A chat with the Goo Goo Dolls’ ‘Magnetic’ John Rzeznik

InterviewMay 29, 2014AXS

Even the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry – particularly when the men spend every waking hour traipsing around the world in search of the perfect melody. Having been front and center for most of the Goo Goo Dolls’ endless roster of billion-sellers, it's mind-boggling to think that frontman and primary songwriter John Rzeznik wasn’t the original choice for the band’s lead vocals.

Coinciding with their inspired move towards the rock infused pop melodies that define them, the Goos opted to have Rzeznik handle the primary vocals rather than animated bassist Robby Takac. The result? An incredible run of 14 consecutive Top 10 multi-format hit songs, including "Name," “Slide,” “Black Balloon” and the “all-everything” song that boosted them to superstardom, “Iris”. Not too shabby for three guys that got together “for no better reason than to kill time, make some music, and hopefully get a few free beers from the clubs where they were lucky enough to get a gig.”

The Goo’s insightful songwriter Rzeznik took the time to chat with AXS recently about the band's career and their latest Top 10 album, 2013's Magnetic, as the band prepared for their upcoming summer tour kicking off June 7 in Pittsburgh. Rzeznik’s ability to weave reflective lyrics and an appealing melody into an exceptional musical tapestry is a big reason for the band’s draw. As seamlessly as the tunes fit together, it’s sobering to realize that the songwriter's brilliance is more than just “nature” – there’s some “nurture” there as well.

“I think that I had an innate sense for it. And the more I did it and watched other people do it, the more I learned about it. I think it’s a combination of both definitely. I started humming ‘da, da, da, da’ all the time or singing all the time when I was a kid, and then growing and learning and listening to a lot of music. All you’ve got to do is take a walk down a street in New York City and you find yourself being inspired. Or read a story about something, read a book.”

As evidenced by the bands’ endless list of hits, Rzeznik has learned his lessons well. But he confessed that he’s a different songwriter than he was 30 years ago. “The biggest difference is that instead of writing an entire album worth of songs, I write one song at a time now. And I sit down and I work with this piece of music until it’s done, words, music, melodies, instrumentation arrangement. That takes a lot of pressure off me. It gives you time to assess what you’re doing and be more thoughtful about it.”

Rzeznik’s progression as a songwriter is on full display on Magnetic. But the most enjoyable aspect of creating the new album for him was the opportunity to work with other artists. “The biggest difference in writing Magnetic was getting into the power of collaboration. That is what made this album for me.”

“I was sitting in a room by myself starting to write music and I just said, ‘You know, I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do this by myself.’ I had a conversation with my manager and he said, ‘Well, go get together with some people and write with them.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I think you’re right.’ And I went out and did it.”

“It was a challenge at first because I really hadn’t done that much of it. I had here and there but I hadn’t taken on an entire project. But once I found a flow with the people I was working with, it was awesome. It was amazing. I get inspired by other people’s ideas too, you know? Like, when someone comes up to me, ‘Hey listen to this guitar riff.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s really awesome. I think I can sing this melody over it. Yes! This is great.’”

“I don’t care if this record ever sells a million copies or whatever, it’s always going to be a huge success for me because I enjoyed myself so much. I laughed every day. I got to work with writers and producers that I really love and respect and became friends with and it’s exciting to be part of something.”

Notwithstanding his skilled tunesmithing, there’s nothing complicated about writing songs to Rzeznik. “I mean we’re trying to tell stories about life,” he explained. “It seems to be the simplest way for me to explain that they’re just stories about people and lives or conversations that I've had or someone I saw walking down the street and just imagined what their life must be like.”

Rzeznik’s “stories” have resonated with fans in a way that is unprecedented. And yet the talented artist has occasionally been surprised at the success – or lack of it – of one of his gems. “Yeah, more of those than the other way (laughing), for sure. More going, ‘I don’t understand. Why didn’t it do better?’ But yeah, it’s gone both. I never expected ‘Iris’ to be that big. And I always thought ‘Rebel Beat’(the lead single from Magnetic) was gonna be bigger than it was.”

With 14 “big” hits, the Goos generally don’t have a problem coming up with a crowd-pleasing setlist. As with any artist, Rzeznik and his bandmates try to strike a balance between playing those fan favorites note for note and throwing in the occasional improvisation.

“You know, I think if the mood hits you to do something, you do it. If you’re not feeling like taking liberties that particular night and you want to just play the song the best you can, then I think you go that way. You just make up your mind.”

“Some nights I’ll sing a song completely differently than on the record, but it all depends. It’s really important to play to your audience, to look at them and try to connect with them, so you sort of see what the energy in the room is and then you go from there.”

Given their ability to connect with Goo Goo Dolls fans, don’t be surprised if the band fires off another string of 14 chart toppers. Rzeznik wasn’t quite ready to admit how many he had left in him.

“You know what, I think every song that I wrote is a chart topper (laughing). But it’s not up to me, it’s up to the charts and the radio and that’s something I have no control over. So I'm really trying not to worry about it, not to think about it.”

That’s just fine for the loyal legions of Goo Goo Dolls fans. They’ll be happy to do his thinking for him.