For the past 30 years, John Doe has been blazing a trail on his own terms. He first appeared on the national radar in 1978 with his band X, which launched out of Los Angeles with a thrilling mix of rockabilly and punk with street-poet soul. He has remained relevant with the country-and-folk-meets-punk ethos of his solo work. His new album, A Year in the Wilderness, is his seventh solo release. The Pitch called Doe to ask about it.
The Pitch: You're in your 50s now. With a lot of artists, nostalgia takes over when they get further into their careers. Is that something you try to avoid?
Doe: I'm very nostalgic, just not in my art. Not in my songwriting. I've been there and I've done it, and I'm still going there and I'm still doing it. People will say, "So what was it like in 1978 in Los Angeles?" And there is no way of telling them — it was either you're there or you're not. It was amazing, but there was no way of conveying that type of thing.
X is one of the big figures in American punk, but do you feel now that punk rock is this easily attainable look and image? Or is it still something that people need to seek out and define for themselves?
I think it's both. I think there is a commercial, above-ground, sort of co-opted version of punk rock, some of which is good, like Green Day, and some of which is not, like Good Charlotte. Then there is punk rock that is underground still. There are people still going to clubs, whether there are 50 or 200 people there. It's more of a subculture and more of a rite of passage. Someone who's 16 to 20 goes there and has that sense of freedom, gets a black eye and goes to school the next day and says, Dude, I went to the punk rock show — it was awesome! I think that that sort of freedom, whether it's punk rock or not, exists everywhere.
X and your solo work always seem to be tinged with a bit of country and rockabilly. Is that because, being from L.A., you were so close to the Bakersfield sound that was going on near you?
I think Billy Zoom [former X guitarist] put the rockabilly sound into X. I give Billy a lot of credit for putting Chuck Berry into punk.
What was the vibe you were trying to pull together with your new album?
Nothing more than I've done on my last three. I live in an area of California where the landscape kind of figures into the songwriting — songs like "The Meanest Man in the World" and "A Little More Time." But it's about people dealing with relationships, people dealing with maintaining them, or new relationships or letting go. It's all of those things. The wilderness is physical and metaphorical. It's what's real and what's metaphorical.