An Unexpected Interview with Icon John Oates of Pop-Rock Royalty Hall and Oates
It’s immediately apparent when speaking with John Oates—one half of the multi-decade rock duo juggernaut Hall and Oates—that music was all he ever really considered. He first began performing at the age of four, and met Daryl Hall when they were both teenagers through a chance encounter in Philadelphia when they were both members of different bands. Eventually they began writing songs together and formed the famous duo we now know, Hall and Oates.
Hall and Oates has sold an estimated 40 million records since they began in the ’70s, with hits like “Rich Girl,” “Maneater,” “Out of Touch” and “Sara Smile.” And if Oates ever entertained a time of questioning what to do in life, few know about it. He was going to play music, and the rest of the world didn’t really phase him, equally comfortable playing in intimate settings or sold-out arenas. Oates, who is now based in Nashville, also recently released a solo studio album called “Arkansas,” with a fresh take on soulful, bluegrass Americana. He is also preparing to join rejoin Hall for a co-headlining summer tour with Train.
Tickets are on sale for their St. Louis show, which will be at the Scottrade Center on Saturday, May 12. We sat down with Oates to discuss a life in music, new work and, yes, that infamous mustache.
You just released a brand-new solo album called “Arkansas,” which showcases your soulful, raw voice. You’ve released solo albums before, but you’ve said this is the record you’ve always wanted to make. Can you elaborate?
It is absolutely the most authentic, honest musical thing I’ve ever done. This is me musically, on this record. Like any career, when I look at my solo career outside of Hall and Oates, it takes a while to find who and where you really are. I went back to the very beginning of my earliest influences. A lot of people are really thrown by it—like, ‘Why is he doing this kind of music?’ But it’s music I’ve been playing for more than 50 years. I didn’t just decide, ‘I’m going to make a blues album.’
You now live in Nashville. Tell me about your relationship with the city and why you’re now based there.
I started coming to Nashville in the ’90s. I dipped my toe in the water, and it was a completely different city in those days. The musicians I was meeting along the way were the foundation for the Americana music movement, which led me more toward the Americana style of things as I gathered like-minded musicians as friends and collaborators. It allowed me to explore a lot of the stuff I used to do as a kid. I’m really in the world of Americana now — but Nashville now is so wide open, musically. There’s rock and R&B, folk and blues. It’s a great place to be.
How did you navigate the process of making this album? What did your writing process look like?
I went back to go forward. This album was recorded with all vintage instruments on an 8-track analog recorder. I also have 50 years of experience making records. I know how to make records and produce. I bring my lifetime of music experience on this project that is more about the past. It’s a blending.
I never intended to write anything for this. The album started as a tribute to Mississippi John Hurt. But as I started recording, the album took on a much wider scope. I used the time-honored tradition of blues music where every blues player adds a little of himself to it. Then I wrote the song “Dig Back Deep,” where I was really digging deep into my roots and into my past. For the title song Arkansas, I went to Wilson, Arkansas, and stood in the cotton fields by the Mississippi River. I was thinking, “I’m in the vortex of this great American music tradition.” Then I just sat down and wrote it.
Throughout your career, which has been as big as a musician could ever hope for, you seem to have really navigated around the common pitfalls of excess that have plagued many others in your position. How have you done that?
Ha! I’m not quite as clean-living as I make it out to be. Look, I realized a long time ago that if I wanted to continue doing what I love to do, there was only one way to do that: to stay as healthy as possible. And I’ve had too many friends fall by the wayside from vices—drugs and alcohol, all kinds of things. I’ve just never been that kind of person. Daryl and I both realized a long time ago that we were going to be musicians for the rest of our lives. It’s not easy to live this kind of life, living in hotels and traveling constantly.
We never had this grand plan of, ‘We’re going to conquer the world.’ That never even entered our minds. We just wanted to write the best songs we could, and we took everything incrementally. The fact we’re famous and popular was never a goal. It was a byproduct of hard work.
Do people leave you alone when you go to Walgreens or the grocery store?
I went to Walgreens yesterday afternoon. You see Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman going out to restaurants and things like that. People are used to it here in Nashville, and in New York or L.A. as well. It’s the smaller towns where it’s more of an event.
When I was doing research for this interview, I could find hardly any pieces that didn’t mention your mustache. You’ve said it’s actually kind of a relic of an older version of you that you want to leave behind. What does that mean?
I made a lot of mistakes—as everyone does when they’re young—professionally and personally. That whole era of the ’80’s—I partied and went crazy and had a lot of fun, and people think that was the best time of our lives. But in retrospect, it wasn’t. The mustache represented the guy in those silly music videos. I’m not that guy anymore. I still have a bit of a mustache, but it’s more of a goatee. It was OK for the time. But it would be like if you looked at a picture of yourself in junior high school. You can hide your pictures in the book on your shelf. Mine will follow me around for the rest of my life.
That’s so interesting. I see the videos for songs like “Out Of Touch” and “She’s Gone” as these kind of wacky, David Bowie-esque experiments.
Of course. You see it through a different lens.
I also loved the interview you did with Steve Harvey, where you brandished a razor and challenged him to shave his mustache.
I thought it would be funny. He’s also kind of known for that mustache of his. I got a rise out of him, it was fun.
Do you ever get nervous for a televised interview like that or live performances in front of thousands of people?
No. I’ve been on stage since I was four years old. I actually tell a story in my memoir about how I was forced to play a show at an insane asylum when I was ten. So now when people ask me if I get nervous before going on stage, I always say no.
What prompted you to write a memoir?
I was doing a series of interviews with Chris Epting, a writer, and he kept saying to me, ‘You’ve got great stories.’ I also have a handwritten journal I kept between 1970 and 1980. I showed him some of them and he was like, ‘You have a book here.’ It was a two-year process, and I got to dig back in memory banks. I also got to create what I think is an interesting memoir. There’s lots of music stuff in it, but I also detail the early days of the ’70s which people don’t know much about. The paperback version of the book is coming out late May.
My last question: how did you handle times in your earlier career, when things didn’t immediately take off?
Daryl and I were very lucky, because when record companies signed you, it was because they believed in your talent; they didn’t expect you to have immediate success, the way things are today. We got to make four albums before we even got a single hit. For any good band, it takes years and years to come together.
Cover image by Philip Murphy Photography.