Johnny Rzeznik of the Goo Dolls reflects on the 20th anniversary of 'Dizzy Up the Girl'

InterviewSeptember 26, 2018Arizona Republic

Following the success of "Name," the breakthrough single from 1995's "A Boy Named Goo," John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls was hoping for another hit.

But first he had to come up with the songs, and that was proving to be harder than he would've hoped.

"The source of the writer’s block was wanting to have another hit," he says.

"It was being a bit too concerned with the outcome instead of the actual process. So I tried to steer myself back into the process and the writer’s block went away. I was putting too much pressure on myself."

The fact that "Name" had topped the charts at alternative radio and taken them to No. 5 on Billboard's Hot 100 didn't mean he'd discovered the secret to cranking out pop hits.

"It's like, 'Yeah, well, anybody can write one hit song,'" Rzeznik says. "You give somebody a guitar and enough time, they’ll write a hit song. But then you’re on that album after the successful one and you’re like, 'Oh man, what do we do now?'”

The answer he found is "you sit down and you just keep writing until you get what you like, what you think is the best you can possibly do. And then, you go with that."

Even then, he says, it all comes down to being in the right place at the right time with the right song and the right amount of luck.

"I never underestimate the idea, Rzeznik says, "that if you mix hard work with luck, you’re gonna do OK."

'Iris' with strings

The Goo Goo Dolls did more than just OK with 1998's "Dizzy Up the Girl," a breakthrough  whose success was largely fueled by a heartfelt acoustic-guitar-driven ballad called "Iris," which Rzeznik had written for the soundtrack to "City of Angels," a film starring Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan.

Did he know it was the hit he'd been so desperate to write?

"I knew that it was different," Rzeznik says. And that's before they added strings.

"That whole part of the song was already in place and the producer said 'Well, let’s try putting strings on it and see what happens,'" Rzeznik says.

When he and bassist Robby Takac heard the orchestra, he says, "we looked at each other like “Uh-oh.” It was really scary at first. One of us said, 'If we do this? We’re turning a corner and there’s no way back.'"

It only stands to reason that their biggest pop hits have been ballads.

"I think everybody’s ballads resonate the most with the widest audience," Rzeznik says. "They kind of tug at people’s heartstrings. I get in these moods where I’m just bumming out and I feel fragile. I don’t know, I feel the hole inside my heart. And I try to fill it with something, and sometimes sitting there putting it into a song, for me, it’s like therapy."

"Iris" was never intended for inclusion on the Goo Goo Dolls' own album, Rzeznik says. But then it started taking off.

"And we were like, 'Yeah, this song’s a huge hit. We might as well put it on our record.' So we did. I think putting that song on 'Dizzy Up the Girl' allowed people to hear the other material and it helped make that record successful for sure."

The pressure he felt to deliver hits on "Dizzy Up the Girl" was all internal, Rzeznik says.

"I like being successful. It’s really gratifying to have your music appreciated after doing this for 10 years. Something finally connected and that was great. it was a lot of hard work and a lot of fun. We took a lot of chances. And it paid it off. But it could have easily gone the other way."

The old-school punk-rock backlash

The Goo Goo Dolls began as scrappy post-Replacements rockers making their way through the dives of American's underground punk scene, which meant they couldn't start running singles up the pop charts without touching off a backlash.

That's just how the '90s were.

"It was fun for a record or two when I was 19," Rzeznik says of the Goo Goo Dolls' punk years.

"But I wasn’t feeling those breakneck punk songs anymore. And I don’t know, who am I gonna be more loyal to? Myself or a bunch of people who liked my first two records and couldn’t stand the rest of what I did and said I sold out? No, I didn’t sell out. It was another seven years and three more records before we got any kind of attention."

And when the backlash did kick in?

"I was like, '(Expletive) you,'" Rzeznik says, with a laugh (which, for the record, is a fairly punk response). "Am I supposed to fake something for you? Or am I supposed to do what I like? I was like, “I’ll find an audience.” That I was sure of."

When the Goo Goo Dolls first experimented on 1990's “Hold Me Up," their third album, with putting some distance between themselves and the trashier punk sound of their   teens, they were terrified of what their friends would think of them.

"But we said, 'You know what? Your real friends are gonna be your real friends and the people that are gonna judge you based on something like your taste in music or the way you’re writing songs?' They're not your friends."

He still hears echoes of his punk days in the way he plays guitar.

"I’m self-taught and the roots of how I play are in that music," Rzeznik says. "Even when I’m doing a ballad, there’s a sort of weird, angular imperfection to the way I play that I’ve never really tried to correct. People have told me, 'You should try to correct that.' And I’m like, 'no.' I’m happy with the way I play guitar, although one day I would one day just for fun, like to sit down with a really great guitar player and have him teach me how to play (Van Halen's) 'Eruption' or something. Just so I know one amazing guitar solo."

He did spend time learning song the Goo Goo Doll's upcoming tour, which they're launching in Phoenix on Sept. 30. To honor the 20th anniversary of "Dizzy Up the Girl," they're playing the entire album straight through.

Reconnecting with 'Dizzy Up the Girl'

There are a few songs Rzeznik says they haven’t played since recording the album.

"And it was surprisingly difficult," he says, "to get the parts right because I play in all kinds of crazy alternate tunings and when I’m in the studio, if I’m working on something, I’ll just be like, 'Well, I’m gonna tune that string up to a B' or whatever. Then I’ll just start playing it. And I never write anything down. So it was difficult digging through the songs and trying to get them right."

It's been an interesting process reconnecting with the album after 20 years.

"It really brings you back to that moment when I was writing that stuff," he says. "It just started triggering memories. And it was like wow, what an interesting time in my life."

He and Takac had moved to Los Angeles right before they started working on that record to be closer to the business.

"So it was kind of an adventure, going out to California," Rzeznik says. "I wound up staying for 17 or 18 years. But at that point in time, we had a lot of friends and we were just having a really good time. He and I both were going through a lot of changes, too, so it was interesting how we kind of hung on to our friendship and sort of used that as a basis for everything."