10 Questions With John Oates

The iconic songwriter on the making of his new album, Good Road to Follow

Posted in MusicWorld on March 25, 2014 by
Photo: Ian Kaeggy

John Oates enters the coffee shop beneath his Nashville high-rise condo with a stack of posters tucked in the crook of an arm. One of these posters already hangs behind the cash register, advertising an upcoming solo show. What’s the 64-year-old legend doing toting around his own gig posters, distributing them to journalists and baristas? He’s doing exactly what he loves, the same thing he’s done for more than 40 years—whether it be on his own or with the longstanding Hall & Oates: He’s making music, and then he’s making sure it gets heard. On March 18 he releases Good Road to Follow: Route 1, Route 2, Route 3, a set of three EPs that sees him collaborating with everyone from Vince Gill to OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder. The record is eclectic to say the least—mostly because it was never supposed to be a record at all but rather a series of digital singles. Perhaps the most notable thing about Oates’s Good Road to Follow is how happy he sounds throughout it. “I’m a very fortunate person because I have this incredible foundation of Hall & Oates that supports my crazy musical adventures,” explains Oates. “So it’s not like I have to do this. I want to do it.” Here, the BMI Icon talks about adapting his music for today, his marketing approach and some surprising collaborations.

Your new album, Good Road to Follow, includes three EPs, each in a different genre. How did you decide on that format?

Because I’m confused. [Grins.] No, what happened was that I thought, ‘Let me not get involved in an album project.’ I knew that the type of people I was interested in working with were not going to be available to be tied up working on an album with me. I also wanted to have the freedom of trying a lot of different things because I have a lot of different interests musically. I thought the perfect thing to do was just make a bunch of singles and release them over a period of time. Because, after all, most people have personal playlists, and albums are kind of on the way out. So that’s what I did. I started making records with friends and people I reached out to. In March of last year we released our first digital single and released one almost every month until about October. At that point a lot of the more old-school Hall & Oates fans started saying, ‘Where’s the album?’ Because they’re, I guess, just not into downloading. So I thought, ‘I’ve made my point. Let’s see if I can assemble this into an album form.’ But when I looked at doing that I realized that because I hadn’t approached it that way the songs were all over the map in terms of style. That’s where I came up with this wacky idea for a three-disc EP set. It’s more musically digestible in this fast-paced world. I’m calling it Route 1, Route 2, and Route 3. It’s been a joy because I’ve gotten to work with all these amazing people, and I haven’t really stressed them in terms of time. Time is always the issue when you work with successful people who are doing a lot. Not having to tie them up more than a day or so—just write a song and record it—it just seemed to work.

The majority of the songs on the album were co-produced by the same people who co-wrote the songs with you. Why do it that way?

I tried to make it a collaborative, modern venture from the beginning. That’s how I approached [these songwriters]; I said, ‘Let’s write a song. If it turns out good and you like it and I like it, then let’s go record it together. Let’s pick the band, let’s pick the studio, and the best part is: I pay for it all.’ And everybody’s like, ‘This is getting better by the minute.’ It really appealed to everyone on a lot of levels.

If you had to define Route 1, Route 2, and Route 3 with just a sentence, how would you?

Route 1 is a little more pop oriented. The second one’s Americana, and the third one’s blues.

There were some surprising collaborations on the album—most notably with Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic. Your song with him, “Stone Cold Love,” became the lead single from the album. Tell me about this collaboration and song.

It was never released as a digital single. I saved that one. I knew it was so extreme and so unique that I thought, ‘This will be a great way to lead off this album.’ So I purposely did not release it. That track came about in a completely unique way that I could never have expected. I met Ryan through a charity event in Denver for the Sandy Hook shooting. He’s a great guy, very socially conscious, and has a really good heart … [OneRepublic] played a show in Denver, and I sat in with them, played a couple of my songs, they backed me up, and we really had a great time. So while I was there I explained to Ryan what I was doing and he said, ‘Hey, man, if we can get our schedules together, let’s try.’ So we did, and I went to his studio in Denver. I could tell he didn’t have a lot of time. The guy’s crazy busy. So I played him a few things that I’d already recorded and he listened and goes, ‘OK, but here’s the thing: If we’re going to do something together it’s got to be something totally different than anything you’re doing with anybody else, and it’s got to be something totally different than anybody would expect from you.’ I said, ‘Sounds good. Where do we start?’

He basically turned his back to me, put his headphones on, and started programming. I couldn’t hear a thing he was doing. All I could see was Pro Tools tracks appearing on the computer. I didn’t know what style, what key, what tempo—nothing. I was sitting there like a bump on a log in the studio, thinking I should put myself to some sort of positive use, so I started writing lyrics. Again, not knowing anything about what he was doing. I had this title called “Stone Cold Love” that I’d been saving, and I started writing these random images. Then he turns around and goes, ‘Check this out,’ and puts it on the speakers, and it’s a slamming track. And then I’m like, ‘Check this out: I got this title,’ and he said, ‘I love it.’ So I showed him the lyrics, and he started singing melodies, and I started singing melodies. I started playing all this fancy crap that I like to do, and he said, ‘No, no, no, keep it simple.’ I said, ‘OK,’ and that’s what happened. We had the whole song done in four hours. He had a vision for what he wanted to hear me do, which was a joy for me, because I’m driving the bus 90 percent of the time. I loved it. The guy’s incredible. His track record speaks for itself. So I thought, ‘Let me just go on this journey. Let me take this road with him.’

Speaking of collaboration, Hall & Oates is the No. 1 selling duo in history. You’ve been playing music together for 40 years. What has being in a working relationship with someone for that long taught you about relationships in general?

Have the ability to compromise. Maintain your individuality but have enough respect for the other person and their idiosyncrasies and personality traits to allow them to be who they are. It’s a very difficult balance, very difficult to do. One of the reasons that Daryl and I are still together after all these years—and have achieved all we have—is because we’ve managed to stay together. And that alone is an accomplishment. But we are totally different as individuals and with our personal lives we couldn’t be more different. But musically we draw from the same pool of influences. Because we grew up together. We’ve known each other since we were 18.

Later this month you’re hitting the road with Daryl again. How do you keep things new with touring?

The band has a lot to do with it. We have an amazing band. We draw from our incredible catalog of music that goes way beyond our hits. Fortunately for us we have a really good problem, which is that we have a lot of hits. So on tour audiences expect to hear those hits, and we have to respect that. But at the same time we constantly sneak in obscure album tracks or songs that we like and recycle them all the time. Eventually what we’re moving toward for Hall & Oates is a deep tracks tour, where we do a tour of really cool, unique album tracks.

Your marketing approach has been described as “grassroots.” What’s your take on how best to market yourself today?

Marketing in this day and age as a musician, whether you’re on a major label or you’re totally independent, is a huge component of the whole process. Even more so because, yes, it’s easy for people to hear your music and to get it out there, but it’s not easy to cut through the tremendous clutter and density of stuff that’s being thrown at the world. The secret—How do you cut through? How do you get people to pay attention to you?—is to not expect people to pay attention to you for sustained periods of time. I finally accepted that. That’s where the digital singles each month idea came from. I think that was a success, even though the downloads themselves weren’t that voluminous. The press and the interest that I got from it was more valuable. A lot of people may have said, ‘OK, I did this download thing, and it didn’t really work very well, so I failed.’ Well, I didn’t look at it that way. I looked at it as a seven-month pre-promotion for this album. So you have to constantly realign your thinking.

This year will see Hall & Oates inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. What does this mean to you?

To me, it’s like a lifetime achievement award. We’ve been eligible since ’97. So every year since 1997 people have said, ‘How come you’re not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?’ I just quit answering it and quit thinking about it. I just shut it off in my mind. I thought, ‘If we get in, we get in; if not, life goes on. I’m not stopping my life about it.’ It seemed like our fans and people in the outside world were way more concerned about it than we were. And then it happened. Rachael Ray made this big TV campaign and our fan club went crazy and there was a groundswell of interest, and then we got nominated. I remember we had been nominated for a few months, but they hadn’t made a decision. I was writing a song with Jim Lauderdale here in the apartment, and the phone rang and it was our manager and he goes, ‘Well, you’re in.’ So Jim and I did a little toast, and we kept on writing.

BMI is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. Why did you decide to go with us so many years ago?

I can’t believe we’ve been with BMI for more than half of its existence. We’ve been with BMI from the beginning—since 1970. We’ve had a personal relationship with them from the very beginning. We signed with them and never left. There was a time I remember we were considering going elsewhere, and they said, ‘You’re never leaving us.’ And we said, ‘OK,’ and that’s how it worked. Over the years we’ve become really good friends. They gave us the Icon Award, which is very prestigious. Anytime we’ve ever had an issue, they’ve been there. It’s worked for us, and we’ve never questioned it.

What’s it like to be somewhere, say a coffee shop, and have one of Hall & Oates’ songs come on?

It’s another three cents. [Laughs.] I always think it’s funny. There’s a store near here, and for some reason every time I walk in there there’s a Hall & Oates song playing. And I keep going, ‘Do you guys do this on purpose?’ And they go, ‘No, we just play this particular channel, and you guys are on all the time.’ So, it’s great. I think for me the most thrilling part was when I first heard my first single that I made with my high school band in 1967 on the radio while I was parking with my girlfriend on a country road—making out. That was the best. It goes downhill after that.


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