Fables In A Foreign Land draws back the veil on a shadow realm part memory, part fantasy, populated with shades of gray denizens battling ageless darkness in the dust of an old world. For John Doe, the album is a plunge into the depth of his abilities as an interpreter of fate and a conduit of the muses that continue to imbue him after four decades as an actor, author, songwriter, and icon behind the bass for West Coast punk progenitors X and supergroup The Flesh Eaters.
Doe, who has memorably appeared in films such as Road House, Pure Country, and Great Balls Of Fire (to name only a few), and contributed to rock n’ roll scripture in the forms of Under The Big Black Sun and More Fun In The New World: The Unmaking and Legacy of L.A. Punk, marks the passage of Fables while alternately evoking the worn outlaw of Willie Nelson’s Redheaded Stranger and the flawed heroism of Leone’s Man With No Name.
It’s a Western, dreamt and evolved under the thunderhead of the 21st Century, but far from the gunslinger chasing one final act of glory, John Doe remains a steadfast pioneer, wrestling the wilderness so that we pilgrims may progress.
AI- Fables In A Foreign Land, the buildup’s set in the 1890s or very nearly before the turn of the century– what came first, the concept or a particular song?
JD- I would say the songs, and then I’ve been maybe leading up to it. I don’t have a preconceived idea and then try to fill it in. I don’t make a title and then say, “How can I?” That’s not my style.
Some of these songs predate the pandemic. Was there a point where you felt a shift in the writing or was that just a coincidence with the darkness and the feeling of isolation?
It wasn’t a coincidence, it certainly added to it as the songs and the sound was developing. You think about what’s important, you think about what you’re grateful for, especially when you’re seeing people that are less fortunate. I’d say the last song that was written for the record is the last song on the record, so there is some hope at the end.
Now, the vanguard track, “Never Coming Back”, that opens the record up has a very western feel, very Franco Nero, draggin’ a coffin through the desert…
(Laughs) I take those as high compliments, Aaron, thank you!
Is that the one you wrote with Terry Allen?
How did that come together? ‘Cause he seems like such an ideal character himself to collaborate with.
Well, it’s funny ’cause Terry and I are kinda new friends– maybe a couple years– although I’ve known of him. Once the record was half done, I thought, “Why don’t I get this guy? Maybe he’s got some lyrics layin’ around that he couldn’t finish? Or maybe there’s a piece of music that he has that he couldn’t quite get a handle on?” So I sent him the song “Never Coming Back” to give him an idea of what I was doing, thinking that the song was done. And he wrote me back with another bridge and some other words, and it’s like, “No, you don’t get it. This song is done,” was the first thought– and then I checked my ego and thought, “Oh shit! What if it’s not done?” (Laughs) And then I added the lines “to the darkening of light, to the memory of that night,” which he had written, and extended the chorus, which was great! That’s a little new for me– to be able to continue expanding on an idea. I did that with the last X record.
Well, I was gonna say that seems like a strange notion, like that would’ve been something you were adept at even long before Alphabetland.
Yeah, I don’t know? You get set in your ways, I think. But, yes, Terry is a wonderful storyteller, and I’m glad that I could work with him and Louis Pérez, who’s an old pal, and then Shirley Manson and Exene on “Destroying Angels”. It’s been pretty rewarding!
You brought up Louis, and “El Romanco” just debuted! I read you dreamt that song. What was the actual dream? And do you dream songs often?
No. The dream was my daughter and I and my partner were all at a big party, and my daughter came back from another room and said, “Oh, I just saw what’s-his-name.” She couldn’t think of a friend of ours name, and then she said, “You know, El Romanco?” (Laughs) Which doesn’t really have much to do with the person that she was tryin’ to think of! But that stuck with me, and then I started ruminating or letting the fantasy take shape– who is and what would this person be like? And then early on, I thought, “Oh, he’s given himself his own nickname, which as we know you can’t do! You can’t do that!
You kinda did.
Well, no, I gave myself a pseudonym.
You can’t give yourself a nickname. You have to earn that– you have to do something wonderful or something stupid to get your nickname, right? Anyway, with the sort of Spanglish element to that name, I thought, “Well, maybe there should be a verse in Spanish. That might add a whole other aspect to the character, who thinks he’s a lady killer, but he’s not. He’s none of that (laughs)! He’s just a big liar! In the part of the chorus of the Spanish verse is un mentiroso, which is Spanish for a liar.
Tell me about the folk trio and who else joins you on the album?
Kevin Smith played bass– he plays with Willie Nelson– and Conrad Choucron plays drums. He plays with Patty Griffin quite a bit. They’re two of the top Austin musicians. Kevin and Conrad and I played together a little bit before COVID shutdown, and then Kevin and I started workin’ in his backyard, like April of 2020 when neither of us were touring. So that’s another added piece to this record that (laughs) we’ll never do again! ‘Cause we’ll never have the time to just develop a whole sound. I’ve had the idea of having a folk trio on my head for, I dunno, five years– but it never really came together ’cause I never had the time to just spend figuring shit out.
Well, I think that was a huge aspect and possibly one of the only positive things to come out of the pandemic was that many, many artists found an opportunity to do things that as you say, they thought they never would have time to do. But I think another part of that is that some of them have decided that as time goes on, they are going to make an attempt to have that time whenever they think they need it to do projects like that.
Yeah, but you gotta make a living. I think a lot of people just sorta squeaked by. I’m fortunate that X has been very good to me in the last 10 years. I was incredibly grateful. But the other people that worked on it were Steve Berlin from Los Lobos– he helped produce it– and Dave Way, who I’ve made several records with, helped produce and engineered, and it’s all live. We did it in a pretty fancy studio, but just set up a bunch o’ mics and sat like we were outside on Kevin’s patio. So if you fucked up the upright bass, it was bleeding into the drums and the vocal mics, or you sang a bad note, you couldn’t resing it or replay it. We could cut between takes. Conrad is so solid in his tempo that we could cut between takes. So in that way, it’s a little bit like an old jazz record ’cause they wouldn’t overdub, but they would cut between takes.
Where did you record it?
It was here in Austin. It’s called Public Hi-Fi, and Jim Eno from Spoon is the owner of that. Spoon makes most of their records there– and they know their shit!
One of my favorite songs on the album– and one of the strangest– is “The Cowboy And The Hot Air Balloon”. Where did that come from?
(Laughs) It sprang forth fully formed! And I have no idea! It was one of those rare moments where you wake up and the first line came to me, “He stepped out of the bar and into the street and a hot air balloon swept him off his feet,” and at some point, the grizzly bear showed up and I was like, “Yes!” But I have been doing a gig– I’ve done it two or three times– where it’s a fancy resort in Montana where I go there and sing around the campfire to people that are there. One of the songs that I listened to as a kid was called “Sierra Peaks”, and it’s about two cowboys who are doing a camp to brand cows and they get bored and they go to town and get drunk. And then as they’re riding home, they meet the devil. It’s a pretty famous cowboy song from the ’40s. They meet the devil and they have a fight with him, so it’s similar to that, and I think playing around the campfire influenced “The Cowboy And The Hot Air Balloon”.
Your solo work outside of X has always been– I called it alt-country then, and I still call it alt-country– the punk attitude but with sort of a Texas twang. Did you come by that naturally? Or were there pieces of music or artists that sparked that in you?
I naturally gravitated toward it, but it was in the soup when I was growing up, you know? Things like Johnny Tillotson or Johnny Burnette or people like that were on AM radio, on a pop station. And then you start digging deeper into it and discover Hank Williams and discover Lefty Frizzell and people like that, and you just start relating to it. If you try to sing it and play it, you realize, “Oh, I can get away with this! I can do this and it’s somewhat convincing, so maybe that’s a good thing!”
Fat Possum is putting out Fables, and this will be your solo debut with them. Of course, you’ve also had the relationship through X doing the reissues and with Alphabetland— what’s comin’ next in that arena. I know you guys have been excited to get out and actually play that album for people, but what do you see coming next for X? And then what do you see yourself doing? If not a project like this, another solo album?
(Laughs) You know, it’s funny you ask that because we’ll play some town that we maybe don’t always play, and you finish the show and then someone invariably says, “Hey, when are you guys comin’ back?” And it’s like, “I was just here, motherfucker! What do you mean come back?” So I wanna say that same thing: I just put this record out! I’m happy X is gonna be able to go on tour. I’m really fuckin’ grateful that Fat Possum is all about artistic expression. They wanna sell records, but they just do cool stuff. They decide what to put out and how to put it out on the basis of what’s cool, and if you do that, then you can never be disappointed or embarrassed. So if it doesn’t meet your expectations, you should probably check your expectations, but also if you do it and it’s cool, then it’s like, “Yeah, I did that. And it was cool!” That’s a great way to operate. I’ve got some words that Exene sent me, I’m gonna work on some new X songs, and I’m gonna be on tour with this record in June, goin’ up the east coast and into the Midwest, and then probably in October on the West coast. So this record’s gonna have a long life, and that’s somethin’ else that Fat Possom does well is they stay involved at keepin’ it in people’s eyeballs.
Do you think that’s a skill that was around when you first started making records that got lost and now is coming back around? Trying to give longer legs to pieces of work?
I would hope so. Companies take on too many projects, so they can’t spend the time and don’t spend the time to get out of what was put into it. There are elements of this record that have taken me a lifetime to get to, and it’s a drag when you put a lot of effort into something, and then it just has a six-week life. That’s what happens with major labels. And people’s attention spans are short. You want to try to make the most out of it, and I would hope that it is coming back around.
Ducking back to that town that you don’t get to very often and all those different people that you see… When you do shows with X now, you have to have every conceivable kind of fan there. I’m talkin’ about the long-in-the-tooth punks, the new kids that are just discoverin’ your for the very first time– do you see X as a kind of microcosm? People can look at you and the different styles of music that you’ve played, the different opinions that you have as individuals, but you can still get on stage and you can still do what you’ve always done.
I see us as like a blues artist who just continues to play, you know? I think Cheap Trick is like that. We’ve become journeymen, and I’m glad that we don’t have two songs that got on the radio and everyone’s like, “Yeah, play that good song!” Somebody reminded me of a segment on The Simpsons where Homer’s watching Bachman Turner Overdrive (laughs)! He’d say [imitating Homer Simpson], “Play the good song, play “Takin’ Care Of Business,” and they start playing it, and then he says, “Get to the good part!”