One of the breakout bands from L.A.’s original punk scene, X has just released ALPHABETLAND, its first album with the original lineup since 1985. The album arrives on the 40th anniversary of their debut, Los Angeles, and is as fresh and fast a sonic blast as that landmark recording. PKM’s Bob Gourley spoke with John Doe about the making of the new album and his band’s history and legacy—and their connection to the Doors.
Forty years after releasing their landmark debut, Los Angeles, X is back with ALPHABETLAND, the first album from their original line-up since 1985’s Ain’t Love Grand. Initially meant to come out this August, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a surprise early release in April, just weeks after its completion. Like their debut, ALPHABETLAND has a focus and intensity that can be attributed at least in part to a tight recording schedule. It avoids the over-production that crept into X’s later major label work. And a misdialed phone call brought things full-circle in another way; Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek had produced the first four X albums, and guitarist Robby Krieger appears on the final track of ALPHABETLAND.
X formed when Baltimore-born bassist/vocalist John Doe moved to Los Angeles in 1976 and connected with guitarist Billy Zoom through a newspaper ad. Doe brought in co-vocalist Exene Cervenka, who he had met at a poetry workshop. (Doe and Cervenka were married from 1980 until 1985.) After working with a few drummers, they cemented their line-up with D.J. Bonebrake in that role.
A driving force within the Los Angeles punk scene, X incorporated elements of rockabilly into their sound and from the start has been known as a powerful live act. The group put out two studio albums after the departure of Zoom, who began performing with them again in 1998.
During periods of X’s inactivity, its members remained active with other projects. Doe has worked as a solo artist, actor and co-authored a pair of books focusing on the LA punk scene. Cervenka also launched a solo career and published several books. Bonebrake has played with such groups as the Bonebrake Syncopators and Orchestra Superstring and collaborated extensively with other artists. In 2005, Doe, Cervenka and Bonebrake put out The Modern Sounds of the Knitters with The Knitters, a country-influenced side-project with guitarist Dave Alvin and stand-up bassist Jonny Ray Bartel that initially launched in 1982. A specialist in vacuum tube audio equipment, Zoom runs an amplifier repair/customization shop and has played with artists such as Mike Ness, Dread Zeppelin, and Jane Wiedlin.
X has put out numerous live albums, the most recent being Live in Latin America (2017).
PKM: The last studio album from X was Hey Zeus! In 1993, and it’s been even longer since the original line-up released new music. What prompted you to get together and make a new album now?
John Doe: I think it was just time and it couldn’t have come at a better time. It started with releasing Live in Latin America, from when we did the Pearl Jam tour in 2012. We released that in 2017 for our 40th anniversary. We worked with Rob Schnapf, who is the producer on this record. We just liked his whole style, liked the way he mixed; we liked what we’d talked about as far as recording. And it’s hard for Exene and I to put the time and effort into writing songs if we aren’t sure if the band is going to rehearse them and/or record them, and you’re not going to rehearse them if you’re not going to record them. I think people get up in their heads about why and what to do. Joe Strummer certainly struggled with that, and I think that we struggle with that as well. Is it going to be as good? Are we going to capture the same chemistry we did? Et cetera. So in February 2019, we did four songs, one new one, three old ones. And it felt good. It was hard. It’s hard to stay connected to your intuition like that. But ‘Angel on the Road’ was the new song we did, and it was different enough to be challenging. I love the spoken chorus, like it was some kind of a Fifties song. By April of 2019, Exene and I started writing in earnest. We all wrote these songs in a way, but Exene and I would bring in the basic song. With ‘Goodbye Year. Goodbye,’ I was working on in December of 2019. And then Exene did the very last song, kind of off the cuff. She said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this piece of writing.’ And that was at the end of February of 2020.
So we get Rob Schnapf, who we trust, Fat Possum is re-releasing the first four records because we got our masters back. We have that taken care of, and then we go into the studio for the first recording and it’s like, ‘oh, this is a cool place. It feels right.’ It’s just fancy enough. You’ve got all those elements in line and then you can see your way a little towards the end. If you can’t see the end, it’s all altruistic to say, ‘Oh, I’m just going to make music to make music, man.’ No, I want to put the time and effort into something that I know is going to be real and have a home and be able to get out to people.
PKM: To what degree might you have been thinking about what X should sound like today, either due to your own current musical interests or fan expectations?
John Doe: As little as possible! As little thought as possible. It’s funny because it’s the same thing I was just talking about. If you get up in your head, you’re going to fuck it up. You play to your strengths. If you’re going to think about something, just try to boil it down to the basics. What are you good at? We’re not good at, and it would seem forced if we tried to write, pop songs. It would seem stupid if we tried to have a high concept. So you play to your strengths. You say, what are the elements that we’re good at? And you know, as far as what the fans expect, that’s a sure way to blow it. Because then you’re going to be trying to please everybody but yourself. And how are you supposed to know? But it’s the same thing. You play what you’re good at, and that’s why people, why the audience likes you in the first place.
PKM: You mentioned the last song, which is ‘All the Time in the World.’ It features Robby Krieger from The Doors. How did that come about?
John Doe: It was a mistaken phone call! Exene and Robbie and John Densmore and I have maintained a friendship and stayed in contact. I got to sing a couple of times with Robbie and John, and Exene did too. We have each other’s phone numbers. Robbie left a message on my phone talking about something completely unrelated; he called me by mistake. I called him back and said, ‘hey man, you got the wrong guy.’ And he said, ‘Oh shit, I’m sorry. What are you up to?’ And we chatted for a little while, and I told him that we were finishing up a record. He says, ‘well, hell, why don’t I come down and play slide on something?’ And I thought, ‘God, that’s a great idea! What would be good?’ And we struggled with that a little bit and then realized that ‘All the Time in the World’ was a bit like An American Prayer. [the posthumous Doors album featuring Jim Morrison poetry and spoken word.] So we just did that. It came full circle, you know, with working with Ray [Manzarek] on Los Angeles, which was 40 years ago.
PKM: You said that you tried not to overthink things, but looking back on the overall process, are there any ways that you feel ended up evolving over the course of making it?
John Doe: Oh, big time. This is the first time that I’ve rewritten whole passages, different chords. You know, ‘oh, those chords don’t seem to be creating enough tension.’ ‘oh, that’s kind of confusing.’ Or maybe ‘that sounds like something else.’ ‘Goodbye year. Goodbye, ‘ when we first did it, it sounded too much like ‘Your Phone’s off the Hook’, from the first record. So it was like, ‘oh shit, we can’t do that. That sounds like that other song.’ And ‘Star Chambered’ had different chords and so did the song ‘ ree.’ Rather than sticking to your ego and being stubborn, saying ‘well, that’s the way I wrote it, so we gotta make it work.’ If it’s not working, you just toss it out and try something else. Get over yourself and just try something. Billy was also helping with that. Like ‘maybe we don’t need that many chords in this part,’ ‘what if we did this for a bridge’ because we couldn’t find a place for the words in the song ‘ALPHABETLAND.’ So yeah, Exene and I were adding and rewriting lyrics right up to the end of singing it. That was different. Usually you wish you could try it out. You wish you could work on it several times, play it live, so to speak, before you record it. We didn’t have that luxury. But it just makes you stay in touch with that intuition thing.
PKM: COVID-19 has really affected the music industry; how does it feel to be releasing an album in such unusual times?
John Doe: Well it doesn’t feel great. It can be frightening and you have to stay away from that. Not knowing the future, the future of your whole career, basically. However, Fat Possum came up with the idea to release it early and we jumped at it. Because as an artist, it’s hard to finish something and then wait for three, six months, which is usual. You master it and then it starts going out to people and then you promote it and by the time it comes out, it’s like, ‘Oh God, didn’t we do that like last year?’ So, to be able to do this… we mastered it on like April 7th or 8th and it was released on the 23rd. Less than two weeks.
So that was great. And to give something like that to our audience, straight up rock and roll with some depth and meaning to the lyrics, to kind of knock people out of their malaise or depression or one day bleeding into the next. Like, ‘oh shit, look at this. Here’s something to wake me up.’ And it felt good to see Fiona [Apple] doing the same thing. ‘Oh, she’s smart. I dig her. She’s doing the same thing? Excellent.’ Within a couple of days of us making the decision, she dropped hers, and I was like, ‘Cool, we’re not fucking crazy.’
John Doe: I think that’s TBD. I don’t know yet. I think it got something off my chest. I was able to be pretty open and vulnerable about the last record we did, Ain’t Love Grand, the last one we did with Billy. And that was hard, but it was good to tell the truth, and also about Exene and me splitting up. Maybe having two books about LA punk rock made it a little more legit. I mean in the eyes of the consumer, in the eyes of the public, the first book became kind of an NPR thing. Who would’ve thought of that? LA punk rock being as [co-writer] Tom DeSavia likes to say ‘a wine and cheese subject.’ It’s like, well, all right, I guess so, you know, 40 years fucking later, I guess it can be.
Unless you have some grand high concept, I think you should make a record in a month. Just go for it and stay in touch with your gut and do it.
PKM: Regarding the older songs included on ALPHABETLAND, what made you pick those specifically?
John Doe: We never had finished versions of ‘Cyrano deBerger’s Back’ or ‘Delta 88 Nightmare.’ There were bad recordings. There were demos. They appeared on the anthology that Elektra put out in 1999. But it’s like, yeah, it’s okay, but they’re not great, so let’s do that. And as an entry back into recording, it was less investment, we kind of had a roadmap on how we wanted to make those songs. And then “I Gotta Fever,” I changed the lyrics completely because originally it was written as a kind of film noir exercise. It was called, “I Got a Heater.” Like, ‘I got a gun,’ Forties vernacular for gun. I just love film noir. I think it’s just a brilliant moment in cinematic history and has a lot to do with LA. A lot of them were based in Los Angeles, and I love those movies. And so, I was enamored with that, and I thought, ‘oh, I’ll write a song like this.’ It’s about someone seeking sanctuary, but kind of breaking into somebody’s apartment with a gun. And I thought, you know what, I don’t relate to this, and I don’t want to sing that nowadays because it’s fucked up. I don’t support that kind of thing. In ’77 or whenever I wrote it, it was good to be provocative. It was good to be dangerous. And at this point, I’m not into that. So, I switched it around to ‘I Gotta Fever in My Hand’ and then the pandemic hits, and it’s like, ‘Oh fuck, wait a minute. I don’t mean that kind of fever!’ But we liked the song, we thought it had a good chorus, we liked playing it, and it turned out that it fit.
PKM: The Los Angeles album recently turned 40. What was it like working with Ray Manzarek on it?
John Doe: It was a gift, we kind of hit the lottery in that way. For Exene and I, it was a great validation that we were on to something meaningful. Someone like Ray Manzarek doesn’t have to spend his time with a bunch of punk rockers like us. But he related to it; he saw similarities between the way that our audience and us we were one thing, he saw similarities with The Doors. I learned lessons lyrically from Jim Morrison and love The Doors. He walked the walk, talked the talk; he believed in all the mythical sort of psychedelic stuff that he and the rest of the band represented. In terms of like past lives and things having a deeper meaning; that kind of stuff. And he didn’t mess with us. He encouraged us and just got great performances. He didn’t try to reinvent our sound because he knew that we had something worthwhile. That’s a great thing for a producer to do.
PKM: Los Angeles was recorded fairly quickly; did that have a strong impact on how it turned out?
John Doe: That’s a good constraint because you don’t have time to waste. You don’t want to rush it, but at the same time, you have to move on. I give Ray a lot of credit for the songs that we chose on that record. We had already been playing ‘Adult Books’ and ‘We’re Desperate’ and ‘I’m Coming Over’ and some other songs that ended up on Wild Gift, but Ray helped us choose the ones that he thought were most like each other, most coherent. We spent maybe a little bit more time on this record that we did on Los Angeles, but not a lot. We did maybe three weeks of recording, including overdubs and then maybe seven to 10 days of mixing. Unless you have some grand high concept, I think you should make a record in a month. Just go for it and stay in touch with your gut and do it. Don’t think and rethink and analyze because then you’re going to end up with Sgt. Pepper’s or something.
PKM: Did you strive to maintain this way of working, or did things change during your major label years?
John Doe: Oh, I think that Ain’t Love Grand and Hey Zeus! were both much more manicured and over analyzed. I’ve relearned that lesson in doing solo records, and I give Billy and Rob Schnapf and Exene a lot of credit on this record, for not getting in too deep and not overproducing. Not having an extra little part on each chorus, not having an extra little connector between the instrumental and the start of the second verse, you know, all these little bits and pieces that I might’ve put in there. They were against that. And I struggled a little bit with that. And then I said, ‘Oh, all right, yeah, maybe you’re right’ and just let it go. I think that’s one of the ways the band can stay together; to look at a bigger picture and say, ‘how much do I want to fight for this?’ You know, like when you’re dealing with a child, if you have children, you have to pick your battles, or in any relationship. I think that’s something that we all have learned. I certainly have.
PKM: You mentioned the reissue of the first four albums. Hey Zeus! isn’t currently available; would you like to see that re-released?
John Doe: Oh, I don’t know. Maybe. I’m not sure that we knew who we were at that point. And Tony Berg, the producer, bless his heart … I mean, he did the best job that he knew how, but he had never seen X live before he worked on the record. It hit me like a ton of bricks. We played a show after we had finished the record; he came to see it and goes, ‘Oh my God, you guys are so great live!’ And I thought, ‘oh shit, he’d never seen us live!’ That’s where we built our whole thing, man. I mean, Hey, Zeus! has some good songs for sure. I love a ‘Big Blue House.’ ‘Country at War’ is cool and ‘Arms for Hostages’ is really beautiful. But the recording … you can’t really remix it because it was on this insane format. It was like a special machine that Sony had made. It was the very beginning of being able to fly tracks around digitally. I think there are only two of them in operation now, and it costs a thousand dollars an hour. That’s insane.