ThisSmallPlanet is a blog about life and culture. "New Music Today" is the indie rock music section, featuring links to new music downloads, selected music articles from our favorite sites, and original writing, photos, and videos about music by mikedx1 (Michael Donnelly)
John Doe’s musical trajectory is filled with twists and turns. The clear-cut punk road that X helped carve in the U.S. defined him to listeners for many years. During breaks in the band’s journey, he ventures into other projects in other genres, exploring roots and experimenting, which at times has aligned his name with terms like “Americana” and “alt-country.” At the core, however, it’s always about the songs — he’s a writer, first and foremost, and not afraid to dig deep into emotions when crafting words and melodies.
September brought box sets from the X catalog viaRhino Records, including a limited-edition vinyl box of their first four albums: Los Angeles, Wild Gift,Under the Big Black Sun and More Fun in the New World, all produced by Ray Manzarek; a digital set of their first six albums, entitled The X Collection: 1980-1987; and the first releases in a series of digital reissues of the band’s albums.
X — Doe, vocalist Exene Cervenka, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebrake — just wrapped up a month of dates with Blondie. Later this year they’ll begin their annual holiday tour, where they’ll be joined by longtime friends The Blasters.
During a day off from the road, John Doe addressed the past, present and future of X and punk rock, gear versus tone, and how to walk the fine line between angst, healthy anger and becoming a curmudgeon.
You have done so many interviews and received so much press, both as a member of X and as a solo artist. Certainly it can become redundant, as people always ask about the past. How do you keep it interesting for yourself?
There’s two parts to your question. One is X was always press-driven because we didn’t have airplay, or exposure to radio airplay, or big crowds, because no one would have us open for them. So we were press-driven and, I guess, controversial in that we have a core audience of subculture. There are two typical responses to X. It’s either, “You changed my life,” or “Who?” And that continues and that’s all right. The way you keep it fresh is it’s a different day and a different person and you enter into a dialogue. It goes whichever way it takes, whatever path it takes, and you try to make up fresh responses or different elements, and then you have a few pat answers. There are some things that are just history and that’s the truth.
This is year thirty-six for X. What has enabled you to outlast so many bands? There are reunions, bands get back together, but it may be with different members, or original lineups get back together after trying other members. X has remained X.
All the reasons that anyone survives. A certain amount of ambition, a certain amount of talent, and determination. We like making a living playing music. I think that X had songs and musicianship that were a little apart from other bands in L.A., and maybe if they had more of the ambitions or determination or the other elements, they might have found something that was as lasting. I think The Germs were an incredible band, but they were burning very brightly for a short period. So just good fortune that we didn’t become complete drug addicts, just temporary drug addicts, and all those elements.
When you perform older songs, even though there is a shift in the performance, are you completely in the moment or is there an emotional connection to the past?
It takes you back if you’re fortunate. Obviously, you have to be in the present to remember what the next chord is, and some of that is muscle memory, but you have to remember what’s the next verse and that sort of thing. But if you’re very fortunate, then you get that feeling of the time in which it was created. That’s when you’ve really tapped into something that’s the great beyond and you have that emotional connection. With the stories being somewhat iconic, not to be pretentious about it, but they’re stories about drug abuse, they’re stories about loss, they’re stories about love, and you do remember the events that led up to them and you can see it in the faces of the people who are listening to it. So in that way, when you're performing, you’re connected into a bigger consciousness. That doesn’t sound like a hippie …
You were considered a punk band. Was that a fair assessment? Is it still?
Sure, because punk rock was anything that wasn’t old and in the way. I don’t know who coined that phrase. There’s a line that was drawn in 1975, maybe even a little earlier. It was, “This is no longer corporate rock, this is no longer glam.” Iggy and the MC5 were doing it, but they were doing it in a little more of a vacuum. Once the New York bands started doing their thing, which was a spin-off of maybe Andy Warhol and the New York Dolls and that sort of thing, it went over to England, came around to L.A., and went to San Francisco, Boston, D.C. and a million other places. It was in the air and all those bands were punk rock bands, but punk rock wasn’t codified and it wasn’t just one sound. Maybe by 1979, or even earlier, it became more of a thing. When the hardcore scene started coming in, the bands sounded more similar to each other.
I recall, in probably 1977, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played the Whisky and Blondie opened for them. They had maybe 200 people there, they were scheduled to play two shows, and there was an announcement over the loudspeaker inviting the audience to stay for the second show. Tom Petty was considered sort of punk rock because he was not part of the Eagles sound or Fleetwood Mac or Peter Frampton or Boston, and all those people that we owe a great debt to in making music so corporate that finally people said, “This is bulls--t. I don’t like going to the enormodome and I don't like being removed from the band. I need something that’s more immediate, more dangerous and in the spirit of rock and roll’s origin.” And that’s what happened.
That music, going against all that was corporate, was stripped down to guitars, bass and drums, not unlike some of the music that came before. Was it an indirect descendent?
I think it was more a descendent of what Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent were doing, and maybe with the Ramones and Blondie you would have to include doo-wop bands like Darlene Love or the Ronettes. If you take Jimmy Reed and then listen to Chuck Berry, Chuck Berry took Jimmy Reed from 33 and sped it up to 45, and we took Chuck Berry and sped it up to 78. We couldn’t get airplay because punk rock was dangerous. The hair bands, or whatever you want to call that, were not dangerous because it was cartoonish, and it also played into, in my opinion, sort of a male-dominated, “Women are just playthings, an item, a possession.” Those bands got plenty of exposure, but punk rock was for real dangerous. It was openly gay, openly druggies, you can’t control me, I don’t want to play your game, f--k you. I think we saw ourselves in a timeline of, “There is rock and roll, and there were the beatniks and the drug-addled hippies like the Doors and the Rolling Stones in their ’70s phase, and OK, it’s punk rock’s turn.” There were all these bands and we pissed off the media to the point that they said, “Oh no.” The record companies were pretty fat and set in their ways and they didn’t want to know about these upstarts, so nothing happened.
You say you’re “not a gear guy,” but you have your preferences. Are you tried and true? The sound is the sound, the tone is the tone, no matter what the project is?
Yeah. I think that leaves a lot of room for experimentation. The bottom line is the sound. Live, I prefer things that are less effected. I think a lot of people forget that the real tone comes from your fingers; it comes from your ability to play. I don’t have great tone as a bass player, but I have maybe an original style, because it’s just a three-piece with two vocals when it comes to X. In recording, that’s a whole different situation. Recording, the sky’s the limit. You can use anything and everything. You have to be careful that the end result of all your process, all the equation of, “We’re going to record it like this, and it’s going to go through a tube, and we’re going to have it in the bathroom, in the shower, under the toilet seat, and we’re going to use this crazy pedal,” and sometimes you can get too wrapped up in the process, rather than, “Did it sound cool? Is that an original and amazing part and sound that you got?” I’m not a big Beach Boys fan, but what people thought was the theremin part in “Good Vibrations” is a great part, and it doesn’t matter how you got it. It’s got to be a real performance in recording, but I’m much more open to using an effected sound, something that is artificial, if it’s an interesting and cool or moody part and creates an effect within the song that sends it into a different world.
I value old instruments. I value vintage stuff. I bought a Dobro from the 1930s for not too much money and it’s great and I play it a lot. I play 1963 P basses and I think they were crafted and really well made. That’s what I value. My first bass was a 1960 Jazz bass and that’s what I used for most of the X recordings. Live, P basses have a fatter sound. I was using the same bass from 1980 until about two or three years ago, then we started going to South America and Europe with Pearl Jam and I thought, Wait a minute, this bass might be worth something. Maybe I shouldn’t take that on the road in an ocean-going container. So I got another one that wasn’t as original. I think you can be too precious with it. Things should be used, and when they’re used up, you find something else to use. They can also be glorified or made into a talisman if you put that much mental energy into it, and that’s kind of cool.
You’re known as the bass player in X, but also as a guitar player in your other projects. How are the instruments, and your approach to both, connected?
I use the same pick. I do! For bass and or electric and or acoustic guitar, I use Dunlop Herco picks. They’re very consistent. They don’t get soft as you continue to play, especially live. I try to play more easily. In the past I played much harder, especially playing bass. Now I try to play with an easier touch because you get a better tone. Again, the bottom line is what do you hear. If you hear something in your head, you can try to find it on an instrument, but you’ve got to hear it first. Sometimes you discover it by the physical act of playing, and that’s valid, I’ve done that a lot, but hearing things usually comes from a deeper place. Sometimes you can’t find it, but as you’re searching for it, you find something else and that’s probably just as good. I’m also not a perfectionist. I don’t have a great vision or great concept of what kind of record to make or the way a song should sound. I’m much more from the school of it develops as it’s happening; as you’re searching for that thing, it becomes whatever you find, and it becomes that end result.
You once said, “You can't progress musically if all you're peddling is angst." That’s not only applicable to music. How long did it take you to figure that out?
Last year! Some other artists, maybe not musicians, can do that, but I think that there’s nothing wrong with having a certain amount of satisfaction in your life, personally and artistically. It becomes redundant, too. It becomes the same. I made some personal changes seven or eight years ago because I was unhappy. I continued to write songs that were about longing and love unrealized, all these sorts of things, and I didn’t want to become a sad sack. That was not in the plan. Then, when you’re not completely unhappy, you have the challenge of writing songs that are not about being miserable, and that’s even harder. I’m really glad that I’m not a genius, a tortured genius, and that I have lived a long life and didn’t burn out. I’ve met a few, Jerry Lee Lewis being one of them, and they pay very dearly for it. They may have a long life, but it may be filled with drama and difficulties, which they somehow are a part of. If you want to use a current term, they manifest it, however you want to look at it. I’m glad that I’m a solid B student. Maybe I don’t get A-pluses, but I have a good life and it’s worth it. The other side of the coin is there are people who are wild and crazy when they’re young, they get sober, and some people say their songs aren’t as vital or edgy, but they’re still making music and I think that’s a perfectly reasonable tradeoff. I think they would agree: “Maybe my music isn’t quite as incredible, but I’m alive and I’m still making music and I still love it.” That’s fine.
How do you keep the music challenging for yourselves and for the audiences, night after night, year after year?
Now that you say it, I’m exhausted. I can’t! I can’t go on! Number one, we don’t tour on a bus. We’d rather put that money in our pockets than give it to a company or a driver, so we do it very simply in two vans. It’s easier that way because you’re not in some giant submarine that’s wandering around the city and, “Where do we park this motherfu--er?” Oh, everybody’s got to do the same thing at the same time, we’ve got to wait until the end of the night in order to leave because the merchandise has to be counted and all that bulls--t. So we have two vans and we’re very nimble in that way and that’s great. You figure that out. You’ve got to figure out how to survive that and how to enjoy that. I think that we have all become accustomed to that process of touring.
And you get smarter. You don’t party every night, maybe every four nights, once a week, and you find a way of enjoying it. It’s very simple, really. All you have to do is show up and look reasonably good and be in the moment and play your ass off. It’s way simpler than raising kids or being at home and saying, “I’ve to fix that leaky faucet. I’ve got to cut the grass.” When you’re on tour, it’s eh, get in the van, ride for five hours, do a soundcheck, eat, play a show, drink a couple of beers, get in the van. You’ve got to find some kind of routine and you’ve got to make peace with that process. Otherwise, you will self-destruct or go crazy or just burn out. When I was talking earlier about what people do is you choose life or you choose lifestyle, we had some moments when we put lifestyle in front of life, but we stepped back, and this is the same sort of thing. This is our life, and luckily we don’t play two hundred shows a year. In a busy year, maybe 2010, 2011, 2012, X played probably seventy or eighty shows and I played probably forty, but that was a very busy year. This year was really easy. Maybe we’re playing forty shows total.
You taught some workshops. What did the students want to know?
I taught a poetry workshop at an arts high school in 2006. Where I was, they didn’t really clock the fact of what I had accomplished or who I was, which was fine with me. It wasn’t a great experience in that I was trying to do a poetry workshop and many of the people weren’t really writers. They were a musical school, classical music, and English was a second language, people from China and Korea, and that was interesting. I love teaching, but I can’t make a living at that. I make a good living at this. We’re all grateful and realize that we have a fu--ing cool job and it could be good if you just allow it to be good, like a lot of things. Get out of the way and just let it be.
Quoting again: "Once you turn 40, you'd better learn how to find satisfaction and embrace the joys in life. If you don't, by the time you hit 50 and onwards, you're going to be a horrible, miserable person. I'm all about living the artistic life, but there's a big difference between an angry young man and an angry old man. Who wants to be around an angry old guy?" There’s great wisdom in those words, but there’s so much to be angry about. Do we really want to shed our anger? Isn’t that the fuel? On the other hand, no one wants to be the curmudgeon.
It’s a bit overwhelming at this point because government, corporations, the media have all colluded in order to take our power away, and that’s a sad, but I think real, fact. Other than armed insurrection, a military coup, I don’t know how that’s going to change. But on the other hand, maybe none of this s--t matters. Maybe it’s all about people changing from within to create a substantial change in our overall world. I agree that you shouldn’t be complacent. You should stay in touch with things that are wrong with the world and you do what you can. Consume less, be more thoughtful about it. If I had one message that I wish the whole world would accept, it would be just to think, What am I doing? Think for half a second before you actually did something or consumed something or bought something or did something to your fellow man. Think a little bit. Not great, deep thoughts. Just think. Unfortunately, it’s not encouraged nowadays. We’re getting very philosophical here! There’s a whole school of thought that this Mayan calendar that changed and the world was supposed come to an end, but really what’s come to an end is the thinking in facts and figures. I’ll put on my tin-foil hat now and say maybe what needs to change is that we have to think with our intuition and our hearts and our bigger self. Charting the brain is great, but I don’t know that that’s going to really solve anything for anybody.
I think what’s missing today, and what has been missing, is the sense of mystery, the sense of wonder in figuring everything out. I think it’s good not to figure things out. I think it’s great to think that there is mystery. “Why does that happen?” I don’t know, I don’t care, I want it to be mysterious and out there in the ether. Where does a song come from? Hell if I know. You take the time to sit down and try to find it. That’s where it comes from. Your little weird synapses in your brain and all the experiences you’ve had come together and you listen for it and it comes to you. People in Nashville would say that the good lord gave it to them, but I don’t care. It’s just a mystery and that’s a beautiful thing, that’s a great thing. That’s punk rock and Zen and hippie all at the same time. The funny thing about being a curmudgeon is that people in their 30s think, Oh yeah, when I get to be 50, I’m going to be a curmudgeon, and when you start approaching that, you think, Maybe not.