Interview Date: 7/13/2009
Run Date: 7/21/2009
It’s more than a little unfair that John Oates has spent so many years serving as the butt of jokes, but, c’mon, you know you chuckled at least a little when “The Simpsons” offered a scene where Lisa, feeling low after not making first chair in the school band, imagined herself as a member of Garfunkel, Messina, Oates, and Lisa. Fortunately, Mr. Oates has a sense of humor, one which he’s getting to show off in the new animated web series, “J Stache,” which reunites him with his long-lost mustache to fight the forces of evil. Yes, seriously. Bullz-Eye talked to Oates about his new online endeavor, his work with Daryl Hall, some of his other musical appearances (he co-wrote Icehouse’s “Electric Blue,” you know), and how bizarre it is to be talking about a bit of facial hair that he hasn’t sported in almost two decades.
John Oates: Hey, Will, it’s John Oates here.
Bullz-Eye: Hey, John, how are you?
JO: Oh, I’m okay. Sorry to call a little late. My son had two friends spend the night, and getting them all together for camp…? Oh, geez.
BE: My daughter is at vacation bible school this week, so I know where you’re coming from. So is all well with John Oates these days…?
JO: It’s good. Busy. Very busy, but good. Good busy.
BE: The best kind.
BE: Well, I’ve been a big fan for many years…
JO: Thank you.
BE: …and I’m very excited about “J Stache.” I checked out the trailer (see below) and it’s extremely funny.
JO: Yeah, it’s really crazy. It’s interesting to get people’s reactions on it. You know, so far, it seems like everyone who is kind of on the younger side really thinks it’s amazing, and other people are just confused. I guess that’s good. I’m not sure. I think it is.
BE: Yeah, I showed it to my wife and she was just kind of staring at it. I was, like, “It’s funny, right?” And she said, “Well, it’s interesting.”
JO: She didn’t know what to make of it or she didn’t get it. It’s one or the other.
BE: Somewhere between the two, I think.
JO: Yeah, well, I guess that’s kind of the reaction we’re looking for, really. (Laughs)
BE: It strikes me very much as kind of an Adult Swim show.
JO: Oh, yeah. It’s not supposed to be straight down the pike. It’s supposed to be off-centered.
BE: So how did you react when they first brought you the idea for this?
JO: Well, I wasn’t exactly sure, because I didn’t know what they had in mind. But when I began to see where they were coming from, then I started to like it, because I realized that it was so crazy and so outrageous that it just…well, let’s put it this way: I look back on the image of myself from those days, and I’m so far removed personally and emotionally from that guy who had the mustache back in the ‘70s and ‘80s that it almost feels like the character is someone else. I don’t really think of this as a representation of me, even though I am sure everyone else will. That’s why I guess I can, like, view it in a different way, and I can step back from it and have my tongue firmly planted in cheek.
BE: So do you remember the initial outcry when you shaved the mustache?
JO: It wasn’t much of an outcry. (Laughs) It was kind of a weird reaction. I think it meant more to me than it meant to anyone else. You know, it was so much a part of my image, but I did it at a time when Hall & Oates…we were in a period of time when the 80’s were more or less over. It was 1988 or ’89. I think it was ’89. We were working and recording, but not at that intense level and not with us on the radar screen the way we were in the early and mid-‘80s. So when I did it…I actually shaved it off in Tokyo, Japan, after a John Lennon tribute concert, the night before we were going home. I showed up at the airport the next day without it. So it wasn’t like anyone really saw me other than the band, Miles Davis, and Lenny Kravitz. (Laughs)
BE: Does it seem bizarre that here you are, still talking about the fact that you used to have a mustache?
JO: Yes. See, to me, that’s even more bizarre than “J Stache”: the fact that I haven’t had a mustache for 20 years and people actually still talk about it! But I kind of understand it on a level that the mustache is back in vogue, you know. It’s back in style, and there is a lot of talk about it. My mustache took on this iconic kind of symbol of the era, of those decades in a way. You know, not me alone. Of course, I didn’t carry the ‘stache torch singlehandedly…
BE: Yes, but you and Burt Reynolds definitely did a lot for it.
JO: Yeah, Burt Reynolds, Tom Selleck, Geraldo Rivera, there were a number of them. I can’t take full credit. Although I would like to. But I can’t. (Laughs)
BE: This has actually been in the works for awhile, because I remember seeing a press release for it some time ago. Was it a matter of getting the funding all in order, or is it just that it takes time to do the animation?
JO: It’s been in the works for about two and a half, three years.
BE: Wow. I knew it had been awhile, but…
JO: Well, you know, it was just an idea, and then the idea had to kind of work its way through various incarnations and get some storyboarding. Originally, we were going down the root of a traditional cartoon show – as you said, in the Adult Swim style – and then with the downturn in the economy, we decided to just go viral with it and see if we could create an underground following, which I think is even more appropriate for this kind of thing that we are doing. And so I think now, in retrospect, not having landed in a cartoon series initially was probably a really good thing, because I think it could be even more effective as a viral kind of subculture thing. And, then, who knows where it goes from there?
BE: In a sense, it works in its favor that it’s taken so long to evolve to its current state, because I’m sure a lot of people were, like, “Oh, my God, this has got to be a joke, this is never really going to be made.” But, now, they’re going to be going, “What? Is it real? I have got to see this!”
JO: But you know what? It is a joke.
BE: Well, it is, but it’s a joke that I think some people never would have imagined would have come to fruition.
JO: Well, when people first heard about it, there were two very distinct reactions. It was, like, “That is really crazy and ridiculous,” and they dismissed it, or they thought it was the most amazing idea they had ever heard. It polarized people. I think ideas that are powerful usually do polarize people. When you elicit a strong reaction on something, that’s a good sign. That means you’re actually reaching someone. If there’s this kind of tepid, lukewarm “eh” kind of reaction, I think that’s a bigger problem. So my initial feeling was that, when people heard about it, they had this really polarized thing. You know, “How could you make fun of yourself that way? How could you belittle yourself and the music?” I really don’t look at it that way, but…other people just would rave about it and go, “That’s the most amazing idea I’ve ever heard, that is so cool.” So I think that’s a good thing.
BE: One of my friends had wanted me to ask you what you had thought about “Yacht Rock,” but then I found a quote online where you basically said that “Yacht Rock” was the beginning of the Hall & Oates resurrection.
JO: Well, it wasn’t the beginning, but it helped. It kind of came hand in hand with a rediscovery of our music by the newer generation. It was a combination of things. It was that visibility with “Yacht Rock,” and it was also the fact that a lot of really big and very credible young bands were citing us as influences on their music. I think that was probably more important. But you know, nowadays, with the internet and the way things work, it’s kind of the sum total of the exposure. You know, there is so much out there that, anytime you can cut through in whatever form, in a way, it helps. It’s kind of like the Paris Hilton syndrome: you can be famous for doing something really embarrassing, but in the end, no one really cares. So it’s kind of messed up, but, unfortunately, that’s the way the press and the world has gone.
BE: Now, I’d actually like to ask you about some of your music, if you don’t mind.
JO: That’s good. (Laughs)
BE: You guys have worked with Todd Rundgren several times in the past, but I have to tell you that the decision to cover the New Radicals’ “Someday We’ll Know” (on Do It For Love) was one of the most inspired covers I’ve heard in a very long time.
JO: Yeah, I just love that song. I really like New Radicals; I thought the album was great. That song in particular jumped out. It just had this classic pop sensibility that really appealed to me personally, and definitely Daryl as well. You know, we just heard it kind of the same way we hear our own songs. Having Todd on it and having three vocalists…you know, everyone took a phrase, and Todd playing that amazing guitar solo. We were looking for a vehicle to bring Todd in, and it just seemed tailor made.
BE: How has it been recording on an indie level for the past few years? Has it been a different dynamic, and do you feel less pressure to come up with a hit single necessarily?
JO: You know, we never had any pressure to come up with a hit single. We just did it naturally. It turned out in the ‘80’s that we got on such a roll that our sound became the sound of radio. People were following us. That was one of those things that you can’t plan, that you can’t count on, but it happened and we were grateful. We had an amazing run between the ‘70s and the ‘80s, but we never set out and said, “Oh, we’re going to write ten number-one records.” I mean, you always hope that your songs will connect on that level, but as songwriters, we were more concerned with the quality of our material in general. If one of those songs rose to the top or stuck out as a single, it was really more up to the record company and marketing to make that happen. You know, I think we were kind of pioneers in terms of being what I guess you would call the older or classic artists who came up through the transitional music business system and decided to actually break away and do it independently. We did it in 1996. We realized that we knew how to make records. We knew pretty much everything we needed to know, and we had everything in place. I think that we had a vision that the future of the music business was changing, and that in order for us to continue to be creatively happy and do what we wanted to do, we really couldn’t just listen to the dictates of some businessman in an office in a traditional record company. It just wasn’t working. So it was one of the best things we have ever done, and since then, to this day, we haven’t put out anything on a major label…although I’m going to contradict myself immediately, because in September we’re putting out a box set on Sony (Do What You Want, Be What You Are).
BE: And, actually, I was going to ask you about that. How much input did you guys have in picking the tracks for that?
JO: Well, we had a lot of input with that. Although I have to say the A&R guys at Sony who championed the box set project were super-fans. And sometimes it’s good to have someone who, if they get you and they’re really on the same page with you, also has an objectivity that perhaps you as an artist may not have. I think that was good. They brought some suggestions out that perhaps we wouldn’t have chosen, which I thought was great. Sometimes you can’t see the forest through the trees. So in that regard, it was really great that these guys were proactive to get this thing going. And then Daryl and I jumped in, and we both are very much involved with how it looks and feels. You know, providing personal stuff that would enhance the package.
BE: How all encompassing is it? Did they license any of the indie tracks for more recent material, or is it strictly from the major label stuff?
JO: Well, I mean, it’s got everything anyone would expect to hear and a lot more. You know, live tracks. There are a couple of tracks, audio tracks that were called from the “Live from Daryl’s House” that I did with him. There are some unreleased tracks, things that were in the archives. Here again, some of those guys brought that to our attention, and gave us an opportunity to revisit them and listen again and go, “Wow, that’s pretty cool.” You know, that kind of thing. As far as I’m concerned, the box set is really for the diehard fan, so they can have something that is above and beyond the stuff that they have been listening to for the past 30 years.
BE: What would you say is your favorite unheralded Hall & Oates album, one that doesn’t get cited much but that you personally love?
JO: Unheralded? I would say my favorite one that is probably under the radar would be Along the Red Ledge.
BE: Which is funny, because I was going to say that’s the one that a lot of my friends, music aficionados, tend to cite as a lost favorite.
JO: Yeah, it didn’t have a big hit on it, and because of that reason, I guess you would have to call it the undiscovered album. But in terms of musicality and the people we had playing on it, I think there are some really adventurous songs and really cool songs on it. And, you know, I think you also have to take into context when that album was released. It was released in ’78, right at the birth of the new wave and punk thing that was starting to happen in New York. So we were just slightly bringing in that sensibility of that kind of thing. We were living in the city, we were kind of picking up and absorbing that attitude of what was going on with what was called new wave at the time, and you can kind of hear that in the music. I think that’s a really cool album in a lot of ways.
BE: I’m a big fan of the follow-up, X-Static, even though to listen to it now…well, it definitely is an album of its time. But even so, I still love “Portable Radio.”
JO: (Laughs) Well, here again, that album got caught in the disco/rock wars. It had a dance sensibility in a lot of ways, and it kind of got caught in the middle. It was neither fish nor fowl, and people didn’t relate to that. Of course, if you look at it here in retrospect, it was probably about ten years ahead of its time.
BE: I want to ask you about a couple of the stuff that you have done on your own. How did come to co-write “Electric Blue” for Icehouse?
JO: Daryl and I were kind of on a hiatus, we weren’t doing a lot. I was looking around for other things to do. I was producing a Canadian band called Parachute Club; they were really a great group of people, and I spent a lot of time in Toronto with them. But then I happened to run into Iva Davies from Icehouse in a hotel bar in New York – casually, just literally sitting at the bar – and we started talking. I told him I really liked the band and vice versa, and, you know, we said maybe we should try to write a song. And he said, “Would you want to come to Australia?” And I said, “Yeah.” So they made arrangements for me to go down there, and it was very interesting, I went down there, and going all the way to Australia to write a song, you know, you feel kind of the pressure of, “Wow, I better deliver here!” (Laughs) It’s not like going to around the corner, where if nothing happens it’s no big deal. You know, it’s quite a commitment. So I was down there and, quite frankly, we wrote for a couple of days and we weren’t getting anywhere. It really wasn’t that great. But then I remember he was into windsurfing, and I was sitting at the beach, you know, just hanging while he was doing some windsurfing, and there was this girl who was just incredibly gorgeous and she had these ice-blue eyes, and she was walking right towards me. It just popped into my head, and I went, “Wow!” The title popped into my head, and I came up with this hook. The next day, we went and started writing again, and I said, “How about this?” And it went like wildfire. It was like the one, you know?
BE: You also worked with Jamie Cullum on “Greatest Mistake,” for Handsome Boy Modeling School. Man, I love that song.
JO: Yeah, I did, and now that’s a trippy story. I got a call from Dan the Automator, the producer, and he wanted to know if I wanted to be part of the album and blah, blah, blah. I said, “Yeah, sounds good,” and I looked into some of their other stuff. He said, “I want you to do a duet, I have this concept.” I said, “Okay.” So I went to New York, to this little studio where he was working, and he had a young guy from Brooklyn or Queens who was in a band at the time. He said, “I think you two guys will sing this song, and it will be like you both have a different opinion of what could be like the greatest mistake you’ve ever made. That’s the idea.” Then he said, “Okay, write the song,” and he left. And so we started writing. Okay, he didn’t actually leave, he kind of guided us. But we started writing the song, and we kind of came up with this thing, then he jumped in, we did some changes, and then we recorded it right there on the spot, that day. Me and this guy…and I actually don’t remember his name! But we recorded it, and so it goes. I left and they continued making the album, then a few months went by and I never really heard about it, but I knew that it was coming out. Well, I was at the American Songwriters Hall of Fame, when we were being inducted into the Hall, and it so happened that Jamie Cullum was performing. So we were back stage, ready to receive our award, and Jamie came up to me and said, “Hey, I really enjoyed doing that song with you.” I was, like, “What song?” And he goes, “You know, ‘The Greatest Mistake.’” And I’m thinking, “Now, either I’m nuts, because he wasn’t there, or he’s crazy, or something’s up.” I had no clue. They never told me they had taken the other kid off and replaced him with Jamie Cullum. I had no clue.
BE: That is pretty nuts.
JO: It was very embarrassing, needless to say, and when I finally realized what had happened, it was too late. But I kind of…I guess I danced around the issue and said, “Oh, yeah, that’s really great. Well, I’ve got to go on stage. See ya!” It was a very awkward moment, because I had no clue what he was talking about!
BE: Who would you say is the most unexpected person you found out was a Hall & Oates fan?
JO: Um, Sam Bush? (Writer’s note: for those not in the know, Mr. Bush is the founder of the New Grass Revival.) Yeah, he played on my last solo album (1000 Miles of Life), and we have since become friends. I’ve played with him a number of times. He had liked and seen us back in the ‘80s, and he said it was one of the best concerts he ever saw. When he came into the studio down in Nashville last year to do my solo album, I invited him to play, and he is just the greatest guy. I love the guy and he is just an amazing musician. And after the session was over, he said, “We should do a bluegrass version of ‘Maneater.’” And I said, “Yep, let’s do it!” So he started playing it, and we started fooling around and laughing in the studio. And then a year later, at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, he asked me to come up and do it. He did this reggae, bluegrass version of “Maneater,” and it brought the house down. It was pretty cool. I actually play it a lot now in that style when I play my solo shows. I’ve kind of morphed it into this funky, bluegrass version.
BE: With all of this Michael Jackson coverage, have you been having “We Are the World” flashbacks?
JO: No. But I get asked about it a lot.
BE: I would imagine.
JO: Yeah, Michael had come to see us a number of times in L.A. during our shows. He was a fan and was always very nice. I remember once he came backstage and said, “I like to dance to ‘No Can Do’ in front of my mirror in the bedroom.” (Laughs) That’s what he said! So I thought that was pretty cool.
BE: You and Daryl were both on Taj Mahal’s album, Like Never Before. Had you been fans of his for awhile, or was that…
JO: We actually knew him from way back in the folksy days. In fact, I just saw him a few months ago here in Colorado, when he was playing. We hung out a little bit.
BE: One of my friends wanted to me to tell you that he has a semi-fond memory of being in the audience when you were doing the video for “Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid.”
JO: (Uncertainly) Okay.
BE: It was at Hampton Coliseum…
JO: In Virginia. Yeah, I remember that.
BE: He said everyone was thrilled until you had to run through the song fifteen times to get the right footage.
JO: Yeah, we were on stage, and it was supposed to be a live video. It wasn’t. (Laughs)
BE: Inquiring minds want to know: do you still have your pink pants?
BE: Do you miss them at all?
JO: Even if I had them, I probably wouldn’t be able to get into them!
BE: How are your solo albums received? Is it predominantly the longtime fans who have picked them up, or do you find that new people kind of stumble on to them accidentally?
JO: Well, it’s definitely the hard core fans, but with the second album, 1000 Miles of Life, because of the guest stars that I had on it, all of the amazing names, their fans of course wanted to listen to what they did on the album. I think it was a surprise to a lot of people that A) I would have them on my album, and B) that they would play with me. (Laughs) I think it was a combination of surprise, you know? But I think everyone enjoyed the cross-pollination of my songwriting style and their amazing musicianship, and that’s really what I wanted to do, anyway. That was one of the goals of the album, to bring these incredible bluegrass and roots players, these rootsy type people in. And I also wanted to do something that was very, very personal. This was without a doubt the most personal recording I’ve ever made. Every song is really, really intensely personal. And it had nothing to do with commerciality. There was no consideration for radio, there was no consideration for anything other than to serve the song in the best way that I could come up with. So that was actually a pure musical expression, and I really enjoyed it. That was probably one of the most satisfying recording experiences I have ever had.
BE: Do you have a favorite cover of one of your songs that you have heard?
JO: No, not really. Because, you know, our songs haven’t really been covered. Very rarely. I mean, if you actually think about it, if you take into consideration the body of work in terms of just the amount of songs we have written, 400 plus, the amount of actual covers that have been done on our songs is almost negligible. Less than 1/10 of one percent. I mean, there have been a couple covers of “Sara Smile,” there have been a couple covers of “She’s Gone,” and there was a cover of “When the Morning Comes,” but I don’t know of any other ones. Honestly, it’s kind of weird, but that’s it. I have a personal theory of why, and it has to do with our vocal style. Our vocal style is so unique and it’s so integral to the song itself that it’s not necessarily easy for other people to sing them. It’s not that they are difficult to sing, it’s just they don’t sound right. And I think that’s always been an issue with our music. You know, our personal stamp is on those songs in a way that they just don’t come off well as cover songs. I could be wrong but that’s my crackp,ot theory.
BE: How dramatically do you think the band’s sound changed when G.E. Smith joined?
JO: You know, it definitely changed. Every musician who has ever played with us has brought something to the table. G.E. definitely defined our sound of the 80’s. I mean, he defined the guitar chair, if you want to think in classical terms, of the 80’s. He had a very aggressive style, a very clean, linear, hard-edged style that not only was very 80’s in character but very distinctive. And he was a very distinctive personality. And, you know, he still is. I just played with him last year, as a matter of fact. I did a solo show with him, acoustically, and it was a lot of fun. I think he defined the sound of our records in the 80’s with his trademark guitar. But you have to remember that we’ve been recording for three decades. He started with us in 1979 or ’80, and he ended with us in 1984 or ’85, so it was really only five or six years. You know, we had guitar players before that and guitar players after that.
BE: Do you remember how you felt when you found out that “I Can’t Go For That” made it to number one on the R&B charts as well as the pop charts?
JO: Well, we always took a lot of great satisfaction in crossing over. In fact, I think one of the things that has been overlooked in our career is the fact that we have not received enough props for being one of the first crossover acts. I think the reason being is that people think of crossover acts as black acts that get played on white radio, as opposed to white acts that get played on black radio, because it is so unusual. So we had acceptance in the black community and urban radio, which is modernly called urban radio, R&B radio, when we were teenagers. Our first records were played on WBAS and WHAT, which were the R&B stations in Philadelphia back in the ‘60s, so to us, that was not really a big deal, and it was certainly no surprise when we had R&B hits with our songs. To me it made perfect sense.
BE: Last one: when “The Simpsons” had their joke about a band staring Garfunkel, Messina, Oates and Lisa, did you think it was funny or, uh, not so much?
JO: Well, you know, people like to put me in the role of the sidekick. I think what’s missing on the surface and the obvious is they don’t realize my contribution. Even though Daryl is outstanding as a singer, his trademark personality and his trademark voice have become the stamp of Hall & Oates, and I don’t think people recognize the contribution I made on the writing side, with the amount of songs I have written and contributed to. So in that regard, you know, I take a little bit of offense to it. But it used to happen, and it doesn’t happen as much anymore because I think I’ve asserted my personality now with solo stuff, and people see that and realize, “Well, okay, he’s not just the second banana.”
BE: Well, I think I’ve kept you long enough, but it’s been great talking to you, and I’m looking forward to seeing “J Stache” in all its glory.
JO: We’ll see what happens. (Laughs)
BE: Alright man, thanks a lot.JO: Thank you, man!