- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 19, 2007

For someone who goes by the name “John Doe,” the man born as John Duchac sure has done a lot of things to break out of anonymity. For starters, he co-founded the seminal L.A. punk band X, spun that off into country-flavored side project the Knitters, produced a series of feted solo records, and built a decent acting career in TV (“Roswell”) and film (“Great Balls of Fire!”).

“I’ve done a lot to make myself stand out?” he asks. “Well, I haven’t been arrested; I haven’t been caught in a drug smuggling ring or dealing arms; I’ve had no underage sex scandals. I’m pretty clean. I haven’t ever been in jail.”

Infamous he’s not, but — no pun intended — he’s certainly made a name for himself.

The artist is fresh off the release of his seventh solo disc, “A Year in the Wilderness,” a mash-up of whirring rock (“Hotel Ghost”), fine duets (“The Golden State”) and country-tinged ballads (“Meanest Man in the World”) that PopMatters is calling his “best-ever” solo work.

“I try not to read reviews,” the artist says. “I don’t read them but I’ll hear stuff, and you just have to move forward because [paying attention to them] makes you self-conscious.”

John Doe may tune out critics for the most part, but he’s not averse to letting the voices of fellow musicians infiltrate his work. Like its most recent predecessors, “Wilderness” is spotted with guest performances from such talents as Aimee Mann and Jill Sobule, and in the live setting, the material is being interpreted with the help of Cindy Wasserman and her band, Dead Rock West. (For a sample of the sound, check out the acoustic version of “Golden State” on theejohndoe.com; it’s dazzling.) “One of the great sidelines in music is being able to hang out with people you like and having them bring what they can contribute,” he says.

Beyond promoting this record, the artist hasn’t mapped out his next moves out yet; in fact, he says his career has been more about flowing than following.

“I wish I could come up with a grand plan. I wish I could come [up] with an epic masterwork, but I don’t find I have the discipline,” he says. “So instinct and intuition in art, to me, are the most resonant.”

John Doe, along with Miss Wasserman and Dead Rock West, plays July 31 at Arlington’s Iota Club and Cafe (www.iotaclubandcafe.com). Show starts at 8:30 p.m.

‘Toast’ to ska’s past

Robert “Bucket” Hingley still has the first ska record he ever bought. It’s a copy of Jamaican singer Millie Small’s rendition of “My Boy Lollipop,” released in 1964.

“It’s on 7-inch vinyl,” Mr. Hingley says. “It’s the size of a dinner plate.”

Call it a reminder of the musical past — a vital link to his predecessors. A signifier of the watchful eye that the musician, best known as founder and frontman of American ska outfit the Toasters, has kept focused back in time.

Perhaps this record and all it represents has something to do with the reason Mr. Hingley’s pepped-up band is still bouncing around some 26 years after its inception (albeit with a slightly different lineup), while dozens of other ska-rockers deflated not long into the boom that happened here in the late ‘80s and ‘90s.

A lot of ska bands that came up at that time “didn’t really have too much of a clue as to the culture and heritage of [the genre], and that it goes back to the ‘50s,” says Mr. Hingley, who then proceeds into a full discussion of the original Jamaican, British two-tone and third-wave (largely American) ska movements.

The Toasters emerged at the beginning of the latter but were heavily informed by ska’s previous incarnation, particularly since Mr. Hingley was a British expat. The group formed in 1981 in New York City, delivered its first recording in 1983 and dropped its first full-length, “Skaboom!”, in 1987.

As they steadily acclimated listeners to their horn-soused, island-vibed rock sound, they opened the door for groups like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, who helped usher the style into the mainstream.

Like the Internet bubble’s burst, however, the fad eventually faded in the late ‘90s and the market could no longer support the profusion of ska-based bands. The shakedown left only the brightest and most determined music-makers standing (including D.C.’s homegrown Pietasters, who debuted on the now-defunct Hingley-helmed Moon Ska label).

Mr. Hingley now calls Valencia, Spain, his home base, and it’s there that he runs his latest ska imprint, Megalith, and masterminds the Toasters’ next moves. The band just released its ninth studio album, “One More Bullet,” and continues to build followings in random corners of the world like Skopje, Macedonia.

What’s kept the musician at it for all these years? “Once you get bit by the bug, you never get rid of it,” he says.

The Toasters will appear at the Vans Warped Tour (www.warpedtour.com) on Wednesday at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md. Gates open at 11 a.m.

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