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X's John Doe Talks New Album, Book and Hickenlooper

Last year, just before John Doe, co-founder of the influential L.A. punk band X, took the stage at the Lion’s Lair, Governor John Hickenlooper walked into the storied hundred-person dive bar with some people, including two guys from his security detail.

“I give him a lot of credit for going out and going to a dive bar — a wonderful dive bar — like the Lion’s Lair,” Doe says of Hickenlooper. “That just shows a certain amount of adventure and some character, that he’s not afraid of just being a citizen. That’s important.”

While Hickenlooper is a fan of Doe solo, he’s also been spotted at X shows in Denver over the years. When he was mayor, he invited members of the band to his office. “We thought it might have been a trap, but it wasn’t,” Doe says. “We ordered Chinese food, and it was great.”

When the Northern California-based Doe returns to the Lion’s Lair — where he’s played for the past seventeen years when he’s in town — he’ll be performing solo, with just his guitar. He says he’ll play a lot of love songs and a little bit of rock and roll, but mostly mellow, intimate stuff.

In addition, he’ll delve into material from his forthcoming album, The Westerner, which is slated for release near the end of April. Instead of releasing it on Yep Roc, which put out his last six records, including 2014’s 25-year retrospective The Best of John Doe This Far, Doe says he’ll release the new platter himself, with the help of Nashville distribution, marketing and management company Thirty Tigers.

He says that the material on The Westerner was inspired by his friend Michael Blake, who passed away last May. “He was like an older brother to me,” Doe says. “He wrote Dances With Wolves and a bunch of other novels and history pieces and stuff. Most of the songs are about him or use him as a main character, even though you could say that every writer is just writing about himself. This was mostly inspired by him and the desert — just the life that we live, and things that have happened in the West.”

Doe headed to Tucson’s WaveLab, where Calexico and DeVotchKa have recorded, and teamed up with Howe Gelb, producer and frontman for Giant Sand, to make the album.

“The biggest difference in the record and the sound is that Howe and I produced it together,” he notes. “He has sort of a psychedelic guitar style and production style, and there’s a lot of space — kind of soul and psychedelia all mixed up together. It’s got all that Arizona desert all in the tracks and in the mixing and everything.”

While Gelb plays on The Westerner and brought along some Tucson-based musicians he knows, Doe recruited players he’s used in the past, like drummer Stuart Johnson and bassist Ryan Feves. Debbie Harry and Chan Marshall each sing on a track, too.

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A few days before The Westerner is released, the book Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk will hit stores. Doe says that people had been bugging him to write a book about the Los Angeles punk scene for a while but that he hadn’t wanted to do it on his own. Tom DeSavia, who previously worked in A&R at Elektra Records and is the current head of creative services for Songs Music Publishing, was one of those who nagged him a lot about it. So the two got together to work on the book (which borrows its title from the 1982 X album), with Doe acting as narrator and writing about eight of its 27 chapters. The book also includes firsthand accounts from people who were part of the West Coast punk scene from 1977 through 1982, including X co-founder and singer Exene Cervenka, former Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins, Minutemen bassist Mike Watt, Blasters guitarist Dave Alvin, Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey of the Go-Go’s, T.S.O.L.’s Jack Grisham and others.

Although Doe likens working on the book and putting together The Best of John Doe to looking through an old journal, he’s also looking ahead, to X’s fortieth anniversary in 2017.

“Big plans — we’ve got huge plans,” he says. “But we’ll see what actually happens.”

John Doe plays the Lion's Lair on Friday, January 22 and Saturday, January 23 at 10 p.m.

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