On his way to the Bay Area, John Oates of now-40-year-old, six-time #1 hit-makers Hall and Oates speaks about mustaches, studio virtuosity, and his upcoming mash-up album with New York hip-hop five-piece Gym Class Heroes.
(For more on that story, see “I Can Go For That,”) in this week’s SF Weekly. Hall & Oats play SF August 1, at the Palace of Fine Arts at 8 p.m. Admission is $75.50; visit www.palaceoffinearts.org for more info.)
BY BEN WESTHOFF
Do the vestiges of excess – junk food, drugs, women – still surround your tours?
There’s definitely junk food. When I’m in the hotel late at night and hungry, I’m ordering room service. I’m definitely not beyond ordering an ice cream sunday, though I know I shouldn’t do it. When you’re talking about drugs, I think some Advil might fall into that category. When you’re talking about women, it’s probably my wife and our nanny, and any kids that might be involved with the band. And, of course, we have women in our string section, so they’re there.
No, I think what you’re alluding to has pretty much fallen by the wayside. We all want to continue doing this, so we learned a long time ago that you have to moderate your pace and you have to live within your limits in order to live this kind of life. We try to tour in a really livable way. We go out for a couple weeks, come home for a couple weeks. We’re not out there killing ourselves for months at a time. We try to go to nice places, try to stay in good hotels, try to enjoy the experience, because if you get burned out on it, of course, you wouldn’t want to do it.
How did your mash-up album with Gym Class Heroes come about?
The guys from Gym Class Heroes initiated it. They were influenced by our music, and just took the ball and ran. I just think it’s a really cool thing, the mash-up, in the great tradition of how pop music has evolved over the years. When Daryl and I were starting out, we referenced our musical heroes, not in the way that technology has enabled people to do it today, but in other ways -- certain chord changes, certain types of grooves. Not to sound overblown, but [the mash-up] is just an evolution of the way pop music has always grown.
Are you a hip-hop fan?
I wouldn’t say I’m an overall fan of hip-hop music. I’m a fan of good songs, and I’m a fan of creativity. That’s the criteria that I use. The style of the music really doesn’t much matter to me. I don’t care if it’s hip-hop, country, pop music, or whatever. When I hear something that seems to work on all levels, I’m a fan of it. I’m not trying to dodge your question, but I listen for cool things that really grab my attention and touch me emotionally.
What are some current songs that fit that criterion?
In terms of pure pop, Maroon 5’s stuff reminds me very much of the stuff Daryl and I were doing when we ere having our big pop hits in the ‘80s; only they’re doing their own modern version of it. They’re very concise, they’re very to the point, they’re very tight, their hooks are really memorable and powerful. On the other side of the spectrum, I like singer/songwriters doing unique things like Stephen Allen Davis. He’s been around for 25-30 years, just an amazing emotional individual who has hits going back to the ‘60s. Obviously, what Gym Class Heroes are doing, I think is so cool.
Do you want to be hip with today’s kids?
Honestly, I’m not that concerned about appealing to them, but I’m happy when we do. I don’t wake up in the morning and go, ‘We gotta stay youthful, we’ve gotta stay on track with what’s going on in the music business.’ We’re concerned about being creative, and still being valid on our own terms. I’ve always had the philosophy, that if you’re personally satisfied, that’s it. If the world agrees with you, and jumps on your bandwagon, so much the better. But I don’t think we’ve ever been motivated by the commercial side of it. That’s always been kind of a byproduct of doing good work. And that’s the way I feel about it today. I’m thrilled that there’s a whole new generation of people rediscovering us. I think a lot of it has to do with people like The Killers and Gym Class Heroes, who have been giving us the shout-outs and opening up their fans to us. I thank them a million times for that. But Daryl and I just keep on doing what we’re doing, and we don’t pander.
Has there been a long stretch at any point in your careers when you didn’t tour at all?
No. [Laughs] And I think that’s one of the reasons we’re still valid out there, because we never really stopped. There was a period of time in the early ‘90s after our big run in the ‘80s when we kind of backed off a bit, we did solo projects. We tested the waters in lot of ways, but we never really stopped playing, even during that time. I think that’s why we never turned into a nostalgia band that disappeared and then trotted out their hits in the summer. We’ve constantly played live, and have been supported by our long-time fans, I guess because they feel they can count on us.
J.J. Brown, the Brooklyn producer who helped put together the Gym Class Heroes mash-up, says you guys aren’t given enough credit for pioneering the way studio albums are made.
I agree. We were artists who started almost in an almost primitive era of recording. When Daryl and I first started it was four-track analog tape, and we have been in the business through the entire transition, from four track to eight track to 16 track to 32 track, then the transition to digital recording, and so on and so forth.
With our first albums, the idea was that you put a band together with a rhythm section, drums, piano, bass, guitar, whatever. You go in and you play, with four or five guys looking at each other in a semi-circle. You record, you sing a couple overdubs and that’s it -- your record’s done. We were one of the first groups to use sample instruments. We started with synthesizers at the moment they became available. I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure “Kiss On My List” and “I Can’t Go For That” were probably some of the earliest big hits to utilize drum machines. If you listen to our Big Bam Boom that was a pretty adventurous album when it came to recording. I think it was an album that was done at the crux of the time when the world was going from analog to digital. So, we were combining these different technologies all at the same time, and I think it’s something we never really did get credit for.
The Eagles have said that “Hotel California” was their creative peak. Have you ever had that feeling about one of your songs?
I believe for us, it’s happened in a lot of different ways. The Abandoned Luncheonette album, which we did in 1973, kind of defined us to the world and set a course for our future. It was the perfect combination of personalities and songs, and everything just came together. And, in the ‘80s, when we started producing ourselves, we had that tremendous five-year span of success and hits where we were really making music on our own terms.
Did women like you better with or without the mustache?
I think my wife likes me better without the mustache, because she never knew me with it. [Laughs.] We’ve been together since 1991 and got married in 1993. I think my mustache has become this weird iconic symbol, and I find it very humorous. To me it kind of symbolizes the old John, and I’m not that guy anymore, so I decided to shed my skin and have a bit of a personal transformation. I’ll never bring it back. That’s one thing I can promise you.