X Return With Intensity, Staggering Relevance During Quarantine
- Written by KDHX
Forty years after the release of their seminal debut, Los Angeles, and 35 years after their last studio album, X have returned with the blistering Alphabetland. This is an album of profound intensity and staggering relevance, and its unexpected arrival proved to be the perfect elixir for a country under quarantine. Reuniting their classic lineup of Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Billy Zoom and drummer DJ Bonebrake, X’s latest album features new material as well as some older songs that have been kicking around in various incarnations for years before finally being recorded for Alphabetland.
After thundering out into the world again, X remains a groundbreaking band whose uncanny ability to keep their fingers on the pulse of society, combined with their rough and ready punk aesthetic, has made them one of America’s best bands. Greeted with enthusiasm by new and old audiences, X remains loud, defiant and relevant. They are punk rock demigods whose unwavering commitment to playing live music is matched by eight studio albums, filled with a brash and untampered coarseness molded from nearly 40 years of passionately making music on their own terms.
In addition to co-writing with Cervenka, John Doe has played guitar and bass for the entirety of X’s wild ride while also establishing himself as a multifaceted artist who has shined on his own as a solo performer, author, poet and actor. He’s appeared onscreen in films like "Border Radio," "Salvador," "Wyatt Earp" and "Boogie Nights" as well as television roles in "Roswell," "One Tree Hil"l and "Law & Order." If that were not enough, he also brought his passion for rockabilly, folk and country music to the band’s alter ego, The Knitters, and appeared on two records by The Flesh Eaters.
Doe also co-authored the book "Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk" which chronicles the City of Angels’ vibrant punk rock scene from 1977 to 1982. Last year Doe and his writing partner, Tom Desavia, released its sequel, "More Fun in the New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of L.A. Punk" which picks up in 1982 and runs through 1987, a time when west coast punk and indie music was beginning to get more national attention.
Doe spoke with KDHX DJ Rob Levy of Juxtaposition (Wednesdays, 7-9 PM), about the band, their new record, his acting side hustle, and releasing music amidst a pandemic.
Rob Levy: Why did it take 35 years for all of you to make a new record?
We wanted to give people something to listen to during the pandemic. We have a time machine and we traveled forward and found out what this was like, figured we would write a bunch of songs that are timely, and then we went back in time and recorded it and jumped around a little bit. That was the smartass punk rock answer. The real answer is that we worked with (producer) Rob Schnapf on X in South America and we liked it. Then Fat Possum re-released the first four records because we got the masters back. So that checked off a lot of boxes. Exene and I had talked about working on songs but there was no place to put them and we were not sure if we would rehearse them or release them, and that is a time and effort for something without a real home. With those boxes all checked off we recorded in February of 2019 and we did three old songs, "I Gotta Fever," "Cyrano de Berger’s Back" and "Delta 88 Nightmare." By April, Exene and I were working in earnest to get stuff done for a new album.
Was recording Alphabetland different than making any of your previous records?
It was about the same. That is how I think records should be recorded. I think that, unless you have some grand high concept thing, you should be able to record an album in a month. If it takes longer than that you are probably getting things all worked up in your mind and not trusting your intuition. We really trusted ours. I had changed a lot of chords and verses that were not working, and Billy would suggest we drop out something. So, it was much more of a group effort. We were even changing lyrics right up to the very end. Altogether it took us about a month, broken up into different recording sessions.
Was it difficult going back into the studio after being a live band for so long?
Not really. I think that maybe playing live and not recording as much, or at all, allowed us to understand what our strengths were. We knew that Exene and I were going to try to sing together as much as we could while also trading off on stuff and wrote chords that allowed Billy to play what he does best. We tried to not reinvent anything or prove something except that we knew who we are as a band.
One of the reasons why the Alphabetland resonates with listeners is because its arrival could not be better timed. Can you comment on that?
Yeah. I think when any artform wants worldwide change it affects how that piece of art is made and perceived. We have talked about these kinds of subjects in the past: the whole world being in crisis or cultures being on the edge or characters trying to see their way through. I think Water and Wine is the most obvious one on the record. It is all about access and inequality.
Unintentionally you have made the unofficial album of the pandemic. How are you handling all of this?
I love it when celebrities say, ‘we are all in this together, man.’ No, we’re not. You are in a mansion and having everything delivered to you. I feel a little guilty and chagrined that I can wait this out for another six, eight or nine months. If it is another year and half, I’m lucky because I can do things on Facebook live or stuff like that. I can’t wait this out for two years. I’ll be out on the street.
Did the pandemic make you decide to release Alphabetland early?
Like I said, Fat Possum was really great. They called our manager and mentioned that even though we had a release date in August, they didn’t know what the situation with pressing plant was going to be like, or how things would be for the printer. So, we all decided that we should just do it. We also decided to drop it early because the lyrics are really timely, and people needed it. We decided to just put it out early on Bandcamp, punk rock style. It took us about three minutes to say yes. It felt good to be doing the same thing as Fiona Apple; she did the same thing. That’s cool, she’s a badass.
What is the work dynamic between you and Exene?
On some songs where I am singing the lead on, I will have written most of that. On the songs where Exene is singing, she will usually have written all they lyrics and maybe half of the time she will have the melody. But the melodies are not so intricate that they have to stay one way. They develop and grow and change as we rehearse them. On this record if some chord changes needed work, like on Goodbye Year, Goodbye or Free, we moved things around. If something didn’t work, we didn’t dig our heels in, we just decided to try it another way with fewer chords.
Exene wouldn’t send me a bunch of lyrics because she didn’t want me to just write songs and then use them on my solo records. She said, ‘If I am going to send you lyrics, I want them to be for an X record.’ I have pried a few of them out of her in the past, like "Darling Underdog," which she wrote most of the lyrics to, and "Highway 5," that was another one. Usually it is a lot of just us throwing stuff around and then finding something that works.
What is the secret of being a great live band for nearly four decades?
Beats me. I think we just like it and it is something we just get off on. For the first five years it was pretty hard. Exene just wasn’t that comfortable being the front person. But she just had a lot of stuff she wanted to get off her chest. She had a lot of demons maybe. She had things she wanted to deal with, and this was the most visceral and primitive way she could do it. And I am just a ham generally. I do have an off switch for sure, but I like jumping around and being in front of people, and DJ loves to play drums. DJ blows my mind. When we are on tour five or six nights a week, he can play that full-blown punk rock for a couple of hours.
Will you be making any solo records in the future?
Absolutely. I have three or four songs finished, and I am trying to be motivated. I am hoping that this tour we have planned in late August and early September can go off. I am working on envisioning it. I think if you can see something then it can happen.
Do you enjoy producing other people’s records?
I do on occasion, mostly if they are good friends of mine. The last one I did was about three years ago (More Love) for Dead Rock West. I loved the songs and I love them as people. You put a lot of time and energy into producing and I would rather do that with my own stuff.
In your book Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk, you helped document the scene that X was a vital part of. What was it like being a part of that movement?
It is really hard to put that in 50 words or less. It is something that everyone wishes they could be part of, and I think anyone who was in L.A. in the mid to late ‘70s and into the early ‘80s understood somewhere that they were part of a bohemian art scene where there was all kinds of creativity firing off. It was cheap to live there so you could have that kind of community. It was not like Slackerdom that came out of Austin in the late eighties, but it was a great thing. You didn’t have to kill yourself to be an artist and just live. That was the most rewarding thing. If you are surrounded by other people that are curious and interested and open minded, you then you are going to be inspired to try to find other stuff that you could do. It was pretty great, and Los Angeles has a kind of screwed up soul where things are disposable.
How did you get into acting?
There was an agent that was booking X named Maggie Abbott and she had worked with David Essex, David Bowie and I think Marc Bolan. She was Australian but worked in England and she said she did some theatrical stuff and asked me if I wanted to give it a shot. But I give Allison Anders the most credit because she asked me to be a part of the film "Border Radio" with her, Kurt Voss and Dean Lent. I did that and it was rewarding. I felt a different kind of creative satisfaction from it. She and I have done a few other projects together. I take it really seriously. I do a lot of research and try to figure out who the guy is and all that. At the same time, I didn’t go to acting school, so it was on-the-job training and I could see when I was being false and when I was being honest. I did get to do something interesting in April of last year, while I was working on songs for this X record. A friend of mine, Kurt Thomas, a DJ from WFNX in Boston, asked me to be the lead in his remake of the film noir, "D.O.A." He had asked me a few years earlier, but I thought I would never hear about this again. So last year we did it. It was all done in period and shot in black and white. I hope it will get done soon and released. I love film noir; stuff happens to people and they don’t know why, and they are trying to save themselves and somebody else at the same time.
What was it like making Salvador with Oliver Stone?
It was pretty intense, and he had so much going on. That was his first big shot at making movies and he also had to deal with James Woods and Jim Belushi and a mostly Spanish speaking film crew. It was fraught but I could tell he was doing something important.
Are you surprised by the response you have gotten for Alphabetland?
You know, I do not think we realized what kind of album we were making. Once I got the files and could listen to it from beginning to end it really surprised me. I am glad we, as a band, didn’t try and make a statement and didn’t have a couple of slower, kind of dirgy songs, because the fact that they are all fast and around three minutes is cool. I think we didn’t settle for stuff and it helped us make a great record.
For more information on X, visit their website https://www.xtheband.com. Their latest album, Alphabetland, is out now on Fat Possum Records.