Interview: John Oates on a Hall of Fame career, protecting his brand, and Hall & Oates having ‘the worst name in rock and roll history’
John Oates is walking down the narrow hallway towards the back of Boston Burger Company on Boylston Street off Mass. Ave. when an outstretched arm nearly clocks him right in the face. “Oh sorry,” says the guy, who could have just taken out one half of the best-selling musical duo of all time by simply trying to put on his jacket without looking around. “It’s fine, I’m a Yankees fan,” Oates replies with a laugh as he walks by.
I wait for the guy to take the bait. It’s Opening Day around Major League Baseball, though ironically, the Red Sox are on the road in Philadelphia, the birthplace of Hall & Oates. But the clumsy patron at the burger joint doesn’t take a shot at the Yanks, nor does he seem to realize he could have just done what trends, fads, styles and an ever-changing music industry has failed to do in 40-plus years: Stop Hall & Oates.
Since their career began in the early-’70s, Hall & Oates have sold more than 13 million albums and six million singles in the United States alone, with 34 chart hits in the Billboard Top 100, six gold albums, and at least a dozen songs you could be possibly singing in your head right now just from reading their name. But Hall & Oates are not just not anywhere close to retirement, they’re possibly more relevant than ever. The massively influential rock and soul duo just released a new CD/DVD set titled Live In Dublin, and a spring and summer tour will soon take them all over the eastern part of North America, with the closest date to Boston being a July 24 show at Foxwoods’s Grand Theatre in Connecticut. Later in the year they take on the West Coast, and a return to Japan is in order as well.
While Daryl Hall is known these days for his Live From Daryl’s House webcast and television show, the Nashville-based Oates has also been busy working with musicians of all ages. Last week he was in town for a collaborative series at Berklee College of Music, talking shop with the music business/management students of assistant professor Stephanie Kellar, leading clinics and jam sessions, and taking part in a day where he and a handful of Berklee students wrote a song together and performed it live within several hours.
In between the busy schedule, Vanyaland caught up with the always-friendly and affable Oates last week to discuss a variety of subjects, like Hall & Oates’ 2014 induction into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, the recent story where a Brooklyn granola company started selling a cereal called Haulin’ Oates, and the duo’s incredible career longevity.
Once Oates dodged flagrant elbows and fists, we grabbed a table in the back of Boston Burger Company and jumped right into a conversation. Off the bat, I told him I was not related to longtime Hall & Oates drummer Jerry Marotta.
Michael Marotta: It seems you’ve been in Boston quite a bit, spending a lot of time up here…
John Oates: Yeah in and out, mostly work related, pretty much. Boston’s always been a great town for Hall & Oates. It’s been fun for me to get to know the folks at Berklee, we’ve done a couple of one-off dates up here and I’ve enjoyed them. And when I have the opportunity to do this Herb Alpert visiting artist series — it was really something I thought, at this time in my life, where I’m at, it was a good time for me to do it. I’m looking for unique things to do that are interesting and not the same old touring grind — which I do anyway — to break it up and to give back in a way. I think it’s important at this point, I think I’ve got a lot of experiences to share that could be helpful to young musicians and I’m still passionate about music, so I wanted to do it while I still could.
Do you ever have to explain who you are to younger students?
Not too much.
Yeah it is cool.
It seems like you’re in a point in your career where you can really pick and choose how to spend your time, doing what works for you. That must be a great place to be.
It’s a great place to be. It really is. And I say it all the time, but I don’t take it for granted. I realize I’m fortunate and I’ve worked hard to be in this position, so what I want to do is, I want to not only enjoy it, but make the most out of this unique opportunity. Because I always feel like at this point I’m kinda doing what a lot of creative people would love to be doing: I have this incredibly well-known famous band that I’m a part of, and I have the freedom to be an individual outside of it.
It’s very unique. And Daryl even said to me one time, because he does his TV show with young artists, and he had an artist on who was part of a band, and the artist said “You know, you and John are really lucky, you somehow managed to figure out how to be a band, but to be two completely separate individuals. Not a lot of people get to do that.”
So here again, I want to make the most out of that opportunity and I want to be an example, to show that you don’t have to rest on your laurels and tread water and skate… even though, just because you’re older, in your career, as long as you can think, you can still be somewhat valid. Why not take advantage of it?
That definitely speaks to the longevity of Hall & Oates. You’re 40 years into it, but never mind the professional aspect: you met Daryl at such a young age and you’re been able to maintain a relationship.
Unusual circumstances led to us meeting. My family is from New York originally. Everyone thinks I’m from Philadelphia, but I’m actually not. When my father got a job offer in Pennsylvania back in the early-’50s, to move from New York City to Pennsylvania was a big deal. An Italian family, they would all stay together. No one would move to Pennsylvania — it was like going to Mars. For them to do that, had they not done that, I would have never met Daryl. Then I went to Temple University and we were on the same musical trajectory: we both had bands, were both the same age, we both made records independently of each other, and those records got played on the radio, and that brought us together, and it was circumstance.
You studied to be a journalist, right?
Yeah I was a journalism major.
And you got lucky in that you didn’t have to end up doing that!
Well, I never intended to be a journalist. I did it because it was the path of least resistance. It kept me out of Vietnam, and I was good at writing so I had plenty of time to play music. I got to be a really good typist.
Congratulations on the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, by the way. I think it speaks to where we are musically, here in 2015. I say this with respect, but I don’t think Hall & Oates would have been elected in the ’90s [they became eligible in 1997]. People seem to have a better appreciation for music now, where the ’90s and part of the 2000s were about labels and styles. My first exposure to Hall & Oates was as a kid listening to you in the back seat of my mom’s car, and I think people my age grew up with a genuine love for the music. Hall & Oates kind of got a raw deal in the ’90s but it seems you got your reputation back. Was this induction a timing thing?
The fall of — and I don’t mean to disparage what you do — but the fall of rock journalism and rock journalists as arbiters of taste have gone away with the internet and the web. This younger generation doesn’t pay attention to what someone says or what someone tells them they should be listening to. And the fall of the big conglomerate record companies also simultaneously happened, where [once] the big record business could feed radio what they wanted to feed radio, radio was in cahoots with them, so it was all designed to focus attention on a certain style. Certain people were cool, certain people were hip, certain people were not.
There was also that weird stigma where if you had hits on Top 40 radio, you were less than cool. We were put into that category. I think what happened was as time went on and kids began to make their own decisions, and younger generations of people, like you who first heard it when you were little, it resonated with them. They had a greater appreciation for what we were able to achieve. Because having a lot of hits, back in the ’80s and ’90s, was looked upon as being less than cool. But if it was so easy, why wouldn’t have everyone done it?
So all of a sudden a new generation of musicians are trying to establish themselves, trying to get on the radio, trying to sell records, trying to establish a fan base, and they look at what we were able to accomplish and say “Wait a minute, that was pretty hard to do! Now I realize how tough it is and how hard it is to sustain a career.” Add that together with Daryl doing his TV show and bringing on a lot of young artists who were referencing us in a way, whether overtly or subtlety and telling their fans “When I was a kid I listened to Hall & Oates!” And suddenly their fans started jumping on our bandwagon, and it just went like this [makes circular motion with hand].
And we never stopped. I think they biggest key is that we never stopped. We never went away and said “Ok we’re gonna have a reunion tour.” There were times when we didn’t play as often, but we never stopped.
The changes in culture definitely affected media. In the ’90s you picked up SPIN or Rolling Stone and read 1,100 words on what something sounded like. Now you click “play” in a post and make your own decisions.
The generation has a world of music at their fingertips. Archival stuff that you couldn’t access [in the past] or you could, but you had to work. Now it’s just so seamless and easy, and it made kids have a broader palate to work from.
So I have to ask, what meant more to you, the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame or the Songwriters Hall Of Fame [Oates was inducted in 2003].
Hands down the Songwriters, and I’ll tell you why — if we hadn’t written the songs we wouldn’t be in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. If you really want to go back to basics! But we started as songwriters, we viewed ourselves in many ways but as songwriters was the core of everything, to be included in that group of American songwriters — Cole Porter to George Gershin, and even earlier than that — that’s pretty heady company. To be in that elite company is really cool, and that’s super important.