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An Interview with John Oates, Who Deserves Your Respect

The humbler half of Hall and Oates talks dubstep, tries and fails to define "psychedelic Americana," and reveals he really, really wants to be a guest on Noisey's Guitar Moves.
October 21, 2013, 5:08pm

Photo by Sarrah Danziger

Anyone who snickers at the name John Oates is a fool. Yes, the humbler half of Hall and Oates has become synonymous with some of the 80s’ most questionable fashion choices, and yes, he’s probably as famous for his mustache as any of his considerable musical accomplishments, but at this point, the man’s lengthy resume should speak for him.

He grew up on black rock ’n’ roll, folk, and blues, played in doo-wop and R&B groups, and recorded his first single, “I Need Your Love,” with the Masters in 1966, when he was just 17. In 1967, he met Daryl Hall in the aftermath of a nightclub knife fight and the two formed a songwriting partnership that quickly got them signed to Atlantic Records. Though Oates sang the duo’s first big hit, “She’s Gone,” Hall’s mane was a little more leonine and his legs were a bit longer, so his voice became what Oates today admits is “the signature sound of Hall and Oates.” They wound up selling over 80 million copies of their 21 albums, making them pop’s most successful duo of all time. This year they finally got nominated for the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

Though they tour often, the two Philadelphia rock and soul geniuses (yes, geniuses) haven’t released an album since 2006’s Home for Christmas, and no longer even write together. But that doesn’t mean Oates has retired to a mansion made of money, gold records, and Jheri Curl. In 2002, he released the first of several solo albums, Phunk Shui, and he was featured on Handsome Boy Modeling School’s 2004 track “Greatest Mistake” from the album White People. He demonstrated his sense of humor by starring as himself in J-Stache, an animated web series about his famous mustache (voiced by Dave Attell). Oates created and produces the 7908 Aspen Songwriters Festival in Colorado, and this year got together with My Morning Jacket’s Jim James to assemble Bonarroo’s famous SuperJam, which featured Larry Graham, Ziggy Modeliste from the Meters, and R. Kelly, among others. He’s currently releasing a digital single every month in a rootsy project titled Good Road to Follow, where he writes with guests as diverse as Vince Gill and OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder. In his spare time, Oates runs a rescue ranch in Colorado for dogs, emus, peacocks, llamas, and alpacas.

I caught up with John Oates recently during his stop in New Orleans to play two shows and record for Good Road to Follow with the beloved Preservation Hall Jazz Band (cue jokes about “Preservation Hall and Oates”). I did not ask him about his alpacas, nor did I ask about the return of his mustache via his new goatee. No. No clown questions for John Oates. The man deserves respect.

VICE: 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.
John Oates: 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 just played JazzFest 2013, and in fact you come to New Orleans a lot. What’s your relationship like with this city?
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 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’s “Mother-in-Law,” though at the time I didn’t relate it to Toussaint [who wrote the number one hit].

I am very interested in the psychology of the sideman—you’re not a sideman, but are often perceived as one. It seems like it’d 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 being, 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 and 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.

When my friends and I debate about the music industry—as if it’s something that affects us at all—I sort of hold you up as an example of someone who has navigated the new terrain and isn’t afraid of new ways to release material. The response is always, “Yeah, but John Oates gets royalty checks in the mail too.” How would a new artist go about getting into your current position?
Hall and 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, 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.

Preservation Hall is known for the oldies; what style is the song y’all wrote together?
It’s a 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 at Fudge Studios. Then when I was back here for JazzFest, in the evening I came to see Del McCoury’s bluegrass band play with the Pres Hall. I wanted to see how Del McCoury’s bluegrass would work with the jazz band. 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 and Oates songs, it was all traditional blues, mostly just me and the guitar, a lot of new songs—then the whole band came back and finished out the set together. It was fun, a great combination.

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?

What else do you have planned for Good Road to Follow, this never-ending project of yours?
I already recorded for a year and half straight and am up to 20 songs now. The one I did with Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic 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. 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 physical CDs?
I didn’t ever give up on it, but I wanted to try an experiment [to see] 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 demand for vinyl within my audience.

Just add some dubstep 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 [number one hit] ever recorded with a drum machine, [1981’s] “Kiss on My List.” And the exact same drum machine was on “I Can’t Go for That.” It was a Roland CompuRhythm. You can’t 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?
Beats are always a good place to start. I do that at home on ProTools. I use GarageBand a lot. 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! He’s killer.
Yeah. I saw a few episodes and thought, Man, I gotta do that show.

Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans musician, journalist, and author of books including The Donkey Show and New Orleans: the Underground Guide_. His work has appeared at_ McSweeney's_,_ Oxford American_,_ Newsweek_,_ Salon_, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter here._

Previously: “Greatest Living American Writer” Neal Pollack Talks About His ‘Jeopardy!’ Victory