DJ Bonebrake talks X, punk rock drumming, Ray Manzarek, Pearl Jam and The Stripminers
"I make funny faces when I play," says X drummer DJ Bonebrake, answering the question about whether he has any particular quirks behind the kit. "I had a drum teacher who told me I should sing along when I play, so that's what I did. I get into it. It's kind of like scat singing, like what jazz pianists do. But that's why I think musicians are interesting: they all have funny little things about them that makes them different."
Funny faces and all, for over 35 years Bonebrake (real name Donald James Bonebrake - no kidding), has provided the walloping yet sophisticated groove for X (which also consists of bassist-vocalist John Doe, singer Xene Cervenka and guitarist Billy Zoom), and more recently he's been keeping time with another LA-based outfit, the alt-country sextet The Stripminers (boasts members of The Donnas, The Radishes and Puscifer, among others). In each group, his drumming philosophy remains consistent.
"I try to bring some excitement and emotion to the songs," Bonebrake says. "At the same time, what I do is kind of invisible. Little things can matter a lot. Even just opening the hi-hat a bit can create a different shade. That's what drummers do, really – we set the mood."
The Stripminers' sophomore album, Frail Hope Ranch (due out 13 November) is full of moody delights that conjure up visions of desert plains and scenic mountain vistas. Bonebrake is hoping to hit the road with the band soon, but he concludes a spate of X shows in mid-December. We caught up with the versatile sticksman to talk about his approach to drumming, locking in with bassist Doe, what working with Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek was like and how playing with The Stripminers differs from his long-standing day job.
When X first came on the scene, you were considered a punk band. Did you think of yourself at the time as a punk drummer?
[Laughs] "I don't know. That's kind of a complex question, really. Sure, we were a punk band, so I was a punk drummer. But you know, I had 10 years of experience before X. I was in the orchestra at Valley Junior College for a couple of years, and then in 1977 I started playing with the Eyes. Word got around that I was drumming for a punk rock band. I remember my conductor at college saying to me, 'So you play in a punk band. Why don't you have green hair?'
"People thought I must be strange or something to play punk music, but I was still playing symphonic music, just like always. Punk was just something else I did. People's conceptions of who they were and why they were there is probably too hard to consider. But I've always liked to play all kinds of things."
X outside The Masque in Los Angeles, 1979. (from left) Xene Cervenka, Billy Zoom, John Doe and Bonebrake. © Frank Gargani
X were always the square peg in the round hole of punk, though. You guys didn't adhere to only short, fast songs with two or three chords. Americana was an integral part of your musical palette.
"Absolutely. Sure, we had some of those kinds of songs that were a minute long, but you're right – we were never the archetypal punk rock band. It was funny at the time how some bands tried to out-punk one another, as if being punk for 12 days was better than being punk for six days. X were criticized by some people in the scene – 'Oh, X, they're so pop.' But that was OK with me, because as good as the Eyes were, I was getting tired of playing the same beats all the time."
Did you think that some of the other drummers in your scene were somewhat limited musically?
"In some ways, but not always. There was a drummer named Shaun Guerin [from The Deadbeats],and he played some kick-ass stuff. I remember another guy, K.K. Barrett, from The Screamers, and he did a lot of interesting things. There were different degrees of drum skills and the musical scope of the various bands. Some drummers were just beginners, so they didn't have the chops of the other guys who might have been playing for a while.
"It was funny thing with X. We ended up playing louder and louder, so even the stuff I would have played with a bit more finesse, I found that I had to pound it. That said, even the songs I had to pound, I tried to play with grace and sophistication. It's not always easy."
Were X seen as outcasts in the punk world? For one thing, you were in Los Angeles and not New York or London, but also, there was your musical diversity.
"I don't know if we were outcasts in punk so much as we were outcasts in the whole world. [Laughs] The corporate music business dominated LA at the time, so there were always musicians who were on the outside of that. You had to gain admission, but you never knew how. 'Who do I have to try to sound like to get a record deal?' There were some people who were good at that. After 15 years of playing drums, I never met an A&R guy until we were on Elektra. People used to get demo deals and things like that, but we never did. Yeah, we were definitely on the outside. I think we were latecomers, too. Nobody really wanted to accept us.
"In '78, we put out a single on Dangerhouse, and I think one of the best things we did back then was drive to New York. We might have been the first punk band from LA to do that. We played CBGBs and Max's Kansas City – a bunch of people checked us out. It was funny – people would say to us, 'Oh, you're from LA. You must have out with all the movie stars.' And we were like, 'Movie stars? Yeah, right.'"
Well, now you hang out with movie stars – like John Doe.
[Laughs] "That's right, he's a movie star. Nowadays, we'll be somewhere and people will point at John and say, 'Hey, isn't he that guy from Roadhouse?' Or they'll name a couple of other movies. Then somebody will say, 'No, he's in a band called X,' and the other guy will say, 'No, he's not. I saw him in Boogie Nights.'"
Speaking of John, early on, how did the two of you work together as a rhythm section? Nobody really talks about him as a bass player.
"They don't, you're right, and he's a really interesting player. He doesn't play normal lines, but I think that's because he's a songwriter. He usually does really cool half-step riffs and double-stops and chords. Sometimes he'll just lay down the beat, and other times he'll go off on these really weird syncopations. I love that. Billy will be playing a straight rhythm part and I'll be following him, and John will go off and do some percussive parts. Most of the time, you want the bassist to play a really solid groove with the song, but sometimes you want more than that. John understands what a song needs. He's very creative."
An over-the-shoulders look at X, Johnny Cash Festival, 2011.
When it was announced that X were working with Ray Manzarek, did that take people by surprise? The Doors certainly weren't punk.
"It might have, but we thought it was great. We met Ray in 1979, during a time when a lot of people felt ignored by the record companies. We were happy to get some recognition from somebody we respected. Ray came to see us at the Whiskey, he really liked us, and he said he wanted to produce us. He tried to get us a record deal, and of course, we were totally dissed.
"Ray was a very cool guy. He had gone through the whole scene, and he knew what was happening. He was just what we needed. But the weird thing was, he played on a couple of tunes on the Los Angeles album, which was great – we've got some tunes that need keyboards, and we have a great one right here, so why not? – but when we went on the road, people expected to see Ray on stage with us. That caused a little bit of trouble. One night, somebody even shouted, 'Where's Jim Morrison?' [Laughs] That was weird."
What did Ray teach you in the studio about how records were made?
"He was great with us, and really, the best thing about his approach was to let X live. Some producers would try to make us sound 'normal.' Ray saw magic in us; he didn't try to change the way we wrote songs or the way Xene sang. He saw what was unique about us and preserved it. He knew that it was all the elements, not just one part. Ray knew how to leave us alone and go for that one great take. It sounds so simple, but it's really important – and a lot of producers lose sight of that fact."
For a while, Billy Zoom wasn't in the band. Not to disparage any of the guitarists who took over for a time, but did it still feel like X without Billy?
"It did… but it changed. The other guys were great. We were changing our style for a bit. When Billy quit, things weren't nice. He wasn't enjoying the band. For a while, it was liberating with Dave Alvin. You could actually talk to him, but that's in contrast to the last year with Billy. When Tony Gilkenson came in, we changed our style. It was part of an evolution."
OK, I have to ask: It's been close to 30 years now – why haven't X made a new record?
[Laughs] "I know. It's… I don't know. We go back and forth. Personally, I'd be happy to record tomorrow. The question is, Would it be better to not do it? It's hard to say. But the answer is… we just haven't. [Laughs] How's that for a non-answer?"
Over the past few years, the band has opened for Pearl Jam. What's that been like?
"It's been fantastic. They've been so gracious, and they really take care of us. They're fans, and they really made everything right. They let us do soundchecks – whatever we needed, it was fine. The first time we opened for them was in South America, and the crowds there are amazing. They love music, they're totally into it. A lot of them never heard us, but because they like The Ramones and some other bands, they were very enthusiastic to check us out. It's really something to play sold-out stadiums. When you have 65,000 people clapping before you've even played a note, it can be confusing – 'Wait a minute… what do I do?' [Laughs] But it's been so cool. Pearl Jam are awesome."
Talk a bit about The Stripminers. What do you get musically from the group that's different from X?
"It's almost the same experience as I had going into X where there were so many types of songs. Everybody is all over the map, so that keeps things interesting. In fact, I think our singer, Brett [Anderson], said at a show, 'If you don't like this song, don't worry – the next one will be different.' [Laughs] So, in that sense, it's exciting for me as a drummer. I freelance a lot, I do sessions, so I like playing on all kinds of material. It's not a mish-mash in The Stripminers, but to have a diversity of songs contributes to a band having a vibe."
The song The Twins has a spooky quality that's reminiscent of certain X tunes.
"That's true. It's one of my favorite songs to play. Yeah, it does have a spooky sound."
I love your cover of She's Not There. You really changed it up from the original.
"Yep, that was fun to do. The original beat is such a classic. It's one of those iconic singles; in fact, I think I have it somewhere in my collection. If we had more time recording, I would've figured out how to do it, but I do like how we moved things around. Come to think of it, I don't know if the original beat would work at a fast tempo. It's probably good I did it my own way… as is always the case." [Laughs]