INTERVIEW BY ROBIN FLEMING
INTRODUCTION BY ROBIN FLEMING
PHOTOS BY KERRI BORSUK
When given the opportunity to interview one of your earliest wet dreams one should dress appropriately. For me, interviewing John Doe, that meant putting on a pair of Depends.
You met Billy Zoom through a classified ad?
Yeah. we both put ads in The Recycler the same week. He read mine and I read his. Our ads were similarly worded, “No bullshit, let’s play real music”. That was in ’77. I had met Exene two months after I’d moved to L.A. I was really involved in the poetry scene in Baltimore, D.C., so I gravitated to this writing workshop in Venice and Exene was there. She hadn’t expressed any interest in being in a band, but then she started showing me stuff she’d written and it was obvious they were songs. They didn’t necessarily rhyme, but they had this rhythm that was undeniable.
Had you always sung?
I was always in bands, original bands that were more on the roots side and one cover band, which was really awful. The only good thing the cover band ever did was play in a high class restaurant in D.C., on the top of The Ramada Hotel. At that time, The Ramada was really cool or like ‘high dollar’. I was singing the John Lennon song “Imagine”. The irony was thick. There were all these rich guys meeting call girls and I was singing “Imagine there’s no people” and wishing that there were no people, at least not these people.
“THERE WERE ALL THESE RICH GUYS MEETING CALL GIRLS AND I WAS SINGING, “IMAGINE THERE’S NO PEOPLE” WISHING THAT THERE WERE NO PEOPLE, AT LEAST NOT THESE PEOPLE”
What was it like at the beginning with X, when there was more variety in punk bands?
I don’t think we were that conscious of the variety, but I think everyone appreciated it. It was after the Huntington Beach scene got really big and the term ‘hardcore’ started popping up, that the Hollywood punk rock scene got kind of blurry. People started fractionalizing into “this is just a rockabilly show, just an art band show, just a hard core show”. That was fucked up, because it was about unity and variety. Even if someone had long hair, unless they were an asshole, we’d cut ’em a break. It was different because it was misfits getting together so you had more power as a group than you did as individuals. I totally believe that is why X got as big as we did. We had all these people adding to the whole.
What was it like touring with The Replacements?
We just kept hoping that they’d show up. We had a great time and they did keep showing up. They did get really drunk, but they never did bad stuff with us. We’d just go to parties and hang out. They really did believe that they could be the greatest band in the world. They hadn’t gotten to the point where “the shit hit the fan”, as that record says. They weren’t fucking up shows purposely, but they might have by accident. They were a great band.
There are so many sad stories in the music industry. Being around it for so long, do you see any changes with all the consolidation?
I don’t see it changing in the really sad stories, which is where people shoot too much heroin and die. That doesn’t change. There’s no safety net in music. You’re on a record label and you get a van or a tour bus and you’re pretty much left to your own devices, your own ability to fail or hurt yourself. Consolidation lost a lot of jobs for people, that’s not a big deal, they’ll find other jobs. The independents are good and strong and they’re doing their thing. It’s like two different games. There’s the big game and the middle game, which is more real for me and more real for the audience. The audience pays more attention, I can do what I want. I like that.
What do you think of major labels?
I don’t know, it would give me a lot of pleasure if they just died. If some major label said “Here’s a five record deal and we’ll pay you $250,000 for each record”. I’d have to think “Can I control this beast? Can I get my shit across?” But that’s not an option for me. I’m too old and I’ve never sold a million records, so fuck ’em.
Have you been doing any writing?
I’m writing The John Doe Thing right now. Exene and I keep talking about doing some stuff together. Tony Hawk sent a bunch of stuff to the last X gig we played, evidently he’s a big X fan, which makes my day. There’s a song that Exene and I wrote that’s going to be on a benefit record for these three kids that got convicted of murder in West Memphis, called “The West Memphis 3 Support Record”. It’s gonna be out on Aces and Eights and The Supersuckers are on it too. There was a documentary that came out about 3 years ago called “Paradise Lost”. It’s chilling. You see this film and you think “how can this happen?”, but it did. And their appeal was heard by the same judge that convicted them, so obviously he’s not going to overturn his own ruling. But now they’ve got some real lawyers and they’re going to make another bid, to appeal it in a different state. But this song that Exene and I wrote, it’s a good song.
How is it playing with Billy again?
It’s great. After a rehearsal or two it was normal. It was like “Oh yeah, we remember this.”
And The Knitters are still playing.
Yeah, The Knitters are really fun.
Whose playing with The John Doe Thing?
DJ Bonebreak is playing drums and Drew Ross is playing bass.
You’ve had some of the great musicians guesting with you.
Yeah, I’ve been really lucky. I’m lucky because they’re people who have musical personality and they bring something different to the band. It’s a better idea than having a studio band, which I think is a bad idea.
It reminds me of the free jazz movement, where people played together, not in set bands, but kind of like a conversation.
There’s something really great about having a band that grows up together and learns the ins and outs of each other musically. Then there’s something else when you have fresh blood teaching you things. It also gets to be like in movies, cross casting. You take some one who’s known as being a nice guy and cast him as a villain. You pull different things out of people.
Talk about the new record “Freedom is….?”
The way that we worked on this record, the guy that did Macy Gray’s record is a mixer. He and I met a long time ago and he’s got a great home studio. When I’ve got songs, he’s got time and we put ’em down, and it’s for the right reasons. No one’s looking over our shoulder. We gave this record to Spinart complete, and there it is. I’d much rather do that than worry about what the sales are, because all that stuff is meaningless. It sounds kind of hippy in that it’s the journey, not the destination. But it’s true. The best time you’re going to have making a record is while you’re making it. The other stuff is immaterial. Touring is great if you keep your head straight. However, whether or not it sells a million records, people that sell a million records aren’t happy, not necessarily. They should be, but sometimes they’re not.
What’s it like touring now that you’ve got a family?
You miss them immediately, but then you find a balance. You play for three weeks and then come home. Kids offer you a really solid base and that sort of grounding element makes your life full. Plus they come up with great lines. It’s usually when they’re three or four, when they haven’t quite mastered the whole grammar thing. One day, one of the kids was really sad and she said “I need to find a place to cry, ’cause my tears are coming down. I’m really sad but I don’t want anyone to see me as I’m being this sad.” Of course I comforted her, then wrote down the line.
Where else do you get inspiration from? Where do the songs come from?
From chaos and Christ. Everybody has hard times and the last four years have been pretty hard. That’s what writing is all about. They’re more internal now and X was a lot more cinematic. Seeing the world around us was an incredible inspiration. Just having moved to L.A. and all that kind of stuff. Now they’re more internal and I think that’s something that attracts certain kinds of musicians. There’s the chaos and the music puts order to it. If your life is all fucked up, then at least you wrote a song about it, that’s something. The chaos and the unhappiness will go away, but the song will live forever. It may not be sung forever, but it’s still there.