John Doe – Wolf at the door
“What I’m most interested in, from any record I listen to, is hearing a moment. A moment when, ‘Is there something real that’s going on here? Is someone experiencing something and translating that?'”
In 1980, the band X released one of the best records ever to come out of the American punk scene, Los Angeles, an album that burned with an incendiary passion that matched the fiery “X” on its cover. The band has gone on hiatus more than once in the intervening years, but 2005 will see something of an X-related renaissance, with live shows, DVD releases, and a second record from the Knitters, X’s 1985 acoustic side-project.
But first there’s X bassist/singer/songwriter John Doe’s new solo work, Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet, which features a guest appearance by Dave Alvin (guitarist on X’s 1987 album See How We Are), X drummer DJ Bonebrake on vibraphone, and a co-write with X’s singer (and Doe’s former wife) Exene Cervenka on “Hwy 5”, a wonderfully buoyant track tailor-made for cruising down lonely roads. The album’s female guest vocalists — including Neko Case, Kristin Hersh, Cindy Lee Berryhill, and Doe’s own daughter Veronica Jane — to some extent inhabit Cervenka’s harmonizing role that formed such a large part of X’s signature sound.
But the album is very much Doe’s own (though a few tracks that didn’t make the cut are slated to turn up on the next Knitters album). Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet, due out March 15 on Yep Roc, fulfills Doe’s “desire to make an electric record that is utterly simple, musically and lyrically,” he says. From the solemn, downbeat opening line “I don’t know that I ever knew you” in the first track, “The Losing Kind”, to the gritty melancholy of the final song, “Repeat Performance”, this is an album stripped to musical and emotional basics.
It’s a fitting approach for a record primarily concerned with, in its creator’s words, “Relationships. That’s my thing. Love songs. I was trying to write simple things, and they turned into blues songs. Maybe part of it is because it’s in the air; there’s a lot more of that influence in music nowadays. And another part of it is just a little switch that sort of flips over and you think, ‘Oh, I get it. Musically, that’s how that should work.'”
The blues influence is clearly evident in lines such as, “Someone broke your heart when they dropped it on the ground” (“Heartless”) and the overwhelming sadness of “She’s Not”, songs that Doe says colored the album’s direction. “At the point of about four, five, six songs into a new writing cycle, you kind of know what the record’s going to sound like,” he explains. “And I would say the songs on this record that made the creative decisions were kind of the blues songs — ‘Heartless’, ‘The Losing Kind’, a different version of ‘Hwy 5’ and ‘She’s Not’.
“And as these songs came up, I thought, ‘How are we going to frame this?’ Because really, the sound of a record is how you orchestrate and record it. That had a lot to do, probably the most to do, with the overall vibe of this one. So I listened to a lot of Arthur Crudup, Howlin’ Wolf — I think Wolf had probably the best band, and the best songs, of any of those kinds of artists. They were like pop songs; I love blues songs that are two and a half, three minutes long. And all of these songs [on Forever] are like 2:20 and 2:30; I do a verse and a chorus and a verse and chorus and maybe a little instrumental part and then, ‘See ya! Next!'”
The only exceptions are “Twin Brother” and “Repeat Performance”, which run about three and a half minutes each (“Those were my hippie jams!” Doe jokes). The brevity of the songs reflected the speed with which the album was made: It was recorded in just two weeks last April, at the Way Station in Los Angeles, co-produced by Doe and Dave Way (who also performs on the disc).
“People don’t have the time or the money to mess around,” says Doe. “I would love to have the opportunity to take, say, six weeks to constantly work on something. It’s fun to hang around in studios! I love it. Then again, I don’t know; after more than a month in the studio I think you’re starting to spin your wheels. It’s just extravagance, it’s just doing it because you can.”
Doe’s self-written press release accompanying Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet also proudly notes the album was done with “hardly any ‘fixes,’ over-dubs, no auto-tune” in its striving for authenticity. “What I’m most interested in, from any record I listen to, is hearing a moment,” he says. “A moment when, ‘Is there something real that’s going on here? Is someone experiencing something and translating that? Can I hear that? Oh! Yes I can! I like that.’ And I find that I sing better, and I think people that I like sing better when they’re doing it all at once, rather than piecing moments together.”
Not that Doe is completely opposed to working by “piecing moments together.” As an experienced actor, most recently seen as a hotel owner in TV’s CSI: Miami and still disappointed that his character in the series Carnivale was dropped (“They didn’t call me back. Bastards!”), he’s used to working that way. “You kind of fool yourself into reliving each one of those situations,” he says of film acting, “and the same thing with recording, if you’re piecing, say, vocal takes together. You actually are sort of tricking yourself into a different reality, but it’s a reality nonetheless.
“I’m not so much of a purist that I think that you shouldn’t use technology. You just have to keep your eye on the prize. Which is having that moment. And I think you can have a different sort of reality in what never was a single performance, and that can be perfectly fine too.