John Oates, post-pop
September 11, 2010
ASPEN – A notable thing about “Interpreting the Masters, Vol. 1,” an album by the Bird and the Bee that pays tribute to the songs of Hall & Oates, is how little tampering there is with the original music.The two pop duos come from different worlds, separated by a generation and a continent. The Los Angeles-based Bird and the Bee – 41-year-old producer/keyboardist Greg Kurstin and 36-year-old singer Inara George – have never shied away from using modern techniques (and modern-day profanity) in their past recordings. But in paying homage to the East Coast-based Hall & Oates, Kurstin and George really pay homage; their “interpretation” is remarkably faithful to the original.”We didn’t change meters, didn’t slow them down, didn’t change the keys. I found myself trying to sing the same notes they did,” George said, and she might have added that she and Kurstin captured the same catchy pop feel that marks Hall & Oates’ original recordings. “We were definitely coming out of a great appreciation; we were essentially taking the songs for what they were. But my appreciation for Daryl Hall has doubled or tripled. We both came out bigger fans than we were before.”George and Kurstin aren’t the only ones with a growing, latter-day affection for Hall & Oates. The music of Daryl Hall and John Oates is getting a serious reconsideration these days, and unlike many of their contemporaries from the heyday of MTV videos, the verdict is that the music is worth remembering for reasons beyond nostalgia.A handsome box set, “Do What You Want, Be What You Are,” featuring four CDs and a booklet filled with words of praise from fans older (Mick Jagger, Carly Simon) and younger (Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty), was released last October. The crowning scene of the acclaimed 2009 film “(500) Days of Summer” was the glorious dance sequence set to “You Make My Dreams.” Travis McCoy, singer of the contemporary hip-hop group Gym Class Heroes, has the faces of Hall & Oates tattooed on his hands. The Bird and the Bee’s “Interpreting the Masters” – which was originally to be titled “Guiltless Pleasures” – made it to number 20 on the rock albums chart.Running parallel to this resurgence in popularity, but very separate from it, has been the birth of a musical existence for Oates outside of Hall & Oates. During the duo’s run in the limelight, he was too busy to pursue other projects. But about 10 years ago, Oates, who has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley since 1989, found some worthy music-making partners in the local band Little Blue. The partnership spurred him to start performing as a solo act, and in 2002 to release his first solo album, “Phunk Shui.” In 2004 came a DVD, “Live at the Historic Wheeler Opera House.”As the solo projects have accumulated, Oates has forged a new kind of persona for himself. The early ’80s star of numerous music videos, with the infamous mustache, is long gone, and a musician with a different artistic focus has emerged. Oates’ 2008 solo album, “1000 Miles of Life,” was made with contributions from Nashville’s elite pickers – Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bla Fleck – plus Blues Traveler’s John Popper and gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama; the result was an album that split the difference between rootsy Americana songwriter and white-boy soul. Last year’s “The Village: A Celebration of the Music of Greenwich Village” helped to sharpen Oates’ current sensibility. The album had Oates’ version of the folk song “He Was a Friend of Mine” alongside tracks by Lucinda Williams, Bruce Hornsby and Rickie Lee Jones.Around the making and release of “1000 Miles of Life,” Oates went on a spree of appearances as a guest musician. It seemed to be an expression of a new freedom, versatility and pleasure. On various Aspen stages, he jumped up to play with jam-band Blues Traveler, bluesman Tab Benoit, dobroist Jerry Douglas, members of New Orleans funk icons the Meters, and the hard rock band Camp Freddy. At the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, he joined mandolinist Bush for a bluegrass version of the Hall & Oates hit “Maneater” that sent the crowd into a frenzy.
For Oates, the soul-pop hits made by Hall & Oates and his recent solo output is connected by a focus on the primary element of music – the song. In the Hall & Oates period, the songwriting craft may have been obscured by videos, clothes, promotional efforts and production techniques, but Oates says the pop hits – seven of which went to number one – always began with two guys looking for a way to express themselves with lyrics, melodies and chord progressions.”We came up in a time where the culture was kind of surface-y. The fashions, MTV – that’s what we were a part of. We wore the funny clothes; we did the stupid videos because that’s what was happening,” said Oates, now a 61-year-old telemark enthusiast who lives on a Woody Creek ranch with all sorts of animals, as well as his wife, Aimee, and teenage son. “But we thought of ourselves as songwriters. The hits were a byproduct of what we did. We were trying to write the best songs; the hits were the ones people liked best, that the record company thought they could sell.”The song will get its proper place at the table in Aspen this week. The Wheeler Opera House will present its inaugural 7908: The Aspen Songwriters Festival, Thursday through Sunday, Sept. 16-19, with Oates acting as co-producer and host. The festival is short on pop stars; after Oates, the most recognizable name is Richard Butler, leader of the ’80s British rock band the Psychedelic Furs. Instead, the focus is on the songs and the people who create them. Among the writers on the program are Jeff Barry, who penned a handful of early ’60s girl-group hits including “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Then He Kissed Me”; Tift Merritt, who routinely draws comparisons to Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris; New Orleans icon Allen Toussaint, whose songs have been recorded by Paul McCartney, Jerry Garcia and Elvis Costello; Jim Lauderdale, an alt-country singer-songwriter who is the regular host of the Americana Music Awards; the Bird and the Bee, and others. Oates himself is scheduled for two appearances: in a performance with newgrass pioneer Bush and acoustic star David Bromberg; and in a festival-closing concert with Nashville singer-songwriter Jimmy Wayne.
Oates says the great divide between the songwriter – an artist trying to express himself – and the pop star – someone who knows how to package and present the music – is a false one. At least, it is in the case of Hall & Oates.”I think of songwriting in the classic sense – Cole Porter, the Gershwins, then to Leiber & Stoller, who created rock ‘n’ roll, King & Goffin, right up to Lennon & McCartney. And Hall & Oates, for that matter,” said Oates, who was performing around the Philadelphia area by the age of 7. “This is a tradition, and I see Hall & Oates in that same tradition. The fact we were successful shouldn’t belittle what we’ve done.”The packaging didn’t obstruct Inara George’s view of the artistry of Hall & Oates. “We’re fans of pop songs, songs that stick in your head,” she said, speaking for her Bird and Bee partner, Kurstin. “And Hall & Oates are one of the best at that, getting an infectious lyric or melody. Delving into the material, it’s more complex than you think – the chord progressions, the harmonies, the structure.”Of “Private Eyes,” Hall & Oates’ 1981 song that went to number one, George said, “It’s such a catchy song and so recognizable now, you take it for granted. It’s so much deeper than you first see. I remember Greg trying to figure out the chord voicings, the way the harmonies are built.”Rock critics 30 years ago, however, generally ignored the craft. Hall & Oates were seen largely as pop hitmakers, more a product of MTV than musicians.”When we were coming up, the rock press was not warm and welcoming to Top 40 acts,” Oates said. “Bands with hit singles were not considered hip. Album-oriented rock – that was hip and people with Top 40 records were not.”But Oates says making hit records is an art form in itself, and not one to scoff at. And while there are hits that come and go, the real artistry is in creating a record that will sound as good 20 years after it hits radio.”Many of the things we were accused of – that we were a hit-making machine, that we had a formula, a pact with the devil – made us unimportant, not deep, not profound, no integrity. All those were laid on us because we were successful. Now all those songs that people said we made in a factory setting, they live today, still sound good, move people,” Oates said. “If that’s so easy to do, why doesn’t everyone do it, all the time? It’s not easy. The hit, that form, is restrictive in so many ways. It’s got to be tight, coherent, memorable – so many factors that add up to capturing the public’s imagination.”
When the ’80s ended, Hall & Oates’ run of hits came to a close as well. But it wasn’t long before a younger crop of musicians began discovering the duo. Brandon Flowers, of the buzz-band the Killers, has called “Rich Girl” the perfect pop song. Chromeo, a Canadian electro-funk duo that has realized their ultimate dream of collaborating with Hall & Oates, wrote in the “Do What You Want” booklet, “They must be acknowledged as the only group who managed to fuse styles as diverse as prog, doo-wop, folk, funk and rock ‘n’ roll, into inimitable, intelligence pop.””There’s this generation that’s driving pop music and pop culture,” said Oates, who grew up on big-band and folk-blues, and then Motown and early rock. “And they’re referencing us as influential and as part of their childhood memories.”Hall & Oates is having a second moment in the sun, but the duo is becoming less significant to the shorter, darker member, who always existed somewhat in the shadow of his partner. The group is seeing a spike in its touring activity, with more prominent dates and more enthusiastic crowds, but Oates wouldn’t be bothered if Hall & Oates didn’t make another album. “When I play a Hall & Oates record, it’s like visiting a great museum. I love visiting, but I don’t want to live there,” he said, adding that there are tentative plans to repackage their past, with an expanded version of the 1985 album “Live at the Apollo,” and a DVD of a concert in Jamaica from earlier this year.Instead of making new music for Hall & Oates, Oates has new ground to cover on his own. His latest project is “Mississippi Mile,” an album recorded earlier this year in Nashville that touches on gospel, R&B, acoustic folk, old-time rock ‘n’ roll and Delta blues, with hints of Hall & Oates. The album is not so much an exercise in songwriting; instead it covers Elvis Presley (a slow, minor-key take on “All Shook Up”); one of Oates’ big heroes, guitar picker Doc Watson (“Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor”); and the Hall & Oates catalogue (“You Make My Dreams”). But the two new original songs – the title track, and “Deep River,” derived from Watson’s “Deep River Blues” – point to rootsy blues with a pop-soul sensibility.How to present this side of himself, though, is a quandary. Having been at the center of a fully functioning music business that sold millions of albums and singles, Oates believes the industry as it currently stands is badly broken. He wants his new music heard, but questions whether “Mississippi Mile” will even be released. “The album is dead. I don’t see any reason for making one anymore,” he said.But Oates is anything but a cynic, and he still believes strongly in the value of music, the power of a song. Among his prized possessions, displayed in his home studio, is a copy of the sheet music for “We Are the World,” signed by all of the singers who participated in the 1985 single and video, an effort to raise funds for famine victims in Africa.”The only thing that remains constant is the song, the making of the song. Songs are the only things that have validity in modern music,” he said. “Everything else is superfluous. You don’t need natural instruments. You can correct a voice in every way. That’s why I want to celebrate it and give insight to people on how important it is. Without songwriters, you have nothing.”firstname.lastname@example.org