Australian rock has a long, long list of hugely influential and widely important bands; particularly in the realm of rock and/or roll. As for who tops that list? For many, X marks the spot. Out of a basement and into the fire, the band put belligerent, volatile and aggressive music on the map in the late ’70s and never looked back once. If you’re a younger reader, you may have never heard X-Asperations or At Home with You, but you may want to reconsider that if you’ve come to find yourself a fan of acts like The Drones, Beasts of Bourbon, Regurgitator, Spiderbait or even Violent Soho. Theirs is a legacy that stretches right back to a pivotal time in the trajectory of Australian musical history; and, in the right places, it’s still very much felt today.
2017 marks 40 years since the band originally formed, with a new line-up of X currently touring to celebrate the landmark. Steve Lucas is the band’s vocalist and guitarist, who has seen through every incarnation of X and is its sole remaining (and living), original member. He spoke openly about the band’s history, why he continues with the name and the magic of reconnecting with the past.
Music Feeds: What do you remember about the earliest days of X – jamming together, playing live for the first time, becoming a band in earnest?
Steve Lucas: We kind of got a brief taste of the band before it had even really started. There was a bunch of us who knocked around a bit in other bands, but it just didn’t work. There were too many voices, I guess; including instruments as vocals. A few months later, the four of us got together in Steve Cafiero’s basement – Ian Krahe, Steve, Ian Rilen and myself. As soon as we set up and started playing, it just happened. There was no need to refine it. It was working, so we just wrote a whole lot more songs. Because it was so spontaneous, it stayed true to itself. We didn’t think – we just hit the ground running. It was very simple. We were bouncing off one another.
MF: A lot of the mythology surrounding proto-punk in Australia was that it was being written and created independently, without any real knowledge of the punk music happening in the US and the UK. Was that much true for X?
SL: Not really, no. Ian Rilen and Steve were a lot older than Ian Krahe and myself – they had about ten years on us. They kind of had an idea of what they were doing, but we had no clue. We just wanted to emulate the music that we loved – anything from Led Zeppelin to The Who. We loved British music like Eddie Cochran, and we also loved American music from the ’50s. We loved the Stooges, but we didn’t want to be them – we just liked their attitude and the energy. I think those two things were more influential on us than anything specifically about the music we liked. The Saints were around when we started. Radio Birdman were just finishing up their first run. Bands like The Angels and AC/DC were coming up through the ranks. As far as punk music was concerned, we didn’t really consider ourselves much of one. To us, we were more in line with what was known as pub rock. Punk hit Australia as we started up, and we looked the part – it’s something we’ve worn ever since. I mean, back then it was that you were either punk or you were new-wave – and we certainly weren’t new-wave. [laughs]
MF: Did the DIY ethics of punk play a part in X shows?
SL: Absolutely. Everything was rough. Most of the venues weren’t even really venues. You’ve got to remember that there were no in-house PAs – it was just what you had. It was a very strange experience. Running a band was like running a small business, except that we had no idea that was what we were doing. If we were playing a bigger room, there was a lot involved. We had to hire a PA, a road crew, a lighting guy…we had to pay all of them. We had to pay an agent if we used one. Some venues took commissions. It was intense. You’d have to order a PA to get delivered directly to, say, the Prince of Wales; then getting everyone to help lug it in and set it up, including the support bands… the whole thing was really hands-on. You had to have a good sense of who was playing and what they were worth in order to have a good show. Some bands would just throw anyone on, but we wanted our shows to be worth the dollars people were paying for them. We’d always pick the best bands we could – and, if no-one could do it, we’d just get up ourselves and play for three hours. Whatever was required, we’d do it.
MF: Over the course of the band, X has gone through various incarnations and lineups. You’ve been a sole constant throughout – what is it that continually brings you back to the music of X time after time?
SL: It was the first band I was ever in, so I have that emotional connection to it. My best friend from my school days, Ian Krahe, died less than a year into the band’s existence – that strengthened the attachment even more. His dreams for the band made me want to keep it going. Steve died a few years later, and that reinforced my commitment to this band. I’m one of those people that just feels obliged to do shit, y’know?
Death increased my desire to keep the memories of these friends alive – and in order to do that, I had to keep the music and the band alive. Sometimes, it’s been easy to do. Other times, it’s gotten really difficult – that was very much the case when Ian Rilen died. It’s a bittersweet thing – I miss the music when I’m not doing it, and I miss the people I used to do it with when I am doing it. It’s one of those things where you’ve just gotta bite the bullet.
MF: Trusting people to be a part of X, then, must be a really big deal for you. It must be people that you know will carry the name with the same weight and respect that Ian, Ian and Steve did.
SL: Tha’s right. This is a hard one to do – I’ve played with a lot of people as X over the last ten years since Ian Rilen passed away. They’ve all been great people, and some of them particularly managed to catch certain aspects of what the band is about. I guess the problem that I’ve faced is finding people that are able to cover the whole board. I mean, I don’t want to go out there and do an X tribute band – that would just be silly. I also don’t want to be in a cover band of X – that would just be covering my own material. You’ve got to give people room for interpretation when they’re playing these songs, but you’ve also got to trust that they’re going to interpret it the right way. With this line-up, I have Kim [Volkman], who I’ve used before – he actually toured the west coast of America with me back in 2008. I’ve also got Doug [Falconer], who I worked with on a record back in the ’90s. I’ve known him on and off for a really long time. I respect both of their playing a lot. We played a show last weekend – I think it was almost 2 hours, and we played about 27 songs or something. We literally ploughed through – the energy was high, and that’s exactly what we needed. You know it’s been a good show when you come off stage thinking, “Thank fuck that’s over – I was about to die up there.” [laughs]
MF: You’d have a really interesting mix of people attending X shows now. You’d obviously have people that were there in the heydey of the band, but also people that probably weren’t even alive then that are getting to see you now for the first time.
SL: It’s interesting, yeah. You know the kind of people that are coming are only coming for the music, too – we were never the sex-symbol types. [laughs] It’s good to see young people that know all the words, but it’s also amazing to see familiar faces from 20, 30 years ago. People change, but there’s always something in the eyes – you’ll remember them pogoing around the front of the stage at the Civic Hotel all those years ago. You’ll be immediately taken back. It’s a really nice feeling.
MF: What about the contemporary punk scene in Australia – is that something you keep up with? Do you see a bit of what X was doing then, in what bands are doing now?
SL: I don’t keep up as much as I used to. I remember a little while ago, I brought X up to Brisbane and I was asking around for what band people thought would be a good support act for us. Every single person I spoke to said Hits. We got them on board, and we had an absolute blast playing with them. The same thing happened with a show in Melbourne, where we got Bitter Sweet Kicks on the bill. I’m not always out and about, but I’m always talking to people about who’s doing what and what’s happening in music. If I hear enough good things, I’ll go have a look. There’s a Melbourne band called Amyl and the Sniffers who I really like – I really wanted them to open our show in Melbourne, and they wanted to do it. Unfortunately, they already had commitments; and now they’ve been signed up. I do hope we get to play together sometime, though. Like I said, I’m not always out there – but it doesn’t matter, I’ve got people who are. It all comes back to me eventually.
MF: This tour marks the 40th anniversary of X, which means it will serve as a full retrospective. In rehearsing for these shows, did you come across any particularly old or obscure songs that you hadn’t played in awhile?
SL: Yeah, there’s a few of them. Some of them will be songs that the Sydney people will recognise, but maybe not so much the Melbourne people. They’re songs that were kind of phased out more as the punk thing morphed its identity – songs like ‘You Don’t Like Me’ or ‘Unit People’, which were maybe a little too confronting. There was also a song called ‘One More ChancE’ that, for me, was a bit beyond my pay-grade as far as singing and playing it at the same time was concerned. I’m a lot more comfortable ploughing through that now. I was listening to a live recording from 1983, and we were playing this old ’50s song called ‘Teen Angel’. I thought it was hysterically funny, so I decided to put it back in the set. Judging by the audience reaction back then, they absolutely loved it. It’ll be interesting to see how it fares in the mix this time. As the tour goes on, we’ll probably pull out more of those gems.
MF: With this incarnation of the band, do you see X as something that you can keep coming back to confidently?
SL: Yeah. I mean, I like to think that I can. It’s pretty intense music, though, and I’m not getting any younger. [laughs] It’s not like I can just sit on a stool and play it like some old blues dude. There’s really only one way to play this music. As long as I’m capable, I’ll do it – so I don’t think I’ll have to worry for awhile yet.
X’s 40th anniversary Australian tour is currently underway. Head here for remaining dates.