John Doe Looks For A Good Room

Every musician claims that he or she “keeps it real,” because that kind of talk sounds good in interviews, as well as somewhat obscures the fact they’re trying to seduce your wallet out of your pocket to buy their album in much the same way BMW attempts to secure your cash to purchase its latest and greatest motor car. Now, it’s not that real musicians have to jettison earning a living, but they should be brave enough to put themselves out there, rather than just talking about it. John Doe—a founding member of seminal L.A. punkers X—is one of those rare artists who speaks volumes without having to speak volumes, as his stage demeanor, rapport with fans, and love of roots music is apparent in his every song, vocal, and guitar part. It’s all just there to behold, and Doe’s latest solo album, Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet [Yep Roc], is a sonic altar to the man’s raw beauty and artistic integrity.

What instruments did you bring to the album sessions?
My gear included a Guild D35NT and an Aristocrat, a Gibson J-50, a ’58 Fender Princeton, and a Martin D-12 with a Sunrise system—a pickup, a Tube Interface, and a Lo-Z Box. I love Gibson strings, because they hold their tone really well. I miked the acoustics and my voice with a single microphone: an AKG C12. I play guitar and sing at the same time, but not to be a purist. I just like the way it sounds when everything is happening at once. It sounds like a moment.
On “Twin Brother,” I played an heirloom from my wife’s family—an early ’30s National Steel. When I was first dating her, her grandmother, Carmen, told me there was this ‘silver guitar’ behind her china closet that belonged to my wife’s great uncle. I just said, “Really? I guess I should take a look at that sometime [laughs].” I’ve used that steel on every record since 1988.

Did you walk into the studio with a clear concept of what you wanted this record to be?
Well, [album producer] Dave Way and I played each other a bunch of CDs to develop a point of reference for the album, and they were all in the ’40s and ’50s blues recording style—like an old Howlin’ Wolf record, or Muddy Waters’ Folk Singer. So we agreed to position the mics far away, and make each element we recorded as strong as it could be, so we wouldn’t be tempted to do a lot of overdubbing. We also made the decision not to have blues songs with solos in them, because I hate blues noodling. Nobody has anything to say, really, because it has all been said, and it was all said by the time Vanguard Records was putting out its series of blues players. You could argue that, after Lightnin’ Hopkins, no one had anything to say on guitar.

How do you get so deep into the truth of a song?
The most important thing is to just let go, and see what happens. You have to be adventurous and brave. Where I think people fail—or where I have failed—is not being specific enough. I think you can be specific without having all the details laid out. Give the song a place and a time, so that you feel as if you’re going through a little window into a room, and that’s where you’ll be for three or four minutes. Hopefully, you can tell a good story. You just have to be intuitive enough to let it happen, and then stay out of the way and don’t over analyze it.