John Doe, Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom and Bonebrake put LA punk on the map with X's 1980 debut, "Los Angeles," combining the speed and frenzy of punk with breathlessly romantic lyrics and ragged male-female harmonies. The first four albums, under the helm of Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, stand as some of the best of that era, and the shows were legendary (Pittsburgh dates at Heaven, Graffiti and the Syria Mosque, among them).
X's near-flawless run ended when the band split with Mr. Manzarek and opted for a shot at the mainstream with 1985's slicker "Ain't Love Grand." Things unraveled further when Zoom, frustrated by the band's lack of commercial success, left for the follow-up "See How We Are," an album that did produce a few more enduring songs than the previous one.
After that, Doe and Cervenka launched solo careers (and worked together as the Knitters) and the X discography dried up, save for the unmemorable 1993 reunion album, "Hey Zeus."
In 2008, X regrouped at SXSW and has been touring on and off since then, playing the back catalog with the fury of old. While the current tour has the band doing four-night residencies in select cities playing the first four albums straight through, the Pittsburgh show Sunday at Altar Bar is a one-off.
Last week, the 60-year-old Doe, who has just compiled his solo work under the collection "The Best of John Doe: This Far," checked in from the road before the run of New York shows.
You have this best-of record out. What was it like going back and assessing your solo work?
It was difficult to narrow 90-some songs down to 25. Just had to be selfish and at the same time think about what people request. I kind of picked songs that I thought should have gotten a little more notice. That's one of the reasons I did a new version of "Take 52," because people still request that song and that record was out of print eight years after it was released.
What brings X back together for these reunions?
We play all the time. This tour we're doing four records, one record each night in succession. I wish there was a cleaner way to say that. The first night is "Los Angeles," the second night is "Wild Gift," "Under the Big Black Sun" and "More Fun in the New World." We did it in LA and we're doing it in New York, Cleveland and Chicago. We play the record, reset some things and come back and play the rest of the show. In Pittsburgh, we'll be doing an extended X rock 'n' roll show.
What do you like and not like about that approach?
I like every bit of it. Because it shows that we're more than just a punk rock band, which, that's fine to be a punk rock band, but X always had a little bit deeper, wider, taller, sideways kind of songwriting and arrangement and musical ability. So, on the third night, Billy's playing saxophone on "Come Back to Me" and DJ's playing vibes. And we have an extra player who plays drums and guitar and percussion and helps fill things out. It's rewarding.
Do you have a favorite among those records?
Maybe "Under the Big Black Sun," although it's kind of a sad record. And then "More Fun in the New World."
Do you ever feel like, "I wish we could just skip this one song?" Because I know watching bands do that, I feel that way sometimes.
[Laughs.] That's so honest. A little bit, but that's not really an option. [Starts talking about general X shows.] We'll always play the song "Los Angeles." We will always play that, and it's OK, it's nice to be known for something. The luxury we have is we have a lot of songs, even more now in our repertoire, and if we get tired of some song, we'll say, "Hey, let's not do that song for two nights. Or for a tour." We did that with "True Love" because Exene got tired of singing it.
How would you compare the way the songs are played now compared to back then? Is it a little bit slower?
It's more focused. And most nights there are fewer mind-altering substances involved, so it's a lot more ... seasoned. It's definitely not slower because DJ is a machine. DJ Bonebrake, every time we play together I'm a little amazed that he can just ... do that. I could play like a half a song like he plays.
I guess one difference now is when you look out at the crowd, back in the '80s they were probably jumping off the stage and going insane, and now they're bigger, heavier, balding people that stand there and look at you.
No, that's not true. There are like 15-, 16-year-olds who want to see a band that has legacy and who is not part of the virtual world that we have found ourselves in nowadays. They want to see analog. They want to see something that's tried and true.
But certainly a lot of the fans are older.
Yeah. But it's a bit of a relief. Having some moron jump on stage and knock into your instrument and almost knock you off stage ... people forget where that started from. That started from Tony Alva and a bunch of skater kids jumping on stage, being incredible athletes, spinning around and flying off stage without touching one glass of beer. And then five years into that there's some doofus who doesn't know his ass from a hole in the ground breaking everything as he's trying to show off for his friends. So it's a relief to have people not do that. There are times when there's a mosh pit going on, and that's always fun. It happens a lot. Don't forget: It's still punk rock. People get jostled in the front and they get kind of miffed and they turn around giving glares to the people behind them, and I have to remind them, "Don't forget, this is a punk rock show."
Do you feel in a sense like Last Man Standing among the bands of that generation?
Yes. We are. I take a lot of pride in that and feel as though we're incredibly fortunate. Part of me doesn't understand why that isn't a little more noticed. You should be our flag bearer. Because, really, there are no other punk rock bands from that era that play as much or as good with the original members.
I have to ask you about Exene and her tweets [saying, "Santa Barbara Shooting Staged For Gun Control"]. What was that all about, and what have you guys talked about in terms of that?
Um, you're one of the few people that have asked about that, so I think it was a tempest in a teapot. It goes to show you that the media being what it is, where there are fewer and fewer outlets, if one person writes something on a blog, then it's suddenly a big deal. It was totally taken out of context. She wasn't saying that it didn't happen. She was saying people try to use it for their own gain. They want to use it for gun control or of control of the public. That's what she said. It blew over very quickly.
I watched the video of what happened at SXSW in March [four people were killed by a reckless driver], and I heard X playing "Nausea" in the background [from a nearby club, unaware of what was happening]. I wanted to ask you about your experience there.
Our experience was incredibly surreal, because it all went down while we were playing. I purposely didn't watch any of that stuff, because I heard about it, and I don't want that song to have that bad taste in my mouth.
[Someone in the band or crew calls to him.]
I gotta split. But basically, we were playing, it happened. We finished playing, looked out in the street and it was all cleaned up. And I thought it was weird that everyone wanted to tell their story about how they were there and attract attention to themselves rather than being worried about the people who got run over. Or why the cops chased this guy into ... I think it was as much as the fault of law enforcement for endangering people. So, yeah, it was a weird, weird, surreal situation, and I'm glad not too many people were hurt.
Just one last little thing: I would put X into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in a heartbeat. And bands like Gang of Four, so many bands from that era. Your feelings on that?
If they induct us, we'll go and say nice things. If they don't, that's OK. I don't really go for that whole idea of art as competition. I think all those award shows and things like that are misguided, because art isn't about competing. It's just about creating things. It's nice if someone pats you on the back, but going into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame isn't one of our goals for sure. Be nice if it happened.
Scott Mervis: email@example.com or 412-263-2576.
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