By Eleni Austin / Photos By Todd V. Wolfson
John Doe first gained fame as part of X, the seminal L.A. Punk band whose music moved beyond the spit and safety pins that originally defined the scene. By their third record, they began adding trace elements of Country, Blues, Folk and Rockabilly to the mix. Beginning in 1990, John launched a solo career that embraced and expanded upon that sharp mélange of styles. This year, he’s not only released his sublimely satisfying 10th solo album, Fables In A Foreign Land, he and X just finished up a short summer tour with legendary British Post-Punks, The Psychedelic Furs. As he returns to the road with The John Doe Trio, he agreed to answer a few burning questions.
EPA: You began the year touring as The John Doe Trio, in support of your new solo album. Then, throughout the summer, X shared a bill with The Psychedelic Furs. Is it easy to toggle between the intimate trio setting and the harder, Punkier style of X?
JD: Each tour requires different preparation. It takes a few days or weeks, depending on what you have, to practice the songs and getting your muscles back to play bass or acoustic guitar. X is more physical and the solo shows are more emotional.
EPA: It’s been more than 40 years since you began making music professionally, yet you continue to be fully invested. I recently saw you with The Psychedelic Furs at Pappy & Harriet’s and was heartened to see you come out after X finished and watch the Furs’ set as well. How do you maintain that passion?
JD: There’s always something to learn, or simply enjoy. More simply, I still enjoy music. During the tour, we left shortly after our set. So, Pappy’s was a great opportunity to watch the entire set by the Furs. What a great band.
EPA: Over the last 35 years, you have managed to carve out an intriguing acting career in films like Georgia, Boogie Nights and The Good Girl (just to name a few). You got your start in Allison Anders’ 1987 debut, Border Radio, how did that come about?
JD: Allison cast a few other musicians in Border Radio, most notably Chris D, (Chris Desjardins) and Jeff Bailey. She liked X then (and now) and asked if I’d consider playing a part. After watching what had already been shot, I agreed. It’s a beautiful and quite good, especially for a first film.
EPA: You have been making solo records since X took a hiatus in 1990. Those albums have typically been more Countrified and introspective, dialing back X’s raucous sound. However, it feels like there’s a through-line between the two. When you write, do you instinctively think “this is an X song,” or “this is better suited to a solo album?”
JD: All the songs tell stories. They have times, places, characters, smells, etc. Nowadays, I write specifically for one or the other. But many of the songs can be played in either setting.
EPA: On the title track of X’s debut, you and Exene ominously intone “She had to leave Los Angeles,” and then reel off the myriad reasons why. That came true for you when you relocated to The Grapevine and Fraizer Park and then out of state to Austin, Texas. Does the city of L.A. continue to inform your music?
JD: Inspiration comes from current experience or the past, or simply your imagination. Los Angeles doesn’t play the role that it did when I/we lived there. However, X’s music hasn’t changed as much as it has evolved.
EPA: Classic X songs like “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” or “More Fun In The New World” spoke to the current events of 1983. How much does politics influence your music these days?
JD: I’d say there’s a similar influence. On X’s 2020 record, Alphabetland, the songs “Free Water” and “Water & Wine” have overt political messages in the lyrics. On Fables… “Guilty Bystander” “After The Fall” comment on issues that persist from the late 1800s through today.
EPA: The songs on the new solo effort, Fables In A Foreign Land exhibit a timeless quality. They sound as though they could have been recorded any time in the last 70 years. Was that a deliberate choice?
JD: The instrumentation was intentionally acoustic, since that’s how the songs were conceived and developed. It’s Folky, without being Folk purist.
EPA: You have co-authored two books, Under The Big Black Sun and More Fun In The New World. Both accurately distilled the L.A. Punk scene. Would you ever consider writing a full-fledged biography?
JD: At some point I’ll write a memoir. But it will be more impressionistic than chronological.
EPA: There was a 27 year gap between 1993 Hey Zeus and 2020’s Alphabetland from X. Will the next one arrive in 2047, or is there some new X music in the pipeline?
JD: Yes, new music in the pipeline.
EPA: Us desert denizens are really looking forward to your show with the John Doe Trio (which features bassist Kevin Smith and drummer Conrad Choucron ) at AWE Bar in Yucca Valley. They have been booking some cool shows lately and it looks like they’ll be giving Pappy & Harriet’s a run for their money.
JD: In the last eight years, I’ve spent time in Yucca Valley, Pioneertown and Joshua Tree a couple of times a year. It allows one’s mind and spirit to open up. What a treat to play AWE Bar. Please tell all your friends.
EPA: Finally, what music, books or movies are inspiring you these days?
JD: Music: Sunny War, Skating Polly, Shannon & The Clams, as well as the soundtracks from Midnight Cowboy and Chinatown. Books: So Far, So Good, Final Poems By Ursula K. Le Guinn and Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami. Movies: Out Of The Past (1947) current TV shows: Babylon Berlin and We Own This City.
(AWE Bar Presents The John Doe Trio & Starlite Cleaning Company Thursday, October 20, Ages 21 & Over/ Doors Open At 8pm. Tickets via DICE.FM. 56193 Twentynine Palms Hwy. Yucca Valley, CA)