After using the city as a backdrop for tales of urban love and hate with legendary punks X—which, for a four-album stretch between 1980 and 1983, was the greatest band in America—John Doe, like the protagonist in the band's signature song, had to get out. He fled L.A. in the early '90s, around the time he began using his warm tenor to more directly explore the country and blues his old group folded so deftly into its blistering punk clamor.
"You have to go where you're inspired," says Doe, 57, who was born in central Illinois and now lives in Northern California. "Los Angeles was oftentimes like living inside a giant boombox. What attracted me originally is that it was the heart of the beast. It was the most disposable, the most fast-paced and most anonymous kind of city you could move to. After that's not inspiring, you have to find someplace else."
These days, Doe (born John Duchac) finds inspiration in serenity. Keeper, his ninth solo album, is a collection of moonlit ballads and honky-tonk dust-ups, tied together by a newfound sense of satisfaction—a feeling that, as Doe explains, took some effort to get his head around.
WW: The music you played with X was so evocative of L.A. itself. How important are location and environment in your solo work?
John Doe: They're critical. You need different influences and different environments, different spaces, and you always have to be true to yourself and write about what you're involved in. I think it's important for me to be honest and straightforward, and that's why working on this last record was kind of a challenge, because I didn't have the usual loss and longing and unhappiness to draw on for inspiration. At some point, you have to figure out how you're going to write a song that isn't bland when you're feeling satisfied and as though things have turned around and you're happy. This is what I ended up with, and I think it's pretty good.
What was your solution, then?
It's the difference between being an extrovert onstage for X and having more internal dialogue or internal fire—as if you're acting in a film—to deliver a song with an acoustic guitar. With that sort of performance, with a quieter song or a more intimate song, you don't have the power and bombast you do with a rock band. So you have to figure out where the tension is. Where are the images that aren't necessarily unhappy or dark? You can have good images that are positive and rewarding and make you feel other emotions.
It seems like a big theme on this album is reflection. Would you say the record is nostalgic?
I would say it's trying to be more timeless. The song "Giant Step Backward," the time it's set in seems to be the 1930s, for some reason, because I mention a factory, and the song "Sweetheart," even though it's very current, seems to be set in the days of the horse and carriage or something. When you're writing the songs, they start to take on these shapes, and you have to go with it and let them be what they want.
I can't tell if the song "Never Enough" is about hoarders or the greed inherent in capitalism.
I've seen a lot of people who are hoarders, and it's kind of sad but almost comical. Well, it's not comical, it's just weird. It's also about extremism. It's about people having these ideas, these belief systems—whether it's religion or capitalism—where they get their head all full of smoke and then they decide, this is the enemy, and they want to blow up stuff. There's no reasoning with people. You have 50 ferrets in your basement? That's not right, but you couldn't reason with a person like that and say, "C'mon, you have 50 ferrets in your fucking basement!" It's that thing about trying to fill the void. I understand, but it's a shame that people don't realize satisfaction comes from within.