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Jeff Moehlis: Band X Bringing Los Angeles Punk Rock to Ventura

John Doe opens about the band and their music ahead of next week's concert

John Doe is one of the primary songwriters and singers for the punk band X, along with Exene Cervenka.

Band X members Billy Zoom, clockwise from top, Exene Cervenka, DJ Bonebrake and John Doe will perform next Wednesday at the Majestic Ventura Theater..
Band X members Billy Zoom, clockwise from top, Exene Cervenka, DJ Bonebrake and John Doe will perform next Wednesday in Ventura.

X’s 1980 debut album Los Angeles, produced by Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, ranks as one of the best punk albums of all time. This was followed by other acclaimed X albums, and a solo career that explored more of a roots music direction. Doe is also an actor who has appeared in a variety of films and television shows.

Doe and the other original members of X will be performing Thursday, Dec. 16 at the Majestic Ventura Theater. It will be a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the album Los Angeles, which will be played in its entirety, and also will include a screening of the documentary The Unheard Music.

The following interview was conducted by telephone on Nov. 4, while Doe was driving to the airport for a trip to Las Vegas.

Jeff Moehlis: How did the band X come together?

John Doe: I answered a free ad in a classified paper to Billy (Zoom), and he answered my ad, which was worded similarly. I met Exene at a writing workshop in Venice, and then we found DJ (Bonebrake) playing at The Masque with a band called the Eyes. Exene and I met about two months after I moved to L.A., and I met Billy around the same time. That was in the end of ‘76.

JM: How would you characterize what each person brought to the band?

JD: Oh, it’s probably better for writers to do that.

Billy obviously brought the element of rockabilly, and that was something that was part of punk rock — I mean, to return back to the roots of rock-and-roll, which was to make songs short, and not too ponderous. To be simpler about the lyrics, and about what the song was saying musically and lyrically.

I’m the traffic director. I’m the traffic cop in the band. I put a lot of elements together — Exene’s writing and my writing, and putting together the songs.

DJ obviously has his own style of drumming, and we kept encouraging him to look for more unique ways of interpreting the songs. He was really influenced by Captain Beefheart’s style of drumming, which is very eclectic.

And Exene, she’s the quintessential lead singer, at least she was then. Lots of problems to work out, of which she’s worked out a lot, or most of them. That makes her a great lead singer. She didn’t sing in other bands, so she didn’t have a traditional style of singing or harmony, or things like that, which is good because it made our sound unique.

JM: How would you describe X’s place in the L.A. punk rock scene?

JD: Well, I think we had more variety and a little better songwriting, and a lot more determination and ambition. So we sort of rose to the top. But that was because we worked hard and weren’t afraid to get out of L.A.

JM: How did you end up working with Ray Manzarek?

JD: He came to see us at the Whiskey A Go-Go. We played the song “Soul Kitchen,” and he didn’t recognize it, but his wife, Dorothy, did: “They’re playing your song,” and he said, “What?” She goes, “Yeah, they’re playing ‘Soul Kitchen,’” except a lot faster and louder.

JM: How would you characterize what Manzarek brought to your music and to your recordings?

JD: He was the objective voice that we needed, saying, “That was a good take” or “That was not as good.” He was never negative about things. He was always very positive. And I think his greatest accomplishment was just allowing us to do what we did. I mean, he made suggestions, did arrangements. But as a producer, he was not the kind of producer that you have nowadays, who’s also an engineer. He was there to get the performance, and to just establish an environment to make a good record.

JM: One of the distinctive elements of X is the harmonies with Exene. Were those worked out, or did they happen naturally?

JD: Well, you could answer that question (laughs). Yes, it was natural. We just sort of sang together. The fact that we were a team, and at least in creativity we were soulmates, being together all the time, being married and all that sort of thing, it happened.

I was always influenced by harmony that went against the grain. One of my bigger influences that I used but I hid in the early days was The Band. They had an incredibly creative, loose-knit but beautiful style of harmony. And Exene wasn’t trained by being in a bunch of other bands.

JM: At the Ventura show, there’s also going to be a screening of the documentary The Unheard Music. Can you tell a bit about that movie?

JD: Well, we’d need a whole interview for that. But basically, Bill Morgan, the director, wanted to make a movie about us. He went on for about four years. He’d get some film, he’d do some filming, and then we wouldn’t hear from him for about six months. The story develops and we developed. We started in about 1979, and finished in ‘83 or ‘84, something like that.

It looks good. We’re younger, and more handsome. But it doesn’t matter. It’s not just a concert film, it’s not just about a certain short period of time in the life of a band; it’s pretty wide-ranging. And it also has a lot of social commentary, what the music industry and what the USA was like at that time.

JM: A little over a year ago, Exene announced that she has MS. I’m curious, how she is doing?

JD: She’s fine. She’s had it for maybe 12 or 13 years, and the diagnosis was recently confirmed. I think her symptoms are pretty mild. She’s still the same old Exene.

Click here for the full interview with John Doe.

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.

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