Los Angeles proto-punks X haven't slowed down much since their inception in 1977. At this year's Pickathon, however, the band was asked to perform a stripped-down set rather than play at the notoriously breakneck pace found on their classic first four LPs, the only albums they're currently playing songs from these days: Los Angeles, Wild Gift, Under the Big Black Sun, and More Fun in the New World. X linchpin John Doe is excited, though a bit bewildered by the insistence on the acoustic shows, as he explained to the Mercury.
MERCURY: I understand you choose to perform only songs from the first four albums because you feel like those are the songs that most X fans identify the band with. How closely do you identify personally with those songs now?
JOHN DOE: A good song is a good song. If you're doing a cover of a Tammy Wynette song, and it's a good song, you can relate to it. And on occasion when you're playing, you get the feeling you did 20 or 30 years ago, where you're really transported. Otherwise, you're just experiencing the song the way an actor doing a play has to start from zero each night and then go through the journey of the narrative.
Given your extensive solo career post-X, are there ever tendencies to want to write new X material?
It's complicated. Exene [Cervenka, vocalist] and I are writing all the time. Whether it's an X song or a solo song, that's a different situation. Basically, we've been playing and touring since 1978. There have been a few hiatuses and Billy [Zoom, guitarist] was out of the band for eight or nine years, but we've been playing consistently with the original lineup since 1999. Now we're trying this four-record thing because it seems like a cool perspective. At Pickathon, we're doing this acoustic thing, which is sort of baffling to me. I don't really understand why they were so adamant about wanting X to play acoustic when they've had bands like the Sadies play and they were loud as fuck. So punk rock is a scary thing, and doesn't fit into Pickathon?
Was that a request on Pickathon's end?
Yeah. Them, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, all these different venues keep asking, "Hey, what if X did something that was not quite as powerful, not quite as loud, not quite as punk rock?"
So are you excited to strip everything down?
It's a lot of fucking work, as a matter of fact. But yeah, it's exciting in the way that doing something out of your comfort zone is exciting. It's a little scary. The day after we finished that four-record run, we started rehearsing these songs acoustically. Some of them we're re-imagining, and some of them we're turning sideways a little bit.
What would you say is the general chemistry of the band these days, with all four original members touring—does it feel all that different from the late '70s, early '80s?
Well, sure. Just like a family is different. A band who stays together as long as we have is like a family, for better or for worse. We certainly aren't doing it for the money. I mean, we make a living, but if we didn't feel invested in it emotionally and creatively, I don't think we'd do it. We're not playing stadiums; it's not like we hate each other and we're making so much money that we bite the bullet. We like it and it sounds good, and that's good enough.
X performs Saturday at 9:20 pm on the Woods Stage, and on Sunday at 8:50 pm on the Mountain View Stage.