| June 29, 2011
Interview: John Oates

I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing a musical legend and personal hero of mine, John Oates, before his show with his well-known other half, Daryl Hall, at Wolf Trap last Monday. John couldn’t have been a nicer guy and had plenty of interesting things to say on the music business, young fans, songwriting, his work today with Daryl and his solo career. Make sure you read it all; you don’t want to miss his hilarious anecdote on writing Icehouse’s “Electric Blue.” The interview continues after the jump.

STREAM: The Bird And The Bee – “She’s Gone (Hall & Oates Cover)”


Q: So you decided to name your current tour, as well as your recently-released box set, after the Bigger Than The Both Of Us track, “Do What You Want, Be What You Are.” Why is that?

The title of that song really epitomizes where we’re coming from. It’s almost like a personal philosophy. I don’t think people have given us enough credit for being independent, even during the era when we were part of the big music business establishment and having all these hits. Even within that context and that era, we were very independent. We always, from the very beginning of our career, made our own records with no record company involvement. We never allowed anyone in the studio while we were recording. We delivered the record we wanted to deliver. The fact that we had hits was a by-product of our good work, not part of some master plan. It was the antithesis of what’s going on in today’s record business (although I have to say it’s starting to change, which is good).

After we finished our final record contract in 1991 we were one of the first classic, established artists to go independent, with Marigold Sky in ‘96. Every record we’ve released since then has been an independent release, except that we partnered with Sony for this box set because they own the rights to the masters, and that’s why. But all my solo albums have been independent releases. Daryl has been the same way. In that regard, “Do What You Want, Be What You Are,” it’s kind of where we’re really coming from. I think a lot of the independence and uniqueness of what we’ve done over the years gets overshadowed by the hits. People always accused of us of being packed with the Top 40 devil, able to churn out these hits at will, but far be it from the truth. If you actually look at our hits, none of them sound like the other. But yet we had success. I think there’s a lot to be proud of there and I think it’s a statement of independence in a way.


Q: You’ve stressed before that growing artists today should own the rights to their masters. Was this a lesson you had to learn the hard way despite your independent approach to music?

We really started early. My first recording was made on a two-track analog tape in the 60’s. We have really seen the entire progression. In those days the record business was indentured servitude. The artist signs to a label — that was the formula, the format. And we did what so many older artists did: we took what was given to us just happy to get a contract, go on tour, happy to, you know, get laid and travel around the world. We really weren’t thinking — it’s as simple as that. Years later we realized what we had done. There were a number of other things though. It wasn’t all our ignorance. It wasn’t that we were just these stupid hippies – although you know, we were at times – but there were people who were always willing to take advantage of stupid hippies. Of course, we learned our lessons, and I like to impart a little bit of wisdom to the next generation. Although, artists and musicians in general are so much more savvy now, and the record business has opened up to the point where they’re embracing this new reality. The new reality is that people do hold onto their own stuff. So saying that now is past the point. Any musician, songwriter or artist that doesn’t understand the power or value in their copyrights and publishing and the longevity of all these things really doesn’t belong in the music business. Or maybe that’s just old news.


Q: Where are you and Daryl now? Are you touring with the same intensity you did in the 80’s?

It’s funny you should say that. We’re bigger now than we were in the 80’s. We’re actually doing better live business than we did in our heyday. When we were at our height in the mid-80’s, we had tons of hit records, number one after number one. But we could barely sell out Madison Square Garden for one night, because we were perceived as a singles group. Singles groups in those days were less-than-hip according to the rock journalism of the time – which was of course all bullshit. We played big places, but we were never at that level when people were playing multiple nights in stadiums. So now we’re actually playing to more people right now than we probably were in the 80’s. We just sold out Ravinia in Chicago to 16,000 people, we’re playing to 30,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl. We sold out three nights in Los Angeles at the Hollywood Bowl. We had never done that in our whole career. So it’s interesting that we’re actually bigger now than we were then. Not in terms of record sales, of course.


Q: Your fans span multiple generations but recently you guys have experienced a spike in popularity among younger crowds. Have you felt that presence at your shows?

Absolutely, it’s very obvious. It depends on the venue since some are a little different. Venues that sell by subscription, like these summer sheds, have older audiences who buy a season ticket and do the whole dinner thing down in front. But the rest of the crowd is young. When we play a normal show where just tickets are sold, it’s amazing how much younger the crowd is. There are people in their 20’s and 30’s along with our old die-hard fans. It’s pretty cool. But it’s not the die-hard fans bringing their kids – although they’re doing that as well – it’s a whole new group of fans. And interestingly enough, they’re coming to see us, and they’re not expecting a nostalgia group to trot out their hits and go through the motions. We actually put on a high-energy show. I see the surprise on some new fan’s face. They say, “Oh, I didn’t know it was going to be like this.” They probably expect us to have giant shoulders, huge hair, skinny ties, going through the 80’s motions or something. We have to leave that for the young generation, to regurgitate that. I can’t do that anymore. I can’t do it twice.


Q: I was watching your Live At The Troubadour DVD recently. Do you and Daryl still try and play shows at smaller, more intimate venues?

We like doing it. We do that on occasion, as it calls for it. If you’re going to do a live recording, do it in a small club. You can control the sound better, the audience is more intense, and everything is more controllable from all the technical aspects you need to address. I play small clubs all the time with my solo thing. I love it, talking to the audience, seeing them right there. This Hall and Oates show is different; it’s bigger and louder. But I love playing small theaters and clubs, and I do that all the time.


Q: Your latest solo album, Mississippi Mile, was released this past April. You’ve mentioned that this album was a way of paying homage to the artists who defined who you were before joining up with Daryl. Who are these artists and how have you been able to accomplish this solo?

This album started out as a very casual idea: mix a record with some friends in Nashville. I wanted to do a rootsy thing, so I just picked out some of my old favorite songs. But as I started to do it, what I was doing inadvertently was creating this musical autobiography of everything that mattered to me before I met Daryl. People think I was born with a mustache singing “Maneater,” but I played guitar for twelve or thirteen years before that. This record is a record of all the people that mattered to me, the reason I became a musician, who I was listening to, who I was trying to copy and emulate from a guitar, vocal and songwriting standpoint. Really, it kind of describes me as an individual before I became part of the group. It certainly took on a lot of personal significance for me when realized what I was doing. That’s really what it’s about.


Q: And have you gotten to work with these artists?

I have a personal connection to every song and artist on the record, in some way or another. Some of the older folk artists like Dave Van Ronk, Mississippi John Hurt and some of those guys. I actually played with some of them. I played Mississippi John Hurt’s guitar on the first two Hall & Oates albums after he passed away because it was given to a very good friend of mine. I had the chance to play with them in the old days back at the Philadelphia folk festival. Curtis Mayfield was a huge influence on me for a lot of huge reasons. One of the first rock and roll songs I played was a Chuck Berry song. You know, three chords, deceivingly easy to play. I picked a little bit of all that stuff. It’s a little bit like early urban R&B, but where it comes from is that Mississippi Delta blues that started it all. What I started to realize too was that so much of the music I really loved – even though I grew up on the east coast – really came from the Mississippi Delta,, and that’s why I called the album Mississippi Mile. I wrote the title song to sum up the whole idea of how important that region is to American music.


Q: Are there any current artists that emulate that style that you’re in to?

I just played two shows with the Avett Brothers. I love what those guys are doing. Great guys, very cool unique take. One foot in the past and tradition but firmly moving forward. Mumford and Sons are doing the same thing. It’s great. I’m seeing there’s a whole new generation of kids who are really latching onto these bands. They’re getting something authentic. It’s an authentic experience and it’s got the tradition behind it but taking it to another place. And I think that’s really cool. There are so many of those Americana artists, and that’s what I like about the genre in general; it’s a very open-ended classification. A lot of music can fit into it, it has some sort of organic authentic quality. I’m really into that.


Q: What are your upcoming solo plans?

I’m a little bit worn out. I’ve been on double duty. I did a solo tour right before going into this tour. I have a little bit of time off in the summer, then another solo tour in August, another Hall & Oates tour in September, and another solo tour in October. So it’s a really busy time, but I’m looking forward to it all. I’m proud of [Mississippi Mile] and I want to get the word out on this album, so I’m willing to work for it. I’m doing as much as I can to let people know about the album — this interview included — and that’s why I’m doing it.


Q: This is a bit of a random question, but I read that you co-wrote Australian band Icehouse’s single, “Electric Blue.” Can you tell me the story behind that?

It’s a really weird story. I liked Icehouse. They were contemporaries of ours in the 80’s. I met Iva Davies, the lead singer and principal songwriter, in a New York hotel bar. We start talking. He says “Hey, would you ever consider doing some writing?” and I say “Absolutely. I love Australia.” He says, “I’m getting ready to do a new album. Why don’t you come to Australia and we’ll do something.” I had time, so I went down there. It was really interesting. We didn’t get it going right away. I made the trip all the way down to Australia so I felt a little responsible. I thought, “I better freakin’ deliver something.” I was a bit on the spot, and we weren’t coming up with anything great. Well, he was really into wind surfing so we went to the beach. If you know anything about Australia, all the beaches are topless there. So, he was windsurfing and I wasn’t. This gorgeous topless chick is walking towards me on the beach and I’m thinking, “Well, I can’t look at her tits, so I better look at her eyes.” So she had these blue eyes, and I swear to God, it popped into my head, and that’s how I came up with the idea. So I came back and said, “I think I’ve got something!” and we wrote this song. And of course it had nothing to do with that. But sometimes, you know, songs come from funny places.


Q: Speaking of stories behind songs, you’ve organized your own festival focusing on songwriting…

I have a thing, it started out as Stories Behind the Songs. I did it with Pat Griffin, Tift Merritt, Jimmy Wayne, a bunch of Nashville writers. And in Nashville they do a thing called Songwriters In The Round, where people just go round robin. And I did that in Aspen, Colorado, which is where I live, and it became so successful that the city of Aspen asked me to produce a songwriters’ festival. So taking that model, we expanded upon it and we’ve had two of them. We’re now going into our third year; next March will be the third one. We’ve had great artists: Shawn Colvin, Sam Bush, Matt Nathanson, Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs, Glenn Tillbrook of Squeeze. A lot of great country artists as well: James Otto, Elizabeth Cook. The list goes on and on. Unbelievable talent. Totally songwriting, no bands; people play their guitars or piano and talk about their stories behind the songs. We’ve had some impromptu collaborations; people get together and jam with each other. It’s an amazing event and this year it’ll be televised. You’ll start to see things on the new Discovery network, Velocity, which is coming out. They’re going to start teasing it with material we shot at the last festival, so you’ll start to see this stuff very soon.


Q: So songs like “Maneater” or “Private Eyes” – people have heard these songs thousands of times, but if they knew the stories behind them they would probably have a totally different experience the next time they listened.

Every song has a story, some better than others. I tell the stories. That’s why I started to do the solo show in a very stripped down way. With a Hall & Oates show you get all the whiz-bang; you get all the hits and the power and it’s all exciting and everything. A lot of people have heard those songs a million times but really don’t know what’s behind “Private Eyes,” “She’s Gone,” “Maneater,” and so on. Doing the songwriter thing in an intimate environment gives me a chance to talk about it all. And it’ll be even better on TV. Perfect format for it. Looks great, feels great, small and intimate. If you’re interested check out the Wheeler Opera House, the venue in Aspen. Look up 7908: Aspen Songwriters Festival. There are lots of cool videos, pictures and stuff.