DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
The Knitters are a very serious band, with a very serious approach to classic American roots music. That attitude shines through in their promotional materials. A band biography mentions recording sessions with The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers in 1927.
Mr. DAVE ALVIN (The Knitters): They're prima donnas. It was poss...
Mr. JOHN DOE (The Knitters): Boss, man.
Mr. ALVIN: ...it was impossible to work with those people.
ELLIOTT: John Doe and Exene Cervenka once headed up the legendary Los Angeles punk band X. Guitarist Dave Alvin played with The Blasters. And in 1985, they got together and formed The Knitters. The name's a tribute to Pete Seeger's Weavers and, as The Knitters, they could play the country and rockabilly music they couldn't play as X. Now 20 years later, the group has finally put out a second record, "The Modern Sounds of The Knitters."
John Doe, Exene Cervenka and Dave Alvin join us now in the studio. Hello. Thanks for being with us.
Mr. ALVIN: Thanks for having us.
Mr. DOE: Thanks.
ELLIOTT: What were some of the first songs that you did together as The Knitters?
Mr. ALVIN: Same ones we're playing now.
Mr. ALVIN: Yeah.
Mr. DOE: "Rock Island Line" which...
Mr. DOE: Huh? "Poor Little Critter on the Road." And "Rock Island Line" I heard as a kid, you know--Leadbelly singing "Rock Island Line."
(Soundbite of "Rock Island Line")
THE KNITTERS: (Singing) Well, the Rock Island Line, that's a mighty good road. Well, the Rock Island Line, that's the road to ride. Well, the Rock Island Line, that's a mighty good road. And if you want to ride it, gotta ride it like you find it. Get your ticket at the station on the Rock Island Line.
Well, A, B, C, W, X, Y, Z, you maybe see my baby but you don't see me.
ELLIOTT: So, you know, back in the '60s and '70s there were other bands that kind of had a country tinge to them: say, The Grateful Dead and...
Ms. EXENE CERVENKA (The Knitters): Buffalo Springfield and, you know...
Ms. CERVENKA: Crosby, Stills & Nash.
ELLIOTT: You guys weren't quite as subtle.
Mr. DOE: No, there's nothing subtle about the Knitters. Or very little.
Mr. ALVIN: Well, we don't have anything to do with those bands in a way. This is a--and I'm not slagging--I like The Grateful Dead, and I love Buffalo Springfield. This is a different thing. The thing about folk music, whether it's loud folk music or quiet folk music, it's people playing with other people and interacting. And when we started, I played guitar a certain way. John played acoustic. He was brand-new to acoustic guitar. Blah, blah, blah, we did it for fun, so there was a lot of loose ends, a lot of--I won't say mistakes, but it was loose. It's like if the guys at Sun Records dropped LSD and made a record with Leadbelly and The Carter Family; that's what The Knitters sound like.
Mr. DOE: We didn't include that in the bio. We should have.
Mr. ALVIN: That's right. No one asked me.
ELLIOTT: Let's listen to some Knitters just to get a sense of what we're talking about. And I'm going to choose "Give Me Flowers."
(Soundbite of "Give Me Flowers")
THE KNITTERS: In this world today while we're living, some folks say the worst of us they can. But when we are dead and in our caskets, they always put some flowers in our hands. Give me my flowers...
Mr. DOE: It's a bluegrass song by Flatt & Scruggs. Or it's traditional, but we heard the first by Flatt & Scruggs. And then Dave, being the genius and contrarian he is, says `I know what I'll do. I'll put a baritone guitar--six-string bass, whichever you want to call it, which is, as he describes it a big bull in the china shop of bluegrass.
(Soundbite of guitar riff from "Give Me Flowers")
Mr. DOE: And there's little asides where Exene's singing, you know, `Give me my flowers while I'm living. You know, don't throw them when I'm gone.' And I respond, `Just keep 'em.' You know, and it's like, just horsing around.
ELLIOTT: It's seems like this is a lark for all of you and you talked about how you all have busy solo careers. Yet you've been credited as one of the major influences on this whole alternative country music thing that's happening. What do you guys think about that?
Ms. CERVENKA: It's nice you can do stuff like that in your spare time.
Mr. ALVIN: I'm going to work on starting a jazz thing later.
Ms. CERVENKA: Neo ja--well, that's nice. I think that other people probably had the same i--would have had the same idea, you know. A lot of people love country music and love folk music and traditional American music, so I'm not thinking that if the Knitters hadn't happened that none of those of those bands would exist. They probably would.
Mr. ALVIN: I'll say this. A lot of kids, especially 20 years ago when, say, X fans had never really had a positive experience with either roots music or country music or anything like that--you know, if they heard it at all, they heard the bad side of it on TV or whatever. And so, suddenly, with The Knitters, you know, when we--especially the first few gigs I--that we did together, the janitors had to come and scrape the jaws off the floor. You know, because these people, these wild punk rockers, you know, opened the set with whatever, a Phil Ochs song, or they opened it with a Merle Haggard song. And did all young kids that were into X or into Black Flag go for Merle Haggard? No, but a lot did, and I think that it gave them maybe their first chance for--it related to something in their world. And The Knitters--I think, for a certain group of kids in the '80s and around it then, you know, that that's definitely true.
ELLIOTT: 'Cause punk was almost anti-country at the time, right?
Ms. CERVENKA: No.
Mr. ALVIN: Oh, I wouldn't say that, no. Punk wasn't anything. It was anything that you wanted it to be. Although I'm going on a limb saying that.
Ms. CERVENKA: It was anything that you wanted it to be, though, because you had The Ramones and then you had bands like The Plugs(ph), Mission of Burma, Del Fuegos, Replacements, the Go-Go's were considered in there. The Blasters were considered punk. But the thing is folk music and punk music are identical.
Mr. ALVIN: It's the same three chords.
Ms. CERVENKA: And they tell the same stories and they're simple and you can sing a long and they relate to you and your life and the audience and their lives. And so, you know, "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" is a perfect folk song.
Mr. ALVIN: Ooh.
Mr. DOE: And you can do the swing-your-partner, do-si-do to both as well.
ELLIOTT: Explain that to me. Show me that. Sing me that.
Mr. DOE: Show me that.
ELLIOTT: Do me that.
Mr. ALVIN: Show her that on the...
Ms. CERVENKA: "Sheena is a Punk Rocker"...
Mr. ALVIN: ...nylon-string guitar.
Mr. DOE: It's the same beat. A square-dance beat is the same beat as the punk rock beat. The way that we translate "In This House I Call Home" to a bluegrass song--how's that for a segue?--you can see that it's the same deal. We just sped it up and had quieter guitars, so...
ELLIOTT: Well, why don't you do that for us?
Mr. DOE: Well, all right.
Ms. CERVENKA: OK, let's borrow a guitar, John. What do you think?
Mr. DOE: I've got...
ELLIOTT: Think we can find a guitar around here somewhere?
Mr. DOE: My dad's got some paint in the garage. Come on.
(Soundbite of "In This House I Call Home")
THE KNITTERS: (Singing) A hundred lives are shoved inside. Guests arrive to dump their mess. Obedient host and visiting wife come outta the bedroom straightening clothes in this house that I call home, in this house that I call home. Beautiful walls are closing in, looking at you like you're having a nightmare. Stumble over tombstone shoes but it's too soon. I reach the noose around you but it's too soon in this house that I call home, in this house that I call home. Nobody knows the party rules. I gotta get in but there's no room in this house that I call home, in this house that I call home.
Ms. CERVENKA: Did you get enough?
(Soundbite of whistling)
ELLIOTT: That was wonderful. Thank you so much.
Ms. CERVENKA: OK. So that's a punk rock song. But you can see how it lends itself, right? A punk rock song is the same thing as a folk song in that it tells a story about the people who are really singing it. And that's what punk was about, was we wanted to voice our own concerns and our own--tell our own stories and not listen to people on the radio. Tell our stories to each other.
ELLIOTT: So when I hear you guys sing together like that, I hear this--or I feel this George Jones, Tammy Wynette thing kind of...
Ms. CERVENKA: Yeah, we should be so lucky.
Mr. DOE: Yeah, that's very flattering. Thank you.
ELLIOTT: Is that intentional at all? Is that somebody you listen to?
Ms. CERVENKA: We don't sound anything like George Jones and Tammy Wynette, I hate to tell you. But you--go home and put on your Tammy record.
Mr. DOE: I don't know. I mean, I think it's...
ELLIOTT: But the way your voices work together, I guess, is what...
Ms. CERVENKA: Well, we have our own John Doe and Exene thing.
Mr. DOE: Yeah.
Ms. CERVENKA: But it's not George and Tammy.
Mr. DOE: It's better than, you know, Jefferson Airplane. But I think it's just about as--I mean, there is a certain--I think Exene and I have taught each other how to sing in a certain way that we understand, and we can apply that to a number of different songs. And it does have a sort of plaintive Midwestern sound. I don't know why; just because.
ELLIOTT: So why was "Born To Be Wild" something you wanted to put on this album?
Mr. DOE: Because it sounds good. That's the first--that's our--you know, quality is job number one here at theknitters.com. Seriously...
ELLIOTT: It seems like I read a review somebody didn't like it. I can't remember who it was.
Ms. CERVENKA: No!
Mr. DOE: No!
Mr. ALVIN: Thanks for bringing that up.
Mr. DOE: Can't be. Well...
Mr. DOE: ...reviews--reviewers are such great sources of entertainment. That's why we don't read 'em. No, actually, it was like a lot of--a lot of this material is intuitive. You try a song, it works. Good, it's in. You try another song, it doesn't work. It's out. "Born To Be Wild," I don't know where it really came from. I just started singing and playing in the sort of most hillbilly style I could of "Born To Be Wild" and we went to the chorus after the first verse. And so, we had our own arrangement and it's beautiful.
(Soundbite of "Born To Be Wild")
THE KNITTERS: (Singing) Well, get your motor running. Head out on the highway. Looking for adventure in whatever comes my way.
Ms. CERVENKA: Well, I've got to actually credit Henry with that concept, the idea of doing the song. Remember?
Mr. DOE: What?
Ms. CERVENKA: We came to rehearsal one day and I said, Henry--my son, that song came on the radio, the Steppenwolf version, and he said, `You should do that in The Knitters.'
Mr. DOE: Really?
Ms. CERVENKA: Yeah, and then you said, `OK,' and then you came up with the hillbilly version.
Mr. DOE: Oh. Well, there you go.
Ms. CERVENKA: There you go. So it's a family affair.
ELLIOTT: What did you do to make it hillbilly?
Mr. DOE: Slow it down and draw out the words. Go dun-chic-a-dun, dic-a-chun, dic-a-dung. That's all it takes.
ELLIOTT: And the harmony and--yeah.
(Soundbite of "Born To Be Wild")
THE KNITTERS: (Singing) ...going to make it happen. Get the world in a love embrace. Buy all the guns at one time, shoot 'em off into space. Like a true nature's child, we were born, born to be wild. Because we're ridin' so high...
ELLIOTT: Thanks, Exene Cervenka, John Doe and Dave Alvin, all members of The Knitters. Their new CD is "The Modern Sounds of The Knitters." Thanks, guys.
Mr. ALVIN: You're welcome.
Ms. CERVENKA: Thank you.
Mr. DOE: Thank you.
(Soundbite of "Born To Be Wild")
THE KNITTERS: (Singing) Born to be wild.
ELLIOTT: You can hear more modern sounds from The Knitters, three full cuts from the CD, at our Web site: npr.org.
(Soundbite of "Born To Be Wild")
THE KNITTERS: (Singing) Born to be wild. Born to be wild. Well...
ELLIOTT: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.