There was a period where I wouldn't tell people I was a musician," Billy Zoom says of the time right after he left X. "I'd say I was an electrical engineer. I'd say I was a plumber — anything to get out of the question. When I left the scene in '86, it wasn't really something you wanted to tell normal people about."
It's a sad and strange thing to say, especially for someone who'd played in bands since his preteens and who helped define an entire genre. Zoom's sophisticated but primal guitar, steeped in the vocabulary of soul, country and rockabilly, helped make X both a quintessential punk band and an atypical one. Atop his polyglot riffing sat the aching vocal harmonies of Exene Cervenka and bassist John Doe, whose songs chronicled the seedy byways and sweaty desperation of late-'70s Los Angeles; below it, the muscle-bound, agile drumming of D.J. Bonebrake pounded like a factory and rolled like a train. Taken together, it was a distinctly American vision of punk, less a break with the past than an X-ray into its secrets.
"It was just four people with four different skills," Cervenka says. "Billy was a rockabilly guy from the '50s, D.J. had been a drummer since he was a kid, John had listened to every kind of music his entire life. I was just kind of a wild card. My contribution was lyrical and a certain sort of presence I had."
"When I heard the Ramones, I thought, like a lot of people did, that this was going to be the new Beatles," Zoom says. "I had it in my head that I wanted to do a band that was punk rock, like the Ramones, but had more roots influence, that was more complex without sounding complex. When I played with John, he came over for the first time and had these interesting lyrics that were kind of dark or ironic or clever. I wasn't sure how to do what I wanted to do and make it special or different. But then I heard John's songs and thought, This is how to do it."
In the wide-open atmosphere of the 1977 Los Angeles punk scene, before rigid diktats about what was punk and what wasn't, X's twisted refashioning of American music was the ideal complement to its tales of adult books, sex crimes, gutter racism and romantic betrayal. Rather than pursue a literal and superficial innovation by turning their backs on the past, X used pieces of roots music to build something new.
With the 1980 release of its first album, the classic Los Angeles, X undertook an intensive touring campaign. The band's brutal schedule would produce hundreds of rapturous shows and some incredible records (1981's Wild Gift, 1982's Under the Big Black Sun, 1983's More Fun in the New World). It would also eventually drive Zoom out of the band.
"We were making a record every year, and the idea was to put a record out and play every place you could to promote it because we couldn't get played on the radio," he says. "We'd play six nights a week for eight months, go into the rehearsal studio for eight weeks, then go into the recording studio to make the record. We didn't have lives. It's pretty rough not living anywhere, not having a life, not having any friends or any support to go back to. You basically see people on the bus and at truck stops."
Aside from citing various management issues, Zoom doesn't seem eager to delve any deeper into why he left. But he's emphatic about one thing: Contrary to the established conventional wisdom, it was not because he suddenly converted to Christianity.
"I was a full-on born-again Christian the whole time I was in X," he says. "It had nothing to do with me leaving the band. In fact, I became a Christian the same month we started X. I'd just spent a number of years reading and studying different religions and philosophies, and it led me there. And starting bands was just something I did. X was, like, my 44th band."
X never really broke up. Zoom taught his guitar parts to Dave Alvin of the Blasters, who was then replaced by Tony Gilkyson of Lone Justice. The band went on to record a couple more albums, the most recent being 1993's Hey Zeus! The later records have their great moments, but without Zoom, something crucial was missing. A reunion seemed more and more unlikely with each passing year, but in 1998, the definitive X lineup reformed for what was, Zoom admits, a way for him to fund his other musical interests.
"That was certainly the case for me when we started doing the reunions," he says. "I have a studio, I look for new bands and take them in, record them, and shop them around, try to get them a deal. X allows me to take the time to do that."
But a funny thing happened on the way to the bank. Zoom found that he liked playing again, and the others found that they liked having him. "It had been so long, and he wasn't sure what kind of people we'd become," Cervenka says. "He didn't know if I was a junkie, or what."
"We have new management and a new booking agent," Zoom says, "so a lot of the things that used to bother me on the business side aren't there anymore. I always liked being onstage, but it was the other 23 hours of the day that were the problem."
Cervenka says the band's chemistry is better now. "Back then, we were more disconnected from each other. Everybody was doing their own thing — Billy smiling and looking at girls, D.J. playing drums like a madman, I was going off on whatever tangent I was going off on, and John was rocking out so hard. Now we're older, so there's less abandonment in your own space. I think we interact more. There's more goofing around."
It almost seems a sacrilege to say X has mellowed, especially given Cervenka's barnburning work with her current band, the Original Sinners. The siren of the Sunset Strip now lives on a farm in Wardsville, Missouri, a few miles south of Jefferson City, with her husband, Jason Edge, formerly of St. Louis surf combo the Honkeys.
"It's an odd place to end up, but it's the middle of the country, so it's nice for traveling," she says. "I travel a whole lot, I have friends all over the country, so it kind of doesn't make sense for me to be anywhere. I've got a barn with a studio in it, so we can make music, get people together to make art. There's a lot of good things about it."
Zoom, for his part, is occupied with his twenty-month-old twins and the recently released Gretsch Billy Zoom Tribute Model guitar, rebuilt from X-rays of his original '55 Gretsch Silver Jet. Unlike many such guitars, his involvement went way beyond signing the endorsement detail. "It had my input every step of the way," he says. "It's what I'm playing on tour. I still have the original, but I take this one on tour because, you know, I can go to the bathroom without it. The old one went with me everywhere. I was afraid to lose it, afraid to fly with it. This one, I can take anywhere without worrying about it."
So is a new album on the agenda? "It's always possible, but it would depend," Zoom says. "If we were going to all sit down and make it a real group effort and had enough of a budget to do it right, maybe." But at least the four people who made such intriguing, passionate rock are still together and getting along well.
"Fantastically well," Cervenka says. "Too many years have gone by. You either hate each other or you don't."