John Oates: Back With A Whole New Perspective.
Legendary and acclaimed songwriter/musician John Oates, one half of pop-duo Hall & Oates, spent yesterday afternoon at his alma mater, Temple University. He was kind of enough to have a sit-down interview with our Bryan Wallace, and he talked about his days of old in Philadelphia, turning points in his life and what he hopes to accomplish as an artist. Photos by Marie Alyse Rodriguez.
In typical John Oates fashion, you are currently on the road. Do you feel that hitting the road is the tried and true way for musicians to get their material out there?
You know I think it has always been traditionally the best way to engage your audience to get better at what you do, to hone your craft. From the beginning of music as we know it, musicians have played live and it is interesting that with the way the recording business has evolved over the years, that it’s come full circle. It’s come back to live performance because record sales are so limited now. That really, it’s imperative to play live in order to gain an audience, to keep an audience and to keep them engaged. I think the focus was on recording in the 60s, 70s and 80s. From the 90s and on, the recording business has been on a steady decline. The live music business has really gotten better. There are more venues, there are more small boutique venues opening up in different cities all over the country and it is really great for all different levels of artists. They all have places to play. Daryl and I never stopped touring. There was a period of years in the early 90s when we didn’t tour too much, but we never really stopped. And because we have never stopped, that is why we are still out there and people are still interested in what we are doing because we never became a nostalgia band.
From 1972 through 1984, you and Daryl had this rhythm where you released an album every year, and went on tour to follow each one. Could you tell me more about that?
We made an album every year from 1972 to 1986. We toured every year, made videos and all the extra stuff that you do as artists. It wasn’t formulaic. It was just the lifestyle. I wouldn’t call it a formula because we never really fallen into the trap of doing the same thing over and over. We had the luxury of coming up at a time in the music business where artists were actually allowed to try things, experiment and fail, which is very unusual when you look at today’s world where an artist has no opportunity to do any creative missteps. If you do a creative misstep now, you’re pretty much done. Whereas if you look at our career, our first three albums were not commercially successful. The record company believed in us enough to keep it going and through those creative mistakes, we evolved into something that we may not have been.
You went to Temple University in Philadelphia back in the late 60s and graduated in 1970. How much has Philadelphia changed since your years of roaming Broad Street as a journalism student?
We were actually talking about that on the way here. Temple was a very provincial college. By provincial, I mean it was very Philadelphia-centric. There weren’t a lot of students from other places. It seemed like the high school kids who came from the Philadelphia area stayed together as a clique. The campus life after 4:00 was nonexistent. It was almost like a commuter school. I was never into fraternities or anything like that. Sports were almost nonexistent except for the basketball team. It was a completely different place. It was the 60s. It was a lot of hippies as well. There was a lot of counter-culture. It was a clash of counterculture and Philadelphia kids who stayed together in cliques.
Do you ever feel that you have lived two lives? Your life up until the late eighties was so different from your life henceforth. Do you know the John Oates of say, 1982? Do you remember him vividly?
Well I’d rather not (sarcasm). I was a completely different person. I had a lot of profound changes in my life. I was born in New York City. My parents moved to Pennsylvania when I was four. So I obviously don’t remember a lot about living in New York City. Moving to Pennsylvania changed my life because if I had grown up in New York City, I would not have met Daryl. Who knows where I would have been? Coming out of high school, all I wanted to do was move to Philadelphia because I grew up in a small town. Being part of the professional music business, having access to other musicians, venues and all the things that a city has to offer was really exciting to me. If I hadn’t of gone to Temple, I would not have met Daryl because he was a music major and I was a journalism major.
Then we decided to move to New York because we felt that in 1971, we had a choice to make. Gamble and Huff has just started to come into their own with their label and all the great music that they made over the years. It was either become part of Gamble and Huff or carve our own path. We decided to carve our own path. The only way to do that was to leave Philadelphia because at the time, Gamble and Huff were Philadelphia. Moving to New York was a major change in our lives. Then from there, we started to record and tour the world. Then in the late eighties, having accomplished so much, by doing “We Are The World” and headlining Live Aid, it was almost like we looked at each other and said, “What more can we do?” We had number-one record after number-one record. We felt the only thing we could do was fail at that point. There was no more level for success. We pulled back. Commercially and business wise, it was probably a stupid thing to do but psychologically and personally it was the important thing to do. That led me to leaving New York and leaving that John behind, the one with the stupid clothes in the videos (laughs).
I left him behind and became a different person. I got divorced and moved to Colorado. I met my new wife, had a child and did the things that I couldn’t do running around the world as a pop star. I checked out and lived in the mountains. I went through the nineties without Daryl and I being too active which really gave me a chance to step out of it. When I decided to come back it, I came back to it with a whole new perspective and a whole new set of priorities.
The new phase has just started. My wife and I home-schooled our son from kindergarten through him being 13-years old and then he wished to go to boarding school. When he left for boarding school, my wife and I became instant empty nesters, which we never expected to happen so soon. We decided to move to Nashville. I have been going there since the eighties. Nashville is the kind of town where you have to commit to being part of their community. I wanted to do that. It has been absolutely the most unbelievable thing I have ever done. I feel like the latest phase has just begun.
As far as your message as an artist, what do you hope will translate to your listeners?
I view myself as a solo artist. Even though Daryl and I continue to work together, my real creative focus is on what I am doing individually. My message is just about truth. It is about doing what you believe in without any constraints and with no consideration for commerciality or business.
I am in a very fortunate position. I am in a position that not a lot of people ever get to be in. I am very aware of it and very appreciative of it. I have this tremendous foundation of music and legacy that Daryl and I have created that forms a solid base. Now, I am allowed to do whatever I want. Whether it is a success or failure, it doesn’t matter as long as I like it. That is a creative freedom that not a lot of artists get to experience. I do not take it for granted.