Q&A: John Doe Discusses Craft and Creative Drive, Part 1
By Clare R. Lopez; photos by Autumn de Wilde on September 29, 2011
Sitting in one of the red, cushioned seats of the Grammy Museum’s Clive Davis Theater, John Doe wants to make one point in particular and says, “I hope people would think more before they act.” He noted the ecological advantages of the sentiment and it is one that immediately resonates in a much grander sense as well. Later on that evening, of August 31, Doe answered some playful as well as craft-based questions put to him by producer and colleague Joe Henry and also performed a few tracks off of his latest solo album, Keeper, for a crowd of loyal fans steadily bobbing their heads.
As the bassist for the legendary punk outfit X and a longtime solo artist in his own right, it is clear that plenty of thought goes into Doe’s music. Just after the soundcheck for his Grammy Museum performance, Doe sat down to talk with FILTER about what makes Keeper different from his other solo records, how he challenges himself musically and what drives him to keep writing music.
You did an album of country covers with The Sadies called Country Club. What appeals to you most about the genre?
John Doe: Everything that’s good about it. I think the arrangements can be deceptively simple, [with] the lyrics the same thing. Like punk rock, it’s very economical. You get a sense of time and place and characters, even if it’s not telling a story like a folk song—a long story about some event.
Country music often isn’t taken seriously for some of those reasons.
I think it’s not taken seriously maybe because there’s a lot of showmanship in it—a lot of spangley suits—and the people weren’t all that eloquent who were talking about it. They were down home folks. But it’s all heart, you know, it’s kind of like the blues. But the blues has the advantage of these really lurid tales.
What made you want to continue in a somewhat similar vein with Keeper?
Parts of it are similar; like maybe “Walking Out the Door,” “Painting the Town Blue” is similar—but that’s an old X song. Maybe “Sweetheart” is a little bit similar, but that’s kind of what I’ve done for the past five or six records. I think what’s different about this solo record, Keeper, from Country Club is that there’s a lot more rock and roll. It’s more contemporary chord changes. But what’s similar is that The Sadies have a real intricate way of playing together. We really kind of featured that on this record. We took a lot of inspiration from the late ‘60s, early ‘70s; like The Band, or The Rolling Stones or George Harrison—you can hear his guitar sound on that and some of the chord changes.
Artists usually push themselves to do new things or go somewhere different musically. In these terms, what did you have in mind for this album?
Probably being as direct about the influences—the ‘60s and ‘70s—because that’s the point at which, as a teenager, I decided, “OK, I’m going to play this kind of music. I’m going to learn from the bass players. I’m going to learn what the chord structures are and stuff.” I’ve never done anything that’s been this specific of that time. The lyrics are a lot more positive on this record than they have been. I mean, there’s still some edgy stuff to it. But like I said in the press release, it's love songs where people actually get loved. There’s a give and take, it’s not just about longing and loss.
How old were you when you decided to learn how to play music?
Oh, like 15… I was in grade school when The Beatles happened, like second or third grade, but I was aware of music and I was aware of what was going on. In the psychedelic era, I was a young teenager; I was really influenced by The Doors. I loved Jim Morrison’s writing and the way that they interacted. The way that they played as a unit was pretty special. But when I got serious, learning how the stuff gets pieced together, that was the later ‘60s era.
In FILTER 45, you talked about the impact of George Harrison’s music and mentioned All Things Must Pass. Is there a song of his that influenced you in particular?
You know, I can’t pick one. Even on the later Beatles records, his songs always had a kind of stand-out quality. I can’t imagine, as they were putting those records together, how did they pick? I really can’t. “Living in the Material World” was a great song from All Things Must Pass. With a lot of ambitious projects or records like that, it’s more like the accomplishment of the whole record rather than the one song. Like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, for years I didn’t really listen to the whole record. Then after listening to the whole record…it’s like a symphony—not to be pretentious or something—but it’s a whole piece. It’s incredible that they could do those edits to cut out the songs they did because one flows into the other. F
Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview with John Doe tomorrow.