Catching Up With... Daryl Hall and John Oates

Music Features John Oates
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For those of us who grew up in the ’80s, there’s a lot we’d like to forget—shoulder pads, parachute pants, and high-altitude bangs. Such things should be locked in the vault of history, to never again see the light of day. But then there were Daryl Hall and John Oates. You know, the dude with the feathered blond locks and that guy with the moustache? The hit-makers who thrust choruses upon us that we just couldn’t get out of our heads? The purveyors of the “Private Eyes” hand-clap? Remember?

I thought so. The influence of Hall and Oates has been recently acknowledged by the likes of Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) and Brandon Flowers (The Killers), and their music has been covered and sampled by Kanye West, Wyclef Jean and Heavy D. Even Michael Jackson found inspiration for his Billie Jean groove in “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)”). With a career spanning more than four decades, the best-selling pop duo of all time have just released a box-set of past hits, rare tracks and live recordings: Do What You Want, Be What You Are: The Music of Daryl Hall and John Oates’. As an unashamed fan, I recently spoke with both men about their careers and legacy, their take on the music industry and new projects in the works.

Paste: My very first concert was in your 1985 Big Bang Boom tour. I saw you again a few years ago and was amazed you still had the same energy and chemistry as 20 years prior. How do you account for that stability in your creative relationship?
Daryl Hall: You know, it’s one of those things. Either you have the fire or you don’t have the fire. And I’m the kind of person that always had it and probably always will have it. That’s the best way I can describe it. When I do something, I do it all the way, and I really care about it. If I’m going to be up there playing or in the studio playing, I’m going to give it every ounce of my ability, to do the best that I can and take it somewhere and stretch it and push the envelope, and the whole bit. That’s just my nature, and I’m just one of those kinds of people.
John Oates: Well, I think it’s because we love what we do. It’s as simple as that. Daryl and I were both born to be musicians. I don’t want to sound like a cliché but it’s true. We were doing it as little, little kids. In grade school, four, five, six years old, singing and playing. And we never really stopped. And we appreciate the legacy we’ve created together and the music we’ve made over the last 30 years. And we have a great band. People always say, “Well, why do you people keep doing it?” Well, I don’t have a drudge job, and I don’t have a boring job. I have an amazing job. I play guitar and sing for a living, and for most people, that would be a dream to them. So I want to be appreciative of that fact and understand that, hey, you know what, I’m a blessed person, a very lucky person, and I’m constantly aware of that.

Paste: Clearly you’ve been taking care of yourself, and I would imagine that’s difficult to do in the life of a rock star, don’t you think?
Hall: I don’t fall into most of the cliches, even though Spinal Tap is the story of my life, and that’s the story of every musician’s life. But other than that, I’m as a person who’s pretty balanced, and so is John. We are people who take care of our minds and our bodies, and always have. Also, as far as singing, it’s one of those things. I sing from the right place. I learned the right way as a kid. I’ve been doing this since I was old enough to talk. I don’t sing from my throat if you want to get technical about it, I sing from my diaphragm. I don’t put wear and tear on myself the way a whole lot of other people do. I always say, “Just check out Tony Bennett.”

Paste: There’s been a lot of ways that people have categorized your music. They’ll say you guys are blue-eyed soul, or they’ll make references to the Philly sound. But what does that mean other than two white guys from Philly singing soul music?
Oates: Well, we grew up outside of the Philadelphia area and listened to Philadelphia radio. Philadelphia was a great music city on every level. Even if you go back to the early days of rock in the 1950s, WIGB was one of the first radio stations in America to actually go to a full rock ’n’ roll format. And of course, Philly’s R&B tradition goes without saying. Everyone knows about that. We grew up in that era when Gamble and Huff were just starting out and finding themselves. So we’re really contemporaries of them and that sound. But there’s a lot of other things going on in our music, too. Philadelphia has an amazing folk tradition with the Philadelphia Folk Festival, which was a big part of my roots before I even met Daryl. When someone says we’re just Philadelphia musicians, well, it’s a big part of what we do but it’s not the only part.
Hall: The Philly sound part is absolutely right, ’cause our music is a regional thing. It started in Philadelphia. It’s a natural result of what we came up through as kids. And then of course, it’s been blending with a lot of other things, through our musical experiences and just life experiences and it sort of expanded beyond just Philly. The Philly sound and all that, that’s what it is at its core. As far as the other term, I take offense at it. I think it’s a racist term.
Oates: Yeah. It is. Soul is not the domain of any race, color of eyes or color of skin. You know, there’s soulful music all around the world, in any part of the world. Soul is music that moves you, music that’s truthful, and comes from the heart. And we are soulful musicians, but we’re not blue-eyed soul musicians.

Paste: So you say that’s not a good descriptor of you?
Hall: Not in the world where we have a brown-eyed president.

Paste: You’ve sold millions of records, but some would say you never got the critical reception of other ’80s acts like Michael Jackson, Prince or Madonna. Do you feel like you got a fair shake, or does that even bother you?
Oates: You know, we were never really the darlings of the media in the ’70s and ’80s when the rock media was run by kind of a handful of rock-oriented journalists. Having hit singles at that time was not considered cool, I guess. Whereas my response to that was, “Well, if it’s so easy, then why doesn’t everyone do it?” But now the world has changed. People don’t pay attention to rock journalism the way they did back in the ’70s and ’80s. People make their own decisions. The internet has broadened peoples’ scope and ability to choose and make their own decisions. Just look at things like iTunes and people making their own playlists. People aren’t tied to buying CDs and buying into a certain style of music. They can have a wide variety of interest and satisfy all those things. And now the newer artists who are coming up are talking to the press and talking to their fans about how influential we were to them. And all of the sudden, what we’ve accomplished has taken on a whole different approach. People really appreciate, I think, how hard it is to do what we did. Especially when bands come out nowadays and only have one single and then disappear off the face of the earth, and then they look back on what we accomplished and say, “Wow, that’s a pretty tough thing to do.” To hang in there for all those years. I think there’s a lot more respect now than we’ve ever had before.
Hall: They’re old battles to me. They’re old battles that have long been won. I’ve always been at odds with my own generation, from the very beginning. From junior high on, Never related to them. I either related to older people or younger people, and I think that carries musically too. The rock establishment in the ’70s and ’80s referenced different things than the things that mattered to me, and I think since then the world has caught up with what I like. As far as critical acclaim, I don’t think I can get any more critical acclaim than I have now. So like I said, I think all those things are old battles long won.

Paste: Over the span of your career, what would you say you’re most proud of, that really stands out?
Hall: You know, it’s funny. We put together this box set, which is coming out in the next couple of weeks, and in doing that, I was literally forced to listen to everything. I listened to pieces of music I forgot about and haven’t heard since I made them in some cases. It gave me a unique perspective on my own life and my own work that I never had before. I really see, I see the progression of what my aspirations were and how they turn to reality. But I really do see the uniqueness of it all. We really don’t follow a path that anybody else ever followed. I think we really did something unique and continue to; it’s by no means over.
Oates: I think I’m most proud of the fact that we’re still here, that we endured. And that not only have we endured, but our music has endured—that the songs have spanned generations, really. And they still communicate and they still reach people. And I think that’s the ultimate goal for a songwriter. It’s to write a song like that, a song that will stand the test of time. So, that’s probably it.

Paste: Has that been at all surprising to you, that they have stood up for so long?
Oates: Well, yeah [laughs]. It’s all surprising to me. One thing Daryl and I never had were long-term goals. We never started out saying, “Hey, we’re going to set the world on fire. We’re going to sell millions of records. We’re going to be the biggest duo of all time.” None of that was even remotely in our minds. We just took everything one step at a time and we tried to make the best records we could, tried to write the best songs as we could, try to express ourselves in the best way, and figure out ways of surviving in a perilous business, and that’s what we did. You know, it’s not very glamorous to think of it that way, but that’s what we did. And we’re still here.

Paste: Other than the glam album cover in 1975, are there any regrets or things you wish you had done differently?
Hall: It’s funny you think of that as a given. But yeah, you know, maybe that is an example of my one regret. I think that when we were young, starting out, we didn’t pay enough attention to what people perceived, our image. I think we were just so wrapped up in the music and being sort of cartoon characters, and just going for it, that we tried anything. And when somebody said “Oh, why don’t we paint you like girls,” you know, the whole glam rock phase, we said, “Well sure, okay.” So I think I regret not paying more attention to that and going, well maybe 20 years from now I might not be so glad I did this.
Oates: There’s lots of things I wish I would have done differently. But at the same time, some of the mistakes were just as important as the successes in getting us to finally where we ended up, because without the mistakes, we may have gone off on a different track. I think what we did is we used our creative mistakes and our creative missteps to learn and regroup and to reevaluate, and to do things differently. And we’re really fortunate that we grew up in a time where the music business allowed us to do that. Whereas nowadays you make one mistake and you’re pretty much gone. And that’s unfortunate for new artists, but that’s how it is. We didn’t have that. We had that luxury of screwing up and moving forward. So, no, not really. I wouldn’t say so.
Hall: Of course, a bigger, more important regret I have is not paying more attention to my business. Every musician gets fucked over, and I’m no exception. I can’t relive it; my hindsight’s 20/20, but I wish I could have somehow had more of an overview and paid more attention to where the money was going and tried to keep hold of more than I kept a hold of. You know, that’s definitely a regret.

Paste: You guys had countless Top 40 hits. Were there any of those songs that stood out and you said, “That song was overrated, that shouldn’t have been a Top 40”?
Hall: Well, luckily no. Luckily I never said “This song was overrated”. I thought many of them were underrated, and that’s isn’t because I think so much of myself. I think the ones that were successful were successful for a reason, not talking about commercially. I never felt like I got away with something.

Paste: Were there any songs that were underrated?
Hall: Well, I mean, I don’t know. The whole over- and underrated thing, I have a real problem with that. In order to judge that and quantify it, you have to be talking about commerciality: what makes a hit and what makes a number one and what makes a 20. There’s so much involved in that, that you can’t base your quality on that. The history of music is corrupt. If you wanted a hit, paying people off has a lot to do with it, and dealing with program directors and what their desires are, and where they’re coming from, and dealing with how much money they want to put in promotion from the record company, and all these kind of things. So you can’t judge music by how many units it sells or how many people respond to it.

Paste: There have been a number of acts that have sampled your stuff, people like Simply Red, Kanye West and Heavy D. What’s it been like to hear your music sampled and used that way by such a diverse group of people?
Hall: Well, I’ve said this a number of times, and I stand by it: Once an artist writes something, it becomes a part of the world, and it’s perceived in a million different ways. And I’m always really interested in what people do with our music and how they do it, and if there’s an audience that relates to the song itself, or another artist or artists that uses and references it and literally take parts of it and uses it in new, creative ways. So I’m always interested to hear what somebody’s done. It’s fascinating to me.

Paste: Let’s say you were 18 years old today, and your creative slate was relatively clean. Who would you be listening to right now?
Oates: I don’t even know what to say about that one. I’d be listening around. You know, I wouldn’t be doing anything different than what I’m doing right now. My son’s 13, so I listen to a lot of pop on the radio. Certain songs jump out to me as really cool and really great. I listen to a lot of old traditional music, rediscovering a lot of things I’d forgotten about as a kid. So I think I’d be doing the exact same thing as I’m doing right now, keeping an open mind.
Hall: The history I grew up in is so different than the history of an 18-year-old today. I wouldn’t even know where to start with that. It’s all another universe. I was a regional person, and I can only relive myself in my old 18-year-old way. I listened to the best records in my neighborhood and vocal stuff. I started with vocal stuff, so I’d probably be doing that. But I’d probably be listening to whoever the masters were, who I consider to be the masters of the kind of music that moves me. Whoever that would be in this time, if I was 18, I probably would do the same thing as I did, but with an entirely different set of people.

Paste: Michael McDonald just did a collaboration with Grizzly Bear. Are there any young bands out there, indie or otherwise, that you’d be interested in working with and collaborating with in any way?
Oates: Um, well I have been working with a bunch of young people. I just worked with a guy who’s signed to Ludacris’ label, whose name is Rudy Currence, a young developing artist out of Atlanta. I worked with him, you know, wrote songs with him. I’m more interested in not necessarily collaborating on an album level in terms of the writing.
Hall: I’m totally involved in doing that. I mean, my show, “Live from Daryl’s House,” the whole point to it is interaction with young bands and new artists. With a few exceptions I had some classic artists on, but it’s mostly new artists. That will run into any recording that I do, because I’ve started a solo record; I’m just signing a deal with Verve Records. I’m sure that will carry into that, and I’ll be collaborating with some of the new bands and new artists I’ve had on my show, so that’s a part of it.

Paste: What was it that inspired “Live from Daryl’s House”?
Hall: I’ve been traveling and playing so many years, and I said, “Why don’t I bring the road to me?” In fact, I’m probably the first to do this, in the way that I’m doing it. And I just figured, okay, I’m just going to bring the world to me, I’m just going to turn the whole performance ideal on its head. And instead of an artist doing his or her act to an audience, have the audience sort of be a fly on the wall and watch artists be artists in their native habitat, sort of like the zoo. You could either go look at a tiger in its cage or you could be in your car and have the tiger wander around in the field. It’s sort of the same thing. I think it’s refreshing to an audience to see artists just be artists, and you know hanging out, and making this great music without all the trappings of performance that you normally see.

Paste: Is some of what you’re experiencing in “Live from Daryl’s House” going to make it into your solo album?
Hall: For sure, some of the people that I’ve had on will be part of some collaboration. I have no doubts about that. I’m working toward the idea of putting this series out on DVD and possibly CD or whatever, so you may see it actually as you saw it on the Internet. All these people that I’ve been working with, we all want to do more stuff together, so it’s just a matter of picking and choosing and scheduling, and how much I want to use other people on my solo record. But I think there’s going to be some significant collaboration.

Paste: Is there anyone out there who would be a dream person to have on the podcast?
Hall: No, I don’t have a dream person. I think every show is a surprise. I have some people that I am not that familiar with. I listen to their music before the show and really get into it—you know, sort of a quick study—and then when that artist gets here, I go, “It’s unbelievable.” I just did a show two nights ago with Diane Birch, and she’s a great new singer/songwriter, and she was fantastic. I mean, I won’t say it was a surprise because I heard her record, and I realized it was going to be good—but you never know how good. And she is just a really talented person. And so there’s always that kind of surprise going on. Luckily I haven’t had any real reverse surprises where I thought somebody was good and they turned out to suck or something. We haven’t had that happen yet.

Paste: John, I gotta ask you about “J-Stache”. Your cartoon just debuted about three months ago on the internet.
Oates: Well, yeah. It’s been kind of a viral thing. We’ve tried to promote it underground a little bit and see where it goes.

Paste: Well, what’s that all about?
Oates: Well, it came from our publishers, the guys who handle the publishing of our songs catalog, and they were looking for interesting ways to reach out to a younger generation and to get our songs out there. And they came up with this idea. You know, because there’s been so much talk and notice about my mustache, and it’s become kind of this weird, iconic thing of today. I thought it was a cool idea and I got involved with them, and we developed it. So far we’re looking for a home for it, a broadcast home, you know, as a cartoon. If that happens, that would be great. If not, then it is what it is. But it’s getting a lot of notice. A lot of people think it’s funny. A lot of younger generation people really get off on this. So we’re going to see what happens with it.

Paste: In the cartoon there seems to be this sort of tension between you and the mustache. Are there parallels in real life with that, or what’s the deal?
Oates: Well, you know the mustache for me—I’m far enough removed from it. I haven’t had a mustache in 20 years. I’m far enough removed from it to where I can look at it objectively and look at it with a little bit of humor. The mustache kind of represented to me—it was the guy that I used to be, back in the day when I was, you know, jumping around and running around the world and being fairly irresponsible. And I’m no longer that person. So that’s the gist of the whole cartoon, is that I’m me where I am right now and the mustache is kind of dragging me back into this weird kind of place. And I’m trying to fight against it.

Paste: I’ve read somewhere that the mustache might be making a return for the ’Stache Bash in St. Louis.
Oates: Well, I don’t know about that. [laughs] I don’t think I should talk about that right now. It could be a surprise. We’ll see. We will see. You never know.

Paste: This box set retrospective that’s coming out shows the breadth of what you guys have done. But for you, is there anything on the horizon that your new fans, old fans can expect?
Oates: Well, yeah. A bunch of great stuff, actually. You know, I did a solo album last year called Thousand Miles of Life. And with some of that album I made a lot of friends, with a lot of great musicians in the world of bluegrass and folk and stuff like that. So I’ve been pursuing that on my solo side and I was just asked by Jerry Douglas, who probably is—well, not probably—he is the virtuoso of the Dobro… He has a Christmas tour coming out because he has a Christmas album. He asked me to be a guest on his Christmas tour. So I’m going to be playing with him and his band for that this December. Also, I have a track on a new album that’s coming out Nov. 3 called The Village, and it’s a compilation album of a lot of the great music that came out of Greenwich Village in the early ’60s, and it’s mostly folk music. I did on a track on that. And there’s a lot of amazing people on there, people like Bruce Hornsby, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Amos Lee and Lucinda Williams. It’s just a really cool album. So that comes out, and then the record company asked me to do a solo album of traditional American folk. And I’ve never done that. And I’m probably going to do that this winter. So there’s a lot going on.

Paste: I told Josh Jackson, who’s our editor here at Paste, that in my opinion, the low point in the history of Paste magazine was not having you on the list of greatest living songwriters. Do you think Paste is going to be able to overcome such a distortion of justice?
Hall: I have no idea. I don’t even know who [Josh Jackson] is.

Paste: I tell him our credibility as a music magazine is called into question now.
Hall: Well, I thank you for your support. But I tell ya, to get back to Daryl’s House, one of the reasons I’m on the Internet is because there’s really no, or at least a minimum of, gatekeepers. One of the problems that I have with journalism is that people have opinions, and those opinions are sort of gates that you have to open. I’ve never been comfortable with that, because you’re always subject to those perceptions and their prejudices and their immediate who-knows-what; that could be a million things. Thanks for your support on that, but I soldier on no matter what.
Oates: I think that’s the beauty of where the music business is. The traditional music business is floundering and disappearing rapidly. And a whole new model for the music business is emerging with the internet and people being independent, and people being independent on every level. Not only as independent recording artists but independent to choose they type of music they want to listen to. So I don’t think image makers and policy makers and pace makers are that important anymore.

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