John Oates, of Hall and Oates: Something Else! Interview

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John Oates has always been more than the Other Guy in Hall and Oates. In fact, the mustachioed one co-wrote half of H&O’s six Billboard No. 1 songs, including “Out of Touch,” “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” and “Maneater.” That’s to say nothing of his writing contributions to memorable sides like “Sara Smile,” “Adult Education,” “How Does It Feel To Be Back,” “You Make My Dreams” and “She’s Gone.” Oates even co-wrote and sang backup on Icehouse’s 1987 Top 10 hit “Electric Blue,” before starting a low-key parallel career on his own.

While personal efforts like 2002’s Phunk Shui and 2008’s 1000 Miles of Life were well received, neither garnered the critical praise and broad attention afforded his newest project, the gritty, cool-rocking Mississippi Mile, issued in April on PS Records/Elektra Nashville. He stopped by for an Something Else! Sitdown to talk about the new album, as well as key moments from his career with Daryl Hall, the Temptations, Todd Rundgren and, yeah, the blues …

Nick DeRiso: You’re so closely associated with the Philly soul sound, yet the new album goes further back — all the way to the Mississippi Delta. What got you to thinking about those old songs?
John Oates: It’s really an autobiography of the musical influences and artists and songs, the guitar players and singers who made me want to be a musician way before I met Daryl. When you’re doing music like this, it has to be real. It has to be done in a certain way, starting with the recording technique. It was essentially a live album. What you are hearing with those vocals is exactly what I sang while we were cutting the tracks. I had never done that before. I had sung some pilot vocals, just to get through the track — then we would go back and redo the vocal. That’s always been the approach. But on this one, we kept the raw vocals. Really, it was what I wanted. It’s so real and so rough, and so unpolished. It suits the material. That’s what the whole album is about.

DeRiso: There is an intimacy surrounding Mississippi Mile, something so different from your late-career stuff with Daryl. That first- or second-take feel, almost like a jam session, seemed more in keeping with the group’s sound on 1973’s Abandoned Luncheonette.
Oates: Definitely. Abandoned Luncheonette was recorded in the same manner. We had great musicians sitting in a room, and when the track was done, you were done. That’s how music was made in those days. I felt it was essential that we did it that way again. Having the quality of musicians that we did, they are so amazing that it was effortless. The music just happened. It was pretty magical.

[ONE TRACK MIND: John Oates talks about signature tracks from Hall and Oates and his solo career, including “She’s Gone,” “How Does It Feel To Be Back,” and a new take on “You Make My Dreams.”]

DeRiso: After a string of No. 1 hits in the 1980s, you seemed to come full circle, making a series of celebrated appearances with Eddie Kendrick and David Ruffins at Live Aid, the MTV Awards and on the legendary Apollo stage. What was it like to introduce the Temptations’ music to a new generation of listeners?
Oates: It was very important for Daryl and I to honor those guys, to bring those guys back — because they were so important to us. A lot of contemporary musicians, going into the early 2000s, kind of eschewed being associated with older artists. They thought it didn’t make them look hip. But these days, that’s changing. I’ve played with moe, and with Umphrey’s Magee. This summer, I’m doing shows with the Avett Brothers, too. The fact that those guys would put me on a show, it’s really interesting. It’s the way I thought when I was young. I was honored to have the Temptations playing with me. We really did come full circle. It’s cool and healthy for music in general, that bands are willing to make that kind of commitment again.

DeRiso: Your ’74 album War Babies, an experimental project produced by Todd Rundgren, was underrated from the start. I hear some of the edgier elements of your sound for the first time, things that will one day come together to form an artistic breakthrough around the time of Voices in 1980.
Oates: The record company was definitely shocked coming off of Abandoned Luncheonette, but it was really an indication of the kind of people that Daryl and I are. We were very experimental. If you take War Babies and Abandoned Luncheonette and put them together, that’s what we were able to do in the 1980s when we had so much success. That all became part of the palette that allowed us to make those hits. Although War Babies was not commercial, it was another step in expanding our musical scope — another step toward encompassing all of these styles. If there was a negative, it was that Todd Rundgren’s personal stamp was maybe too obvious. That was the mark of what he did in those days; everything Todd did sounded like Todd.

[‘MISSISSIPPI MILE’: John Oates growls and stomps through a country-inflected, grease-popping new record, featuring songs from Chuck Berry, the Coasters, Mississippi John Hurt, Curtis Mayfield and others.]

DeRiso: Your image in the 1980s was defined by a long-gone mustache. The online series “J.Stache” from the comedy Web site seems to acknowledge that, even while poking fun at it.
Oates: That came from our publishing company. They are always looking for unique ways to promote the Hall and Oates musical catalog. Some people think it’s pretty funny. The mustache (voiced by comic Dave Attell) is definitely the villain in the cartoon. (Laughs.)

DeRiso: You continued to work with the late bassist T-Bone Wolk, who died in February 2010, even into your solo career. Describe what he meant to the Hall and Oates sound.
Oates: We made a joke all the time, but it wasn’t a joke: He was the ampersand in Hall and Oates. It was true. From the time T Bone joined our band in 1980, he grew as a musical force and a collaborator until he eventually became our musical director. The respect was always there. When you hear him play, there was no doubt he was head and shoulders above everybody else. Even before he passed away, when I was playing something, in the back of my mind I would say: How would T Bone do it? He’s the yardstick. I’ve never been around a better musician than him, on any level. He had the technical ability; he had everything. His references were so deep. He could integrate them into everything he did.

DeRiso: A spate of late-career awards — the BMI lifetime award for songwriting, and a Music Icon award at last month’s TV Land Awards — seem to point to a reevaluation of the Hall and Oates phenomenon. Do you think you guys are finally getting your due?
Oates: I think it’s great. It’s great to have a younger generation become acquainted with us, to rediscover our music. Really, in the end, if the music didn’t hold up, though, all of that wouldn’t happen. It would all just be a novelty. The genuine interest we’ve earned lately is because the songs resonate.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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