X’s John Doe talks recent ‘ALPHABETLAND’ LP, how to stay fresh and more
“The lyrics and themes are things that we have talked about for a long time,” he says.September 24, 2021
X grew from the fertile soil that was Los Angeles’ late ‘70s punk scene. Singer/bassist John Doe answered an ad that rockabilly guitar virtuoso Billy Zoom placed in local classified ads paper The Recycler. It sought musicians for a band along the lines of the Ramones. “Two bass players answered that ad,” Zoom told Razorcake fanzine in 2005. “The second one was John Doe.” Doe began bringing girlfriend Exene Cervenka, whom he met at the Venice Poetry Workshop, to practices. Some of her poems were obviously lyrics. The couple developed a unique style of harmony that more resembled Gregorian chants than the Beach Boys. It fit the curdled romanticism of their songs like crushed velvet stretch jeans.
They poached drummer DJ Bonebrake from another local band, the Eyes. X’s classic lineup forged a distinctive take on punk rock, with Doe and Cervenka’s songwriting at the forefront. Alongside such similarly minded writers as the Germs’ Darby Crash, the Flesh Eaters’ Chris D. and the Blasters’ Dave Alvin, they forged an L.A. punk songwriting ethic that was more bohemian than political. It was as if Charles Bukowski bought an electric guitar.
Their first four LPs, all produced by Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, established X as a major underground presence and influence. Unfortunately, Doe and his bandmates couldn’t exactly deposit their great reviews in the bank account. Zoom drifted away after Ain’t Love Grand, an ill-conceived attempt by Elektra Records at selling X to FM stations enamored with hair metal.
After continuing on first with Alvin, then Tony Gilkyson on guitar, X basically ran aground in the early ‘90s. Doe began making fine, rootsy solo albums, as did Cervenka. Then Zoom rejoined X for a reunion tour, then another, then another… Next thing you know, classic X is back! That it took nearly 30 years before they recorded a new album is criminal, as anyone seeing X ripping through their classic catalog onstage in this time could testify. They had lost none of their fire nor skill, and Doe and Cervenka were still clearly writing strong material for their solo work. It should seem natural.
Two months into the COVID-19 lockdown last year, the unthinkable happened. ALPHABETLAND, the first studio LP from classic X since 1985, was dropped upon the world by visionary Mississippi roots indie Fat Possum Records. It’s exactly the soothing balm the world needed. As we discuss with Doe in this first installment of an exclusive two-part interview, it feels like the album that Ain’t Love Grand should have been.
We’re very belatedly promoting a new-ish X album. You put ALPHABETLAND out just as we entered a pandemic. How have you and X been faring the time of COVID?
JOHN DOE: A lot better than most. Nobody’s gotten sick. Nobody died. So, that’s first. We’re checking in with each other. It’s a shame we didn’t get a chance to promote the record, but we will. Compared to most, we’re great. We have advantages. It’s a shame you’re losing some time, as your time is getting shorter in an existential way. [Chuckles.] But for us to complain would be short-sighted and wrong.
That’s as far as X goes. As far as me, personally? I’ve done great. I’ve written a lot of songs, and I’m going to make a new record on my own—a solo record. And I think the X record was important to a lot of people at a particular time. I give Fat Possum a lot of credit for being brave and saying, “Fuck it, we don’t know when this is going to come out in a normal release. So let’s just go for it!” They’re brave, and we were lucky to have ‘em.
As far as the themes, the lyrics and themes are things that we have talked about for a long time. [Laughs.] They happen to coincide with the actual theme of the world. We’re actually pretty lucky. No, we’re not lucky. That’s reality, and it so happens that reality caught up with us.
That felt like manna from heaven, getting an actual X record after all these years, right as it felt like the end of the world. And it’s an X record! It could have come out as the follow-up to More Fun In The New World. It’s the original lineup, it’s these songs—you guys have not missed a step at all.
I appreciate that. Sometimes it takes a while, like 30 years, to learn how to play to your strengths. And that’s what we did—songwriting, recording, everything. I think that’s because of maturity and playing God knows how many live shows, maybe getting that version of the band back into our DNA, if it ever left. Really understanding how to play to your strengths and just do that. Do what you’re good at. You don’t have to reinvent yourself, but you have to do something new. I give a lot of credit to all of us for being aware and being present, if that doesn’t sound too modern and jive. Everybody talks about “authenticity” and “presence” and shit like that.
But that’s what we did. I put a lot of my ego aside. If a song wasn’t working, we or I would just change it. “Oh, those chords don’t work in the song? Let’s make different chords. Fuck it, the words are still there. Most of it’s there.” Billy really stepped up and said, “Do we really need all of this? What do we need here? We don’t need all of that stuff—let’s do less.”
But it’s hard. I’m not saying everybody can do that. But I think you can if you just say, “What do I do that’s good? What do I do that’s different? Well, DJ plays these rhythms that are really good, and they’re different. Billy plays this style of guitar that’s familiar, but it’s different. How do we work on a song that’s gonna feature that? What do we do? OK, let’s do that. [Chuckles.] He’s really good at that. Let’s not try to be tricky.” Be adventurous, but you don’t have to reinvent something if you’ve got something that’s good. That’s why you can say, “Gee, it sounds like it could have come out right after this other record, without being nostalgic or copying something.”
Oh, yeah, it’s fresh! It’s timeless in many ways. I like what you said a while ago about Billy and him serving as an editor. That’s been his traditional role in the band, hasn’t it?
He’s kept us honest, that’s for sure. He’s called bullshit on things when I sometimes or Exene would want to stretch things: “Oh, we can do this. We can do anything.” And he’d say, “No, that’s outside of the promise that you made.” He keeps us honest. [Laughs.] Sometimes, it’s really frustrating: “That’s not music!” “Well, of course it is!” “But it’s not how you defined yourself.”
And that’s important—to be something, not everything. You can’t be everything. But you’ve gotta be something. We’ve sinned that way. “True Love Pt. #2?” No, we actually weren’t Marvin Gaye. [Laughs.] We didn’t have the chops that Marvin Gaye did, in just hitting a groove and sticking with it, and making it beautiful and making it work. We actually could not do that. We had a good time. But that’s not our best moment. Some people liked it. I think it’s cool. But that’s what I mean by doing what you’re good at.
“True Love Pt. #2” was not that egregious a crime, honestly. I mean, Ain’t Love Grand: Songs are great, but you got saddled with a hair-metal producer [Michael Wagener] on that one. I would love to hear that one remixed, actually.
Yeah, but unfortunately, it was [recorded] with an arcane format. So we couldn’t! [Laughs.] Yeah, it was recorded on two different two-inch, 24-track machines synced together and all this bullshit. It’s a record of where we were at. Not working with Ray was out of frustration, believing your own hype. I wrote about that in that second punk-rock book [More Fun In The New World: The Unmaking And Legacy Of L.A. Punk, with Tom DeSavia]. It was good to reveal that. It was good to pull that apart and say, “Well, what the hell happened?” Some of the songs are good. There’s a handful of songs that are good on that. There are others that are just filler. But you could say that about a lot of records.
You did go back to “True Love, Pt. 1” with the B-side “True Love, Pt. 3” on the Xtras EP. And I’ve heard you playing that rockabilly arrangement live for a while.
Yeah, it’s just a broader version of that.
I like it a lot. It works. It swings. You obviously always had your rockabilly elements because of Mr. Zoom.
But this is the purest rockabilly-as-rockabilly I think I’ve ever heard X do.
Well, I dunno. It just seemed like a good idea. It also came out of working with Craig Packham, who’s also our utility guy. He plays drums when DJ plays vibes, and he plays acoustic guitar. So I give Billy and Craig some credit for that. It could work without rhythm guitar, but it makes it more solid. That all came out of wanting to do a broader live show. We didn’t want to just be punk rockers, which is what we do best. But there’s more.
You brought up Ray Manzarek earlier, who produced the first four X albums. And you’ve worked with another member of the Doors on this one, Robby Krieger.
Yes! That was a weird coincidence. We stayed in touch with Robby a little bit because of some Doors stuff. John Densmore stayed in touch with us through different poetry things, and Michael Blake, who wrote Dances With Wolves—he and Michael were pretty close, and Michael and Exene and I were the closest of friends. Anyway, Robby left a message on my phone saying, “Hey!” It was something about some guest list bullshit. And I thought, “What in the world does this mean?!”
So I called him back, and he said, “Oh, sorry—it was the wrong John!” [Laughs.] Then we got to talking about what we were doing, and I told him we were finishing an X record. He said, “Oh, that’s cool! Maybe I should come down and play some slide?” I said, “Oh, my God! Yeah!” So we worked on that last track of the record, where Billy’s playing jazz piano and Exene’s got that amazing piece of writing. That’s so similar to what Exene writes on a daily basis.
That moment of time is elastic and eternal, saying, “All the time in the world turns out not to be that much.” Especially given the era it came out in. Then he also played on that “Strange Life” song, and we were gonna include it on the record. Then we thought maybe we can stand on our own. Maybe we don’t need to get too arty about it. But it was still cool, his contribution to it.
“All The Time In The World” is cool because it really expands X’s remit. It adds a new wrinkle.
That’s always been part of what we do, the groundwater from which Exene’s lyrics come. It’s different, but it’s not out of our wheelhouse. We were just finally brave enough to say, “OK, fuck it, let’s do it!” And we really did it as an afterthought. Exene said, “You know, I’ve got this piece of writing…” It was literally the second-to-last day in the studio. Then Exene being humble, sometimes to a fault, says, “Maybe we put this on as a bonus track?” [Laughs.] Then the shit hit the fan literally with COVID, and we thought, “Oh, my God! This is like prophecy!” And you know, having lost a couple of dear musician friends recently? I’m so glad we did include it. It’s a real final touch on the record.