Friday, August 19, 2011

An EXCLUSIVE Interview with JOHN DOE!


EXPLORING HAPPIER TRAILS



An EXCLUSIVE interview with
JOHN DOE


By Dave Rayburn



     John Doe is one of modern music's most authentic & enduring songwriters. A keystone of the legendary L.A. punk rock band X, the Chicago Tribune called him, "punk rock's golden throat." While touring with X over the last 30 years, Doe also cultivated his own career as a solo artist, diving headfirst into alt country, folk, and gut-wrenching rock'n'roll. His latest record is Keeper, the glass-half-full counterpart to 2007's emotionally damaged A Year In The Wilderness. Keeper is a record by a veteran artist who has come back from the brink with his arms full of fast and beautiful songs.
     Having just completed a series of U.S. dates with singer Jill Sobule, John recently took some time out of his schedule to discuss his new record on the eve of its release.


DAVE RAYBURN: Keeper, right off the bat, by title… sounds like something has changed in regards to what we’re in store for with a John Doe record. There seems to be something a little more upbeat and hopeful in the songs that you deliver this time around. Can you explain the path your songwriting may have taken in regards to the material that we hear on Keeper, and has this material been influenced by your personal life in any way?
JOHN DOE: Totally influenced by my personal life. The last couple of records have been very unsatisfied. A lot of longing and loss and stuff like that, and a lot of that’s changed. I’m not one to put my personal life on display. I’ve been getting out of an unhappy marriage, and that’s been coming to a close… and living in a whole new situation, it was hard to figure out how to write songs that are positive since I’ve relied on the dark side for so long. I mean, all the X stuff was sort of dark and then a lot of the solo stuff for the last three or four records has been unsatisfied, so I was like, “Shit, where’s my source of unhappiness and guilt and weird shit? What do I do now?” And basically I was pretty happy starting in 2008. And it’s like, “I don’t wanna write songs. I don’t care! I’m perfectly happy! I don’t have any reason to be writing songs.” And, a lot of songwriting I think comes from... not necessarily unhappiness, but from being unsettled. So, if you haven’t got that then what do you rely on? So you sort of go back to either a darker time mentally or you figure out how to write a song where people actually experience some love and satisfaction.

DR: The new album is produced by yourself and Dave Way, who has had his hands in a variety of successful projects ranging from the Foo Fighters to Michael Jackson. You’ve actually worked with Dave on at least five or six projects that I can think of, going back close to ten years. Having such a lengthy history with him, do you find that you are both uniquely dialed in to each other’s way of working? And, what impact does he have on how your songs take shape once they reach the studio?
JD: Well, he’s first and foremost an engineer and a mixer, but he has a real influence on how the songs are recorded and who’s involved in the recording. He’ll suggest arrangements. “Let’s repeat that chord for another bar.” I mean, pretty much everything. Dave’s not just an engineer and a mixer, he’s also a musician who went to Berklee, but it... (laughs)… fortunately didn’t ruin his ability to play music, like some people. One other thing about Dave and why we keep working together is because we don’t just sort of do what we did the last time. At the beginning of a project, we’ll talk about how these songs would be best served. A Year In The Wilderness was much more of a rock record. Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet was more of a kind of blues record. And this, we really did concentrate on the late-60s/early-70s, Rolling Stones/George Harrison kind of thing. That’s why there’s kind of a full band, and it has a certain positive positivity. That music, even though the band’s music wasn’t really happy, there was a wistfulness about it, and the same thing with George Harrison is there was a positive feel.

DR: Keeper features an array of wonderful female singers including Jill Sobule, Patty Griffin, and Dead Rock West’s Cindy Wasserman. This appears to be a bit of a trend since 2002’s Dim Stars, Bright Sky, where the likes of Aimee Mann, Jane Weidlin, and Juliana Hatfield all guested… and continued in the following years with names like Kathleen Edwards, Kristin Hersh, and Neko Case. Are you simply the kind of singer that naturally attracts such talented harmonies on your records, or are you just secretly working on some sort of musical “bucket list”?
JD: (Laughs). No bucket list. I don’t have those ulterior motives. I just kind of sing with who I’ve worked with and who I admire, and luckily they say yes. And, you know, Exene and I have taught each other a lot of good lessons and I think my voice sounds better with someone else singing along. I was really thrilled when Patty Griffin said yes. And I’m thrilled that Cindy and Dead Rock West have made more of a name for themselves so I can not just think, well, I’ve gotta get somebody with a name, ‘cause that’s all part of it. And, Cindy and I have worked together for a long time, so it’s great to have her on the record.

DR: Is there anyone out there that you’d like to work with in the future?
JD: I would love to sing with PJ Harvey. And, I hope to do some more stuff with Howe Gelb ‘cause he’s just really creative and unpredictable and has a great ability to improvise. I’d like to do some more stuff with Gregory Page and Tom Brosseau. I really wanted to get some of the Sadies to play on the solo stuff, but they were too busy touring.

DR: There’s some fine playing all over this record, from the very delicate ballad pieces like “Lucky Penny” and “Moonbeams” to the rockers “Giant Step Backward” and “Jump Into My Arms”. Aside from the aforementioned vocalists, who else supports you musically on the new record?
JD: Smokey Hormel plays on it. He and I are old friends and he’s really distinguished himself with Tom Waits. He even played with Dixie Chicks and Neil Diamond. Also, Don Was played bass on a few songs which was really great to have a producer who’s gone on to working with American Idol… producing the Rolling Stones… and he’s just happy to go in and play bass for a few days. Some of the same characters like Jamie Muhoberac, who’s an amazing session keyboard player, and Stuart Johnson and Ryan Feves, who I’ve played with live quite a bit. They played drums and bass. Doug Pettibone who plays with Marianne Faithful. And, like I said, Howe Gelb played on a track… Oh, and Steve Berlin played sax.

DR: Yeah! I was gonna ask about that. Is that a saxophone I hear on some of those tracks?
JD: Yeah, on a couple of them. On “Moonbeams” and on “Never Enough”. And Victor Bisetti, who used to play with Los Lobos, played conga and some shakers and some tambourine and stuff like that... and we recorded that live. The percussion was part of the basic tracks. Again, another Rolling Stones influence.

DR: The second song on Keeper, “Never Enough”, is quite reminiscent of “Too Many Goddamn Bands” from 2000’s Freedom Is… album, in the sense of relative clutter. What’s the real story behind this frenzied track?
JD: I was very close to somebody who was kind of a hoarder, and (laughs)... I watched that show Hoarders for about three or four episodes and then was like, “Oh my God, this is so tragic. Just tell me it isn’t so.” And then there’s all the religious fanaticism, where no matter what people do it’s never enough. And, the fact that nobody talks about an alternative to capitalism, not that I want communism, but it’s like how much do we have to use? And nobody even thinks about conservation and cutting back on all this crap that you use everyday. That’s the real story on that.

DR: “Walking Out The Door” is a nice little country stomp that also made an appearance earlier this year on A Day At The Pass. Still, it sounds like it could very well have been a leftover from the Country Club album you released with the Sadies in 2009. How long has this song really been around, and is there a standard development period for your songs before you deem them ready for release?
JD: No standard method. At some point I look at the songs that I’ve got and say, “Okay, I’ve got enough. Let’s make a record.” “Paint The Town Blue” I’ve done for a long time in this kind of a honky-tonk fashion. “Walking Out The Door” was written just after we did Country Club, so it might have been inspired by it. I do a lot of little edits once the lyrics are done. I change an “and” to a “but”, or a “with” to a “to” or something like that. But that’s really where a lot of the clarity can come, in who’s doing what and how.

DR: As I’m sure you know, vinyl has made a bit of a comeback in recent years. Both audiophiles and nostalgists are finding great joy in snatching up classic reissues as well as brand new releases in the vinyl format. Keeper is one of those new releases. In fact, the vinyl edition of Keeper includes the exclusive track “101%”. What are your thoughts on the resurgence of vinyl, and can you tell us a little bit about this elusive LP-only track, for those who haven’t yet decided which format to pick up?
JD: “101%” is a little slower. It’s kind of a ballad. It’s a little more reminiscent of the Freedom Is... record. And, the CD was just too damn long. So, we just put it on as a bonus track on the LP. And… I LOVE vinyl. It’s got a certain sound… a certain curve to it… a certain black and shiny quality. But, I’m not a purist. I don’t really care. A good song is good on cassette. But not so much on 8-track (laughs)… ‘cause you never end up hearing a full song on 8-track because it skips to another track (laughs) about three quarters of the way through the song.
DR: I remember, especially with records, hearing a certain pop or click during a certain part of a song… and that’s how I would always remember that song. So, a lot of people, as far as the nostalgia goes… might like to have that tape hiss or the crackles or the break in the song.
JD: Think of it as… what do they call it now? Added value? Added value to your listening experience: the click and the pop (laughs).

DR: Keeper ends with a song from the past. Fitting, since “Painting The Town Blue” occasionally appears in the encore portion of your live shows. Can you share why you chose to revisit this particular song and close the album with it?
JD: It just seemed to sound right at the end. No grand statement for, you know… a promise that X is gonna make another record, ‘cause I doubt that we will. However, it just fit with the rest of the songs on this record, and the version that we ended up doing was a really good version. Cindy Wasserman has that sixth sense where, even if she doesn’t know the words… it sounds right.

DR: This is the eighth solo album for you. Is there any possibility down the road of a collection of odds tracks or unreleased songs or even live recordings from over the years, like an archive release that may come out? There was that great X anthology that had a plethora of demos and live tracks and rarities. Is there anything like that on the horizon for you?
JD: It’s possible, but I don’t have a whole lot of unreleased material. I mean, there’s a bunch of live stuff, but not a bunch of studio tracks that didn’t get finished. Not too much. But, you know, within another couple releases, it may be time for a “best of”. YepRoc has been really generous in re-releasing stuff.

DR: With a resume that covers everything from poetry & music to film & television, people have undoubtedly become familiar with you regardless if they’re from the old school of West Coast punk rock, or if they simply caught you playing opposite of George Strait in Pure Country on TV over the weekend. You cross a lot of borders and demographics in the entertainment world. With Keeper about to hit stores… and a tour to support it… where else in the world of multimedia might we expect to see John Doe next?
JD: (Laughs). Well, I’m not gonna do another episode of Wizards Of Waverly Place. Fortunately, I’m gonna be very busy playing with X. I’m doing the PJ20 Festival outside of Chicago. X is gonna go with Pearl Jam to South America. Holy shit!
DR: Wow!
JD: X is doing the East Coast and the Midwest in September. And, I’m planning to do a West Coast tour for Keeper in October, and then I’ll do the rest of the U.S. for Keeper in the beginning of December. Very busy… and, it’s kind of a drag because my girlfriend and I thought we were gonna get a dog, but we’re gonna have to wait and get it at Christmas.
DR: Well, that will make it that much better then.
JD: Absolutely.

Thanks To John Doe

Special thanks to Mary Moyer, Kristin Attaway and Jocelynn Pryor


JOHN DOE

KEEPER

8.29.11

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