“The bands that really do something worthwhile,” says singer, songwriter and sometime actor John Doe, “are the ones that take music to a different level or sideways and create some kind of hybrid.”
He should know. As co-front man of legendary Los Angeles band X, Doe helped forge a new alliance between punk and country/rockabilly in the late ’70s. Today, innumerable “cowpunk” and “alt-country” bands are still following the same lead.
Fresh off the presses, Doe’s new album, Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet (released March 22 on Yep Roc Records), doesn’t sound like the work of an artist making a concerted effort to discover new sounds or, as he puts it, a new hybrid, but it does exude a sense of ease. Generally, Doe doesn’t take long to fuss over the recording process, so the way he shuttles fluidly between various forms of American roots music is even more remarkable. Precisely because he makes it sound easy, you might not even notice how well he’s pulling it off.
Doe conjures up the subdued, haunted ambiance of blues and country as easily as the heaving impatience of rock and punk, as if all of those styles became one consistent soup somewhere along the almost 30 years he’s left them simmering in the same pot. Obviously, the themes that have always attracted Doe — danger, death, sex, drugs, etc. — had been voiced in musical forms that existed long before punk, so his original leap into the past wasn’t such a stretch. But Doe’s capacity for taking a poet’s brush to the subject matter helps his songs inhabit those older forms naturally, so that he doesn’t seem like he’s reaching too hard, posturing or, worse, being ironic.
Guitarist Billy Zoom’s rockabilly background had a profound impact on Doe when the two musicians met and began playing together in 1976. (They formed X the following year.) Then, around 1980, Doe recalls, he “got a better education” from Phil and Dave Alvin, the latter of which was a guitarist for the Blasters and Zoom’s temporary X replacement in 1986.
“I mean, I haven’t studied it and I haven’t played it as a discipline,” he explains, adding that he doesn’t draw on rockabilly from the perspective of an outsider who isn’t native to the music. “I’m actually more of an insider,” he asserts.
Then, as he does for almost every question, Doe lapses into humor. “If you were gonna speak in martial arts terms,” he says, parodying a martial arts instructor’s “grasshopper” voice, “I haven’t gone through the discipline of rockabilly.
“But,” he continues more seriously, “as far as being able to sing it and play it, I think it’s sort of intuitive and innate — just from my upbringing and the time in which I lived, when I was born. I do remember when I was a kid that Elvis was on Ed Sullivan. It ended up being a big deal, because I lived in Tennessee.
“The weird thing about rockabilly and old rock and roll music is [that] it really wasn’t available, except for oldies compilation records. A lot of the early rock and roll — even like Little Richard — you couldn’t go into a record store and just buy a Little Richard record in 1975. They started being imported by an English label called Charly. So it was kind of bizarre. Here we are in the United States, where rockabilly and rock and roll was invented, and you couldn’t even buy the records, except from, like, record collectors.
“So there,” he says, breaking his train of thought to joke again, this time exaggerating the space between every word for comic effect: “No motherf••king Internet or iPod, my friend.”
Then, returning to the discussion: “Billy Zoom had a little more of an extensive collection. And he knew how to play because he’d played with Gene Vincent and things like that. So I felt as though I sort of had an inside track.”
Today, Doe continues to collaborate with major talents. Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet features notable guest appearances by Neko Case, Dave Alvin, Smokey Hormel, X drummer DJ Bonebrake, and a collaboration with X vocalist (and Doe’s former spouse) Exene Cervenka.
However, none of the musicians who play on the album, guest or otherwise, will appear with Doe when he plays in Asheville. Instead, Doe will be backed by the Nick Luca Trio, which will also open the show. The critically acclaimed trio — bassist Chris Giambelluca, drummer Jim Kolber and Luca on vocals/guitars/keyboards — plays a sinewy fusion of progressive Americana and edgy, soul-laced pop. Luca, whom one critic recently described as “a walking gene-splice between Elliott Smith and Curtis Mayfield,” has worked as a sideman and/or engineer/producer for the likes of Neko Case and Calexico.
Why did Doe pick this band to back him?
“Well, the fact that they have the top-10 Billboard hit,” he quips, feigning surprise at the question: “Oh, you mean you don’t know them?”
Even if you do, you’ll not likely get the chance to see them — or Doe — in quite this same light again.
[Freelance music writer Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is based in Rochester, N.Y.]
John Doe and the Nick Luca Trio will play The Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.) on Thursday, March 24. 9 p.m. $15. 232-5800.