John Doe discusses his new album “The Westerner” and his book “Under the Big Black Sun”

(Photo Credit: Jim Herrington)

John Doe is a singer, songwriter, poet and actor. He is probably best known for his work with the seminal Los Angeles punk band X which formed in the mid 1970’s. 2016 has been a busy for year for Doe as earlier this year he released his first solo album in five years titled “The Westerner” along with a book chronicling the L.A. punk scene titled “Under the Big Black Sun”. Media Mikes had the chance to talk with John recently before his performance in Ithaca, NY about the idea behind his new album and what it was like revisiting the stories contained in his book.

Adam Lawton: Can you give us some background on the new album “The Westerner”?

John Doe: My friend Michael Blake who wrote “Dances with Wolves” and several other books was like a brother to me. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and over time couldn’t remember anything. It bugged the hell out of him but we remained close through everything and I would always go up and visit him. We influenced each other a lot in art and writing. Howe Gelb and I were reconnecting around the same as I was writing songs about Michael and using him as a character. I like what Howe has done with different peoples sound as well as his own in Giant Sand. He has really refocused the sound coming out of the Tucson area. I wanted the songs to have space and reverb so working down there seemed like the natural way to go. I had the title “The Westerner” sort in my mind as someone sent me a Doors record. The Doors were also Michaels favorite band so I began looking up stuff on them and my connection with that band goes way back. I was searching the internet and found an image done for one of their record store day releases. Shepard Fairey is the artist who did the piece and he and I have been friends for some time so I asked if he would redo the piece for me and he said yes. The original photo was shot at the Rose Bud Reservation by Aaron Huey who has an organization called “Protect the Sacred”. This was one of Michael’s main charities so it was great to be able to tie all this stuff in with the album. The album is a tribute album but it’s not sad.

AL: Was the idea to do a new solo album already in your thoughts prior to Michael becoming ill?

JD: Everything happened very organically. These days I sort of sit back and look at my watch and say “Holy shit it’s been 4 years since I made a new record” (Laughs). I always am writing bits and pieces of things but it just so happened that Michael was on my mind and I started to see how things were happening and I began tailoring things with what was going on. I loved the song Exene wrote called “Alone in Arizona”. It seemed to be kind of about Michael even though it really wasn’t. I am a big fan of Chan Marshall especially her albums “The Greatest” and “Sun”. I started doing the song “A Little Help” and realized it was similar to “The Greatest” and asked Chan if she would sing on it with me. With the song “Go Baby Go” I reached out to Debbie Harry as X had toured with Blondie and I had asked her before that if I ever had something I thought she would be good for would she do it. That song is a fun rock song and it worked out great. I am very fortunate that I am still around and that people want to come and play.

AL: Having been in the music industry for some time now aside from digitalization and the internet what has been the most notable change?

JD: MTV was really big when it first came out. All the other stuff out there I don’t really concern myself with. I have Instagram and my manager does Facebook so I have a small to moderate presence with social media but if people really want to see me then I think they should come out to show as I am generally hanging around. There is so much great music out there these days that it’s hard to rise above the static. Think of the old music business like an hour glass. You had the music at the top, at the pinching point was the business at the bottom was the public. Over time the shape of the industry changes to where now it’s square. There is just so much stuff flooding people ears these days.

AL: What can you tell us about your new book “Under the Big Black Sun”?

JD: Tom DeSavia who is the co-author and my sweet heart were both telling me that I should write a book. I thought it was going to be just too much work so I didn’t really pay attention to them. One day I had this brilliant idea about how the scene in L.A. was about community and collaboration. With that I knew that I wouldn’t have to write this book all by myself or suffer the pain if people didn’t like it I could just blame it on somebody else. (Laughs) I didn’t have to be the authority on things. I liked book such as “Please Kill Me” and “We Got the Neutron Bomb” however there is not a lot of fact checking that goes into oral histories. Los Angeles was sort of a romantic place in that era so I thought it was important to have it be its own character. I really feel that everything that is Los Angeles from the weather to the cars affected the way the music sounded. After Tom and I decided to do it we got a book deal and things became real. We got paid a pretty good advance and then we knew we really had to go through with it. We started getting people together and selecting topics based on what was important to that scene and what would make people care. The big one was it was that what happened was a cultural revolution. That was Exene’s big part of the book. Dave Alvin was part of the roots scene which got pulled into punk rock so he is the expert there so, that’s where he tells his story from. Robert Lopez was in a Latino band called The Zeroes. He was not out at this time but he was obviously gay so he was able to talk about that aspect of things. Jane Wiedlin talks about where people lived and how that played a role. By doing things this way we were able to give the book a much broader perspective.

AL: The book shines a light on the L.A. punk scene as it was/is often overshadowed by what was going on in New York and London around the same time. Can you tell us a little about that?

JD: I think at some point the media picked up on The Sex Pistols and few other bands that were young and/or un-experienced who said “Fuck You”. The media then said “Ok, Fuck you” which caused them to not cover things as much. When the L.A. scene finally came around about a year and a half later they possibly had enough images and maybe had made up their mind that we weren’t going to play ball. I think bands like Blondie, Talking Heads and The Ramones just wanted to be part of music and have a career. That’s what we wanted also. It wasn’t until the hardcore scene that people felt like they had been abandoned leading to bands doing things on their own. That’s when labels like SST started popping up. Everyone had sort of a chip on their shoulder and over time L.A. punk has started to carve out its own niche which has been good. Twenty or thirty years ago I would have probably been pretty bent out of shape about how the L.A. scene was looked upon but these days I couldn’t care less.

AL: Was there a present rivalry between the two coasts/scenes because of this?

JD: Sure. I think there was a healthy rivalry between New York and L.A. and L.A. and San Francisco but it wasn’t anything to wild. I do remember Exene getting into a fight with Handsome Dick from The Dictators once. (Laughs) What we loved about the whole thing was that almost all of those bands came out to Los Angeles to play at The Whiskey. We saw The Ramones, Blondie, The Damned, Television and a few others who played out our way regularly.

AL: What was it like for X when they would travel to the east coast?

JD: It was rough at first. Exene’s sister got us three shows in NYC in 1978 after we put out our first single. We basically drove from L.A. to New York with all of our gear, played three shows and then drove home. There is a little of that in the book but it was sort of a lukewarm reception. Debbie Harry and Chris Stein came to the shows at Studio 57 and later on we got to be pals with The Ramones. It took a little while because everyone thought L.A. was just swimming pools and Farrah Fawcett. You weren’t just given a Mercedes when you moved there. It was a pretty hard scramble. It was cheap to live there at the time though so there were a lot of young people with nothing to do but create stuff.

AL: What was it like revisiting a lot of the memories from that time period, especially the ones around the time of the death of Exene’s sister?

JD: That specific event wasn’t hard to dig into as I had experienced it so deeply in the beginning. It changed everything for Exene and by relation me too. It wasn’t too hard to look back. I don’t necessarily wish I had kept diaries or anything. It might have been good? You sort of start channeling towards a certain direction and things start to come back. I think it’s all about the details. I worked with everyone who wrote for the book and I always asked for more details. I think everyone was happy to tell their story and I was surprised by quite a few of them.

AL: With your current solo tour coming to end do you have planned for the coming year?

JD: The fortieth anniversary of X is coming up next year. We have the initial schedule which consists of around one hundred shows! Usually we do between thirty and fifty shows a year so this is quite a bit more. I think it’s great! Forty years ago we put a big investment into the bank of punk rock. At the time everyone though it was bullshit but we all have been able to make pretty good careers out of that initial investment. We are one of the few remaining punk bands from that time with its original members. Everyone is healthy now which is really great. We also will be looking to put out some live material and if Exene will write some more lyrics will put out some new songs as well. (Laughs)

Concert Review: John Doe

John Doe, Anna Coogan

Friday, November 4th 2016
The Haunt, Ithaca, NY

Our Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars

John Doe founding member of the legendary Los Angeles punk band X made a stop in Ithaca, NY on November 4th as part of Cornell University’s “Punk Fest: Anarchy in the Archives” a week-long event which included various speaking panels and music performances which coincided with the opening of the Universities “Anarchy in the Archives” exhibit which showcases a vast array of rare punk artifacts. The performance was second of three performances the venue was schedule to host and fans who attended were treated to a great night of music which was highlighted by a guest appearance by X front-woman Exene Cervenka.

Little did I know when I walked through the intimate river side venue doors that on this night I was going to witness an amazing performance by not one but two! Legend’s in punk rock music. The venue was buzzing with excitement as people had heard that X front-woman Exene was in the building after being asked earlier in the day by John to perform with him. After a brief yet eclectic opening set from singer/songwriter Anna Coogan who despite battling some seasonal illness put forth a solid effort which the Ithacan crowd seemed to quite enjoy from the local artist who just returned from a tour with Alt/Country artist Johnny Dowd. After a very quick set change over the man himself John Doe was front and center where he announced his plans for the evening and confirming that Exene was in-fact in the house and that she would be performing with him this night. This announcement only further electrified the crowd as everyone in attendance now knew just how special this night was going to be. To start the set off Doe played selections from his solo career including a handful of new tracks from his recently released “The Westerner” album. Mid way through the performance Doe welcomed up his X cohort Exene to the dimly lit stage. The long time collaborators then proceeded to take the evening to the next level. Though the portion of the set with Cervenka was impromptu the two veterans armed only with one acoustic guitar and their voices delivered a mesmerizing performance that went off as though they had done it hundreds of times before. Much like their work in X the duos haunting voices complimented one another and despite the minimal instrumentation the music was equally if not more powerful in its raw form.

Doe took the stage like a pro and with the help of his long time band partner Exene Cervenka held the Ithaca crowd in the palm of their hands.

Be sure to check out our exclusive interview with John Doe in the interview section of the site.

Jamie Bamber talks about new role in “John Doe: Vigilante”

Most audiences are familiar with actor Jamie Bamber from his role as Apollo on the acclaimed television series “Battlestar Galactica” and its accompanying films. I was a huge admirer of his work on the UK version of “Law and Order.” This week Mr. Bamber appears as a man on trial for 33 serial killings in the new film, “John Doe: Vigilante.” While taking a break at home (with his dog) we spoke about the film and the change of pace casting.

Mike Smith: Hello and a belated Happy Birthday (Mr. Bamber recently turned 42 on April 3rd)
Jamie Bamber: That’s very kind, thank you.

MS: “John Doe: Vigilante” is such a change of pace role for you. What drew you to the project?
JB: Definitely it was the script. I just thought it was such an unusual script. It definitely addresses the view of the audience…without hitting them over the head and railroading them into having an outraged, bloodthirsty, justice-seeking mob opinion. I found the subject to be very threatening to society and civilization and goodness and everything like that. But then it shifts on you. Just as you’re being pulled into this mob response and losing your faith in justice, it changes your view on what that view is. It makes you feel reprehensible for going there. And I think it really does do that. When you watch the film… (Mr. Bamber’s dog starts barking) Sorry (more barking and whispering). Sorry. It was that very unusual script that drew me to the story.

MS: You’ve played quite a few likable characters in the past. Was the kind of character John Doe is part of your decision in taking the role?
JB: Definitely. You’re quite right. I’m often offered roles that are the decent guy in an extraordinary position. Actually, when I looked at this, I thought “this is an opportunity to do something very different.” And I thought that the guy was fundamentally a decent guy who ended up going on a very unusual journey. Some awful things have happened to him in circumstance and he has lost his moral anchor. But the places he goes to – the dark places – the extreme isolation he experiences behind the mask and when he’s in prison – those are the opportunities to play things I hadn’t played before. And I greatly enjoyed the challenge.

MS: You’ve done quite a bit of both film and television work, do you have a preference? Do you prepare differently as an actor for a film role as opposed to a television role?
JB: They’re both so wonderfully different and yet so wonderfully the same. They both use cameras and the cameras help tell the stories but there’s something about television where you get to watch the stories unravel and go on and become more and more complex. And that also applies to the people you’re working with, too. You become a family. I mean I consider “Battlestar Galactica” one of the greatest experiences of my life. So that side of television is certainly a wonderful thing. The longevity and the continuation. And yet there’s also something amazing about telling a story from beginning to end, from A to Z, in two hours of screen time. I mean you go into the project knowing how it ends. So it may be a bit more demanding in the acting choices you make. You have to be able to tell a story in ninety minutes.

MS: You’ve also voiced a few video games. Is that another “type” of acting as well?
JB: I love doing voice work. I love doing that, it’s great. I love trying to communicate the scene only through the spoken voice. I’d like to do more. I’d like to do a motion capture game, I think that would be interesting.

MS: What do you have coming up?
JB: I just finished a film in Canada called “Numb.” It’s a film I’m very proud of and I can’t wait to see. I also just finished “The Better Half,” which is a romantic comedy which should be out later this year or early next year. I’m keeping busy with different things. No long-running TV show at the moment but I’m keeping busy.

DVD Review “John Doe: Vigilante”

Starring: Jamie Bamber, Lachy Julme and Sam Parsonson
Directed by: Kelly Dolen
Rated: R
Released by: ARC Entertainment
Release date: April 14, 2015
Running time: 1 hour 33 mins

Film: 4 out of 5 stars
Extras: 4 out of 5 stars

Vigilante films have been around for many years. The most popular, “Death Wish,” made Charles Bronson a star and spawned four sequels over 2 decades. Even more subtle films, like “The Star Chamber,” made the question of whether vigilantism is acceptable. Now a new film takes on that question, and your answer may not be what you think it is.

John Doe (Bamber) has been put on trial, charged with killing 33 people. The trial is over and the verdict is about to be read when suddenly an explosion rocks the courthouse area.

A violent film with a compelling message, “John Doe: Vigilante” is a well made, thought provoking film that asks viewers to put away their black and white definitions of right and wrong and truly ask themselves “what would you do?” The film begins with John Doe sitting down with a journalist to answer any questions he may have. John’s first crime was killing a pedophilic former priest. He videotapes the killing and sends it to the mainstream media. They run it, but edit it, so it looks like John killed an innocent old man. No mention is made of the crime or the fact that the tape contains an image of the man giving piano lessons to a young girl with his fly literally open. A woman who’s boyfriend abuses her refuses to leave him. After another horrific beating John Doe beats the man to death. Murderers who’ve escaped justice. Abusers. Rapists. Anyone who has committed a horrific crime and escaped punishment, be it by no prosecution or being released with a slap on the wrist by the court, is told to watch their backs.

Eventually John Doe grows a following, calling themselves “Speak for the Dead.” This faction begins imitating John Doe’s actions, though not as successfully as the real thing. As the interview progresses we see how the media also had a hand in promoting John Doe. A station manager says he was against running the footage supplied at first, but agreed when assured it would be exclusive.

The film is well written and well cast. Bamber, who I’m very familiar with through “Battlestar Galactica” and the UK version of “Law and Order,” steps out of the proper comfort zone he’s been in and gives a dark, yet enlightened performance. He’s an even more crafty Clyde Shelton, Gerard Butler’s character from “Law Abiding Citizen.” The direction is first rate as well, with filmmaker Dolen mixing up the source materials (film, surveillance camera, hand-held video) cleanly.

The EXTRAS are also enjoyable, featuring (2) audio commentaries by the director and screenwriter as well as one by Jamie Bamber, three “behind the scenes” featurettes and cast and crew interviews.

Interview with John Doe

John Doe might typically be the name given to a person who is unknown.  But that’s definitely not the case for this John Doe (born: John Duchac). John started his career with the seminal LA punk band “X” , and has appeared in over 50 films as well as several television series. Doe has also contributed music to several movie soundtracks. Moviemikes.com correspondent Adam Lawton recently had the chance to speak with John about his career.

Click here to purchase John’s music or films

Adam Lawton: What made you want to go from playing music and get into acting?
John Doe: There was a woman named Maggie Abbott who worked in an agency who represented my band “X”.  She had helped other musicians such as David Bowie and a few others get into movies. So she asked about doing the same for me. I also was friends with Allison Anders, who I worked with on Border Radio, and it has kind of kept going from there. Acting is a whole different element of expression, and you have to be prepared for it. For me, it’s actually quite a bit harder for me than playing music.

AL: Do you prefer acting now over playing music?
JD: Music is what I done more for the last couple of years, so I haven’t done too much acting. I have been touring and recording a lot. For someone over 50 there aren’t a lot of roles out there. You can play a cop or  someone’s dad. The roles are really limited. I am also not a big fan of auditioning, it’s kind of a drag.

AL: What has been your most recent on screen role?
JD: I did an independent movie called “Hated”, which I don’t know if that’s going to be the final name of it about a band from NY set around 2000. I got to play an evil manager, but I am not sure when the film is actually coming out.

AL: One of your first roles was in Oliver Stone’s “Salvador”, can you tell us about that experience?
JD: I didn’t really understand why I got the job. I thought to myself that wow this is amazing, and I knew I was very lucky at the time. Oliver Stone hadn’t really distinguished himself yet, and I think he may have been a little over his head. He just had so much going on with the rest of the cast, which included James Woods and Jim Belushi, and combine that with the film being shot in Mexico (laughs). Oliver was very kind and generous to everyone.

AL: Do you have any other upcoming projects?
JD: Right now I am in the middle of a west coast tour with my band “X” which wraps up just before the new year. I also will be starting to record a new solo album right around the same time that the “X” tour is ending and should be released hopefully in July of 2011. I also am putting the finishing touches on a live album I did with Jill Sobule. The cool thing about that album is all the money that was collected from ticket sales was used to make the album, so it was a fan financed record.

Click here to purchase John’s music or films