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Interview Mon Sep 01 2014
John Doe. Photo credit: Autumn De Wilde.
This week the band X, who rose to punk rock fame in LA in the late '70s, will be performing their first four records (Los Angeles, Wild Gift, More Fun in the New World, and Under the Big Black Sun) at the City Winery. I spoke to X co-founder John Doe as he and his fellow band members wrapped up the New York leg of their tour.
X was influenced by country and blues from the '40s. The amount of time that's passed between the era of the music that influenced X and when X began performing is about the same amount of time that's passed between when X started and now. Is there a detachment from playing your own work over time, or do you feel more connected to it?
Well, you lose the immediate connection, but it becomes so engrained to how you play and the way you play, and it's always evolving.
Does it ever feel like you're playing a cover of your own song?
Hah, on a really bad night maybe.
You've done numerous albums on your own; how do you balance creating and performing your current work and touring with X and playing music from your past?
It's hard, and this year its especially hard, I've been doing The Best of John Doe and then X has been touring quite a bit, so... you try to carve out different periods of time for different things... To say that we were influenced by country music or blues -- I think it's more like we were influenced by the people who were influenced by that. Our goal, and I think a lot of the goal of punk rock, is to return rock music to its rock and roll roots, which were faster, louder, more fun, not as ponderous or self important, 'cause that's where music was in '73, '74.
X was always an outsider band; there's some lyrics in "The Unheard Music" -- "there's laughing outside/we're locked outside the public eye" -- which kind of reflects that mood. But now, without ever really being in that middle step that some other outsiders like Johnny Cash took -- he was an outsider, and then became very popular, and now he's considered influential -- X kind of jumped right from being an outsider band to being influential. Did you ever imagine it would happen that way?
I think we hoped it would happen that way. I think that most of what we're doing has enough weight and enough personality that other people hear it to learn something, and really feel something, and other bands and other singers and writers will want to take something from that, whether its literally or just creatively.
X. Photo credit: Frank Gargani.
There must be sort of a freedom in never having been in heavy rotation or top 40. I think of performers like Billy Joel, who's probably heard his own music a thousand million times, and that it must be really aggravating after a while to have people demanding certain songs. Is there kind of a freedom in having been an outsider band and not having that kind of pressure?
Everybody makes their own pressure; when we got signed to Electra we felt pressure to just be the best we could be, but also to be a little more acceptable -- to try to fulfill what radio and some of the writers had written about us, things like that. I'll say this -- there's very little in common between us and Billy Joel.
I don't think I've ever heard Billy Joel mentioned in an interview that I've done, there's a first there.
Awesome. Then I was the very first.
You know, anybody who becomes very popular -- you've really got to come to terms with it, and be happy that you're cashing all those big checks -- or, you know, be miserable about it, and you can change or you just have to suffer. Everyone has choice. And, yeah, we haven't had to deal with that out-check hit but maybe that gives us a little bit of outsider credibility now, or underdog quality, and I think that that's what happens. I think we're still a little bit weird, people still think, "Oh yeah, they have weird singing -- they've got two lead vocalists, what's up with that?"
Punk rock pre-X really didn't have a lot of storytelling in it, it was more about being just angry and sniffing glue and stuff, and the songs that X brought had more of a storytelling element that maybe came from the traditions of country music. I was curious about your thoughts on storytelling in music -- in punk rock in particular and just music in general, and where you think that fits in.
I never considered the fact that we had brought that to punk rock, but I would credit it to our love of short stories, and Exene has a different way of telling a story than I do. The ones where the songs are more direct stories, like "Los Angeles" or "Johnny Hit and Run," those are ones that I had more to do with the lyrics. I just love short stories, and I like to bring something of Nathaniel West or Charles Bukowski or the other poets that I studied into the lyrics. However, Exene's way of telling a story is much more imagistic, and just creating a world that you can kind of walk into and look around and experience, like "The World's A Mess" or "Some Other Time," things like that.
I have to relate a story to you from my husband, who's a huge X fan -- as you can tell from my Billy Joel reference, when I was growing up I was listening to top 40, and he was listening to punk rock, and he introduced me to punk rock and to X. His first punk show was an X show at the Metro with the Replacements in the early '80s and his favorite memory from that night was that he was in the front row with his arms on the stage standing next to Billy Zoom, and Billy accidentally stepped on my husband's hands. Billy looked down and saw that he was stepping on someone's fingers, and looked right at him and gave him a little "sorry," and my husband thought that was the coolest thing in the world. He also remembers that Billy was wearing leather pants, which was he thought was very rock and roll, and he could see that there was change in the pants pocket, which he figured just meant he must have been wearing them all day.
I didn't get to see X until the '90s when my husband took me to see you guys at House of Blues, and it changed my musical taste forever -- although as you already heard, I still make references to Billy Joel when I'm interviewing people. I'm curious, what drew X to play at a venue like City Winery? It seems like a small, kind of intimate space, and when I think of X I think of larger, more boisterous venues.
The arena was booked... we never play places over about three or four thousand when it's just our own show. That's part of that underground, outsider quality. But, City Winery -- we just finished a four night stand here in New York, and we thought it might be a good idea since we've rehearsed up all of these songs that we don't normally play, we're going to do it in two or three other cities. They made us a nice offer, and we thought this would be a creative challenge, and at the end of it you do have a sense of accomplishment.
It's a really nice venue, I've seen other bands there and there's not a bad seat in the place. House of Blues -- it's standing only. City Winery is everybody has a table and all that.
It's very civilized.
Yeah, it's very civilized, so it's really good for aging punk rockers who can't stand all night anymore -- and me.
Actually I played there on my solo tour just a couple of months ago.
It must be really satisfying to playing an entire album as a whole piece rather than skipping between eras.
It's different each time -- we've only done it twice, both cities were completely different -- New York was more reserved, the one in LA was at the Roxy, which is a standing room, mostly, so that was a lot wilder. It certainly puts you back into an era, a specific time, and it gives you this overview of what you've created.
I have just one more question for you: Is Billy Zoom just as cool as always?
Oh yeah, maybe even cooler. I think the band is in a very good place. Everyone likes each other.
That's awesome. That's remarkable, really.
It is. Well, it is just like a family -- there's the good and the bad parts.
X is playing at City Winery (1200 W. Randolph) this Tuesday through Friday, playing the entirety of Los Angeles (Tuesday), Wild Gift (Wednesday), Under the Big Black Sun (Thursday) and More Fun in the New World (Friday.) Doors open at 6pm, shows start at 8. Tickets run $35-$45 and can be purchased online or by calling the box office at 312-733-WINE (9463).