Interview: Goo Goo Dolls’ John Rzeznik
The alt-rock frontman from Buffalo discusses the band’s new Christmas album including one of the meanest festive songs ever written
Multi-platinum alt-rockers Goo Goo Dolls have been making records for more than three decades. The band’s ability to cross the boundaries between indie-rock and popular music is rare, but they have shown that the two don’t have to be seen as opposites.
Quietly, but solidly, breaking records, John Rzeznik and Robby Takac have contributed an array of songs to the American songbook and connected with millions of music fans globally. Garnering four Grammy Award nominations and achieving 14 number one and Top 10 hits with songs such as Iris, Name and many more, makes it clear that their place in music history is well-earned.
Following the acute impact of coronavirus, fresh challenges presented themselves to all musicians, and John Rzeznik’s response was to approach it as a creative opportunity and go and record a new album, which became It’s Christmas All Over.
This year has been difficult in many ways. As a musician, how have you dealt with the pandemic and the impact?
“I’ve just been trying to stay in one place and do something creative, that’s how this Christmas record came about. When it felt like I was going insane, I knew I had to do something.
“I just wanted to do something completely unexpected. I wanted to enjoy myself creatively, have fun with it. So, we did the album, we’ve done some live streams, the usual thing that I guess everybody’s trying to do.”
How do you assess the live streams?
“Yes, they have actually been really fun, there was one on this thing called FanTracks. It was amazing, this cool stage, lights… it was like a real concert. I think somewhere between 60,000-100,000 people joined in. I am happy about that.”
That must have been uplifting?
“People really need positive things first of all. They need to do the right thing for each other as well as for themselves. People need distraction, they need something fun in their lives. We’re all struggling to get through this, it’s easier to struggle through things with other people than it is on your own.”
Who did you collaborate with, and did It’s Christmas All Over feel easy from the start?
It was pretty interesting. I produced the record with Brad Fernquist and Jimmy McGorman, they are guys who play in our band. The songs came very easily. I love Christmas, I love Christmas songs and Christmas music. I love the old style and recordings. I just wanted to see if I could do it as well.”
How did you go about selecting the covers for inclusion?
“What I realised during this project is that there aren’t a lot of Christmas songs out there, they just keep getting recycled. There are just some songs that are undeniable and you have to do them, and they seem fun.
“Then there’s the stuff that we wrote. One is sentimental, the other is like a satire just like whatever a parent thinks and says to their child. Jimmy McGorman’s daughter sings on it. She is seven years old. He played it for me, and he was like, I can work on it! It’s not perfect, but there’s an honesty, and only a kid can have that kind of honesty.”
You co-produced it, how did you find that?
“It was easier because I had those two guys help me navigate the water of what I call ‘real musicians’. Brad and Jimmy are very educated musicians, I’m not, I’m from the garage scene. They helped bridge the gap from me to the horn and string players and all that. We were just happy to do something that we felt that was going to have some positive effect, maybe small, but positive nonetheless.”
It sounds as if it was fun to make?
“Yes, it really was. It was the most fun I’ve had making a record in a long time, because there were no boundaries. I guess people have their expectations of you. Of course, it’s cheesy, it’s a Christmas record! Go out, get drunk, and listen to the record, that’s my message.”
Where did you record it?
“We locked ourselves up in this very cool, old recording studio in the neighbourhood in Los Angeles, which we all fell in love with because it was so chilled there. A very old Mexican neighbourhood, just really cool. It was really vibey, you walk in the studio, it just looked like you got the Wayback Machine and landed in 1968, in this room, so we studied a little bit on how did they made recordings way back then.
“‘Don’t make a Michael Bublé record,’ I believe that was what was written on the wall on the top floor, not that there’s anything wrong with Bublé, and I think he’s wonderful, but that’s not me. I’ve got too much dirt under my fingernails.
“Literally, when we were in LA at that time, it was like there was nobody there. It was really freaky because you’re sitting in a traffic jam, and then you could drive ten miles in ten minutes. It was weird, but it was fun because we all got together, we were hunkered down in the studio, we had our own little bubble.”
Please pick a track and tell us how it came about?
“My favourite song on the album is You Ain’t Getting Nothin’. I was sitting there playing on the piano, playing some jazz bass riffs, something funky like that and Jimmy started elaborating on that. We just starting firing the most sarcastic and cynical lines that we could that we thought were funny.
We were just writing the lines down on a yellow notepad, it. It was just fun trying to make each other laugh. There was so much joy involved in doing this album. It could possibly be the second meanest Christmas song ever written next to You’re A Mean One Mr Grinch.
How do you feel your songwriting has developed over time?
“I’ve been a professional songwriter for almost thirty years. The band were around, I was writing and touring in that time, but in the early days, I always had to come home and do the day-job. So when songwriting became my job I always hoped that my writing would grow up with me and didn’t alienate people.
“The raw inspiration of youth wanes a bit though. When the inspiration comes it goes quicker, so I have to keep my eye out for it more and grab it. But sometimes the songs come very easily. After I get my initial inspiration for it, I have to seize on that moment and then you bring out your set of tools, your musical hammer and screwdriver, and start building it.
“By tools, I mean that’s when the work starts. You sit there, and sometimes you’ve gotta get up and go for a walk because it’s not coming as easily as it used to. But I always ask myself what it is I am trying to say. Lamont Dozier told me to get up to take a walk, then go and sit down and try again.”
How important is collaboration to your songwriting?
“It’s a humbling experience at first, but you start to learn the power of collaboration. The guys that I collaborate with I absolutely love, we are all friends, we more or less sit around in a room, we laugh and tell each other dirty jokes, and then we write a song. I’ve got a small, little group of friends that I love to write songs with.
“At some point in time if you’re gonna do this long-term like I’ve been so fortunate to do, you realise that you’ve gotta reach out for help sometimes. It can be better when you share the experience with someone. I always walk away from every writing experience feeling good, even if I think I’ll never write with that person again.”
Does your songwriting require more self-discipline now?
“There is a work ethic involved, much more than there used to be. When I was younger and drank a lot, I would sit up all night, chain-smoking cigarettes, playing guitar and drinking wine, just writing. But eventually, that doesn’t really work anymore. The one thing, as I’m getting older, is that I have to sit in my own frustration and my own fear, ask myself about what I have got, things like, ‘What if I never write a song again?’
“But you will always be able to write a song again, it may not be good, and people may not wanna hear it, but you can still write, that’s a start. So that kind of eases the tension. What I’ve learnt is to let go, just let it out. I’m not always successful at it, but I try.
“Of course, I want people to love my music, I want everyone to love it. I think that’s why a lot of musicians, actors, artists do what we do is that we have this little hole in ourselves that we’re trying to fill inside.”
You know what mainstream success feels like, does that add additional pressure to the writing process?
“I have learnt to set it aside and put it in a box. I think I have to keep it kind of ‘selfish’ in a way. I have to just record, thoughts like, ‘What if I lose my record deal?’ are not always useful. ‘Well, then I’ll put records out myself.’ I’ll run through the worst possible case scenarios and then I’m ok. I sit down and play the guitar, if nothing’s coming out then I’ll just play the piano instead. Or I’ll just go and listen to some music and hang out.
“I’m at a point in my life and career where I have to take a different approach. Music is a young man’s game in a lot of ways, and music has become very disposable. There’s more music out there than ever because of the internet and the possibilities of that.
“It’s almost impossible to find a lot of the things that I like now, new stuff that’s good. I used to listen to a lot of music on Twin Town Records and SSG Records, those were labels you went to. I really dug the bands that these labels signed. But some of the major labels are all publicly traded companies now, it’s all about the bottom line. They don’t care too much about what kind of music they are putting out as long as they are making money.”
Despite the vast amounts of music, have you found a contemporary band or artist who have caught your imagination?
“One artist that I really like is Sam Fender. He has the potential to be the voice of his generation. I listen to his lyrics, he’s telling these stories, and it’s incredible. He’s really great, and he’s already done a lot already. My wife’s nieces lived with us, and they are 18 and 21, so when they hear something they like they’ll send it to me.
“Sometimes I get it, there’s a lot of passive listening music, just something you put on while you’re doing the dishes or something, but when someone can actually grab your attention, make you listen, and have an effect on you, that’s different.”
Talk us through some of your all-time favourite songwriters and artists…
“Tom Petty is my favourite songwriter, just because he went through so many different phases, and he was always cool. I was such an indie-rock snob, I didn’t like anything that was on a major label, but Tom Petty was always cool to listen to.
“He had his early period, then he had the stuff he was doing with Dave Stewart producing. Then, there was all the music he did with Jeff Lynne and then his time with Rick Rubin. All these different phases that he grew through, he was growing the hole time, it was really amazing, and he wrote all these songs. I also really like Bruce Springsteen, he always writes great songs and David Bowie was really good.”
Do you feel those songwriters have inspired your own writing?
“They inspired me in the sense that the music is so great that it provokes strong emotion. For me as a writer, I might take inspiration from something here and there, and I guess they helped inspire what my own voice has become.”
How do you know if a song is good? How do you know when you have something meaty?
“I don’t know what’s good or what’s bad, but I know what I like. It might just be one song that I’ve worked on, or I might just have been collating ideas or doing demos for the record when I realise it.
“When a song sticks in my head all day long, I say, ‘Let’s pursue that, let’s go with that!’ We need those earworms that don’t leave you. I love it when something I write just annoys me when I’m trying to fall asleep. Then, I know that’s the one I’m going to choose.”
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