Kevin Barnes as Hall & Oates
of Montreal vs. Hall and Oates Part 1
Kevin Barnes interviews Daryl Hall
Sep 29, 2009 Issue #28 Fall 2009 - Monsters of Folk Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern (Kevin Barnes photos)
If you were anywhere near a radio in the '80s, you are likely familiar with Daryl Hall and John Oates. The duo's string of hits is remarkable—"You Make My Dreams," "Private Eyes," "Maneater," "Out of Touch," and more. In fact, they are considered the most successful pop duo in music history, with 22 Top 20 singles, six platinum albums, and six albums gone gold. On the surface, Hall & Oates couldn't be more different from Athens, Georgia's of Montreal. But of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes grew up on Hall & Oates and harbors a not-so-guilty liking for the pair's music. "The songs definitely were songs I liked a lot, and actually I had forgotten about them," says Barnes. "Then within the last four or five years, they sort of came back into my consciousness, and I started realizing how cool those songs are." Under the Radar hooked up Barnes (who plans to release a new of Montreal album, False Priest, next year) with Daryl Hall and John Oates to discuss the band's history (showcased in the new box set Do What You Want, Be What You Are: The Music of Daryl Hall and John Oates) and what makes Hall & Oates tick. Individually, Hall & Oates keep busy on their own, and they also continue to tour together as a duo. Hall has the webcast Live From Daryl's House, and Oates has a comedy web series, J-Stache, in the pipeline. This is part one of our interview, in which Kevin Barnes talks to Daryl Hall. Also check out part two, where he talks to John Oates.
Kevin Barnes vs. Daryl Hall
Kevin Barnes: OK, so I got your box set, and I was actually really amazed with the first couple of songs, 'cause I was very familiar with your late '70s and early '80s stuff—it's kinda the music I grew up with—but I didn't realize that you made such soulful music as a teenager. Maybe I read it wrong, but it seemed like you had that song, "Girl I Love You" when you were like, 17? Is that true?
Daryl Hall: Yeah.
Kevin: Listening to production and everything is amazing! I mean, were those session musicians or were they members of your actual band?
Daryl: No, that Temptones song, the "Girl I Love You" song was actually the first record I cut with Kenny Gamble. You know who Gamble and Huff are, right?
Daryl: They sort of are known as the fathers of the Philadelphia sound, the sound of Philadelphia. Anyway, Kenny had a band called Kenny Gamble and the Romeos. They were his band, and they turned into the core of the session players that played on all those Philly records. And they're the guys who played on "Girl I Love You."
Kevin: OK. You must have been, just like, in heaven. Were you pinching yourself the whole time, like "Oh my God! Here I am!"
Daryl: Yeah well, we were all kids. They weren't much older than me. We were all in this little room in a four-track studio in North Philadelphia making these records. And, you know, it was primitive land man. You were allowed to overdub one thing and that was about it. And it was the early days, but it was, you know, an amazing time to be around in Philadelphia. It was a great music scene, and it was really unique, and I owe a lot of what I do to coming up through that at that time.
Kevin: It's amazing too, because when I listen to that song it seems very fresh still. It doesn't seem dated at all. Maybe it's just my personal appreciation for that kind of music, but most of the music from the '60s, soul music, it doesn't seem dated somehow. It's just like a magical formula at work or something.
Daryl: It was a weird thing. It came out of this hybrid of things in Philly. A lot of it came out of people singing. It was a very vocal thing, you know? And it came out of street corner singing, what some people call "doo-wop" music. But it was really R&B street corner singing that everyone that could sing did in Philly. Everyone had these little street corner groups and they would sing. And the good ones would get to go into the studio, you know? The night that I cut "Girl I Love You"—if you want to go back and listen to another song—the same night that that was cut was a famous song by the Intruders called "Together." And they cut "Together" and "Girl I Love You" at the same time." So that's literally the same day. You can go check that song out. That's a very important Philadelphia record.
Kevin: OK. So were a lot of smaller labels releasing records locally? I saw that that song "Girl I Love You" is actually a pretty big hit.
Daryl: It was an indie thing. It was completely indie. It was financed by this guy that had a clothing store down in South Philly named Benny Krass. [He] was the bankroll. He used to put up money for kids to go out and cut songs. And he pretty much bankrolled Gamble and Huff, and I was on this little label called Artic Records, which had The Intruders, and had Barbara Mason, and The Temptones. And there was another label called Filet O' Soul that had a couple different bands on there. And it was all these little labels, just little labels that people would get financed by small businesses and things like that. And they were hooked up a lot by a radio station called WDAS, which was the R&B station in Philly, and they'd promote the records. You know, it was all tied together, real indie scene.
Kevin: And people would go to shows. I was trying to put it into context, because I'm sure you must have been a bit of an oddball being a white person making that kind of music.
Daryl: You know, if you were back there then, you'd understand it. I mean, I was just an oddball in general. Philly in those days was very racially integrated. You know, through the school systems, through the way people's neighborhoods were, it wasn't uncommon for white people, black people to sing together, to work together, to play together, do everything. It was really not that unusual at all.
Kevin: I guess this question kind of ties in with that, the way that you've been in the industry through so many different changes, just from a production standpoint, from like a studio environment standpoint. When you first started, everything was analog and most of the songs were cut live, and you basically got one or two takes. You were actually there for the advent of things like sequencers and samplers and drum machines and, later on, MIDI and autotuners and Pro Tools and all that stuff. I know that you definitely seem to embrace all the new changes in technology and production methods. I was just wondering if you feel that, in any way, the musical arts have suffered or have benefited from these changes.
Daryl: Well, I've got a lot of feelings about that—mixed feelings. I always used new technology as it came along as a tool. I mean, when the first polyphonic synthesizer came in about 1976, that was an amazing thing because, before that, all you had was a Hammond Organ and a Wurlitzer, a Fender Rhodes or something like that. You were really limited as a keyboard player in what kind of sounds that you could make. So something like that was a great tool to bring in. But you still used it in the old-fashioned way, you know? Even though it was a new tool, it was still used in the same way as a Fender Rhodes would be used.
And then in the '80s, when things came in like sampling and other things called synth claviers, and things like that where you could start sampling virtually any sounds you wanted, we used to use that as tools. But again, we used it in a very old-fashioned way because things hadn't changed, they hadn't gone completely digital. And you would use these new things in traditional ways. And, suddenly, there was this whole shift where computers came in, and it sort of took certain things away creatively from your ability to come up with ideas spontaneously. You got bogged down in trying to create sounds in a different way, and I think creativity suffered a little bit and is continuing to do that now.
I think things take too long. You used to be able to just punch things up and turn things—you know, analog, just turn dials and do whatever. You could come up with sounds really fast, really haphazardly and spontaneously in ways that you can't do it quite as easily with computers. Again, I think there's a shift back to a really traditional way of playing. New bands that play with me on [Live From] Daryl's House, you know, they come in with their acoustic guitars, and the production styles on their records, the CDs, are very simple, almost like the way they were back when I first started. So it's sort of a strange combination of complicated and simple that's existing side by side right now.
Kevin: I think it's also interesting, there's a lot of stuff you can do in the studio. Like myself, for example, I've made many songs just on a laptop and a MIDI keyboard. But when it comes time to perform it, maybe I can't even play the part I wrote. It's kind of like a fine line. You are able to accomplish things that maybe you wouldn't have been able to, but maybe you shouldn't be able to.
Daryl: You paint yourself into a corner, where you create so many sounds you can't reproduce it live. And that's what I finally came down to, where I really got back to the idea of: If you can't really do it live, leave it off the CD and leave it out of the production.
Kevin: But I guess in reality, though, the recorded piece is the one that lasts a lot longer than one performance of the song. That's the way I justify it. 'Well, this is the thing that people are going to hopefully listen to how many times they want to, and it doesn't really matter if I can't perform it live. Because if I die...'
Daryl: It's true. It lasts longer than the moment, the performing moment. I just say, 'Do whatever sounds right, whatever feels right.'
Kevin: I wanted to ask you about your songwriting partnership with John. The thing is, it's very rare for songwriting partnerships, any sort of friendship—especially a songwriting partnership—to last for decades. And I was just wondering, what is it about John or what is it about the dynamic between the two of you that makes it such a fulfilling collaboration that makes you want to keep going?
Daryl: Well, it's sort of a Jagger/Richards kind of thing. I use them as a perfect example because they started out as teenagers together. They were friends before they became partners, musical partners and creative partners. So they sort of knew each other in the beginning, and that's the way John and I started. We were just fresh out of high school and we got to know each other as people before we actually tried making music together. So we established a relationship that way that sort of transcends the business thing and even the artistic thing.
And we're very different kinds of people. He's the opposite of me. He's not overly spontaneous, and he's more meticulous, and he looks at things in a small, more intricate way. And I see broad strokes and broad pictures and tend to be more aggressive and the more dominant kind of person. And I think the essence of any good relationship is you have these opposite things that don't get in the way of the other person. And I think that that's what has sustained us over the years.
And also, a thing that sustained us is that we have these great songs that we like playing together, if you really want to just get simple about it. We like playing our songs, and there he is. And we have a great band that he's part of, and we like doing it. But we also like doing things separately.
Kevin: Yeah, I was going to say, do you feel that something is missing or just different when you work alone?
Daryl: No. Not at all. There's nothing missing. I feel just as fulfilled. In fact, in some ways, more fulfilled on my own than I do with John. But there's something with John and the Hall & Oates experience that brings its own history into it, that has its own life and its own dynamic. So it's not an either/or thing.
Kevin: I know that Lennon/McCartney dealt with this later on, where one person would basically write the whole song and the other person really had nothing to do with it. I was wondering if it was kind of weird for you to put the Hall & Oates stamp on it if there's a song that you completely composed all by yourself.
Daryl: We did that in the beginning. We were a lot like Lennon and McCartney, where I would write the song, basically, but John's name would get on there. And then we started, you know, being more meticulous about it, and I think after the mid- to late-'70s, actually after the Bigger Than Both of Us, "Rich Girl" time, we started being more exact about who did what on records. And we're a little more fair. Things got a little more fair.
Kevin: I was actually pretty surprised; I didn't know you had worked with people like Robert Fripp and Todd Rundgren. And I was really fascinated by the story behind Sacred Songs. I was just wondering, do you remember anything specific that really stood out to you about working with Robert Fripp?
Daryl: Robert, he was one of those people I met because, over the years, I spent a lot of time in England. I lived there and just spent a lot of time. And I met Robert though a friend, and we sort of got friendly. And then we decided to make a record together. And it really surprised people, because everybody thought that he made one kind of music and was a certain way. He had a real reputation for being a certain kind of person. And me, the same way, being a very different kind of person. But we had a lot of common ground even though our music on the outside is dissimilar.
We thought it was really interesting to put these two styles together and see what would happen. And we had a lot of fun making the record. One thing people don't know about Robert is that he's a funny guy. He's got a great sense of humor. And we laughed a lot. And we made this record that some people think is very serious art music. But it was made very humorously and with humor. It was a great experience working with him on two or three projects, and I'm glad I did it.
Kevin: I heard that your label was afraid that the album would somehow ruin your career.
Daryl: RCA. I was signed to RCA, and it was the old story. For some reason, people can't think in two steps. They can only think in one step. And all they saw was: 'Danger! Danger! Hall & Oates. Danger!' And they didn't see what this was. They didn't think two steps and say, 'OK, this is something that expands that thing and is in fact complementary to Daryl's career.' So there was a lot of stupidity involved. And they shut me down, basically. And Robert and I got very pissed off about it, and we sort of took it to the people, as best we could in those days. If there would have been an Internet, it would have been a lot easier. But we really went around to record stores and a lot of writers and to the media and complained and said, 'Look, RCA shut this guy down. They're stopping a great album from coming out.' And they finally released it. We put a lot of pressure on them, and they put it out. And so the world got to hear it.
Kevin: Do you feel that it's possible for one album to actually ruin an artist's career?
Daryl: I think one album, that for some people a single body of work, in a moment in time, can define that person. I think it's possible for that absolutely to happen. I think in my case that is not—I'm just a little to complex for that. I look at a lot of what I do in a group of pieces of work in order to understand what I'm all about. You can't really define me though one piece of music.
Kevin: I think that it's funny that people worry about that. Maybe not that often, but it seems like there are so many artists that are so nervous about keeping the formula going, they don't want to take any detours, but those detours are the things that really add credibility to your career, I think.
Daryl: At the beginning of my time with John, we got really nervous about it. I think we did what you are saying. You listen to our first three or four albums, we were trying really hard to do everything. Like, try everything, do everything, show people that we're not just one thing, you know? That worked and didn't work to some degree. We had mixed success with that. But at the same time, I guess we needed to do it. I think that most artists don't want to be pinned down to one thing. They don't want to be pigeonholed. I think the press—especially back in the old days—was really dominant and they used to do that. I think it's a little better for the artist today, because everything's a little more free. Freeform, you know? I think you can do what you want a little easier.
Kevin: Around the time of Sacred Songs, I saw that you were very interested in the writing of the mystic Aleister Crowley?
Daryl: Yeah, I was sort of in that period of time in my life where I was looking around. I grew up in a very, I don't know—I think I have a metaphysical attitude towards the world. Everybody wants to try and formulate opinions on what's going on around them, and what's the nature of reality. And I got pretty involved in all that stuff. I learned a lot from it. And through that I went to other things. I think some of my lyrics reflected what I was thinking about at the time or what I was reading, and I've used that as a part of my general philosophy of life.
Kevin: What do you think it is about that specific man that has attracted so many musicians like Jimmy Page and David Bowie and myself? I've also done some research on him; he seems like a pretty fascinating character.
Daryl: Oh, he influenced you too?
Kevin: Yeah, to some degree.
Daryl: Oh, so you know what I'm talking about.
Kevin: Yeah, I'm just sort of attracted to—
Daryl: Because a lot of people don't. A lot of people misunderstand what that fella's all about. He had a very unique way of looking at things. I think he borrowed from a lot of people, like everybody does, and he created an interesting philosophy, which is flawed, but at the same time has power and, I think, has a lot of use in your life. I think it's an interesting point of view. That's the best way I can put it. I think it has a special resonance to a creative person who doesn't have a chained brain, someone who thinks in broad strokes and thinks alternatively. I think that his philosophy has appeal to that mode of thinking.
Kevin: This is a totally different topic, but I've seen a few episodes of your web cast Live From Daryl's House. It seems like a really good opportunity for you to connect with other artists that you have an appreciation of—maybe meet somebody you've never met before—and kind of meet on an even playing field, because you're both musicians or whatever. I was just wondering, have you ever invited someone you wished you hadn't because it sort of demystified them in a bad way? Maybe they turned out to be a jerk or lost their chops or something.
Daryl: So far, on Live From Daryl's, I haven't hit that wall yet. I've been waiting, to tell you the truth. I keep saying to everybody, "When are we going to have our first asshole on the show?" But it hasn't happened yet. Everybody that comes on the show is unique in his or her own way. And they're all very nice people. I've really hit a string of really great people with interesting personalities. Some people are a little more humorless. Some people have great senses of humor. But everybody seems to be really eager to be there and relate to the moment in the right way.
Kevin: Cool. It seems like a very special experience anyway, just watching the show. It seems like it's a really nice environment—everyone's just kinda hanging out, having some food and playing some music.
Daryl: Exactly. When you go to somebody's house, it's the whole idea; you're not doing your act. Every kind of show that's ever been, that I know of, is usually the artist doing his or her act. And this show is not about an act. This show is about what happens on the outside and on the inside. And when you're in somebody's house, just playing and eating and talking, it really breaks that wall down and allows the audience to see people for what they really are. And I think that's one of the most interesting things about the whole experience.
Kevin: I read that you used to hang out with some of the members of The Ramones and Television back in the day, late-'70s, early '80s. And I was wondering what your opinion of punk rock was back in that time period. Did you feel like it was good for music or bad for music?
Daryl: I thought it was different with different people. I can't say I really knew The Ramones. But I used to be in a lot of places where they were—the same room. You know, these little loft parties and things like that, because I lived in New York City, in the Village, so I used to be around them. And I was around Tom Verlaine, who I did know, and all these people. And they're all different in their own ways. The Ramones always struck me as cartoons. That's the simplest way to put it. They're not intellectual giants, but what they did was really interesting, the way a cartoon is interesting. I always used to say they're Bugs Bunny. It's almost like a Bugs Bunny cartoon. They just do it, you know? It was something fresh and interesting about it, even though I'm not even sure they knew what they were doing. They were just doing it. And some of the other guys, like Tom Verlaine, had a little more intellectual attitude about it all. But it was an interesting scene. It was very different than what I came up through. I was a soul guy and an R&B guy. To live in New York in that period of time and be around that kind of music was sort of expansive to me. It exposed me to other sounds. Interacting with that, I absorbed it, and I think I used it in my own music.
Kevin: Did you feel like, at that time—Have you ever seen that movie Warriors about the gangs in New York?
Kevin: Where they're dressing up in different costumes? I kind of have this vision of New York at that time period being like that, like pre-Giuliani, before everything's kind of cleaned up. Did it feel sort of like a dangerous place?
Daryl: Yeah, New York in the '70s, late-'70s was a dangerous place. I did the show Z Rock. I don't know if you watched that show. We were filming it down on the East Village, and some of the people who were involved in the show had been around for a long time, and they said, "I remember when you couldn't even stand on this corner." If you walked down the street you would have got mugged. A woman couldn't have even showed her face down there. And I remember what it was like on the Lower East Side. That was just like no man's land down there. There was a lot of crime. There was a lot of smack going around. So there was a lot of petty crime—muggings, breaking in, burglaries, things like that. New York was very gritty, really gritty. And if you lived there, you just lived with that. I think that the music that came out of it sort of reflected that in some degree, to some degree. And it was a very different place than it is now, that's for sure.
Kevin: Philly was sort of the same way, wasn't it?
Daryl: Yeah, Philly was. But Philly was actually—[laughs] I sort of grew up with that, so I took it for granted. In some ways, Philly wasn't as random as New York was in those days.
Kevin: You knew what areas to stay out of or something.
Daryl: You knew where to stay away.
Kevin: This is my last question. I know you've been involved with many different creative projects with many different artists. Of all the albums that you've been involved with, if you had to choose one to put in a time capsule for future generations, which one defines your creative output the best? Which one would you put in that time capsule?
Daryl: Man, that's a hard one, because there's things I love about certain albums, and there's things I would say, "Let's just lose that." I don't know if I could pick a whole body of work, I don't know man. That's a really hard one, that's a really hard question. I'm sure, as an artist, you can imagine. It's like, the Abandoned Luncheonette record defined something; it defined Hall & Oates. I think my solo record Soul Alone defines me, in a way. It's really hard to pick one body of work that I'd say, "OK, here it is, this is it. This is all me, right here, you don't have to hear any more." That's a hard one man! I don't know if I could make that decision. Somebody else has to make that decision.
Kevin: Maybe you need to compile that record.
Daryl: I can take bits of various songs and put together a definitive "What am I all about" kind of statement.
Mark Redfern (Under the Radar): I was curious if you guys could talk about the different ways you approach live performance, because Kevin, you have fairly elaborate, staged shows with costumes and that kind of thing, and Daryl, obviously, your performance style is a more true, raw performance style.
Daryl: I've sort of been through all that, you know? At various times, just like everything else, I went through a period where I used to do more costumed kind of things, and my stage clothes were different than my street clothes and all that. I guess it's just like the music. This is purely personal, really; I just got back to the idea where I wear pretty much the same thing I do onstage as I do offstage. And that's just me. I think it goes along with the music. I think what I do right now is pretty casual and real. So, I think that my production style and my costuming style reflects that. But in the '80s, when I was doing things that were a little more intricate and less real, I think that visually I tried to express that also. So, that's me.
Kevin: Yeah, I guess for me it's kind of slightly different, in that I want to create an unreal situation on stage. So, even though the songs are still pertinent to my life and they are semi-autobiographical, I'm trying to create more of an extreme reality that doesn't really reflect what my normal reality is—just using music as an escape from what I might consider mundane in my life, using it to sort of elevate my existence. And it's also fun for me to have a bunch of people. Like, everyone that's involved in my band is people that I've been friends with a long time. It's basically like just an art project that we all collaborate on together. The live show, especially. And my brother is involved with the theatrics, and it's really fulfilling and fun to have something that is kind of complicated and requires a lot of people. But I can definitely understand what Daryl is saying, and there is definitely something cool about it being more transparent. Like, you just jump on stage, these are your songs. There's no pretense.
Daryl: Yeah, they both have power. Both sides have power. Like, what you do, Kevin, that goes back, man. That is the most ancient thing. When the first person put on a mask and danced around the fire and became something else, that's what you're talking about. It's elevating yourself. Taking what you do into some other place, you know? Some exalted place. And I definitely understand what you're talking about, too.
Mark: Daryl, you had such a long and successful career. I was curious what kind of advice you would give to Kevin about keeping that creative spark going for so long and maintaining longevity.
Daryl: You know, all I can say is there's a lot of pressure from the outside, from the gatekeepers, from the people in record companies. Well, as the technology changes, the restrictions change, where there's a push toward compromise. Trying to compromise, trying to do something you might not want to do or might be something that you might rationalize. And I say try and stay as much away from that as you can because it's you. It's your music, it's your work, it's your personality. As you said, it's your legacy. Long after you're gone, your CDs live on.
I think that an uncompromising attitude is really the right one. At the same time, you have to think about it. You have to think about what you're doing, and I know it's hard to do when you're doing it, because I can't. Whenever you're in the middle of something, you're just doing it. But just sort of be aware. And the other thing is, be aware of your business, man. I mean, the music business is a nasty motherfucking business. That's it for me.
Mark: Cool. Well, thanks a lot guys for doing this chat. It's been really cool.
Kevin: It's awesome. It was really fun.
Daryl: Yeah, man this is great. Good questions, Kevin.
Kevin: Oh, thank you.
Daryl: I guess that's it then. Thank you, Kevin. Thank you, Mark.