Q&A: X’s John Doe On His New Folk Album, Working With Shirley Manson And Debbie Harry, What Punk Is And More

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Punk rock icon with the band X , singer/songwriter, actor, poet, renaissance man John Doe says, “There’s a lot of words sometimes after my name and I am grateful for every one of those opportunities that I get.”

Despite Doe’s modesty, he has been directly responsible for many of those wildly varied opportunities, which range from appearing in the series Roswell to working with Garbage’s Shirley Manson on his exceptional new solo album, Fables In A Foreign Land.

Influenced by the great folk icons and records like Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, Fables In A Foreign Land is a concept record with all of the songs taking place in the 1890s.

If you want to know why Manson, Los Lobos’ Louie Perez and more on this record, as well as Debbie Harry, Aimee Mann and so many others have wanted to work with Doe over the years, he wrote a record in 2022, where people have the attention span of a ferret on meth, set in the 1890s. That is as punk rock as you can get.

But then that is John Doe. Like longtime friends and peers Henry Rollins and Iggy Pop, or Kris Kristofferson and the late great Sam Shepard, Doe is a throwback to an era where punk rock wasn’t what you bought at Hot Topic. It was the way you carried yourself and most importantly the way you presented your art.

I spoke with Doe about the new album, what he looked for in collaborators on this record, his literary influences and why he hopes the quiet intimate nature of this record prompts people to take a step back from technology and the madness of today and just breathe.

Steve Baltin: Talk about getting to bounce between the two worlds. Obviously X are iconic, you guys have accomplished so much. But you also get to strip down and do something that’s under your name and different musically. I imagine it’s a lot of fun to go between the two worlds, even if literally in your brain you’re doing the two worlds today.

John Doe: Yes to all of that. X is pretty stripped down as well. X is also a trio. It’s just a lot louder. I am incredibly fortunate that I get to do all these things. And there’s a lot of words sometimes after my name and I am grateful for every one of those opportunities that I get. But punk rock and folk music are oftentimes very similar, similar subjects, like the world going to hell, people treating people badly. It doesn’t come from your brain, it comes from your gut. So it’s not a huge stretch. It’s a lot of different colors. One is more internal. One’s a little more explosive. One is a little more, a quiet fury.

Baltin: I have argued the most punk rock album ever made is Plastic Ono Band because of the way that that album hits and just the intensity of it.So I also think punk rock can be very quiet. So Fables is a folk album, but it also does have a very punk sensibility because writing an album in 2022 that takes place in the 1890s, that’s pretty punk.

Doe: I don’t know if that’s punk or not. It needed discipline. I had to be disciplined about it. What does punk rock mean to me? It means freedom. But I’m not sure how many punk rock songs are narratives. I don’t know if they all have beginning, middles and ends. A lot of punk rock songs are just kind of conceptual and that’s cool. But what is similar is there’s an edge and there’s danger and it’s elemental, it’s like a live-or-die situation.

Baltin: You worked with some great songwriters on this, what were you looking for in the people that you worked with?

Doe: Yeah, they’re pros. And with Shirley, she just said to Exene [Cervenka] and I one day, while we were doing this tour, “We should write a murder ballad.” And that’s not an invitation that you turn down. So eventually we did record it with Garbage and Duke and Butch, they added some more chords and it became very heavy three, four time, very goth, like Garbage sounds. And I wanted to bring it back into a more traditional murder ballad, put it to four time, sped up the tempo some, and that’s what that was. But with Louie, I had a dream that the main thing I remember of this dream was the name “El Romance-O.” And so that was really intriguing to me and I thought, “Well, Who is that?” And so I sort of started developing this character, but because of the Spanglish element to “El Romance-O,” I thought, “Well, it should have a verse in Spanish, so who do I know that is a Spanish speaker who writes great songs?” Well, Louie Perez is a dear friend that we’ve known each other for 40-some years, and of course, he wants to play along. He wants to just kind of talk about it and say, “Here’s the idea.” And then he added a whole another dimension to the character. So that was cool too.

Baltin: Was it easy when you guys started writing together because you know each other so well?

Doe: Shirley wrote a majority of the lyrics. I came up with music and Exene added several lines to what became the chorus and Shirley did most of the heavy lifting. So that was a gift. With Louie, I’ve opened up a lot since the last maybe 10 years. So when I contacted Louie, I was like, “Well, let’s just see what happens.” If it was not good, if it didn’t fit the theme, then we would have said, “Okay, well, next time.” Terry Allen was another person who a lot of people don’t know, but he’s an incredible visual artist, he makes sculptures and does installments and that’s really what he’s known for the most. But he’s been making music for probably 40 years and he’s about 10 years older than me and we got to be friends and he just added these few lines that really filled out the chorus of that “Never Coming Back” song. But yeah, if somebody just takes your call, that’s great. And then if somebody wants to play along, then that’s even better. It’s like, yeah, why not?

Baltin: I like how you put it, if someone takes your call. Do you still get surprised when people takes your call?

Doe: Yeah, [chuckle] I try not to call people over my pay grade so that they will take my call. But all the people I’ve collaborated with, whether it’s been playing music or singing with people, I’ve had a lot of great female singers that I’ve worked with like Aimee Mann and Kathleen Edwards and Neko Case and people like that, it’s because we’ve worked together. Kristin Hersh is another one, and I worked with Grant-Lee Phillips, and it’s because we just sort of were friends or acquaintances or worked together at some point. And the same thing with Shirley Manson, Debbie Harry sang on the record before this, and it’s just because you’re around, you’re fairly straightforward and you get together. That’s one of the gifts of being a creative person, you meet other creative people and there’s a kinship.

Baltin: What inspired this theme for you, or was there one song early on that you set in the 1890s and then realized, “This is the time that I want to talk about”? And also, of course, when I say, I focus on the time, but also to capture stories of foreign lands.

Doe: Well, the foreign land is just the narrator which could be either a man or a woman, it’s mostly from a male perspective, but it could be both or either. Everything is foreign to them. And when I wrote “Never Coming Back,” that was maybe the third or fourth song in this bunch of songs that came out. I thought, “Okay, now I have a beginning, ’cause s**t is going down, his parents are killed and he’s forced to leave. So everything he experiences from then on is foreign to him, ’cause he’s probably 17, 16.” And before that, he was just a kid living at home, probably in the south somewhere. So it just developed that way. I think the first couple of songs were maybe “Missouri” and “The Cowboy and the Hot Air Balloon.” And when it’s time to write songs, for me to write a solo record, I just look into my notebooks and pick things out. And with all the traveling in vans over the last four or five years, you do feel isolated, you do feel lonely, you do feel as though you’re abandoned. And the time setting is just where things are more, like I was saying, elemental. It’s kind of a do-or-die situation. So that was appealing. And I think, like you’re saying, there’s a lot of people that are fed up with everything that’s f**king digital and everything that is virtual. And so I would rather read something or experience something that’s in the world of John Steinbeck or Flannery O’Connor or Earnest Hemingway where you’re at a crisis point. And that’s not unusual for X songs or any other solo stuff.

Baltin: You talk about being isolated. Do you feel like there was a direct sort of symmetry with everything that’s gone on in the last few years?

Doe: I wouldn’t say it’s a coincidence, but it certainly worked hand-in-glove with each other. It was actually my daughter who I played some of the songs for as we were rehearsing them or recording them and stuff and she said, “God, there’s a lot of loneliness and isolation. It’s just like what we’ve been going through.” And that was the first time it really occurred to me that there was so much similarity and that’s good ’cause people can hopefully relate to it on a personal level and what they’ve been through.

Baltin: A lot of artists felt like they were writing about this before it started, and then of course, it becomes prophetic. So do you feel like for you, it started to become prophetic and you didn’t realize that you were writing about a pandemic or the isolation or the loneliness, but then it started to become about that after you’re already working on it?

Doe: Yes, both of those. When X put out the Alphabetland, it was during the height of the lockdown. We released that in April 2020, and suddenly it was very prophetic and people were losing their s**t because like, “Oh my God, how could you? ” And I thought, “Well, we’ve been writing about this same sort of thing for 30 years, 40 years. It just so happens that it hits home the same way that if you lose someone that’s close to you or you have a break-up, you listen to the radio and it’s like, ‘Oh my God, all these songs are about what I’m going through.’ And it’s because you’re more vulnerable, you’re more in-tune with that stuff.” However, when George Floyd was murdered, ’cause I was doing some virtual shows, I kept thinking, “I need to respond to this by singing a song that’s already been written,” and I couldn’t really find one, so that’s where the song “Guilty Bystander” came in. And that talks about masters and slaves and who actually is your master and who do you really serve, and do you have empathy, and are you doing something, ’cause the guilty bystander doesn’t do anything. You have to try to get in the mix, be an ally, all those sorts of things that people talk about.

Baltin: Were there things on this record that surprised you?

Doe: I think I was surprised that it all held together as much as it did and that we were able to develop the sound that fit the subject matter. It’s not as if we’re doing some academic dive into what old folk music is supposed to sound like, or even ’60s folk music is supposed to sound like. We just did our version, but we stayed true to the idea, the original idea. This record was definitely influenced by Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding because it invites you to go into a world that you’re unfamiliar with, take a walk around, see what’s happening, see it, smell it, feel it, and then you can come out on the other side. I did listen to the Mississippi Sheiks and I did listen to some other old ’20s and ’30s music just for guitar sounds, or Ray Charles to listen to pick out a bass sound or maybe Bill Evans to hear what a jazz drummer might do with this. So yeah.

Baltin: Are there things that really you hope people take from this record?

Doe: I hope that people can quiet their fear and their fear of chaos, because I think that’s why people are so angry. I was talking to a friend about that and she said, “I was wondering why people didn’t have more empathy since we’ve just gone through something that’s really difficult.” You would think your empathy would be increased because you’ve just gone through a hard time, you gotta figure that most everybody else went through a hard time, right? People just seem to be angrier and more violent. And she said, “Well, I think that’s because they’re afraid. They’ve seen what some of the chaos is like and they’re afraid.” And I think that’s right. So if someone listens to this, I hope they see something beautiful. I hope they hear something that hits them on a deep level, like anything, like anybody would hope. Specific to this, I hope they can hear the space, the intentional space that is included in the record.

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