With John Doe’s new solo album, Fables In A Foreign Land, released on Friday, May 20, the X singer/bass player finds himself in a pre-industrial state of mind, where living wasn’t easy but people were less cluttered with hyperkinetic flashes of social media, spending their lifetimes focused on pretty much what was right in front of them: family, land, church, neighbors, and work. One song leading to another, Doe’s thirteen songs evolved and blended, culminating in more Knitters than X, more realism than attitudes.
Recorded with Kevin Smith on bass and Conrad Choucroun on drums, the imagery is vivid and the emotions are on the sleeve rather than hidden beneath thick skins waiting to be pricked. “All of these songs take place in the 1890s,” Doe explained recently. “There’s a lot of sleeping on the ground, a lot of being hungry, a lot of isolation. All of that fits into the kind of isolation and lack of modern stimuli that I think people started rediscovering during the pandemic lockdown: realizing that as parts of your life start getting taken away, what’s important and what you live for becomes paramount.”
For the Baltimore native who moved to LA and took the punk scene by storm with his band X in the seventies, releasing the crackling Los Angeles in 1980, his musical journey has traversed many foothills – from punk to country, rockabilly to singer-songwriter softness to boogie-woogie rock & roll. “I think it was unavoidable,” Doe told me in a 2017 interview for Glide about the evolution of X’s sound. “The era that we grew up in, we couldn’t help but be exposed to rockabilly music and rock & roll music and country & western and things like that. But I give Billy Zoom most of the credit for including rockabilly in punk rock music.”
The Knitters, his band with X’s Exene Cervenka and DJ Bonebrake, The Blasters’ Dave Albin and Jonny Ray Bartel, was a natural progression from X. Their 1985 album, Poor Little Critter On The Road, was re-released on blue vinyl back in March. As Doe said in a press release, “We recorded like our heroes, late at night on borrowed studio time, drinking beer all together in one room. Above all, we did it for fun and it never felt like work.”
Doe’s first solo album, Meet John Doe, appeared in 1990, fresh on the heels of his acting appearances in the Jerry Lee Lewis bio-pic, Great Balls Of Fire, and Roadhouse as Pat the bartender. More celluloid roles would follow, including in Pure Country, Georgia, Boogie Nights and episodes of Roswell and CSI: Miami.
But you can’t keep the songwriter down in Doe. His most recent single, “Destroying Angels,” was written with Cervenka and Shirley Manson. “Shirley wrote most of the lyrics, Exene added words for the chorus, while I came up with the music,” said Doe. “Garbage, Exene, and I recorded a heavy, goth, waltz version for Record Store Day back in 2018. For this version, the folk trio returned the song to a traditional, up-tempo, folk version. I changed a few lines but kept the same somewhat gruesome story. The term “destroying angels” and “death caps” are colloquial names for certain types of poison mushrooms.”
I recently spoke with Doe about his new album, the seeping in of spirituality into his current songs, X’s upcoming summer tour, and retaining poetry and literature as inspiration.
Your new solo album is called Fables In A Foreign Land. When did you start working on it and what came first – the story or the songs?
The songs developed the story. Like most records, once you have two or three or four songs or elements to a project, you start realizing the direction it’s going. Then you start wanting to fill in holes. Then when you have like eight songs done you realize, Oh, I need this, and you start directing your attention towards whatever is lacking.
What song came first?
I would say probably the song “Missouri” or “Never Coming Back.” I think when I wrote “Never Coming Back,” I thought, Oh, I get it, now I know, now I have a theme and potential concept, and part of it comes from not being very interested in modern advances (laughs). I don’t think what we’ve traded off is necessarily worth it. What we’ve given up is not worth it.
You like this time period, the late 1890’s
Pre-industrial, yeah. I don’t think it was necessarily simpler, it was more direct and you had to struggle in order to make ends meet, keep a roof over your head and keep food on the table. I think people were more in touch with nature. I think people were more in touch with their intuition and those things are important to me. There was more knowledge and wisdom because it was practical. It was like, Oh if I don’t do this then these are the consequences. Nowadays, there’s seemingly, in a lot of situations, other than the most dire ones like war and so forth, there aren’t consequences.
Are we thinking too much nowadays?
Oh absolutely. People have lost touch with their intuition. People have lost touch with nature. People have lost touch with all kinds of things. I’d say three-quarters of the people under forty probably couldn’t change a fucking tire on their car. It’s no shame but I mean, don’t you want to live? Don’t you want to just know stuff? And there’s a difference between knowing something, learning something, and looking it up on YouTube to figure it out. But that’s okay. What interested me once the songs started coming together is staying disciplined to carry on the theme to create a world that people could roam around in and they could experience stuff they may not have; and that it was relatable. It turned out that the loneliness or isolation, those themes, were relevant to what people were going through, or have gone through.
Do you know if your ancestors were farm people or city people?
They were not farming people. They came from Czechoslovakia and Denmark. My grandfather on my mom’s side was, I think, first-generation, so I would be third generation. I know that he was a jeweler in a small town in Wisconsin and he was part of the community and he went out onto the Fox River and cut giant chunks of ice to put in the ice house and brought it in on a horse-drawn sled. I’ve seen pictures of that and that’s cool. And that was probably the 1920’s maybe.
“Missouri” can be taken literally but what else is happening in the soul of that song?
I tried to make it as literal as possible (laughs). See, that’s my job, to tell a story, paint a picture and then let people find the metaphors and allegories and things like that. But that started by traveling from Kansas City to Omaha in, I think, 2018. The Missouri River had flooded tens of thousands of acres and it wasn’t even on the news. I mean, this is like two to three feet of water. You couldn’t even see where the river banks were. The entire interstate had been shut down, just recently opened when we drove back and forth there, and it seemed biblical. But it wasn’t even on the news. I thought, well, this is shocking. Then I sort of developed the story about some maybe bad men getting stranded and what would the result of that be.
I love the accordion in “Guilty Bystander.” Was that original to the song when it was created or did it come later?
It came later. There was a guy that filled in for David Hidalgo on a gig that we played with Los Lobos, Josh Baca, and he’s in a band from San Antonio called Texmaniacs, and Josh is a crazy good player, and that band is old school, very traditional, Border Conjunto sort of band. And it just seemed to make sense. He played five or six takes and they were getting more and more outlandish on each take and Steve Berlin and I were looking at each other going, maybe this was a terrible idea (laughs), ’cause it was like, what the fuck (laughs). Then Josh says, like on the sixth take, “Maybe I’ll just do one like Mexican style;” and of course, that one and the next one were the takes. Him and Carrie Rodriguez from Austin, they’re the only guests, and we tried to keep it just like we created it, both in the recording style and the way that we set up and all that.
What was the last song that came in and you knew the album was done?
The last song on the record, “Where The Songbirds Live.” Woke up in the early morning and there were already birds singing. Oh, I like living here (laughs). I know where this song can go.
There is a lot to be said for getting away from the city
Yes, that is very true. There is also something to be said for just being aware and getting up and getting off your ass and writing it down (laughs)
You make it sound like you might be a little lazy sometimes, John
(laughs) We all are! It’s like, Yeah, I’ll remember that, and then you don’t. No problem, I got that! Then you forget what the good idea was that you had. We all do that.
I want to touch on the country music side of you because it’s always been a big part of your music, even in X and certainly in The Knitters. What was the most valuable component you have taken from country music?
I don’t know if there’d be just one thing but most good country songs either have some great images or good turn of a phrase. And it also has to be intuitive and not overly complicated. So if you can tell that story without being overly complicated, then you have something. And that appeals to me. I shouldn’t say that it’s better or worse than something else but that is what appeals to me.
You also have some spiritual undertones popping up throughout the new album.
I don’t know a lot about gospel music, except for a few songs that maybe the Delmore Brothers or Leadbelly or someone like that mentioned. But I would credit the spirituality to getting older and finding some connection with that. And I realized after making the record that there’s several references to either passing away or there being a higher power.
That wasn’t conscience at the time?
Did it surprise you to see that in there?
Yeah (laughs). It was like, holy shit, I guess I am thinking about mortality. And that’s cool. You can’t be prepared but you should at least consider it.
Do you think it will find its way into future songs?
Probably but it also fits the time and the tone of this record. Where it’s mentioned in “Missouri,” I think it was because the situation seemed existential, almost, like I said, biblical. When everything is wiped away, then you start thinking about, well, can I make it, and that’s existential. Then in “The Cowboy & The Hot Air Balloon,” that was sort of because he was just on such a crazy ride. “See The Almighty” was because this character, and that was one of the later songs that came up, would have to confront in his or her dire situation, they’d have to confront, what’s the role of what they’ve been taught about God. Why did you forsake me?
Tell us about “Travelin’ So Hard”
Well, I’ve moved around a lot and I feel like I’ve got a home here [Texas] and I’m also thinking about moving further out into the country. If you’re on the road and sleeping on the ground, staying in a hotel and eating three times a day would be the greatest luxury you could imagine. I have two horses, that’s one of my real passions, and I started thinking about these guys, these people’s relationship to their mode of transportation, thinking they probably didn’t respect it all that much, and if someone fell off their horse, the horse would just be glad (laughs). That mare didn’t care one way or the other cause she’d been traveling so hard. Get off my back and good riddance (laughs).
The Knitters have re-released the first album. What brought that on?
We got the rights back, we got the masters back. It feels great. That’s how we got involved with Fat Possum Records, and they are a great label. They’re capitalists, which is okay, but they’re concerned with art. A label like them who started with Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside, they still have their eye on cool shit.
On that Knitters’ record, you included an old Carter Sisters song, “Poor Old Heartsick Me.” That’s like real country. What was your main attraction to that song in particular?
I think Exene brought that in and it had the same kind of humor The Knitters had, similar to “Wrecking Ball” or something like that. Yeah, she just loved that song and we actually asked June Carter about that when we had a chance to meet her once and she said, “Oh God, if I never sing that song again, it’ll be too soon!” (laughs) “Oh no, we just brought up something that’s not one of your favorites!” But that seems to happen, where someone says, “I saw you back in lalala time” and you thought, Oh God, I was having such a horrible night that night. But it’s good to see that Carlene Carter is back in the mix, back doing stuff.
Can you have X without The Knitters and vice versa? Can you have punk without the country and do you have to have them both in your life to feel satisfied musically?
Absolutely, that’s why I make solo records because there are other ways of expressing things that you can’t do at the volume and speed that X does. I thank Billy Zoom, at first begrudgingly (laughs), but now I thank him fully and whole-heartedly for having a certain boundary of this fits and this doesn’t fit; this is part of X and that’s not part of X; this is good music, this is bad music; this is music we like, this is the music we don’t like.
I think X, if we were different people, X could exist on its own. I think punk rock could exist without the country music influence, because, I don’t know, the Los Angeles record didn’t have much country. It had rock & roll roots with Chuck Berry and things, but there’s more to it and I’m very, very fortunate to be able to explore other kinds of expressions.
X didn’t stay stationary, you kept adding things in
Yeah, I appreciate that compliment. We tried and I think maybe the only time that we got outside of what we did well was not very successful, like Ain’t Love Grand! We tried to do something that didn’t really fit. And Hey Zeus!, which was not with Billy Zoom, paid too much attention to what was going on in the current musical world. Maybe that wasn’t as successful and that’s why I like the last record we did, Alphabetland, because we kind of did what we do well. It wasn’t all conscience but in the songwriting I paid attention to like, what do X do well and how do we work on songs that highlight that.
When you first started learning to play guitar, what was the hardest thing for you to get the hang of?
There are just too many strings! They’re all too close together! Too many strings too close together, what the hell, people! (laughs) But I will say that was something the pandemic did for me. It made me sit in a room and learn how to play guitar a little bit better.
But you’ve probably been playing guitar a million years now
Yeah but that doesn’t mean you actually apply yourself and learn anything (laughs). The thing that was also unique about this record is that Kevin Smith, who plays with Willie Nelson, and Conrad Choucroun, who at the time was playing with Patty Griffin, couldn’t tour and neither could I. So in, I think April of 2020, I called up Kevin and said, “What are you doing?” and he said, “What do you think I’m doing? Nothing.” So I said, “Can I come over? We’ll just play on your patio.” And he said, “Sure, that’ll be fun.”
Three or four times after we started, we realized this was the first time we had done that, just playing for the hell of it in thirty years. It wasn’t for a tour, it wasn’t for a record, it wasn’t for anything except just to do it. And that was a good lesson. Then Conrad started showing up a month later. But it wasn’t necessarily for a record, it was just to do stuff and we had the time and could concentrate on it enough to actually come up with a sound, cause I’d had this idea of a folk trio for, I don’t know, five years. But these guys got it and we had the time to develop it. We all realized how unique it is and are really grateful for that, for having the time and not wasting it.
Does literature and poetry still influence you as a songwriter? Are you still a big reader and pull from that?
Oh yeah, and actually over the pandemic, I reunited with some of the writers and poets that I went to school with in Baltimore. We have a poetry workshop group that meets on Zoom once a month so I have to come up with a poem once a month. It is fun but stressful cause you’ve got to come up with a poem.
Do you find that authors and poets that you were influenced by in your earlier days, are they still a valid influence on you today?
Yes and no. Some are better. I re-read Ask The Dust by John Fante. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that. He was a big influence on Charles Bukowski. He didn’t write a whole lot of books, he’s a little bit like Nathaniel West, sort of that era in LA, and it didn’t age that well. It’s a beautiful story but it didn’t age that well cause it didn’t really pay attention to like equality as much as it should have. The gender roles were very old-fashioned.
But yes, they are. I re-read some things now and then but my favorite author nowadays is this guy Willy Vlautin and he’s sold a couple of books that were made into screenplays and he is terrific. He’s sort of in the school of Steinbeck or very simple storyteller. Dark themes but beautifully told.
Is there a song in your catalog that would surprise people that it’s actually a love song?
Hmmm, for some reason “The Hungry Wolf” came to mind. That’s a love song.
Is there a song that X has never played live?
Well, there are several from the new record because we just haven’t had a chance to play them all. There must have been from Ain’t Love Grand! We did a series of concerts where we played the first four records front to back and that was several years ago, I guess. We haven’t played like two-thirds of the new record live.
X is going on tour in a few months
We have a big tour with the Psychedelic Furs in July through August and that will be exciting. We played with them before and it’s a great combination cause they’re pretty dark. Even though they’re known for some kind of pop stuff, it’s all got a very dark edge and I would say Richard Butler is the best frontman, pound for pound, that I’ve seen. He’s so inventive and he’s so IN the music. He doesn’t have a schtick, he’s just in the music.
The first song you heard where the lyrics really stood out to you?
It would be a folk song called “Grey Goose,” and I think Leadbelly did that. It starts off, “One Sunday morning, Lord, Lord, Lord; Preacher went a huntin’, Lord, Lord, Lord; Along came a grey goose.” He shoots the grey goose and he brings him back and they pick the feathers and they put him in the oven and they put him on the table but a fork won’t stick him and the knife won’t cut him so they throw him in the hog pen and the hog can’t eat him and they take it to the sawmill and the saw can’t cut it and the very last verse is just so beautiful: “The last time I seen him, Lord, Lord, Lord, he was flying over the ocean, Lord, Lord, Lord, with a long string of goslings, Lord, Lord, Lord.” (laughs) It’s great. It’s also one of those Leadbelly songs that speeds up as it goes along.
Any movies coming up?
We did a remake of the movie DOA, the Edmund O’Brien 1949 film noir movie. It’s in-period and we shot it in St Augustine, Florida, and it’s great and we’re looking for a home for it. Hopefully, that will happen soon.
You’ve been in more things than I thought you had
(laughs) Billy Zoom keeps cursing me cause he says, “Yeah, I’m watching this movie and then you show up and it ruins it!” (laughs) “I know that guy, fuck that guy!” (laughs) “I was just enjoying a movie and then there’s somebody I know in it.”
Are you tired of touring yet?
We don’t do long-haul tours. This one with the Psychedelic Furs gives me some anxiety because it’s about six weeks but it’s not a terribly busy schedule. We have maybe two or three days off a week. But yeah, if I don’t play in a black box of a rock club again, that would be fine with me (laughs). On occasion, okay. But walking into someplace that smells like bleach at three in the afternoon? No, I don’t necessarily need that. Been there, done that (laughs).
More times than you can count, I bet
Oh God, I’ve thought about that recently. I’m so glad that I don’t have a count or haven’t tried to count how many soundchecks I’ve done. That would be bad (laughs). You’d say, “I can’t do this anymore!” (laughs)
Portraits by Todd V Wolfson; live photo by Leslie Michele Derrough