While meditating on marital problems in his new Netflix special, “Tamborine,” Chris Rock breaks out an analogy that splits audience members’ sides.
“You in a band. It’s like Hall and Oates,” the comedian says of how married couples should view their relationships. “I don’t know what Oates does. But Hall never had a hit record without him.”
Upon being informed of the joke, the butt of it – that’d be John Oates, one-half of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame duo – cracks up. “Thanks, Chris. Real nice,” says the 69-year-old co-writer of chart-topping songs like “Maneater” and “Out of Touch,” though the sarcasm is nearly drowned out by his (genuine) laughter.
Then he gets serious about the long-held perception that he didn’t carry his weight.
“Look, if you relate to Hall & Oates in terms of the ’80s hits and the MTV videos, sure, it’s Daryl, Daryl, Daryl – singing, out front, he’s the guy, he’s the lead singer, blah blah blah,” Oates says. “It’s like Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones. Sure, everybody loves Keith Richards, but when you see the pictures, it’s Mick Jagger. It’s natural. That’s just the way things are. I’ve always been a little bit more of a nuts and bolts kind of guy – much more involved in the production and the stuff that goes on that isn’t as sexy and isn’t as in-your-face. And that’s OK, ’cause I really don’t care about that.”
What he does care about is making music. And this decade – for those keeping score – he’s made a lot more of it than his old pal Hall.
Since 2011 (the last year that Hall came out with new music on his own), Oates has made three solo records. The latest, “Arkansas,” was released Feb. 2 and is an exploration of Oates’s lifelong love of American roots music; it features a mix of songs by his idol, Mississippi John Hurt, as well as covers of tunes by Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Blake and Emmett Miller, plus two original compositions.
Oates and his Good Road Band will do the Americana thing at Charlotte’s intimate Neighborhood Theatre on Friday, with the bandleader primarily on an acoustic guitar. But if you’re partial to ’70s and ’80s pop-rock, you’re in luck: Oates and Hall will be at uptown’s cavernous Spectrum Center on June 18, when the dynamic duo will co-headline at the arena with Train.
Oates spoke with the Observer recently about “Arkansas,” aging, and what it’s like to wear two different musical hats.
Q. I’m curious about your creative process. It’d been three or four years since your last album (2013’s “Good Road to Follow”). So were you sitting around going, “OK, I need to come up with new music, I need to come up with new music,” and then out eventually came “Arkansas”? Or is it more organic than that?
A. Much more organic. I hate to be hippy-dippy, but it was kind of a magical thing that happened. I just enjoy recording, I enjoy being creative, and I have a studio that I use all the time with an amazing engineer. So I called him up and I said, “Hey man, I just wanna cut some Mississippi John Hurt tracks.” That’s something I’ve always loved to do, and if I’m left to my own devices, sittin’ on the sofa, that’s what I’m gonna play. So I went in, cut about four things with just acoustic guitar and my voice, and I thought, Maybe I’ll put it out as an EP, or give it away to fans, or whatever. Then I started listening to it and I went, I wonder what would happen if i put a band together. ...
My first call was Sam Bush, because anytime I play with him, something great happens. Then I got Russ Pahl, who is this incredible innovative pedal steel player, and Nat Smith, a cello player who plays kind of like a fiddler. The combination of the pedal steel and the cello created this texture that I had never heard before, and after the very first track we cut, my engineer turned to me, and he said, “Man, I don’t know what this is, but it’s good – and you should just keep doing it.” It took on this life of its own. If you strip away all the instrumentation on the record, you’re gonna hear me playing kind of the traditional songs, in the traditional style. But when you add what these guys have done to it – I mean, I wish I could say I had this grand vision, that I knew exactly what it was gonna be. But I had no idea. ...
I just fell in love with the sound. I kept the guys together, and we recorded everything in two weeks – a one-week recording in November of ’16, and then another one-week recording in January of ’17 – and it was done. I wrote a couple of originals to flesh it out and kind of modernize it, in a sense, and bring it a little bit more closer to home for me. And that was the record. It happened so fast and it was so effortless, and my experience is that when it’s like that, that’s usually where the best work happens.
Q. So is recording in the studio what gives you the greatest high? Or is it writing? Or touring? Something else?
A. Boy, they’re all different. They’re all fractions that lead up to a whole number. I love the writing process, because you’re making something from nothing, creating something that wasn’t there before and now it is. The studio recording is a little bit more a craftsman thing, where you’re really making sure everything’s covered. Then when you go play it live, that’s the exuberant part. That’s where you throw it all out there and cool things happen spontaneously on stage. So they’re all different.
Q. What part did you enjoy most back in the day?
A. I mean, when I was first starting out, and gettin’ together with Daryl, it was all about creating a career. Figuring out how to collaborate with another person. Figuring out where our sweet spot was gonna be in terms of what we would bring to the table together. Putting a band together. Getting an album deal. It was all these incremental steps that happened during the ’70s, when I was in my 20s. Then in my 30s, during the ’80s, it was all about ridin’ this crazy wave of pop success. And I just rode with it. I wasn’t really thinkin’ too much. I made a lot of mistakes – especially personal mistakes. Things in my personal life that weren’t the best decisions and choices, and I had to recover from that during the ’90s. That opened the door for me to be a different person and eventually migrate to Nashville, where I was able to kind of find myself. So it’s been this interesting journey of discovery and rediscovery.
Q. So you’re saying you’re more yourself now?
A. Oh yeah. After all these years, it seems almost too hard to believe, but I think this (“Arkansas”) is really who I am. This music really defines me as a musician. I’ve brought every experience that I’ve had to bear in the process of making this record: My 50 years of studio recording experience, my rediscovery of what I loved as a kid, and my modern skill that I’ve developed from singing and playing all these years. It all really came together on this record.
Q. Would you call this your best record?
A. Without a doubt. There’s no doubt in my mind. It’s the record I always wanted to make, except I didn’t know I wanted to make it.
Q. How would you describe the show you’ll be bringing to Neighborhood Theatre?
A. It’s a storytellers’ show. What I try to do is I try to put these songs and this music into a context of time and history. I don’t wanna make it feel like a history lesson, but in a way, it’s kind of a musical history lesson. A lot of people have commented that they really enjoy the fact that I’m maybe giving them some insight into this music that really is the beginning of American popular music. It coincides with the beginning of radio, where music could be heard in the home, and it also coincides with the popularity of the phonograph machine, which also allowed music to be played in the home. That was a revolutionary concept in the 1920s. If you think about it, these are the first records that became popular records, which paved the way for – well, it paved the way for everything. For rock ‘n’ roll, and everything that came after it. It’s an interesting period of time that I don’t think a lot of people – especially a lot of the younger generation – really understands or pays attention to. So in that regard, it’s kind of a chance for me to say, “Hey, listen, there was music before rock ‘n’ roll, and this is it, and this is where it led to.” It kind of connects the dots for people.
Q. Well, and then in June, you’ll be back with Daryl playing for 18,000 people instead of 800. Can you talk a little bit about playing small venues versus playing big ones?
A. What I like about the small venues is I can look people in the eye, and I can tell stories, and I see their reaction. Sometimes they’ll shout out stuff and it becomes almost like an interactive kind of thing. It’s really cool. The sound is very controlled, and it’s all about the music. There is nothing else going on except four guys on stage playing. I think people really appreciate that. Then on the other side of the coin, walking into the giant arenas, it’s a spectacle of sorts. It’s the music plus – it’s this giant production, and it’s these huge video screens. For the people up front, sure, they’re seeing a band on stage, but for a large majority of the audience, they’re actually watching a TV show in a way. Especially the people up in the nosebleed seats, they’re probably watching these video screens and that’s the experience they’re getting. It’s big, it’s brash, it’s powerful, it’s over-the-top. It’s a completely different mindset.
Q. But I can’t tell from that answer. Do you still enjoy the big tours?
A. I do. Look, I’m very proud of the music I made with Daryl, that those songs have stood the test of time. They’ve provided me with a platform to do anything I want. I don’t take that for granted. I’m very conscious of that. The Hall & Oates band is an amazing band, and I love playing with great musicians. So I have the best of all worlds. Then I go on stage with my Good Road Band in these small venues and we have this unbelievable synergy. ... So it’s like I have two incredible bands. I’m a lucky guy. There’s hardly anybody that gets to do what I’m doing, and gets to be accepted in both worlds.
Q. Well, so I don’t want you to give away any secrets if you don’t want to, but will you do any Hall & Oates songs at the Neighborhood show?
A. I throw a few in here and there. But I’ll tell ya, I’ve had six solo albums, and when I first started playing live solo, the audience came expecting to hear Hall & Oates songs. They’d always shout out, you know, “Rich Girl!” “Kiss on My List!” But now, they don’t do that anymore, because they know that that’s not what they’re getting. And quite frankly, if you wanna hear Hall & Oates, come to the arena and hear the real thing, you know? There’s no reason to come to hear half of Hall & Oates when you can hear all of Hall & Oates. So I don’t even bother. It’s not really something I do. I only do it if I want to.
John Oates solo
When: 8 p.m. Friday.
Where: Neighborhood Theatre, 511 E. 36th St.
Details: 704-942-7997; www.neighborhoodtheatre.com.
Hall & Oates and Train
When: 7 p.m. Monday, June 18.
Where: Spectrum Center, 333 E. Trade St.
Tickets: $40 and up.
Details: 800-745-3000; www.ticketmaster.com.