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INTERVIEW: John Oates
Oobah Butler , July 18th, 2014 10:07

The singer-songwriter and one half of the legendarily smooth duo gives us an update ahead of their set at Latitude tomorrow

Photograph courtesy of Juan Patino

With Hall & Oates currently in the UK on their first tour here in nine years, we caught up with John Oates to discuss why they'd been away for so long, the biggest distinctions between British and American audiences and whether, as they enter the fourth decade of their musical lifespan, he and Daryl are likely to write another record.

It's been a long nine years since UK crowds last got the chance to see you play. What made you feel like it was time to come back?

John Oates: Well, we have a lot of great fans there, and there's always a demand for us. But as time has gone on Daryl and I… we still enjoy touring but we're not on the road constantly, there are other things we like to do. We have individual projects, and we have lives, so we try to balance things. It's not easy to travel around the whole world. We have a demand in the Far East and all over the place, so we try to make it all work but we don't want to kill ourselves either.

What would you say is the biggest distinction between your audiences in Britain and America?

JO: I've always thought that the UK has been young and pop-orientated. Young pop music, even traditionally and going back to the 60s. Pop music has always driven the music in the UK; the fans and the styles follow along, but I'm not up on it. Honestly, I live in my own world now! In America, I think there's maybe a little more diversity. You have a very big scene for roots and Americana music, you have bluegrass – not necessarily that it's not there in the UK – but there are more options here. People will follow various music styles and there are festivals dedicated to specific styles, and I'm not sure about that in the UK. I know we're doing the Rewind Festival, which is kind of an 80s-orientated festival. Well that should be interesting because we don't really think of ourselves as an 80s band [laughs], even though we had a lot of commercial success then. We think of ourselves more of a 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s band [laughs], we're just those kind of people! But of course, we understand that most people remember us from our big hits in the 80s.

Do you find that frustrating at all?

JO: No, not at all! It's part of our legacy. We're proud of everything we've done. It's just that I personally thought that we did some very interesting work in the 70s that was overshadowed by the hits of the 80s. They were so big that they cast a shadow over everything else, but people forget about the decade before when we made probably 10 albums. I think that some of the more interesting and adventurous music is on the 70s stuff.

Will the UK crowds being, as you said, "pop-orientated" make it more difficult to be more adventurous?

JO: Well, no, I don't think so. Our tour sold out in a matter of hours, so obviously the fans are into what we're doing! I mean, the thing is, we play for people who are interested in us. It would be nice to reach everyone but of course that's not going to happen. So we do what we do, and if they like us, people will come and see us. We're totally happy with that, so we'll play to old fans and new fans. In America, our audience has gotten younger and younger. A whole new generation has turned onto us.

I think that's happening in the UK too; why do you think that is?

JO: I think for a number of reasons. I think a number of younger pop bands, people like The Killers, One Republic, have told their fans about us and the fact that we were influential to them when they were growing up and starting their musical careers. Our music influenced them. So their fans began to discover us and check us out and little by little... And, I think a lot of it was to do with when we started playing big festivals. I played Bonnaroo last year with Jim James from My Morning Jacket, and Daryl played it with Chromeo two years before that, then we played the Life Is Good Festival and Outside Lands in San Francisco, which is a huge festival. And as we played these bigger festivals, a lot of younger audiences who may not come to another show were at a festival to check us out, and liked what they hear. So the fan base has really grown from that.

Do you feel that maybe the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame accolade will have an impact on that in the same respect?

JO: I don't know. I don't know how much of an impact that will have on the younger generation because, quite frankly, I think the younger generation don't really care about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame [laughs]. I think it's more meaningful to older fans, because obviously you have to put in a bunch of years before you're eligible. It appeals to an older generation, it's important to me: I'm glad we're in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but it doesn't mean anything really!

It's been covered so much that I thought the exposure it had given you had perhaps been significant.

JO: Yeah, good exposure always helps. It's just like the old cliché: it doesn't matter what they're saying about you, as long as they're talking about you. Unfortunately in our world today with reality TV and things like that, it doesn't really matter unless you're in the public eye. In that regard, it's fine, but I don't really care about it.

Your new record, Good Road To Follow, collects together three stylistically varied EPs that you recorded collaboratively. How did this concept come about?

JO: It happened naturally, completely organically. I felt like I wanted to make an album of original songs, because my previous two solo albums weren't. Mississippi Mile was an ode to the music I was into as a kid, and The Bluesville Sessions was kind of a live version of the same album. So I hadn't made an original album in many years and I had loads of new song ideas. So I was thinking of a way to get these new songs recorded and thought, "let me reach out to some people, tap into some collaborations and see what it's like if I can have other people help me with these song ideas". I just didn't want to do it by myself. So little by little that whole idea of working with people I respected and reaching out to new people and old friends kind of began to develop. So I did it single by single, and I didn't start out to make an album, I felt I'd make a series of digital singles and I'd release one, see how it goes and if it goes well, then fine. I released the first single in March 2013, and people seemed to like it and were saying, "when can we get the album?" and I said "I don't know, I hadn't thought about that, but now I will!" [laughs]. That's how it happened, there was no master plan, I just kind of did it.

Did any of the artists you collaborated with completely blow you away?

JO: Oh pretty much everybody. I mean, honestly, there were a few surprises along the way but for the most part I expected very talented people to really deliver and of course they did. Working with Vince Gill was fantastic. I just have so much respect for him as a singer and guitar player. To be able to write a song with him and then record it in his house, in his studio was fantastic. One of my favourite artists to work with is Jim Lauderdale. He's fantastic, he's become one of my best friends in Nashville, and we wrote two songs together on the album. He and I always write a song completely different to what you'd expect, so that was fun. Ryan Tedder of One Republic was really cool, because he's just at the top of his game right now. He wanted to work really fast and do something that'd really stand out on the album – he said, "if I do something with you, it's got to be something nobody would ever expect" and it certainly worked out as the song 'Stone Cold Love' is probably the most extreme on the record. So everybody had their own agenda.

Though you've both been independently writing and releasing material, it's been almost a decade since you and Daryl released an original record together. Are there any plans on the horizon?

JO: No, not really. I think that if we did a song, it'd probably be a single. The whole idea of making an album in this era is really old-fashioned at this point. If we had a great song, or if there was a collaborative effort between the two us and maybe a third party, I mean sure! I wouldn't be against it, but we're so busy doing our individual projects - that's where our creative energy is going.

Does it feel like you've already gone as far as you can with it?

JO: I don't know if we've already gone as far. I'm sure that if Daryl and I got together, we'd create some sort of magic – I don't know what it'd be - but honestly he's so busy: the moment we stop touring as Hall & Oates we literally change our hats and become deep solo artists, and that's where we enjoy being. We've made so much music in our 40-year career that we can't even tour the songs we've written, let alone make new ones. I would love to go out and do a tour where we didn't play any of the big hits and just played album tracks. For me, that'd be super interesting and cool but I don't know whether the world would let us do that.

Is that something that you've looked at doing?

JO: We're moving towards that. Little by little we're adding these album tracks into our setlist - every time we go on tour we add one more, and we rotate them every night. I think that's a cool thing to do: it keeps us interested and our fans like it too.

So what can we expect from you next?

JO: Well, I've actually just finished a new video for the Good Road To Follow album. I did a small selection of songs live in the studio with a really cool band. We shot it literally about two weeks ago, and I'm waiting to see the edits. I'm going to try and put it out in the late fall. That'll be a DVD with some of the songs on the album with some added material and outtakes and some songs that didn't make the album, because I recorded over 25 songs for Good Road To Follow, and I'd like to put a few of those out as well.

Hall & Oates play Latitude at Henham Park, Southwold, Suffolk tomorrow, July 19, and Birmingham Symphony Hall on July 22; head to their website for details. Good Road To Follow is out now via Jack Records; John Oates' website has all you need

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