From Goo Goo Dolls Land to Buffalo, Robby Takac aims to please

InterviewSeptember 8, 2016The Buffalo News

This is the place where Robby Takac feels the flutters: onstage, a few hours before a show, right around soundcheck, when the Goo Goo Dolls’ music tends to echo off the empty seats.

It’s in moments like this, before the fans show up, where Takac’s nerves creep in. Man, Takac thinks to himself in moments of self doubt. I hope these people still care.

They do. The logical side of him knows that.

“We haven’t sold this many tickets here since 2006,” he said, standing onstage at the Darien Lake Performing Arts Center after the Goo Goo Dolls’ soundcheck before their tour stop here last month. The band was expecting a crowd of more than 12,000, largely drawing from their native Buffalo. “It’s the most we’ve sold here in 10 years.”

Yes, people still care. They care about the Goos, who released their 11th studio album, “Boxes,” in May and are in the midst of global tour that will take them to Europe and Asia over the next year. In Western New York, they care deeply about Takac, and not just for his celebrity status.

Here, Takac is more. The West Seneca native is a dad, a businessman and a community leader. That latter role will be play out Sept. 10, when Music Is Art – the nonprofit he founded in 2003 – holds its annual daylong festival at Delaware Park.

To get here, Takac will fly in on Friday from Houston, the morning after a Goos show. He’ll jet back to Texas on Sunday for a concert in Austin. But for one day – Saturday – Takac will be bouncing around Delaware Park, introducing bands, checking on logistics, meeting with sponsors, posing for photos, signing autographs. He’ll be doing that thing he is driven to do.

He’ll be trying to make people happy.

A safe ‘bubble’

Takac, at 51, has been a professional musician for more than 30 years and a platinum-certified rock star for 20 of them. He still has the dark, shaggy face-framing hair. His preferred style in daily life – dark, silkscreened T-shirts, thick-rimmed glasses and a beanie – is a perfect fit, even in middle age.

He still has – despite bone-on-bone grinding in his knee – the ability to scurry around a stage, shoeless and sweating, slamming his bass so aggressively that, in the words of Andy Hindman, his guitar tech of 17 years, “He’ll burn through 10 sets (of strings) a week.”

Onstage, he has no nerves. It doesn’t matter if he’s playing Darien Lake or the Olympics, on Jimmy Kimmel or in front of Billy Joel, in a volcano or an aircraft carrier, at the Pro Bowl or a corporate gig. (Yes, the Goos have done those all.) For Takac, co-founder of the band with lead singer John Rzeznik, a rock show is a haven.

“That bubble is a very safe place for me,” Takac said. “Give me a guitar and have me go out and play ‘Slide’ with my band, I can do that better than anybody. I can guarantee you that. You can hear it in my voice with the utmost confidence, and I generally don’t speak like this.”

He’s right about the voice, and the body language that interlocks with it. Behind a microphone, working a crowd, he extends his limbs to full reach, arm overhead, elbow straight, fingers pointing to the lights above. His mouth and eyes widen into ovals. He’s transmitting a message – It’s time to party – and you’ll receive it before he says a word. But when he does say a word, you’ll hear it. Onstage, Takac’s gravelly tones billow into a scream, so much so that he’s come close to losing his voice on tour this summer.

But outside of a show, Takac is a different guy. That gravel voice softens into sand. He's subtler. When he sits on a couch, or on the corner of the floor in his recording studio lobby, he crosses his legs and tucks his feet beneath him. The I-can-do-that-better-than-anybody swagger slides into introspection, even a touch of self-doubt.

“Everything else,” said Takac, referring to everything in his life outside of a show, “has a question mark after it. Maybe in parentheses, but a question mark nonetheless.”

There’s a lot of everything else: He’s got Music Is Art, which runs programs year-round for schools and young musicians. He’s a husband and dad: Takac lives downtown with his wife, Miyoko, and their 4-year-old daughter Hana. He’s an entrepreneur: Takac is the owner of GCR Audio, a Buffalo recording studio that he built with Rzeznik in 2008 at the Franklin Street site of the old Trackmaster studio.

With his wife, who is from Japan, Takac runs the music label Good Charamel Records, which specializes in bringing Japanese rock bands to North America.

Here at Goo Goo Buffalo shows, his worlds collide.

“Today is nuts,” said Takac, still onstage at Darien Lake. “I usually have two people on the guest list. Today I have over 100.”

Those guests include his parents and family, colleagues from the studio and Music Is Art, and many people who played a role in the Goos’ rise from a Buffalo punk band to a pop-rock act with instantly recognizable hits like “Iris,” “Slide” and “Broadway.” A group of teen musicians from Music is Art’s summer camp met with Takac and Rzeznik backstage and sat in on soundcheck.

One of his label's Japanese acts, Molice, played a street set inside the Darien Lake entrance. In the weeks since, they’ve been recording an album at GCR Audio. This weekend they’ll be performing at Music Is Art. (The Takacs are bringing in two more Japanese acts, Pinky Doody Poodle and Qrion, for the festival.)

It’s highly intertwined world and Takac not only revels in it; he requires it. As the Goos became increasingly famous in the late '90s – exploding with the release of “Iris” in 1998 – the members’ roles became more clearly defined. Rzeznik, as lead singer and songwriter, was – and is – the face of the band. Takac and then-drummer Mike Malinin, whom Takac and Rzeznik fired in 2013, were more in the background.

“It feeds something inside of me that has been very valuable over the years,” Takac said. The payoff of the Goo Goo Dolls’ success is what allows him to do these things: He has the influence that comes with fame. He’s not fabulously wealthy, but he has the financial flexibility to run economically challenging enterprises like a recording studio and record label.

“This other stuff has allowed me to exercise those parts of my brain that maybe weren’t getting exercised quite as much as they needed to as our situation advanced over the years and we started to define our roles,” Takac said. “Doing this kind of stuff has always been beneficial to me, I think, just for my whole being: the studio, being involved with helping with new music and new bands. That’s exciting to me.”

Two-sided days

Takac has developed a split-day routine on tour. (The Goos are in the midst of summer run that has them playing five or six nights a week.) His days usually start around 5 a.m., when the band’s tour bus typically arrives at the hotel in their city for the day.

If he got enough rest on the bus – “If I can get six hours of sleep, I’m rolling” – Takac opens his Mac laptop and starts answering emails and, as the day progresses, makes calls. This is his time to “make sure everything outside the Goo Goo Dolls world is sorted out.”

On a recent morning in Florida, with the Music is Art Festival drawing close, Takac was talking to his team about the production costs (“We’re severely over budget”), handling details for one of the 15 stages, doing interviews, and working on plans for a fall tour by one of Good Charamel's Japanese bands, Shonen Knife.

“It really is one of my favorite parts of the day, man,” he said. “I just feel incredibly productive. The day is brand new and you’ve got all of these things in front of you. Some of them good, some of them bad, but it feels like you’re starting the day getting stuff done. It’s pretty awesome.”

Takac's day turns at 3 p.m., when he boards the tour bus for the venue. He's entering what what he calls “Goo Goo Doll Land,” which runs nearly the same every night: Sound check around 4:30, meal at 5 o’clock, time off between 6 and 7, then a meet and greet with fans, a 90-minute show at 9:15 p.m., a quick post-show meet-and-greet, then onto the bus for a snack.

Takac, who dropped 30 pounds recently on a juice cleanse, has given up eating pizza after shows. Instead he has three bowls of cereal: He starts healthy, with Crispix or bran, then mixes in some Lucky Charms for bowl number 2. The third helping – dessert – is Reese’s Puffs or Cocoa Krispies.

Then he slips into his bunk to try to six solid hours of sleep heading into the next city, where he'll repeat the two-sided day.

From his close-up view, Rzeznik has seen Takac fight through business struggles, particularly with the Music Is Art Festival. It doesn’t always succeed as a fundraiser; last year, on a stormy, rainy day, it lost $40,000 last year and both Takac and his father pitched in to help fill the gap.

“I’ve watched him put out fires and be frustrated and not give up on it because he really believes in it,” Rzeznik said. “I think one of Robby’s strongest points is his ability to be persistent.”

Aiming to please

Takac’s persistence is rooted in a pair of character traits that have paid off in all facets of his life: He likes dealing with people, and he wants to make people happy.

“He’s trying to please everybody all of the time,” said his mother, Kathy Takac, a retired teacher. She remembers Robby, at age 7, making a dozen fast friends when the Takacs moved from South Buffalo to their West Seneca neighborhood. But his younger sister Trisha, who was 4, was shy, so Robby went door to door asking, “Do you have any little girls my sister can play with?"

Takac is a pleaser, but not a conformist. To the contrary, he wasn’t a good student at West Seneca, but his goals were clear.

"The only thing he ever wanted in life was to play music," said his father, Bob Takac, a retired banker. "He enjoys being in front of people. He enjoys performing."

Robby set up a deejay booth in the basement of his parents’ home, where he spun records so loudly that the sound leaked through the walls and drew kids from around the neighborhood. He also became part of a morning radio club at West Seneca East.

“I felt that kept him in school,” said Kathy Takac, who’s turned her son’s former basement bedroom into a makeshift Goo Goo Dolls archive, with awards and fans gifts adorning the walls and shelves.

Takac was smart enough to graduate from both West Seneca and Medaille College, where he earned a communication degree and was on the dean’s list, without cracking down too hard on the studies. “Robby, never, in four years of college, opened a book,” Bob Takac said.

Instead, Robby was spending time deejaying on the radio and making music with Rzeznik, whom he met through his cousin, and their original drummer, George Tutuska, who left the band in 1994.

Even when he's had the chance to stand out, Takac has typically opted to blend in with a team. For example, Bob Takac still talks about his son’s ability as a swimmer. When Robby was in seventh grade, he was a standout in the pool, even teaching kids much older how to swim. But he refused to compete.

“He wouldn’t swim competitively, because he’s not competitive in that way, which may also in some way may influence the things he does today,” Bob Takac said. “He’s not competitive.”

“He was with the band,” Kathy said, sitting next to her husband in the living room of the same house where they raised their children.

Bob shook his head.

“Not competitive,” he said. “He was aggressive and assertive and everything else, but not competitive.”

Told separately of his parents’ insight, Robby Takac agreed. “I prefer to be part of something cool rather than be in front of it,” he said, offering a salient insight into what’s made the Goo Goo Dolls' equation work for three decades. He’s pragmatic and acknowledges his place – which is behind Rzeznik, whom he calls “one of the best songwriters out there.”

At the same time, he's candid about their relationship, which was tested to the core in recent years as Rzeznik struggled with alcoholism. Rzeznik stopped drinking two years ago.

“We’ve been friends, enemies, frenemies, best buddies, confidants, and everything else that two dudes who’ve been having a relationship like this, unguided, for 30 years,” Takac said.

In an interview for this story, Rzeznik brought up his own alcoholism in describing his relationship with Takac.

“I hate talking about it, but it’s relevant to what we’re talking about,” Rzeznik said. “Robby and I, our lines of communication were pretty much cut until I got sober a couple years ago. I didn’t want to deal with him. He didn’t want to deal with me. It was incredibly frustrating for both of us to figure out a way to communicate with each other. Luckily I was at a point where I just bottomed out and I couldn’t go on living like that anymore. I’m lucky I escaped.”

Takac, like many others in Rzeznik’s life, tried to confront him about the drinking. Takac could relate: There’s a history of alcoholism on both sides of his own family, and Takac himself stopped drinking more than a decade ago. Kathy Takac recalls how that happened: “(Robby’s wife) Miyoko told him, ‘You’re stupid when you’re drunk. You better stop or I’m going home.’ "

Years later, when the people around Rzeznik tried to intervene, he wasn't open to it. “I felt like, ‘Everybody is trying to control me,’ ” he said. “The scary part of alcoholism and addiction and that is until a person is ready to stop, they’re not gonna, and there’s nothing anyone can do.”

One thing, actually, can be done. It's something Takac did for Rzeznik. “He stuck around the whole time," Rzeznik said.

Goo Goo dads

Nowadays, Rzeznik and Takac meet for breakfast on the road most mornings. “Once I sobered up it was kind of interesting, because we actually started to communicate with each other again,” said Rzeznik, who lives in Los Angeles and is moving to New Jersey. “It just made everything fun again. It reminded me of the way he and I were at the beginning of this, but without the booze getting in the way.”

They have a new line of conversation, too, one that falls far outside of the Goo Goo Dolls Land they’ve built together: Rzeznik, who is 50, is about to become a father. His wife Melina is due in December.

“I’m getting dad lessons from him, which helps,” said Rzeznik, who knows the Takac’s daughter well. (Hana and Miyoko often travel on the Goos’ bus.) “And I ask him questions every day about it: ‘What do you do if she goes insane in the supermarket, in the cereal aisle if she goes ‘Gaaa!’? What do you do? What do you do?’ He’s been giving me advice about it.”

Takac, speaking separately from Rzeznik, thinks back to age 19, when they first started playing music together. “I don’t know if I ever expected this kind of situation,” he said. “But it’s much like the band and everything else: We’ve grown into it. We’ve moved forward with our lives and brought the whole thing with us.”

That night at Darien Lake, Hana Takac stood in wings on the left side of the stage, wearing earmuff sound protectors as her grandfather crouched behind her and family and friends surrounded her. “She really gets it,” Rzeznik said. “I would love for my daughter to be able to see me in that capacity at some point.”

Sometimes Hana danced as she watched her dad strut shoeless around the stage. Other times, she just watched. Dad's a celebrity; Hana knows it. Many parents watch TV shows with their kids; Hana's dad has performed with Elmo. When Hana’s parents and grandparents took her to see the famous children's band The Wiggles at the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda, her dad ended up onstage singing and dancing to The Wiggles’ famous song, “Fruit Salad.”

Sometimes when she’s playing with dolls, Hana will hold one of them up to her father and say, “She wants a picture with you,” because that’s a normal part of her daily life. People see her dad and they want something: a selfie, an autograph, a conversation, a favor.

He may not it do it all. But Robby Takac – the rock star who looks to an empty audience and hopes people will be there, the little boy-turned-man who simply wanted (and wants) to connect with people and please them – sure will try.

Full name: Robert Carl Takac Jr.

Age: 51 (born Sept. 30, 1964)

Family: Takac and his wife Miyoko have a 4-year-old daughter, Hana.

Education: Takac is a graduate of West Seneca East High School (1982) and Medaille College (1986), where he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications.

Musician: Takac is the bassist for the Goo Goo Dolls, which he founded in 1986 with lead singer and guitarist John Rzeznik and then-drummer George Tutuska. Takac was the band’s original lead singer and still sings lead on some songs today, but after their first album, Rzeznik moved into the front man position.

Nonprofit leader: In 2003, Takac founded Music Is Art, a Buffalo-based, 501c3 operation that runs year-round programs for students interested in the arts. The organization is best known for its annual Music is Art Festival, an all-day affair happening this Saturday, Sept. 10 at Delaware Park.

Studio owner: Takac is a longtime recording-studio owner. He opened Chameleon West in downtown Buffalo in 2000, and in 2008 moved several blocks north on Franklin Street to the site of the old Trackmaster studio, where he once interned. Takac and Rzeznik hired studio designer John Storyk and poured several hundred thousand dollars into renovating the space, where the Goo Goo Dolls then recorded their 2010 album, “Something for the Rest of Us.”

Originally, Takac (who had moved back to Buffalo from Los Angeles) and Rzeznik (who still lived in L.A.) were going to run the studio jointly. But Rzeznik decided to step back, and Takac took sole control of the studio, which now operates as GCR Audio.

Label head: In 2003, Robby and Miyoko Takac started Good Charamel Records, which has evolved to focus on bringing Japanese “J-Rock” music to the United States. Among the label’s Japanese acts are Shonen Knife, Molice, Pinky Doodle Poodle and DJ Sashimi.