'I Love Being a Songwriter': Goo Goo Dolls' John Rzeznik On What Keeps Their Creative Fires Burning

InterviewJune 13, 2023Stereoboard

It’s always heartbreaking when our most cherished bands lose their creative drive and, effectively, retire into the role of a touring outfit content to feed off past glories. Fortunately, fans of the Goo Goo Dolls will likely never have to experience such grief. The US rockers are one of the hardest working live acts around, with their latest UK and Ireland tour about to get underway, but as last year’s ‘Chaos In Bloom’ affirmed, not at the expense of vibrant new music.

And if there was ever a group who could easily milk their past for all its worth, it’s them. We are, of course, referring to a certain global smash hit named Iris. With more than a billion Spotify streams, and having been covered by a wealth of artists, the band’s signature song continues to be embraced by new generations of listeners, most recently after becoming something of a TikTok sensation. But that cut is merely one, admittedly very important, chapter in the near five decade career of a band whose catalogue is stacked with songs every bit as good as Iris.

After being forced off the road when the world shut down in 2020, John Rzeznik (vocals/guitar) and Robby Takac (bass/vocals) found themselves in a surprisingly luxurious position. Recalling how they used to make records back in the early days, as young kids unburdened by a wealth of external distractions, the band’s founding members began work on their 13th album, ensconced in their own little bubble and with plenty of time on their hands.

Marking a return of sorts to the group’s beloved turn of the millennium sound, albeit with a prescient thematic nod to the last few years, and sparkling modern production flourishes courtesy of Rzeznik, ‘Chaos In Bloom’ epitomised how the Goo Goo Dolls have survived and thrived for so long in the face of changing eras and trends.

We caught up with Rzeznik to chat about making their latest record, the glue that binds their catalogue and band together and why, once this tour is over, new music might be just around the corner.

Prior to the pandemic, I’m sure you never took touring for granted and really appreciated being able to do it for a living for such a long time. That said, after being forced off the road for a considerable period, when you finally got back out there did you have any new revelations about what touring means to you?

Yes, that was a rough period of time. We have such a connection with our audience it was hard to be away. It was also difficult for all the fine people who work for us, so we had to get creative about how to keep our business afloat. But once we got back on stage my biggest realisation was that this could be taken away from me. So, enjoy it, play as if it’s your last show and be grateful for the opportunity to have a pretty amazing job.

A few weeks ago you guys went on social media and asked fans which songs they’d like to hear live, ones you don’t play very often, on this summer’s Big Night Out Tour. What was the thinking behind that?

We tour so much and have so many people who come to multiple shows that I thought it would be a good idea to see what the fans want to hear, aside from the obvious songs. I want to keep them happy and surprise them with different songs and small changes in the set. It was a cool experience to see what people’s response was.  Now we have to relearn a bunch of songs but, ultimately, I think the audience will be happy with the results

You and Robby have both talked about the ‘purity of process’ when comparing how you made ‘Chaos In Bloom’ to your previous two albums, something that allowed you to recreate the vibe you were feeling as a group back in the early days. How did that develop?

I was listening to live recordings of the band and started to notice the push-pull between the people playing. I wanted to capture more of the band's live feel. So, after doing my preliminary songwriting sketches we packed up as a band and moved into a house in the woods in Upstate New York that had a studio attached to it. We just played and played and let the songs take shape over hours and days in a very organic fashion. It’s an amazing experience to do that, we went horribly over budget, but it was so much fun to work that way again which is a luxury because recording budgets are nothing nowadays.

Having spoken about this record as going back to the vibe of your earlier albums, have you ever thought about making another raw guitar record like your early 90s days or is it a case of ‘been there, done that, life’s about moving forwards?’

Everything to me is about trying to keep evolving and keep moving forward. That being said, if incorporating some classic early feel into the new songwriting moves me forward, I’ll do it.

Last year you told Spin magazine: “I don’t care about genres of music, I care about hooks.” Goo Goo Dolls songs are so inherently, almost effortlessly anthemic, and those monster refrains bind all the eras of your catalogue together. How hard do you work on getting those pay offs to the place where they strike so effectively and consistently?

I’m a sucker for a huge hook. Something that I’m humming for days and can’t get out of my head. Lyrics that I relate to so much it feels like it was written for me. So, yeah, I work hard on having a big banging hook. Other people might feel differently about it but Bob Mould, who is a huge influence and inspiration to me, said it best: “Ya gotta have a hook.”

I have to ask about Iris and what a special number that’s become. Some artists are often very surprised when songs of theirs, ones they hadn’t thought particularly remarkable, take off in such a way. Did you immediately realise you had something special on your hands when Iris was recorded, or were you taken aback by what it went on to become?

I knew I was turning a corner as an artist and a writer, which is scary because you don’t want to alienate your audience. I just wanted to have a song on an album (the City of Angels soundtrack) that had Peter Gabriel and U2 on it. I’m always so grateful for that song, although it does cast a long shadow on the rest of my music. That being said, when I’m on stage anywhere in the world and people sing the chorus, and I see the looks on their faces, I feel incredibly lucky that that song came into my life and my world.

After the life changing success of that song, and the subsequent album it featured on, ‘Dizzy Up The Girl’, you didn’t wilt under the pressure and came back even stronger with ‘Gutterflower’. As a band riding the crest of a wave, how confident did you feel making that album?

Well, the twin pillars of my life are self-doubt and waiting for the other shoe to drop so it’s always a struggle, but that’s just the way my mind works. I have to sweat and obsess and worry about a song or a project for a while. Then I get off my precious little ass and go to work.

Does the Goo Goo dolls scratch every creative itch you have or might you like to do a solo album one day?

So far this has been scratching my itch pretty well, and I don’t particularly feel the need to go out on my own. I mean, I pretty much get to do whatever I want in this band. So…that’s satisfying. But, I don’t know, maybe someday.

Is there anything you’ve thought about, or maybe you and Robby have talked about, that you haven’t done yet with the band that you’d love to try in future?

Yeah, I’d love to add more musicians to the touring band. I thought that it would be cool to have some singers and another guitar player or something like that. I’d love to work with Dave Fridmann. He’s such a crazy talented, unorthodox producer I think he and I would do some serious damage given the chance.

No matter how great their musical chemistry was, many great bands have still imploded for a multitude of other reasons. How do yours and Robby’s different personalities work together, because that seems like the unshakeable foundation that’s allowed you to continue for so long?

In my opinion that’s mostly Robby. As I said earlier, I’m fuelled by self-doubt and a mild sense of doom and he can usually talk me off the ledge. I quit the band three to four times a week. He’s my voice of reason in this and we still kind of get along. It’s funny cause we fight and argue then get up and have coffee in the morning as if nothing happened the night before.

Somewhat tantalisingly, I believe you have at least five songs that weren’t used on the latest record that could be the launchpad for its follow up. So when do you envisage getting back in the studio to finish the next album?

As soon as we finish this tour I’m going to lockdown in a studio and get to work. The world is moving so insanely fast now and I’m not a kid any more. So I’ve begun to pick up my pace. Rather than chill out and rest on what I’ve ‘accomplished’ I wanna learn more and dig deeper into this. I love being a songwriter.

I recently saw you guys described as elder statesmen. How do you think those young artists known as The Sex Maggots would have reacted if they’d known, after renaming themselves as the Goo Goo Dolls, that would be their destiny?

I’d have said “fuck those dinosaurs, make way for the new generation, the new sound etc, whatever.” But when you’re on the other side of a statement like that, your perspective changes. I feel old.

Goo Goo Dolls Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

    Tue June 13 2023 - DUBLIN Vicar Street
    Thu June 15 2023 - BIRMINGHAM O2 Institute
    Fri June 16 2023 - BRISTOL O2 Academy Bristol
    Sat June 17 2023 - BOURNEMOUTH O2 Academy Bournemouth
    Mon June 19 2023 - NOTTINGHAM Rock City
    Tue June 20 2023 - GLASGOW O2 Academy Glasgow
    Thu June 22 2023 - SHEFFIELD O2 Academy Sheffield
    Fri June 23 2023 - MANCHESTER Manchester Academy
    Sun June 25 2023 - LONDON Eventim Apollo