An Interview with John Oates
Phunk Shui may have been a playful way of announcing to the world the sound and style of his first-ever solo album, but the titular phrase is appropriate for another reason: John Oates has spent the past three decades in harmony.
Oates soulful singing and engaging songwriting have helped Hall & Oates become one of pop musics most successful and long-lasting duos; 2002 marks 30 years in the business for Oates and partner Daryl Hall, and theyre still going strong with a tour, a hit single, and a new album on the way.
After so many years of sharing the spotlight, though, you can understand why Oates might be a little reticent to seize it for himself, even on the eve of the release of Phunk Shui. Talk to him about the album, and you hear almost as much about collaborators and fellow musicians as you do the man himself; try as he might to use I, Oates still says we nearly almost as often.
But, without taking anything away from his talented and creative associates, Phunk Shui really is all about Oates. He co-produced the album and had a hand in writing all the songs, with the exception of an imaginative re-interpretation of Jimi Hendrixs Electric Ladyland. Oates sings lead and also provides most of the backing parts in his complex vocal arrangements. He even flexes rarely-seen guitar muscles, soloing, and rocking harder than he is wont to do with Hall & Oates.
Guitar.com caught up with Oates before a recent Hall & Oates gig in Pittsburgh and got schooled in the art of Phunk Shui.
Guitar.com: Why now a solo album?
John Oates: It was always something I wanted to do. It was in the back of my mind, but it always seemed that, whenever I finished working with Daryl on whatever level that wasrecording or touringI never really wanted to jump into another project because it always felt like I was squeezing something in between. And it just so happened that a few circumstances came together [within the past year].
[First] I had two months free in the winter [of 2001]. My wife also had just done a charity project that she had gotten the idea for. She just dove right in and did it, and she said to me, Sometimes you just have to do things. I also was working with Jed Leiber. We had been toying with the idea of doing a project, but we didn't know what we wanted to do. Then, I was sitting in the studio and found some old songssome of them were as old as 1991. I put three or four of the older songs, along with some of the newer songs that Id been writing, on a CD. I started listening to it in the car and thought This sounds like a record. I really have something here. They were very disparate in terms of their styles, as they were done over different periods of time in different styles. And they were all demos. Some of them were a little more elaboratewith a rhythm section. Some were done on drum machines. Some were just acoustic. They were coming from all over the place. And I thought, The songs have continuity, but obviously the approach to the production was off the wall. What would bring this together? Well, if I just hire a band and I do the whole album with the same rhythm sectionthats what would pull it together and make it all sound like one record. That was the goal and, when I spoke to Jed about it, he thought it was a good idea. And I said, Lets do this right now. He's a guy that likes to work things out very meticulously; he said, Well, were going to have to go over each song and the arrangements. And I said, No, well just work them out in our heads, make some notes, jot down some arrangements, get a rhythm section in the studio, and play them. And he said, OK, well, when do you want to do it? And I said, Next week. And he was like, Really?
So, he came over to my house, and we spent a few days doing pre-production, going over the songs, and then we went to New York. I hired T-Bone Wolk, whos in the Hall & Oates band, and Steve Holley, a session drummer who also played with [Paul] McCartney for a while, and we went into the studio. Jed played keyboards; I played guitar; and we basically cut the songs in a few days. We went back to Aspen, did a few guitar overdubs, had some friends come in and sing and do a little bit of playing. Jed went to Los Angeles [and] re-did some parts with vintage keyboards to enhance [the sound]. That was it. We sent the hard drives back to New York, and our engineer who cut the tracksPeter Moshayhe mixed them. It was really quick. From the time we started pre-production to when we finished it, it was probably about a month, and we were done.
Guitar.com: How did hook up with Jed in the first place?
Oates: It's kind of a roundabout story. Our bass player T-Bone had a band that he was working with in New York called Little Blue. They were relocating to Aspen, Colorado from New York. T-Bone said, When they come out, you should hook up with them because theyre good musicians and good guys. It was a funny coincidence because I had been looking for a band to play with at home. I always get asked to do various charity fundraisers. I don't like to do stuff on my own, just as a solo acoustic guitar player. Those guys came to town, and we got along really well, so we did a couple of charity gigs [together]. Then, I helped them on their album. In the course of helping them on their record, I wrote a few songs with them and recorded them. Jed Leiber was their producer and keyboard player, so I met him through the band Little Blue. And Little Blue are the guys that I used on my solo album to sing background and play some guitar. So that's how the connection came about. Jed and I began to do some songwriting together and struck up a friendship.
Jeds very talented and a really incredible musician, but, above and beyond all that, he really encouraged me to do something on my own. He said, You deserve to do something on your own. He had a lot of confidence in me as a singer and in general, saying, Hey, go out and try something.
Guitar.com: Some of the older songs that you re-discovered for the project did you not see them working in the Hall & Oates context when you first wrote them?
Oates: For the most part, yes. I had felt that they werent quite right for the projects we were working on at the moment. A few of the songs actually did come to the table on Hall & Oates projects, and they either didnt fit in or seem right for whatever reason. So, a few I did consider for Hall & Oates, and a few I never considered. But the key to it was the song Love in a Dangerous Time. I wrote that in 1991. There were some guys named Arthur Baker and Tommy Faragher in New York who had created a track. I went over to Arthur, and he said, I want you to hear this track. He played it for me, and I really liked it. It had a quirky little loop in it and cool keyboard changes. I said, Wow, I really like it. I think I can do something with it. So I took the track and wrote the lyrics and melody over the track. That became Love in a Dangerous Time. At the time, it was about AIDS and things going on in the early 1990's. That was the key to getting me going on this record because, when I heard that old demo of the song, especially in the wake of September 11th , it had just as much validity today. The lyrics werent specifically about AIDSthey alluded to a generally dangerous kind of life. It spurred me on to feel, Well, if a song written 11 years ago is still holding up, theres got to be something there. Its more than just a pop song. And then I thought, I should explore some of these older songs. I ended up using three older songs.
Guitar.com: What were the others?
Oates: Little Angel from 1996, and theres a song from 1995 called Locked Into You. It doesn't really appear on the album as such. What happened was that we cut the track for that song, and, when I went to sing the original song over it, the track was so much better, so much more exciting than the song that I almost had it discarded. But, after I kept listening to the track, I said to Jed, The track is too good. We can't just not use it. We have to do something. Let's write another song on top of it. So we had come up with a title after joking around in the studio about Feng Shui. Jed [coined] Phunk Shui, and it became the title of the album. And I said, Lets just write something called Phunk Shui. We kind of joked about it, had a few glasses of wine, and started writing the lyrics. It became an ode to the 1970's and to getting real [as well as] a little diatribe about the music business. A little bit of this, a little bit of that it just came together. And then we did some [Digidesign] Pro Tools editing on the track because the new song had some different elements, so we ended up editing the existing track and creating a brand new song for it. It was pretty cool the way it came together.
Guitar.com: Where did the anti-music business angle come from? Have you had unfavorable experiences with the business side of music over the course of your career?
Oates: About 30 years worth. [laughs] Let's preface the whole thing by saying: I'm still here. Daryl and I are still here, making a living. [Were] alive and kicking. We've got a song on the charts [Do It For Love], which may go to #1 on [Billboards Adult Contemporary] charts next week if were lucky, knock on wood [ed. note. Do It For Love did indeed reach #1.]. That being said, we came up at a time when the music business was really about music. Music business executives and people involved on the business side tended to stay there was a very clear boundary drawna line in the sand between the creative element and the business. The business side liked to be involved with the creative side, but werent really hands-on. That has changed over the years, especially through the 1990's and today, where the line between the creative entity and the business entity is so blurred that you really don't know where one begins and one ends. The people at record companies basically dictate to artists so many aspects of their creative personalities. That wasnt the case when Daryl and I started. Ive never felt comfortable in that environmentthats why weve never really been with a major label once we left RCA [Records]. We spent a few years at Arista [Records], and even that didnt work out so well.
I feel sorry for new musicians coming up because they dont have the chance to make mistakes anymore. The business is designed in a certain way, where, if you're an artist and you don't deliver almost right away, you dont get a second chance. When you really think about it, it's almost impossible to nurture a creative personality in that kind of environment. If that had been the case for Daryl and me, there would have been no Hall & Oates. Not that the world would have been a worse place for that [laughs], but certainly there would have been some gap in pop music.
When I think of the potential thats out there with young people, there must be the most amazing creative talents that just don't get heard or they get heard on such a limited scale that they don't have a chance to make an impact on the world. That's a shame, and thats the crime thats going on in music. I think its also the reason that pop music has degenerated into this disposable pap that washes over you, and theres no real passion in it because its all prefabricated. There's stuff that is an exception to the rulethere are artists that are making their mark out there. Now that thats happened, there has been a swing back to a little more substance in pop music. Dave Matthews is a good example Alicia Keys [too]and a lot of the artists just coming up, like John Mayer. They're playing their instruments and playing songs that have some substance. They're obviously talented and they're making their mark by saying, I'm an individual and a creative person. I'm a songwriter. I'm saying something. And I think those people have a chance to endure, evolve, and develop.
What Jed and I said in [Phunk Shui] was You can practice til your fingers bleed, but the world will never hear it because it ain't about the music, it ain't about the song, but it makes a lot of money, and thats where its gone wrong. We kind of snuck that in, and we also have a line in there: Lose those loops and drum machines, just plug in and play. We use loops all the time I wasn't trying to say that you have to be a purist and play natural instruments. What I was trying to say is that its really about playing the music. Its about real music, and so it became the catchphrase for the album: Just plug in and play and throw away all the other crapget down to the basics.
Guitar.com: I understand that youre a big proponent of XM Radio insofar as it mitigates some of the problems you've mentioned with contemporary pop radio.
Oates: [Theres been] a great bland-ing of America, and its reflection in radio is part of it It used to be, when I was growing upand I don't want to sound like a reactionary because I'm definitely not a reactionaryradio was regional and, when you went to a certain area of the country, you got a certain sound. Of course, there were the across-the-board things.the Elvises, the Chuck Berrys, people who transcended thatyou heard them everywhere. But regional music was really good, especially in Philadelphia. There were artists who never got played outside Philadelphia, but were huge. Thats no longer the caseit doesnt exist. But theres a light on the horizon with XM Radio. It's now in a place where, first of all, they have a whole bunch of formats. Each disk jockey also has a whole lot of freedom they're not really restricted by very rigid programming lists that they cant deviate from. I think thats really encouraging, and these new satellite radio stations will really give listeners a chance to hear more of the kind of music that they want and to be more selective about it. And you're not just restricted to what that radio station is playing at one moment now you have a lot more choices. I'm really encouraged by that. I think thats a real positive wave of the future.
And you get to see the display of whos actually doing the songs, which is kind of nice too!
Guitar.com: On a more serious note, you mentioned earlier that you were in the process of conceptualizing Phunk Shui when the tragic events of September 11th occurred. Was All Good People, one of the newer songs penned for the album, at all influenced by those events?
Oates: It was and it wasn't. I actually wrote the beginning of the song and the entire melody of the song well before September 11th, maybe in July [of 2001]. Every time I played with the group Little Blue I was always sitting aroundsay, during a sound checkplaying those chord changes and the melody. And I had the title: Calling All Good People. I wanted to write a song that was just positive. There was no particular point of view other than the fact that I wanted it to be a rallying cry for being positive, and I thought Calling All Good People was such an evocative title. There's a lot of good people out there, you know. Just get togetherlike that song: C'mon people now, smile on your brothereverybody get together, love one another right now [Get Together by The Youngbloods]one of those things. So I had that in my head. Then, after September 11th, I called Steve Postell, one of the guys in Little Blue whom I write with, and I said that I had this song. He's a good acoustic guitar player, coming from a folkie tradition, and I knew he was the right guy to work with on that song because it had that vibe to it. He came to the house, and he loved it. We worked on it and finished it after September 11th. We had [September 11th] in our minds, but we were very conscious of not doing something that was particularly specific to that event. We basically wanted to set a mood and tell a story about a guy on a street corner, saying that, maybe, if you stop and listen sometime, you might hear something. Stop the world and take stock of where youre atmaybe the madman whos howling at the moon might actually be saying something.
Guitar.com: All Good People has very lush vocal harmonies, as do all of the songs on Phunk Shui. How do you go about mapping out the different levels of harmonies and deciding whats appropriate for a given song?
Oates: It's one of these things that I do instinctively. I have a knack for it; I've had a lot of practice doing it; and I've learned how to do it. Its a combination of all those things. Also, Jed worked with me a lot on the harmonies, so we could do a lot of interesting chord changessome strange clusters, some cluster harmonies, some tight close harmonies. I love doing it. The Pro Tools recording environment has opened a whole new world to me because I perform all my background vocals. We're talking about layers and layers of sounds; we're talking about three or four parts doubled or tripled or sometimes quadrupled. I do multi-layer unison parts in different octaves, like on the song Color of Love, which is three octaves of unisons. So I just do it I don't know how to say it. I hear it in my head. A pattern kind of evolves. Sometimes its a very simple chorus pattern for the hook, but I like doing very unusual background stuff. That's something that Daryl and I have always doneits a Philadelphia thing and, its a background thing. It's just something we do. I don't know how to describe it.
Especially on a song like [Jimi Hendrixs] Electric Ladylandits really fun to do. I really knew what I wanted to do, and we started doing it. You don't really plan these things; you just start doing. You have a basic part; you work on the changes; you work on the intervals. Should I put this harmony on top? Should I try it underneath?
Guitar.com: It was interesting to hear Electric Ladyland re-imagined as a Curtis Mayfield-type song.
Oates: I heard it that way from the very first time. It sounded like he was trying to do a Curtis Mayfield song, but in his psychedelic, loud, wacky way. I tried to de-evolve the song to what I thought he might have been hearing. It's kind of a weird thing. Obviously, I only used acoustic guitars because I couldn't touch an electric guitar on that song. The weird solo is Jed on a [Hammond] B3 that he processed through something. I don't know what he did.
Guitar.com: Speaking of the sounds on the album, It Girl has a very evocative feel. How did you go about creating the film-noirish mood for that one?
Oates: That was one of the first songs that Jed and I ever wrote [together]. Jed leaves his mark very strongly on that song. He lives in Los Angeles, which is a town full of it people. We were out visiting him and staying at the Sunset Marquee Hotel, where Jed has his studio. It's a trendy, happening place, with all the actresses and models wandering in and out. Not being part of that scene anymore, I view it from a very detached point of view. Years ago when I lived in New York, I was part of the night scene. It's funny when you're in it, it seems like the only important thing in the world, but, if you're out of it, you can see it a little more objectively. The title I can't remember if it came to me or Jed firstwe just loved it. It's such a great title. We wanted to write about something like that, but we wanted to write it from a point of view that had a redeeming fulfillment from the experience. It wasn't It's so cool to be the it girl. It's you're the only one who really loves you. What are you going to do when its not there anymore? When you are the it person, there's always another it person coming up, so its an ephemeral kind of situation. We wanted to write something about it to say, You've got to love yourself; you've got to look inside you because, in the end when all these so-called friends arent around anymore and no ones blowing smoke up your skirt, all youve got left is you.
Sonically, we did it in my older studiobefore I had Pro Toolson an [Akai] MPC-60. We came up with a really cool drumbeat, and it all started with that. Jed was doing all the keyboard parts, and it was a very keyboard-oriented song. Then Jed came up with that quirky trumpet. We were talking about Miles Davis, and he actually played that with a trumpet sample. It was just so cool, it sounded like the night. It kind of had that feel. So thats what we went for.
Guitar.com: How much of the guitar playing did you do on Phunk Shui?
Oates: The lead guitar playing on Phunk Shui is not me at allthats a guy named Damian Smith. He did [all the guitars] on Phunk Shui because theres a certain thing that he does really, really well, and I wanted to get him on that. The guitar playing on All Good People is mostly Steve Postellthe solo [as well as] the acoustic part. Hes a very good guitar player. The acoustic guitars on the song Beauty are by Jamie Rosenberg. Other than those, I played everything else.
Guitar.com: Are there any parts youre particularly proud of?
Oates: I don't think I've ever put something on a record I haven't liked. If I didn't like it, I certainly wouldn't let it stay on the record. Anything I've done I'm happy with, but, on the new album, I stretched out. I played a lot of solos, which I normally don't do, especially on a Hall & Oates recordwere always surrounded by such great musicians that it seems a shame not to use them. On my record, the whole point of it was doing it myself. So I really got a chance to stretch and do some things. One of my favorite things on the albums I think the wah-wah playing on Go Deep is really cool. I played it live while we cut the trackthe first thing that I'm playing on the record is completely live. One take, from beginning to end, live. Then T-Bone heard it and said, You should play another wah-wah solo on top of that. So I overdubbed the second wah-wah pedal in one take, and that was the whole track I never put another thing on it. I also love the solo on Soul Slidethat really weird Echoplex solo. It reminds me of a Steve Cropper-kind of thing. I love it because its raw and simple. It was fun for me to get a chance to do that kind of stuff.
Guitar.com: What kinds of gear did you use on the album?
Oates: I used some vintage amps, a Fender VibroKing. A CryBaby wah-wah a lot, obviously. I even used some Line 6 equipment with the electronic wah-wah. I use my vintage 58 [Fender] Stratocaster. I played a couple of songs on Daryls old [Fender] Telecaster that we had around the studio. I used many different acoustic guitars some belonging to me. I used the Martin D-28, a baby Taylor, and my regular Taylor that I use live onstage. I [also] used a lot of guitars that belong to Jamie Rosenberg, the engineer who did the guitars and vocals in Aspen. He has an extensive guitar collection. I didn't use a lot of effects. I used a Marshall amp on the lead guitar solo in the heavy part of Color of Love.
Guitar.com: Whats your guitar of choice?
Oates: The Strat. It just feels right in my hands. It's always felt right on my body and in my hands. I like playing Telecasters occasionally, but there's just something about the Strat. It's the only guitar I've ever really liked playing.
Guitar.com: You're currently doing Color of Love live on the Hall & Oates tour. Are there any plans to do any solo shows supporting Phunk Shui?
Oates: I'm going to do a solo performance in Octobera broadcast on XM Radio. I'm going to put a band together, and I'm going to try to use the same band as on the album. Same drummer, bass player, myself, and Jed, with some of the guys from Little Blue. I'll probably be doing some television, maybe some of the late-night or morning shows. We haven't nailed them down yet. And I might do a private press thing in New York and Los Angeles, where its more of a listening party, not a gig, because I really don't have time to put together a whole show.
Guitar.com: You also have a new Hall & Oates record in the mix for later in the year. How is that coming along?
Oates: It's finished. It's being mixed as we speak. Were probably done I don't think there's going to be any more recording. There are a lot of songs. It's really good and has a great vibe to it. It's more involved, production-wise, than my solo album. A little more intricate, but it also has a live feel. Its either going to be released in the late fall or the first of the year. My gut feeling tells me the first of year.
Guitar.com: 2002 marks your 30th year as a recording artist. Looking back, what would you consider your musical legacy?
Oates: To the pop music world, being a duo that has sustained is probably one thing. Not many seem to last too long. That's some sort of record [laughs]. But I think what Daryl and I have done [has been] to create a niche for ourselvesweve created a sound that is uniquely ours. No one else sounds like us. We took a regional sound the Philadelphia soundand expanded on it into something of our own. I think we had a lot to do with opening doors on radioespecially in the 1970's and 1980's because we were one of the first artists to get regularly played on black radio. I think we paved the way for a lot of black artists getting played on white radio as well, people like Prince and all that. Our earliest hits like Sara Smile and Shes Gone were all basically broken and supported by black radio before white radio got turned onto it. So breaking that color barrier is probably a pretty important part of a legacy, if we have one. Also the fact that weve been able to sustain and still feel like were making great music after all these years. I think thats pretty important too.
Guitar.com: Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Oates: I think we'll still be making music. I don't think well be doing it at this level in terms of intensitywere working really hard right now. I don't know how long we can do that for. I know we can play for a long, long time. I think this will be a nice platform to push off from for the rest of our career, and hopefully it will take us to a place where we can feel free to make music when we want and how we want. Make our Hall & Oates records, our solo albums, do everything really, and do it at our own pace. That's really all we want to do.