The last time the members of X were all in a room together was Friday, March 13th, the day the White House halted international travel and many states enacted stay-at-home orders. The group had finished recording Alphabetland — its first new LP in nearly three decades, which it surprise-released last week — and singer-bassist John Doe suggested they capture the moment in the studio by filming a video for the album’s upbeat “Water & Wine.”
“In the back of my mind, I thought, ‘This song is really accessible and really fun, so let’s record us lip-syncing this,'” Doe tells Rolling Stone. “I didn’t really think twice about it.”
When the band’s label, Fat Possum, came up with the idea of rushing out the release on Bandcamp to give fans something new to listen to during pandemic shutdowns, Doe phoned up his friend Bill Morgan, who directed the 1986 X doc The Unheard Music, and asked him to spruce up the studio footage with clips from old movies. Morgan inserted scenes from a silent movie called Ivan the Terrible — “It’s just awesome,” Doe says. “It’s people having gold coins poured over their heads and people raising ridiculous goblets” — as well as shots of folks on Vespas, since guitarist Billy Zoom is a fan of scooters. Finally, Morgan added the animated look to the video. “It just makes it a little more surreal,” Doe says. “It makes the lip-syncing and finger-syncing not quite as obvious.”
The added clips play off singer Exene Cervenka’s lyrical themes in “Water & Wine.” “As usual, Exene is really gifted at writing a truth that people have been talking about, and in such a poetic way,” says Doe, who put her lyrics to a quasi-surf-rock backdrop. “There’s been a lot of discussion about privilege and the divide between rich and poor. That line, ‘Who gets water and who gets wine?’ — yeah, that’s a big one. It’s the one percent and the 99 percent.
“If there’s one thing I just can’t stand, it’s [VIP] access,” he continues before affecting a smarmy tone of voice. ” ‘We are now boarding our Double-Platinum Diamond Club … ‘ It’s like, why don’t you take that double-platinum diamond and shove it up your ass. I mean, sure, I like a little extra. Who doesn’t? But the way that the world has become is kind of sickening.”
After the band filmed the video, Doe flew from Los Angeles to his Texas home, and each of the band members went into quarantine. Since then, all of the band has been healthy. “Everyone is being smart,” Doe says. “They’re listening to the doctors; not listening to the politicians.”
That said, the implications of the pandemic have been weighing on Doe. “It’s worrisome, I’m not going to lie,” he says. “I hope that I get to perform in front of a bunch of people at some point. We do have plans to tour in August, but God, I don’t know. As a performer, it’s really hard not to give in to moments of terror.” He laughs. “Who knows? We don’t know.”
“I like a little extra. Who doesn’t? But the way that the world has become is kind of sickening.”
In the meantime, Doe is just happy X have a new album out, when such a feat seemed unimaginable just a few years ago. When Rolling Stone profiled the band for its 40th anniversary, Doe struggled with explaining why the band hadn’t recorded new music. “Families are complicated,” he said at the time. “There’s certain … yeah, I’m not gonna go there.” Zoom simply said there wouldn’t ever be a chance for a new X record. “The chemistry wouldn’t be right,” he said. “[Some band members] are in different places and stubborn, and I don’t want to go into detail, but it wouldn’t sound like an X record.”
Doe contends that Alphabetland came together because everyone in the band took a step back. “We gave each other space,” he says. “Maybe I was a little less judgmental, and the first recording session proved that we could sound like us.”
He likens the experience to when Joe Strummer formed his new band, the Mescaleros. “I think he was all up in his head for several years, wondering if what he did next was going to be as good as the Clash,” he says. “Well, who gives a shit? Are you going to like it? Are you going to have fun? Is somebody else going to hear that and say, ‘Wow, that speaks to me’? Well, if the answers to those questions are yes, then don’t be stupid and let logic overrule something. I think that’s what changed with us. We tried not to sweat the small stuff. You have to put some things behind you and bury some hatchets and realize, we do actually like each other and we’re cool about whatever happened in the past.”
They reworked some demos they’d cut in their early days — “Delta 88” (now “Delta 88 Nightmare”), “Cyrano Deberger’s Back,” and “I Gotta Heater” (retitled “I Gotta Fever”) — and wrote some new songs. They decided to share the songwriting credits for the first time, and “spread the wealth,” as Doe puts it, acknowledging the roles that Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebrake play in arranging the songs. And they found a throughline back to their first albums, which the Doors’ Ray Manzarek produced, by bringing Robby Krieger into the fold to play guitar on Cervenka’s spoken-word piece “All the Time in the World.” Doe likens the track to the Doors’ An American Prayer, a posthumous release of Jim Morrison’s poetry that featured the band’s music.
When the album was wrapped, Fat Possum ended up suggesting putting it out quickly, and the gambit paid off. Doe says X sold about 5,000 copies of the LP on the first day. The release was such a success, that on August 22nd, independent record stores will be selling limited-edition blue-vinyl pressings of Alphabetland, and Rough Trade shops in the U.S. and U.K. will be selling 400 white-variant copies; X is offering preorders via their Bandcamp.
“This is a total indie, punk-rock way of doing it,” Doe says. “People really embraced it. It feels good, too. It gives people something fun and kind of not just mindless to listen to.” He laughs. “We were smart to have a record that’s pretty uptempo. We just wanted to make a fun record that had meaning, and I think it’s taking on extra meaning because of the situation we’re in.”