Exclusive First Listen: John Oates’ Cover of “Why Can’t We Live Together”

Music Features John Oates
Exclusive First Listen: John Oates’ Cover of “Why Can’t We Live Together”

When John Oates released the song “Pushin’ A Rock” last October, it marked a return to the soulful pop style that has long been the veteran singer-songwriter’s calling card. As one half of Hall & Oates, one of the most successful duos in music history, Oates has had a hand in ushering a veritable hit parade of songs into the top 10. More than just chart-toppers in their day, though, Hall & Oates’s classics have achieved a kind of pop immortality.

With “Pushin’ A Rock,” Oates announced a plan to release an album’s worth of songs at the rate of approximately one song a month, which resumed in February with his inward-looking ballad “Disconnected.” Paste is happy to present an exclusive first listen of the next song in line, a cover of the late Timmy Thomas’s 1972 soul chestnut “Why Can’t We Live Together.”

Where Thomas’ original version hewed towards a skeletal deconstruction of vintage soul music (think, say, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” or Shuggie Otis’s “Aht Uh Mi Hed” stripped down to the most bare trace of gospel), Oates, co-producer David Kalmusky and their stable of Nashville session players give the song a complete smooth-R&B makeover more akin to the late ‘70s or early ‘80s.

After spending his last three solo albums concentrating on the blues (Mississippi Mile), folk (Good Road to Follow) and roots/country (Arkansas), this next batch of songs represents a coming-out party of sorts for Oates. As influenced in his formative days by swing jazz, folk music, blues legend Mississippi John Hurt and bluegrass icon Doc Watson as he was by the likes of Chuck Berry and Curtis Mayfield, Oates feels he’s finally arrived at a synthesis of all the different styles he’s touched on.

And, as he unveils more and more of these news songs (which were lucky enough to hear in full), fans will recognize his ability to channel the signature production ethos that he, longtime partner Darryl Hall and their various producers made famous.

Oates spoke to Paste about the new material, as well as his past.

Paste: How did you come to the decision to release these songs about once a month over the next year or so?

John Oates: I’m a babe in the woods when it comes to digital marketing and streaming. As a veteran of the old-school paradigm, I’ve never released anything that didn’t have a physical component of some sort. There’s the niche of vinyl, which I did with my last album Arkansas in 2018, but I’ve been releasing solo work for the past twenty years and I just thought, “I’d like to try something different.”

I wanted to see if I could reach not only the hardcore fans—and the Hall & Oates fans, of course—but a whole new group of fans. I’ve noticed that I’ve had a lot of success with social media. There’s been a lot of engagement. I’m a neophyte, though, so I’m learning as I go.

This concept of “always on”—always having something available and maintaining a constant presence in this digital space is something I’ve never even considered. But I understand it now. I’ve embraced it, and I’m trying my best to do it—releasing alternate versions and all that sort of thing. That’s the new method, so I’m takin’ the ride, man. [Laughs.] I’m gonna see what happens.

Paste: With this particular set of songs, it’s almost like getting a postcard from John Oates every month. There’s something reassuring about that.

Oates: It makes me feel really good that you’re perceiving it that way. There were certain circumstances in my life where I just felt like it was time to re-assess, re-evaluate and look at a lot of things. I had to figure out a way to say what I had to say in a very relatable way. And I think I stumbled on it.

Artistically, it wasn’t, like, a master plan, but the lyrical content has driven these songs. I can’t always say that about my music. A lot of it has been more musically- and groove-oriented, like “Okay, let’s put some lyrics to that.” But these songs are all speaking, in so many ways, to the things in my life that I’m dealing with right now.

Paste: Can you put into words how one takes a song from a personal feeling to the listener hearing it and thinking “Oh, that’s about my life”?

Oates: Well, it is a secret sauce. If you could bottle it and sell it, everyone would do it. The most successful songs of the Hall & Oates era have that quality. I’ll give you an example: “I Can’t Go For That” is about not being pushed around by the music business, which not many people would relate to. And yet people embraced that song. Maybe that’s not such a good example, because the groove is so powerful that it overrides everything else.

But I don’t know how to describe it—it’s taking a universal concept and somehow personalizing it from my own point of view, but in a way that’s not so intimately personal that other people can’t relate to it. “Disconnected” is a perfect example of that. I had this title many, many years ago that I’d never developed. During the pandemic, that title became very timely. I thought to myself, “I’m sitting in my music room and a year and a half has gone by.”

I was completely disengaged from the rest of the world, and I knew everyone else was in their own personal version of that. So I thought, “This title has been waiting for its time, and its time has come.” When I had that realization, I began to write like a crazy person. The words came pouring out.

Paste: How did “Why Can’t We Live Together” speak to you?

Oates: I loved that song from the very beginning. There was a starkness there. It was a very unusual song for its time, because it was just a drum machine, a Hammond organ and a voice. I know the backstory, with various A&R people saying, “Oh, it wasn’t finished. We need to add a guitar or strings”—bullshit A&R advice, by the way, by non-musicians, I’m sure. That song was perfect [at] communicating the starkness and desperation of those times while, at the same time, being completely timeless.

So we fast-forward to today. I don’t have to tell you about the news. Ukraine, the world, the American situation with protests during the Trump era—all that stuff started to unfold, and I thought of the song. I went and listened to it again, and I said, “This song is just as important now, if not more, than when it was written.” I haven’t done a lot of covers, but I just felt that the time was right for this one. I couldn’t write anything better, that’s for sure.

So I said, “Well, let me make it my own, in a way. I can’t just try to regurgitate the Timmy Thomas version. So I’ll just add the things that I do best.” Like background vocals in a kind of doo-wop harmony style. I actually did most of that song in GarageBand in my house, but when I took my home demo to the studio, the first thing the keyboard player said was, “Oh, we need the Hammond, right?” I said, “No, guys. We’re going in a different direction. We’re staying true to the meat and potatoes of the song, but let’s wipe the original out of your minds.”

Paste: How did you home-demo or sketch ideas out in the ‘60s and ‘70s? What did you use back then?

Oates: Well, in the early days, nothing. [Laughs.] You know, a cassette tape recorder on top of a desk, with me playing guitar or Darryl playing a piano or whatever it might be.

I remember “Out of Touch” was written because I’d purchased this little four-track cassette deck that you could overdub on, which was like, “Ooh!” It was horrible, but it worked.

I always tell this story when I’m playing the song live, but I had a synth that had an arpeggiator. And one night in the middle of the night I was kinda stoned and I just hit a button. I had no idea what it was going to do, and it started making noise. The dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun. So I just played the melody on the keyboard with that arpeggiated woodblock-y sound. And that was the song.

All of a sudden, I was singing something and recording all the backgrounds on the four-track. But in the early days, it was nothing. You just wrote the song on an instrument, you played it for the players, everyone did a head chart or a written chart, depending on who you were with, and you made a record. [Laughs.]

Now, when I go into the recording studio—especially since I’ve been in Nashville, with these incredible session musicians—my template is [early-era Hall & Oates producer] Arif Martin. I learned from the way he conducted our Abandoned Luncheonette sessions: the grace, the professionalism, the musicality, and how I saw him be very selective in choosing the exact right musicians for each particular song.

Every day when we went in to cut a new song, there was a different group of players. I do the same thing now. A long time ago when I first came to town, Vince Gill told me, “When you’re producing in Nashville, it’s like you’re directing a movie.” It’s not a matter of who’s the best guitar player, because there’s hundreds of them. It’s a matter of who’s the exact right person for that song.

Then, the key is to not over-direct them. You know where you want to go with it, but you allow them to do what they do within the context of your vision.

Paste: The sonic architecture is such a huge component of, not just your material, but also your influences. From when you were first working with Arif to now, where along the way did you start to feel like you could dial things up yourself, production-wise?

Oates: To be honest, the Nashville experience is what brought me to where I am now. I’d gotten very comfortable in the context of the Hall & Oates show because it became like second-nature to me. I don’t want to say I was a lazy musician, but it certainly wasn’t challenging. I was a part of an amazing band, and I was playing my part within the context of the Hall & Oates canon, so to speak.

But when I got to Nashville, one of the first things that happened was I played with some bluegrass players—​​Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush—on a track. The level of musicianship, the quality of their instruments and the care they took with the sound—I wouldn’t say it was eye-opening but it was definitely a wake-up call.

I said, “Hmm, my name and my reputation is always going to get me through the door to the party, but in order to hang at the party, I have to up my game.” I started practicing like crazy, I mean really woodshedding. I began to take a lot more care with [choosing individual instruments]. It wasn’t just “Hey, I’ll pick up this guitar and play it.” It was more like, “I fingerpick better with this Martin here—because of the width of the nut and the shape of the neck—than I do on this Gibson.” I also found a custom amp that Buddy Miller was using.

So it’s been a 20-year evolution with me honing all the various subtle elements that went into arriving at where I am today. For instance, the Vinnie Bell [electric] coral sitar I play on “Why Can’t We Live Together,” I’ve had it since the ’70s. It was just sitting in my locker. I think I played it once like 20 years ago. I don’t think I’ve ever changed the strings on it. [Laughs.]

The track sounded great, but I felt like there was a little ear candy, some little thing, missing. I went down to the locker, pulled that thing off the shelf, took it home and tuned it without even changing the strings. I played the part and sent the stem to my engineer and said, “Hey, throw this into the mix.”

He said, “That’s exactly what the song needed.” I said, “I don’t know, man, it just happened.” But I knew I had that tool in the toolbox. It’s been a real re-education to me, and there’s a sense of pride that I was able to up my game on every level—production, playing, singing and also finding the right engineer with the right analog equipment.

David has become my co-producer on a lot of these songs. His technical expertise is amazing, but he’s also a great musician. When I’m in the booth, I don’t just have an engineer who’s good at turning knobs, I have an actual musician. So I’ve developed a lot of trust, a team and a musical community around me.

Paste: There were a lot of artists breaking new ground in the ’70s and ’80s. How aware were you that you were on the cusp of something?

Oates: Not that aware, to be honest with you. I knew in the ’80s that we were on a very serious roll. Because it wasn’t only the fact that we were having multiple hits, but everything had come together. It took the whole decade before to get to that place on every level.

Prior to the ’80s, all of our albums were made with studio musicians. As good as some of those records were, we always felt that the ultimate situation would be to have a band that could kick ass live and then take them directly into the studio and keep that energy and magic flowing onto a recording. And that’s what happened in the ‘80s.

Paste: Throughout your career, you’ve been very free with blending styles. How much push back have you ever felt from purists?

Oates: I’ve felt it. I’ve felt it a lot. But to find out who I could be as a solo artist, I had to go back to the very beginning, to the music that informed me before I met Darryl. I knew that Nashville was the perfect environment to help me do that, but I didn’t just want to be a purist. I wanted to filter my original influences through my adult experience, my years and years making records, my life experience.

This new music is the flowering of all that. I feel like I’ve [fully] realized who I can be. Now there’s no rules at all. Everybody wants [artists] to be in some sort of lane and stay in it. But I might come and do a freakin’ bluegrass record next. I don’t know what’s going to happen.

Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a longtime contributor at Paste. He believes that a music journalist’s job is to guide readers to their own impressions of the music. You can find him on Twitter Twitter and Substack at feedbackdef.substack.com

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