John Oates

John Oates
John Oates has found fame in a number of different ways. Of course, there’s Hall and Oates, the "best selling pop duo of all time” he formed back in 1967 with fellow Philadelphian Daryl Hall. Together the "rock’n’soul” duo have racked up six #1 singles, 80 million records sold and a group of hardcore fans that continues to grow each day. Having launched a solo career in 2002 (only 25 years after Hall), Oates has also released two albums of his own blue-eyed soulfulness, including this fall’s 1000 Miles of Life. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Outside of the music, however, there is also an overwhelming community fascinated by the once-moustachioed star. Over the past few years, especially, Oates and Hall have amassed a diehard cult following that has resulted in tributes via the infamous Yacht Rock online video series, a recent Saturday Night Live tribute, not to mention the forthcoming J-Stache, a cartoon starring Oates’s beloved moustache, which people just can’t seem to forget – despite the fact that he’s been without it for nearly two decades.

Over the phone from his Colorado home, John was nice enough to answer some questions about the new Hall and Oates live CD/DVD, Live At the Troubadour, his solo album, being a pioneer of independent and online music distribution, and why everyone is so fixated on that old moustache of his.

So what was it like to sing the national anthem at the World Series?
It was a unique circumstance because I wasn’t supposed to sing the national anthem. Daryl was supposed to. I live in Colorado, and my wife woke me up at eight in the morning with a frantic call from my manager saying that Daryl was sick and I had to jump onto a plane and go do it. So I flew from Colorado to Philly, did the national anthem, and then came back [laughs]. Are you a Phillies fan?
Yeah, sure. I’m not a huge baseball fan, in general. I’m more of a football fan. A college football fan.

So what do you think of Obama’s proposal to get rid of bowls and bring in a playoffs system?
I think he’s right, I love that idea. I think it’s ridiculous that the Big Ten stops playing at Thanksgiving and the guys in the bowls don’t play till January. And I think they should have all of the minor bowl games early, and then have a bracket of eight with the top conferences, and just do a three-week deal on the weekends. It’s still a month before the Super Bowl and so everyone’s happy.

I actually didn't get into Hall & Oates until about five years ago, when I read you guys name-checked as an influence on a band I liked. Obviously I grew up knowing some of your songs, but in that time you’ve become one of my favourite bands. Have you noticed younger generations getting into your music?
Yes, definitely. It’s been happening a lot over the last few years in the same circumstances that brought you on board, bands like Gym Class Heroes and the Killers have talked about us in the press and influenced their fans to discover our music. I’ve definitely seen a change in the audience and the response from younger people because of that.

There have been other things too, like sampling from hip-hop people over the years of our material. And even the use of our music in videogames, like Grand Theft Auto. So I think it’s the sum of all of that. I also think there’s a newfound appreciation for pop music, which has a lot more respect from the fans and even the media now than it did in the ’70s and ’80s. Back then pop music was looked at as a little bit less than hip or less than serious. If you had #1 records it wasn’t considered as cool as album artists, there was a whole different perception, which I never understood. My comment was always, if it’s so easy then why wouldn’t everyone do it. Now people realize how difficult it is to get a #1 record and especially have it go to the top and stay there. It becomes locked into a moment in time, and the fact that our songs have survived and sustained over these years and still get radio play and sound contemporary. I think there’s a lot to be said for that and there’s a newfound appreciation there.

Was it surprising for you to hear hip-hop artists like De La Soul and Young Jeezy sample your music, or Gym Class Heroes make a Hall & Oates mash-up?
No, not at all. We started out as R&B in Philadelphia, and our first records, even before Daryl and I were together, with other groups, were played on the R&B stations. Our first hit record, "Sara Smile,” broke as an R&B record. "She’s Gone” was covered by a group called Tavares, who had a #1 R&B record with it. So our acceptance into the urban community has been solidified since the late ’60s, really. When we were starting, our actual goal was to get on white radio, which was more of a challenge for us than anything else, to get on album-oriented rock radio.

Did you happen to see the dude from Gym Class Heroes’ hand tattoos [link]?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. We’re friends with those guys, so we’ve got all of the pictures. He’s definitely committed! [Laughs.]

You and Daryl have been releasing your music independently since 1997. What made you decide to leave major labels out of how you release your music?
Well, we saw the writing on the wall. We saw how record companies were becoming more involved creatively, trying to dictate creativity to artists, picking songs, telling them what to play, how to look, and that didn’t really fit the model of how we operated. We were just 180 degrees opposite of the mainstream music business. So rather than buck it and try to fight, we just said there was no point for us to try and enter a world where we didn’t belong. So we just said, "We’ll make the records we want to make, we know how to make and market records, we’ve been doing it for years. We don’t need them to do it for us.” It was also the beginning of online and virtual music dissemination, we had a little jumpstart on that. We thought we could just sell the records to our fans, because we didn’t need to convince people to buy them since we already have a fan base that is loyal and willing to buy them. Why should we share the money with a non-functional record company?

Yeah, you guys really are pioneers as far as using the web to distribute music.
I think we are, I think we were and I don’t think we got much credit for it. We pioneered on a lot of levels and I think that was definitely one of them.

You’ve just released the new live album/DVD, Live At the Troubadour. What was it like going back to such a small, intimate venue, that you'd played 35 years before?
It was cool, nothing has changed. The place was funky, small and cramped, the way you like it, the way it’s supposed to be [laughs]. We had a great show, the fans turned out so it was packed. We did two nights and dipped into a lot of the really old material that we hadn’t played in a while, the ’70s stuff like "Abandoned Luncheonette” and that was a lot of fun. The fans liked it and they were great nights.

What I enjoyed most was hearing the songs interpreted differently.
Well, we’d be doing the show a little bit more acoustically. I wouldn’t really call it an unplugged show, but it’s an unplugged approach to our music. What we’ve been doing is stripping away a lot of the production that was tied to the ’70s and ’80s and just showcasing the songs in a much more rootsy and raw way. I think what that does is show you that the songs do hold up; you don’t need those big 1980s productions to make that happen. And that’s kind of the way we’ve been going the last five years or so. We just feel that the songs are so strong, and we want people to hear them for what they are, and we don’t need to have this big stage show or musical production… we’re not trying to replicate the eras. In other words, we’re not trying to play "Private Eyes” and say, "Here’s what it sounded like in the ’80s.” We already made that record, and we don’t need to do it again.

You recently recorded your new solo album, 1000 Miles of Life, in Nashville. Did the environment and history of that city have any profound influence on the music for you?
Oh yeah, very much so. When I was writing songs for the record, it became a very personal statement and it’s a little more of a serious record. I really wanted to be in a place where the people I was working with understood how important the lyrics were, because that’s really what the album is about. And I knew that in Nashville, even though my album is not a country album, country music is very much about telling a story, Americana music in general. And I really wanted to surround myself with those kinds of people. So, that’s why I went there and I couldn’t have been happier with how it turned out.

I read that there’s a new Hall and Oates album in the works and Chromeo, who are from Montreal, were scheduled to guest on it. Is that true?
I didn’t know Chromeo were from Montreal, I thought they were from England. No kidding! I didn’t realize that. But anyway, there’s no plan for a Hall and Oates album. Well, Daryl’s got his internet broadcast and Chromeo were on, so those types of rumours may have just started through that.

Your former moustache became such an icon. How do you feel about being recognized for something as bizarre as a moustache you haven't had for almost two decades?
I know, it’s weird isn’t it? I don’t know! [Laughs.] All I know is that people make a lot of what to do about it and I think it has to do with the fact that the moustache is back in style. So people are going back and looking at these classic moustaches from the ’70s and ’80s. There’s also a cartoon being developed about it, which is moving forward.

Yeah, J-Stache, I was gonna ask you about that…
I think there’s this weird common consciousness that moustaches are hip, and it’s a cool look for guys. Younger guys are sporting them… It’s one of those fetish things, I think.

So what involvement do you have in the cartoon?
Mmm hmm, I’m a co-producer. It’s in the development stage, it’s very well along the way. There’s a pilot being developed, which we’re shopping. People have seen the ideas and the trailers and it’s being very well received. It’s irreverent, in an Adult Swim style, with some real wacky stuff going on. It’s really in its formative stage though of which direction it will go creatively.

What is the premise exactly?
The premise is that my moustache has super powers and I’m trying to be myself with family in the modern time and the moustache is trying to drag me back into the old days. It has a mischievous personality. I can’t really give too much away because it’s only at the pilot and who knows what direction it will go, but there’s a secret cult of mustachioed entertainers [laughs], it’s kinda weird to talk about.

I'm not sure if you're familiar with the Yacht Rock online video series…
Oh yes, sure, I’ve seen it.

Well, it seems as though ever since that appeared you and Daryl have become one of the most popular Halloween costumes. Have you noticed this?
Yes, a lot of people send me pictures. In fact my friend and his buddy went out last Halloween as Hall and Oates. Becca Bramlett, who sang on my new album, she and her girlfriend went out as us a few years ago. That’s been happening for a while.

Have you seen the one-person split Hall and Oates costume? Where it’s one person dressed up as both of you – split in half…[link]
You mean an actual commercial costume that you can go out and buy?

No, no. They’re homemade.
Oh, that’s kind of cool. I’d like to see that.

Is that flattering for you guys?
What it does is that it solidifies us as some kind of iconic figures, I guess. It’s weird to think of yourself in that way, but even when I see the parodies they did on Saturday Night Live during the election, a lot of people say, "They’re making fun of you don’t you find that weird?” And I always say, "You have to think about the fact that they chose us. They could have chosen someone else to parody. Why not Sonny and Cher? Why not Brooks and Dunn?” My son is behind me and he said why not Simon and Garfunkel? But there’s this perception now when they use the quintessential duo, Hall and Oates appear in people’s minds for some reason, which is good. I guess it means we’ve made some kind of impact.

Well, you are the "best selling duo of all time.” I’m sure hearing that never gets tiresome.
Yeah, it sounds pretty good.