Amidst Uncertainty, the Courage of Rock and Roll: A Conversation With John Doe of X
It’s tempting to think of ALPHABETLAND, the fiery new album from punk veterans X, as the right bookend of a career that contains at least a handful of the most potent rock and roll songs ever recorded. To start, it emerged online late last month, nearly 40 years to the day after the band’s debut LP, Los Angeles, began its journey into the punk canon.
In 1980, X were four musicians — vocalist/bassist John Doe, vocalist Exene Cervenka, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer DJ Bonebrake — in their 20s and early 30s, working from a streamlined rock and roll playbook but doing otherworldly things with it. Doe and Cervenka, a married couple in the first half of the ’80s but creative partners for decades now, wrote lyrics that underscored their writerly aspirations, offering honest narration of street-level life in Southern California. They sang together at delightfully sharp intervals that critics have compared to esoteric strains of hillbilly music. (Whatever it is, it’s unforgettable.) Zoom and Bonebrake proved that punk and midcentury American musicianship could not only coexist but thrive together. Onstage, all four oozed charisma.
ALPHABETLAND, released by Fat Possum and produced by Rob Schnapf, with all four members sharing songwriting credits for the first time, argues that X still has a surplus of ideas to explore within the language and rapport they established all those years ago. Consequently, it feels more like a commencement than a finale. It marks the lineup’s first album of new material since 1985’s Ain’t Love Grand, but it documents a band in fighting shape, the byproduct of consistent reunion touring since the mid-aughts.
For years those shows relied, without complaint, on X’s totemic ’80s releases. As Doe, 67, explained in a recent phone interview with TIDAL, sheltering-in-place at his Austin home, it took a eureka moment and some logistical stars to align for an album of new X music to come to fruition. “When we succeeded in doing [ALPHABETLAND’s] ‘Angel on the Road,’ we thought, ‘Oh, this sounds just like us and this is good,’” Doe said. “I had to retune my brain and ear to writing X songs. Exene had all the lyrics to that, did some editing and then it was a song. And then Billy and DJ added their parts and arrangement ideas. … We proved to ourselves that we could do it, and so at that point Exene and I thought, ‘Well, now we have a place for our creativity.’
“It sounds mercenary, but we’ve done enough not to want to just create for art’s sake. … We had a hard time breaking through some barriers. And when we found our producer, when we found a place and we had a record company that was behind us, then it was, ‘Oh, we can make this happen.’ So then you’re more inspired to put it all together.”
Today, Los Angeles is considered one of the great punk LPs and part of the rock and roll canon, period. What were your expectations for it when it came out in 1980?
We were aiming high and hoped that it would sell 10,000 records.
A lot of young rock and roll bands today look at that record as a sacred text. What records were sacred texts to X when you were in your 20s and just starting out?
I couldn’t really speak for the rest of the band, but probably Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. Anything on Sun Records. Records that were on a lot of people’s turntables were the Damned’s first record, The Modern Lovers, The Velvet Underground & Nico. Probably a Webb Pierce best-of compilation. And probably a lot of singles from Dangerhouse [Records] and the Dils and the Avengers, and other California punk-rock records. Probably the first and second Blondie records, the first three Ramones records. That was what people played at parties and stuff like that. [Iggy and the Stooges’] Raw Power was on everybody’s stereo back in ’76, ’77.
So people continue to say the early X albums are among the most important punk records of all time, and they’re on this list or that list. Does that reputation stare you down when you’re trying to create something new like ALPHABETLAND?
I think it might’ve. Maybe it did before we decided, “It doesn’t matter; let’s just do this.” Maybe it was a little bit like Joe Strummer and the Clash. He didn’t do stuff for a long time, but then when he finally started working with the Mescaleros, it was awesome. They’re great records — so inventive, and just a gas. So, you know, why not take a chance?
I don’t want go into our current [Covid-19] situation that much, but this record has a lot of commentary on what we’re going through. And it’s somewhat coincidental, because all the songs were written before; but on the other hand, we always have challenging subject matter in our lyrics — things about the world gone to hell, or the world on the edge of something. And I hope that whatever comes next, that courage and fearlessness of trying to go into the unknown carries over.
[I hope] that people are going to be a little more aware of themselves, aware of what it takes to do things creatively, and they’ll be more conscious of that. Or value it a little bit more — value just going out and having a good time. We take a lot of that shit for granted.
Do you hear anything in ALPHABETLAND that X could’ve never pulled off in the early ’80s?
Yeah, actually the very first song, which I think is musically and lyrically the most challenging. That’s why we started off with that; that’s why we titled the record that. … We’re adventuring and being more open.
Conversely, when you hear Los Angeles and its follow-up, Wild Gift, is there something in those records that you think the band has lost with time?
What would an example of that be?
Oh, just a freshness, an I-don’t-give-a-shit. … We were kind of full of ourselves and kind of arrogant and strident. There’s something to be said for that, but I think as you get older you’re more grateful for what you’ve gained rather than regretful for what you’ve lost.
The other thing is, after you’ve written a few hundred songs you have to come up with something different. During Los Angeles I had just become familiar with Eddie Cochran. So when I’m writing the figure of “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not,” which is kind of an Eddie Cochran steal, it was fresh for me, so I could do that. But you can only do that once. … You have to challenge yourself and you have to keep digging and saying, what’s different? What haven’t I done? What chords and what melodies and what kind of thing is familiar but not the same?
ALPHABETLAND is a fantastic-sounding album. There aren’t too many punk records, even contemporary punk records, I consider to be headphone albums, but there’s a vibrancy here. It breathes a lot more than the early LPs, yet it’s still written in that vernacular you developed early on.
Well, we should’ve changed recording engineers after Wild Gift. I think Wild Gift sounds like hell. They’re good songs, it’s got a real spirit, but it sounds like hell. On the other hand, Rob Schnapf is a gifted engineer and producer. He worked with Elliott Smith and [mixed] Cat Power’s last record, so he knows how to give things space.
[Doors keyboardist] Ray Manzarek [who produced X’s first four albums] was a terrific producer in getting great performances, in bringing in great ideas for arrangements and just creating a comfortable, safe environment.
I developed a pet theory I wanted to run by you, and it goes like this: X really kicks ass when rock and roll has lost prominence. By which I mean, you formed in ’77, and Hollywood was disco-land at that time, wasn’t it?
Yes, and cover bands and the remnants of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac … the non-blues Fleetwood Mac [laughs].
[Van Halen] was playing at the Whiskey, and Exene and I saw Cheap Trick at the Starwood, which was fucking awesome. But yeah, [overall] it was not good.
Now, fast-forwarding to decades later, we’re in this era when rock and roll is second fiddle in popular music; the guitar companies are struggling; the laptop has taken over. So it seems like X is pushing against something when you do really inspiring work. Is there anything there?
Yes and no. The difference is, nowadays there’s a lot of women-fronted rock and roll bands I believe are also kicking ass. One band that we toured with, Skating Polly, are wonderful. … Luckily there’s a really healthy indie-rock world. And Pearl Jam can still play stadiums. They’re a rock and roll band; they don’t have a lot of pyrotechnics. I like Green Day, you can sue me for that, but what the hell? So there is some rock and roll around.
I’m just glad we went back to what we wanted to do, what we’re good at. There’s no grand concept; there’s no high concept. It’s songs that come together partly because of the themes and partly because of what we’re going through as a world, and we didn’t get seduced to try to overreach. You can get seduced really easily in the studio: Let’s put this little thing here; let’s put this thing there. I give Billy a lot of credit for keeping it honest and saying, no, I’m gonna play barre chords and then change it in the chorus and then add a lead. Done.
On the other hand, he did play some piano on the last track [“All the Time in the World”]. He did put some sax on some other things, so yeah, he’s not just boring.
As a meditation on mortality, “All the Time in the World,” featuring a spoken-word performance from Exene and haunting guitar from the Doors’ Robby Krieger, is deep. Is mortality, the passage of time, is that something you’re all wrestling with now as artists?
I think everyone’s wrestling with it, at all times. But sure, I mean, we’re older. I’m so grateful that Exene was brave enough to suggest that she do this, and that we were smart enough to say yes, let’s put it on the record. The main reason we did is because of the situation that the world is in now, and like I say, she has been writing about this stuff forever.
You can’t be consumed by your own mortality, though, because then you’ll give up or you’ll be too afraid to do anything. You just have to accept it and try to move on.
Here’s a question I feel I could only ask X, members of the Stooges, Black Sabbath and a few other groups. What’s it like to tour after your band has changed the culture permanently and the audience comes to you on your terms? Cops and security aren’t bewildered by what you’re doing; hardcore kids aren’t trying to kill each other in the pit. Is there comfort in going into that touring scenario, in being accepted in that way?
I think we’re still working on that. Yeah, we got shut down [fairly recently at an outdoor concert]. … The only time that X got into deep water is when we started believing our own bullshit. We made Ain’t Love Grand, Billy was completely disillusioned, as were we, and he left. That was in [the mid-’80s]. We had toured like mad. We were still playing a lot of the same places, although it was getting better and better. But he just was tired of doing it.
Iggy is never going to phone in a performance. He is going to be dancing the entire time. So you can’t go out there thinking, “Oh, well, I’ve got it made. These people know my songs, whatever, fuck them.” Then you’re dead; then you really should retire. But that’s never going to happen with us. Not me, anyway.
What does the future of touring look like to you, as somebody who has all this experience on the road?
Fuck, I have no idea. That’s the worst part of it. We do have plans to do a three-week tour in the end of August, the beginning of September. I’m hopeful that that’s going to happen. I don’t know what it’s going to be like — maybe it’s going to be half-capacity, maybe everybody’s going to have a mask on. I don’t know.
I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve got a roof over my head, I’ve got some money in the bank. But if I have to last a year, it’s going to get pretty weird. It’s gonna be hard. … Just listen to the doctors; don’t listen to the politicians. Maybe the one saving grace is that they’re being exposed for the selfish fools they are.
This conversation was edited and condensed for length and clarity.
X, from left: Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom, DJ Bonebrake and John Doe. Credit: Gary Leonard.
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