This has been a big year for John Doe. In April he released a book and an album; both of which have earned accolades from the public as well as from the critics. The focus of the book is the dawn of the LA punk rock scene, of which Doe and his band X played an essential part; and the album is another solid entry in his sizable non-punk catalog.
This weekend, Doe will be performing with X as part of an impressive line-up of legendary rockers, non-conformists, and groundbreaking artists at Eddie Vedder’s Ohana Festival. The two-day festival will take place at Doheny Beach, in Dana Point. The Weekly recently talked with Doe about his latest work, about the festival, and about the original LA punk band’s history of inciting civil disobedience in Orange County.
OC Weekly (Scott Feinblatt): Looking back to when X first started, to what extent was starting a punk band in Los Angeles different from starting it somewhere else?
John Doe: Everything was different because location has everything to do with what is created whether it's a punk rock band or Mozart or some Italian movie. Everything. The distance, cars, the drugs of choice (which was beer) — they all factored into making Los Angeles punk rock a little more open, a little wilder, a little more rock 'n roll. The environment in London or New York was just different; I think it was a little more playful.
You have a critically praised book, called Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk, that came out this year…
A lot of that what I just talked about is in that book. [Me] and other people talk about that and give examples of [the scene] in there. That's one of the reasons that we did it, because all of the other punk rock books — especially from LA — have been oral histories, and you haven't got as much of a sense of the city and the environment that made the music the way it was.
What is it about this moment in history, right now, that makes America ready to start learning about the birth of the LA punk scene?
I don't really know. I mean, I'm not a historian, so I can't figure out why LA punk rock is okay with Rolling Stone now… Maybe it took 40 years for it not to be as threatening to people's idea of civilization, but I'm glad for it! I'm glad that it's receiving some attention and people are being given their due.
It's great that the formative LA punk scene is getting this kind of exposure; people have written about the post-punk scene of the 80's, after the Manchester scene happened and glam rock had all but taken over.
[People] should also look into what preceded punk rock and what preceded the psychedelic era. It's all part of the same development. The people who influenced us, and the people that influenced them…it's all built on one after the other, for sure.
Talk about how things develop and evolve, you've also got a new solo album out this year — which has also been doing really well — but it's definitely not punk rock. It's a Roots Rock / Alternative Country-Rock album called The Westerner, and it focuses on the American mythos of going west. How did this theme develop for this album?
A lot of the songs were inspired by my friend Michael Blake, who wrote Dances with Wolves. He was close with both Exene [Cervenka] and I, and I was just writing songs that had something to do with his life or my life as it developed, and then I was fascinated by the whole idea of someone from the west; that's why the cover has a person, who you don't know whether it's a kid that's a hippy or a Native American (it turns out that it's a Native American), but it's the same idea. It’s freedom, self expression, being influenced by your surroundings, and being open to different experiences — being open rather than closed. Being closed is death and being open is life.
That's very profound.
Well, I'm a profound mother fucker! [laughs] No, I'm not that profound; I'm just saying that that's where those themes come from and the way that you develop into whatever you create is just like: what's influenced you in the last three years or the last 30 years, because you draw on all of that stuff. I mean the elements of each one of them…you know, this is the tenth solo record that I've done, but I'm never far away from X. We're touring right now, and I take all the lessons that I've learned from X and use that when I do solo stuff or if there's an acting job, you know, you try to take all those lessons and apply them. Some are more useful than others, and you try to use those.
Moving on to X's performance for the Ohana Festival, the whole line-up for that festival is basically an all-star cast of artists with a punk rock ethos. What can you say about the uniqueness of this festival?
I think it's unique because Eddie Vedder curated it, and he's chosen people that he loves or respects or has some connection to. I'm not sure how much punk rock there is in Lana Del Rey [laughs], but I think that she's got an amazing vibe that is kind of dark and mysterious. But it's curated in a way that's different from a lot of other festivals and that's something I don't really like about festivals nowadays; they all seem to be the same. They all seem to have the same people, depending on which year it is, you know, and who's doing well. And it's like: whatever happened to just having an idea that you want to have a festival around — this style of music, you know? That's what's great about this. For X's performance, we've been doing a kind of in-concert show, where we play songs that we've never played before, and D.J. Bonebrake plays vibes on some, Billy [Zoom] plays sax on a few songs, so it's a more or less three-dimensional X performance; it's not just punk rock.
On your website, you reference a free noontime concert in Fullerton, CA, which caused Orange County's "greatest high school truancy rate to date." I was curious when that happened and was that your intention?
No, it was not our intention. Fullerton College, or wherever we played, gave us an offer, and we said, "Sure, we'll be there." I don't remember exactly what year that was, maybe '81 or '82. I think we were all gratified by the result. On occasion, people nowadays say, "I came all the way from…" where ever, you know, a few hundred miles away or a few thousand miles away. "I came all the way from Denmark to see you guys!" And I always feel great because we're giving someone a reason to road trip and to have some kind of experience. It's pretty cool. That's one of the best things you can hope for as an artist — to give these people a reason to do something out of the ordinary to let them see something they may not have thought of or seen before.
Any final thoughts for our readers until the festival?
It's gonna be fun; it's gonna be a good day at the beach! Like I say: festivals should have a point, and they should have a sound, and they should say, "We're the festival that does this." Rather than: "We're another festival just like the other festivals that happen three states away." And that's what's cool about this; you don't get a chance to see Ed or Elvis play acoustically very often, and that's gonna be great.