Goo Goo Dolls
Thinking Outside of the Boxes
by Jay S. Jacobs
It’s hard to believe that Goo Goo Dolls’ self-titled debut album came out 30 years ago. (Heads up, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.) Of course, back then they were a scrappy punk band in the vein of the Replacements on the Metal Blade label formed by two college students from Buffalo, New York, Johnny Rzeznik and Robby Takac.
That was back in the days when bands could work to find their audience, so it wasn’t all that surprising that it took nine years and five albums before the group really caught on. That was with the classic 1995 album A Boy Named Goo, their first record for Warner Brothers and home of their first smash hit “Name.”
However, the guys have never looked back. Their 1996 soundtrack smash “Iris” proved the band was no one-hit wonder. By the time they followed up with a few smash hits off the 1998 album Dizzy Up the Girl, they were one of the biggest bands on the scene. They have continued recording through the new millennium, adding smash albums like Gutterflower and Let Love In to their discography.
Still, the band has slowed down the output somewhat. Their recently released album Boxes was their first new album in five years. Happily, it showed there was still a following for the guys, debuting near the top of the charts and spawning their biggest radio hit in about a decade with “So Alive.”
With Boxes now out, Goo Goo Dolls are hitting the road for a big summer tour, which will stop in Philadelphia on August 19. Right before they hit the road, we caught up with bassist Robby Takac to talk about the band, the new album and the tour.
When you were just breaking into the music biz in the mid-80s with local bands like Monarch and the Beaumonts, did you even imagine that you would still be working in music professionally over 30 years later?
I wouldn’t have named my band Goo Goo Dolls if I thought I would [still] be explaining it on national TV this morning. No, man, you’ve got no idea. John was 19. I was 20. We were young kids in college, thinking we were going to finish college, shake hands, go “Hey man, it was really cool making that record with you” and then move on with our lives. Just like everybody else did that we were hanging around with.
How did you and John originally meet?
He played in a band with my cousin. (laughs) Actually, I think he might have sold me weed once, at one point. But, he was in a band with my cousin when I was younger. A punk rock band. I had filled in with them a few times, so John and I had played together a few times. After we met, we hung out a bunch. (laughs again) We were dying our hair in the bathtub together once – it’s not as weird as it sounds, we had clothes on and stuff, we just didn’t want to get dye all over – and we decided it was time to put a band together and do something for real. A band that I had been playing with a little bit, we took the drummer from that band. I was working at a recording studio at the time. We all moved in together to save money. Then we went in and recorded some demos. That became our first [self-titled] album, which came out in ’86.
In the early Metal Blade years, you were lead vocalist on many songs. At what point did you guys decide to let Johnny take over on lead vocals?
Well, Jay, I don’t think it was ever like a decision, really. John didn’t like to sing at the beginning. We tried out about 20 singers and nobody could keep up with what we were doing at the time. We were playing super fast and doing something that nobody seemed to fit the bill for. So, I just started singing. I never really considered myself a singer. I had never sang for a band before, ever. We just started writing these songs and then we were on tour and playing all over the country. Then John was doing more and more backup [vocals]. On our second album, he sang a couple of songs and started to decide that it was something that he was comfortable doing. Then, his songwriting started to blossom. You could see it happening. You could feel it happening. He was coming in with these songs that were just like: Holy shit! Where did that come from? That was even back in the Metal Blade days. He was able to complete his own sentences for a little while, that he wasn’t able to [before].
It just came naturally?
We just let that happen, which I guess is the credo of this band and why we’re able to be around now starting our fourth decade. We were always able to take a step back and look at it and go: Okay, what’s going to make this go better? How are we going to move forward? I remember having these arguments when we were kids, after we finished our first album. We can’t do that! Why can’t we do that? Well, because the 9,000 people that bought our first record aren’t going to like that. (chuckles) I remember we’d talk about it and go: You know what? Just fuck it. We’ve got to do this. Let’s do it. Who cares? We love bands that do songs like this. So we tried and put a song like “James Dean” on a record or something like that. (laughs) We were always the wimpiest band on Metal Blade, but we were also way heavier than… except for the punk bands and stuff… most of the alternative rock bands. We were kind of out there, you know? Being led by REM and that kind of stuff, we were a little bit more aggressive than them. That’s why for the first few years we didn’t have a home, really. In a weird way, still today we feel very separated from the music business. My biggest rock star friend is John, you know? (laughs hard)
I enjoy all of your band’s music, but your music tends to be the harder rock side of the group’s playbook, where Johnny has a real skill with alt-pop and ballads. Do you feel this combination of skills and styles makes the band more memorable?
Yeah, that might be part of it. I think what you just said explains why John has taken more of a front role in this, too. (laughs) I tend to default to those places. It’s funny, when you hear the demos that I bring in for these records, most of the time they sound like Ramones songs. You can almost hear that when you listen to the songs. We’ve been able to successfully take all of our ideas and make them all a common statement. Even the different types of statements that John makes within one record, sometimes that’s difficult to make them all work. We’ve been able to pull it together and make it fairly cohesive album after album. (laughs again)
My first exposure to you guys was with your incredible cover of Prince’s “Never Take the Place of Your Man.”
(laughs) Oh, yeah, Lance Diamond, man! You know Lance passed away last year?
Oh, no, I didn’t hear that.
Yeah. He did, man. Yeah. The dude was crazy, man, crazy. Crazy scene.
Well, of course Prince just died, too. Why did you decide to cover his song, and as a songwriter and performer what do you feel Prince brought to the music world?
We decided to cover it because Lance, the guy who sang the song… Lance was about 20, 25 years older than me, and was a local lounge singer in Buffalo. R&B singer. We became as close friends as friends can be. Prince and Terence Trent D’Arby were the first things that we connected on. We had already recorded a song with Lance. Lance did “Down on the Corner” by Creedence Clearwater [Revival] off of our Jed album [in 1989]. We wanted to do another song with him. We asked him what he wanted to do. He picked that song and said, “Dude, this is the song we’ve got to do. Every time I hear this, I hear you guys doing it.” Actually, there is talk about waking that song up again this year. I hope we do, because I really love what happened with that whole thing, except for that creepy Bachman-Turner Overdrive thing that happens at the end of that song. Isn’t that at the end of that song? I don’t know what prompted us to do that. My 51-year-old self would tell my 25 year old self that wasn’t a good idea. (laughs)
Your major label debut A Boy Named Goo came out and suddenly the band was all over the radio and TV with the hit single “Name.” After all the years of playing the tiny clubs and stuff, how surreal was it to finally have a huge single and be in the middle of the spotlight?
You know, I’ll tell you what, we were so busy that there wasn’t even time to really comprehend what was going on. I don’t even know if I can explain it, if I explained it the right way. When A Boy Named Goo came out, we as a band weren’t that big. That song got really big. We’d go and play radio shows and paste secretaries against the back wall, because they thought that the whole show was going to sound like “Name.” We’d come out and we’d start with “Long Way Down” and they’d be like, “What is going on here?” Because they had never heard any of those songs. They had just heard the songs that they’d heard on the radio, which was that one song. So this band had a pretty serious identity crisis for that period of time. But, once again, it’s blessings in disguise in this situation. It gave us the opportunity to learn how to be in that situation without the pressure of Goo Goo Dolls being so huge. Then Dizzy Up the Girl happened, which is like lightning striking twice for a rock band. Because we got so ripped off on Boy Named Goo, man. We didn’t even make a penny.
Yeah, man. We sold millions of records and John and I are like, we are moving. We were living in Buffalo, and we were like New York City, here we come, man. We moved to New York City and our check and our statement came and we still owed them like a million bucks. We had a ten year career of borrowing money, so yeah, that was really a disappointment. But it came again and it happened again once “Iris” happened. Then people were like, “Oh, I get it.” Goo Goo Dolls.
Like you said, while “Name” was a huge hit, it was the only real radio hit on the album. It was a couple of years before the “Iris” soundtrack single and the Dizzy Up the Girl album made the band explode. How important was that album to the band to prove that you weren’t just one-hit wonders, and also to make some money off of it?
“Iris” is an interesting song, because when “Iris” was created, it was created for a soundtrack. It wasn’t created for the album. For the movie City of Angels. Our manager said, “Hey, they’re interested in having you guys write a song for this movie.” John went off and met with the producers. John put together a demo for them. They liked it. We went in and recorded it. I remember sitting in the studio, I can’t remember where. Maybe Capitol, I think it was. I can’t remember exactly where it was, but I remember sitting in the studio and watching this full orchestra playing. (laughs) They probably had 30-40 people or something like that playing this song that we had recorded. I remember John and I sitting in front of the console. It was just the two of us sitting up front. We were looking at each other like oh, my God, man. The garage door has shut, man. Wow! What are we doing, man? Is this right? We finished it, and we put it out, and it came out on this record that had – I’m going to miss some of the big bands who were on it – but it’s like Peter Gabriel and U2. That caliber of band. I can’t even remember what the rest of them were.
I think Eric Clapton, Sarah McLachlan and Alanis Morissette were on it, too…
Yeah, I can’t even remember. It was just crazy. We were just happy to even be on this thing. Our names are next to all these bands, what are you kidding me? That far and away became the runaway hit from that record. [ed. note: McLachlan’s “Angel” and Morissette’s “Uninvited” also became hits, but neither was as big as “Iris.”] I remember we were working on the album Dizzy Up the Girl and we were wondering whether or not we should put that song on the album. It was something we had already released. The Stanley Cup finals were going on as we were recording it. Everybody was in because whoever it was had just won. I don’t follow sports really, but whoever it was won that year. [ed. note: It was the Detroit Red Wings.] They were skating around the ice with the Stanley Cup over their head and people cheering and all of America watching this television program, and then “Iris” came on in the background. We were like: Oh my God, are we on Mars? Is this real? At that point, it dawned on us how big of a song that was. It left the arena of hit record and entered the arena of something different. Although it has cast an unbelievable shadow, it’s nice to have a shadow that big to dodge in and out of and base your career on, for sure.
Boxes is your first album in five years and I believe it has already done better than Magnetic did five years ago and “So Alive” is also getting better airplay than anything in years, but with all of the changes in the music biz do you still think in terms of hits, or are you recording more for the artistic enjoyment now?
It’s a little bit of both. Part of [it is] the enjoyment of this current process that we have now, which is different than what we used to do. The old process was we’d go in and we would demo 15 songs and then we’d show up to a producer. Okay, let’s work on these 15 songs. We’d lock ourselves in a recording studio and try to climb out from underneath this huge pile of half-finished songs. Some batches felt that there was never going to be an end to it. It makes it really hard to be excited and to stay focused. The last record, Magnetic, was the first record that we decided to work on in a different way. We used more producers, so we weren’t burning one guy out. We were working on one, two, three songs at a time, rather than recording all of these songs at one time. Finishing our thoughts and then moving on. John was able to go in and from zero come up with songs that were a bit more of a collaboration. Experimenting with that for the first time on Magnetic, we knew what to expect going into that process again. We knew that our old process was no good for us anymore. It wasn’t good for our health. It used to really mess us up. By the end of a record, we were spent, and it was time to go on tour. This new process, we knew what to expect this time. We were able to go in and hold our ground on things that we thought were important, which was largely the songwriting. We had relationships with some of these people already, so they knew what to expect when we were coming in. To me, that approach to record making was realized in a much more sincere manner this time. Not that I think we missed it entirely on Magnetic, I just think this one feels more comfortable. And, just as human beings, we’re in a better place right now, too.
Boxes is the first Goo Goo Dolls album without drummer Mike Malinin since A Boy Named Goo. He had a long run of about 20 years with the band, during most of your glory years. How did the recording process change without him there?
Well, the modern version of making records is much different, like I said. It wasn’t just sitting in a room bashing out songs for two or three months. It was a lot of working on music. Playing to clicks and loops. Bringing in a drummer to play and then snipping out pieces of stuff. Editing them together. Then, eventually we brought in a drummer who played all the finished stuff. A few different drummers, actually. Craig MacIntyre, who has been playing with us for about two years now. He played on all the LA songs, so probably half the record. Then we had a couple of New York City guys play stuff that we did in New York. Shawn Pelton from the Saturday Night Live band, being one of them. Yeah, the process, it changed, so honestly it didn’t really feel all that uncomfortable. It probably would have if we would have done it in the old manner, but it’s been a long time since we’ve done that, so it didn’t feel all that strange.
Johnny did a duet with Sydney Sierota of Echosmith on “Flood,” which is a rarity for you guys. You guys don’t often use other singers, in fact the only other time I can think of is Lance Diamond.
Yeah. You know, I think that may be the absolute only thing that Lance Diamond and Sydney have in common. (laughs hard)
Why did you feel that song needed a female voice, how did she get involved in the recording and what was she like to work with?
I have the original version. John sang that originally. It’s really good. But someone had suggested that we try to make that a man/woman, woman/man type song. As opposed to a man bitching, or whatever. (laughs) Instead of a single, singular person song. They tried it out and it turned out really cool. She’s got a very unique voice. It doesn’t sound like she’s trying to be somebody she’s not. For a young person, that’s tough, because you haven’t gotten to the point where you’re killing your idols yet. At that point you’re realizing your career through them. She seems to have made a signature sound for herself that is pretty cool.
I really love “Reverse.” Any chance that will be a future single?
I don’t know. That’s interesting you say that. That’s a bit of a left field song, I thought. Yeah, I like it too. Drew Pearson produced that song. We’d never worked with Drew before. It was awesome working with him, man. He’s great. He’s super – what’s the word I’m looking for? – he’s not affected. A lot of guys you work with, they are affected by this business. They think an awful lot about the business and not quite as much about just being in the studio and having fun. Like, you’d say to him: Hey, let’s mike up this potato chip bag. (laughs) And he’d be like: “Yeah, okay, we’ll try it. If it sucks, we won’t use it.” But at least he’d try it, you know? A lot of guys would be like: “No, we’re not doing that, because it’s going to suck.” You’re like: Oh, okay, well then that’s what it is. And that miked-up potato chip bag never ends up on your record. It might have been an interesting thing. Drew will at least try that. “Reverse” is to me probably the supreme example of that on this record, quite honestly, because there’s elements there that we would have never thought to use ourselves. But our collaboration with him led us down some avenues and we liked the way it sounded.
You’ve been releasing albums for years now, but do you still get that feeling of anticipation when you have a new release?
I go out and I buy ten of them. (laughs) I go to whoever is selling it in town and buy a few copies at each place in Buffalo. We have to do it in LA, too. But it’s funny, in LA you go out and you buy 20 copies of a record and it’s a blip on the map. In Buffalo you buy 20 copies of a record, it might be the difference between # 20 and # 8 on the charts. (laughs again, hard.) These days, you know? Crazy.
The music business has changed so much since you got started, with low sales, streaming, piracy, YouTube, etc. If Goo Goo Dolls were coming up now, do you think you would have been able to find an audience and actually make a career out of the band?
Well, with there being no internet back then, it’s hard to say. Everything we did was through fanzines, mailing mix tapes to people, doing a lot of the same stuff people are doing now. The mix tape is not something new. Hip-hop guys did not invent that. We used to do it all the time. You’d put your seven favorite bands on a tape and then mix your songs in with them and send them to your friends. Guess what, they’re going to put them on at parties. We did that stuff when we were kids. It’s just in a different place now. I don’t know man, you know there’s sooo much out there now that doesn’t involve music at all. Then let’s get into music. There’s so much music that does not call for you to listen to it. It’s just there for other reasons. Some of it I really like, but it’s still there for other reasons. Like EDM – I equate EDM, and people hate this, to the Grateful Dead. I realize the Grateful Dead are great musicians. I realize that. But it’s a scene, man. That’s why you can play a song for 55 minutes and people are just seeing out, man. Hanging out, rocking out, meeting chicks, scoring weed. These kids are doing the exact same thing, except for they are taking MDA and hanging out, sweating, having fun. Although my friends who own bars are telling me that stuff has done horrible things for liquor sales. (laughs) People don’t like to drink when they are on that stuff.
No, I guess not…
Yeah, it’s largely the same. There is so much out there now that it’s really difficult for people to focus. I do think you could get to the segments of people pretty directly who are into what you’re doing. I’ve got direct contact to 3,000,000 of them right now. I could tell them anything you wanted me to. That would have cost me $100,000 twenty years ago. So the assets that are there, I don’t know, man, you can weigh it all out. The thing that hasn’t changed is that 98% of bands aren’t making any money. That was the same 25 years ago. They’re doing it because they love it. That’s why they should be doing it. They are going to do that, no matter what. That’s what keeps things floating.
Beyond your work with the band, you’ve also been playing a part in the business side of music in the last decade, forming Good Charamel Records which is Shonen Knife’s current label as well as the annual Music is Art Festival in your native Buffalo. Since you have done so well as a musician yourself, do you enjoy working with lesser-known bands and helping to get them exposure?
Yeah. My wife is from Japan. She is from Tokyo. I really fell in love with the culture there. I had always been a Shonen Knife fan. We got to be friends with them. I was actually about to close my record label when I met them. That was probably seven years ago. I had ran it for about three years, recording just Buffalo bands, and I decided I didn’t want to do that anymore. Just because it was causing me grief. (laughs) I didn’t need the grief. Naoko from Shonen Knife did a duet with one of my bands, The Juliet Dagger, from Buffalo. We got to meet them and struck up a relationship. Brought them here to do some touring. It turned out that it was a good relationship, so I started signing more Japanese bands. Probably we’ve released maybe six or seven Japanese bands now over the past ten years. I love it, man.
Does it remind you of the old days?
I’ll go out and do van tours occasionally with Shonen Knife. The first tour I did with them was seven years ago. We hired a tour manager to take them around. The first night of the tour, we didn’t vet him well enough and it turns out the dude was smoking crack. I just happened, through a series of events, actually an emergency within [Goo Goo Dolls], to have a month off. I flew out, fired him, and I drove the band around in a van for six weeks. Dude, I got home and I can’t tell you what that did for my psyche. To crawl back in that bus again, because we were right back on tour again. To crawl back on that bus and go, okay, dude, reality check here. I just drove a band that’s been together as long as I have, longer than my band has, and killing it night after night. Sometimes to 500 people, sometimes to 50. Killing it, though. Night after night. Driving endless hours in a van. I got back in that bus, dude, and walked out on the stage in front of a packed amphitheater and I’m just like, okay dude, this is good. This allows me to do all that other stuff. I guess that’s just part of the reason that we’re still here. It allows John and I to have cool things in our lives. Exciting things to do. Good times.
Copyright ©2016 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 10, 2016.
Photos ©2016 Bob Mussel. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Records. All rights reserved.