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John Doe – Linking the Past Present and Future

I first met John Doe after an X show in Denver, where I discovered that we share a taste for Jameson Irish whiskey as well as coffee (“It’s the blood of the gods,” he says).

The co-frontman and bassist from L.A.’s (and possibly America’s) best punk rock band has recently put out a new solo album on Yep Roc Records and is touring in support of it, this time playing at the Lion’s Lair, a suitably punk yet intimate venue for his latest musical venture, a record with equal parts punk, blues, and country and the scars of a lifetime as a musician.

John took the time to chat with Kaffeine Buzz about careers in music, what it takes to write a blues song, fate, and which bands he thinks are better than X.

Kaffeine Buzz: You’re playing at the Lion’s Lair this time around, right?

John Doe: In addition to the fancy-schmancy Lucinda Williams show. We’re playing at the Botanic Gardens. That’s the daytime, where you wear the gloves and hat, and then at night, literally, the gloves come off and you go down to the Lion’s Lair and duke it out.

KB: You’re touring with Lucinda Williams?

JD: I’m playing about ten shows with her.

KB: I loved your new record. How did you end up on Yep Roc records with this album, after Kill Rock Stars and the others previously?

JD: I’ve been through several. Kill Rock Stars was good, and Yep Roc is the best I’ve been with so far.

KB: It seems that a lot of musicians I really like are ending up there.

JD: How did I end up on Yep Roc…well, they were the ones that got it, and were willing to pony up a little money, and everyone I’d talked to said yes to Yep Roc. And I have to say, this is the point at which most of the other record companies I’ve worked for in the past have recouped their money, and that’s the point at which they go, “OK, cool,” and start walking away from it. And now, with this Lucinda tour, Rolling Stone did a CD review, some radio airplay, they’re releasing another single, and it’s like now, Yep Roc is saying, “Well, all right, let’s get going! We’ve sold about 6000+ records, let’s fuckin’ get it on!” Whereas most companies in the past–one sort of folded as I was releasing the record, SpinART which was I think a little too college-radio oriented–would start walking away. I just am thrilled.

This is also the point at which, nine months into the relationship, most of the time you’re going “I fucking hate these guys!” [laughs] Or not saying I hate these guys, but just saying, “Ah, Jesus, I wish they would pay a little more attention to their business.”

KB: You worked with a lot of different musicians on this album, and I wanted to know more about how that came about. From Kristen Hersh to Neko Case and Dave Alvin…

JD: Grant Lee Phillips, Cindy Lee Berryhill, my daughter…I paid them a lot of money, and gave them some blow, and they were happy to play along. I didn’t give my daughter blow. I gave her crack. Wanted to get her started on the hard stuff–No!

The best thing about it is that I can ask people and they usually say yes, if they have it in their schedule. I’m lucky enough to have played with most of these people and consider them my friends. Wow. That’s what happens when you don’t die. You can do a lot of stuff if you’re not dead!

KB: That kind of leads me to another question I had for you: that song “Ready” on your album is about the–I call it sometimes the “Cult of the Dead Musician,” like with Sid Vicious and Kurt Cobain. It doesn’t seem–I certainly don’t know what was going on behind the scenes, but it doesn’t seem like you’ve ever bought into that.

JD: Well, I’ve had some very dark moments, certainly. I buy into it as far as missing people and loving people maybe a little more when they’re gone, but I think the way that I feel about it now is that if that’s where you want to go, then that’s all right too.

Because getting old, it has its advantages because you worry about stuff less, and you worry about more important things, I think, but there’s no magic. And then you have the ugly, more difficult task of trying to maintain a career, right when you’ve thought, “OK, this is what I do.” Say around 40 or so. Then it becomes clear that things you have no influence over, or people, may be saying, “Um, as a matter of fact I’m not so sure that this is going to be your career anymore! We may be tired of you, and we may have had enough of your shit. So you know that career you thought you had, well, I’m not sure if you’re going to keep it! What are you going to do about that?”

I was very sad that Joey Ramone died, I was very sad that Jeffrey Lee Pierce died, I was very sad that Elliott Smith died. They were all friends, different levels of friendship, and it just makes you feel bad, but I think they were destined, and I think they were “ready,” as the song says.

KB: I was reading my liner notes to the X Beyond and Back collection, and there was a quote from someone saying that if X had come along at the right time you could’ve been as big as Nirvana.

JD: I think it was George W. Bush that said that. No, wait, I think it was Donald Rumsfeld. [laughs] I don’t know. We were pretty good lookin’, back in the day, you know? I think we were just too weird.

KB: Nirvana was fairly weird, too.

JD: Kurt Cobain had this voice, though, that as soon as anybody heard it they just gravitated towards it, it was like “I want to help that guy, he sounds like he’s in trouble.” I don’t know if we had that. It’s funny. I was talking to somebody about punk rock and they were saying West Coast punk rock was always sort of ignored. And I think that West Coast punk rock was always a little too weird and a little too hard to get national or mainstream recognition. Because when you think about what did, it was an Elvis Costello ballad, or the Pretenders’ “Brass In Pocket,” Blondie doing disco, “Heart of Glass”–which are all great songs. But they’re all very sort of mainstream anyway. Maybe “White Girl” was mainstream, but it came out in ’81, people weren’t ready for it.

We got lots of critical acclaim, we got some commercial success with that “Burning House of Love” song, but then that was sort of a metal production. I don’t think punk rock, except for current mainstream punk rock like Green Day and stuff–though I put them in a different category, I think they’re far and away better than the rest of the sort of shitty punk rock stuff.

KB: Their new album is really good.

JD: Their new album is really great–it’s a huge undertaking, really ambitious, has these elements of like, prog rock, but it never stops–it’s never weak, and it’s never self-conscious. It just gets up and goes.

KB: You say that X didn’t have that kind of acclaim, but one of my friends and I keep having these discussions where we try to come up with an American band that we think is better than X, and we can’t. So you’ll be happy to know that at least there are two people out there…

JD: Do you want me to weigh in against my own band?

KB: No, I want you to agree with me!

JD: I think there are dozens. I think that Nirvana was a better band than X. I think that…um…

KB: It’s hard. Most of them, you go to say it and then they’re British.

JD: That’s true. Do individuals count? Because then you’ve got Chuck Berry and all the original rock’n’roll stars. I would say Otis Redding and the original Otis Redding band with Steve Cropper and that horn section and “Duck” Dunn and all those people were better. And even if you listen to it–the thing that amazes me about Otis Redding, is they were so adventurous. They were so ambitious, and they would do weird shit. They were like the Beatles in their own R&B way. Very linear, strange arrangements. But I’m flattered that you think so.

KB: I suppose if you sat down and scientifically studied it…

JD: Well, it depends on what the criteria are. I mean, the Flaming Lips are just as good as us at putting on a show, and even more experimental, but never lose touch with making a great song. I think Talking Heads you could say that about as well.

KB: Your new record–it doesn’t sound like an X record, but I think it highlights the links between what you guys were listening to, the classic rock’n’roll elements that a lot of other punk bands didn’t have so much of.

JD: Probably blues music. I think for the first time [with this record] I got to whatever basic level you have to get to to write a blues song. It just kind of hit me and I realized, “Oh, that’s what it is.” Also, I think there’s enough songs like “Ready” and “Hwy 5,” actually, I’d hoped that X would record but then we never got around to it, so I did. I actually wrote “Ready” for X to record, but you know, people were busy and we couldn’t do it. Which sounds really lame, but that’s the way it happens.

KB: And “Hwy 5” was written with Exene, right?

JD: Yeah, several years ago. Maybe four or five years ago. She was doing a bunch of stuff, and I’m such a fan of Neko’s–that Blacklisted record is really one of my favorites, ever. And so the subject matter and the sound that I thought it had made me think of her, so I asked her to do it.

KB: What is it that you think keeps you and Exene able to keep working together so well, for so long?

JD: Exene and I have worked together–I hope that while we’re touring on this Knitters record that we’ll work together more. I think they’re just about finished with an Original Sinners record, so maybe she’s done writing for that and she’ll allow me to look into her private notebook and extract a few songs.

KB: I just think that it’s one of those things that’s almost like fate, that your voices and everything just so perfectly works together.

JD: I wouldn’t disagree. I think the fact that Exene moved to LA at the time she did, which was about a month or less before I did, and that music was, from ’73 to ’75, kind of shitty, and all the punk rock people came to LA, and we met Billy Zoom, a lot of that is fate. I think as far as singing together, we learned how to sing together. And if you grow up and learn something with somebody, kind of how I felt singing with my daughter, it was a natural thing. She just sang along and it blended better than it would with another person.

Also, I love singing with other people and think that it sounds better when there’s somebody else. A vocalist like Bob Dylan or even a great singer like Neko or someone like that, they sound so good all by themselves, but I think I sound better with somebody else. That’s why I keep asking people to sing with me,

KB: The documentary X: the Unheard Music was recently released on DVD. I actually tried to order it, but they sent me the wrong video, so I did not get to see it and come up with interesting questions about it for you. So instead, could you just tell me a little about it?

JD: It’s actually, I think, quite good. It was a guy who just was a fan and was a filmmaker, had gone to film school, and wanted to do a documentary and he followed us every three, four to six months for about four years. So the film sort of developed as time went on. It has some concert stuff, and it goes into the world of creating music, writing songs, goes into Billy’s history, DJ’s history, the history of the band and Exene and her relationship with her sister, which was really important to our development.

And it was a pain in the ass to get it away from all these different people who owned it at different times and put it on DVD. But like all things, since there really are only two corporations in the entire world that own everything, it gets easier. “Oh, you mean I own all these companies anyway? Well then we’ll just put it out.” Which is kind of what happened with Rhino and the rereleases. It was Warner/Elektra/Rhino, “Oh, we own all this shit anyway! We don’t need permission from anybody! We’ll just release it!” [laughs]

KB: I saw on the Yep Roc website that you’d played at a show with Pearl Jam recently, and then Eddie Vedder came and played at your show.

JD: Yeah, X played with Pearl Jam in ’99, or 2000, and we played four shows and it was great. It was the first big band that ever asked X to play arena stuff. The Chili Peppers never asked us, Jane’s Addiction never asked us, even though they’d both opened for X, so we were thrilled. Eddie Vedder is a wonderful person. He’s a truly righteous human being. He talks the talk and walks the walk. We started talking about playing an X song during the “No Voter Left Behind” tour, before the election 2004, and we played “The New World” in Seattle, and then I played a show after that, and they kept playing that song.

So when we did this little convention for independent record stores, we did it again. They were doing an in-store appearance with full rock band amplification. And then Eddie came to this in-store that I did and sang another couple of X songs. Not to mention I got to meet Nancy Wilson of Heart and she played on a song too.

KB: Do you have any acting projects going on right now?

JD: A couple of independent films, but I don’t know what’s going to happen to them. You do them and hope they get finished and hope they get released. Nothing big in the works. But I did meet Cameron Crowe, who’s married to Nancy Wilson, so maybe he’ll take pity on me and put me in one of his movies. And X has a live DVD out too.

KB: That’s actually what I got sent, rather than the documentary.

JD: Well, the documentary is better. The DVD is good, and it does give a sense of what it’s like, it’s just a concert.

KB: And you mentioned a new Knitters record…

JD: Yeah, it’s coming out on Rounder in July. And we’ll be in Denver, I would imagine, the beginning of September.

Catch up with John Doe at the Lion’s Lair, at the Botanic Gardens or Boulder Theatre with Lucinda Williams, and keep your eyes open for X and the Knitters’ projects. And if you haven’t yet, for goodness’ sake, go buy Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet.


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