When Daryl Hall and John Oates met in 1967, both men had been kicking around the Philadelphia music scene for nearly a decade. They immediately found common ground, and they began collaborating a couple of years later, releasing their first album, Whole Oats, in 1972. In 1973, they notched their first hit single, “She’s Gone,” from the album Abandoned Luncheonette, though follow-up successes were more scattered throughout the ’70s, as the duo experimented with different sounds and styles. With the 1980 album Voices, Hall and Oates began to hit their stride, and for the next half-decade, they released an album a year, with multiple Top 10 singles per record. At the time, critics largely ignored or dismissed them, but in subsequent decades, their hits’ pop songcraft and timeless sentiment have been more properly appreciated. Since the mid-’80s, the duo’s output has slowed considerably, though Oates has kept busy with solo albums between his projects with Hall, and Hall has recently launched a web series called Live From Daryl’s House, in which he sits around his living room and talks music with friends like Todd Rundgren and Smokey Robinson. Daryl Hall and John Oates recently spoke with The A.V. Club on the occasion of a new career-spanning four-CD box set, Do What You Want, Be What You Are.
The A.V. Club: At what point in your life did you make the transition from just enjoying music to saying, “Okay, this is going to be my career?”
John Oates: Never, really. I know that sounds like I’m not answering your question, but I guess I was born to be a musician. I started out as a little kid, I began to sing as soon as I could talk, and began to take guitar lessons at 5, and vocal lessons shortly thereafter. And I was always identified as “the kid who played music.” I started a band in the sixth grade. I played and got paid for the first time when I was about 12, and worked my way through school playing music. The only job I’d ever had that might be considered not playing music was teaching guitar, which I did in college for a while, but that still falls in the same category. I guess you could say that it was just a natural transition—I kept doing it, and as long as people kept appreciating and validating what I did, I never questioned it.
Daryl Hall: I never enjoyed music.
DH: No. I’ve been a professional since I was 2 years old. It’s work. I come from a musical family, my mother was in a band… music to me was hard work. It was learning how to be in front of people, and how to deal with audiences. Practice, constant practice with instruments. It was never what most would call a pleasurable experience.
AVC: Even now, you’d say that?
DH: More so now even than then. I’m a professional musician. I have been my whole life. When people are born into the arts, they don’t tend to see art as pleasure, they see it as work.
AVC: Would that be true even listening to other people’s music? Listening to the Motown artists and Gamble and Huff, and people like that?
DH: I get pleasure out of it, but pleasure in a different way. Informational pleasure. Pleasure as if you were attaining knowledge and being moved in a profound way that would influence your mind. And I’ve been ecstatically moved by certain songs. But it’s never been a pastime.
AVC: Have you found over time that it’s difficult for you to enjoy because you can see the strings being pulled?
DH: No, seeing the strings is sort of… it doesn’t diminish my enjoyment. In fact, it sort of enhances it. Again, I look at it in a very analytical way. Even though… you have to understand, it’s analytical, but also I’m moved by it. But the machinations of it only add to the pleasure.
AVC: When you two first met and were putting an act together, did you ever consider using a band name?
DH: Briefly, and I wish we had, to tell you the truth. But we were living in an apartment in Philadelphia, and the mailbox said “Hall & Oates.” That was how we got the name.
JO: We always thought of ourselves as two individuals working together, hence the name Daryl Hall and John Oates. Which is a mouthful, so people just call us “Hall & Oates.” But if you look on every album we’ve ever made, it always has our full names. That was a conscious decision many years ago, because we felt like we were two very different individuals who had a lot in common musically, but who were very different personally, and we’ve always been that way.
AVC: If you’d had a band name, as opposed to a duo name, do you think you would have lasted as long as partners?
JO: Oh, I don’t know whether that was important or not. I mean, what’s in a name, really? It’s not that significant.
DH: It allows more flexibility, I think. I’m a good friend with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics, and that was a duo. It just changes the dynamic a little bit; opens up even more opportunities. It’s hard to say, though, the “what if” thing.
AVC: You had some hit singles in the ’70s, but really kicked it into second gear in the ’80s, when you recorded albums with multiple hit singles. What do you think changed between the ’70s and the ’80s?
JO: I think the key thing was that we began to produce ourselves in the early ’80s. We got more assertive, especially on the creative side of what we were doing. And that happened in 1980; the first album that happened on was Voices. We had been building up to that point all through the ’70s. We started with Arif Mardin, who was an incredible mentor, and an amazing influence on us. We did an album with Todd Rundgren, and then we did three albums with a guy named Chris Bond, who brought us out to L.A. Even though some of the records we did there were successful, we never felt comfortable in L.A., in that environment. By the time the late ’70s came around, we reconciled ourselves to doing it ourselves, if we were ever going to get this right.
DH: I think the world changed. We’ve never been part of a trend. We had a regional background. From that regional background, we quickly expanded in other areas, without ever losing that old Philly thing. But I think the world… When you become significant to large masses, it usually has to do with the masses, not the artists. We didn’t really change anything, except that we started producing ourselves, so it became a more authentic version of what it is we wanted to do. So maybe that was why, I don’t know. I think it was more just the way the world was moving that coincided with what we were doing.
AVC: What did you know about your own sound that other producers were not able to get out?
JO: Just ourselves. We knew what we wanted to do, and we had a band that could do it. Over the years, we had changes in personnel in our live band, and one of our goals was to go into the studio with the same band we played with onstage. Because throughout the ’70s, we used a combination of our own band and studio musicians, and it was fine, but we really wanted to have a very coherent sound that was consistent between our live shows and our recordings, and we finally had a band that could go into the studio and do that. We became a band in the ’80s, basically.
AVC: Did you think of yourselves as having “a sound,” per se?
DH: Yeah, sure. One that’s heavy on the vocals, and it comes from that early pop tradition. There’s a lot of harmony… mostly four-part, but sometimes five-part harmony. There’s a certain melodic continuity that comes from the notes that I choose, and the certain kind of chords we use. Yeah, absolutely a style. But as far as arrangements go, that’s changed over the years. How we put all this together and present it.
JO: I think we developed a sound, but it took that decade of the ’70s to figure it out. If you look at some of the albums of the ’70s, they’re very different stylistically. But every one of those stylistic experiments coalesced in the ’80s. We used elements from all those experimental sounds that we tried, and eventually we came upon this thing that was our own. For lack of a better phrase, we called it “rock and soul,” because I guess that’s what it was. Everyone wants to pigeonhole it and create a handle for it, but we really felt like it was our own sound: Daryl’s influences and my influences. It has to do with his classical background, combined with his street and urban doo-wop background, combined with my traditional American folk-music background, and also my experience with urban R&B. You put those together, and that’s basically what we do.
AVC: Did you have artists back then that you considered your peers? People who you felt were fellow travelers?
JO: Peers? Well, I guess everyone. Everyone who was out there making records, we considered our peers. That’s a tough question to answer. We toured with everyone from Stevie Wonder to David Bowie to Cheech & Chong. We came up through the crazy ’70s singer-songwriter era and evolved through the glam-rock period, and then into the ’80s, which I actually think we helped define the sound of. A lot of it was influenced by where we were. Starting out living in Philadelphia in this kind of hippie enclave, with the singer-songwriter era upon us… We came up through that, and then we moved to New York and fed off the chaos of the city, and the novelty. Then new wave was starting to happen, and punk was starting to happen… it was all around us, and we were part of it. As writers, I think you absorb wherever you are and what’s going on around you, and you spit it back out in your music, and that’s what we did.
DH: When I first started, we were all part of the beginning of the Philadelphia scene. You know, Gamble and Huff, Patti LaBelle, and a lot of the groups that were associated with them were certainly my peers. And then Todd Rundgren and I started around the same time. I’ve known Todd pretty much as long as I’ve known John, and he has the same roots and the same motivations, to some degree, as me. And then I’ve met people over the years that I feel are on the same path in life. Not a lot of people, but significant people.
AVC: You mentioned producing yourself, but a lot of other people have produced your work as well. You did an album with Rundgren in the ’70s, some remixes with Arthur Baker in the ’80s. What were you looking for from those relationships, when you worked with a “famous producer”?
DH: One thing I’ve done over the years is, I’ve tried to assemble really, really amazing teams. I know I don’t exist on my own, by any means. Nor do John and I exist on our own. It’s never been like that. It’s really about teams, and the writers I’ve been associated with over the years and have collaborated with, like Sara Allen and Janna Allen, or even more recently, Nile Rodgers, Arthur Baker, all these people. They all contributed a lot to the human spirit of the various projects we were doing. And I owe a lot of the sound to working with them.
AVC: Did you have any sense when you had just recorded, say, “One On One” or “Maneater” or “Adult Education” that you had a hit on your hands?
DH: No. No. You can never tell. You know when something comes out really well, when something’s really good. But that doesn’t mean the mass of people are going to respond to it in that commercial way. You just do your best work.
JO: We were very fortunate. We came up in an era where the record companies allowed us to make the music we wanted to make, and then they found a way of marketing it and selling it, which is 180 degrees from what happens today in the business. We were very conscious of making albums with substance. Every song needed to have some redeeming quality, or else we basically didn’t put it on the record. So it wasn’t about making a few hits and filling out the album with quickies; that wasn’t the way we approached things. The albums were thought of as a piece of work, and the singles that emerged from those albums were the songs radio gravitated to. Many times, we allowed radio to pick the singles. We would just put the whole album out there, and the record company would mull it over, and they’d run it by various radio people, and they would say, “That’s the one, let’s go with that.” We were very much not involved with the picking of the singles.
AVC: Were there any singles that you figured would do better than they did?
DH: Oh, I don’t know, you’re talking about the marketplace. That’s got nothing to do with us, that has to do with program directors, A&R people, and who’s paying who. So many factors, it’s got nothing to do with us.
AVC: Were there ever ones where you kind of cocked your eyebrow, like “I can’t believe they picked that?”
JO: “Sara Smile” was the first one. We had no intention of releasing “Sara Smile” as a single. We thought it was a simplistic, beautiful little love song that didn’t jump out as something that would be a big hit on the radio. What happened was that we released two or three singles from that album, and they did fairly well, like top 30, top 20, but nothing broke out as a major hit. We had given up on that album, and were moving toward recording the next album. We were on tour in Europe for the first time, and we got a call from our manager saying that a small R&B station in Ohio had chosen “Sara Smile” as an album cut, and that it was receiving tremendous response. And they communicated that to RCA, our record company at the time, and RCA decided to release yet another single, even though the album had been out for almost a year at that point. And it became a big hit.
By the way, that song only went to No. 4. So even though it became a big hit over the years, and really emerged as a signature song in our repertoire, it never went to No. 1. Speaking of that song, it was just recorded by a country artist—
AVC: And a hit again, right?
JO: Yeah, Jimmy Wayne is a good friend of mine, and he’s always sung that song and done a beautiful job with it, and finally he convinced the record company to allow him to record it. Daryl and I sang on it. It’s out right now, and it’s doing tremendous. Hopefully—I’ve got my fingers crossed as I’m saying this—it’ll be No. 1 on the country charts. So that’s pretty cool. You know, a great song is a great song. I don’t care if it’s a Cole Porter song, or George Gershwin, or Lennon/McCartney, or Elton John, or you know, whoever, Bob Dylan. Great songs are great songs, and they stand the test of time, and they can be interpreted and recorded with many points of view, but yet still retain the essence of what makes them good songs.
AVC: When you record a song or an album today, what are your expectations for it vs., say, 20 years ago?
DH: Well, I don’t know. My expectations… I go back to the same thing. It’s all about, you know, I hope a lot of people are going to enjoy it. But that isn’t the point. Just trying to do really good work, breaking ground, or really getting to the core of whatever it is you’re trying to create emotionally. It really doesn’t go much beyond that. It’s really just striving for a certain kind of musical impact.
JO: I think the key to making records generally is to make ’em for yourself, regardless of the climate in the business. I think that goes back to the very beginning. You make an album that you like, the best album you can make, and then the commercial success is the byproduct of doing something that’s creatively satisfying. To me, that’s the basic form that never really changes. But you’re right, in today’s marketplace, it’s a whole different world. My last album, 1000 Miles Of Life, I did not have any commercial considerations. I didn’t think about radio, I didn’t think about commerciality, I didn’t think about releasing a hit single. I didn’t think about anything. I just made the best album I could with the songs that I had, and tried to pick musicians who could enhance those songs and make them sound great. And that’s the way I think from now on that I’ll probably make every record I’ll make until the day I die. Because I have a fan base out there around the world who will buy what I make, and that’s good enough for me.
AVC: Do you have any plans to record any more solo albums?
JO: Actually, yeah, I do. I did two—I did Phunk Shui back in the early 2000s, and then I did 1000 Miles Of Life last year, and I was just asked recently to do another solo album. I’m planning on doing a traditional American album with some of the songs I used to play as a kid, before I met Daryl. You know, some of the real traditional fingerpicking Appalachian kind of stuff I used to do, which people don’t really identify me with at all. It’s stuff I do a lot of times at my solo shows, and people seem to love it, so I think I’m going to do an album like that.
The key, I think, from a business point of view, is to learn how to be efficient in making a record that’s not too expensive, so that you’re not going crazy spending tons of money making a product that might not ever return that money. But if you do it right and have a fan base that’s loyal, and you reach out a little bit beyond your fan base, that’s okay. And you know, I’m no longer signed to a label, I’m an independent artist, so rather than make 18 cents on the dollar, I make a dollar on the dollar, and figure out my own expenses. I’m still selling my first two solo albums when I play live and when I do my solo shows, and even when I play with Daryl. Those albums continue to sell, little by little. They just keep selling.
AVC: Daryl, what was the inspiration for your web series Live From Daryl’s House?
DH: You know, I’ve been on the road so many years, and I just said, “How about I turn everything on its head, and bring the road to me. Take it right into the gate, into the inner sanctum, and let it emanate from that. Let’s see how that changes the performance.” And that’s really what it does, too. It changes things. It makes all the performers—whether it’s me or the band or the guest artist—all perform in a different way. They sort of throw their act away and become… sort of the way musicians really interact when there’s no people around. So the audience gets to observe that and appreciate that, and see artists in their native habitat. Sort of like the zoo, you know? The way they used to have lions in cages, and now they put people in the cages, and let them watch the lions wandering around. It’s the same thing.
AVC: Going through this big box set, what impressions did you both get of the entire arc of your partnership?
DH: Well, it was really interesting, because I don’t listen to stuff. You know, the past is the past, and other than when we do it onstage, I don’t really pay much attention to it. But when you’re in project mode, it literally forces you to listen closely to all these things you’ve done over the years. And to hear it all in one big gulp, one big package, it really changed my own perception of what it is that I do. And I’m happy to say that it was a good experience. You know, there were times when I went, “Oh, man, why did I do that?” But it was mostly, “I can’t believe that.” Again, it has a lot to do with teams… a lot of really amazing people. I heard all these innovations, things that we’d done way before anybody else. I’d always hoped that I’d be a groundbreaking person, and I guess I accomplished that. You know, the music’s very unique. Not like anybody else’s.
JO: Being far enough removed, especially from the really early material, I have to say I was pretty darn impressed. [Laughs.] I’m not saying this to brag or be egotistical, but it’s an impressive body of work. To me, it’s like listening to a musical photo album of your life, because every song represents a period of time, a moment, some circumstance, some person, and it really just brings back all these memories. I hear the lack of sophistication and charm in some of the earlier work, and then I hear the musical sophistication and the adventurousness in some of the work we did later, especially in the ’80s, when we hit our stride and we were just on such a roll that it seemed like everything we touched turned to gold. But it was totally because we were doing exactly what we wanted to do. You see the evolution of kid to adult, and beginner to full-fledged artist. It’s interesting. I think for the casual fan, they’ll be very surprised when they hear the depths of the catalog; it goes beyond the hits that they know us for. But then for the real hardcore fans who know those types of records, it’ll be just a treasure.