X's John Doe on Why It Took Nearly 30 Years to Release a New Album
It’s been nearly 30 years since X released new music, but that ends now. The group has shared their first record since 1993’s Hey Zeus! and if you want to go back further, it’s their first record with guitarist Billy Zoom since 1985’s Ain’t Love Grand!
Out now on Fat Possum, Alphabetland is the right X album for right now. The quartet of John Doe, Exene Cervenka, Zoom and DJ Bonebrake stampedes through 12 songs in a fashion that is a jolt of energy that recalls the Los Angeles punks’ early days. They re-recorded and changed a few songs that made the album: “I Got a Fever,” “Delta 88 Nightmare” and “Cyrano DeBerger’s Back.”
They haven’t been inactive — X have been road warriors for the past decade (including opening for Pearl Jam) and had a lengthy tour set up, which included a show in Los Angeles that was set to take place this weekend to honor the 40th anniversary of Los Angeles. Instead, dropping that album on Los Angeles’s anniversary will have to do.
The album almost didn’t happen.
“There were moments we were in the studio and wondered ‘Is this anything,’” John Doe told SPIN. “I’m not gonna lie, if it didn’t work, we weren’t going to do it and we coulda went back on the road. But thankfully it worked.”
That it did. We spoke with Doe on the eve of the album’s release where he told us how the thing came together and his memories of Los Angeles all these years later.
SPIN: So what happened? It seems like a sudden drop of an album after being so many years after you last released something as X.
John Doe: We were going to the same thing we’ve done in the past. Mix it, master it, get everything lined up and put it out in September. Then we realized how timely the music — more lyrics — and that people can appreciate and use something like this now, so we talked to the record company and they said yeah since they had no idea when the printing service would be open again. So fuck it, we’re indie so let’s go indie.
So why not?
The other thing that pushed us to do it was because it was the 40th anniversary of the release of our first record, Los Angeles. It all kind of ties in.
And you were supposed to mark with a big show here at the Wiltern. This is the next best thing you could do in these circumstances…
It’s something. I can’t picture — because I picture things in my mind and they happen like anybody maybe — but I can’t see what it’s going to be like. We have a tour planned in August and September and we don’t know know what’s going to happen it’s a little upsetting. But this is the best we can do and we’re going to try to interact with people online, but fuck, I don’t know. That’s the only thing that gives me pause. When you can have shows again, what’s it going to be like? I can’t imagine it’s going to be 1,500 people in a room crammed together.
You all have been touring for a long time, and you have teased that maybe/maybe not X would do something. So how come the time was now to do this?
That’s hard to say. Exene and I continued to talk about it. Bit by bit, figured out how, where and who and it sounds maybe a bit opportunistic or mercenary but if you don’t have a place to put songs, you’re not as compelled to do it. I just write stuff and put songs on solo records, and Exene has given me some lyrics now and then and I’ve done that, but once we found a person with Rob Schnapf who is a big producer and has a cool place — and Billy liked it as well and he’s very particular how and who he records with — I think there’s a little fear, trepidation of “What if we do this and it sucks?” That would ruin everything! (laughs) But everybody stepped up. Billy and DJ contributed a lot in the arrangements and recording and songwriting.
It just feels like a no-bullshit X album.
We’re not big thinkers; we trust our intuition. We didn’t have a theme or have a grand plan. We just wanted to make songs. Then they started skewing to what has been happening in the world over the last 10-15 years. Then this happens and suddenly it has more of a theme. Maybe that’s like when you get your heart broken, you listen to the radio and are like “That song’s for me!” But that last piece that Exene read (“All the Time In the World”), that was an afterthought. I played a bass line underneath it and it didn’t really work. Then Billy played piano and Robby Krieger (The Doors) came in and played some crazy spacey guitar, and that feels a little bit full circle. It turns out all of the time in the world wasn’t that much. It’s such an incredible ending. “Goodbye Years,” that’s another one and even “Alphabetland,” that’s about things going sideways and reclaiming it and having some redemption. It’s interesting because there’s themes that we’ve written on past records, like “The World’s a Mess; It’s In My Kiss” or “Unheard Music” or “House I Call Home.” But they’re themes of the world being a difficult place to navigate. And now, it truly is.
Looking back at Los Angeles, what are some of the things and themes now that have endured from the album?
That we didn’t make it sound like it came out in 1980. It was intentional. Ray Manzarek had a lot to do with that. The Doors sound current. Jimi Hendrix sounds a little less current because he used tricks. The fact that it really started putting L.A. on the punk rock map (it’s why we called it Los Angeles), young people — late teens, early 20s come to our shows and they get it.
Did you miss being in the studio with them or is touring usually plenty?
Once we broke the seal in January or February of 2019, I thought, “This is OK and it doesn’t suck.” “Angel on the Road” was the first new song that we did, which was just a poem that Exene read on this train trip that we did. I said to her, “Please give me those lyrics because I can write an X song with those lyrics. She said, “Sure, why not?” I don’t want to sound mercenary but if you have a place and people to do it with and you know you can put all of this time and effort into something, then you’re more enthusiastic about doing it. We did it and now we can’t (tour behind it).
What was the big difference in the end?
It went from never say never to as people get older, they start detracting, and it gets worse. If you try to expand, it gets better. So, it doesn’t mean that you still can’t get hit by a bus, but I’m just saying the possibilities of being open and saying yes or let’s try, then you can. If you say no, then that’s the end of that conversation. In 2011, I probably thought “There’s no fucking way.” But here it is, so it just goes to show you.