John Doe, the occasional actor and co-frontperson of Los Angeles' quintessential '80s punk band X, wryly describes himself as "a kind of a bon vivant." He's been touring since March, first in support of a solo effort, the rootsy-noir Forever Hasn't Happened Yet, and now with his alt-country all-star band, the Knitters. Doe punctuates his comments with ragged coughs, and he talks like he sings: like he has a machine in his windpipe that turns phlegm into butter and automatically laces sincerity with a wafer-thin coating of black humor.
"I'm just happy to be part of a 'sophomore effort,'" Doe says, dryly mocking some recent, generally positive reviews of The Modern Sounds of the Knitters. Modern Sounds may be the long-awaited follow-up to 1985's Poor Little Critter in the Road, but it's pretty hard to ignore that the Knitters are really just X fulfilling all their wildest hillbilly fantasies. Four-fifths of the line-up -- John Doe, Exene Cervenka, D.J. Bonebreak, and Dave Alvin -- were in that band at one time or another, with Doe and Cervenka at its foundation. Sure, Alvin, originally from the Blasters, was only a temporary replacement for X's original guitar player, Billy Zoom, and bassist Billy Ray Bartel from the Red Devils is a qualified ringer. It's still X. And Modern Sounds -- which mixes traditional country and folk songs with countrified versions of classic X tunes -- may be the Knitters' second release, but it's nobody's sophomore effort.
"With the Knitters, nobody's the boss," Doe says. "We're all the boss. And that kind of real collaboration is a treat and something you don't get all of the time.
"I don't know of any other band that has two vocalists that can sing together without competition," Doe adds, paying tribute to his onetime wife and longtime musical partner, Cervenka. "I don't know of another band where each vocalist knows where the other one is going without having to spell it out. Exene and I have taught each other a lot of lessons," Doe jokes. "Singing and otherwise."
The Knitters formed in the early '80s for the specific purpose of playing benefits. "It was a tribute to music we loved," Doe says. "Once we did it, we said, hey, we can pull this off. It doesn't sound terrible, or lame, or self-conscious, or pretentious. Good. We'll make a record." That record, Poor Little Critter in the Road, which featured humorous numbers alongside such beautifully earnest songs as Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings," went on to become a favorite among critics and music collectors but was generally viewed -- even by the band -- as a one-off event.
"We would tour the West Coast every four or five years. And every time we would finish we'd say, that was fun, we should do this more often," Doe says. "But [until this year] we never did anything about it."
The Knitters' traditional country stylings surprised many punk purists, but given the diversity of the L.A. scene when X and the Blasters were emerging, it was a fairly obvious evolution. California punk of that era was rootsier than its East Coast counterpart. The Gun Club was setting traditional folk music on fire, while the Blasters mixed fierce rockabilly, angry blues, and hopped-up jazz into a hot-rodding hybrid they could call their own. Bakersfield revivalist Dwight Yoakam was playing the same clubs and picking up crossover fans. Green on Red was never anything but hardcore honky-tonk, and with their quirky harmonies, song titles such as "Motel Room in My Bed," and Billy Zoom's effortless rockabilly licks, X had been showing their country leanings from almost the beginning.
"[At the time] there was a general attention being paid to Americana," Doe says. "It started in the earliest days of punk rock, which was about turning rock-and-roll music back into rock-and-roll music. It was always about paying more attention to Eddie Cochran or Little Richard than to, say, prog rock."
Doe's affection -- and obsession -- with traditional American music isn't entirely a product of the L.A. scene. Though he was raised in Baltimore, country music was all around.
"You have to remember this," he says. "In the '50s and '60s, kids would be given folk records as children's records. You'd get compilation records with Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Cisco Houston. Some of the songs would truly be kid songs, and others were real American folk songs about death or the devil."
In spite of his familiarity with the form, Doe admits that he had to grow into the role of honky-tonk hero.
"[The Knitters] didn't come from country royalty," he says. "We didn't look at the back side of a mule for 10 years while we were growing up in the Delta. But now we've all worked a lot of crappy jobs, and lived a long life, and had many hearts broken, and I feel much more qualified to sing some songs now than I did 10 years ago. A lifelong string of ups and downs -- that's what gives you that authenticity."
Some time ago, Cervenka lamented to a music critic that, at the time of the Knitters' arrival -- in the midst of the unfortunately christened "cow-punk" movement -- a lot of listeners probably thought they were making fun of country music. But in spite of their instincts to play loud and ragged, authenticity has always been the Knitters' aim, and on Modern Sounds they reach it with Doe's cover of "Rank Strangers," the Stanley Brothers' existential nightmare, and the traditional folk romp "Bring Me My Flowers While I'm Living." Re-tooled X songs such as "In This House That I Call Home" sound, in many cases, more authentic than the originals.
"Restraint can be tough," Doe says, explaining that, over time, the Knitters have learned the value of knowing when not to sing and play. "I've made a point to learn how to make a slow song have as much impact as a fast song. That's a challenge I've given myself, because it's easy to just get out there and blast through a bunch of things and feel as though you're exciting the audience. If you can do that with a slow song, then you really have some variety and some range."
The Hi-Tone Café
Wednesday, September 7th
Door opens at 9 p.m., tickets $20