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John Doe has experienced a few scary things in his day. The former singer for seminal L.A. punk band X was once run off the road and went off a small cliff in Maui while in a rental van with his wife and kids. He also encounters a few rattlesnakes every year near his home in the mountains of California. "I think car wrecks and rattlesnakes are the scariest things I've encountered," he says.
Making his latest album, A Year in the Wilderness, was also pretty fucking scary. Most of the musicians and producer Dave Way were scheduled and a recording date was set, but Doe was two songs short, and three drummers bailed at the last minute. Fortunately, former X bandmate Exene Cervenka came to the rescue by sending him some lyrics. Doe used them on the ballad "Darling Underdog," which features former Denverite Jill Sobule.
"I gotta say, it was a real warm and familiar feeling to use a lot of Exene's lyrics on 'Darling Underdog,'" he says. "We've been trying to work on some X material; she sends me some lyrics and things, and when I'm looking at her words, I'm always thinking, X song, fast song. But looking at this one set of words she sent me, it seemed like they were much better as a slow song. She has such a knack for turning a phrase. As long as you can find the natural rhythm within the words, you've pretty much got it all."
Doe, who's also a poet and the poetry editor for the arts and music website www.bluerailroad.com, knows how to turn a phrase himself. He says about a third or a quarter of his poetry will eventually become lyrics. On Wilderness, Doe spreads his words over an equal number of ballads and rockers that remind him of the Stones or the Replacements, tracks such as "Lean Out Yr Window" and "Golden State," which feature vocals by Kathleen Edwards.
"The weirdest thing is that we just worked together for those three songs," Doe says of Edwards. "Maybe seven or eight hours. But the effect of it is forever. And it has a lot more impact personally — and to the rest of the world and things like that — than the actual time you spent. I guess that happens with important moments in your life, where the time spent is short, but the impression is really lasting."
Guitarist Dave Alvin, who also plays with Doe and Cervenka in the Knitters, sits in on just a few cuts on Wilderness, but he makes his presence felt on the record.
"Once you work with someone for long enough, you know what to expect, but it's not like you know exactly what's going to happen," Doe points out. "With Dave, I know that he's going to deliver on a real gut level, but it's not going to be just that. It's gonna be gut level with this artistry talent. Obviously, the lead he played on 'Hotel Ghost' is great. But the stuff he did on 'A Little More Time' really put it into a '60s-'70s big-production folk song. Something that Glen Campbell or Gordon Lightfoot might do."