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John Oates Q&A: Songwriting, Hall and Oates and His New Memoir, ‘Change of Seasons’ (Q&A)

Written by: Ken Sharp

Matt Christine Photography

As one half of music’s most successful duos of all-time, John Oates has experienced his fair share of extraordinary milestones in his illustrious career. His new autobiography, Change of Seasons, co-penned with noted music scribe (and Rock Cellar contributor), Chris Epting, is a fascinating chronicle of Oates’ five decade musical journey. (Be sure to enter our giveaway for a chance to win an autographed copy of Oates’ new book, by the way!)

Expansive and evocative, Oates’ gripping story unfolds drawing the reader in immediately, tracing his childhood in New York City and the suburbs of North Wales, Pennsylvania, his formative years in Philly based outfits, The Masters and Valentine to his ongoing mega platinum union with partner Daryl Hall, a tumultuous musical adventure of equal navigating the heights of pop stardom and its pitfalls. The latter arc of Oates’ story in this eminently readable tome is particularly revealing, detailing the rewards of a remarkable personal and professional renaissance.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Run us through the process of putting together this book. You were able to consult diaries you wrote detailing events in your life. Reliving those memories, feelings, and perspective must have been eye-opening.

John Oates: The book came about through a series of interviews I did with Chris Epting. Over the years, Chris was an early proponent of my solo stuff and he seemed to have a real innate knowledge of what I was trying to do and how I was doing it. Every time I talked to him we just got on really well in our interviews and we got into this deep stuff.

One day I was talking about these diaries, these journals that I kept from the ‘70s and he said, “You’ve got them? I’ve gotta look at them. Man, you’ve gotta do a book and if you want any help then I’ll be happy to help you” so that’s how the whole thing started. I made copies of these 13 or 14 journals and I sent them to Chris and he started laying them out in his floor and looking at them. Chris is an amazing researcher and historian and with him working on the book he was able to blend his talents as an historian and as a writer.

Chris’s role initially was to tee me up with memories; he’d say, “In 1972 you did this…” Then I would begin to write about that and color in my own recollections. The amazing thing about the process is had he not done that and had I not embarked on this book project there might have been memories I never would have remembered for the rest of my life.

Some of the stuff in our early ‘70s bands were things I hadn’t thought about for many years. Chris just sent me a playbill for the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland from 1972 when we were calling ourselves “Whole Oats” and we were opening for Sha Na Na and I didn’t remember that. Also, I looked at the playbill which listed all the concerts that were playing that summer and it was astonishing who was playing; the amount of amazing legendary talent that was playing that one summer at that one venue blew my mind.

The early ‘70s was a really exciting period for us. I think for me, my favorite era was the ’70s. When you’re doing things for the first time, touring for the first time, making records for the first time, visiting places for the first time, meeting new people, everything has a kind of an edge and excitement that you just can’t replicate. Going back to the same cities for 10, 20 years is good but it’s not the same experience; that first time experiences cannot be duplicated.

Were there things you wrote in those journals about that either surprised you or made you rethink events in your life?

John Oates: Oh yeah. One of the things that stood out to me is I can’t believe how much stuff I squeezed into days and weeks. I don’t know how I had time to do any of that stuff. It blows my mind that I was able to race cars, write songs, record albums and tour and screw around (laughs). Crazy stuff and it just never stopped. I guess now being considerably older, I can’t believe the energy that I had.

Growing up in North Wales, were you an ambitious kid, did you have big dreams?

John Oates: No, I didn’t. I also identified myself as a musician. I never thought about it consciously, I just did it and every time I did it people liked it so I kept doing it. I never had this dream about how I’m gonna join a band and sell a million records. That kind of stuff never entered my mind. It was always this incrementally moving forward approach; like, take the next step and see where it takes you and if that next step is good maybe it will lead to another next step.

Honestly, Daryl and I have always thought that way too. Everyone perceived and portrayed us as these calculating pop craftsmen who could whip out a number one record with no effort but nothing could be further from the truth. We just wrote the best songs we could and made the best records we could.

No album by Daryl Hall & John Oates sounds the same.

John Oates: Right, and it really is the same for our singles. One of the things I’m most proud of in terms of Hall & Oates’ career is if you listen to our big hits, there is not one of them that sounds like another. I’m very proud of that. It’s not easy to have commercial success and not stick with a formula of some sort.

You brought up singles. Is there an overlooked Hall & Oates song that should have been a single that never was? My pick of a song of yours is “Portable Radio” from the X-Static album.

John Oates: Yeah, “Portable Radio” was a pretty good song and it had a great groove. Okay, here’s a perfect example: “Everytime You Go Away” was the last cut on side two of Voices. We did it in a very traditional, Stax/Volt kind of approach. To Paul Young’s credit, he and his team turned it into a great pop record.

How about another of yours, “Italian Girls”?

John Oates: (Laughs) Well, I think that one was a little too camp. (laughs) I really like that song and I think the words are really funny. Maybe it was just a little too comical.

“Camellia,” which was a single that should have been bigger and “Possession Obsession” perhaps. In fact we’re thinking about adding that one into our show for the next Hall & Oates tour.

You graduated from Temple University with a degree in Journalism, and from there, what was the plan?

John Oates: There was no backup plan, I went to Temple University because I thought in those days, the mindset was you graduate from high school and you go to college.  That’s what you do. But at the same time I released my first single with my first band and the bug bit me and Philadelphia bit me. Getting into the city was my big goal, getting to Philadelphia.

So if I could go to Temple University, which was a city school, that would get me there and from there who knows what was gonna happen? The other motivation was to stay out of Vietnam. You could get a college deferment and not have to go to war, where my best friend got killed and a lot of my other friends got killed and wounded. I didn’t believe in it and I was totally against it and wasn’t about to do it. So it was the combination of getting a deferment from Vietnam and getting to Philadelphia and trying to live in the city and Temple was the vehicle that made that happen.

The reason I chose journalism as a major was is writing comes easy to me and I didn’t have to work that hard to get through it. I always thought of myself as a writer of sorts, but it wasn’t like I wanted to write for a newspaper or magazine.

Well, you are a writer and with Change of Seasons you’ve tapped into those Temple University journalism chops.

John Oates: Oh yeah, I finally did it. (laughs)

There’s an evocative lyric you reference in the book culled from the song “Serious Music”: “Manuscripted memories, sound with no electricity, concentration lines on the face of serious music.” I’m curious, as a lyricist, who were both the literary and musical lyricists who informed your ability with words?

John Oates: In terms of the musical side of writing lyrics, I was inspired by Cole Porter and Chuck Berry. I know that might sound weird. Cole Porter was one of the most clever manipulators of the English language. If you look at his song lyrics they’re incredibly sophisticated, clever, wry and highly evolved. And Chuck Berry, from a more rootsy point of view, is just as good if not better. His lyrics are so tight and well-crafted and so clever and cool.

If my work could come anywhere close to those guys I’d be happy. In terms of literary influences, I liked writers like Kenneth Patchen and H. L. Mencken. I studied the books called The History of The American Language, which were written by H.L. Mencken. It’s a discourse American on the American language as opposed on the English language. I’ve always been an avid reader. I’ve read the classics and to his day I read like a maniac. One thing that Daryl and I have in common is we’re both avid, avid readers. I read everything from mystery novels to a lot of history. I’m always a little bit more drawn to non-fiction, which I’ve found to be more fascinating and surprising than any fiction could be.

You and Daryl opened a show on David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” tour in Memphis. How did Bowie impact on the kind of songs/production on the War Babies album?

John Oates: I believe we opened for David Bowie on the second show for the “Ziggy Stardust” tour in America. I was a big fan of Hunky Dory. It’s a great record. Being a fan of that record and perceiving Bowie as that, as this quirky singer/songwriter, and then he comes out completely transformed with the Ziggy Stardust album, it blew my mind.

What I took from it was, “Oh, you can do that? You mean, you can be this and then you can be that?”

It was so extreme and so shocking. It didn’t occur to me that you could transmogrify yourself into something completely different. So then that opened the palette for me and I think Daryl too. I think we said, ‘Oh, we can do whatever we want. Let’s go make the War Babies album.” It was opening the door to say, if you’re creative, you can do whatever you want.

You’ve described chasing success as the proverbial carrot just a little bit out of reach. Once you were able to grab onto that carrot and experience massive success, how was it different/better/worse than you imagined?

John Oates: To me, it happened so incrementally and it happened in such an up and down way. If you look at career of Hall & Oates, we started out very slowly and couldn’t get any traction making what we thought was good music but it wasn’t connecting. We had four albums before anything really happened.

Then we had this pop success with “Rich Girl,” Sara Smile” and “She’s Gone,” which was re-released, and then we went down again in the late ‘70s before we came back up again in the ‘80s when we started producing ourselves.

I never looked at success as the end result: success wasn’t the goal, it was the result of hard work. When you’re working that hard and it happens, you do get successful. For me personally, it makes me want to work even harder as opposed to saying, “Okay, now I’ve got to that rung on the ladder I can just stand here for a while.” I’m just not that kind of a person. In a way, I don’t think I’ve ever stopped to appreciate success as a means to an end. It was just happening around me and it enabled me to live a better life and make better records.

Speaking of making better records, you and Daryl are really underrated as producers. What producers impacted you the most in your approach making records?

John Oates: Arif Mardin is a major one because he was our first record producer. But not only was he our first, he was our best. What he taught me was first of all, you have to have the songs and after you have the songs you surround yourself with great musicians who can serve that song and make that song come alive. And that’s what I do today.

When I walk into a recording studio, even recently in Nashville, I’ve got the songs that I want to do but it’s like casting the actors in a movie. There’s a million great guitar players, a million great drummers and a million great bass players but who’s the exact right person for the songs? It’s almost like having this social Rolodex and then you bring them in for that purpose because you know that they’re gonna understand and be sympathetic to that particular material and they’re gonna make that material come alive. There’s a skill and an art to that and I think Arif taught me that.

Two of Daryl Hall & John Oates’ most accomplished and underrated albums are Along The Red Ledge and X-Static, two albums produced by David Foster. Bring us back to those two albums and how they helped position you and Daryl for a major commercial renaissance and commercial run starting with the Voices album.

John Oates: Well, you make a really good point because a lot of people don’t acknowledge those records because they didn’t have hits on them. We had never recorded with our road band until 1978. That year we basically poached Elton John’s band, we had Kenny Passarelli, Roger Pope and Caleb Quay and we still had Charlie De Chant and David Kent. But that was the moment where we said we could go into the studio with our own band for the first time and we did. And we had David Foster, who is so musical and totally competent, to kind of oversee the album.

What that was really about was, can we make a record with our road band? We realized we could and that was the beginning of that era and that led to the ‘80s success. So you’re 100% right, those two albums paved the way for the Voices album.

The Beauty On A Back Street era of the band is normally by derided by you and Daryl but listening to that record with strong songs like “The Emptyness” and “You Must be Good For Something,” it serves a reevaluation. What went wrong with that record and are there any songs that do stand up from that period?

John Oates: The reason Daryl and I don’t really acknowledge that record was because it was the deterioration of our friendship and our working relationship with Chris Bond, and that record represents that in my mind and in my memory. When you look at some of the song titles like “The Emptyness” or “Bad Habits and Infections” or “You Must Be Good For Something,” and the sentiment behind the titles, it was a low point, honestly.

I look through everything through the prism of my own experience, so if you’re low and you’re down and you’re depressed and you’re not satisfied with not only your life but where you’re at and obviously with our working relationship and making music, then the whole experience is gonna be colored by that. Having said that, I guess I owe it to myself to revisit that record at some point.

In the mid ‘70s as you first started enjoyed the first flush of success, you felt the need for further musical education and worked with Helen Hobbs Jordan. How did studying with her inform your work?

John Oates: What happened was I leaned to play rudimentary piano. I was able to articulate things on the keyboard and see the mathematics of harmony and theory in front of me, which is not as easy to do when you’re a guitarist, especially a self-taught guitarist. That was an eye-opening experience so now I’m able to draw on my solid foundation of music and harmony to communicate to players and studio musicians when I’m doing arrangements. I can talk in technical terms with chord structures and things like that.

So that was immensely important to me because I was kind of a folk musician who played electric guitar. In a way I still am in a certain sense, but now I’m more sophisticated in terms of being able to work with horn players, arrangers, whoever.  It was crash course in harmony and theory and something that I needed in my tool box that was lacking.

What John Oates songs sport your favorite chord progressions?

John Oates: “Crazy Eyes” is one, especially the intro. I’d say “Serious Music,” Melody For A Memory.” “Had I Known You Better Then” is good too. That’s the last remnants of my folk roots coming out and being able to tap into that before it all went into another world.

In your book, you discuss how shaving your mustache in the late ‘80s was a pivotal moment, and how that signified a change in your life both professionally and personally. In 2017, with hindsight as your treasured friend and informed by great wisdom, if you could whisper some astute words of advice into the ear of that guy with the mustache, what would you tell him?

John Oates: I’d tell him, “Do less fucking around and be a little more serious about the music.” I wasted a lot of time enjoying the fruits of pop stardom.

You felt you weren’t writing as much as you could have?

John Oates: No way, not even close. I also let a lot of opportunities slip by. For instance, I should have been more proactive with my friendship with George Harrison. I should have reached out to him more and played with him and try to create something with him but in a really weird way, I didn’t want to bother him. I felt it was just great to hang out with him and I wanted to give him some space.

So there were opportunities where I had a chance to be a part of something. I think I also would have told that guy, “Don’t forget about your roots.” I let my folks and traditional music roots really fall to the wayside but not anymore. I came back to it with a renewed appreciation for it and it wasn’t too late. At least I did get back to it. I’m really excited about the record I’m working on now.

How would you describe it?

John Oates: I wanted to do an EP as a tribute to Mississippi John Hurt and do his songs. I’ve never done a solo guitar and vocal album. So I started doing that, but as I did I started coming up with a more modern and pop production sensibility and started to impose them on these Mississippi John Hurt songs. I started playing with a trio and we got this groove. All of a sudden I stared playing these traditional songs for them and they started playing behind me and the songs began to evolve.

It’s turned into a modern traditional record. It starts with traditional blues and then I’ve expanded it to ragtime and all sorts of things and it’s really cool. I want to go out on the road with it in 2018. I know after Hall & Oates does this giant tour with Tears For Fears that Daryl’s gonna need a break and I’m gonna need a break.

I want to go out on the road and do an Americana version of Mad Dogs and Englishmen.  I want to have a collaborative show with a bunch of people. I’m talking with Sam Bush, I’m talking with Jim Lauderdale and I’m talking to all these friends of mine that I’ve played with in a “jammy” sense but we’ve never done anything officially together. I’ve put on a few shows like that in Nashville and everyone who’s seen it has freaked out and said, “You’ve gotta take this out on the road!” So I’m thinking this album is gonna be the catalyst to do a show like that.

I want to do a tour of a few historic theaters; I’m really into it. I’m paving the way for that kind of thing.

2 Responses to John Oates Q&A: Songwriting, Hall and Oates and His New Memoir, ‘Change of Seasons’ (Q&A)

  1. Diane from Chicago Reply

    April 11, 2017 at 3:08 pm

    Have followed Hall & Oates’ career for almost forty years and have enjoyed their music throughout. It is interesting to find out what John was going through during those years. Looking forward to reading this book. Thank you for some insight as to some of the contents.

  2. Nick Reply

    April 13, 2017 at 12:08 pm

    Will certainly be reading this. Met John backstage at a show in about 1981 at U of P. Nicest guy in the world. His mom and dad were there, too, and there were also very sweet people.

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