Interview with John Doe

I kinda wanted to talk about the music industry, and I wanted to get into it by talking about the character you played in Georgia, because I’ve never been in a band, but watching that it seemed like the most realistic portrait of a real working band that I’ve seen in a movie. Playing bowling alleys and bar mitzvahs, but still being able to make a living at it, which is kind of a triumph in itself. I wondered: is it really that authentic, and is that what drew you to the project?

John Doe: What drew me to the project was working with [director] Ulu Grosbard and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mare Winningham, and it being a great script. But I think it is accurate, to a bar band. Luckily, that’s the only time I’ve played “Hava Nagila.” Guaranteed. And I hope it’s the only time that I play it; not that it’s a bad song, it’s …

[Laughing throughout] It’s of a situation you’re not often in …

Yes. It sort of has a certain … je nais se quoi. [Laughs] But … the only thing that I don’t think a movie has ever captured in the music world is the speak that musicians have, the way that people are constantly capping on each other, and the banter that goes back and forth at rehearsal and just as they’re hanging around. I think that would be really difficult to script; you’d have to record it and then transcribe it. Even in Spinal Tap, it didn’t have that. I think of that sometimes in rehearsals and stuff.

The sickest part about doing acting is that then you find those same situations coming up in your real life. And then you’re wondering what’s real and what’s not.

Flashing back …

It’s just weird. Right around that same time when we were promoting Georgia, I was doing a tour on my own, and there’s this one place in Cincinnati called Sudsy Malone’s, which is a Laundromat-bar-gig.

One-stop shopping.

And it’s very popular with a certain level of musicians, because then they know that there’s one place they’re going to have clean clothes. And you can put your laundry in between soundcheck and the show and have it pretty much done. I’m sure that someone has probably gotten offstage while they’re playing so they can put it in for the …

[Laughing throughout] Put the fabric sheet in the dryer …

Right. [Laughs] I don’t think they’re worried about fabric softener with their jeans and t-shirts.

Your character had a line in that movie, something like “Look Sadie, things are really happening for us, and I don’t want you to fuck us up.” And to most people, for this band, nothing’s really happening; they’re playing bowling alleys. But for that band, to be able to just make a living playing is probably a pretty big deal.

Right, right.

They don’t have to worry about the day job anymore.

I think a lot of people would be better if they did have a day job. And in a way, acting has provided that for me, to do it for the right reasons; to do it because I love it, and because I need to do it, for creativity and stuff. And you can get—when you have a major label contract, you can get distracted, or you can get too far away from the reason you’re doing it. Because it becomes a job. And I think I was there—I was there with that Geffen contract, and I was there with kind of losing the reasons to write songs, or writing songs just for X, and it kind of came back after doing that Rhino record [Kissingsohard, 1995]. I’d collected a bunch of songs to do that record and then toured that, and then, just through personal life and things that happened, I realized I’d lost a sense of discovery, and a sense of searching for something and trying different things. Doing that Kill Rock Stars record [For the Rest of Us (EP), 1998) was—I tried to be innovative and tried to do different things, and carried it over into this one. It’s important.

Do you feel that you’re still “paying your dues”? Is there a point in your career where you thought “OK, I’m here; this can now be my job, I don’t have to worry about where the next paycheck’s coming in”?

Everybody has to worry about where the next paycheck’s coming in. Because everyone extends themselves over and above what they actually make. [Laughs] Everybody does.

This being America, after all.

Yes. Not just because it’s America, because you develop a lifestyle. I’m still having character-building experiences, let’s put it this way. [Laughs] You know, once you accept the fact that life is struggle, then you can embrace it a little bit better. My priorities are not security and comfort, although it’s nice to have in moderate amounts.

Well, you do have a family to help keep up—

I do.

—and that’s always a consideration.

It’s a great source of love, it’s a great source of happiness, and also it can take you away from what you really need to be paying attention to, which is a difficult balance. My wife is finishing school, she’s been going to school for five years, and so I’ve been taking the kids to dance classes and Girl Scouts and crap like that, and sometimes I have to turn down auditions, and say “I can’t do that, because I’ve got to be home.” And that can be really frustrating. Because you’re not paying attention to what you’re supposed to be doing. But that’s part of the tradeoff.

I was going to ask how the family has affected your songwriting, because it doesn’t seem like there’s a huge shift in the early X stuff to what you do now; it’s the same kind of themes and a lot of the same subject matter.

[Pauses] My kids have provided me with some great lines, in the way that they would mix up words. [Pauses again] It’s kind of separate. And I would be a better poet if I could write simply about day-to-day things, and the kind of pleasure they might give you. I’d be a better writer if I could do that. But you end up being drawn to similar subjects, and those being when things are not right, when things are upside-down and confused, and then writing sort of makes you feel better or helps you sort it out or something. Those moments of change.

Now about the new record [Freedom Is …], I was reading that you originally released it on the Internet.


I was wondering what brought you to that decision, and are you happy with the results of it?

I don’t know what kind of downloads they’ve had on that … I think until the technology catches up with it, until everybody has a CD burner in their computer, which is becoming more popular now—you can buy computers that have CD burners—I believe that people will pay for it. I don’t think that everybody needs to steal it, or wants to steal it. They need faster download time, and the ability to take it away from their computer; you may store the file there, but you need to be able to put it in your car. Until you can do that, it’s not going to be substantial, but I think that’s maybe a few years away.

The way it happened was eMusic did a benefit record for the refugees of Kosovo, and through my management they asked me if I’d donate a track to it. And then we were sending some tapes around to record companies and they weren’t, you know, beating down our door, so it was an obvious way to have something released. And then spinArt came through and said “You know what? We really get this, and we’d love to put it out.” And they were the most logical choice.

Are you committed to any label, or is that just for that one record? You’re working through spinArt and the next one will be through someone else?

Yeah. But if things go well with spinArt, then I may do another record with them. If things work, I like to continue doing it, like to try to be loyal. But you know … if there was a bigger independent, I doubt if I would ever sign to a major label; I doubt they’d be interested. At this point, I think major labels really have their heads up their asses. I kind of hope that they crumble under their overhead and their desire to get the next hit. I think they’re blowing it, because they’re not developing catalog; they’re not developing people that are going to have careers in two years, or certainly not ten years. Maybe a few. But I would love to see them …

Yeah, they just got slapped for price-fixing CDs, I don’t know if you read about that.

I heard about it.

Five of the labels got hit for—


—yeah, artificially keeping the prices inflated.

Wow. That’s great.

‘Cause [prices] haven’t gone down since the mid-80s. There was all this talk saying, “Well, they’ll eventually go down once the medium gets more popular,” but they never did and people just kind of forgot about it.

So what’s the repercussions of that? Do they have to—

Well, the consumer might get a couple of dollars off; I don’t know if they reached a settlement agreement yet.

Well that’s the most frustrating thing about retail stores as well. Because they’re just as guilty of that. When I released that record on Kill Rock Stars, we sold it for like four dollars, so if they double the price it would be eight. We’d walk into a record store and it would be 16! A couple of other friends of mine released EPs, and I would go to get their records and they’d be 16 bucks. For five songs. Well of course they’re not going to sell very many of them!

I think what made the labels so mad was chains like Best Buy selling CDs for nine dollars, as a loss to get people into the stores—

Right. And buy a refrigerator.

—and they took extreme exception to lowballing.

But they can do that.

Yeah. Stores like that certainly can. While we’re talking about downloading music, I assume you know Metallica’s suing Napster, and other artists are suing Napster. What’s your feeling on that?

I don’t care. I’m not at that level. I give away tracks for benefit records, or just do it for small fees, things like that, because at this point I’m still establishing who I am as a solo artist. It sounds crazy, but people still think that I play roots music. Certainly Rhino, Kill Rock Stars and this record is not roots music; I mean, maybe it is because it has a verse and a chorus, it’s not drum n’ bass, but I have more in common with Aimee Mann than I do with Dave Alvin. Just the way the music sounds.

I know in the case of Metallica, a lot of the fans are saying “You let fans trade tapes in the early days to get your name around, and now that you’re famous, you’re cutting everybody off.” Is that valid? Or is stealing stealing, no matter …

Stealing is stealing, but I think Metallica … they’re still going to sell records. You are not gonna … that 300,000 records that supposedly got downloaded, people are still gonna go out and buy a physical record. Maybe not all of those. They should just—I don’t know. They should do what they want. I could care less. I understand the concern. I can empathize with them, but at the same time, they should try to put a better spin on it or something, so they don’t look creepy.

Just a bunch of greedy corporate …

Yeah. But I don’t know; that is a question I can’t answer easily. I don’t think anybody can. But I believe that people will, like I said earlier, that people will buy stuff. And they won’t just steal it.

If you’re devoted to an artist, you won’t begrudge them their fifteen bucks for a CD, or you shouldn’t.

The only thing that’s worrisome about downloading to me is that it encourages just getting one or two songs, and not to say that every record is … as one thing, worth it, but still … there may be one song that you don’t get at first. And then, three or four or five listens into it, then it becomes your favorite song, and then you go back to the one that was originally your favorite, and then it shifts around. There are few records that, as a whole, really hold together. But there’s certain records that I still listen to that are new or old, that, as soon as the second song is finished, I start hearing the third one. And then when you hear them out of order, like if someone makes a mix tape and you hear that second song, and then this other song comes it’s like “No no no no no, that’s not right!” [Laughs] “That’s not supposed to be there!”

Maybe what the future has in store is that the whole idea of the self-contained album might fall by the wayside. People just release a batch of songs.

That’s why I love EPs. Twenty minutes is perfect; it’s a perfect kind of—you know our limited attention span these days. [Laughs]

But it’s hard to release those, isn’t it? Store don’t want to carry them.

Stores don’t want to carry them, record companies don’t want to release them, writers don’t want to really write about them because they don’t consider them valid.

I wanted to ask about X. I don’t quite know the status of X today; I heard you broke up …

No no no, we’ve been playing together with Billy Zoom for, like, two years now. Maybe even longer.

I mainly ask because I was reading a few interviews with you semi-recently, and you were mentioning getting together with Exene [Cervenkova, fellow co-founder and Doe’s ex-wife] and talking about where you wanted to take the band, and agreeing that it wasn’t what you were both into heart and soul, so maybe it was best not to revive it as a full entity.

Right, right, as far as a recording band, that kind of thing. But when we play, we play the first four records, and have been going back to those records, the catalog of those, and putting new songs in the set. We played two nights [in Chicago] a few months ago, and did two nights at the House of Blues in L.A. just, like, three weeks ago; played that benefit for Dennis Darnell down in Orange County with Social D and Pennywise and Offspring. Man, Pennywise just tore the place up. They’re like Black Flag squared. It was crazy. But you know, the status of X is that we play for people who never saw it and want to see it again. Those two groups. And it’s loads of fun. There’s not a whole lot of pressure; I mean, there’s pressure to play well and to really do it, and do it right.

You just kind of do it when the four of you feel it would be a good time?

Yeah, when we can get the right place and it makes sense, yeah. For fun and profit.

In that order.


Playing the old songs, does it feel the same? Singing the songs that you wrote upwards of twenty years ago now. Do they mean the same?

Some of ’em. Once that engine starts, then you’re in it. You’re in it and you’re not intellectualizing about it. And I think once you are singing a song, or playing a song, it kind of defies time; it just creates its own reality and you’re feeling and hopefully projecting that song right.

I was laughing listening to the guy yesterday [at Doe’s Noise Pop performance] yelling for “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline” over and over. [Doe laughs.] I kept waiting for you to tell him, “Look guy, this isn’t really the place.”

I wondered why he wasn’t at the House of Blues two months ago. We played it both nights!

There’s a song on the [new] record I wanted to ask you about, “Too Many Goddamn Bands.”


Which I liked, but I assume that my view of it as a writer who’s trying to keep up with the music and failing, because there’s just so much of it—


—must be different from your view of it as a musician—


—is it like competing with all these people, or …?

Well part of it is the competition, but it’s … it’s too much everything. On the back of the Freedom Is … CD, there are little parentheses, like one- or two-word descriptions of the song. And for that one, it’s like “And everything else.” Because we’re just overloaded, completely, so it’s incredibly hard to focus on a film, to focus on a scene, a direction in music, because everything’s happening simultaneously and everybody’s vying for people’s attention and people’s attention span is shorter and shorter, and so you don’t want to do anything.

There’s kind of two songs in that song. One is the experience of being in a band, which is the verse, and then the chorus is more like what we were just talking about, the overload everybody experiences. It’s kind of fucked up the way that you have to buy shelf space in record stores, and if you’re stuck in the bins you can forget about selling anything, really, or getting to the people who might want to. Unless you’re going in and specifically requesting a record.

I go into those used record stores, and there’s always that bin of dollar CDs, with all these bands that made CDs and went nowhere; it’s heartbreaking to look at it all.

I know, I know. Or there’s—how many times have you gone to a movie, and you’ve walked out and … “What’d you think?” “It was OK.” [Laughs] To take two years of someone’s effort and all these people’s hard work: “It was OK.” Just sort of—[snaps fingers; both Doe and PCC laugh] gone! I’m sure that those people, if they could hear that, would go “Well wait a minute! Did you see this thing—”

“Didn’t you see that one shot?”

But that’s the way it is.

I guess it’s incentive to try to rise above the pack, but that can provoke a lot of healthy responses and a lot of not-so-good responses, as people try to get seen and get noticed.

I think all you can do is just to be true to yourself and try to … you know, whatever goals you have in a song or in a record or a movie or something like that is to do that the best you can, and then just forget about it. Not to overthink it, not to overintellectualize it, and to realize that as you’re doing it, that’s the best part of it. All the rest of the stuff—the touring, you have to be in the moment for that, enjoy that for what it is, but if the record or the movie doesn’t do well, then—it didn’t do well! For whatever reason. You can be pissed off for a short period of time, but it’s really dangerous to read reviews and to believe them. Because then if you read something good, you think “Oh, well they got it,” but then you have to read something that’s bad. So I tend not to.

Do you listen to your old stuff ever?

Songs? Sure. I don’t listen to much X. You listen to a record so many times, you’re kind of done with it. And you’re thinking about new stuff.

Originally published on Pop Culture Corn in June 2000.