The newest feature on John Doe's Web site is the 3-month-old interactive blog "What Would John Doe Do?" Formatted like an advice column, it offers his take on a number of nuts-and-bolts issues related to the music biz, such as how much to spend on having an album mastered, or how to assign writing credits on a song. An hour before calling up the founder of the seminal Los Angeles punk band X to talk about the band's 31st anniversary tour, it's a touch daunting to find that the most recent query on WWJDD? comes from a writer: how best to conduct an interview with a musician that won't have him checking his watch? Don't ask questions that are too general, Doe advises. And don't talk about your personal experience with the band. So I guess my comments about the two X shows I caught earlier this spring in Austin (awesome!) are out. As is the big question: What's it like to be in the same band for 31 years?
Formed in Los Angeles in the late '70s, X came up at the midpoint of a fast-evolving southern California punk scene that was startlingly diverse and fertile. It shared bills with glam rockers, Chicano punk and the manic, pummeling sound of early hardcore. Three decades later, X's urgent, hard-driving, blues-punk sound is still unique and fresh. At the two gigs in Austin the tour kickoff shows I was pleasantly shocked by the staying power of the songs and the ease and pleasure the band has playing together. John Doe thinks it's probably best not to question why it works.
"Our social life now is, we go on tour," he says. (In the band's early days, John Doe, Exene and Billy Zoom shared an apartment.) "And our friendships have changed for the better. Exene and I talk all the time there's no telling why it happens. Some people you don't see for a year, and you just pick up where you left off. And people come back because the band was something that was real, and I think it still is."
X got together when Doe and Zoom a guitarist with a few years on the rest of the young poet-punks in the group and a solid resume as a rockabilly and R&B sideman placed ads for bandmates with nearly identical wording in a Los Angeles paper in the same week. Doe's girlfriend, Exene Cervenka, contributed her spooky, confessional poetry for lyrics, and drummer D.J. Bonebrake held down the back end. Doe and Exene's lead vocals are the biggest part of the band's signature sound her raw, slightly off-key wail entwines with his dusky baritone for a haunting effect similar to the keening of traditional bluegrass harmonies.
Their creative surge was fast and hard, and X released an album a year, all produced by Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, between 1980 and 1983 the first two, Los Angeles and Wild Gift on the seminal indie-label Slash, and the subsequent pair, Under the Big Black Sun and More Fun in the New World on Elektra Records. Exene and Doe divorced around the time of the 1985 release, Ain't Love Grand, and shortly after that formed a new band together, the Knitters, a countrified equation comprised of X minus Billy Zoom, plus the Blasters' Dave Alvin which continues to tour and record together. ("The Knitters is kind of a vacation," says Doe.) After 1987's See How We Are, the band put out one more album of new material, but has only regrouped for sporadic reunions like this one, and its sets are culled overwhelmingly from its first two albums.
Besides the Knitters, each X member has a relatively active solo schedule, and all four have toured in the past year or two for recent releases. (John Doe was in New Orleans in March, opening for Wilco.) Besides the fact that the paycheck for an X tour must trump the revenue from individual musical efforts, what's the incentive to keep doing it? This tour, Doe asserts, is an "anniversary thing" although for the first time since 1993's Hey Zeus, the band is talking about working on new material. Why now? Again, Doe is hesitant to probe too deeply into something that's going well. "We've been talking about it for a long time, and let's just say the mood of the band is more conducive to it now," he says. "For whatever reasons if we can't figure it out, we don't need to. It's good that's good enough."
Contact Alison Fensterstock at email@example.com
- Frank Gargani
- After three decades together, the punk band X is on tour.