As a founding member of X, John Doe’s been rocking for longer than most of today’s buzz band members have been alive. Even though his solo work skews a little more country than metal, Doe still imbues it with his own hard edge and flair. It’s something evident on his latest record, Keeper, out now on Yep Roc, as well as in his live shows. A.V. Club readers can be the judge of that for themselves, though, as Doe plays this Wednesday at World Cafe Live. Before that, though, he sat down to talk to The A.V. Club about getting happy, acting, and Occupy Wall Street.
The A.V. Club: You told the Huffington Post that you spent two years not writing songs because you were in a really good mood. Is that how it works for you? You have to be in a bad place to write good songs?
John Doe: Well, you can help me make that decision. I think the songs on this latest record are a little more satisfied. They’re not about loss and longing as much as the last couple of records, maybe. Maybe I figured out how to not be miserable and used that to write songs, which hasn’t been the case in the past when I relied heavily on the dark side. When something really tragic happens, like you break up with someone, you’re going to write good songs. If your life turns around, though, then you write about your personal life. Things are better.
For this record, it was a little harder to crack the “Where do I start?” Then you realize that you start with images—a place, a time, and the people who are going to be in that story. It’s pretty much the same. Something physical that happens when you’re unhappy makes you want to sort things out and get rid of that unhappiness. It’s the great impetus, but once you realize you want to write songs, even if you’re happy, you find that same source.
AVC: Do you write every day, or just grab a pen when the mood strikes?
JD: I just write when something comes to me or I get inspiration. The perspiration comes later when you’re editing and making everything tight and economical.
AVC: You still tour with X, playing Los Angeles and other material. Are you ever surprised that you’re doing this all these years later?
JD: I’m not surprised, but gratified. I think if we played to fewer and fewer people, and they were all older, our age, we’d say, “Uh, this is not so rewarding.” Or if we didn’t get paid reasonably well, we’d say, “That was good, but let’s move on.” But we’re getting a lot of young people who never saw us the first time around. You figure, I didn’t see Chuck Berry in the ’50s, but I saw him in the ’70s, and he was great. We apply that to what we’re doing.
Also, we give [producer] Ray Manzarek lots of credit for helping us decide what songs should go on [Los Angeles]. We had some older songs that we thought about putting on that ended up on the second record [Wild Gift], like “We’re Desperate” and “Adult Books,” and I can’t think what else. Ray helped us get the sequence together and he helped us choose what songs to record.
AVC: You’re one of the pioneers of the punk-country movement. These days, it seems like it’s more and more popular. What are some of your favorite artists working now?
JD: I love Wilco. Neko [Case] and I did some work together. I like this guy Tom Brousseau out of San Diego. We did some work together. Kathleen Edwards, I like her a lot. For some reason I haven’t paid attention to Joseph Arthur until recently, and even though he’s not in that vein you’re talking about, he’s really great. I love Cracker, and pretty much anything David Lowery does.
I like anyone that has heart, really. Parts of [fellow X member] Exene [Cervenka’s] new record are very folk-country and amazing. That song “Alone In Arizona” is hauntingly beautiful. I wish someone would base a movie around it.
AVC: You’ve been pretty outspoken about politics. What do you think about the Republican candidates for president?
JD: I don’t know if I should even recognize them because they’re so useless. I don’t know ... I think the Occupy Wall Street movement is the only thing that has any value right now. Obama has not stood up. Everyone knew he was a person who would compromise, which I don’t put him down for, but I think there’s a lot of opportunities he’s missed.
As for Republicans, Michele Bachmann is out because of her husband. I mean, he gets onscreen, and then what? I love that, though. Exene and I were talking about how he pushed [Michele] to succeed, and now he’s her greatest liability. Mitt Romney will probably get the nomination, but I don’t think he has the power or charisma to win.
AVC: You’ve acted, made solo records, and worked on collaborations. How do you decide what to do and when?
JD: Part of it is scheduling, and part of it is what seems to strike your fancy. If you have enough songs for a solo record and enough time, you say, “Let’s do it.” Right now, I’m working too much; but next year is a little lighter, so that’s good. This year’s been X tour, solo tour, X, solo, which is good. I’m not complaining, but it’s a bit too much.
AVC: How active are you in acting these days?
JD: I sort of quit auditioning. I had a terrible agent who called me and said, “We’re dropping you.” And I said “Oh, too bad. Thank God.” I don’t really care to act. I live in Northern California, and I’m not going to go to L.A. to read four lines of some stupid part that they could give to their uncle. I had a great time, and I think movies are magical and all that, but the business of it is pretty negative. I’m really busy doing music lately, but something will probably come along.
Lately, I got to be in this Jesse Dayton movie called Zombex. The premise is that victims of Katrina got so stressed out that the drug companies started giving them Prozac that turns them into zombies. I got to be the bar owner who tells the main character, “Uh oh, something’s coming.” It’s something completely different.