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John Oates

#66
Great guitarist, great singer, awesome mustache. But the low-key member of Hall & Oates has much to say about the duo's music and success. POSTED September 6, 2012

If you know me, and you’ve known me for more than, oh, six weeks, you’re aware of my love for (aka: infatuation with) Daryl Hall and John Oates. It began when I was 10, and I bought my brother David the Hall & Oates album, H2O. All told, David probably listened to the thing, oh, four times.

I probably listened 400.

There was just something about the sound that … moved me. Cliche dictates I’m supposed to discuss two white guys performing so-called “black” music (aka: the art of blue-eyed soul). But that’s not it. What did it (and still does it) for me about Daryl and John was the merging sounds and textures and melodies. Their voices are nothing alike. I mean, not even close. Neither are their styles—Daryl is flamboyant (sometimes annoyingly so), John is understated (sometimes to his detriment). Yet the combination has clearly worked: Hall & Oates has compiled six No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 (“Rich Girl“, “Kiss on My List“, “Private Eyes“, “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)“, “Maneater,” and “Out of Touch“) and 34 total singles have charted. Billboard Magazine dubbed them the most successful duo of the rock era—and, if one thinks about it, the competition isn’t even close.

For me, however, it’s never been about the hits and the cheese videos and the fame. If you wanna get to the heart of Hall & Oates, I’d suggest two albums you almost certainly don’t have: Whole Oates (their debut) and Change of Season (from the early 1990s). Neither one contains many hits, but the products are, well, dazzling.

I digress. Hall & Oates still tour, and still pump out new music. Both men, however, seem more focussed on their solo projects. Daryl hosts an excellent monthly show, Live From Daryl’s House, while John records and tours on his own, and with his John Oates Band.

Here, John Oates discusses the secret to musical longevity, why he and Daryl have nary a single thing in common, why Justin Bieber should soak it all in and what it’s like to play Maneater for the 893,322,345th time. John Tweets here, and one can visit his website here.

John Oates, welcome to the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN.: You’ve sold millions of albums, you’ve toured the world, you’ve won tons of awards. Yet when I read your bio, and watch/read different interviews, you seem significantly happier now than you were in, say, 1983. You have a wife, a son, you ski and bike and live in Aspen and Nashville. And you play music you love, without commercial pressure. Am I wrong here?

JOHN OATES.: You’re not off at all. You’re exactly right. I wouldn’t trade going back in time, regardless of the success and the notoriety, for anything in the world. I’m a completely different human being, and those days were very heady, and without those days, quite in fact, I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. so all the parts of the puzzle work together. But, really, if I had to go back and start all over again, I definitely would not be as happy. I was driven, I was pushed, I was pulled, I was part of a big machine. That was just on this incredible roll that you just couldn’t stop. and it was … I wouldn’t say … I’m very thrilled that it happened, but when Daryl and I slowed down in the early 90s, I got a chance to re-evaluate my life. I moved to Colorado, I got re-married, I had a kid, I built a house. I started living like a human being. Really getting off the hamster wheel. And everything changed. Now my current revitalization of my love for music is all because I have this incredible artistic freedom that was earned through the success of Hall and Oates. But now I don’t want to take it for granted or waste a second of it. So I’m doing all sorts of eclectic things. Colaberating with people who I never would have dreamed of working with; spreading my wings in a lot of different styles of music that I always loved but never had the opportunity to be a part of. Making new friends, moving to Nashville, having a whole new set of calibrators and experiences. It’s been fantastic.

J.P.: I just read a Justin Beiber Rolling Stone story. He’s an 18-year-old kid with a swag coach, and he can’t go anywhere, and he’s singing prefab music. Is there any part of you that sees anyone like that and wants to say, “Run! Run away!”

J.O.: I would never say that to him. I would say, suck it in and use it up and enjoy every minute of it, because when it’s done … hopefully for him it’ll be like what happened to me. It may provide him with a platform to do many, many things in his life that he could have never achieved or dreamed of without what’s going on today. So, no, I think he’s probably living large. He’s partying and he’s got the chicks and he’s on tour and on TV … you know, he’s doing it all. And good for him. There’s a time in your life where if you’re lucky enough to have that opportunity, you definitely take it. No doubt about it.

J.P.: One of my favorite songs that you did together is one very few people know outside of die-hard fans. Can’t Stop the Music (He Played it Much Too Long)—which is a brilliant tune. I was thinking how it’s about an aging singer who’s left performing for a small room of people. You were in your early 20s when you wrote it.

Fast forward a year and a half ago—the wife and I saw you play on Long Island, with Mutlu, and it was a relatively small room with about 200 people there. You played some old stuff, some new stuff … you’re 62. And I imagine back when you wrote the song, 62 would have sounded ancient. But you seemed really happy and into the experience and the smallness of the occasion. When you wrote that song, could you have envisioned performing at this age—and embracing it?

J.O.: That’s a very interesting take on that. Of course, when I was in my 20s writing that song, I had no idea … obviously I was projecting something there. What I was really talking about there, and what really gave me the inspiration for that song, was the fact that … the treadmill was starting to … this musical-pop success treadmill was starting in the 70s, it was like I couldn’t stop the music; it felt like something was greater than me and it was going to take over. I guess I was projecting. And the odd thing (in the song) … you sing the song so many times, and yet you can’t remember the words. That was where the original inspiration came.

But, no, I could never envision myself doing this at this time in this way. There’s no way. I knew, inherently, I would always be a musician, because it’s the only thing I’ve ever done in my whole life. So it wouldn’t have surprised me if someone said to me back in that day, “Hey, when you’re in your mid-60s do you think you’ll still be a musician?” I’d say, “Yeah, probably, but how, and at what level and what style, I could have never imagined. It all goes back to the foundation of success of Hall and Oates that has given me this incredible platform to just do all these things.”

J.P.: My father has spent his year in executive search, and he started his career with a business partner, and it lasted about five years. And it seems that’s pretty normal … partnerships just don’t last. And you and Daryl have something very unusual, be it sports or politics or business, and I’m wondering whether it transcends music … the longevity. What is the secret to staying together for so many years?

J.O.: Well, Daryl and I have a very unique relationship. We’re very unique individuals. And it’s a very, very complicated and huge question you just asked. You know, it has to do with our personalities; it has to do with our personalities, that they don’t conflict with each other but they somehow compliment each other. He has what I lack, I have what he lacks. And together, we make almost one complete person—in a weird way. And at the same time we are smart enough to respect each other’s individuality and independence and not put any restrictions on each other. One thing Daryl and I have never done, even from the very beginning—we never put any restrictions on each other in terms of what we were going to do and how we were gonna do it. When he wanted to make solo albums, even early on in our Hall and Oates career, I was perfectly fine with it. In fact, it gave me opportunities to do other things. So I looked at it in a positive way. A lot of people would say, “Oh, Daryl’s making solo albums, how come you aren’t?” Because I’m doing other things. I’m learning how to fly airplanes and racing cars and trying to enjoy myself when I’m not on the road. So I had a different agenda. When I started making solo albums, I did it at a time in my life when it felt like it was the right time for me to do it. And he had no problem with it. So, you know, I think the fact we have that kind of open relationship, creatively, that’s a huge thing. And also, we don’t really have anything in common at all, other than music. We don’t live the same type of lives, we don’t have the same desires and dreams. We’re very, very different as people. But yet on a musical level we have this incredible bond that comes from, basically, growing up with a person. It’s almost like a brotherhood, really.

J.P.: I’ve heard you use “brotherhood” before.” I think people are genuinely fascinated by the relationship, because I’m guessing if you guys were best friends you wouldn’t have lasted three years.

J.O.: I agree. I mean, we really are completely independent people. We don’t live anywhere near each other, we don’t socialize, we don’t even talk to each other, really. We don’t really have to. Six months, eight months have gone by—haven’t even seen him or talked to him. We get on stage and it’s like nothing has changed; it’s like time has stopped. And it’s very weird, actually. But cool. We get on stage and I can read his mind. He can read my mind. It’s very odd, actually, when you try and analyze. To tell you the truth, I don’t question anything. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

J.P.: I’m eternally fascinated by veteran singers performing a song for the 8,765,432nd time. For example, you play Maneater always. You’ve played it repeatedly and repeatedly and repeatedly. How do you get geared up for it? Is there any motivation anymore? Or is it just sorta going through the motions now?

J.O.: Well, you know what, there’s a number of answers to that question. First of all, when I play it with Daryl and we play the classic Hall and Oates rendition of Maneater, uh, I feel like it’s part of my legacy, part of my life, part of my history. And it’s something that the audience appreciates and wants to hear, and I’m happy to do it. I wouldn’t say I’m going through the motions, because I never really go through the motions. I’m always putting something into it. But you know what, I appreciate what it is and where it came from and what it’s about. And interestingly enough, when I play my solo shows I play a completely different version of it. I’ve played three or four different versions of it. I’ve played a reggae version, which is actually the way the song was originally written. It started out as a reggae song. I’ve done it reggae style, I’ve played a blues version with my blues band, I’ve played a rockabilly version of it. I’ve played the song so many ways which only goes to show the actual substance and the actual quality of the raw composition. Above and beyond the production. I think people don’t make the distinction between the record and the song. What I do is I look at the song itself. And the song is not the record that I made with Daryl. That’s the record Hall and Oates made of that song. And that’s how I look at that song. That’s why it’s interesting to me, and that’s why I keep playing it. Because to me the song still has an inherent substance to it. And inherent meaning. And when I play my solo shows I tell the song of where that song comes from. It’s crazy, people have heard that song a million times, as you said, but nobody knows what it was about or why it was written or how it was written. And I think people find that fascinating.

J.P.: Uh, at the risk of being lame—how was it written? What’s the story?

J.O.: I was sitting at a bar/restaurant that we used to hang out in in the West Village. It was a cool hangout in the 80s for everyone. Models, actors, musicians, whatever. Uh, and I’m sitting with a group of friends at a table and this gal came into the room and she was absolutely the most gorgeous creature that ever walked the earth. And she sat down at the table across from me and she began to talk. And she had the foulest vocabulary. She was absolutely the crudest, foulest mouth I had ever heard on a human being. It was such extreme contract to her great beauty, and it shocked me, in a way, and scared me and excited me at the same time. And I looked at her and in her mind I thought, “Man, she would chew you up and spit you out.” And it just … my songwriting antennae just popped up and the word “man-eater.” just popped into my head. Then I went home and I started writing the chorus.

J.P.: Do you still have that same songwriter instinct? They always say, just like in sports, a singer’s creative peak comes in 20s and 30s. Do you feel you are as good as you were as a songwriter back then?

J.O.: Oh, I think my songwriting is lightyears above what I’ve done in the past. In fact, I’m on a ridiculous songwriting jag right now. I’m writing like crazy. I’m collaborating with a lot of people, I’m writing by myself, I’m on a roll that I’ve never had in my life. I think the songs that I’m writing right now are the best songs I’ve ever written in my life. I’m not saying that from an ego point of view. I actually played a singer/songwriter show a few days ago and I played a bunch of the old hits, and then I said, “Listen, I hope you guys will indulge me, but I’d like to play some of the stuff I’ve just written. And across the board at the end of the evening everyone just said, “Wow, we love the old songs. But I can’t believe what you’re writing now. Your writing has gone to a whole other place.” And I feel the same way. So I’m completely stoked and excited about my songwriting right at this moment.

J.P.: You wrote for Margo Rey, right?

J.O.: Oh, she’s great.

J.P.: I agree. And she has a hit with a song you co-wrote. Does that give you the same juice as singing a big song yourself?

J.O.: Oh, yeah. Because she’s such an amazing singer and such a great human being. Just writing with her and having her perform the song—it’s thrilling. Because I know what she can bring to a song; what her voice alone can do to a song and take it to a whole other place. Which to me is fantastic.

J.P.: I find it ludicrous that you’re not in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. You and KISS—it makes no sense.

J.O.: You know what? It’s a political thing. There’s a cadre of people who vote and they don’t find us worthy for whatever reason. I don’t really care about it. If it happens, it’ll be fun. If not, it won’t change my life one iota. So I really don’t care.

J.P.: You really don’t care? At all?

J.O.: I really don’t care. You know what I was really excited about? And to this day I’m still extremely proud. To win a BMI Icon Award among all the amazing songwriters in the history of BMI. And also to be inducted into the American Songwriters Hall of Fame. To me, that was much more important than the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.

J.P.: Man, what does a brotha have to do to get in the Hall …

J.O.: Well, some things I can’t talk about on the phone.

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JOHN OATES:

Regrettably, John is the first of 66 Quaz candidates to fail to answer his Quaz Express questions. Because I ran out of time on the phone, I sent the questions to John’s representative. However, he was quite taken aback by them. I followed up with some altered questions but, alas, received no reply. I’m not mad. It just stinks. Oh, well.


  • Kirk

    And now we know the reason why this has been delayed so long. Good interview- very interesting…

    Aside- getting any traction on that planned Marvell Wynne Quaz?

  • http://www.19thoughts.blogspot.com Byron

    “Quite taken aback”? What does that mean? Did he elaborate?

    I will not put things in order!
    I will not tell you about my fear of flying!

    This all seems very odd.

  • Duncan Idaho

    What was so offensive about the Quaz lightning round? I’m curious to know more about these very upsetting questions you mentioned.

  • Asherdan

    I find the concept of the Quaz Express being ‘upsetting’ pure comedy gold.

    Dude, these Quaz interviews are dang cool, thanks for banging them out.

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