.
TDOA: I still have a VHS copy of The Unheard Music which I treasure. Can you tell us how that project came to be and how you felt about it’s portrayal of the band. I believe it was filmed shortly before you left the band. Are there clues to your impending departure in the film?
BZ: The movie was filmed over a three year period long before I left the band. The film company kept running out of money. After they finished filming, it sat on the shelf for a couple of years until they found the money to finish it. Unfortunately, they lost ownership of the project for many years because of the money deal they cut.
TDOA: My first exposure to “punk” was seeing The Decline of Western Civilization when it was first released. I have so many questions about the film, but let’s start with the making of the film. Are their things that weren’t put in the film that you wished they’d included? Conversely, are there things you wish they’d left out?
BZ: We originally turned the movie down, as did the other popular bands, which included the Go-Go’s and Blasters, etc. This forced Penelope to use less popular bands for the film, including bands like the Germs who only occasionally got to open shows with five or more bands. Penelope found John out drinking one night and somehow got him drunk enough to agree to do the film. He remembered nothing the next day, but he’d given her a key to our house. We came home at 3am after playing six sold out shows in three nights at the Whisky, and found a film crew in our living room. John still remembered nothing, but we ended up doing it to get them to leave. We were very bummed about being shown along side bands like the Germs, etc. We felt it would be bad for our career. It was one of the low points in our career. I’ve still never been able to watch the movie.
TDOA: I certainly understand your disdain for the movie given those circumstances. However, do you think that you reached a broader audience because of the film and therefore it has some value? When I hear a commercial that contains music by a band that I like, I initially recoil at the thought that they’ve “sold out”. But if it allows the band to become part of the consciousness of a larger group of people, perhaps it’s a good thing. Is this analogy applicable in the case of X’s appearance in Decline? Obviously, it wasn’t a sell-out, but it did give people an opportunity to be exposed to your music.
BZ: The “sell out” issue didn’t come around until the eighties, after hardcore came along. The seventies Punks were all trying to make hit records and be successful. Every time I hear the Ramones in a commercial, I feel very proud. I never got all that stuff about left-wing politics or not wanting to be successful. That was all stuff that the kids in the audience cooked up. I don’t know where it came from. Yeah, I think the movie was good in the long run, especially after the Germs got famous in the nineties. People seem to prefer made up history over real history anyway.
TDOA: Most music scenes have a tendency to have a lot of cliques. Did X have good relationships with the other LA punk bands or was it too competitive?
BZ: The audiences were comprised of lots of little cliques, but the bands stuck together and helped each other. We had so much to overcome that if any one of us had any sort of success, we all felt as though we’d won something. There was a little rivalry between different scenes, like L.A. vs. NY vs. S.F. Because our music had been banned from radio etc. in this country, the Punk scenes were all very local, and we were all very proud of our local scene. In the beginning, we all disliked the British bands because they seemed to come along late and got all the attention from the media, but underneath it all they were still family.
TDOA: As opposed to many of the punk guitarists, you were a great musician. Can you talk about the musicians that influenced you and impacted your style of guitar playing?
BZ: That’s tough because I’ve studied so much music, from Jelly Roll Morton to Jerry Lee Lewis. I think Jerry Lee probably had the biggest influence on my playing. I often try to play on guitar what he might have played on piano. I love Dave Brubeck. Prokofiev is my favorite composer. I used to try to play Gerry Mulligan solos on guitar with my early bands. I’d pretty much stopped trying to copy other musicians by the end of the sixties, so my roots are all before then…except for the Ramones. They showed me the way I’d been looking for, to breathe life back into popular music. After two decades of great music, it had become numbed and bloated and drugged into meaningless art-crap. The Ramones showed us all how to take it back to its’ primal origins. I think the original Punk was very retro and roots oriented. I think that was largely lost on the audience who were much younger than the bands, but we were all trying to get back to 50′s R&R and 60′s Pop.
TDOA: You infused X’s music with a bit of rockabilly, which made you unique at the time. Did the rest of the band embrace that or did they resist your efforts to add some extra musicality to the songs?
BZ: That was my original intent when I founded the band. It was understood from the beginning.
TDOA: I’d love to hear about the songwriting process for X. Did most of the music start with your guitar riffs?
BZ: Most of the songs started with John singing a part and playing a little riff
on his bass. We always rehearsed a lot, and we’d work on songs for sometimes
hundreds of hours before we performed them. We were always trying to create
the perfect hit record, even though our music had been banned.
TDOA: Tell us about the Xmas ep and what led you guys to record it?
BZ: I’ve been trying to talk the band into doing some X-mas songs since about
1979. I thought we should have been doing annual X-mas albums all of these
years. I finally persuaded them to cut two songs in my studio. It was a
little like pulling teeth, but I’m pleased with the results. If the songs do
well, maybe I can persuade them to do more recording.
TDOA: When did you first hear that Gretsch was honoring you with your own guitar and how did you feel upon hearing the news?
BZ: I was first told they were doing the guitar in 1999. It finally came out in
2008. I thought it was about time. At least they did a really good job.
TDOA: Is punk dead? What do you say to people who grew up listening to the LA punk bands, who think that punk has become diluted and commercial?
BZ: I think Punk was pretty much over by 1980 and had been replaced by Hard Core
bands like Black Flag. The original ’70′s Punk scene was wonderful though.
TDOA: You’re going to be playing some shows in December. What can fans expect at these shows?
BZ: They can expect to have their hearing assaulted as usual. I try to keep it
authentic. I do just what I did back in the day. I’ve never tried to update
it. I think we got it right in the first place.
X will be playing a few shows in December, as noted below!
Dec 19 2009 The Wiltern Los Angeles, California
Dec 29 2009 Harlow’s Sacramento, California
Dec 30 2009 Slim’s San Francisco, California
Dec 31 2009 Slim’s San Francisco, California
You can purchase their Xmas ep and find out more about Billy Zoom and X, click here.