John Oates on his new album, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, and what 'I Can't Go For That' is really about
John Oates has always been about the music, as evidenced by the 18 studio albums released by duo Hall & Oates during their 34-year partnership and the four solo albums the Montgomery County native has released as a solo artist since 2002.
On April 10th of this year, Hall & Oates will join the ranks of Bill Haley, Dick Clark, and Philadelphia International entrepreneurs Gamble and Huff as inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Oates today released Good Road To Follow, a three-disc set of EPs full of collaborations with the likes of Vince Gill, Hot Chelle Rae, and Ryan Tedder. Each 5-song disc is organized by genres with titles Route 1, Route 2, and Route 3.
We had an opportunity to speak with John Oates about Good Road to Follow, his faith in youth and Internet culture, and why you shouldn’t expect new material from Hall & Oates despite their upcoming tour.
You worked with a lot of great songwriters and across a multitude of genres on Good Road to Follow. Was it challenging to jump from genre to genre?
No one that I was working with knew all the other music I had recorded. I was the only one who actually knew. I didn’t have to sit down and go ‘whoa, you have to listen to these seven or eight songs first so that what we do fits with them’. It was an open palette on there for every collaboration. I said ‘don’t worry about anything.’
I know this probably sounds convoluted, but my criteria was, is it a song that I can sing? That I can sing honestly and pull it off? Are the lyrics really top notch? I was really conscious of the lyrics being meaningful, substantial, tight, and well crafted. I really kept my eye on the ball of all of those aspects of the recordings. It was always in the background for me.
Good Road to Follow is really an ode to co-writing and collaboration between artists.
Even going back to my work with Daryl, collaborating has been a part of my life. Daryl and I have been collaborating for years. I like the collaborative process. I find it very interesting. There’s always a personal satisfaction in writing a song by yourself. You get the inspiration, and see it through, and you're done. It's focused and very personal. There’s a beauty to that you can’t deny.
At the same time, there’s a magic that happens when two or more people start to bounce ideas off of each other. The things that you come up with can be really unique and sometimes quite amazing to see the sharing of ideas, and different people’s point of view can bring out something you may never have come up with by yourself. That's why I wanted to do it. Plus, I just wanted to work with different people. I wanted to experience what it was like to work with a guy like Vince Gill or Ryan Tedder to see how they do what they do. To see what they bring to the table. What [were] their ideas of what’s good, or what’s hip, or what’s cool? What moves them emotionally?
It seems like you really pushed yourself out of your comfort zone with this project.
Absolutely. For instance, the song with Vince Gill. Now Vince is one of the great singers of all time, and also a great guitar player. To have him coaching me, and working me, and producing me through my lead vocal was both intimidating and exciting.
At the same time, he is a very easygoing guy and he wanted to let me get the best out of my performance. He knew what was a good performance and a good take and a good rendition or reading of the lyric. There are thousands of little tidbits like that along the way in making these records that made it so interesting for me.
That's a very humble thing to say.
Some artists are very, very adamant about what they want to do and how they want to do it. They want to see their vision through, as a pure expression of where they're coming from. That’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that. Then, there are other artists who really need the help. They have a vague idea of where they’re going but need people or a group or team to help them solidify that and make it real, and then there's everything in between. With me, I do it all. I'm a singer, songwriter, producer, performer. Most of the people I've worked with were the same, really. They understood what I was trying to do. They brought their unique talents to the table and I tried to let them have a lot of freedom. I didn’t go in there dictating things. At the same time, in the back of my mind I was always watching and seeing what direction the process was heading. If it didn't feel right, I would always steer it back in a subtle way.
What was it like to work with Ryan Tedder, whom you could argue is next generation Hall & Oates as far as songwriting prowess goes?
Yes! That's exactly why I wanted to work with him. I felt that he was in the direct line in the world of pop to what Daryl and I had been doing over the years. I have the greatest respect for him as a creative person, but also as a human being. He's a really, really cool guy. He's a really thoughtful person. He's in such demand, both for his own work with OneRepublic, and working with other people like Adele. This is something that I learned over the years too, when you're hot and you’re on top of the world in pop music, your biggest enemy or obstacle to overcome is time, because you just don’t have any.
So when I asked him if we could do a song together, the first thing he said to me was ' I definitely want to do it, but we're going to have to find some time'. I knew exactly what he was talking about. We found a day, and when I got to his house he literally said right up front 'look man, I got 4 and a half hrs'. I said, 'ok, well let’s go for it'. We had never worked together. I have to say the collaboration with him was the most unusual and unique. He said ‘if we're gonna do something together its gotta be something that doesn't sound like anything you've done before.'
He had a very clear idea. I basically took direction from him the whole way through. He guided me through what he wanted me to do. I did it. He coached me through the vocal, which is simple and we just crafted the words to work in that rhyme scheme. And the song was done. Literally written, recorded, finished in 4 hours.
Hall & Oates has been nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since 1997. Why do you think 2014 is your year?
It's like a perfect storm of things coming together. A lot of newer pop bands started to talk and share on social media about how influential Hall & Oates music was to them as kids. Its a certain generation who heard 80s music and 70s music and grew up on it and now they're making the music that fans are listening to. They're telling their fans how important we were to them. So their fans are coming over and listening to us, and so our audience has changed.
Our audience is getting younger. I think Daryl's TV show had a lot to do with it. He's brought a lot of young bands and a lot of legacy artists together and put that on TV, and my collaborations with various people…working with Jim James at Bonnaroo...all of these things seem to have taken the Hall & Oates name and brand and really brought it back into the forefront.
Then the fact that our music and our songs have a timeless quality to them that don’t seem to age. People pick up on that. There were times when we were not necessarily considered by the rock press and by various other so called “tastemakers” as we weren’t hip, but all of a sudden those people don’t matter anymore because a younger generation doesn’t listen to what's force-fed to them. They find their own music and they share their own music. They discover a world of music through the virtual media. Because of that, people make their own decisions and our songs will resonate with people.
Pop music just isn't that good anymore. When you listen to pop radio, almost everything sounds crappy.
Back in the 70s and 80s there was a lot of crap on pop radio (laughs), but there was also some good stuff. 30, 40 years later it’s the good stuff on pop radio that endures. Luckily for us, a lot of those songs were Hall & Oates songs.
That’s a good point. I guess there was always crap on the radio but the good stuff is what we remember.
Trust me, it's always been crap on the radio (laughing). If anyone looks back to the 70s, 80s with nostalgic rosy colored glasses and goes ' well, everything was awesome'. No, everything was not awesome! There was some awesome stuff, but a lot of crap.
So, when I tell strangers that I’m from Philly, they’ll try to relate to me with three topics: cheese steaks, The Roots, and Hall & Oates.
And soft pretzels!
Ok, so maybe four. Cheese steaks, soft pretzels, The Roots, and Hall & Oates. How did the culture of Philadelphia influence your musical trajectory?
Well interestingly enough I was born at the exact right time. I was born at the beginning of rock and roll. I got to experience the entire evolution of popular rock and roll music even before it started. I saw the early, early bands in the early 50s as a little kid. Then, in the 60s in Philadelphia was an amazing place to be. You had the Uptown Theater in North Broad Street that featured all of the great R&B acts of the time. James Brown, Otis Reading, The Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Curtis Mayfield, you name it! On and on and on. And I would go there every weekend and see these unbelievable live shows of the most incredible artists. At the same time, Philadelphia was a hot bed of folk music. The Philadelphia Folk Festival just celebrated its 52nd year, which makes it the oldest folk festival in America next to Newport. All of these incredible folk artists were coming through and playing at places like the Main Point in Bryn Mawr, the Second Fret down on Sansom Street. These were really first class folk clubs and I would go to those clubs and I'd see all these amazing delta blues and roots performers like Doc Watson, and Mississippi John Hurt, and people like that who were coming through the city as well. All at the same time. I was always into traditional America music and folk music and I was also into doo-wop and R&B. It was all happening at the same time. It was a really amazing time to be there. It' was just timing and being born at the right time. Those influences affected me in a big way. The stuff you hear as a kid when you're young is the stuff that sticks with you for the rest of your life. That’s what I bring when I do my music. I bring that traditional American organic roots approach with the urban R&B, more sophisticated R&B and it's some kind of combination. That's essentially what Daryl and I do as well.
What are some of your fondest memories of Philadelphia?
When I was a kid, moving into Center City down near South Philly. I lived all over downtown, Spruce Street, Pine Street, Quince Street. I was a hippie. I lived in an apartment for a couple weeks with some people. I was always changing apartments. Just being on the street! I spent a lot of time walking around the streets, sitting on curbs, playing guitar. Going to the folk clubs and playing shows. That's what I remember the most. Just hanging out. Philadelphia had a really cool downtown hippie scene on South Street in those days. The Theater of the Living Arts was a really cool place to go. There were little coffee houses everywhere like Hecate’s Circle up in Germantown. All of these various bands and stuff were playing. It was a very cool time to be in Philadelphia.
What's next for you?
I'm really working with Daryl. We've dedicated this year to a lot of Hall & Oates touring, we’re going to go to Europe in July for the first time in 10 years. Then of course promoting my album in between and that's really what’s going on. This year is already booked completely. I know exactly what I'm doing.
Do you think you'll work on new material together?
I don't think so, not right now. If the right collaboration comes along we might do a single or something together. Daryl's so into his own show and he’s got so much going on with Live From Daryl’s House, and I've got so much going on with my album. It’s three things: Daryl’s got his thing, I've got my thing, and we've got Hall & Oates. Between those 3 things, we are completely jammed. I can't squeeze anything more into a lifetime (laughs).
I have one last question, and you don’t have to answer me if you don’t feel comfortable. I’ve always wondered, what is the ‘that’ you are referring to in “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)”?
That song is typical of a lot of the lyrics we've written over the years. It seems like it's about one thing, but it's really not. What we have always tried to do, and if we have any kind of philosophy for our lyrics over the years it was to try to take a universal subject and somehow make it seem personal so that people could relate to it as if it was a personal thing. The underlying subject matter is actually not. That song is about the music business. That song is really about not being pushed around by big labels, managers, and agents and being told what to do, and being true to yourself creatively. That's what that songs about. People take it and impose their own personal ideas about what its really about.
That is amazing, I always thought it was about a relationship between lovers.
Well that's the whole point! That's what we do. That’s one of our skills. Take a song like "Maneater". "Maneater" isn't about a girl; it's about New York City. "Maneater" is about NYC in the 80s. It’s about greed, avarice, and spoiled riches. But we have it in the setting of a girl because it's more relatable. It's something that people can understand. That's what we do all of the time.