Goo Goo Dolls' Johnny Rzeznik reflects on 30-year career

InterviewJuly 20, 2017Lincoln Journal Star

When Johnny Rzeznik and Robby Takac started the Goo Goo Dolls they figured that they’d have some fun for a year, year-and-a-half at most, then the band, like most garage rock outfits, would flame out and they’d be onto something new.

Thirty-one years later, the Goo Goo Dolls are still together and going strong -- and Rzeznik, 51, is at a loss to explain how or why.

“I don’t know,” he said in a telephone interview from his New Jersey home. “It’s a lot of luck, a good manager and this kind of dogged determination to not give up. And it’s a question of having limited options. Robby and I don’t really have any other appreciable skills.

“I never underestimate luck and working hard. Really, really going out on tour and trying to make a real connection with audience. Those people take care of us. They’re the gasoline in the engine that keeps us going. I never, ever stop being grateful for them.”

It doesn’t hurt to have hit songs either. The Goo Goo Dolls have a boatload of those, including the 1997 smash “Iris,” which propelled them into the mainstream, and the likes of “Slide,” “Give a Little Bit,” Better Days” and “Name.”

For some veteran bands, that would be enough, allowing them to tour and play the hits their fans want to hear.

But, in the last year, the Goo Goo Dolls have released the album “Boxes” and a five-song EP, “You Should Be Happy.”

Why put out two records in a year?

“I think I still have something to say,” said Rzeznik, who writes the band’s songs. “Whether anybody wants to listen to it or not is another story. I’m a songwriter. I had some songs I wrote following my daughter’s birth and I was ‘I’m not waiting two years to put this out.’ So I called my manager, called the producer, said ‘I’ve got these songs,’ call it ‘You Should Be Happy.’ Let’s go.

“A couple weeks later, we were in the studio and done. I like this commando way of doing it. I’ve got three really good songs, let’s hit the studio and bang them out. It’s not even a question of selling the music. To me, it’s a question of putting out material that’s related to my audience and whoever might be interested.”

Among the four songs that got banged out is “Tattered Edge/You Should Be Happy,” a driving guitar rocker that’s something of a throwback to the band’s early days but contemporary and topical.

“That came out and I was like ‘Yeah,’" Rzeznik said. "It reminded me of something we would have done off (1993’s) 'Systematic Car Wash.’ When I started writing the lyrics, they weren't (meant to be) political, like a protest song. But the lyrics are a vague social commentary -- the way the country is so divided. That’s where the lyrics come from. Everybody’s angry. No, everyone’s just scared. The song moves on to my opinion on the way popular culture works today and the expectations, especially for women in society, and the endless battle to maintain youth.”

While the four new songs on the EP were written following the December birth of Liliana, they aren’t reflections of a father smitten with his baby daughter.

“I’m trying to leave her out of it,” Rzeznik said. “I have pieces of music I’ve written for her and nobody else. ... Unless I think one of those songs will put her through college.”

Little Liliana will be getting her first taste of the road this summer when she dons the pink headphones Rzeznik bought for her and joins singer/guitarist daddy, bassist Takac, and the band on its tour that will stop Friday at Harrah’s Stir Concert Cove.

The tour began a week ago and the setlists for the first few shows appear to be close to identical. But that won’t necessarily be the case in Council Bluffs, Iowa, or anywhere else on the tour.

“We’re changing the sets every few days,” Rzeznik said. “You know what the most amazing luxury problem in the world is? When you’ve got a bunch of hits you have to play. That means the show's going to have to be a little longer. I love playing the songs that people love because it makes them happy.”

The people that Rzeznik likes to make happy number in the thousands when the Goo Goo Dolls perform. Making a connection with a large audience is old hat for the Goo Goos now, but that wasn’t always the case.

“That’s something you develop,” he said. “When Robby and I started playing out, I saw the Ramones at the college I went to, actually I was in high school and they played at the college I eventually went to and flunked out of. They came out and played for an hour and 15 minutes and didn’t stop.

“When we started, we were playing in punk rock clubs. Sometimes, we’d be playing with these hardcore bands, scary bands and we’d be bouncing around up there with our stupid haircuts and wondering what would happen. There might be crickets, they might throw stuff. It could get bad. I was like ‘Dude, we’ve got to do what the Ramones did.' We’d basically stun an audience into going ‘What the hell’s going on here?’ We learned early on it’s more difficult to hit a moving target.”

Now an adult contemporary outfit, the Goo Goo Dolls started out in the mid-'80s punk scene in Buffalo, New York, their sound rooted in the music Rzeznik and Tabac listened to as teenagers.

“That’s what we grew up on," Rzeznik said. "I loved a lot of that -- the Ramones. I love the Clash, but I also loved Depeche Mode, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Cure,” he said. “Then I got into a lot of the Midwestern alternative bands, that had a big influence on me. And I always loved the classics, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Tom Waits, John Prine.”

Dismissed by some in the late '80s as a Replacements knockoff, the Goo Goo Dolls and Rzeznik made a shift with the success of “Iris,” turning down the buzzing guitars, tightening up the songs and becoming radio-friendly hitmakers who have had 19 top 10 hits on various charts and sold more than 12 million records.

“It’s strange, as an artist, a musician, the only thing anybody cares about is the latest new thing you’ve done,” Rzeznik said. “Which is frustrating, but you have to accept it and you have to be true to who you are. You can’t try to do something that isn’t you. Can you imagine me trying to do a Justin Bieber-type song? That would be ridiculous.”

But Rzeznik admitted the idea of the Goo Goo Dolls still playing in 2017 would have been ridiculous to his 20-year-old self.

“It’s kind of weird,” he said. “We thought, it’s going to last 14 months at the most. But here we are.”