Being at the forefront of the southern California punk movement as well as having a critically acclaimed solo career has kept John Doe of X busy for the past three decades. Fresh off a South American tour with Pearl Jam and right before X's show Wednesday night at Coach House in San Juan Capistrano, the frontman talked with us about the future of X, the band's legacy and, believe it or not, potential new material from the band for the first time in years.
It's hard to believe that it's been 31 years since Los Angeles was released. A lot of your contemporaries have fallen off, yet you've continued to make music all these years later and X is still going strong. What does that tell you about the longevity and legacy of the band's work?
First of all, I think everyone's grateful we've survived. We were careful about following trends, even though we were part of the Los Angeles punk rock explosion, as it was called. We made sure the songs we wrote weren't just topical and had influences deeper than just two years ago. Maybe that's part of it.
The crowds at X shows are pretty eclectic at this point in the band's career. There are old punk rockers to teenagers at the shows. The message has obviously endured if the music can reach a wide range of fans.
Absolutely. Even in the old days, in the late '70s, the audiences were pretty diverse. Nowadays, people are aware of bands that are real and bands that are contrived. Given the chance to see someone that's been around, people are aware that's something. I saw Chuck Berry around 1971 and he was fucking unbelievable. It wasn't seeing him in 1956, but he was still great. I think that's part of the reason we still do it because there are people who are 16 or 17 that are coming to see X. I'm not going to pretend that we're just in it for the art [laughs]. We're receiving the financial benefits of working for so long, and it's exciting to see new people experiencing the band.
Also, it's because we've never had that one hit that everyone says, “Play that one!” What it means to us is that we do have the opportunity to continue to play. Everyone is grateful to be one of the last punk rock bands standing. We don't take that lightly.
That being said, it's safe to assume you guys are still having issues collecting money from Warner Bros., right?
Warner or Rhino or whatever, they just ignore everything. I don't feel singled out. That's why they're failing and continue to fail. They just deleted Under The Big Black Sun from their catalog. Sooner or later, we'll find a way to get the rights back and we'll re-release it and make money.
X has influenced many bands over the year, including Pearl Jam, a band you recently toured Central and South America with. I just saw an announcement that the band is on tour with them next summer in Europe. What influence do you think X and punk rock has had on them?
I think X's influence on Pearl Jam is to talk the talk and walk the walk. They're one of the only major bands that goes on tours that doesn't have some elaborate, stupid light show. They don't have a stupid stage that folds into itself like U2 and makes it a spectacle. They're just a rock 'n roll band. That's the kind of influence that punk rock or X may have had on them.
Going on tour with them is like the same thing I said before; it's reaping the benefits of a long career. We never would have had the opportunity to go to South America on our own. It was another worldly adventure that I recommend for anyone. There's freedom there that I've never seen before.
In what regard?
The way people treat each other. There's serious poverty and danger, but people take responsibility for themselves.
What are the major crowd differences between North and South American crowds?
It's like apples and oranges. A band like Pearl Jam in that kind of arena, in South America, that happens once every 6 or 7 years, while we play the West Coast at least once a year. The audiences are enthusiastic, there's usually a mosh pit at the shows. There's very little of that in South America. People were packed in tightly, but they were so nice to each other. I didn't see anyone getting crushed against the front of the stage; they were genuinely concerned for each other's welfare.
Do you think the messages of the lyrics on Los Angeles are similar to what the city is like now? Is there a sense of foreshadowing with some of those lyrics?
I suppose but I'm not really sure. I'm not part of the L.A. culture anymore. I haven't lived there for twenty-something years. I can't call myself an authority, but certain truths don't change. It's still a great, scary beast.
Having been playing music for over 30 years, you've reinvented and evolved your sound a number of times over the years, whether it be through X or your solo material. What's it like playing the older material, combined with the new material? Is it challenging to maintain the audience's attention with a vast catalog and styles of music?
The way you develop an audience depends on what they're going to accept when they see you the next time. If you're just a hit machine, then that's what they're going to expect. The audiences that come to see X or me solo, they expect a certain variety and a certain honesty and emotion. Sometimes I'm a bit careful to play songs people want to hear. We're always going to play “Los Angeles,” “Your Phone's Off The Hook” and “Devil Doll.” When I do solo stuff, I'll always play a few X songs because people dig it and I do too. But overall, I do equal amounts of X and solo stuff.
Does splitting time between X and your solo tours replenish your creative juices?
Absolutely. If I went out with only X, I'm sure I'd have a different world view and I'm grateful 100 people will come see me at some place in Connecticut. Without X, I'd have a much slower lifestyle and I love the songs we do and after doing South America, we're talking about trying to write some more stuff in February and March.
New X material? I'm sure fans are going to be elated to hear that.
Don't get your hopes up because we've tried it before and we didn't come up with much. Since we've been spending so much time together, now is a good time to do it. A lot of the early X stuff came out of how we felt about each other. It's changed, but it hasn't diminished that much. After I get back from my solo tour in January, Exene and I are going to try to write some stuff.
What are some of the bands that have influenced X that fans may not be aware of?
Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed. We're not afraid that people might say that we're doing some retro shit because we have the right to do that.