X marks the spot
Singer, songwriter, musician and actor John Doe, not to be confused with the anonymous dead guy of the same name, was a founding member of the Los Angeles group X, a punk band uniquely influenced by older styles of American music, like rockabilly, country and American psychedelia. It was unusual for a first-wave punk band to acknowledge rock styles of the past, something that X did thrillingly. Since the mid 1980s, Doe has had dual careers as a singer-songwriter and as a character actor. His most recent album, Country Club, is a collaboration with Canadian indie band The Sadies. Doe and The Sadies will perform at the Hawkins Amphitheater, 6000 Bartley Ranch Road, on Saturday, August 8.
Your new album, Country Club, is a pretty straight-ahead—well, not straight-ahead—but it’s a country album.
It is straight-ahead. It’s intended to be a straight-ahead country album, that’s why we covered other people’s hit songs. We didn’t go for the obscure. We went for the top 10, because we thought it might be the only chance we’d ever get to do a record like this.
So there’s Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard. Did you just choose big songs that you really wanted to do?
Big ones that we thought we could get away with. We didn’t do “Crazy” or “Walking after Midnight.” We didn’t do “Your Cheating Heart,” because we thought they might be … well, we didn’t know if we could succeed. We tried doing “The Race is On,” and it didn’t work. I couldn’t get there. So, yeah, we went with ones we knew we could do.
How did the collaboration with The Sadies come about?
We played a convention together—North by Northeast up in Canada—and they backed me up on a couple songs. I was a big fan of theirs. We’re both on Yep Roc [Records]. And at the end of the night, we were all pretty tipsy and said, “You know, we ought to make a record together”—being drunken nitwits …
So the way most bands start.
Yeah. But we did it, we followed through. I’d thought about making a country record for 20 years, but it always seemed sort of boring because I have a pretty smooth voice and with a Nashville kind of backing—a traditional Nashville backing—I think it would be dull. So The Sadies have a lot of edge and adventure, and at the same time they know where it all comes from, they have a lot of history, so it was a good combination. We knew we could make something that was vital, but old-fashioned.
That’s a good way of putting it, because it doesn’t sound like you’re going for intentionally antiquated sounds.
Well, the good stuff doesn’t. Hank Thompson, or Buck Owens or Ray Price, people like that, their records didn’t have a lot of strings on them and didn’t have a big, smooth arrangement. We wanted it to sound like a band in a nightclub.
A good song won’t really age, though sometimes the production on it will.
It depends. Some production defies the time when it was recorded. The worst aging [songs] are ones that just … well, I don’t know. It depends on your taste. Some psychedelic music is just silly and laughable, and others, just great. … Every era is like that. But you’re right, a great song is a great song. Production can either make it iconic or it can be representative of an era, and great for that, or it can be like, ‘Oh, they kind of tricked this one up.”
What do you think makes a great song?
If I knew that, I’d write nothing but great songs! I don’t know. For me, it’s being able to see a time and a place, being able to have a moment of “this happened then.” It doesn’t have to have a chorus, though I sort of like the standard verse-chorus formula.
It lifts it to a point … it has an ebb and flow. You build a certain amount of tension and then release it in the chorus. Or release little bits during the verse, and then you really bring it home and everybody’s singing along. But for every statement you make like that, there’s an exception. A great song just communicates. James Brown doesn’t … you know, when he goes to the bridge it doesn’t necessarily elevate. It’s just like a little breather.
In the movie I’m Not There, with your version of “Pressing On,” you’re kind of the voice of Bob Dylan’s gospel period, which is a period that a lot of fans and critics tend to disregard. Why were you attracted to that material?
I was given the opportunity. I didn’t pick it, they picked me. I was like “Yeah! Fuck yeah! When do you want me to show up? I’ll be there an hour early.” I wish that somebody had told me that Christian Bale was going to speak in that Bob Dylan lilt, if I would’ve known that, it would’ve been a little more believable. I mean, I think it’s OK. I think that I could’ve made it sound more like Christian Bale when he was speaking. On the other hand, I believe that Slow Train and Shot of Love … I think they’re being more recognized now, because you’re in the room as they’re being recorded—you get that feeling. I think they’re getting a lot more respect now than they did at the time.
I went back and reevaluated those records after watching the movie. Do you think that you had something to do with that critical reevaluation?
Not really, I think it was already happening. People are recognizing the validity of gospel music. More people are using that as a jumping off point. Howe Gelb did an amazing record, using a gospel record, which I would recommend. It’s called ‘Sno Angel Like You.
It always surprises me how often you pop up in acting roles in movies and TV shows. For you, what are some of the highlights of your acting career?
Georgia, for sure, a movie with Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mare Winningham.
I remember that movie, though I don’t think I ever saw it.
You’re not alone. [Laughs.] I played a musician. It was actually more difficult to play a musician than to just be some other character, because you have to not be yourself. But Georgia, Roadside Prophets … Road House was funny. That was fun, and not surprising, but pretty shocking that it’s become somewhat of a cult classic. I guess it’s because a bunch of adolescent boys saw it when they were 14, and those boys are now 30, and they’re like “Dude! This is where I got my first erection!”
[Laughs.] I’ll confess to re-watching it about a year ago, with about that same mentality.
Well, you know, we were talking about production dating things—the haircuts, the misogyny, blowing shit up … even at the time, when people would ask me about it, I’d say “It’s the most expensive B movie ever made,” and I still stand by that.
Anything specific people can expect at this Reno show?
Well, apart from us, Richmond Fontaine. Willy Vlautin is a great author, and Richmond Fontaine is a fantastic band, and you should come early.
Reno’s own Willy Vlautin.
Right. We do Sadies’ songs; we mostly do the Country Club record; we do some X songs; we do some of my solo stuff. We all wear suits, and it’ll be a fancy affair. You can dress up and it’s OK.
What X material are you going to be revisiting?
Oh, I don’t want to spoil the surprise.