‘Really, it’s uncharted territory’: John Oates on a new solo project, life after Hall and Oates’ heyday

As John Oates prepared for the release of a new track with Hot Chelle Rae, he joined us to chat about his inventive Good Road to Follow solo project, and how his life has changed since Hall and Oates’ heyday.

“High Maintenance,” due June 4, 2013, is the second in what promises to be an on-going series of single-song releases set to arrive monthly. “Stand Strong,” the initial track, debuted at the Nationwide Series race in Bristol.

Where it all ends up, in this download age, is anyone’s guess.

“We’re experimenting,” Oates admits, in this exclusive SER Sitdown. “We’re looking at it a little bit differently. We’ll release a song every month, and then maybe come out with a physical EP. Maybe there will be a series of EPs. Really, it’s uncharted territory. We’re just going to take it as it comes.”

Oates says he’s recorded nearly 20 songs already, and sessions for Good Road to Follow are on-going. He laid down some tracks with George Porter Jr. and others recently after an appearance with Daryl Hall at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

“We got a little bit of that Meters feel, we got a little bit of that Cajun feel,” Oates says, “and that’s what it’s all about: Each collaboration brings that uniqueness to it.”

Oates will perform tonight in Atlanta with Hall and then, after a pair of weekend shows, get set for a solo date at Bonnaroo …

NICK DERISO: With the Good Road to Follow project, you’re plugging into the singles-market zeitgeist. Are you surprised to see the music scene revert back to a song-based market after all of these years?
JOHN OATES: What goes around comes around, I guess. It’s a cliche but I guess it’s true. It’s funny, it took me a while to wrap my head around the idea that the album was really pretty much over. I had spent my whole professional life thinking “album, album album.” But when I think back on it, and I go back to before I became a professional, as a kid and as a fan and a musician growing up and learning, it was all about singles. So, in a way, it works for me on both levels. It just took me a little while to say: “What’s the point?” I love the idea of an album, with continuity and with a theme, and a flow and a feel. But at the same time, the world has moved in a different direction. Things have accelerated to the point where it doesn’t seem like people have that type of attention span. There are diehards out there who still love the albums, and I hope they never go away. In fact, I’m one of them. But at the same time, I think you have to address the marketplace.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: John Oates discusses his terrific 2011 solo effort 'Mississippi Mile,' as well as career memories with Daryl Hall, Todd Rundgren, the Temptations - and the blues.]

NICK DERISO: You’ve made what some see as a bold turn toward rootsier music, first on Mississippi Mile and now with Good Road to Follow. It seems to me, though, that the 1990s-era Hall and Oates track “Marigold Sky” felt like a sign post — the moment when your career made a decisive turn.
JOHN OATES: You’re 100 percent right. The Marigold Sky project was the first one Daryl and I had done in about six years, and in that six-year period, I moved to Colorado, I started a family, built a house, and began to really just be myself outside of the group with Daryl. So when we did come back together, I brought a different attitude. I was writing in Nashville in the 1990s. That’s a very subtle thing to pick up on, so I appreciate you actually being able to pick up on that.

NICK DERISO: Having been so long associated with Daryl, working with new voices like Hot Chelle Rae must have, in some ways, been very liberating. Did you find yourself coming up with unexpected things?
JOHN OATES: Oh, absolutely. That’s the beauty of the entire project: I wanted to give myself over to the people I was working with. I wanted to tap into their creative process. I wanted to tap into their technical process. I wanted to tap into how they like to make record — their pace, their flow. There are a lot of subtleties to it. So, it’s really been enjoyable, and a real education for me. I don’t think you ever stop growing. When you’re working with a group like Hot Chelle Rae, they’re young guys. I told them straight out: “I want to go into your world. I want to make a record exactly the way you would make your pop records today.” And in doing so, it really brought out my pop sensibilities. I’ve always been there, it’s part of my life. But I got a chance to integrate the way I think of a tight, pop record into the way they would make one. It was a really unique collaboration.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: John Oates growled and stomped through the grease-popping 'Mississippi Mile,' featuring songs from Chuck Berry, Mississippi John Hurt, Curtis Mayfield and others.]

NICK DERISO: Vince Gill will also be part of this new Good Road to Follow series. What was that experience like?
JOHN OATES: I had known him for a quite a while now but never had the opportunity to work with him. His reputation of being a really laid back, chill kind of guy was exactly what I found to be true. And that feel and that style bled over into the actual project. When I approached him with it, he seemed like he liked the idea. It was just a matter of us finding a day where we were both in the same place. We literally wrote the song in about 45 minutes. We sat in his living room in a comfortable chair. He said: “Hey, take your pick from this amazing collection of vintage guitars.” (Laughs.) I picked one, and he picked one and we sat down and wrote the song. It was just so effortless that I looked at him, and we kind of laughed. Then I said: “I guess that’s it.” We recorded it at his house, a week or so later. The whole recording process was that same laid back feel that he is known for, and that he is loved for. Every collaborator was unique in their own way.

NICK DERISO: That move to Colorado, in a very real sense, found you leaving behind all of the trappings of fame. Explain what that experience, getting back to a simpler way, has meant to you.
JOHN OATES: It was the most important thing I ever did in my life. I got divorced in the late ’80s, and our manager Tommy Mottola had gone on to be the president of Sony and was no longer guiding us. Daryl and I were a little bit like a ship adrift at sea. I was dabbling productions; he was doing whatever he was doing. Hall and Oates really didn’t have a direction at the time. So, it was a good thing for me. It allowed me to do all of the things that I couldn’t do while I was touring, and writing and recording. You have to remember, starting in 1972, I was either touring, writing or recording until 1986 — without stopping ever. My life was completely wrapped in this pop star thing that happened to us. I wanted to live a different life. I wanted to live in the mountains, and rediscover myself. In doing so, I got remarried, and had a child, and did all of these things that were really important.

[ONE TRACK MIND: Go inside some of John Oates' most memorable tunes, both with Daryl Hall and as a solo artist -- including “She’s Gone,” "You Make My Dreams" and “How Does It Feel To Be Back.”]

NICK DERISO: You’re performing another round of shows with Daryl. With no new music in the offing, how do you keep it fresh?
JOHN OATES: We’ve been together over 40 years. We still enjoy it. We still enjoy playing together but, in terms of new stuff, I don’t think it’s in the cards. Both of our energies are focused in different directions. Besides, the truth is, we don’t feel like we can fully explore the music that we’ve already created in our shows. There’s too much. It’s a double-edged sword. We have all of these hits that people expect to hear, and we want to respect that — so we play them. But we don’t have the other stuff that we want to do. So, we’re actually considering doing some other things. We may go out and do a show of songs that we haven’t played in years — all of these deep cuts. We love those songs, and I think people would freak if they heard the stuff that we have available to us. It would almost be like a new career.

Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock 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 nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.

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