John Doe of X

Interview: John Doe of X


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John Doe zigs when others zag. At an age where many are content to look back and rest on their laurels, the 70-year-old is fronting tours with punk icons X, recording a new album, playing with a folk trio, and promoting an independent film noir in which he is the lead.
“I’m fortunate,” he says in an understated way.

That’s quite a contrast to “We’re Desperate,” the title of X’s first independent single in 1978 and a song the still powerful, wildly influential punk band plays during its ferocious live shows, including the two that stopped in Washington, D.C. earlier this month. Still fusing rockabilly, blues, and country with the aggression of punk after 45 years, the original lineup of Doe, vocalist Exene Cervenka, guitarist Billy Zoom, and drummer D.J. Bonebrake, has toured annually since Zoom rejoined the group in 1999.

Last month, Doe and I spoke on the phone for 45 minutes about X, which returns to the studio in October to record a follow up to 2020’s acclaimed Alphabetland, as well as his wide variety of past experiences and future interests. The interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Americana Highways: How does it feel to be playing with X 45 years after you started?

John Doe: Pretty fucking weird. Everyone hopes for longevity, but you don’t really believe it’s going to happen. I think I’m more grateful because we’re still feeling like we want to make records. That’s what we’re working on right now.

People still want to come see us. We’ve made enough new fans that we’re playing bigger places now than we did maybe 5, 10 years ago. Fingers crossed that we keep doing it.

AH: Alphabetland was one of the albums that got me through the pandemic, especially the first phase when everything was so uncertain. It was one of the musical salves I needed at the time.

JD: It was a fortunate thing in an unfortunate time. A lot of people were inclined to listen to it, and it was maybe more meaningful because the shit was hitting the fan. I mean, that’s true of anything.

AH: I recently interviewed B.J. Barham from American Aquarium. Their biggest album came out during the pandemic, and his theory was that people actually had time to listen to music in lockdown and actively sought it out, whereas they just pick and choose now.

JD: It seems to be much more random in the last 15, 20 years. I appreciate that people rallied around Alphabetland. When you’re going through some crisis, whether it’s emotional or physical or worldwide, things take on a deeper meaning. You read things into lyrics and different kinds of art.

Exene wrote (album closer) “All the Time in the World” quite a while before lockdown and we did that on a whim. I think it was the last thing we did. Just screwing around.

AH: That’s amazing.

JD: She’s a good writer. She’s my favorite.

AH: You had not recorded with the original lineup since 1984, right before Billy Zoom left the first time, even though you’ve played together live every year since 1999. How did it feel to be back in a studio with this group of people 35 years since “Ain’t Love Grand”?

JD: It was strange at first, but we had three old songs that never got properly recorded (“Cyrano deBerger’s Back,” “I Gotta Fever,” and “Delta 88”). We had “Angel on the Road” and another one we scrapped because it was a different version of the “True Love” song (“True Love, Part 3,” released in 2021 on the Xtras single.) So we had something that we knew was going to sound like X. That was helpful going in, and everything came together pretty quickly.

We knew what to sound like live. In a way, I think that helped make the record because I did a little more tailoring of chord changes and musical feels and had some ideas about how to play to Billy’s strength or DJ’s strength. It takes you a while to figure out. Sometimes it takes you almost 40 years to figure out what you sound like or what you’re good at.

The difference between writing songs for X now and 40 years ago is that 40 years ago, it was just a chronicle of what was happening and being a punk rock reporter as a poet. For both Exene and I, we were just discovering all different kinds of ways that rock and roll chord changes and styles of songs could be interpreted through the punk rock lens. That was very heady.

Plus, there were so many different influences, people, and types of bands, whether it was Fear or The Plugs or people like that. Now, Exene and I have a better understanding of what makes an X song. It’s a story, but it’s not a literal story. It’s a story, but it’s not like one of Dave Alvin’s songs, which is a more traditional storyteller type of thing. It’s more fractured and seen through a kaleidoscope or something.

AH: How is the new album coming together?

JD: We’ve got a number of songs that we’re going to record, I think, in October, and the album will come out next year. That’s the plan. It’s been a little hard to get it together because I live in California and we’re touring all the time, but we have been playing a few of the songs live and that’s helpful.

These new songs are oddly poppy. They have a memorable chorus and stuff like that so we’ll see.

AH: In the history of X, “Ain’t Love Grand” is sort of…

JD: The red-headed stepchild? Can you say that anymore?

AH: That’s a non-profane way of saying it.

JD: Well, we could just call it an outlier.

AH: To fans of the group, the biggest problem with “Ain’t Love Grand” is the dated 1980s production, which is something we’ve seen corrected for other bands of the era like The Replacements. (Rhino is releasing a remastered and reworked version of “Tim” later this month, following a similar corrective with “Dead Man’s Pop.”) Is that something you could do with “Ain’t Love Grand”?

JD: There’s something that’s prohibitive in the technology on which it was recorded (a Sony one-inch digital tape recorder) I think there’s two machines that are like that. But the biggest problem is that the way it was conceived and the way it was recorded was flawed to begin. (Producer) Michael Wagner wanted to have everything planned out.

We did a demo of the entire record using electronic drums and just one-take vocals and that sort of thing. Everything was planned out. By the time we came to actually record, it felt like it had already happened, and it was just a rewrite and a redo. Purposely there wasn’t room for inspiration. Maybe somebody can do that, but we couldn’t.

Having said that, The Replacements records, I have those and they’re fantastic. They’re wonderful. (Manager) Darren Hill is a friend of mine and he’s been kind enough to send me some of those. He is doing a good thing. Smart.

It’s really a shame the way they screwed up those records. It’s a good lesson.

AH: How do you like living in Austin?

JD: That’s a difficult question. I think we’re day 40 or something where it’s been over 100 degrees. [Laughs] Right now it’s tough, but I do like it a lot.

If I didn’t live here, I wouldn’t have been able to make that Tables of the Foreign Land record. I wouldn’t have gotten close to a bunch of new friends and some old friends that I have not seen in years. It’s a great place, but people bitch and moan about it because it’s changed a lot, even in the last five years.

AH: Once the tour with X is done and you record the album, are you going out with the trio again?

JD: We’re going to play the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, which is one of the greatest festivals in the world. I say that unconflicted, although it’s become so popular because it’s free that it’s a little overrun, even in Golden Gate Park. The trio’s going to do that, and I’m going to do that actually with Lisa Pankratz and Brad Portam.

That’s why I love Austin. I have two A-list trios. It’s amazing. People in Austin don’t have any competitive edge as to who gets the gig. They’re happy if other people get it because then they know that the next time they’ll get the gig. It’s an embarrassment of riches.

AH: Jon Dee Graham has long been one of my favorites. Every time I’m in Austin, I try to see him at the Continental Club.

He’s great. He is really great. I was lucky to work with him on that first record (1990’s Meet John Doe.)

AH: It seems like you’ve worked with just about everybody.

JD: I’ve been very fortunate to work with a lot of people, but there’s plenty that I haven’t. Again, it’s a byproduct of sticking around and not being a jerk and not being a drug addict. This is what I do best, while some people think, “The best thing I do is take drugs.” Unfortunately people believe that and then they have no control over it. That’s really sad.

AH: It’s been nice to see X receiving the respect from other bands — contemporaries and once you’ve influenced — over the past decade.

I think New York punk rock has finally gotten over itself and realized there’s more than just themselves and that’s good. Getting to play with Garbage and with Psychedelic Furs and Blondie and Pearl Jam is nice. Finally people are willing to take a chance to have X open for them or co-headline.

There was a time when all punk rock was ghettoized and, “Oh, God. Don’t have them.” I thought, “We’re not going to blow you off stage. You have fucking hit songs. Take it easy.” [Laughs]

AH: What else do you have in the hopper?

JD: I’m promoting a film that I got to be the lead in called “DOA.” It’s a remake of the 1950 theater noir movie and it’s going to be streaming I think the middle to the end of October. It’s really good. I think you’ll enjoy it. We look forward to accepting your 3.99 rental.

AH: How did it come about?

JD: My friend Kurt St. Thomas, who was a DJ and worked in radio up in Boston and out in LA, said to me in 2017: “I’m going to do a remake of DOA and you’re going to be the guy.” This is at midnight and we’ve had some drinks. I thought, “Cool. I’ll never hear about this again.” Then he persisted and we did it on just half a shoestring — ultra indie.

AH: Do you enjoy the acting?

JD: Sure. If I get it. I don’t try to do something that I don’t get. I’ll audition for things if they seem cool or fun. I don’t get very many submissions, but if I read it and I get it and I think I can do a good job, I’ll give it a shot. And hey, in this one I got to play the lead.

The one consistent part is you’re thrilled for about 15 minutes that you got the part, which is immediately followed by the utter dread of what you’re going to do with it. I was like, “I got the part. Oh, shit, I got the part.” If it is out of your comfort zone, if you’re not sure how you’re going to get there, that’s a good thing. That was one of the things that attracted me to doing “DOA.”

But it was totally rewarding. Two and a half to three weeks we worked on it, then we edited it for three years. It’s crazy.

AH: You talk about being out of your comfort zone, that’s also obvious in your approach to music. Before this call, I counted the groups I’ve seen you in: X, The Knitters, The Pleasure Barons, The Flesh Eaters, The John Doe Band, and with The Sadies. Now you have a folk trio as well. What attracts you to these various genres?

JD: I love country music and it has a lot in common with punk rock. The Flesh Eaters is certainly the outlier, and we did that just so that the five of us (Doe, Dave Alvin, X drummer D.J. Bonebrake, The Blasters’ Bill Bateman, and Chris Desjardins) could hang out and let Chris be the front person. (The five recorded “A Moment to Pray, A Second to Die” in 1981 and reunited in 2019 for a short tour.) That was really, really fun. I loved every minute of that.

AH: I saw Dave and Jimmie Dale Gilmore with Dead Rock West recently at The Birchmere. Show Review: Dave Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore at Birchmere It was so good to see Dave on this side of the country after all he’s been through (Alvin has battled cancer since 2020).

JD: He’s reacted to his illness in the best way, which is, “I’m just glad to be anywhere and I’m going to savor every moment that I can.” That’s what you hope for.

AH: Who would you like to work that you haven’t?

JD: Wow. I always draw a blank. I should make a list. [Laughs] I would love to work with Neko Case again because we did a short tour and she’s one of my heroes. I would love to work with a new singer-songwriter, (L.A. folk-punk musician) Sunny War, who’s a friend of mine. Maybe in another year or two, we’ll have time to write some songs together.

I would like to work with Dave again. I may and I definitely will work with Terry Allen again. Terry and Joe Harvey are two of the most creative people that I know. They’re even older than me, which is scandalous. I also think I’m going to do either some touring or maybe some recording with The Sadies again, even though Dallas (Green) has passed.

AH: I’ve always thought it would be interesting to see a tour that involved the Drive-By Truckers and X.

JD: Yes, Patterson Hood is a good songwriter. Very literary and deep and dark. We hung out a couple of times. He seems to be a good fella.

AH: Any chance of reuniting with The Knitters again?

JD: You never know, but it’s pretty unlikely since Dave is so busy. I’m putting that trio stuff on hold as well because I want to devote all my time and energy to X. I realize that there’s a limited amount of time and this is an important thing and I should do that while I can.

AH: The two books you did with Tom DeSilva — “Under the Big Black Sun” and “More Fun in the New World” — on the L.A. punk scene were died and gone to heaven books for me, because that’s when my interest in music really sparked. (The books were a series of essays from the musicians and others who were part of the scene at the time.)

JD: I hope that someone would take that format and do their own scene with it. The best idea we had was not to have one source as the historian, but to have a bunch of different people telling very similar stories or their side of the story from a different event or of the same event. I’ll probably do a memoir at some point, too.

AH: I interviewed Dave last year when he was promoting his book, and he said he’s working on one as well. I asked him about Pleasure Barons tour, which I saw at Fitzgerald’s in Houston in 1993. What a stacked lineup: You, Dave, Country Dick Montana, Mojo Nixon, Katy Moffatt, Rosie Flores. It still ranks as one of my favorite most drunken nights that I’ve had in my life. I woke up the next morning after next to zero sleep, was not dehydrated, felt really good. That’s when you know the show–

JD: That’s a win-win-win.

AH: It looked like everybody was having a hell of a lot of fun.

JD: The stakes were low. [Laughs] Actually, Dick being our fearless leader and Mojo being his co-conspirator, hype man, whatever you want to call it. Yes, it was a grand time. It was insane.

AH: Those things you enjoyed surviving and would not necessarily want to relive.

JD: Well, we did a version of it without Dick, obviously, on one of these Outlaw Country boat tours. Pretty fun. Then everybody except a limited few of us got COVID on stage. Of course.

AH: Well, it’s part of our life these days.

Thank you very much for chatting with us John Doe!  You can keep track of his news and tour dates here on his website:

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