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Hello My Name is… John Doe of X

| August 1, 2021 | 0 Comments

John Doe

 

To calm, cool, and collected X anchor John Doe, it’s all about how you see the world these days. Some artists may have dreaded all that enforced 2020 lockdown time as a curse, but, homebound apart from his bandmates in Austin, he viewed it as a blessing, a creative windfall, even though X had just issued a punk-powered new masterpiece called Alphabetland, its first new studio album in 27 years. “I was a little sad that we couldn’t go out and celebrate the hell out of that record,” says the bassist, vocalist, and part-time film and TV actor. “But I think that the pandemic gave people the time to reset, gave people the time to work on things as if they were in prison because they sort of were. As in, ‘If only I had the time to…’ fill in the blank. Well, now you DO, motherfucker! So I used my time wisely — I worked on songs and recorded an entire solo album.”

Maybe it’s intrinsic to anyone launching their career in the post-punk artistic hotbed that was Los Angeles in the early ‘80s. But Doe, a remarkably spry and youthful-looking 68, is never lacking in the energy department. His shows with X — which rev up with a handful of American dates this summer and start chugging with an annual and sorely-missed X-Mas Holiday tour of the West Coast — are still Tasmanian-devil frenetic and always inspiring to behold for audiences of both dumbfounded young newcomers and veteran old-schoolers who’ve followed the incendiary outfit for four decades now. Currently, he has a plethora of projects on the way, including the upcoming animated film Unplugged (for which he just recorded voiceovers), plus live-action appearances in  The Boardinghouse Reach and D.O.A. The Movie, a fun, low-budget remake of the Edmund O’Brien classic. “It’s set in 1949, and I play the guy!” he enthuses over his iconic role of its lethally-poisoned protagonist who only has a few desperate hours to solve his own pending murder.

The coronavirus only fueled his inner fire instead of dampening it, the singer declares. “And you know what?” he adds. “Anybody who goes through this and doesn’t have an increased sense of gratitude for what they have — unless they lost someone who is near and dear to them — should really stop and think about how heartless they are because they’re actually the fucking Grinch. So I did fine, X has been good to us, and I didn’t spend all my money on foolish things. And I see people who are homeless, who I was always wishing that I could do more for.” He pauses to let the story’s humble moral become crystal clear. “So now I’m realizing that I might be the most fortunate of all.”

IE: So a whole new solo album? I’ll bite — tell me more.

JOHN DOE: It’s a little early, and it’s not gonna come out until January. But it’s called Fables in a Foreign Land, and it all takes place pre-Industrial era, in, say, 1890, and it’s the opposite of steampunk. It’s about a kid, I dunno, 16? His parents are killed, and he’s forced to leave, and this is his journey. It’s not a beginning, middle, and an end, but it is what this person sees in a world that doesn’t have cars and all the other stupid distractions that we’ve called progress.

IE: So, without good cellphone coverage to worry about, what hurdles does he face?

JD: Just staying alive! Staying alive, sleeping on the ground, not having enough to eat, and raining all the time. The idea just came to me. Plus, I got to work with Terry Allen on a song, and Louis Perez wrote a verse of another song in Spanish. So it’s cool — you’ll like it. And (famous punk label) Fat Possum is putting it out. So I don’t know how this came to be, writing this record, but it had a lot to do with the isolation we all experienced and a lot to do with some gratitude for survival. And it actually wasn’t as personal because I was looking through someone else’s eyes, so it just sort of happened. And then I realized that there was a theme — I kept looking in the books that I write in, and I noticed all these similar situations. So I went with it. And this album couldn’t have come together in any other possible way. The bass player on it, Kevin Smith, plays with Willie Nelson, and the drummer is Conrad Choucroun, and he plays with Patty Griffin. So in April or May (of 2020), I called up Kevin and asked what he was doing, and he said, “Well, what do YOU think?” So we just started playing together on his patio, and we did that for nine months. I wrote a bunch of songs, and we recorded in that same way. Nobody used headphones — we just sang out into the world as just a trio, The John Doe Folk Trio.

IE: So you’ve mastered the songwriting art, like Springsteen, of completely assuming a character?

JD: Yeah. I mean, I wasn’t Johnny of “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene,” of course! But you just borrow stuff from your own personal experience and expand on it, blow it up and exaggerate it into what piece, song, or character you might be working on, and the same if it’s a movie or something like that. You’ve got to connect deeply. I mean, Neko Case does that really well. She connects deeply with stories that she reads about other people, and then she just becomes that thing. So I’m not sure exactly where this came from, but it started, and I thought, “Oh, well, THIS is cool.” And I don’t exactly like a lot of what they call progress nowadays, so I can relate to this; I can get behind it.

IE: And you actually have this whole long history with Dave Grohl that recently led to him and his daughter Violet duetting on X’s vintage deep cut “Nausea,” right?

JD: Yeah. There was a movie that Paul Schrader did that I was a part of called **Touch. And I think that the movie itself was good, although it could have been a lot better. But Christopher Walken was amazing in it, and then somehow Dave Grohl was involved in the soundtrack, and he said, “Let’s write a song together.” So yeah, I was flattered that he and his daughter wanted to do that song, and they went in there, and they did a pretty honest reading of it, just went in there and did their thing.

IE: Was “Nausea” inspired by Sartre?

JD: That was part of it, yeah. But it was more about just having a hangover and working on some words that Exene wrote. It’s about living in poverty but seeing something that was worthy in that lack. And hey! I worked at a bookstore — I could recognize a good title when I saw one! Although it was Billy, who came up with “Alphabetland.”

IE: Occasionally during the pandemic, and on TCM of all stations, Penelope Spheeris The Decline of Western Civilization would pop up. And you guys looked like innocent teenagers in it.

JD: Oh wow! But no, I think I was…I would’ve been 26; Exene would’ve been 24. So we weren’t teenagers. Pat Smear was just out of being a teenager, maybe. Darby was maybe 20. But we were all grown up — we were 25-year-old bohemians, trying to look over the edge and see what’s on the other side. So we sort of went to the edge, walked around there for a while, and caught a lot of good songs and inspiration and images, and set up our life to be artists. That’s just what we did, and we were loved enough — or found enough of a connection — to not slip over the other side of that edge. And many, many did — the list goes on and on.

IE: Inspiration-wise, Alphabetland is on fire, amped up to eleven by a canny producer who really understands you, Rob Schnapf.

JD: Sure. He doesn’t put his stamp or his style of production on whatever records he works with. I mean, we’re pretty far away from Cat Power, but both of the records are really honest. And we worked with Rob on (2018 release) Live in Latin America, which was a band-funded CD from when we toured with Pearl Jam. And Rob really proved himself by mixing that, and Billy — who’s the most particular about who we work with as a producer — realized that Rob got it. And then we had Fat Possum do the reissues, so they said, “Hey, motherfuckers! Do you wanna make a record? Because you’ve got the two things that are the most important besides songs to make a record — you’ve got a producer, and you’ve got a record company. So what’s your excuse now?” So we did one session with Rob, and that was three old songs and the song “Angel on the Road.” That was in the fall of 2019, and once we did it and it sounded like X, we thought, “Okay. Let’s do it for REAL.”

IE: And you also found the time to help out on She’s Automatic, the new comeback album from Tony Marsico’s great band The Cruzados, nee The Plugz?

JD: Oh, I just sang on it ‘cause Tony’s a good friend of mine. And it’s good. It is a straight-up rock and roll record, and it is really, really good.

IE: But you also stayed busy during the pandemic returning to the Bay Area to play local promoter K.C. Turner’s novel In Your Driveway (or Backyard) private concert series. Everyone pretty much agrees that they were some incredibly special shows, especially being set against the COVID-19 backdrop.

JD: Well, he started setting these things up in November of 2020. And I forget exactly when he called me, but he’s a great promoter at HopMonk (a tavern/concert venue in Novato, CA), so, absolutely, I’ll listen to what he’s got to say. And at first, I thought, “Uhh, yeeeaaah.” Of course, I was doubtful because nothing was happening then. But by the time May came around, I was so comfortable with the concept; I brought merch. But the most difficult part of doing those performances was that I had already figured out how to do VIRTUAL performances, how to play songs through my phone and not be totally out of my depth. I had done four or five of those, I don’t remember, but then I did three others with mandolin, which is more of a production. But you’re singing and playing to absolutely no reaction — there is NO other energy. I mean, there IS a lot of energy, but it’s just going one way. So having done that and having gotten accustomed to it made it very difficult to be up in someone’s backyard — I thought, “Oh, my God — there’s people here! And you can’t see all of their (masked) faces, but they seem to be very happy. But now I don’t actually know how to speak in between songs because I haven’t had to do that in so long!” But after my third show, I thought, “Oh, yeah — I get this! This is cool, and I actually DO know how to do this!” So it just goes to show ya that we’re all more flexible than we think.

IE: And your annual X-Mas Holiday Tour is back on after a coronavirus cancellation in 2020?

JD: Yes. And, that’s the main thing that I’m thinking about right now — just getting back to doing X. We’re played these shows in July, so we got together at the end of June and did about a week’s worth of rehearsals, and it was great. And it was surprisingly emotional to see each other. I thought that everybody was going to get together, and it would just be like, “Oh, hi, how’s it going? Okay, now let’s get to work.” But it was really very sweet and emotional just to see each other again.

-Tom Lanham

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