Extended interview with John Oates (Oct. 2013. VICE).


Earlier this year I was lucky to interview my favorite living singer, Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates. This month I interviewed his talented partner John Oates. That Q&A — complete with a long intro about all of Oates’ accomplishments outside of his famous duo — can be found HERE AT VICE magazine… But the much longer version of our sit-down interview can be found below this photograph (which I will post on craigslist whenever I finally sell my Nissan Pathfinder for at least $1,000 more than I would have had he not rode in its front seat).

my car and john oates

I interviewed Daryl Hall this year too, and at the end of the interview I said, “Thanks for your time, John.” He may not have noticed but I was mortified.

Oh we’ve had that happen so much at this point. I remember once sitting backstage alone and someone popped their head in and looked at me and asked, “Which one of you is Hall and Oates?”

You all just played JazzFest 2013. Tell me about your relationship to New Orleans and why you’re here so often.

When I was a little kid and I started playing guitar and singing, a lot of the early rock-n-roll that I gravitated to was New Orleans-based – of course at the time I didn’t even know it. One of the first songs I ever sang was Lloyd Price’s “Stagger Lee,” and I learned “Blueberry Hill” by Fats Domino. The Meters were big for me just in terms of the playing. I really gravitated toward a lot of Allen Toussaint songs even though I didn’t realize who he was. I remember Ernie K-Doe “Mother-In-Law,” though at the time I didn’t relate it to Toussaint.

You probably know Toussaint personally by now.

Yeah, I actually got to play with him and invited him to the very first Aspen Songwriters Festival. He was absolutely moving, unbelievable, blew my mind with his one-man show where he sits at the piano and tells stories and plays…just incredible. We got to jam with him.

When my friends and I debate about the music industry – as if it’s something that actually effects us at all – I sort of hold you up as an example of someone who has navigated the new terrain. The response is always, “Yeah, but John Oates gets checks in the mail too.” How does a new artist go about getting into your current position?

Hall & Oates gives me the foundation, and so I am very unique and lucky. But other people can do it too, it just depends on your aspirations, and your sense of reality, and in the music world and the world in general. There’s a really good chance you’re not going to be the next big thing and you’re not going to sell a million records…but do you want to make music for a living and create a fan-base on a smaller level that’s dedicated? You’re still able to do that and it really depends on you.

Tell me about the songs you’ve written to record with Preservation Hall Jazz Band?

About a month and a half ago they had rented a house in Topanga Canyon, so I went over and hung out for a day. We wrote two songs, and Ben Jaffee and I picked the best one. We cut it here in the Hall yesterday and it came out amazing. But then we played it [at my show here] last night, and that’s the acid test. After last night we all said, ‘Let’s cut it again today cause I know we are gonna really kill it.’ Today we’re also going to record another new song I wrote with Jim Lauderdale that has a sort of a swing feel called, “This Is the Life.”

The song you just released with Lauderdale called, “Close,” you labeled as “psychedelic Americana.” What does the word “psychedelic” mean to you?

I dunno. I put a sitar on it? Can we just leave it at that? [laughs] That song has a very unique production, it’s very spacey and atmospheric, and very modal. And so you combine those things together and add a sitar and it’s psychedelic Americana. Is that good enough?

Preservation Hall is known for the oldies; what style is the song y’all wrote together?

It’s a very kind of Gospel rave-up, a little bit of R&B, a little bit of everything. I came down here to New Orleans before and recorded two tracks with George Porter, Shane Terio and Chad Gilmore at Fudge Studios. Then when I was back here for JazzFest, in the evening I came to see Del McCoury’s bluesgrass band play with the Pres Hall. I wanted to see how Del McCoury’s bluegrass would work with the jazz band. I didn’t see how it would work. But it was amazing, this really cool hybrid of music. I said, ‘Man, I gotta do this.’ Last night the Pres Hall band started with four songs, then we did one together, then I did a set — no Hall & Oates songs, it was all traditional blues, mostly just me and the guitar, alotta new songs — then the whole band came back and finished out the set together. It was fun, a great combination.

What other notable figures will you be working with as you proceed with the Good Road to Follow singles?

Well, one of the singles back in June is with Hot Chelle Rae, a hot pop band I’ve known since they were young kids because I used to write songs with their father. The one I did with Ryan Tedder of One Republic that’s coming out in February is absolutely off the hook. Jim James and I – they’re about to do a new My Morning Jacket album, but Jim has committed to recording with me, it’s just a matter of scheduling. I just played with Train and Matt Nathanson and we’re talking about recording. As I meet people and we become friends, if it works…

JazzFest was the first time I’d seen Hall and Oates, despite being a fan since I was 9. One thing I didn’t realize was how thick the vocal harmonies are, with every member of your band singing.

It’s mostly three-part harmony, but all the harmonies are doubled. Every singer in that band could be a lead singer in any band. I’ve never been in a band that’s had this many good singers. Those guys are so good that even in sound check we’ll switch parts around and say, ‘You sound better on this part. Who are you doubling? Him? Well why don’t you double Elliot instead.’ We switch things around to get the best timbre. It’s a Philadelphia tradition: most of the hooks are sung by the backups. It’s funny when we have people mixing us who don’t know us, they tend to mix the background vocals in back, but we have to say ‘No, they are not, they’re actually lead vocals, so push em up! Get em up front!” Cause if you don’t hear [sings] ‘You’re out of touch, I’m outta time,’ that’s the hook, and it’s all sung by the background vocals. The lead singer – Daryl for the most part – sings around the background vocals, ad-libbing, which is also a very Philadelphia tradition.

That Hall & Oates band is just the ‘Live From Daryl’s House’ band, right?
Well Daryl’s band is just Hall & Oates without me. They are the same guys he uses on his show. They’re around where Daryl lives, so they’re accessible to him and he keeps them together.

At JazzFest, after the first two Daryl songs, you sang like three or four of your songs in a row, including at least one I had never heard at all. How did you all determine the JazzFest setlist?

We’ve started moving in a different direction. For instance we just got the theme song for the new HBO comedy series called Hello Ladies and they used ‘Alone Too Long’ for their theme song, which is an album track from the 70s. So we put that one in the set just on this last tour. We also did ‘How Does It Feel to Be Back” at JazzFest. We try to do album cuts because our diehard fans want to hear those songs more than people who’ve never seen us.

I am very interested in the psychology of the sideman. You’re not really a sideman, but are often perceived as one. It seems it would be easy for you to get fed up with that. I’ve always felt it’s a testament to your personality that Hall and Oates have never had any kind of public rift. How do you navigate this perception of yourself as, maybe, second-fiddle?

I am OK with it because I don’t think of myself that way. Other people may, the world may, but that’s fine. I kind of look at it in a more Zen way: you can’t have a beautiful sunset without a horizon. Also we’re like brothers. Daryl has a very specific personality, but it’s also very consistent. We’ve been friends since high school, 45 years. So nothing he does will ever surprise me. And the coolest thing about it is, I respect his idiosyncrasies, and he respects mine. He’s a very in-your-face person when it comes to performing, and he has a tremendous voice. And the fact that his voice became the signature sound of Hall & Oates is just the way it is.

I thought at JazzFest you proved your worth stupendously.

I think the perception [of me is] changing, especially the more I do my own solo work and play with all these various people. My personality has emerged in a different way. These solo things I’ve been doing have given me a chance to get back to my original way of performing. Cause I was a guitar player – mostly folk and blues – for 15 years before I even met Daryl. I have a whole life that happened before that, which no one knows about.

So tell me some things you have coming up for this never-ending album project you’re working on.

I already recorded for a year and half straight and am up to 20 songs now. I have so many songs I can’t fit all of them on one album. And some of them started to get more unusual stylistically, so I think I might put out just an EP of songs that fit together, and then an actual LP or CD of a group of songs. In November I will stop recording singles and release a CD.

So you haven’t given up on hardcopy CDs?

I didn’t ever give up on it but I wanted to try as an experiment if the single-a-month thing would work. You know, it did, and it didn’t. It got great press and great buzz, but the actual download volume, it wasn’t there. I don’t think my audience is like a downloading type audience. A lot of them say, ‘I really like your singles but I can’t wait for your album.’ So be it. We will do a limited edition vinyl too but I didn’t think there’s a big audience for vinyl within my audience.

Just add some dub-step beats and people will buy the vinyl.

That’s actually something that I can’t really talk about… There’s a really interesting collaboration coming down the pike with some electronica guy. And I think it could be very cool for both me and for Hall and Oates. A little secret.

Honestly one of the things I liked most about 80s Hall and Oates was all the great drum machines and synthesizers.

Not only did we have drum machines – and I may be going out on a limb by saying this – but we may have had the first #1 ever recorded with a drum machine, “Kiss On My List” (1981). And the exact same drum machine was on “I Can’t Go For That.” It was a Roland Compu-Rhythm. You cannot even call it a drum machine; it was a wooden box. It had presets: Rock 1, Rock 2,  Samba and Calypso. And you had a rotary dial that gave you tempo, and there was no indication what that number was. And that box used to sit on Daryl’s piano, set on Rock 1.

Are you interested in new technology? Drum programming?

Beats are always a good place to start. I do that at home on ProTools. I use Garage Band a lot. It’s quick and fast, but when I’m writing I don’t want to be bogged down in engineering and tech issues. I just plug in my guitar and sing. I don’t want to lose creative energy, sitting around programming shit. I have a home studio in Nashville, and one in Colorado, both for writing, not really recording. I like going into a recording studio, and having an engineer, people suggesting other things we could do. I am a terrible engineer.

By the way, before we go, can I add one thing?

Yes, of course!

You work for VICE: I really want to do that Guitar Moves show. There’s a guy who does this thing online…

Matt Sweeney! Of Chavez! He’s killer.

Yeah. I saw a few episodes and thought, “Man, I gotta do that show.”

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