John Oates

Interview by Dennis Morgillo

Madhouse Magazine: So first, why don't we talk about the new album? This album 'Arkansas,' I had a chance to listen to it and it's really a great album. It mixes all these Americana-type styles in there. Where did this album come from? What's the inspiration behind it?

John Oates: Well you know, the beauty of this album for me was that I never actually intended to make this record. It just happened naturally. I went into the recording studio to cut some tracks; some Mississippi John Hurt songs that I've been playing for years, part of my earliest musical DNA. And I cut it in a traditional way with acoustic guitar and voice. And then I thought, I said, "Why am I really doing this? It's been done before, and I'm never going to do it as well as the original." But I love the songs and I just came up with this idea one night.

John Oates: I said, "Wonder what these songs would sound like if I played them with a band?" As opposed to just in the most traditional way, acoustic guitar and voice. And I assembled this very unique band with unique instruments, like a cello, a pedal steel, a mandolin and of course normal drums, bass, and guitar; instruments that maybe you wouldn't normally associate with blues and this type of music. And I wanted to see if the tonality of those instruments would do something to the music. And it did. It was really magical. The first track we cut with this incredible band ... My engineer turned to me and said, "Man, I don't know what you want to call this but," he said, "it's just very cool." He said, "You should just do all the songs like this."

John Oates: And that was the key that unlocked the project. And then the project began to evolve on its own. After we cut some Mississippi John Hurt songs, I said, "Well this sounds so good. Let's broaden the whole idea." And I went back to ... I thought about when Mississippi John Hurt was first recording in the late 1920s. I said to myself, "What were the songs that maybe he was listening to? What were the songs that might've inspired him, or might have been on the jukebox, or being played on the radio in the earliest days?" Then I began to rediscover songs that were contemporary with that time. And the album began to take on kind of a snapshot of the earliest days of American popular music.

Madhouse Magazine: Yeah. I noticed that, yeah. A lot of Mississippi John Hurt on here. Tell us a little bit about him. What does he mean to you? How did you discover Mississippi John Hurt?

John Oates: Well, in a lot of ways. In doing the folk revival in the early '60s, mid '60s, Philadelphia was a hot bed of folk music in addition to being a hot bed of R&B. On a Saturday night, I could go to the uptown theater in Philadelphia, hear the great legendary Temptations, The Miracles, Sam and Dave, whatever. But at the same time I could go to the folk clubs and hear people like Mississippi John Hurt and Doc Watson; people who were being rediscovered at the time.

John Oates: So I just had an affinity for Mississippi John Hurt. I love the way, his guitar playing was very unique. I learned how to play like him. And I also had a guitar teacher who was his friend, and who taught me the authentic way of doing what he does. And there's still a lot of synergy there.

Madhouse Magazine: You don't get enough credit for your guitar playing. I love your guitar playing on this album.

John Oates: Oh well, thank you yeah. I'm playing all the acoustic guitar on the album. We have a great electric guitar player; a guy named Guthrie Trapp. And of course on the album we have the legendary mandolin player, Sam Bush. In addition to the cello and the pedal steel, so all the musicians on the album are incredible.

Madhouse Magazine: Yeah it's excellent stuff. I also heard that you actually own a guitar that was owned by the Mississippi John Hurt.?

John Oates:    Yes, that's correct. What happened was very unique. I had mentioned my guitar teacher who was his friend, and who had taken him around to various gigs when he was rediscovered. After Mississippi John Hurt passed away, that guitar was given to my friend. And I subsequently played that guitar, that exact guitar, on the first two Hall & Oates albums. And then that guitar got sold to a guy in Denver and it stayed in his collection for about 35, 40 years. Just this past year, with my book, someone had read in my book where I had played that guitar back in the early 70s, and it was offered for me to purchase it for my collection, and I did.

Madhouse Magazine:   That's awesome. You must treasure that guitar.?

John Oates: Pretty amazing.

Madhouse Magazine: And I also read that you actually still own the first guitar you ever purchased?

John Oates: Yeah, it's an old Sears and Roebuck guitar that came in the mail when I was about six years old, seven years old.

Madhouse Magazine: You should open up a museum, a John Oates museum and display all this stuff. It sounds like you still own everything you ever had, right?

John Oates: [laughs]  Oh no, no. I wish I did. I wasn't that smart. I didn't keep everything but I still have a lot of cool stuff.

Madhouse Magazine: What other guitars do you cherish? 

John Oates: Well I've got a lot of guitars. First of all, the 1958 Strat that I play, that I bought in New York City in 1973, I still have that guitar and I still play it live on the Hall & Oates show. So that's the guitar that I've been playing literally since the early '70s.

John Oates: But I have some great acoustics. I have a lot of custom made guitars that I had actually designed myself and had built with the Gibson and the Martin factory. So yeah, I've got a few of those and a number of things.

Madhouse Magazine:   Yeah. Awesome stuff. So now, I hear you live in Nashville. Nashville seems to be the place to be. Everyone I speak to lives in Nashville now. It's the music capital of the world. What made you fall in love with Nashville?

John Oates: Well, it's always been called Music City and it is. It's just a ... I've been going there since the '90s and making friends, little by little. Getting a feel for the city. And the city has really changed. It's really kind of grown up now. In a way it's still kept its original southern charm but at the same time it's gotten more sophisticated.

John Oates: And you have an entire infrastructure and an entire professional ... It's like the perfect place for a professional musician. You have great studios, great engineers, great players, great studio musicians. You have guys who fix amps, guys who cart equipment, guys who store equipment, guitar repairmen. Everything is at your fingertips. And really there's no place in the world that's like this. Where at any moment, if you want a guy who can play a zydeco accordion at 3 o'clock in the morning on a Saturday night, you make a phone call and somebody will show up. It's that kind of place.

Madhouse Magazine: Yeah, just open up the front door and there he is, right?

John Oates: [laughs] Yep, yep.

Madhouse Magazine: I'm thinking maybe I'll move to Nashville some day.

John Oates: It's pretty amazing. As people come from all over the world, New York and LA, Europe, and people have really gravitated to Nashville. You know, everything's changed. The restaurants have gotten better, obviously there's more growth and it's more crowded than it used to be. But it's just kind of become a more international city. It's not just a small southern city anymore.

Madhouse Magazine:   So now, you're on tour as well. How's the tour going? How do you like playing these smaller clubs as opposed to the stadiums?

John Oates: I love it. To me, it's like a breath of fresh air after doing the giant Hall & Oates arena tour that we did with Train last year. That was a big, giant production with a lot of moving parts and huge trucks and buses, and video screens and all that. And quite frankly, when you're in these big venues you feel like you're just part of this giant production, whereas the shows that I do with The Good Road Band, it's a four piece rhythm section, it's bare bones. You show up, you set your equipment up. You talk to the audience. We have a very loose set list where we can play anything we want at any moment. So it's much less structured. It's just much more, for me personally, it's much more real. You pick up your guitar, sit on a stool, tell stories and play songs.

Madhouse Magazine: Right, and it's much more intimate. You can connect with the audience, right?

John Oates:    Absolutely, absolutely.

Madhouse Magazine: What song do you enjoy playing the most when you're playing live?

John Oates: The one that sounds best.

Madhouse Magazine:   Is there one song, where you say, "I'm waiting for this one. This has a good solo. This is my lead, I love this part."?

John Oates: Sure, there's moments in every song where you get a chance to stretch out a little bit. I do some Hall & Oates songs in my solo show as well. But I reimagine them. I do 'em in different ways. I do a version of 'Maneater' that's kind of a reggae style, which I love playing. It's the same song that people have heard a million times, but they hear it in a way that they never thought they'd hear it. And the people seem to love that.

John Oates: So I like to do that. But I also love the old Jimmie Rodgers song, 'Miss The Mississippi And You' from the 1930s that we do. That's just a great song. And I love the Mississippi John Hurt stuff.

Madhouse Magazine: I was watching a little bit of it last night and it looks like an excellent show.

John Oates:    Thanks.
Madhouse Magazine: So, now let's go back a little bit. What do you remember about the day you were playing Live Aid? That must have been just overwhelming. What was it, 80,000 people there?

John Oates: Yeah, you know when I think back on that now, it was really an  historic event. It was not only where there were a lot of people at Philadelphia in the stadium at that moment. But that was one of the first, in fact I think it was the first rock and roll show that was ever broadcast live around the world.

John Oates: So it really is an historic event. You have to remember, you have to put it into the context at the time. Music wasn't everywhere like it is today. MTV of course was happening, but other than that, if you wanted to see music you had to go and hear a live band. So for the first time this was being broadcast around the world. And this music was being exposed to some people, obviously who never would have been able to hear it or see it, millions of people.

John Oates: And the fact that we were headlining in Philadelphia, we closed the show with Mick Jagger and Tina Turner. And we had Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin from The Temptations with us. It was really when Daryl and I were at the top of the pop world at the time. So the whole thing just had a lot of cool stuff happening.

Madhouse Magazine: It must have been a dream. You're playing in front of your home town crowd with Mick Jagger and Tina Turner and The Temptations!

John Oates:    Yeah it was amazing.

Madhouse Magazine: Did you ever think that would happen when you were practicing your guitar as a kid?

John Oates: No, of course not. I never thought anything was gonna happen. I took everything one step at a time. It's just been a long kind of slow build. I never set out to be a pop star. I just wanted to be a musician. I just followed my passion and I did what I did. I had a natural talent for it, I never questioned it and I just tried to get better as the years went on.

Madhouse Magazine: The most exciting part of your career, is in the very beginning, the first of everything. When you sign the first contract, in the studio. Do you remember all of that kind of stuff? The first time you heard your song on the radio?

John Oates:    Oh yeah absolutely. In fact, I don't know if you know it or not but I wrote a book called 'Change of Seasons'. And all those stories are in there. The first time I heard my own band, my high school band on the radio was when I was a teenager outside of Philadelphia and I was with my girlfriend parking on a country road making out. And all of a sudden my song came on the radio, and it was like the ultimate experience.

Madhouse Magazine: Yeah that's a good way to impress the girl too.

John Oates: [laughs] That's right, that's right.

Madhouse Magazine: So let's talk about your book now, 2017 book, 'Change of Seasons'. Now that title seems to come back because it's a song also off your '1000 Miles of Life' album. So what does that title mean to you?

John Oates:    Yeah it's a song off '1000 Miles of Life' but I also recorded it with Daryl on the 'Ooh Yeah!' Album. I'm sorry, not the 'Ooh Yeah!' album, there was another album in the late '80s, early '90s. Well it was called 'Change of Season', what am I talking about. We had an album that was titled 'Change of Season'. It's just a song that I think to me ... It's a song that I wrote that kind of ... As I was going through a lot in the late '80s. I went through a divorce, there was a change of management. Daryl and I had decided to take a hiatus from working together and touring. So there was a lot of stuff changing at that time. And so that represented, it just represented a very important moment in my life where I kind of left the world of the pop star and became, really I grew up in a lot of ways. So that's really what that is about.

Madhouse Magazine: Let's talk a bit about your other solo albums. You've had what, five solo albums including this one now?

John Oates: Yep, five or six.

Madhouse Magazine: I was listening to them last night, and 'Phunk Shui' is one of my favorites. It sounds like Prince, Funkadelic, and you do a cover of Jimi Hendrix, 'Electric Ladyland' on there. You are always progressing. You're doing funk and country and rock and everything. Do you love all types of music?

John Oates: I do. It's a bit of a cliché but I always say the same thing; there's only two kinds of music, good and bad. And it's totally subjective. Everyone has their own opinion about things. I'll just listen to music and I'll either like it or I won't for a number of reasons. And I don't care if it's country, I don't care if it's blues, I don't care if it's R&B or pop, it makes no difference to me. I just love music, and I always appreciate great musicianship, good songwriting and good record production. And if it falls in any of those categories, I'm probably gonna like it.

Madhouse Magazine: Yeah absolutely. I've spoken to people in the past, "Oh I only listen to this type of music, I only listen to heavy metal, I only listen to blues." I'm like, "That's so close minded. You're missing out on an entire world of music out there."

John Oates: That's right.

Madhouse Magazine: Now back in the '80s, it must have been one big giant party. You must have had so much fun, but I never really read about any drama with you guys. No arrests, no rehab, nothing like that. How'd you manage to keep it under wraps like that?

John Oates: Because there was no cellphones and there was no social media. Who knows what would have happened had some of the things, the crazy stuff that happened. Look, we were on the road for years and years, and when you're on the road crazy stuff happens. There's no point in even trying to pretend it doesn't. But times were different you know. People didn't have the same ... There was no sense of political correctness and all this kind of, the idea that people just kinda had fun. No harm, no foul. I don't think I ever did anything to hurt anybody. But we did a lot of crazy stuff and everybody seemed to be on board so that's ... I don't know what else to say about it.

Madhouse Magazine: Now, one wrong move, one wrong Tweet and your career's over.

John Oates:  I know. It's crazy. It really is. I'm not a fan of the modern world. I'm real glad I'm not a big pop star in this modern world.

Madhouse Magazine: Do you think you'd be able to make a career in this climate now?

John Oates:    Well, one thing I would say about that is that when Daryl and I started, we made three albums before we had any success, commercially. And our record company stuck with us during those periods of time 'cause they believed in our talent, and they believed that perhaps we could develop and evolve and mature into a career.

John Oates: The musicians of today, those young musicians don't get that opportunity. If you don't have instant success and you're not immediately viable commercially you get dropped and you're not in the game. And that's really a shame. What that means is that a lot of musicians, and any creative person needs time to evolve and to make creative mistakes in order to find themselves. It's part of the process. And if you're not allowed to do that, and if your career is cut short because you don't get that opportunity, who knows what great talent out there might fall by the wayside.

Madhouse Magazine: Yeah absolutely. There's probably a ton of talent out there that we don't get a chance to see or hear anymore.

John Oates: That's right.
Madhouse Magazine:  Back in the day when you first had these three top ten hits in a row, I heard that Tommy Mottola handed you a check for a million dollars. What was the first thing you went out and bought?

John Oates:    A car.

Madhouse Magazine:Do you remember what it was and do you still have it?

John Oates: Of course I remember what it was. It was a 1977 Porsche 930 Turbo. One of the first early Porsche Turbos that came to America. No, I do not have it. But I still have lots of Porsches. I'm still a Porsche fanatic and a collector.

Madhouse Magazine: Awesome. So where you heading to next? You're in the New York, New Jersey area right now?

John Oates: I'm in New York City. We're playing the City Winery tonight for a special show for our booking agency, Paradigm. It's gonna be a great show tonight. Joshua Radin and Marc Cohen, the Blind Boys of Alabama and me and The Good Road Band.

John Oates: So it's a cool show, it's basically a showcase for our booking agency.

Madhouse Magazine: Are you doing a North American tour?

John Oates: I'm touring in January with The Good Road Band. We're going around the country, doing a few dates. And then I'm gonna go do England and do some press and PR to set up the Hall & Oates tour that's gonna happen in late April. And then, let's see, then after that, Daryl and I are going to South America. We're going back to Europe, so yeah there's a lot of stuff on the cards.

Madhouse Magazine: Awesome, sounds great. It sounds like everything is going good for you, you're nice and relaxed, living in Nashville, having the time of your life. Everything's great?

John Oates: I have to say it's pretty good. Knock on wood.

Madhouse Magazine: Awesome. Glad to hear it. It's a great career. Thank you for all the music and everyone should go out and get this album. I've listened to it. 'Arkansas', it's a great album, definitely. Get John's book, 2017 book 'Change of Seasons', and see him out there on tour.

John Oates:    There you go.

Madhouse Magazine: Thank you for calling in John, and good luck out on the road.

John Oates: I appreciate you man. Thank you so much.
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