A Conversation With Daryl Hall And John Oates
Daryl Hall and John Oates are two of the greatest musicians of all time. Their music is timeless, influential, and soulful. I had the pleasure of speaking with them both recently. We talked about their solo music, albums they’ve worked on together, the possibility of new music down the road, their summer tour with Train, Hoagie Nation, and more.
You came up with the name Hoagie Nation, Daryl. I’m sure some people are wondering, why not cheesesteak nation?
It started as a bit of a joke between me and John, years ago. We started trying to figure out what ties people together in the Philadelphia area. For example, people liking the same kind of music, growing up a certain way, having certain sensibilities. We came up with this whole thing, and it all revolves around a certain kind of fast food, whether it be cheesesteaks or hoagies or whatever. We even set the boundaries: northern New Jersey, central Pennsylvania, Maryland. It’s just one of those things we used to make jokes about. So, when we came up with the music festival, I thought, OK, here it is. “Why don’t we call it gathering of the Hoagie Nation?”
John, you have a new solo album out called Arkansas and you’ve done solo shows to promote it. What are your thoughts on this new record?
I’m real proud of it. It came about in an organic way. I didn’t plan on making this record in this style. I wanted to make a simple tribute to Mississippi John Hurt. I was going to go into the studio with an acoustic guitar and play a couple songs and that was going to be it. I did that, played a few tunes. It was OK, it was good. Then I thought, “This has been done before. Why am I doing a re-creation of something that he had done years and years ago?” But I loved his songs and I loved the music. So, I thought, “Why not try these songs with a band?” I had never heard these songs performed with a band. I thought this could be interesting, so I assembled this incredible, eclectic group of players – guys I had been playing with for years. And I incorporated instrumentation, such as a mandolin and cello, that, maybe, you wouldn’t think would work with this kind of music. Not only did it work, it took these songs to a completely different level. I won’t say it made them more contemporary because it didn’t. We kept the authenticity of this old music which, for the most part, was made in the 1920s and the 1930s. What it ended up becoming, it went beyond Mississippi John Hurt. It began to include music that was contemporary with his early recording career in the late 1920s. It became a snapshot of the earliest days of American popular music, when radio was in its infancy, when phonograph records were first becoming available to people. If you think, “Well, what is popular music?” Radio and recordings are what define popular music. It’s the delivery system, so to speak. Well, this is the first time it ever happened in history, and I thought it was a very important period in time that goes a little bit under the radar and people don’t talk about it. This album shines a light on this very unique era in American music.
Daryl, last year I asked John if you and him have written and recorded any original material since 2003’s Do It For Love. He said, “Nope. We never have, and we never will.” What are your thoughts on his response?
That’s rather succinct and abrupt. I never say never. We started off together as kids and, as people do, when we grew up into adulthood, we became ourselves. I think we think of ourselves very much as individuals. We’re not twins, and we facetiously called our touring company Two Headed Monster Tours, even though we’re anything but. We have our own career trajectories. We like what we did together but we don’t do that too much anymore.
John, prior to making this album, how did the music you covered on Arkansas influence your work as a singer and songwriter?
Some people will probably be surprised. If you followed my solo career, you will see the logical evolution of what I’ve done as a solo artist and this new album will make more sense. I think this album is tied directly to a solo album I made in 2010 called Mississippi Mile, where I was touching on the same idea but I don’t think it was quite as pure. To the casual fan who only knows me for jumping around in stupid MTV videos and doing the pop songs in the ‘80s, they’ll think, “Wow, what a departure!” But it’s not really a departure. It’s a return to my true musical personality, which I never really had the chance to showcase during the Hall & Oates years because the popularity and the style of music we were doing was completely different. I like all kinds of music. I’m a very open-minded and eclectic musician. I like playing pop, rock, R&B, soul, bluegrass. You name it, I’ll play it. Jazz. I don’t care; I like it all. Now that I’ve moved to Nashville and been embraced by the Americana roots music community, it’s really a chance to delve more deeply into the stuff that is at the heart of who I am as a musician.
In 1980, Daryl, you released your first solo album Sacred Songs. What made you want to pursue this project?
I had a friendship with Robert Fripp for years and we used to talk about working together. He said, “Why don’t we do some songs together? We can work on your solo album, and then you can work on my solo album and be the singer on that.” And we did two albums together. It was really an interesting combination of people, of sensibilities. We come from very different backgrounds but, through the process, we found out what we share and created something interesting.
You’ve performed solo shows, John, to bring the music of Arkansas to the people in a live setting. What has that been like for you?
Well, they’ve been smaller venues. This is a promotional tour to get the word out on the album. I want people to hear it and know that it’s out there. My touring band is the same band that played on the record. In select cities, performances feature the full band, while in other cities I have a smaller rhythm section of the band because some of the guys just aren’t available for those dates. I’ve assembled them when I can, and when I can’t I have a core rhythm section of guys I work with.
Daryl, your second solo album, Three Hearts In The Happy Ending Machine, features the amazing song “Dreamtime.” How did you approach this album differently than Sacred Songs?
I worked with different people. If you’ll notice, my albums are all different. They’re all pretty much different than the ones before it or after it because time goes by. I don’t just knock them out with too much frequency. My life changes, my sensibilities change, the people I work with changes. What I want to present from myself changes. For the Three Hearts album I worked with Dave Stewart. Over the years, I had been spending a lot of time in Europe, so that album had a lot of European sensibility and Dave is all over that thing. Again, it’s a combination of what I do naturally juxtaposed with what Dave Stewart hears in his musical mind. It’s different because of that.
You mentioned performing in smaller venues, John, for your solo tour. Do you think these smaller venues fit the music better because of their intimate atmosphere?
Oh, absolutely! This music is very powerful in a smaller venue. And I give the backstory for some of these songs, so it’s not just a random selection of songs that fly by that makes people say, “Woah, where’s this coming from?” I think I try to explain why I’m playing these songs, what they mean, and how they’re related to each other. I also explain how they’re related to American popular music.
Soul Alone, your third solo album, Daryl, has a distinct 90s vibe to it. Looking back on it, what are your thoughts on this album?
It’s definitely an R&B album, which had a lot to do with who I was working with: Peter Lord Moreland and Jeff Smith. And I worked with an English guy, Mike Peden. I was in that headspace. It’s an R&B soul album. I was starting to get more to my essence with that album. It’s reflective of what I grew up with and what I’m all about, in my core.
This year is the second annual Hoagie Nation music festival in Philadelphia, and you’re going to have you guys, as well as Train, Fitz and The Tantrums, as well as other acts. John, how was the first year received?
The first year went very well. It was fun. Just like any first attempt, we figured out what worked and what didn’t. We love the fact that we’re going to be able to showcase local Philadelphia groups, and give up-and-coming groups the opportunity to perform on the big stage, so to speak. And we also get to have people we know and really like perform. It’s going to be bigger than last year, and it’s also going to be very Philadelphia-centric when it comes to food and things like that. I think it’s a great way to celebrate the Memorial Day weekend.
Daryl, you and John signed a record deal with ARISTA in 1987. While I enjoyed your music during this time period, you only released two albums on this label; unfortunately, they didn’t perform as well as previous records. Why do you think that was the case?
I think things are cyclical. We had been on the radio and on people’s minds nonstop for years, and I think it just changed. I think that happens. I especially think the Ooh Yeah album is a great album. Well, Change of Season is a good album too. It’s hard to judge. So many reasons, so many factors. Management, what’s going on around it, the zeitgeist of the times. There are so many factors for why something would be commercially successful as opposed to artistically successful.
You and John wouldn’t release a new studio album until 1997’s Marigold Sky. Daryl, why was there such a long break in between this album and 1990’s Change of Season?
I think that’s when we were discovering that we were solo artists and we started doing that. I was on my own. I was living out of the United States and I wasn’t seeing John much, although we were doing the occasional show together. I have to tell ya, we came together, almost reluctantly, to do Marigold Sky. We were flexing our muscles as individuals. And then we went, “OK, let’s make a record.” I’m very happy with the record, but I’m not happy with the way it was put out to the world. In fact, over the years I’ve been thinking about readdressing that album. Maybe remixing it. Just giving it a second look and re-releasing it in another form because I think it got overlooked for reasons that had nothing to do with the music.
For Hoagie Nation this year, John, are there any lessons learned from last year that you’re applying this time around?
We’re just focused on making it better. Some of the nuts-and-bolts stuff we learned how to improve upon this year. Staging, lighting, getting bands on and off more smoothly, things like that.
In 1996, Daryl, your fourth solo album, Can’t Stop Dreaming, was released in Japan only. I absolutely love this record. You sound fantastic and the songs are great. How did you approach writing and recording material for this album?
That was sort of a sequel to Soul Alone. I think if you listen to both albums, there’s a similarity to some degree in the writing style. Some of the same people worked on it. I think there’s a lot of really good songs on that album. I really like it too.
John, you and Daryl are touring this summer with Train, which is very exciting. And you’re supposed to be jamming with the guys at the end of each concert, is that right?
Yeah, we’re looking forward to doing a collaborative thing at the end of the shows. We’re not sure exactly how that will work out but I’m pretty sure it will. We know Pat Monahan really well. I’ve played with him, and I’ve been out on the Train cruise that they do every year on the boat and I’ve done that with them. So, we have a really good relationship with them. It should be fun.
Your most recent solo album, Daryl, is 2011’s Laughing Down Crying. How did you go about making this record different than those that preceded it?
I was trying to pare it down and make it more and more essential. I was moving toward a more natural presentation of songs, with the arrangements. I wrote the songs and then went in the studio with T-Bone, and about a week into the sessions T-Bone passed away. That really threw everything into a chaos. I had to rethink the whole thing and what I was going to do with those songs, and who I was going to do them with. I was pretty much thrown for a loop by all that. I got back on my feet with it and, again, I think there are some great songs on there. It’s a little more raw, that album.
You mentioned being on the Train cruise, John. I’ve been on The KISS Kruise three times. Would you and Daryl ever consider doing your own cruise?
I don’t know. It’s been offered. I’m not 100% sure. It doesn’t seem like something we’re going to do, at least right now.
Do It For Love was the first new album by you guys that I bought the day it was released. What’s your opinion on that album, Daryl?
It’s funny. I don’t remember that album so well. I worked with a lot of different people on it. I was influenced by outside forces to do certain kinds of songs. I think there’s some really good songs on there, and there are some songs I wouldn’t have cut if I were to redo it. All in all, I try not to do shitty work. (laughs)
John, your autobiography, Change of Seasons, comes with a CD of music. What was your thinking behind the music on this CD and how it’s connected to the story you’re telling in your autobiography?
If you listen to the music on the CD, it’s very folky. The book is almost a lead into the album, Arkansas, that I’ve just done. It shows where I came from as a musician, and the few songs that I put on the CD are very raw and folky type songs. I was really trying to cement the origins of who I am as a musician, and this album is a follow up to the music on that CD that comes with my autobiography.
Daryl, you and John took part in We Are The World. What was it like working with Quincy Jones on this special project in 1985?
It was a very unusual situation. He told us, “Check your egos at the door. Nobody else is allowed in here other than the artists themselves.” No assistants, no nothing. It was just a bunch of famous musicians in a room together. These people are used to having a lot of people around them, in their solar system. They don’t know how to act when they’re thrust together like that. Singers just don’t interact that much in that kind of an environment. I wouldn’t call it uncomfortable. It wasn’t uncomfortable at all. It was different. I think everybody was looking around saying, “What are we doing here? What is this? This is really crazy.” I’m looking at Ray Charles standing next to me, and Tina Turner is in front of me. People’s true personalities came out. One thing that seemed to be the common denominator with all of these famous people in the room was everybody started acting like they were in 8th grade. They all started acting like they were in junior high or middle school chorus. Quincy was the choral director and they treated him that way. There was sort of a “Mr. Jones” kind of feeling. It was very odd. There was the class clown, people making wisecracks in the back. It was really like high school. Then everybody started asking for each other’s autographs and that kind of stuff. It was great, and the most unique situation, musically, that I’ve ever participated in.
Your autobiography, John, really seemed to resonate with the fans. What kind of feedback did you receive from people after it was released?
I’ve gotten nothing but positive responses about the book, across the board. It was an Amazon best-seller in the music memoir category for many weeks. It sold really well and people really like it. People have responded in a very genuine way, so I’m very happy with it.
You lost T-Bone Wolk in 2010 and Janna Allen in 1993. Daryl, when you look back on your time spent with these special, talented individuals, what comes to mind?
Well, so many things. I’m glad you mentioned, Janna, by the way. I don’t think people realize how close we were and how much she influenced me. She was a very interesting person and a very interesting songwriter, and really came up with great ideas. Janna was a firecracker, that’s the best way to put it. She egged me on. We did a lot of interesting work together. It was very saddening to see what happened. She, unfortunately, got sick and went away. T-Bone, the same. He was my best friend and we shared a lot together. To lose people like that, who you’re close with not only personally but musically, it’s traumatic, man, to say the least. It forces you to re-evaluate things and look around for new direction. It makes you say, “What am I going to do now?” That kind of stuff.