Los Angeles punk legends X released Alphabetland this year, their first album in 35 years. We talked to the always insightful John Doe about its creation.
AQ: After 35 years, what was it like getting back into the studio with the original lineup to record Alphabetland?
JD: It was a slow process and I can’t say it didn’t have ups and downs. It was daunting and I think maybe we got up in our heads a little bit… like, ‘Oh my God, what if it isn’t as good as we want?’ We went in the studio in February of 2019, did four songs—three were old and one was new. The new one I had heard when Exene (Cervenka, vocals) read a piece that she wrote. I asked her if she would give it to me so I could make a song out of it. And that was “Angel on the Road,” and it’s such a vivid story. Then after we mixed it and it sounded like us, and we didn’t kill each other in the studio, and it was all pretty positive, we thought, ‘Well, hell, I guess we can do this!
You know, not to sound too mercenary, but if you have a producer and a record company – when you have that stuff in line, then it’s like, ‘Oh, well I guess there’s no excuse.’ I’m all for doing art for art’s sake, but at our age, and after we proved that we can do what we can do, you have to have a place to put things. Exene and I aren’t going to start writing a bunch of songs if nobody wants to go into the studio. That was how that happened, and Billy (Zoom, guitarist) and DJ (Bonebreak, drummer) really contributed a lot there. They are sharing songwriting credit on this record, which makes us have more unity—and I think me being a little more open, a little more vulnerable, and accepting of a different way of doing a song. If the song doesn’t work, then just change it. If somebody doesn’t like the way it goes, then we’ll think of some more chords to put in.
Did the band discover something new about itself after such a long break?
Not to hold on to things. To be more open.
You spoke about that personally just before, that you were loosening up. It sounds like that was something you discovered for yourself.
Well, it’s an ego thing. “Well, I think this is the way it should go!” And that’s just bullshit. What did we discover? Wow… [pauses]. Maybe we listened to each other better? That also sounds very much like everybody went to therapy or something, but that’s not really the case.
Can you explain the origins of the title Alphabetland?
The title Alphabetland was originally [a song] named “Mercury.” There’s a line that says “Alphabet wrecked” and then it changes to “Alphabet mine.” It’s a bit of a redemption song, adopted from this character that Exene envisioned, Mercury the God. Is he a destroyer of life or is he a bringer of life? She thought of him in this landscape of a frozen lake, skating across it. Billy kept referring to the song and saying “Let’s do “Alphabetland.” Like, ‘Where did that come from? What’s this “Alphabetland”?’ And he just kept referring to it like that so finally we just relented and said, “Okay, it’s called “Alphabetland.” Then it became the title of the record.
What did Billy have in his mind?
I don’t know. There’s a board game of opportunities called Alphabet Land.
Talk about the songs that originated from early demos.
“I Got a Fever” was originally called “I Got A Heater.” It didn’t seem to fit with any of the [other] records. It got kind of left behind – but it was still a good song. It still has a catchy chorus, but it was just a literary exercise where I wrote something using a character from, say, a film noir movie. The violence and this weird landscape that I put it into didn’t seem right, but I liked the song. We all liked the song.
And you know, Billy’s favorite song was “Cyrano deBerger’s Back.” I’m not crazy about that one. It’s not my favorite song, but it’s fun and it’s good. He gets to play saxophone on it. And “Delta 88 [Nightmare]” is just too fast and too fun not to put on there.
“Delta 88” reminds me of “I’m Coming Over.” (From 1982’s Wild Gift.)
Yeah. It was written around the same time.
X is now signed to Fat Possum, and the label also reissued your back catalog. You talked before about not writing songs unless you had a viable way of putting them out. How did Fat Possum help in that regard with Alphabetland?
They were the ones that came up with the idea to release it in April, a few days away from [the anniversary of] the release of Los Angeles 40 years ago. They came to us and said, ‘Look, we don’t know when pressing plants are going to be up and running. We don’t know when the printers are going to be at full speed. We don’t want to wait [to release the album]. What do you think?’ And it took us about five minutes to say, ‘Go for it. We’ll figure it out.’
It’s very frustrating for an artist to complete something and then have to wait for six months before it comes out. Whether you’re a painter or a playwright or whatever you’re doing, you’re excited about it, right? You want people to enjoy it. So it was great. It was a great suggestion and I feel even more kinship to Fiona Apple, because she did the same thing. She said, ‘Just screw this. I don’t want to wait.’ So Fat Possum was really forward thinking, very indie, and that wouldn’t have happened with even a bigger indie label.
You would have had to wait at least a year, easily.
They were saying, ‘Otherwise it might come out in like January or February next year,’ and we said ‘To hell with that. It’s no fun.’
It’s important to note that this is not a byproduct of the pandemic. I’ve heard from artists for years about their frustration over how long it takes to release an album. How come this process can’t be expedited so that it’s fair to the artists and gives fans something to get energized about?
It’s like, why does it take an ocean liner 10 miles to make a left turn? [Laughs]
Pretty much! [Laughs]
I have no sympathy for the record industry. They fuck themselves. When Napster started, they were so resistant and it’s because they’re based on an old fashioned model. I mean, they once — or maybe still do — had a “breakage fee,” or a “breakage percentage,” [built into the fee] for shipping records. CDs don’t break, motherfucker! This comes from when you had 78s that were made out of glass! That’s where the breakage could come in. That’s bullshit. And you’re charging me! This is a chargeback that you’re charging me as the artist.
The reason that they don’t change is because they don’t have to, and there’s always some other sucker who’s going to come along and say, ‘Oh, I want to be on a major label.’ Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is you’re on a major label. The bad news is that you’re on a major label.
Having the record coming out in the middle of the pandemic and then not being able to go out and play shows, what’s that like? What does a post-pandemic future look like?
I don’t actually think there is such a thing as a “post-pandemic.” I think, like a lot of people, that it’s going to be around for a while. Part of it is a real drag, because we aren’t making any money, but another part is like relief. ‘Oh, good. I don’t have to learn how to play these songs live.’ We don’t have to put all the work into it, but when the time comes we will!
Any chance of another record with the four original members soon?
Oh God. You’re the first person that’s asked that question. I knew it was coming. We just did one, for Christ’s sake!
I know, I know. But, John, fans are excited. It has been 35 years, after all.
And in another 35 years we’ll put out another one! [Laughs]
Listen to X’s first new album in 35 years, Alphabetland (Fat Possum) above.