|John Doe performing at Amoeba Records in San Francisco, CA photo by RGWilson|
John Doe from X - the Average Man Interview
I recently caught the Amoeba records in-store concert of John Doe and Exene Cervenka from the legendary punk band X. They were on tour promoting their CD "Singing and Playing" which included some fabulous new tunes and some folky covers of edgy classics like Because I Do and See How We Are. A couple of weeks later John Doe was gracious enough to do a phone interview with me about his music and film acting.
RGW: What inspired you to go west when you were a young man?
John Doe: I was tired of the East Coast. The east coast was too old and too humid in the summer and I hated the weather and there was something musically happening everywhere which wasn't really reported but I knew that it was happening. New York was already kind of locked in. It already had its scene and I loved the movies and Nathaniel West and other west coast L.A. artists, authors and . . . Charles Bukowski and . . . anything can happen in the west!
RGW: How did you get your name John Doe?
John Doe: Well, my given last name starts with D, Ducach, and I also loved the Gary Cooper movie Meet John Doe. I thought that that was poignant about the people fighting against the bosses and people getting organizations that are grassroots and in that way having unity in power. Having been acquainted with John Waters, and Andy Warhol being a hero of mine, it came within that realm of taking on a persona. It's also easy to spell.
RGW: How have you and Exene Cervenka managed to successfully sustain a productive, creative partnership for the past thirty years?
John Doe: I guess we like each other first, alot of mutual respect and admiration and care, the love that we feel for each other -
RGW: So X, is still playing once in a while, right? And what is your current line-up?
John Doe: X plays all the time and our current line up is the original lineup, and has been since '99 I think, Billy Zoom, DJ Bonebrake, Exene and me. Last year I think we played probably 75 or 80 dates, this year we'll probably play 40 or 50.
RGW: Do you have any plans to record a full length X record?
John Doe: No, not right now. We're trying to work on getting everyone to agree to do that.
RGW: So it's a maybe?
John Doe: It's a maybe. Not a very optimistic maybe but a maybe nonetheless.
RGW: There seems to be a lot of interest in the late '70s early '80s Los Angeles punk scene, books about the Masque club, the Runaways, Rodney Bingenheimer, etc. Have you ever thought of writing your autobiography about the L.A. punk scene?
John Doe: I thought about it, yeah, I've talked about it with a friend, but I haven't set aside the time or made the effort to to do it yet, it's kind of low on my list of priorities actually. I think people are interested in it because it was a time that was sort of under reported and the reportage that has been done, like many histories, is sort of myopic and self serving. I don't know if I would be able to stay away from that myself.
RGW: George Jones is the Possum, Willie Nelson is the Red Headed Stranger, Kris Kristofferson is the Pilgrim, Waylon Jennings is the Outlaw and John Doe is the . . .
John Doe: (laughs) the kitchen help, I don't know.
RGW: The dishwasher?
John Doe: To those guys, yeah! I'd be the guy sweeping up after . . .
RGW: I think you've reached iconic status, I think you're ready for a one word nickname. so maybe one of these days someone will come up with one that sticks.
John Doe: John C. Reilly told me a very funny story, that he decided one day in high school, that he wanted to be called rooster, and he tried to get all of his friends to do it, and none of them did and then he realized that you can't give yourself a nickname, you can't say I'm gonna be "the something".
RGW: Well if you could give yourself a nickname what would it be?
John Doe: Well, I think I have, by being John Doe then I'm sort of like the Average Man, you know?
RGW: You recorded with music legend Ray Manzarek of the Doors. Who are some of the legendary filmmakers you would like to work with given the opportunity with your acting?
John Doe: Well, number one on the list would be the Cohen brothers, that'd be number one. I would have loved to have worked John Cassavetes, although I probably would have hated him afterwards. Lina Wertmuller was another person I would have loved to have worked with, Richard Linklater, and hopefully someday Allison Anders and I'll work together again.
RGW: Didn't you make Border Radio with her?
John Doe: Yeah, Border Radio and a movie called Sugartown.
RGW: If you could work with a great filmmakers from the past who would it be?
John Doe: Well probably number one would be . . . It's on the tip of my tongue, who did the Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah. I would hopefully be able to say,"Sam, don't be so mean to the ladies, don't be such a dick." Just because it's a very twisted iconic thing, you know, I don't know, you caught me unguarded, I don't know . . . Arthur Penn, of course, who wouldn't want to work with Martin Scorsese, but that's not in my power, that's not in my cards, I don't think, I don't think that's in my ability, not in my skill set, but we'll see. Maybe someday John Waters will make another movie and say,"Oh, I remember that guy from Baltimore!"
RGW: That would be cool to see you in a John Waters film!
John Doe: I think John nowadays, just has a good time and makes enough money to do what he wants by lecturing.
RGW: Do you record in analog or digital when making solo records, music with X and other collaborations?
John Doe: Digital but we don't use the digital format for any trickery, it's just easier.
RGW: Everything doesn't have to be from 1955 when you record?
John Doe: I'm definitely not a purist, I don't have new guitars because I don't think they're made as well or I can't afford them, also recording on analog tape is expensive. With the Sadies I think did we use tape. I'm not a purist, you can make analog tape sound shitty just as easily as digital. I will add one thing, what we do is, if you want to get a little technical, it's not terribly- you take all the digital files and you put them on the mixes on a half inch tape, and then you master from that tape. That's one thing we do so you have a little more of that infinite sound that you get on tape.
RGW: That makes sense. What do you think of the renewed interest in vinyl releases. Are any of your solo or band projects being released or re -released on vinyl?
John Doe: X has the second, third and fourth records on vinyl already and we're putting out a boxed set of the first four records. I think it's in June, and my last two solo records with the one with the Sadies and this most recent one called Keeper, those are both on vinyl. I think it's great I have a, not a big, but a very well kept vinyl collection. I mean it's not all classics or anything, but it's shit that we find at, you know, yard sales. My sweetheart found a few records at this humane society thrift store and she said, you know, there's some really good records here. And she picked out all the best ones and I went back there were still ten or twelve really great jazz records and folk and blues records that had been in somebodies collection.
RGW: What music does John Doe listen to while he's relaxing?
John Doe: Like a lot of people, I have a computer that I put on shuffle and just whatever comes up. It goes from new stuff to old stuff. I do like a lot of roots type music. One of the best songs of that whole collection, was there was a lot of dixieland in these records that we just found. If it's the real deal, if it's the recordings from New Orleans and stuff like that it's really good. There was a version of What a Difference a Day Makes by Lonnie Johnson, who's a blues singer, and I thought 'cause everyone remembers it as the disco version, at least of our era, I looked it up and that song is from 1934.
RGW: You mentioned that you listen to some new acts. What new artists do you enjoy listening to?
John Doe: I don't know if they're new records, I really liked Gillian Welch's last record, Gillian Welch and David Rollins, Laura Veirs, I like her a lot. We got P.J. Harvey's last record. I haven't really made sense of that one yet, that was strange! There's a band in L.A. called the Americans, which are pretty good. What else, there's a lot of bands that I like but none that have really changed my world. There's tons of bands that are really, you think of as indie bands that are not really indie bands anymore like the Black Keys, and stuff like that so it's hard to say. I'm going to my computer right now 'cause people ask those questions and you immediately freeze up and go I don't remember. I did download some Al Jolson and it's really embarrassing cause he's in blackface on the cover. I got a Ben Kweller record a few years ago, that was a country record of his that was pretty good. He's been around for a while. I dunno, just whatever's good, and unfortunately nowadays there's a lotta stuff that is sort of surprisingly mediocre, and you wonder who the hell is the booking agent on Saturday Night Live? There was band on there a few weeks ago called Sleigh Bells, and I heard their name before, I heard of them, and we watched them and they were fucking terrible! They were like a joke and I don't know, it's just surprising.
RGW: Have you heard of Neil Young's idea for this new digital mp3 format that is going to rival vinyl sounds?
John Doe: No, but I think that Amoeba the records store is trying to do that as well, tell me more.
RGW: I was just reading that Neil Young has poured a lot of money into it, to develop this big technology that is going to be the highest grade mp3 possible, better than the ones you can listen to now. It's kind of music nerd stuff. I'm not really a music nerd, I don't really understand it but I try. JD- You and me both. I think there's a law of diminishing returns where your speakers are only good enough to handle a certain amount and then after that it's all numbers and it doesn't really matter. I also got M. Ward's last record and I think M. Ward is a real talent.
RGW: Is that a man or a woman?
John Doe: M. Ward is a man. I think his real name is Matt Ward but there was some Christian guy who already had the name Matt Ward so, he had to . . . He's from Portland, he's really good.
RGW: On your new CD "Singing and Playing", you and Exene, your voices have never sounded better. Exene's voice sounds really melodious and sweet. Do you feel your voices have matured?
John Doe: Yes, we're just trying to get them to be more immature. We're trying to go backwards. Exene and I have a way of singing together that is kind of a sixth sense and we kind of know where each other is going before we get there. And that just has come with familiarity, but not the contemptible part, not the familiarity that breeds contempt. I think that Exene is a better singer on her last solo record the Excitement of Maybe. We sound good together and that was just an afternoon, that was on digital and we did it basically live. The only advantage of doing digital instead of analog is that you can fix smaller things that you know are gonna bug you, and the difference is people used to spend six months in the studio cleaning up all that stuff or you just said screw it, that's fine and those were usually the better records. That's what happened in the seventies. That's where punk rock has a great debt to people like Boston and Bob Seeger and the Eagles and stuff like that, 'cause they manicured the shit out of their records and they ended up sounding sterile. So punk rock said that's dumb, bleed is a good thing. Nowadays, even the really so called alternative bands like Arcade Fire or the Decemberists or U2, everyone records the same way nowadays because they realize the value of it. They realize the value of how many other people sitting in a room and being able to hear each other and having the microphone pick up bleed from other instruments because that's what makes it sound like it's glued together.
RGW: So nowadays most people record all at once, it's not like they lay down separate tracks, is that what you mean?
John Doe: Yeah, which is what they ended up doing in the seventies and into the eighties. And that's when records really started sounding bad, because they were all close-miked and people weren't in the same room at the same time.
RGW: Good point.
John Doe: Let me just say, the thing that pisses me off is that then you get some self righteous mother fucker nowadays going like,"Oh no, man you know like we just get in the room you know, we like to set up we just do our thing, man," and then some dipshit from NPR's going like oh my god, that's so radical, and you're thinking like, you know what? People have been doing that for years, and it's not like you're on some fucking cutting edge because even, you know, ten years ago people started doing that again, but whatever.
RGW: Nothing new under the sun, right?
John Doe: Well, yeah, nothing new under the sun. Some people never lost that and don't starting getting self righteous about how cool you are because you just do things naturally. That's bullshit. We knew that when we first started recording and many people like Neil Young or Bob Dylan or people like that never lost it either.
RGW: Why did you move from southern California to northern California? You're such an L.A. punk icon.
John Doe: The truth is that I moved from Los Angeles in 1989 and I lived up on the grapevine for about twenty years and then I moved from there to Bakersfield for about four years and I loved the kind of literary quality that the central valley has but I really couldn't stand the weather or the conservative attitude. I'd much rather be with people who are open minded and progressive. I honestly can't picture myself living in a city anymore and going to Los Angeles is one of the more difficult physical situations you can be in, sitting in traffic, it's a completely unnavigatable city, if that's a word. It's a city that you cannot navigate without becoming enraged or having to go into some sort of Zen coma.
RGW: I keep hearing about these late '70s early '80s days in L.A. and your shows at the Whiskey that people say were legendary and amazing. What are your memories of those days?
John Doe: Well I think they were memorable and they were sort of beautifully naive because we didn't know any better but it was the right kind of music for the right size club which is something I realized after hearing David Byrne talk about it. Punk rock was envisioned or became real because of the size of the club that it was being played in and there were a lot of different styles of punk rock back then. Punk rock was anything that wasn't mainstream so there were sort of art influenced and dada influenced bands and then there were bands that were more hard rock there were bands that were more rockabilly and there were ones that were more hardcore. It didn't really start splitting up into the different factions until '81 or '82, something like that. And then I would also credit that there was no real money to be made. That's an advantage when there's nothing to be exploited financially, then art has a way of being better and I don't know if it's purer but it's certainly being done for the right reasons. Being done because you believe it, and you care about it, you love it. It comes from an honest and sort of soulful place.
RGW: I read somewhere that your Knitters band mate Dave Alvin calls himself a Roosevelt Democrat. How do you combine a love of Americana, western wear and roots music with being liberal? Do you like to watch a John Wayne film but hate that he was in the John Birch society?
John Doe: I just don't think about it. I don't try to reconcile it. That's become my style and hippies don't own the moon either. Even though there's a lot of moon references and imagery in the hippie world. Hippies don't own either the sun or the moon. Unfortunately, I have to admit that nowadays I have a difficult time reconciling what is and isn't America. And I'm not a - I don't know if I'm a card carrying American anymore especially with, you know, civil liberties being what they are.
RGW: Tell me about your acting in a short film called the Spanish Kitchen Restaurant by Hudson Marquez?
John Doe: That's one of those moments that you're completely unprepared, but you say sure, what could happen? And then you turn in some mediocre performance because you didn't realize what you were supposed to have prepared for. It was a great learning experience and it was fun to hang out with T Bone Burnett for a week. It was a short film, the Legend of the Spanish Kitchen, which was a great legend, a great story, in L.A. There was a place called the Spanish Kitchen, which may be open again, but it was shuttered and you could look inside of the deteriorating venetian blinds, and it was all set up to open but it had been twenty five or thirty years since it had been closed.
RGW: Anymore plans for the Knitters?
John Doe: The Knitters are an ongoing, you know, you never know about the Knitters, we could surface at any moment. We don't have any plans but I am sure that we will be doing probably some touring next year but we don't have anything on the books right now.
RGW: My last question is do you have any acting plans?
John Doe: As a matter of fact, I do. There's an indie film tentatively titled Pleased to Meet Me from the Replacements title. It's kind of a music movie, where I'm sort of playing a musician but not actually doing much singing or playing. It's going to be shot in Louisville. Hopefully we'll be including some other indie musicians but I don't want to jinx it. I do actually have a sort of leading role that is in the works.
Photo by Rebecca G. Wilson