‘You have to be true to the songs’ A pre-Twangfest interview with John Doe
Since embarking down the road of his solo career over 20 years ago, John Doe has strived to make his own mark on the roots music he grew up listening to on the radio and at his parents’ parties.
If leading seminal punk band X wasn’t enough, Doe’s recent collaborative efforts with fellow songwriter Jill Sobule and a covers record with the Sadies as a backing band demonstrates his desire to stay abreast of what younger generations of artists have to offer.
Doe spoke to me via phone from his home in California recently about his music, his thoughts on the current economy and how he stays upbeat as a 58-year-old in the music business.
John Doe headlines the final night of Twangfest 16 on Saturday, June 9 at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room.
Scott Allen: You were born in the Midwest, in Decatur, Ill. originally, moved around the Midwest and went to college in Baltimore. How did you get from there to LA? How did that all work out?
John Doe: I got there through Texas…
[Laughs] Like everybody else right?
Right. I only spent six months in Decatur so … I can’t really say I come from there. I did live in Wisconsin, but I don’t know if that’s considered the Midwest anyway. I had been to New York in ’74-’75, and it was really clear that the new music scene, the punk rock scene, was pretty well established in New York and I was tired of Wisconsin, sick of the Midwest sick of the, I don’t know, the attitude. So then I went to LA and loved it. And there was stuff going on there too.
Kind of like getting your feet wet, bringing that attitude to that scene but without the entrenchment of all the people that were already there and doing that, I’m assuming.
I think the LA scene was about a year behind the NY scene so it wasn’t as established. And I think I identified with the LA scene a lot more. There was more humor, there was more playfulness, it was more open. People were a little bit freer, just like the west is.
Without having the cliquishness or the established friendships?
Oh there were plenty of cliques! It just wasn’t as calcified. You know it wasn’t as mean. The east coast scene was just really fuckin’ mean … more than what we saw which was a little bit later. In LA there was a great sense of cooperation and camaraderie because it was hard to get people to let us play in places, so we had to all work together.
I have noticed that with your relationships with say Dave Alvin, the Blasters, or other bands like Los Lobos or whatever. It does seem that there was a lot of camaraderie between all the different bands. It wasn’t us against you it was more like “we’re trying to bring everybody up.”
We had record companies and public images to fight against. Not the bands, but what people thought about and the ideas people had had about punk rock and not really knowing what the hell they were talking about. We had misconceptions we had to fight
What kind of music influenced you as you were growing up in the late ’50s and ’60s? Did your parents love music? I saw something about how your mom taught you to sing. Did you find your love of music from your parents or from moving around to all of these places?
All of those things. You know. That’s a long time ago, but I think the first music that any of us from then really identified with is folk music. There was the radio. My parents were musical. My mom sang all through college and I think I learned from watching her. My dad played piano but it was all classical stuff. He was a librarian so he wasn’t a professional at all. They didn’t like pop music. They thought it was insignificant and stuff like that. We knew better.
You mentioned folk music and actually I had a question. This year is the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth. Can you tell me if his music had influenced you in any way?
Yeah, actually I played the show that they put on for him in LA with a bunch of other folk dudes … Jackson Browne and dudes like that. But I did get a chance to hang around with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott which is always a gas. He’s one of the originals. He was considered older when the Greenwich Village folk scene was happening. He’d already been around.
Woody Guthrie should be everybody’s hero. As long as they realize that a lot of what he made came from the Carter family. He took a hell of a lot of melodies from them. Of course they kind of took a lot of their melodies from songs that come from England. But I sing a couple Woody Guthrie songs now and then. He was the first one that anyone recognized as being an activist in music. That’s kind of a well-established place in the world.
I think a lot of people see that but it tends to get glossed over. Sometimes they just see the music or the art or the activism. They don’t really see the whole picture of what he brought to the whole music scene. He was pulling all of those things together.
Yeah, well, that’s what it’s all about. Seeing the full picture.
Speaking of the activism thing — and this is off the music topic a little bit — there’s kind of been an increasing divide between the haves and have-nots in the recent years. Much like there was with inflation in the late ’70′s when you were getting going with X. What are your thoughts on this backlash towards Wall St. and the 1%?
I’m glad that it’s coming to light. I think that the Man has got a real stranglehold on everybody. Being able to fight back against that is almost futile, but still worth the fight. I’m encouraged by the people from the Occupy Movement going directly to shareholder meetings and going directly to Wells Fargo or Bank of America because the government, I think everyone knows, is in the pockets of big business and I think that’s the way they want it. The 1% is calling the shots in a global fashion and I don’t know if we even can rise up at this point. But, we have to try to make things more equal. You and I are not starving, but there are people that are and we have to be grateful and count our blessings for that, but the statistics you hear about on how much the CEOs make compared to the people working for the companies and comparing that to what it was in the ’60s or 70s or even 80s is almost mind blowing. It went from 30-1 to like 300-1. It’s scary.
Yeah, it’s like they saw the money these sports athletes were making and said, “I want a piece of that pie.” I know these are kind of heady questions, but I’ve met you once or twice and seen you perform live, obviously. Your personality seems like one of general happiness and joy, not one of the disaffected punk musician. What puts that constant smile on your face?
Realizing that I’ve lived a good life and I continue to live a good life. I think it’s important to work towards satisfaction. Having a certain amount of joy and happiness and satisfaction in what you’ve done and being able to recognize that will make you live a long and worthy life. There’s no reason to create or wallow in suffering. It’s much more important when you get like over 40. If you don’t start working on it then, then by 50 or 60 you’re going to be wretched. [laughs] A wretched old person. Angry and mean and bitter. It’s a drag.
We don’t have time to go into that, but I do have specific feelings about that with some people I know who are that age and have that sort of attitude so…
You have to accept that. Everybody has that choice, but it is a choice. Everyone struggles with keeping the sunny side. Everybody struggles with that but you have to kind of get away from the bad and bring in the good. You can always go back to being unhappy when you have write a song. You can always dip back into that deep well. Unfortunately I see that in a lot of punk-rock musicians of my generation. People that haven’t realized that an angry old man isn’t the same as an angry young man. An angry old man is a drag! You can’t just be angry to be angry. That’s fucking stupid and it’s childish, too.
You have to put that anger towards something — like we were talking about the Occupy Movement. Some sort of cause or injustice, that’s one thing, but just to be an asshole or be angry to be angry is ineffective and people get tired of that.
Yeah, good luck with that! Have fun with that and I’ll be over here living the good life. Have fun being a curmudgeon.
I completely agree because for the most part I’m a positive person — even when I see things that are negative I try to look at the bright side. We were talking about songwriting a moment ago and I was going to ask how you get the inspiration for new songs. Do you sit down and specifically write or do you sit down and write sporadically when the muse hits?
I’m not all disciplined in songwriting. I do it more through inspiration and so forth. Once you have that initial inspiration — it may last five seconds or a good idea may last five minutes — just to pay attention at that point. Sometime later when you feel like you have a clear channel to your creative base inside yourself, then you can work on the details of how that’s gonna sound. It’s a lot of different ways. Every song is kind of different than the next. But you’re not jumping from electronica to heavy metal. They’re all within the same sort of genre. I don’t sit down and write everyday. I write when I sort of feel like it. But once you have the bones of the song, it does take perspiration. I find the most important parts are the little, smallest word. “If” or “but” or “and” — how you choose those and do that finishing and editing.
The transitional words : A thing or the thing.
The material you’ve released as a solo artists tends to be more along the lines of Americana or country based. Was there something that made you go back to that type of music after X broke up? Or did you just want to go in a different direction? Was it a conscious thing for you?
No, I think it was more natural. It was a conscious thing that I didn’t want to try to repeat what I was doing, because I wouldn’t be able to do it as well. X has four great members that make all their wonderful contributions. X is Tony Gilkyson for “See How We Are,” the live record and “Hey Zeus!” That was much more roots-oriented, and I think that even started when Billy [Zoom] was in the band. So it was a natural progression. George Jones and Tammy Wynette and Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn and all those people. They had a pretty big influence on songs even as far back as the second X record, so you have to play to your strengths. I could maybe pull off a couple of soul songs, but I wouldn’t do a good Otis Redding mimic. And I want to be successful at what I do so that I can get closer to maybe Merle Haggard than I can to Otis Redding. But on the other hand on the last record I did that song “Moonbeam” and that’s a straight-up ’50s, R&B song from New Orleans. It’s there, but it’s all a part of that “Americana” thing.
I was going to ask you a little bit about what inspired the songs on the last record, “Keeper.” Was there a specific thread that you had going through the record or was it just different songs that sort of fit together.
Livin’ life, Scott. Gotta write about what you know. My life is good. About four or five years ago my life really started taking a turn for the better. For a couple of years I didn’t even really care to write songs. I was just having a good time. But then you realize sort of like, “Well, I am a songwriter. That’s sort of what I do. So I should write songs.” You don’t want to be false, writing negative things but feeling positive. You have to be true to the songs. So it took a little while to figure out how to write songs that were more positive, and still have some sort of tension or edge to them, so they’re not just bad, sappy songs.
So you’re coming to St. Louis for Twangfest, and you’ve obviously played here before. Do you have any specific memories of playing shows here? Any memories that stand out?
I remember playing a show downtown when it was raining with a solo gig and there were about 15 people there and that was very sad. But I guess X has had some good shows there recently … that place, is it Pops? That horrible center of sin? Awful. Talk about bad vibrations. Good Lord!
I just did an interview recently with Kevin Gordon, a songwriter that is in Nashville now, and he actually mentioned seeing you in New Orleans in 1983. He had trucked over from Shreveport, and he mentioned talking to you and you gave him the rest of your beer. He said he thinks he still has that beer can lying around the house somewhere.
Awww. That’s sweet.
I thought it was interesting that I was interviewing him and that came up, and I was interviewing you next so I thought I’d mention it.
What kind of songwriter is he?
He’s kind sort of Americana folk soul-type songwriter. He’s been around since the mid ’90s, and interestingly enough he has a degree in poetry from the U. of Iowa program. He has very sort of deep lyrical content.
Literate. Look out.
I think it’s something that would be right up your alley. He’s had some songs covered by some pretty famous artists and he almost had a song on “True Blood” on HBO.
I had a song on there. I got paid well! It’s so out of people’s control. It’s like most things in the world. To not take them personal is key. However, there’s like $5,000 to $10,000 in the balance so when you’re close to getting that paycheck and then it’s like “Oh sorry” … and it usually has nothing to do with the actual song. They just were like “Oh we decided not to use it because it has a tambourine in the 6th measure of the chorus” or something … Seriously random and capricious. His name is what?
Kevin Gordon. His new album is called “Gloryland’ and he has an excellent song on it called “Colfax/Step in Time” where he basically recounts the time that his African-American band director in marching band in 7th grade – how like when they were out marching somewhere they came upon the KKK and the director just kept going and didn’t even pay attention to anything they were doing. And this is his take on this scene. It’s like a 10-minute-long song. He fleshes it out and it has a nice build up and then back down and then a another build up.
I’ll check it out.
So my last question I have: You mentioned in an interview a few years ago that if you stop listening to new stuff then you stop growing. However, it seems I’ve met a lot of musicians who don’t follow the musical trends. What do you learn from newer artists?
Just a different way of skinning the same “songwriting cat.” I wouldn’t say that Neko Case is as great a discovery as James Brown, but she’s pretty damn good. I realize that you can be kind of verbose and kind of obtuse and infer lyrics and get away with it and it’s like, “Wow that’s exciting.” There’s a band called Middle Brother that reminds me a lot of the Replacements, but it’s still good. I like it. So, I don’t know if I would say that they change my life, but it’s better to be aware of what’s good out there than saying, “Oh no, that’s just the same old shit.” More of that curmudgeon attitude.
God bless Billy Zoom. He has helped shape our band. From here to here is music he really pays attention to. Very distinct, very rigid. “This is good vs. this is bullshit.” And I think you need that in order to develop your style and your sound, but it doesn’t mean you can’t listen to other stuff and include pieces of that as long as you have a solid center. You know what you can do and what you want to do, but not try to do everything.
We’re really looking forward to seeing you.
Yeah, it’ll be with Cindy Wasserman, who I’ve sang with for maybe 10 years. She’s also on the “Keeper” record on many songs. It’ll be us and some nice people and probably some drinks and some lovely people and it’ll be fun.
88.1 KDHX presents John Doe at Twangfest 16 on Saturday, June 9 at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room.