Perfect Sound Forever

John Doe

Photo from the Official X site

interview by Diane Roka
(September 2005)

Notes for interviewing John Doe: 1) There will be laughter. Don't drink a beverage. 2) If you make a literary reference, be sure that you actually read the book you are referring to. He has. 3) Don't go all pretentious and try to discover the hidden symbolism in his lyrics. It's not that his lyrics aren't intelligent. It's not even that there isn't some symbolism there. They are. There is. It's just that he's not the type to talk about it.

If you're reading this on the Perfect Sound Forever website, chances are you know all about John Doe. But I'll tell you anyway. He's originally from Baltimore. He founded the legendary LA band X. He's an actor (my favorite roles were in Sugar Town and Georgia). He's a poet. He left L.A. and lives in rural California with his wife and three daughters. Let's see, what else? He has just released his sixth solo record, Forever Hasn't Happened Yet. It's being called his best yet, and I have to agree.

I talked to John Doe back in April as he drove down some dusty road to his next gig. Actually, it probably wasn't a dusty road. It was probably a highway with MiniMarts. But it's what I pictured.

PSF: Where am I catching you right now? Are you on the road, or...?

JD: Yup. Highway 80 towards Davenport.

PSF: (Laughs) Well, I hope you have a headset or something!

JD: Hey, I'm a professional.

PSF: (Laughs) So, let's talk about your new album. Let's talk about the blues influence. What do you love about the blues?

JD: It's... elemental. And there's so much space – for your imagination. And for you to fill in the blanks.

PSF: What was the blues that you first started listening to that really drew you in?

JD: There was a double record by Vanguard that was all the Chicago blues players. You know, Buddy Guy and – it was the later Chicago stuff. I think it was called The Best of the Chicago Blues Volume II. And that was the first record I heard, and then that was, I don't know when – after the Psychedelic Era. And then I got further into it. I think when I heard that Robert Johnson record, everything changed at that point. But I didn't really act on it. It was just something that was kind of -- in the background. Informed a lot of other stuff that I was involved in.

PSF: What made you turn to it now? What made you come back to it?

JD: I don't know. Just seemed to make sense. Just wrote a few sets of lyrics and there was music that was already kind of going along with it. And suddenly I realized, "Oh. This is what it feels like when things are that simple."

PSF: Right. And how does California factor in? Because it seems to permeate just about everything that you do. The connection between the Blues and California interests me.

JD: (Laughs) Well, people get sad anywhere. People have problems... in Monaco. I think -- that where I live – which is really kind of a, it's a pretty harsh landscape – that I could envision the stories kind of taking place there.

PSF: And what kind of stories? Because the album makes me think of certain dark short stories, or a Jim Thompson novel. Has that gone through your mind at all?

JD: Sure. I know who they are. But I make a pretty conscious effort not to be too literary. I really detest story songs. ‘Cause I think that unless they're written a long time ago, they're usually pretty phony.

(Sings) "And she's down by the crick! And she's combin' out her hair!" And it's like – what the hell are you talking about? You're not at any creek, and you're – what was (the band in) that movie (Ghost World) with Steve Buscemi, "Blues Hammer." (Both laugh).

PSF: Well, I read that you're from Baltimore. And I'm from Philadelphia. And when I went out to California, I just loved how eerie it was. I mean, there was just something about it that…

JD: How what it was?

PSF: Kind of eerie. I kind of liked that. And, I was wondering, just because you're from Baltimore, do you think that you have sort of a different take on California than other people? Maybe than people who are from there?

JD: Oh, sure. I mean – what was that great movie that Robert Duvall did…? Tender Mercies! And that was the most American kind of film that you can do. And it was really -- beautifully captured rural Texas. It was made by an Australian. You know, the director was Australian. So, I think having an objective view of a place that you live later in life, you're able to see it differently. And I think I brought a lot – I mean, we all bring a lot to interpreting it, if you've read other people who've written about it – like Nathaniel West, or Jim Thompson, or people like that. Then you're kind of seeing that… spooky side to the city or the country.

PSF: What do you love about California? I mean, you seem to love it.

JD: Well…you know, I don't have any sort of ... nationalism. What is that called, when it's a state? Stateism? I just think it's mythic. California's mythic. And it's got all these – you know, the land is beautiful, and it's just dramatic. And I think it either fits or it doesn't – when you move there from some other place. It either just fills this need or this desire, or not. And, there's also something about the light. And the space. The distance you can see. Having grown up on the East Coast, everything was pretty much right in your face. And not a whole lot of distance.

PSF: Yeah, when you mention the light, I think of Edward Hopper. There was just something about it immediately for me when I was out there too. That we really don't have out here on the East Coast. It's something a little different.

JD: It's kind of pink.

PSF: Yeah! (laughs)

JD: Rose – rose pink.

PSF: Yeah. And, I don't know -- there's some sort of hopefulness out there. Both in the people that go out there to sort of make something happen, but also it seems to be a setting that gives that too, in a strange way. I don't know. Maybe something about the light or the fact that it was created for dreams.

JD: Right. Right. And, in the central part of California there's lots of forgotten, old-fashioned places. Where people aren't hip. And they aren't up to date. And that's kind of refreshing. Since everything is, you know, everybody's overexposed and immediately on the inside of movie star's love affairs. It's like, "Who cares!" (both laugh)

PSF: I wanted to ask you about "Twin Brother." The story behind it.

JD: A couple of kids that lived next door to me. To my family. And, you know, I just sort of wrote down what I thought went on inside their house. But, I don't know for sure. I know their mother yelled and screamed a lot. And they always seemed to be on the bus on time. (Both laugh) They were at the bus stop, every morning, right on time, ‘cause they wanted to get the hell out of the house. (Both laugh)

But, the chorus was written about a whole different situation that was more personal. Just wanting to help someone. Wanting to be able to make someone feel better. So, I think you have to make a personal investment -- so it gets away from just being a kind of a study in someone else's story.

PSF: Right. Well, I think that I found listening to the new album – you seem very at ease, and it seems like it's coming from a natural place. Where you have your voice, and you're using elements that interest you, but that it's something very cohesive, if that makes any sense.

JD: Uh huh. I don't know why, necessarily. I mean, we did record it similar to the last record. Although it was in a more condensed period of time, so maybe that added to it feeling like it's one piece.

But, both this record and the last one, most of the vocals are live... I mean, like 90%. A couple of fixes here and there, when – things didn't go so well. I mean, the other thing with "Twin Brother" is having Grant Lee contribute just took it to a whole other level. And I knew that the two of us, since we had toured enough together and sung enough together, could set up in a room and pretty much do it. Just both play guitar and sing and then add a few other things if we felt like it.

PSF: With Grant Lee and also with Dave Alvin – it seems like all of you are coming to a point where you're finding your voice and it's exciting!

JD: Yeah. Well, better that than losing it. I mean, it's kind of an awkward position. I mean, what can my response be? (laughs) It's like (pompous voice) "Oh, yeah, I feel as though after years of searching I've finally found it!" I don't know what to say! Except that maybe – I think a lot of it has to do with, maybe relaxing. And not trying too hard. ‘Cause that's the surest way to screw something up is to try too hard. Especially in music.

PSF: Yeah. I also wondered about Neko Case. I'm a fan, I've seen her live, and it was just interesting, because she seems to be on the same page in terms of the sound that she's going for now. Did you choose her with that in mind, or was it a happy coincidence? Because her music to me has that sort of a dark, murder ballad quality and then you also have it on this album. It seemed like she was a really good choice.

JD: Well, we also toured a little bit together, Neko and I. And I just loved her last record, Blacklisted So, "Highway 5" had a lot of distance, and about -- getting away, or being far away from things. Seeing things from a distance. And I know how Neko loves reverb. And, that was it.

PSF: Have you heard her new one, "The Tigers Have Spoken"?

JD: Uh huh.

PSF: Yeah -- like your album, it's the blues, but it's not the blues. She has that girl group, Phil Spector sound – it's just so perfect for her voice.

JD: Well, she's one of those – she's a person who has a voice from another era. And I'm so glad that she's not some, you know, bawdy kind of Rockabilly chick. ‘Cause that's what you kind of think of with her kind of voice. But she's a lot smarter than that.

PSF: The other thing I wanted to ask you about is "The Losing Kind." Because, I heard that, and, again, I heard the noir quality. And then I actually heard people on the radio talking about comparing it to a Jim Morrison song. And I didn't hear that at first. But then I thought, "Huh, I guess."

JD: That took me by surprise as well. I think it's because I say, "Did you just say, the end is near?" And it's like... I don't know. But they can say its Yeomeni, as long as they play it on the radio! They can say it sounds like…Bread! But I don't care! On the other hand, I guess, you know, I mean, we were sort of going for something that maybe The Animals and Eric Burdon would have listened to. Rather than The Doors. But, you know, Blues, organ, some people come to their own conclusions.

PSF: I wanted to ask you about this tour, too, because I saw you this time at the World Café, as you know, and I've seen you before in Philly, at The Tin Angel. And when you said to the audience this time, "I'm glad that you're all sitting down", I thought back to your show at The Tin Angel, where there were some people in the audience about to charge the stage. You know, this was a few years back…

JD: Yeah, yeah.

PSF: It seems like people just have this strange relationship with you when you're up there, where it almost seems like they feel they can just come on up! Or just break into your performance. Does that happen everywhere, or just in Philadelphia?

JD: Ahhh, I don't know. I mean, there is that element. Which I kind of embrace, because if things are – if anything can happen, then it's a little more exciting and a little more on edge. And that's good. Um, ‘cause it's never really gonna get out of control. Never really. I mean, not out of control like in a natural disaster. (Both laugh)

I mean, that's out of control! When you're facing a tsunami. That's out of control. And all this other stuff is just minor…disturbances. So... (pauses, recollecting the Tin Angel show) I remember those people! They were so high! And that poor woman, who was acting like she was 20 when she was 45! And, I mean, that's kind of disturbing. Because, you know, people like that will come up to you and say, "Oh, you changed my life!" And you say, "Gee. I'm really sorry." "I'm sorry that whatever you read into what I – you know, what songs we did, just totally fucked up your life and you're a junkie! I changed your life for the worse! I'm terribly sorry! I didn't mean it!" It was not my intention, you know? But, that's something that people have to deal with. Both sides of it have to deal with. And, I do feel bad, sometimes.

PSF: Yeah, well, I think I've seen you about 4 times now, once also with The John Doe Thing at, I think it was called The Upstage at that point. But, you've always been really good at being able to sort of be there for everybody, but sort of gently push them back at the same time, like, "Okay, get a grip." With a little bit of humor, which I think is good. Because, I see a lot of musicians, and not everybody gets that reaction from the crowd. So, there's times where I've worried for you. I didn't know if somebody was going to jump up there or not! (laughs)

JD: Oh well. We'll see what happens.

PSF: Okay. Are you working on something new?

JD: Yeah. The Knitters are putting out a record.

PSF: That's exciting.

JD: Yeah. We're gonna tour with that. And X has a live DVD that's coming out in May, of a concert we did in L.A. back in November.

PSF: Now what about that older documentary…?

JD: The Unheard Music was just finally released on DVD.

PSF: Oh, great.

JD: And unfortunately, they were so difficult about being in touch with us that we weren't able to put any bonus material on it. But it is the movie and it's on DVD, yeah. The only downside of it is that it was at the beginning of music videos, ‘cause I think we made it, I want to say '83, maybe? '84 at the latest? And so, there's an awful lot of music montages. Which is kind of tiring after a while. It's like, "Oh, no! I've got to listen to a whole other song?" Watching pictures go by.

But, the other elements to it are pretty cool. It goes into what it's like travelling. What it's like creating songs. The personalities of the different band members. And some of the business side of what it was like then. Some very funny stuff.

PSF: What's the biggest thing for you that's changed? I mean, just in terms of the business itself.

JD: Um, I think it's not impossible, but it's more difficult for things to develop on their own. Before someone gets a hand – someone from the business side puts their influence on it. But that will change. It will always happen that a city or a scene will be left alone for a year or maybe two. And then something great will come of it.

I don't think we realize how naïve the business was back when punk rock was happening. And I'm both sort of sad and happy that it never really was embraced…by the business. And, I think that was good.

PSF: Are there any DJ's across the country that are like a Rodney Bingenheimer anymore? Who don't have this playlist that they have to do? Who are being innovative? I mean, I know WFMU, and even ‘XPN is somewhat good that way. But, anybody else?

JD: I think there are a few.

PSF: Yeah? Anybody that you can name, or…?

JD: Well, Steve Jones has a show in L.A. now.

PSF: Really!

JD: Yeah, it's hilarious. It's so funny. And I'm going to be on WXRT with Jon Langford from the Mekons. Which is kind of this big shit radio station in Chicago. And Jon Langford from the Mekons has got a two hour show on it!

PSF: Really! All the time?

JD: I think it's -- it's at least once a week, but maybe its two or three times a week.

PSF: That's great!

JD: Where he basically just sits down with somebody and, you know, bullshits and plays records and, whatever.

PSF: That's heartening to hear. (laughs)

JD: Yeah. I mean, I think that music at this point, and the business, because the major labels have taken such a dive, is only good for the kind of music that I like.

It only empowers the independent record companies. And I hope they don't just turn their back on people who I believe are really talented. Like the other artists on this record of mine, and the previous one. You know, people like Aimee Mann or Juliana Hatfield or Grant Lee Phillips or, you know. People that have been there and done that. And still have something to contribute. I mean, Matthew Sweet's last record. The Japanese one…

PSF: Yeah, I have that one.

JD: It's great!

PSF: I love it, yeah.

JD: Yeah! I mean, it's really challenging. The first time you put it on, it's like "Oh my God! This is such sensory overload!" But then you listen to it a few times and then you get more used to it. There weren't labels with the kind of power and roster that say Yep Roc or Lost Highway or Rounder…

PSF: Nonesuch.

JD: Yeah. Those weren't around ten years ago. And I think that's a good sign.

PSF: Do you see any of the new songs coming out on any soundtracks or anything? I mean, from this album?

JD: Oh, sure. In my DREAMS! (laughs) My fuckin' dreams. I mean, yeah. I hope so I have no power over that. Hopefully someone will hear it and they'll like it.

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