Posted August 26, 2014 by Jeff in Tunes

Coffee with John Doe


Earlier this year in Los Angeles, the punk band X played its first four albums over the course of four nights. Now, the band is taking the show on the road playing those albums in their entirety in New York, Chicago and Cleveland. Singer-guitarist John Doe phoned from his Los Angeles home to talk about the shows and the band’s incredible legacy. “You have to bear with me because I’m going to grind some coffee beans while we’re on the phone,” he said after answering the call. “Hold please. Maybe one of the lines you can use is ‘Coffee with John Doe.’”

What inspired the idea of going out and playing the first four albums in their entirety?
I think it was Cheap Trick that first played records from front to back. I think it was the first two or three albums. That was five or six years ago. I thought that was pretty cool. Maybe Ray Manzarek passing had something to do with it. All these records were produced by Ray. He was an important in our lives. Exene and I were the bigger Doors fans in the band. These four records were the ones that put us on the map.

How’d you meet Ray in the first place?
He saw us at the Whisky a Go Go. His wife Dorothy had to tell him that we were playing “Soul Kitchen.” It was too fast and too loud, compared to the Doors. Exene says we talked right after that show. I don’t remember that. I do remember a rehearsal we did with Ray that was pretty surreal and other worldly.

We were playing our songs as best we could and there was rock royalty in the room with us. It was holy shit moment.

The band had formed in 1977 and put out a single prior to releasing Los Angeles. What initially made you think that you and Exene trading vocals would work?
I don’t know. I have no idea. To my mind, any band that’s worth it just has chemistry that develops as they write songs and as they figure out what their strengths are. They have four very separate personalities that somehow gel. I guess because nobody said we couldn’t, that’s why. That’s the spirit in which all good things are created. Exene wasn’t a singer though she had all the qualities of being a lead singer. She had ferocious talent and the ability to attract and communicate to people when she wanted to, but she had a lot of demons. I wanted to be part of what she was doing. Neither one of was doing anything. Maybe I was shy and thought I couldn’t do it on my own and needed someone to help carry the load. It was pretty smart in retrospect. I would give both Exene and Billy the most credit for our originality. I’m more of the organizer. I would take raw ideas and turn them into a narrative. Without Exene writing the line “Johnny hit and run Paulene,” there would be no story.

Your first album (Los Angeles) would prove to be a hit. Talk about the recording process a bit.
We were surprised that it sold maybe 10,000 records in a few weeks. But by industry standards that was more proof to the naysayers that it was a flash in the pan. It was shit compared to Fleetwood Mac. Among some people it was a hit. It was like a blur. It was recorded and mixed in two or three weeks. Maybe ten days for recording and maybe seven days for mixing. We had been playing those songs for or two three years. We knew exactly how they sounded. He knew from this experience with the Doors that if it’s working, don’t mess with it. It was exhilarating.

We knew were doing something important to us and the 300 people in Hollywood.

The title track is my favorite song. What inspired it?
It’s a particular person. She was known as Farrah Fawcett Minor. She moved to L.A. with Exene and was disenchanted by it. She ended up married to Steve Nieve for several years. We stay in touch. She lives in Mexico now.  Wonderful person. The song is about is about people being driven to extremes. She wasn’t normally a hateful person. The whole racial slur part of the first verse was to hold a mirror up to people and say, “Look, motherfucker. We’re all racist. We have this deep-seated fucked up social ideas. Being pushed to a limit, you’ll revert to that. So take a look at yourself.”

Wild Gift has been called your most punk rock album. Is that accurate?
Sure. I don’t know. It depends on what you consider what you consider to be punk rock. That’s the beauty of punk rock. Or was, I should say. It was everything that wasn’t corporate rock. It was Talking Heads, Ramones, Siouxsie and the Banshees, jazz and whatever was coming into people’s minds. Tom Petty was even considered punk rock at the time because he wasn’t the Eagles. Punk rock is more codified at this point. I do respect Green Day because they finally got punk rock to the audience it was meant for, which is pissed off teenagers. The Ramones and us and the early people were playing to bohemian art people. We weren’t playing to kids who wanted to go to the mall and fuck shit up. There’s the really popular punk rock like Green Day and then there’s lesser bands trying to sound like them. The real punk rock is still in fucked up small clubs where it costs $10 to get in. It’s a true subculture like low riders or S&M clubs. That’s where it belongs.

Were you surprised when the Red Hot Chili Peppers sampled “White Girl”?
No. Not really. They opened for us a number of times. I think Billy was one of Flea’s big heroes. Anthony Kiedis was always around. They haven’t returned the favor. They haven’t said, “Why don’t you open for us now that we’re big famous rock stars.”

Do you think of Under the Big Black Sun as a sonic shift?
We had an opportunity to use a better studio and we had a little more time. We thought we could have DJ playing vibes and Billy playing sax and still call it punk rock. That’s one of the rewarding parts of doing these four record stands. We get to stretch out like that. You see a lot more range and not just the full-on X punk rock show. The third and fourth nights are different. We play the record and walk off stage and readjust some things and play more of the punk rock show.

Were you frustrated by the lack of commercial success after the first four albums?
Oh, I suppose so. You want to be successful so that you can get the message out to more people, not so you can lord over servants and have fancy swimming pools, although maybe we started believing we were the next big thing. After four records with Ray, we switched and worked with a heavy metal producer work with us and that was unfortunate. Billy left after Ain’t Love Grand, the fifth album. A lot of it was frustration. Touring and making records. We didn’t tour all that much. It’s not like today’s stands where people tour non-stop for a year and half. We’d go around the U.S. twice and maybe go to Europe. It was a grueling schedule.

What caused the band to reunite in 2008?
Billy started playing again with us in 1999. We’ve been doing it with Billy and without Tony Gilkyson, who was in the band for eight years. Billy expressed interest in playing again after that first Elektra compilation.

Things are good now.
I think they’re better now than they have been maybe ever. A lot of shit gets worked out. You either break up or deal with it.

Any plans for a new studio album?
Not right now. My dream would be that we re-record some of the old songs to own the masters and then work it into doing new songs.

Is the band better now?
We’re not playing in as many altered states. We’re certainly more focused. It’s hard to say if we’re better. There’s something to be said for youthful enthusiasm. There’s also something to be said for maturity and not just being high on cocaine, which we were. Frequently.


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].