A interview with John Doe of influential Los Angeles punk band X about headlining Sprecher Brewery 30th anniversary celebration
By guest writer Joshua M. Miller
Some things were brewed to last. Sprecher Brewery, one of Milwaukee's oldest craft breweries, will be celebrating its 30th anniversary in grand fashion this week with a free two day party August 28 and 29th at Juneau Park. Personally speaking, I've never lived in a world without Sprecher's products. It's always been a constant in my life. Whether it's their sodas or beers, it's a brand I've been fortunate to have grown up with.
Both days will feature live music from local and national bands as well as beer served from Milwaukee County's Traveling Beer Garden and a pair of Sprecher's tire tap trucks. Headlining the first night of the party is influential Los Angeles punk band X, who will be making a rare Milwaukee appearance.
The band, which formed in 1977, knows a thing or two also about longevity and making an impact. With its knockout one-two punch singing tandem of John Doe and Exene Cervenka, X turned heads with it's unique brand of emotional punk that incorporated elements of rockabilly. That includes The Doors' Ray Manzarek, who produced the band's first four albums. The band's music continues to connect with fans young and old, including those too young like myself to see the band during its first run.
Missing from the lineup for the Milwaukee and following tour dates, unfortunately, is founding guitarist Billy Zoom, who is receiving chemo treatment for his recently discovered bladder cancer. A fund was created to assist with Zoom’s medical costs. Guitarist Jesse Dayton, who has played with Doe's solo band, will fill-in.
Prior to the band's appearance I had the opportunity to talk with Doe about the band and creating a lasting brand of punk.
You recently wrapped up your recent tour leg. Are you enjoying the break?
Yes, but I'm always working.
Are you writing new songs?
Actually I have been working on finishing a new solo record and working on a book. It's a book on LA punk rock from '77 to '82 called "Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal Story of LA Punk Rock." It's not just me, it's several other people that were there like Exene [Cervenka] and Henry Rollins and Dave Alvin and Jane Wiedlin. They're all writing chapters and I wrote a couple chapters and we're stitching it all together with some in-between short pieces. It's going to be good. It's a different approach to writing a history book.
Obviously the book's name comes from X's album of the same name. What are some the biggest surprises or revelations that came to you while writing your part?
It's hard to remember first of all. [laughs] The biggest surprise is that anyone remembers anything. It's a long time ago. I think that everyone's experience is so different. The main thing that holds it together is the subject matter and the time period. But let's talk about X instead.
Billy Zoom, the band's guitarist, recently was diagnosed with bladder cancer and is currently getting treatment for it. How's he doing so far with his treatment?
The treatment is not too severe. It's a localized chemo therapy. He's unable to travel but he's doing good with the treatment. You'll have to ask me in about six months.
That's good to hear that it's going in the right direction.
Yes. Well it was caught fairly early and prognosis with this kind of treatment and this kind of cancer is pretty good.
Jesse Dayton will be filling in on guitar for the band's upcoming tour. Why do you feel Jesse will be a good fill-in?
I've played with Jesse for almost three years. And early on Jesse confided in me that Billy Zoom was one of the reasons that he got into punk rock music. He heard Billy's playing and thought "You mean Chuck Berry licks are part of punk rock? I know how to do that. I like that. I like that whole idea." He plays a lot like Billy. Jesse comes from a similar style of playing, maybe not as specific as Billy. But Billy is very specific in his playing. One of the most clean and clear players that I've seen.
How did the Sprecher show come together?
They just called us and said "hey, do you want to be part of this?" And we said "sure."
Sprecher is celebrating it's 30th anniversary and the band's been together 30 plus years. It's pretty amazing about the longevity of both.
Yes. I can't say exactly why. One is that we've all survived. But the other reason would be that we have some ambition and determination. We like each other. We're a family for better or for worse. Families are complicated but they somehow stick together. Up until Billy was unable to do these two tours, which he should be back in November, we're kind of the only punk rock band that has all of it's original members.
What kind of set should people in Milwaukee expect to see from the band?
We'll be doing a straight-up punk rock set. Songs from the first four records and, yeah, loud and fast. Well maybe not that fast by today's standards but relatively fast. And fairly loud.
The band recently played shows in California where you played the first four albums straight through. What do you like best about those types of shows?
We've done the four record shows seven or eight times. It seems like they'd be easier but they're actually harder. I don't know why. They really take it out of you. Maybe the emotional part of it and also the sequencing of a record is very different than the way you sequence a set. So we'd play the full record and then play a set of other songs after that. We ended up playing longer and it was rewarding but difficult.
What are some of your favorite Milwaukee memories?
It's always good to see Shank Hall. I had a friend who lived in Milwaukee for awhile and we had some good times there. Milwaukee has great taverns and good people.
You've mentioned in interviews that this is a phase two of X. Can you explain what that means?
Phase two is the set that we play with Billy. We re-imagined a number of songs and brought on another rhythm guitar and drummer, Michael Kilpatrick from Alabama. Michael allows Billy to play saxophone and allows us to do different songs like "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts" and "Drunk in My Past." And "Dancing with Tears in My Eyes" which is a bit complicated and had too many guitar parts for Billy to play on his own. And when Michael goes over to drums it allows D. J. [Bonebrake] to play vibes on "The Unheard Music" and "Come Back to Me" and some other songs like that. That's our phase two. It's been about a year and a half that we started doing that set rather than the straight-up punk rock set. But this time, since Jesse's sitting in just for these two tours, we're just doing punk rock music. What you'd expect to hear from X. But phase two is exciting. It's a whole different approach. It's a little quieter but just as intense. Just not as predictable.
What are some of the songs that are really resonate with you these days?
You know, it changes from show to show. But "The Unheard Music" is something I always look forward to because of the sentiment and reminds me of Ray Manzarek. And I think there's a lot of music that's too challenging for the general public or just not right for it. And that's the kind of music that I like. It always resonates with me.
How has having a successful solo career influenced the way you look at X and music in general?
I would say X affected my solo career more than my solo career affected X. If you pay attention, there's something to learn from every experience. I think I sing a little differently having done a bunch of solo stuff. I've learned different techniques in singing.
Do you have any goals for X beyond touring?
We're working on getting to Europe. I think we'll be doing some festivals next year in Europe. Right now my goal for X is to make sure Billy is healthy and will continue to be able to play.
Do you think the band would ever record another album if things lined up just right?
[Laughs] Things would really have to line up. We've been talking about that for many years. If Billy is having a difficult time touring maybe we'll work on some new music. I don't know.
What do you ultimately hope X to be remembered for?
I think that dye has been cast. We'll be remembered as being from Los Angeles and for having two lead vocals and bringing rockabilly music into punk rock. Maybe we'll be remembered for lyrics with minimalist poetry.
Anything else you'd like people to know?
The last month or so has been very rewarding to see the response to Billy's GoFundMe site and the way the people have responded to Jesse and showing our audience is still open minded and has a deep connection with the band.
It must be nice seeing some younger fans in the crowd these days that didn't see the band the first time.
X's audience has always been young and old. Ever since we started playing with Billy again in '99, it's been 16 year olds to 60 year olds.
I hope you have a great tour.
We will. Milwaukee is the first one so you'll see us very fresh.
Friday, Aug. 28
4 p.m. Ladders
6:15 p.m. The Grovelers
8:15 p.m. X
Saturday, Aug. 29
12 p.m. Christopher’s Project
2:30 p.m. Robert Allen Jr.
5:15 p.m. The Living Statues
7:30 p.m: De La Buena