BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM interviews punk/alt. country legend John Doe, in New Zealand next week to deliver three shows with Jim White.



JOHN DOE’s CV is pretty intimidating. A member of one of the most influential punk bands of all-time, X, who were the figureheads of the LA punk movement in the late ’70s, and are arguably responsible for the greatest three-peat of albums in punk history (Los Angeles, Wild Gift and Under the Big Black Sun). Doe was also a member of the country band, The Knitters, made up of X members and Dave Alvin. He’s also released a gaggle of albums under his solo performing name, on the fringes of alt. country and blues. He’s a music agony aunt, and fans with musical questions can email him for advice. He’s also an actor – getting his first break in Oliver Stone’s 1985 film Salvador, and acting in a variety of TV shows and films. He’s also on his way to New Zealand, playing a double-billed show with the great Jim White.

Doe has a new album, Country Club, to be released in the US in April. He collaborated with Toronto alternative band The Sadies (also known for their collaboration with Neko Case) on the album, the pact between Doe and the band formulated while drunk. “It’s not like we’re publicists who make up that shit. We have to own up to what we say. We played a festival together and a convention and we just enjoyed each other’s company.” Doe’s solo work has flirted with alt. country throughout, but he’d never crossed over into straight country music. “People have been asking me about making a country record for about twenty years. Even though I’ve done a lot of alt. country stuff, I’ve never done something that’s just straight country except for maybe the Knitters, if you want to consider that. I thought the Sadies had a unique brand about the way they played country. They paid a lot of attention to ’60s country which is probably my favourite. They had a great studio in Toronto and we got it all done in about ten days.” The album was mixed while Doe was home in California, with the mixes being sent over the internet for Doe’s approval. “It was the first time I’ve ever done that. It’s also the first time I’ve left mixing to someone else but we really agreed on pretty much anything so I felt confident that he [The Sadies’ Dallas Good] would do the right thing.” The album features covers of some major names in country – the likes of Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings. Doe and the Sadies picked about eighteen songs to cover, and narrowed it down for the album (it does feature some original tunes). “We wanted to do something that was familiar, songs that are really great, great writing and songs we loved.”

Doe appears to be attracted to genres which are simpler, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. His background in areas such as punk, blues and country suggest a love of more primal and raw styles of music. He suggests it’s “‘cause I’m an animal. Probably because I can’t do something that is more orchestrated. I don’t have the ability to write really clever pop songs. You work towards your strengths I guess. It’s something in all forms of art that I enjoy; I tend to enjoy the simpler, more straightforward – without being too simple.”

He might be familiar to more listeners with the wide range of his solo songs appearing on well-known films soundtracks. The Bodyguard for example, actually played John Doe’s cover of Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ on the jukebox (obviously the Whitney Huston version gained the stratospheric popularity). His songs have appeared on films such as Thelma and Louise, Boy’s Don’t Cry, Black Snake Moan and Kalifornia – all films about small-town desperation and frustration. He laughs when I put that to him and suggests “those are subjects I have some knowledge of and that’s the kind of songs that I write. You don’t have choice. If someone chooses your song, and usually unless it’s a revolting scene you’re going to say ‘yes’”. He had two songs on the I’m Not There soundtrack (‘I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’ and ‘Pressing On’), and his cover of ‘I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’ in particular, was spine-tingling good. “They wanted to stay fairly close to the style [for ‘Pressing On’] and the arrangement of the original, so we just changed the key. Anytime you have such great players and a great producer like Joe Henry, and an incredible gospel choir, you’ve got a lot of advantages to start with. ‘I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine’ was a song that I played off and on that I played for a long time. It had a religious slant to it, so why not record it at the same time. When you’re singing a song like ‘Pressing On’, even though I’m not very religious, you get swept up into the emotion, you get swept up into the epic quality of the track. You’ve got to sing in a little bit more fervent way than you normally would.”

However, it’s his punk days where Doe gained most of his renown. John Doe is a name which screams anonymity, so I wonder if it was difficult to put himself out there as the centre of attention as a solo artist. “I’ve never really thought about that. That was the name that I had chosen because I thought it was humorous and I was a big fan of the movie Meet John Doe and it kind of reminded me of John Waters and Andy Warhol whom I’m fans of.” However, it is difficult for an artist who is so beloved (X are, after all, one of the great American cult bands) to escape the smothering comparisons back to previous work. “I made a conscious effort not to work with any X members for a couple of records, but then I realised that Exene [Cervenka] and I are a good song-writing team so we will write songs together. But I don’t think you can allow yourself to worry about what you’ve done in the past to do something in the present or the future. If you do, then you’ll just stop working and just think ‘well my best work is behind me so therefore why even try’. That’s a deadly, deadly thought.”

Doe’s not sure if he’s managed to retain the old fans with his new work. However, the boundaries that X pushed probably helped keep fans close in that respect, especially with the band’s reinvention with the Knitters. “I think that was part of the LA alt. country movement and we introduced a lot of punk rock fans to people like Merle Haggard and the Carter Family and people like that. I think I’ve attracted other fans that are more interested in singer-songwriter people and a lot of younger X fans will see what I’m up to. Some like it, some don’t care for it.” Yet, X continues to regularly perform and tour, coming up to three decades of performing together. “We keep playing because we enjoy it and I think we play well. And there’s always new people. If we played for the same thirty people I don’t think we’ll keep doing it. We still have a strong audience and we don’t have much pressure. We were talking about recording a few songs but there’s not the pressure of having to lead the LA punk rock movement, there’s no pressure to release a record every other year which is what we did in the beginning. So we can just enjoy it, enjoy the fruits of our labour.”

Doe has also found himself acting, a process which he says has helped his singing considerably. “You have to have a lot of internal stuff going on and you have to really internalise all the feelings and emotions of the day [so they] aren’t too big. And you can use that same technique or the same feeling when you’re recording and you want to tell a story. You have to reserve yourself. It’s sort of the opposite of singing. A lot of singing is more subtle and internalised so being able to play a scene where you’ve got a lot of feeling and a lot of emotion coming out, you can’t just be screaming and yelling, you have to be more reserved.” He got his break in Oliver Stone’s breakthrough film Salvador after working with Allison Anders on the film Border Radio where “there were a lot of LA musicians,” and he found the acting process “pretty rewarding.” “There was a woman, an acting agent that also worked for the same company that booked X, and got me an audition [for Salvador] and they liked me. You’re going to pay me and I get to go to Acupulco? Sure.” He hasn’t done much acting in the last couple of years as he’s done a lot more touring.

Doe is excited about playing with Jim White too. “He and I played a little bit together in England. We didn’t play on each other’s material, but this time we’re going to play together some songs. I’ve been a fan of Jim’s since Wrong Eyed-Jesus and I think he’s just a great storyteller and terrific poet.” John Doe’s extensive background and musical importance cannot be understated, and together in concert with a figure like Jim White, the show will definitely be worth checking out.