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Burning house of folk
X’s acoustic alter ego release their first album in two decades
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The Knitters' official Web site

The Knitters’ new album — the first in two decades from what began as folky side project featuring three-quarters of the LA punk band X and their Blasters pal Dave Alvin — opens with a 30-second instrumental that conjures the spaghetti Westerns of Ennio Morricone. It’s nothing more than some noodling acoustic guitar laid over a subtle cocktail-jazz rim-shot beat, with heavily reverbed electric-guitar chords washing over the parched soundscape like waves lapping up against a sandy beach. And though it doesn’t quite set the tone for the rest of the album, thanks to a little freelance knob fiddling by engineer Craig Adams, it helped inspire the new album’s title — The Modern Sounds of . . . The Knitters (Zoë/Rounder) — because it fit right into how the band planned to reintroduce themselves to the world outside LA (where they’ve been playing reunion shows for several years now) after a 20-year hiatus.

"Yeah, the title’s obviously a little tongue-in-cheek," John Doe admits when I catch him on the phone in Montauk, where he’s vacationing before the Knitters’ first-ever national tour. (They play the Paradise this Wednesday.) "You know, for this record we used 16 tracks rather than the eight we used on the first record. So we are getting pretty modern. And instead of taking a weekend to record it, we took a whole five days in a row. It’s funny because we already had the idea for a title like The Modern Sounds of . . . And we had done this jam that the engineer put into a loop. So it was like, ‘Perfect: the modern sounds of the Knitters.’ And then the fact that we do that Steppenwolf song ["Born To Be Wild"], it’s like not only are we using all this modern technology, but we’re also really jumping up into playing the rock music that the kids like."

The inside joke carries over to the album cover itself, a rural-set portrait of the band (whose line-up also includes bassist Johnny Ray Bartell) framed by a couple of fake cornstalks standing behind a fake wooden fence that they had taken at Sears. "It’s true," Doe confirms. "The Knitters got their portrait taken for 99 dollars at Sears. That’s why we have that back-to-school background shot." He’s referring to another cheesy shot of the fivesome on the CD’s inside cover. "And we were smart enough to have someone come along to take pictures of us getting our pictures taken at Sears." Sure enough, there’s a full spread of alternate takes on the "Portrait Studio" page of the CD booklet. For anyone who’s ever been an X fan, it’s amusing, as is the fictional press bio the band put together for Zoë that has Alvin reminiscing, "We didn’t much cotton to what Greil Marcus said in the New York Times about our electric stuff. . . . If the critics had their way, our music wouldn’t have progressed much past what you hear on The Knitters’ Folk Jamboree at Carnegie Hall [1955]."

For anyone who may not be in on all the jokes, here’s a brief Knitters history. After the London punk explosion of ’77-’78, LA became the closest thing to a nexus for a punk-rock answer from this side of the pond, mainly because NYC had already played its role by exporting the Ramones and the proto-punk New York Dolls to Great Britain. By 1980, NYC was nurturing post-punk acts like Talking Heads, Blondie, and the no-wave bands who led to Sonic Youth, not to mention hip-hop, which was already becoming the new indigenous protest party music in the only other American megatropolis that had a volatile mixture of massive socio-economic problems and a large population of subversive-artist types.

Besides, "No Future" resonated more forcefully on the West Coast because, well, LA really did suck. Filmmaker Penelope Spheeris’s The Decline of Western Civilization documents the nihilistic anarchy that caught on in the City of Angels, and if the imploding Germs were that scene’s hopeless Sex Pistols, then X emerged as an analogue to the Clash — an angry, articulate, art-infected band who if they didn’t have a plan to fix everything at least buried a ray of hope in their bleak tales of LA life. "We’re desperate," Doe and Exene Cervenka sang, but they were also married. They had each other. And with rockabilly ace Billy Zoom on guitar, they grew into a potent rock band with roots that went deep, just like the Clash.

So it shouldn’t have surprised anyone when after signing to Elektra X looked beyond LA to deliver a scathing populist rebuke to the Reagan ’80s with their fourth album, the ironically titled More Fun in the New World. A cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’s "Breathless" sat comfortably among poignant portraits of regular folks grasping at a fading American dream that echoed the songs of one of Joe Strummer’s heroes, Woody Guthrie. And with revved-up rootsy LA bands like the Gun Club and the Blasters expanding the notion of what punk could mean, it wasn’t much of a stretch when Alvin teamed with John and Exene to record the first Knitters album, a disc that mixed trad folk and country songs with stripped-down acoustic versions of X tunes. The result made the implicit explicit: punk rock was folk music, an indigenous American populist songform.

"As far as the folk side of punk and what the Knitters were doing back then when we put out the first record," Doe recalls, "it was kind of the first time a lot of the punk-rock audience had heard country music, and they thought, ‘Oh, well, this isn’t so square or stupid, and it isn’t just for old people, so this is kinda cool.’ But it’s true that we had a lot of help along the way from all those other rootsy LA punk bands."

Twenty years later, there’s nothing particularly radical about connecting the dots between folk and punk. The original X, which broke up for a time after John and Exene’s marriage fell apart, are once again a going concern — they’ve done several "reunion" tours, they play the occasional LA gig, they recently released X: Live in Los Angeles (Shout! Factory), on CD and DVD, with 21 tunes culled from a pair of anniversary shows they played last November. After a Zoom-less down period for the band during which Alvin was one of several guitarists who tried to fill his shoes, these discs find the original foursome sounding and looking as good as they ever did.

But Doe doesn’t envision going much farther than that with X. "Well, we play," he says, "but we’re not going to record. I don’t write punk-rock songs anymore, and I think X should be a punk-rock band. Exene’s band Original Sinners are pretty close to what X does, and they just did a new record. But when we did the last X studio record, I felt like I was given an assignment: ‘Here, you have to write X songs because you’re going to make an X record.’ And you don’t want to have to do that because at this point, the songs I write aren’t X."

The Knitters have also quietly been back on active duty for several years, though Doe doesn’t like to characterize it as a reunion. "We were never a band to stay together or break up. We’d do strings of West Coast dates every three or four years whenever everyone was around. And every time we did that, we’d work up another couple songs. So we finally went ahead and recorded."

Like the first album, the new one offers a few reworked X tunes ("In This House That I Call Home," "Burning House of Love," and the lesser-known "Skin Deep Town") and some trad covers (the Stanley Brothers’ "Rank Stranger" and "Give Me Flowers While I’m Living" and "Little Margaret" from the public domain), as well as new tunes by Alvin and Doe. But it’s a looser album that seems less concerned with sounding "authentic."

"Born To Be Wild" is the most obvious example of that shift. "When the Knitters play, it’s a lot of fucking around," Doe says. "We aren’t taking ourselves overly seriously. Every song is important, and we want to play well and sing well and all that, but it’s also about having fun. And at the end of the night, when you’re hauling ass through ‘Born To Be Wild’ and you see all these people in the audience smiling, you’re thinking, ‘This is good. There’s nothing wrong with this. I’m having fun and they’re having fun and, fuck yeah, this is cool.’ "

The Knitters | Paradise Rock Club, 967 Comm Ave, Boston | August 10 | 617.228.6000

Issue Date: August 5 - 11, 2005
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