By Carol Anne Szel
In the mid-'80s, the Goo Goo Dolls came on to the music scene as this band of rebellious, punk, angry young men, ready to take on the world with their incensed sound of angst and abandon in the suburban working-class city of Buffalo New York. Far, far away from the niche of punk/alternative crowd of musicians banding around hot spots of New York City, the Goo Goo Dolls had an even more difficult hurdle to jump to clear and pass the popular sounds of that day with the likes of Madonna, Debbie Gibson, and New Kids On The Block dominating the top of the charts.
Goo Goo Dolls' musical history reads almost like something out of a rock and roll handbook. Struggling for over a decade with albums that received great critical acclaim but relatively mediocre commercial success, the band found themselves with their first hit tune, “Name” in 1995 from their “A Boy Named Goo” release and toured relentlessly for the next couple of years, hot on the heals of that triumph. Solidifying their spot on the radar, however, came with a song they penned for the “City Of Angels” movie soundtrack, “Iris,” which ended up living almost a year on the Billboard Charts with seventeen of those weeks at the # 1 spot.
Now 24 years and 10 million albums later, this trio led by singer Johnny Rzeznik and rounded out by guitarist and co-founder Robby Takac, and drummer Mike Malnin, has brought their lyrical content back to a more mature sense of socially conscious urgency in a more introspective and thoughtful musical manner with the release of “Something For The Rest Of Us.”
Catching up with Rzeznik these days proved to be no easy task. With the end of their successful nationwide summer tour, I had the chance to spend time with this charismatic singer/songwriter to find a musician with candor, a great deal of real emotion, and ultimately an afternoon filled with intensely smart conversation.
I was looking at some of the Goo Goo Dolls' bits and pieces of information on the internet. One outlet said you had gone from “old drunk thrash rockers,” to now being “modern rock superstars.” Is that a valid comparison of where you were to where you are now?
JR: I think so, yeah. I think a lot of writers hold that against us. That we didn’t disintegrate and we grew up but evolved into something else. But I’d always written like slow songs and ballads and that kind of thing. For a long time all I wanted to be was Paul Westerberg. All I wanted to be was The Replacements, that’s what we wanted to be. They were like everything we wanted to be.
But once you finally realize that you can’t, that you have to find your own voice — because you can’t capture the essence of what they were — then you’re kind of forced into a situation where you evolve and find your own voice or just stop. But then that song “Name” came along that we were completely blindsided by because it got picked up by so many radio stations and became a big hit. And I’m really grateful for that because somehow we wound up with the ball and we decided to hang onto it as long as we could and keep running.
Do you think you’ll ever go back to your alternative punk sound of the early Goo Goo Dolls era?
JR: No, I’m too old for that. That’s music for kids. It’s sort of like the boiler plates teenaged rebellion sort of thing. There will always be punk bands that will always sound like punk bands from 30 years ago.
How do you look back at those times?
JR: It was fun, I’m glad I did it. It made me, you know, traveling around the country in a van and sleeping on people’s floors and all the ridiculous things that we did just to survive out there. It made us really tough.
You have grown up and into your sound.
JR: Yeah, I mean an angry young man can be really compelling, but a bitter old man is just annoying. Not that I’m an old man, I’m in my 40s. I think you’ve got to rely on your brain a little bit more. You have to reach a point of kind of like trying to be more emotionally honest with yourself and trying to lose the mask that you have to wear when you’re a young man. A kid. When you’re a kid in your late teens or early 20s you have to wear this mask. Everything is a competition, everything is a façade. And you’re trying to constantly prove yourself to everyone. And there comes a time in life when it just gets exhausting. If you don’t find out who you really are, what your true self is, and who you are generally inside yourself, you become stagnant. And boring, and bitter.
What sort of things did it take back then?
JR: Well, you pull into college campuses in a van and you’d go find the gym and then just walk in there like you belong there and take a shower and leave. And I’ve got to admit I’ve eaten lunch in a supermarket a few times.
I just love the visual of that!
JR: Yeah, and then we’d just get a shower and get out of there. And um, really, really relying on the generosity of the people that come see you play. We used to always say this at the end of the show. ‘If you like our band buy a tee shirt, and if you love our band can you take us home with you tonight?’ Well, we went home with a lot of people.
Tell me about the song “As I Am.” Where did that come from?
JR: I wrote that about a guy who’s just completely discouraged with trying to put his family back together again. And feeling this sort of anxiety. I don’t know, I don’t know so much. But most of the men I know, they derive their identity from what they do in life. You know? And it’s sort of like at some point in time I’d like to get past that like ‘Hi I’m John, I’m a musician.’ It's like ‘Hey, I’m Steve, I’m a plumber.’ It’s like our work sort of defines who we are as human beings and at a certain point you kind of have to get beyond that I think.
Yes there’s so much more to one’s identity than just what a person does for a living.
JR: Right. And it’s (the song) almost like trying to remind himself to be grateful for what he does have. I think the anecdote to fear and bitterness is gratitude, for sure. However corny whoever reads this might think that is, I don’t care.
I think that’s what makes this album so unique.
JR: Right. What I’ve noticed is, it’s really funny, but I love old music. Really old music, you know? Benny Goodman and old folk singers, Pete Seeger and all that kind of stuff. And I noticed that Pete Seeger was a very socially-conscious person. And they wrote very direct stories about specific incidents that were going on at the time. I don’t like doing that but it’s interesting to listen to those guys and how brave they were to say those things. But I also notice that when times get tough there’s a huge amount of escapism in art and music, entertainment. You know people really want to escape the harshness of what’s going on in the real world. I find myself doing that, too.
The new album is very introspective, really a reflection of what’s going on in the world these days. Where did that come from in you?
JR: I just see everything getting more and more difficult for everybody. Except very few people. And I’m not the kind of writer that will make a blatant political or social statement because I just don’t want to do that. I think one of the things that makes music interesting and art and books is that if you write with a little room for interpretation then I think people are able to connect themselves to it a little more.
I think interpretation is part of what is lacking in the music that comes out today, as opposed to before. Everything was so instantaneous and now songs are fractured in pieces instead of albums as a whole. Self-interpretation should be part of the musical process.
JR: Yes, exactly. That’s the way it should be.
What was your process for writing the songs for the new release?
JR: It kind of took shape all on its own. Most of the music, most of the material I tried to get into more topical stuff rather than just talking about ... whatever. But it took a long time to do it for sure. You know I just started writing and I found the things I was writing about were sort of directly connected to. See I have this problem. I’ll have a conversation or I’ll read an email or a story in a newspaper or whatever, you know? And then I try to get into the position of what those people are thinking and feeling at that point. Or how is living in the worst economy since the Great Depression affecting people?
Because we all know people who are losing their homes and are being down-sized and who have been affected by both wars that are going on. So it’s a really, it’s a really crucial time and I think that everybody in the country is scared to death. But in a subtle and insidious way I think the Media injects fear into our lives non–stop, 24 hours a day.
You almost can’t get away from it.
JR: Yeah, and it’s really just all because of the corporate-ocracy that kind of had its roots with Ronald Reagan and what’s been going on for 30 years. And everything that made America great has been dismantled. So, many of the things that made America great has slowly been eroded over the past 30 years. And I think it’s fundamentally wrong, but I don’t want to preach, so let’s go on.
How do you escape?
JR: You know what; I watch a lot of old movies. Really, really old movies. Because the world is so complicated. And you turn the news on and in between all the bad news are all these television commercials about how you’re gonna die. And what you should ask your doctor you should be taking so you don’t die. I think we’re living in a time of fear. Fear is the dominant emotion, and I really don’t think we have that much to be afraid of. As much as it’s ‘oh my god, the glaciers are melting and the terrorists are living among us, we have to protect our freedom.’ People are getting pushed to the edge.
Yes, there seems to be a constant state of fear hyper-awareness.
JR: And obviously we have to be aware. But I think people, for the past 10 years, or since 9/11, have been so beaten down by threat after threat after threat. And I don’t think that’s all, you know, honest. I don’t think all the threat is honest, I think there is definitely ... I mean, I don’t like to use the word conspiracy. Now the right wing is trying to scare up a lot of racial stuff. Really, like, come on, guys.
Like FOX News?
JR: Oh it’s the propaganda arm of the right in this country. I’m not even going to say Republicans; it’s even further to the right.
So, the new album.
JR: Oh yeah!
Is that the sort of process you go through generally when you record?
JR: Yeah, it’s like ‘okay here’s what we’ve got, how can we make it better?’ And there wasn’t a lot of pressure from the record company to like rush it out, rush it out, rush it out. So we took advantage of the time.
Would you ever have imagined you’d be doing these 24 years and nine albums later with such huge musical success?
JR: It’s been a pretty crazy ride. It’s sort of weird because you put your head down and you keep going. Which is my manager’s advice to me all the time. ‘Put your head down and keep working.’ And then you lift your head up and you’re like ‘oh my god!’ It’s like fifteen years, where did it all go?
Now I understand you have a studio up in Buffalo, do you still live there or are you LA-Buffalo?
JR: I split it up. My whole family still lives in Buffalo so I get up there to see them as much as I can. Robby and I re-built an old recording studio in Buffalo, which I actually had a job scrubbing toilets in when I was a kid. But I kind of backed away from it and let Robby take it over, it’s more his passion than mine.
Speaking of Robby, you guys have been together for 25 years. That’s amazing.
JR: Yeah. Yeah that’s what happens when you’re Catholic. No divorces!
Tell me about the song “Nothing Is Real,” the tune really touched me.
JR: I think that was kind of me, I was just sort of writing. I went back to Buffalo and you know, it’s my home but it’s changed so much since I’ve been away so long. And that song made me realize that old cliché; I don’t know what you want to call it, that old saying. You can never go home again. Because it’s like ‘wow, this is not the place I grew up. This is nothing like the place I grew up.’ And I love it there and I love the people there. It could be my home again, it could be some day. But I’d have to grow back into it a different, a different culture. Because the culture there has definitely changed.
What would you like to tell your fans about the new release?
JR: Wow that’s tough. I would say ‘this is where I’m at right now. If you dig it, great. And if you don’t, I’m sorry.’
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