Live from Daryl’s Mouth: Grillin’ the R&B Master

Hall & Oates perform at the TV Land Awards, New York, NY, April 2011. Photo: Andrew H. Walker/FilmMagic

In the ’80s, few groups were more successful and more reviled than Hall & Oates. Over a 40-year career, Daryl Hall and John Oates’ blend of pop, Philly soul, jazz and New Wave yielded seven platinum albums, yet in their heyday, they were a critical punching bag and easy shorthand for the glossier side of pop.

Since then, a new generation has rediscovered the duo’s catalog, as hip-hop producers turned their music into frequent sampling fodder and modern pop bands raced to extol their sound. With his upcoming new album Laughing Down Crying, and the successful Internet concert show Live From Daryl’s House, Daryl Hall rarely checks his rear view mirror. We rounded up questions from Hall collaborators Chromeo, Mayer Hawthorne and Fitz and the Tantrums, among others, and asked what they wanted to know from the candid songwriter, in addition to our own inquiries. In the process, Hive learned about coked-up video directors, regrettable album covers and why Hall couldn’t care less about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Hall & Oates had been recording for nearly a decade when MTV first aired, yet the band’s videos helped propel its most successful phase. How conscious were you of the importance of visual image and using videos as a way to promote yourselves?

Well, I was dragged into it kicking and screaming, because I always thought, and continue to think, that videos dilute the music and take the focus away. But having said that, I was immediately aware of how important this medium was and how it was changing the world. I agreed with people who said the visuals got in the way of the music, but unlike them, I saw the reality of it and I did what I needed to do at the time. The hardest thing was making videos with all the crazy directors that were popping up; finding somebody that would do something that wasn’t completely ridiculous and only partially ridiculous.

What was the worst experience?

We shot a video called “Your Imagination”and the director decided we were going to do it in an abandoned psychiatric ward in the Bronx. He was so coked out of his tree that he finally showed up at the video shoot with this giant scarf wrapped around his neck and proceeded to keep us there until 9 o’clock the next morning. It was just horrible and no fun at all. “Maneater”was an odd one because the South American panther used as the man-eating cat got loose and terrorized everybody. They thought he was going to eat people, so we all had to run and evacuate the building while they captured this rampaging panther.

It would’ve put all other rock star deaths to shame, though.

[Laughs.] Yeah, eaten by a panther during your own video.

When did you start to see the shift toward younger artists earnestly embracing your sound?

Probably in the ‘90s. It was like a different perception. People were suddenly recognizing what we had done in a way that was the truth as opposed to this sort of made-up stuff. The journalistic community changed their tune. I think it was a passing of the baton and a lot of the people who were writing things that were less than flattering about me retired, or were forced to retire, and a new generation came in that treated me in a completely different way with different perceptions. But I never had any lack of respect or popularity with my audience. It was always just pot-shotting journalists and I always looked at them as peripheral. I didn’t take it that seriously.

Are you ready for some artist questions?

Sure. Let’s do it.

Chromeo asked, “Between piano, guitar, singing and songwriting, which one came first and how did the singing start?”

My mother was a vocal teacher, so voice came first. When I was two years old, they’d have me walk around panting like a dog because it taught me to sing from my diaphragm. That’s how singers sing, not from your throat. And if you go [makes repeating panting noise] like a dog, it causes you to use that muscle. And my dad had a vocal group and taught me how to sing gospel harmony and five-part harmony at an early age.

Do you have memories of panting like a dog or that’s what you were told?

No, no, I remember all of this. How could you forget that? And my mother was a real musician and real old school. And when I say old school I mean old school, like in the 1940s. She was very disciplinary and made me take piano lessons at five. When I got to be a teenager, I took a break from lessons and just started playing by ear and writing songs. And then I went to music school and learned how to be an arranger and all that kind of stuff. I’m a lifer musician.

Fitz of Fitz and the Tantrums wanted to know if it was true you won a talent contest to get your first recording contract.

Yup, that’s right. We sang a song with them on Live From Daryl’s House called “Girl I Love You” from my teenage band the Temptones. I won a talent show at the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia, which was sort of like the Apollo Theater. They had talent night every Wednesday, and I sang [The Miracles] “Ooh Baby Baby” and won a record contract with Gamble and Huff back in the late 1960s. And then I cut “Girl I Love You” and that was the beginning.

At that point, did you foresee any sort of career path or was it just more of a cool thing to win?

All of the above. That wasn’t an easy audience to stand in front of. If they didn’t like you, they’d boo you offstage. You had to be good.

Turning to your catalog, Lateef the Truthspeaker asked how much country and bluegrass music influenced your writing. There are certain songs like “You Make My Dreams” that have a country vibe.

I was a complete Philly R&B guy, and when I met John [Oates], he also liked R&B, but had a lot of country, folk and bluegrass influences and brought that into my life. I had never heard that kind of music. There was a definite influence in that I added that to my natural R&B and gospel thing to create the sound that I have.

Neon Trees‘ Tyler Glenn asked, “In today’s music industry, do you think it’s possible to have the kind of songwriting and recording career that you’ve had? And what advice do you have for younger artists who have had a taste of success but want more?”

Only time will tell. All musicians are very much in a transitional period. One era — the record era — has ended completely and we have a new era. So to survive that, you have to find ways of getting to people in every way. Live work is always going to be the most important thing because that’s where your core audience is going to be. But you need to use all the alternatives you can; just the way I changed my career by creating an internet show, for example. You can’t just rely on selling CDs anymore because they’re hardly in existence. It’s harder to be a long-term artist than it ever was. But any advice I would give to someone is: be true to yourself, make the music that is honestly your music and play in front of people. If you do that, then that’s the best chance you’re going to have to survive and thrive over a period of time.

At 64, you’re not relying just on your back catalog for survival like some of your peers.

Well, that’s the kind of person I am. I don’t like to rely on, or live in, the past. I think a lot of my generation that came up does one thing really well, but I don’t know if they’re always the most imaginative and flexible people. And they get locked into a situation that has diminishing returns and they haven’t figured out a way to get out of it.

Mayer Hawthorne wanted to know who was a bigger ladies man: you or [longtime friend] Todd Rundgren. Please be honest and provide specific examples to the extent you want to share.

[Laughs.] Well, Mayer would ask that. The answer’s definitely me. Todd doesn’t have my smoothness, man.

Do you want to elaborate?

I think that says it all right there.

Chromeo was curious how you guys approached new technology, sampling, drum machines and synths in the early 1980s. They wrote, “All these machines were brand new and way less user-friendly today. Was there anyone guiding you through all this or were you a tech geek with a hands-on approach to programming and operating the machines?”

I definitely was not a tech geek and had great engineers around me. I don’t know if I agree that they were harder to use.

Because there were less options?

Yeah. Everything had dials. If you wanted something to get louder, you just turned it up. Things actually said “On/Off” and “Loud/Soft.” It was a much more direct way of approaching technology, and John and I, in our production style in the 1980s, made as much use as we could of all these new sounds that were immediately available to us. We would buy all these things and try them out, but use them as tools. I didn’t rely on them and a lot of times, it was the simplest way of using them. If you listen to a song like “No Can Do,” that was a drum machine turned on to “Rock and Roll 1.” You can’t get simpler than that. That was called “pushing a button” and doing the rest of it on a Korg organ.

Fitz asked if you could recall the worst gig you ever played.

That’s a good one. The worst gig I ever played was with Fitz and the Tantrums three or four months ago. My college, Temple University, asked me to play an alumni show and said they wanted to do a Live From Daryl’s House version. So I asked Fitz and [singer] Noelle [Scaggs] if they would come to Philadelphia, and they went out of their way to fly in from California overnight to do this gig. When we got there, we found out that they hadn’t advertised the gig. My band, Fitz and Noelle stood there to about 150 people and did a Live From Daryl’s House show, which was very informal. They definitely did not have their ducks in a row.

Hall & Oates have been eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since 1997, yet have never received a nomination. Do you care about things like that?

Well, I think I answered that in my own way earlier when we talked about the difference between me and other people in my generation sort or running out of steam and relying on the past. That’s not something I’ve ever done or ever will do, and it puts me at odds with my own generation. And that’s indicative of how they deal with me as well. I guess you could say I don’t really give a shit. To me, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is like Playboy magazine: it’s past its “sell by” date.

Can you explain the story behind the cover of Daryl Hall & John Oates?

Uh, Daryl Hall & John Oates?

This:

Oh, you’re talking about … oh that. Oh my God, oh that. Well, first you have to put that in context.

Please.

You have to realize guys like Edgar Winter, Todd Rundgren and Rick Derringer were dressing up like girls and putting makeup on and doing album covers. For some bizarre reason, it was in vogue for men to dress up like girls at the time. It was the glam-rock thing. We were friends with the Rolling Stones and they had a make-up artist named Pierre La Roche. His famous words to us were [in French accent] “I will immortalize you.” So we said okay and he made us up. And I looked at us on the cover and said, “This looks like the girl who’d be my ultimate girlfriend. Not the one with the mustache, though.” [Laughs.]

A lot of artists your age have already put out autobiographies. Have you given any thought to your own?

Oh, I don’t know. I’m not finished yet. My story’s getting more and more interesting.This is not the time to write it. Give me another 10 years or so.

Laughing Down Crying
is out September 27 via Verve Forecast. Live From Daryl’s House begins airing in syndication on September 24.

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