Cover Story: Goo Goo Dolls • “O Lucky Men!”Interview • July 31, 2022 • Illinois Entertainer
It seemed like an intriguing request, thought Goo Goo Dolls founder John Rzeznik at the time. And one that was impossible for any kind-hearted rocker to resist. Looking out into the crowd as the band’s set built to its signature smash “Iris” — the 1998 single that spent 18 consecutive weeks at #1 on the charts that year —he saw a young girl, standing with her father, holding a placard that earnestly read, “I want to come up and sing ‘Iris’ with you.’ The novelty of it intrigued the vocalist/guitarist — was this kid really a fan? Did she have what it takes to go head to head with his trademark warm, woodsy rasp? “So I was like, ‘Yeah, sure — what the hell? Come on up and sing!’” he recalls with an ironic chuckle. “But I asked her first, ‘Do you really know this song?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, I know it,’ so we brought her up and we started singing ‘Iris’ together and then finished singing it. And then I get a phone call from a guy that works with us, and he said, ‘Dude — that performance is all over the internet, and this is your viral moment! That girl is a TikTok star, and she’s signed to Warner Chappell publishing!’”
Rzeznik had to pause for a minute to take it all in — who was Zooming who in this surreal symbiotic scenario? “I was like, ‘Whaaaaaat? What the hell just happened here?’” he says. “So it’s like, uh, we live in very strange times.” And that’s exactly the topic he addresses in the group’s absolutely brilliant new pop-punk single, “Yeah, I Like You,” culled from a just-issued 13th catalog effort, Chaos in Bloom, which the musician produced himself.
The Goo Goo Dolls started out in Buffalo, N.Y., as a Replacements-scruffy punk band back in 1986, before expanding their sound via 1995’s breakthrough anthem “Name,” then the orchestral Bic-flicking ballad “Iris” three years later. Still workout-trim and in great health, he will turn 57 this December, the same month that Liliana — he and his wife Melina’s daughter — turns six. So naturally, lots of cross-generational thinking has been on his mind, especially when the family was locked down in its rustic New Jersey home. And mortality can take on surprising new dimensions once you realize that not only will your children hopefully outlive you, but your songs — 16 #1 and Top 10 hits (an all-time radio record), and over 15 million albums sold, to date — most certainly will. And if TikTok brings his music to a whole new Gen-Z audience, hey, he’ll take it, Rzeznik says. No matter how unusual it might seem on the social media surface.
Composing “Iris,” the singer elaborates, was “a nice piece of luck because that song literally changed my life.” Without it, he sighs, he’d probably be tending bar somewhere for a living right now, and he’s not joking. It was a mixed blessing; some longtime punk-era fans were displeased with the new pop-savvy sound, missing the point that any decent, ambitious tunesmith should be pushing the creative envelope nonstop, in fear of growing stagnant. “So ‘Iris’ helped legitimize our band in some circles,” he adds. “And I still remember Robby (Takac, bassist/vocalist, and I) were in the studio when that song was being recorded, and we were watching the string section come in and start to play. And we just kind of went, ‘Umm, I don’t know if we should do this.’ And then it was just like, ‘Nah — fuck it! Let’s just do it!’ And now that song is on its second generation of people listening to it, and it’s just overwhelming in that respect because I never thought, with anything I write, that so many people would actually relate to it.”
Rzeznik swears he won’t proffer advice to any younger musicians unless they seriously ask for it. Ergo, he found himself in just such a discussion not long ago. The kids kept praising the relative ease of utilizing social media to popularize modern music, at which point he felt compelled to school them. He hopes he didn’t sound like Abe Simpson, but it was a completely different DIY world back in the ‘80s and ‘90s when you had to fight hard for not only the music you wanted to hear but getting the music you made into the hands of deserving, but disconnected, listeners. “I told ‘em that we used to have this network of fanzines that we would find in the back of magazines, and we used to mail cassettes to all these fanzine people,” he says. Each fanzine had roughly a hundred subscribers, so each package was a big shot in the dark, of course. “But it was so much more exciting — it felt like a very grass-roots thing,” he rhapsodizes. “And I guess the grass-roots version of that now is having a viral moment. So I feel like the internet has splintered, rather than unified, the music scene.”
So while Rzeznik might sound cynical, possibly misanthropic, he’s not, as exemplified by the torpedo-sleek, gruff-but-polished slice of ear candy that is “Yeah, I Like You,” which is poised to be the next entry in his storied saga of monster hits. And at no time does the listener feel max-Martin-manipulated, as if a clever committee sat down in Sweden to sculpt a path of least resistance to pop Valhalla. It’s just a great, instantly memorable morsel, kept down to Earth by not only the vocalist’s instantly recognizable, almost comforting voice but his scrappy sense of humor, which has characterized his work since the beginning. A ching-chinging anthem, it starts quietly, with him noting a make-believe millennial run-in: “Met the queen of generation fame/ I said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know your name,” which she doesn’t perceive as a slight — she has no idea who he, either, and they agree to disagree. But the narcissistic whelp’s elder has to admit, almost begrudgingly in the chorus, “Yeah, I like you.” And who knows? Maybe at some point in the not-too-distant future, when their careers happen to intersect, as in that recent TikTok stadium-concert summit, they might be able to help each other out. Sly nudge-nudge wink to the gallery optional, of course.
The track’s video, directed by playful provocateur Keenan O’Reilly, hilariously underscores the worst as the sailor-shirted Rzeznik and a now purple-haired, bucket-hatted Takac stumble through some busy paparazzi-peppered backstage event and all the so-called celebrity gadflies such soirees invite. While news cameras giddily film it, chaos blooms, then blossoms into a melee, and even the worst gaffes make extremely good, instantly consumable copy these days, sans any nourishment, for the mind, heart, or soul. It’s not a scathing social commentary, per se, because the Goo Goo Dolls are as puzzled by what lit this brouhaha fuse as the next guy, and they just shrug it off with c’est la vie insouciance in the end, while a nameless young nobody grabs a guitar and just starts thrashing. And why not? There was no adult on hand to tell her she couldn’t. Rzeznik says he loved that scene most of all, especially since the same youngster had assaulted him just a few seconds earlier. But just watching her rock out, completely carefree, somehow wistfully reminded him of that ephemeral punk rock spirit, which many musicians often lose after a few rounds with the Rock-‘Em, Sock-‘Em Robot that is the music business. Dogged outliers like X managed to sustain for multiple decades. And so, one could easily argue, did the Goo Goo Dolls. Because the group — with Rzeznik and Takac as its ole permanent members, is nothing if not consistent.
Because bottom line? For the group to have penned such a winning anthem at this point in its career is remarkable. But the equally-memorable nine other cuts that comprise Chaos in Bloom? That’s a whole new level of competence, the kind that recently earned Rzeznik one of his most treasured kudos, the Hal David Starlight Award honoring his induction into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. He spent a good 90 minutes a couple of weeks ago discussing his place in both the pop pantheon and a brave new TikTok world to which he’s acclimating fairly fast.
IE: What was the story with that strange caveat you posted online about the “Yeah, I Like You” video, just as it was coming out? Disavowing all prior knowledge about what its director was secretly intending?
JOHN RZEZNIK: (Chuckling) Yeah — the so-called mega-genius! The so-called mega-talent! That was actually a joke. And the whole point of that was to kind of illustrate what would happen because before 24 hours had passed, there was all this online chatter, asking, “What? What happened?” And I’m getting texts from everybody, going, “What did this guy do to you?” And I was like, “Whoa. So this is how bullshit gets disseminated, at the speed of light, in our modern world!” Because I didn’t tell any of my friends or family — I told nobody. Keenan actually thought it up, and I thought, “Yeah, that’s pretty funny — I’m actually gonna put a disclaimer on my video about you.” It was a little social experiment, but can you imagine if we had a political platform or something? Imagine just how fast you can spread bullshit that people just immediately believe! And I did study social sciences in college, and I learned some pretty interesting things. So I hope that music and art and literature and all this stuff just doesn’t become completely electronic and become completely disposable. But ultimately, the whole point of that song was that it was just supposed to be very tongue-in-cheek social satire, you know? And I thought that the video was a pretty effective statement, but it turned out to be really funny. And anyway, I can’t make videos where it’s like, “Here we see the band. And the smoke. And the lights. And the mirrors. And they are all intense, as is the band’s performance. It’s like, “Uh, no, man.” That song and video were meant to poke fun at everything.
IE: And it’s a great update on the similar commentary in Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” — “Can we film the operation? Is the head dead yet? Get the widow on the set/ We need dirty laundry!”
JR: Henley is a genius, man. We were just talking about this the other day, and I like his solo stuff as much, if not more, than what he did in The Eagles. It’s awesome, just some amazing music.
IE: Robby always seems like you could put him in a room with an Etch-A-Sketch and some comic books and he’d be happily content. But you, left on your own, say, during the pandemic, seem like you could go pretty dark and reflective. Did you?
JR: Well, I got anxious. And we all got anxious, I believe. So yeah, it got weird. And it felt like, “What is going to happen?” We were in such an unknown, uncharted sort of place. And I felt like, “Oh, my God — what if I never get to do this again? What if everything that I’ve worked for is just gone because of this?” Because we kept canceling tours, you know? Because you couldn’t tour. So it got a little anxiety-provoking. But we put together the Christmas record, which was a lot of fun, and then the Rarities record. I decided, “Well, you’d better get busy,” so we were creating little bubbles to work in. And we actually ended up having an enormous amount of output in that period of time, and in retrospect, I still have almost a whole other album’s worth of material that’s not finished. But it’s just like…I dunno. I just had this creative burst. And I was only able to finish those 10 or 11 songs, but I still have another 10 or 12 that I’m still working on. But I had to put ‘em aside because it was like, “Yo, man — you need to put another record out, and you need to go work. And I was producing, which I really enjoyed.
IE: And you know your sound pretty well by now, so why not, right?
JR: And I think I wanted to recapture more of our sound on this record. And one of the things that I really, really wanted to do was get the interplay between the drums and the bass, and either a piano or a guitar, live because there’s a push and a pull in the rhythmic sort of pattern, you know? And most of the time, when people make records now on the computer, you cut everything, so it fits into these neat little boxes. And I didn’t want to do that — I wanted the record to…swing a little bit. And the only way that that happens is when people play in the same room together. So I didn’t want it to be an assembly-line project. And when I said, “Fuck it — I’m gonna do this myself,” it was because I wanted the time and the space and the patience that only I can give myself to create and really get into the DNA of a recording studio And use it like another instrument.
IE: What I hear in the song “War,” ironically, is U2, and it’s a U2-huge anthem. And “Past Mistakes,” which is Robby’s song, sounds like classic Will Sergeant/Echo and the Bunnymen in the guitar work.
JR: Well, I was listening to a ton of Echo and the Bunnymen and The Chameleons. And that’s where the title comes from — The Chameleons. There’s a line in one of their songs about the chaos in bloom. And I love that band. And I was listening to Oasis and The Who, a lot of old music. You know that guy Alan Price? He did a song called “O Lucky Man,” from the movie of the same name, and man! That is so good. “If you find a reason to live on and not to die, you are a lucky man.” It’s like, fuck! That’s some heavy shit. It’s just so good, and he was a very brilliant guy. And I was listening to some Springsteen, things that just felt…things that just struck a nerve. Old Gang of Four records, like Entertainment. And then the lyrical content
Was really kind of reflective of what was going on. I mean, I have a song that is literally called “Going Crazy.” And what’s that about? It’s about me going crazy! And how I need to get out of my house or I’m gonna lose my mind! I need to interact with other humans again.
IE: But the riffs on “Going Crazy” are just crunchy, powerchord punk. Your classic old sound.
JR: Yeah. And it was fun to experiment with some old amps and old pedals. I have a crazy collection of old vintage recording equipment, and it’s fun to use that. And we recorded most of the album analog to tape, and it all winds up getting dumped into a computer at some point, just because of necessity. But I really believe that there’s something magical about the sound of analog, you know? There’s not just warmth — there’s noise. It’s mechanical. It’s something that is created mechanically.
IE: And when you sing “Met the queen of generation fame,” Is there someone specific you had in mind?
JR: Nah. I just made the story up. I was thinking, “Wow — all these people get famous, and they become influencers, but for what? What are you famous for? But then you get a taste for that life, and the guy in the story becomes sort of enamored with that whole thing, but then he realizes, “This is not the real world. But I want it.”
IE: And you actually have a cool Taylor Swift connection.
JR: Yeah. We performed “Iris” together. And she is a very smart woman.
IE: Full disclosure? I’m the outlier — I have no social media presence, no Facebook, no Instagram, and no Twitter. I am not “followed,” and I never saw rock journalism as a dialogue.
JR: I pay a guy to take care of my social media accounts. Because I don’t wanna deal with that shit. I used to deal with Twitter, but then people felt like they had the right to comment on my wife. And my daughter. And it’s like, “Fuck you. No. No, that is not part of the contract that I have with you, with the public. My contract with the public is, I will give you music, I will play my ass off for you live, I will sign an autograph, I will shake your hand,
I will take a picture, and I will thank you truly, sincerely, from the bottom of my heart, for supporting me. But when you feel like you have the right to discuss my private life? You’ve stepped over the line. And that’s why I got off of there. I had a conversation with a writer who was particularly brutal to us — and this was a long time ago, it was in the late ‘90s, and he was a freelance-type guy. And I said to him, “What do you get paid to write an article about me? Like $200, $300 bucks? I’ll pay you twice that just to leave me alone. Just ignore me. And then I said to him, “Go find things that you love and champion them. Because you’re not challenging yourself as a writer, which takes a lot of creativity. So you should find something to champion because it’s so much harder to build something up than it is to rip it down. So, in my opinion? You’re a fucking hack because you just wasted good paper and good ink on shitting on something instead of championing something you love.”
IE: Well, not to get too personal, of course. But your daughter’s birthday is pretty close to Christmas. Does she hate the fact that she just gets one catch-all present then?
JR: No, that little girl? She gets plenty of presents. Too, too many. And she was two, two, and a half when all that crazy (pandemic) stuff started, but it was nice that I got to spend a lot of time with her. Because it’s killing me right now, being away from her. Because she’s Mini-Me, my little partner in crime, and she’s actually getting old enough to understand my schemes to drive her mom crazy. She and I are in cahoots, ya know?
IE: Dare I even ask what these schemes might be?
JR: Well, you know, like, “Okay — we’re gonna hide in the closet, and when mom comes in the room, we’re gonna scare her! Right? Okay, let’s do it!” Just things like that. Or, “Okay — let me pretend that you fell down, and I carry you into the kitchen, and you pretend to cry.” And it’s like, “Oh, my God!” And it’s like, “You’ve fallen for this 40 times!” I dunno. The pandemic was really difficult, but being able to work in any capacity was incredible because we all adapted. So I think we’ve now all changed our perspective on work.
IE: When and how often did you get away to Dreamland Studios in Woodstock for recording?
JR: I was living there. We all went up there, and we were living in the house there because it was like, “Dude — we’ve got to stay in a bubble!” And my assistant and I rented a U-Haul truck in California and just loaded it up with all my recording equipment, microphones, and everything, and we drove a truck across America because we wanted to see — “What is life like?” This was before we started doing the album. The trip started in Los Angeles, and we didn’t take Route 66 — we took a more Northern route, and we went through Wyoming and all that. So went through red states and blue states and just seeing it all? It was interesting — you’re in Wyoming? Not one mask. You went to other places, and everybody was masked up. And I’m not judging anybody for the way they decided to deal with it, but it was interesting to see the differences between people and how people were coping with it, you know? It was definitely a learning experience. Because I’m an American. I love America. I’m not sure I’m enjoying what the hell it’s becoming. Because we have the capacity and the power to do so much good for so many people. But I think we’re kind of past the point of no return. Especially growing up in a place like Buffalo, the weather has changed so starkly. And living away from there for a long time, and then going back and going, “Wow — this is really weird. This weather is really strange.” And locals are like, “Yeah, that just kind of the way it is now.” But something is definitely changing. Fire season. The water shortage.
IE: We’ve systematically doomed ourselves to extinction. Which isn’t easy to say to someone with a young daughter.
JR: Yeah. And I ask myself, “What is the hidden prize? What is the hidden prize? And why do these people want to hang onto power so badly?” And with my daughter? There are some days I feel like, “I owe this kid an apology! Like, ‘I’m really sorry we fucked you on this one….’ Now every time in L.A., I’m like, “God — it feels like the end of the world here!” I haven’t seen Don’t Look Up yet, but I will see it. But Hey — I’ve been busy!
Appearing August 4 at Huntington Bank Pavilion, Chicago