Mano A Mano With John Oates
John Oates was one of the first musicians I interviewed when I started this site several years ago. I had the chance to catch up with him last week about his autobiography, Change of Seasons: A Memoir, which comes out March 28. We covered a lot of ground in this interview, and I hope it whets your appetite for what promises to be an insightful and compelling autobiography.
On March 28 you’re releasing your autobiography. What made you want to share your story at this point in your life?
I always felt I had a book in me. I didn’t know if it would be a memoir or whatever. I was a journalism student. I was an English major. I love writing, and I’m an avid reader. I had done a series of interviews with Chris Epting over the years and he was a big fan of my solo work. Every time we talked, he just seemed he had an innate knowledge of what I was all about. Over the years he’d say, “You’ve got great stories and you’ve had such an interesting life. Have you ever considered writing a book?” And I said, “No.” He responded, “If you ever do, let me help you.” He’s written a number of books, and he was a great collaborator and researcher. He really helped me with the editing and pulling it together.
I earned my bachelor and master’s degrees from Temple University. You’re a Temple graduate too. What’s your favorite memory from being a student at Temple?
Back when I went to Temple, in the late ‘60s, it was that era of university protests over Vietnam and things like that. There was a lot of that going on. What really drew me to Temple University was not so much the school itself. It was the fact that the school was in Philadelphia. I had looked at some other schools and state colleges in Pennsylvania that were in the middle of nowhere. Growing up in a small town, I didn’t really want to do that. I wanted to be in the city and have that experience. I wanted to be where there was more of a professional music scene. That’s what drew me to Temple.You and Daryl have accomplished immense success in the music industry. While there have been many highs, what was the most difficult challenge you’ve had to face in your music career?
In my book I detail the early days of me and Daryl. I talk about my blues influences and us somehow coming together to combine our unique influences, our individual influences, to create something. The struggle of getting a record contract and finding a sound. That’s really what I talk about a lot in the book, as opposed to the big ‘80s, which is so well chronicled and well documented through all of our big hits and MTV and all that. I really didn’t spend as much time on that because people know about that. What they don’t know about is what it took to get there. I think the story of becoming is more interesting than the story of arriving.
Both you and Daryl have sung and written numerous hit songs. However, many of the biggest hits fans know and love feature Daryl’s signature lead vocals. When working together, how do you both prevent ego, jealousy, pride, or any other potentially negative elements from rising to the surface?
I think it has to do with the nature of our personalities. Our two personalities work well together. It’s very difficult to describe how, but they just do. We’re very different as people, yet we have a commonality when it comes to what we like about music. We like the same kind of music, but we also like the same elements about music. When we come together, there’s this thing that happens. We reference the same type of music that we listened to in our childhood, so we have a lot of commonality in our references. It’s really hard to describe.
Daryl’s voice became the signature sound as the songs that he sang resonated on radio. Because of that, he went to the foreground in terms of perception of what was going on.
Tell me about your time with Helen Hobbs Jordan. Why did you enlist her services? And what are some of the greatest lessons you learned from her?
She was a really old-school harmony and theory teacher. After making the War Babies album, we were moving into a progressive rock style. It was way more sophisticated than the Americana, Blues and Folk music that I grew up knowing and playing. I felt that there were certain elements of musical knowledge and education that were lacking. During periods when there was downtime, which there weren’t many, I realized that I needed to up my game so I reached out to her to see if she could take me on.
Helen had a very professional, private music instruction that she did. She taught a lot of studio musicians, studio singers and professional arrangers advanced harmony and theory. I went in as a beginner, basically, and she took me on. I didn’t spend that much time with her, but the time that I did spend with her really changed the way I understand music and it made me a lot more sophisticated in terms of my ability to communicate and create.
I was fortunate enough to see you guys perform live while T-Bone Wolk was still in your band. Why was his such an integral part of your sound?
He was one of the greatest musicians I ever met. To this day, I will still say that. He was a musical genius and he could play pretty much anything. Everything he played, he played well. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of American rock and folk music and history. He could draw upon that and bring it out and use it for references. He was just one of those unique, special people that only visits this Earth every once in a while. I was just honored to be able to spend time with him.
Another key member of your band is Charlie DeChant, a fabulous saxophone and keyboard player, who’s been with you and Daryl since the mid-1970s. When you and Daryl are writing songs, are you envisioning parts for Charlie? Or does he add finishing touches after a song is almost complete? What’s the process like?
He joined the band around 1975. And once he joined the band, we realized what a talent he was. The sax was a minor part of our earlier music. Once we had him in the band, we realized we could really utilize his talents. Then we began to integrate what he could do on sax into our music, especially in the ‘80s.
So, was Charlie with you and Daryl when you wrote songs, providing you with his thoughts about where sax parts could fit in?
No, none of the band members were with us when we were writing songs. They’d hear them after the fact and then lay down their parts.
In 1988 you and Daryl released Ooh Yeah! an album you referred to in your autobiography as “unfocused.” However, I think there’s some fantastic material on this record. Why do you think this album didn’t gel like your previous records?
Because the big ‘80s were on their way out and grunge was on its way in, and we weren’t part of that. Melody and harmony, melodic singing was not in vogue and that’s what we do. We realized that it was a signpost telling us that the zeitgeist of the musical world is changing. We both recognized that, and that’s when we decided to pull back a little. That was the smart thing to do. And we wanted until the musical world came back around to something that was closer to where our musical wheelhouse was. You just have to be aware of the musical atmosphere that surrounds you – know when to press forward and know when to take a step back.
There were seven years between the release of Change of Season and Marigold Sky. Why was there such a long gap between these albums?
I wanted to live a separate life. I needed to reorganize my life. I got a divorce, had problems with a manager, had problems with money. I didn’t want to live in New York anymore. I knew I had to completely reimagine who I was going to be in order to move forward and have any kind of life that was meaningful.
I basically stopped. I decided to move to Colorado, to ski and to hike the mountains. I wanted to see where that took me. And it took me to a great place with a new family and marriage, and the opportunity to build a house and become a different person. Then I was able to go back and work with Daryl again with a completely different approach and mindset.
2003’s Do It For Love was the last time you and Daryl released a full-length album of original material, which is a shame because it was fantastic. Have you and Daryl written or recorded new original material since then? If so, when will it see the light of day?
Nope. We never have and we never will.
Really? How come?
Because there’s no reason to. We can’t even play the songs we’ve written. We’re a prisoner of our own success. It’s a great problem to have and I’m sure a million artists would love to be in that position. We have so many hits, we can’t play them all in a 90-minute concert set. We can’t even play all of the cool album tracks we think we’ve written. So, there’s really no reason to make more music.
Daryl and I have grown apart as creative individuals. We’re just as good friends as we ever were. But his focus is on his TV show. It’s a great TV show and he gets a lot of satisfaction out of that. At this point in our lives, it’s more about personal satisfaction – creative satisfaction.
I have a whole world, a community of great musicians in Nashville who I work with on a regular basis and I’ve become friends with. I’m almost done making this modern blues album, where I’m taking the earliest influences of Delta blues and I’m putting it together for release in 2018. I’m really excited about it. It’s called Hurt and it started out as a tribute to Mississippi John Hurt in a traditional way, but then I expanded on it. I’m just lovin’ it. I think it’s one of the most creative things I’ve ever done.
Who are some of your biggest blues influences?
A lot of the Delta blues men. A lot of the traditional folk performers. Doc Watson. Obviously, Mississippi John Hurt because that’s where I got the name. My old guitar teacher in Philadelphia, Jerry Ricks. He was so important to me. Having the first-hand experience of seeing a lot of blues performers in Philadelphia and at the Philadelphia Folk Festival was great. That’s where I’m drawing from for this album. But then what I’m doing is taking these traditional songs and approaches and combining it with more of a modern recording sensibility. For example, I’m bringing in players you wouldn’t normally use on a blues album, like a cello or a mandolin. I’m kind of applying a modern Americana approach to a traditional blues album.
In 2014, you and Daryl were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I was in the crowd that day because I wanted to see you and KISS get the recognition you deserved. One of the highlights of the evening was when Daryl said that you’re the only homegrown Philadelphia band in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and how that’s “fucked up.” Other artists, including Steve Miller, have complained about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s lack of inclusiveness. What are your thoughts on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
I think it’s a club. It’s a country club for rock writers. (laughs) It was great to be included. To me, it was like a lifetime achievement award. We were eligible for 15 or 16 years before that. It’s so hard to have an awards show about music because music is not about awards and things like that. I don’t like any awards show about music, so it’s not just the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It’s just one of those things. It’s big when it comes to the perception of music fans and they put a lot of weight in it and I’m really glad that it happened. But if it hadn’t happened, I’d still keep on going.
On May 27, you and Daryl are headlining a brand new music festival in Philadelphia, HoagieNation. Nearly 50 year later, what does it feel like stepping out onto the stage and performing for your home town?
It’s great. Philadelphia is Philadelphia. It’s like a hometown gig. It always is. The mayor initiated the idea for this festival; he’s a fan of ours and set the wheels in motion for us to be the hosts. I think it’s a great thing to do. I consider it a legacy event, where it will continue for years to come. We can be as involved as we want to be. I look forward to it as an opportunity for me to do some roots music shows and select some artists I like, in addition to performing myself. For me, it’s a great creative opportunity to do some really cool things.
Are you and Daryl going to perform a full set?
Oh yeah. It’s going to be our full show. To us, it’s another tour stop with Tears for Fears. For this initial year, it will only be a one-day event. Going forward, we hope it will become a multi-day event with even more stages – this year, we’ll have two stages. We hope it becomes a big event.