It’s been 35 years since the classic X lineup (John Doe, Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom and D.J. Bonebrake) released their last recorded output — 1995’s Ain’t Love Grand. Hell, it’s been 27 years since any X lineup released anything (bassist Tony Gilkyson replaced Zoom for 1987’s See How We Are and then Hey Zeus in ‘93).
They could be forgiven for some cobwebs. But from the opening bars of the title track on Alphabetland, it’s clear that X is back and blasting. The album sounds like X. Is it as good as Los Angeles or Under the Big Black Sun? Probably not, but it certainly rivals anything else the band has put out.
So the big question is, what the hell took them so long? They’ve been touring together regularly since at least 2004, and they’re all bonafide artists and songwriters. John Doe says that things are complicated.
“We were touring a lot, and we didn’t really think that we had a place,” he says. “It sounds weird because everyone is supposed to have altruistic motives for making music. You’re supposed to just play, and make music for art’s sake — stuff like that. But we can do that on our own. We can make solo records, write books. To make all that time and effort for rehearsal, writing, everything that goes into it, you really need, at this point in our lives, a place to do it and a person to produce it. Why did it take us so long? Because it’s complicated and we’re not 21 years old just itching to get out our first record.”
The album was produced by Rob Schnapf (Elliott Smith, Beck) and recorded at the start of 2019. Most of the songs were written fresh for the record, with the exception of “Delta 88 Nightmare” (written in the late ‘70s) and “Cyrano De Berger’s Back” (written by Doe but originally released by the Flesh Eaters in ‘81). Importantly, whereas in the past the songwriting credits have gone to Doe and Cervenka, this time they’re shared entirely between the four members).
“Seventy percent or something like that was Exene and I, but then we realized that Billy and DJ were much more present and active in arranging, adding chords, adding whole sections to songs,” Doe says. “So just for the hell of it, for unity, because we realized the sort of contribution they make, we decided to do that.”
The next big decision was when to put the thing out. We are, after all, living through a pandemic right now. The conditions are hardly ideal for an album release. But the buzz surrounding Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters proved that people are thirsty for quality new music.
“Fat Possum [X’s label] were first to present the idea that we push up the release of this, not wait until we figure out when pressing plants and printers and things like that were going to be open and up to full capacity again,” Doe says. “They had the idea — fuck it, let’s put this thing out and see what happens. Let’s put it on Bandcamp. That’s the punk rock/indie thing to do. We thought about it for about five minutes and then said, ‘Sure, let’s do it.’ Whether we can tour behind it or not, we just have to be hopeful. We didn’t know, and who could, but it was a good decision. It felt good when we were putting ours out and then Fiona put hers out, and we were like ‘OK, we’re not completely crazy.’ She’s cool. I like her music. So this can happen.”
The music industry has changed beyond all recognition, even since Hey Zeus. But Doe says that they didn’t take that into consideration when choosing not to record for so long.
“Not really because we never made money off of records,” he says. “We didn’t. Due to the way the record business was structured from the beginning— unless you had two records that sold over a million, you didn’t make any real money. You could make money on licensing and things like that. So no, that was not a consideration.”
Alphabetland is a staggering piece of work, especially given the circumstances. It’s easy to imagine the four of them jumping back into a studio together and sliding comfortably back into an old working relationship. The music suggests familiarity. Not so — Doe says that the process was tougher than he thought it would be.
“Certain chord changes and sections of songs just didn’t work,” he says. “The song ‘Free’ had three or four different chord changes that I or we came up with. I’d go back to the drawing board, and then Billy would say, ‘What if we just left out that chord and did these two?’ We went back and forth, trying to get outside of our egos and try to make a song better. In the studio, you have to try to keep your intuition strong and not get up in your head. That’s another reason it took us a while to make the record. I’ve been making this correlation to Joe Strummer. It took him a few years before he started doing the Mescaleros, because he didn’t want it to be bad. He got all up his head about, it’s not going to be as good as The Clash. Well, who gives a shit? Is it something you enjoy? Don’t worry about it.”
The themes on the record, Doe says, are the same themes that X have covered since the start — a world on the edge. But damn, those themes are resonating more now then ever before.
“Like a lot of music that speaks to people, the environment of what’s happening starts changing the interpretation of it,” Doe says. “Too bad for all of us in the world, but it seems to be speaking to some subjects that have maybe been ignored for a while. The song ‘Water & Wine’ is about access and inequality. That’s something that has been addressed but now it really needs to be addressed. ‘Goodbye Year, Goodbye’ is just frivolous thinking about what it’s like moving from one year to the next. We’re kind of moving from one era to another. Context is everything.”
As they are for everybody else, plans are tentative in X’s world. There’s a tour booked starting late August and Doe is hopeful, but who knows? We can at least celebrate this new album, and the fact that the beloved Los Angeles debut is 40 years old. The frontman is proud.
“That’s kind of what you hope for when you start anything,” he says. “A piece of art, a business or a garden. You hope it lasts, and you hope that someone else enjoys it and gets something out of it. We’re very proud of it. I give Ray [Manzarek] a lot of credit for choosing the songs that went on there. It doesn’t seem like 40 years but I guess it is.”