Posted July 12, 2015 by Jeff in Tunes

John D Morton of X_X: Still provocative

X_X photo by JIm O'Bryan
X_X photo by JIm O'Bryan

A “no wave” band formed in Cleveland by John D Morton (electric eels, Johnny & the Dicks) back in 1978, X__X has recently picked up a bit of traction. Last year, the band was featured in a New York Times’ article that chronicled the events leading up to the group’s recent rebirth. In advance of the forthcoming album, Albert Ayler’s Ghosts: Live at the Yellow Ghetto, the group announced a few Great Lakes-area gigs. Morton, who’s become a successful visual artist, heads up the band that now includes Andrew Klimeyk on guitar and vocals,  Craig Willis Bell (Rocket From The Tombs) on bass and Matthew Albert Harris on percussion. Morton phoned us from his Brooklyn home to talk about the group’s history.

Talk about how the band first came together.
It was 1978 at my birthday party. It was March 27. I knew I was moving to New York and Andrew Klimeyk was there and Jim Ellis was there. I wanted to do a band that lasted six months. I just decided I wanted to do a band for fun. We recorded two singles but that was not in the plans. It was serendipitous and unplanned.

Were the Stooges and the Velvet Underground your role models?
Yeah. There was a lot of other stuff too. I had been in bands before. They were important [but so was] Albert Ayler and Sun Ra and other influences.

What was it about Cleveland that spawned these outsider bands?
I have no idea. I get asked that question a lot. We didn’t know what we were doing. I know that for myself and the electric eels, I wanted to make music for myself. I had to feel good about it. I have always followed that. I didn’t realize the importance of my peers, meaning Rocket From The Tombs and Mirrors. They were just other bands. I saw Jim Jones years later and [Pink Holes bassist] Cheese Borger put us together. We went to have Chinese food. Jim said, “We talked more in our dinner than in our entire association before.” I didn’t talk to him because he wasn’t in my band. But I realized how much more I have in common with these people than I don’t. I don’t know why it happened. I do know that it did happen. I believe in things happening in the ether and standing on the shoulders of giants. The Mirrors were similar to the electric eels. It was all about practicing. We would have loved to been signed by a record label but we didn’t know how to do that. We just practiced. It was a little different with X_X. [Drummer] Anton Fier taught me about professionalism. There’s one song that goes “No No.” All of us would tap our feet for the beat. Anton said, “Count it in your head. That doesn’t look good.” That’s being a professional. He was telling us not to be jerk wads. In the eels, we’d practice the same song over and over and if something was wrong, we’d never change it. Anton taught us to work on fixing things that were wrong. That was a big help.

Was there something in particular that inspired “A”?
“A” is about getting cancer from using polyester resin. I was using it to make art. I loved the material. I knew it was dangerous, but I’m an artist. I wanted to write a song about art. I don’t know about the frustration. That’s just the way I think about everything. It wasn’t particular frustration. It was just general frustration.

Were you familiar with the Joseph Conrad novel, Heart of Darkness?
Heart of Darkness as a meme and as a collective unconscious thought was something I thought about. I think more about the derivations of things now than I did back then. They sort of just came out then. I might specifically talk about something but I try not to read anything into it. I have my ideas about what something is, but it’s up to the viewer or reader or listener to interpret as they want.

I don’t know if I want to make my message clear. Whatever someone takes away from it is fine. I just hope they enjoy it. Actually, I don’t know if enjoy is the right word.

You just hope it triggers a response?
I always like provocation. I’m like a trickster. Let’s get it going. I was thinking about that song “Cruel to Be Kind.” What does that mean? What is that about? It’s ludicrous. I want to do something more important than that. There are some great dumb songs. I like “Little Red Riding Hood” by Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs. It’s a novelty song but it’s got some great music. But there’s got to be something. “Cruel to Be Kind” is something that has no meaning. Free jazz [is] angry, confrontational music. Albert Ayler couldn’t have picked something to make his career worse. What is something that people will hate and disdain? It’s very much the same with punk music. Let’s do something aggressive and angry that’s not easy to listen to. That’s what I chose.  I was listening to a Sun Ra song and there’s [saxophonist] John Gilmore going into a free jazz riff that doesn’t make any sense. I’m so comfortable with it now. It took listening to it several times. It’s the shock of the new. Hopefully, it’s hard to understand because it’s new information. I would hear Ray Conniff when I was on vacation with my parents on Lake Erie. Really easy listening music. I read that in Sun Ra’s biography that he loved Ray Conniff because he was a great arranger. I learn from these people.

What’s been the key to the recent traction you’ve picked up?
People want it. We show up when we’re asked for. Anywhere, anytime. It was dead in the water for 35 years. I started to get interest about reissuing the singles about five years ago. I didn’t like the deals and record company business confused me, but then when Ektro Records approached me, I loved the fact that they were Finnish. They want to do underappreciated American music. It was not for profit. That took the angst of the contract out of it. I got paid in units so there it was. They were wonderful. Once that came out, Mike Rubin, the reporter for the New York Times who did the article on us, wrote to me about it and I sent him the files. As soon as he heard it was going to be released, he pre-ordered. We have those fans out there and now there is some kind of touchstone. We did a tour last August to see if we could do it. We could. That went well. Craig Bell is one of those guys that I never talked to. He was other bands. He was in Rocket From The Tombs and Mirrors. I went to high school with the guy. We paired up and now we get to do new music based on historical importance. I hesitate to use that word, but we recorded a new record for Smog Veil Records, which has long been supportive of me and my work. We’re doing what we do. So what if we had a 35-year hiatus?


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at