July 4th, 2011 | Interviews

lisa strouss

Hall & Oates never stopped being cool, even if periodically they’ve had to endure the public being too lame to think so. Now they’re back in L.A. for the July 4th weekend to teach a thing or two to the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. Daryl Hall speaks now about antique architecture, &#%$! record labels, and his knife fight with John Oates. This interview by Dan Collins.

According to Wikipedia, you met John Oates in a fight, like a rumble! And you were on opposite sides.
Daryl Hall: For once, Wikipedia got it right. It was a Philadelphia experience. We were teenagers, and we were both promoting our own records, and it was at a West Philadelphia record hop/lip-synch kind of thing. And it was a typical Philadelphia gang-fight kind of thing. Nothing unusual about that.
No knives and chains, then?
It was knives and chains. Yeah.
Whoa! Who won?
I don’t think anybody won. It was an outbreak of spontaneous violence.
How do you go from knife-fighting someone to having a partnership that’s lasted 40 years?
I think that’s the way you go! If you started your life in a knife fight, then you don’t have any problems after that.
In later years, did you guys ever come to blows? Or at least have an argument?
No, no, no, no. We’ve never had any difficulties. We’ve known each other a long time. Every once in a while we’ve had a disagreement. But there’s no bad blood between us at all.
Did you guys ever get in trouble because the song ‘Rich Girl’ had the word ‘bitch’ in it?
Yes! There were a lot of stations that switched the word, turned it backwards, bleeped it—whatever one did in those days. There was one station that, even when it was number one, wouldn’t play it because it had the word in it. It sounds so quaint now. We were maybe the first bunch of people to ever have a number one record that had a bleeped word. We’re ahead of our time!
When did you realize that, ‘Oh my God, me and Oates are beyond being able to sell some nice records—we’re a phenomenon at the top of our genre!’?
I realized different things at different times. But I think recently is the most rewarding part, because I see that I’m intergenerational, which is what I always wanted to be. That’s how I looked at music. I didn’t look at music from people my of own time, I always looked beyond all that. And I think that’s the most rewarding thing of everything I’ve done.
Growing up in the 80s, I remember you and Oates being on MTV all the time. You were unstoppable. But then you put out a solo album, and the perception was that Hall & Oates had ‘broken up.’ There was even a Kids in the Hall sketch where Bruce McCulloch played John Oates as this abandoned man with a moustache. He looks at the camera all forlorn and says, ‘I’m Oates,’ and that’s the joke. Did you guys actually split?
We never had any split. Again, it was some kind of perception that you can’t be two things. And I never understood that. I did one album that took me a while to do, and I wasn’t working a whole lot with John for about a year. But that wasn’t because we split up. I was busy. And that happened again in the early 90s. I was just out of the country. I’m surprised people don’t say we’re broken up now because we don’t record together anymore! We love our body of work that we created more or less together on the same albums, but John has a solo career that he promotes and works, and I have my stuff that I do, and we come together to play the songs that are on all the Hall & Oates records, and that’s pretty much the relationship that we have now. I would call it ‘separate, but equal.’
You two were so huge in the 70s and 80s! But in the 90s, not so much. Now suddenly you guys are uber-hip again! You’re playing with Chromeo and scoring Zooey Deschanel films, and my hipster friends who write video game columns are blasting your tunes on their iPods. What happened? How did you guys get back into the swing of things?
Well, I think if you look at anybody’s career who’s being doing it for a long time, it’s all very cyclic. People’s tastes in music ebb and flow. And what an artist does is just what an artist does—when people respond to it, that’s a good thing, but the whole idea is to just do what you do, and just deal with the ebb and flow of people’s interests.
I was just watching the Chromeo episode of your web show, Live From Daryl’s House. How did your friendship with them begin?
Pretty much like all the working relationships—with telephone calls, and finding out that they were fans of what I do and me being curious about what they do. And then we got together, and you sort of see what happens as it unfolds. There’s no preparation for any of this. It all happens in front of the camera.
And now, as I learned from watching Live From Daryl’s House, your hobby is taking homes from England that are hundreds of years old and moving them to the U.S. to rebuild them and put pools in them.
Ha ha—when you’re dealing with the expense of these things, I hate to call them ‘hobbies!’ I have a dual obsession: I’m obsessed with music, as you can imagine, and I’m also obsessed with antique architecture. It’s something I grew up with and am very much involved in: saving, restoring and living in old houses. I’ve done them in various places in the United States and also in England.
What’s your favorite city, architecturally?
Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It’s a pretty much intact Colonial city, and it’s just there. It’s a small town, only about 27 thousand people, and it’s filled with Colonial houses. My other favorite is Charleston.
My favorite is Bath, because it’s the Georgian city.
Oh yeah, well, if you’re going to get into Europe, that’s a whole ’nother something. Bath is fantastic! Georgian and Roman.
If you have enough money to buy houses that are hundreds of years old, have you ever had the urge to do something crazy, like pay a minister to do a naked sermon?
I am a minister! Number one, what I do is a ministry, in the most ancient of ways. And if you want to get real about it, about half of my family are ministers. I grew up in church, and I’m not a Christian, but I certainly have the traditions and the attitude of a minister.
It’s well-known that you have written songs based on your readings of Aleister Crowley—is that your faith?
Oh, that was a passing interest that lasted for quite a while. I take things from various experiences, but no, I would not say so.
There was a comic book that came out recently called Henry & Glenn Forever, about Henry Rollins and Glenn Danzig, basically with the premise that they’re a gay couple. Have you seen it? Hall & Oates are their neighbors and are basically a Satanic cult.
I wouldn’t be the neighbor, but I’d be the Satanic cult!
You’ve made a lot of money in songwriting and music. But has the music industry changed so much that modern musicians can never aspire to own their own Georgian home?
I think everybody who has an obsession wants to follow that obsession, but as far as the ability to do it … I dunno, man! I think the music business has obviously changed drastically. Music as a phenomenon has gone the way of the media, and the way the Internet and information is disseminated, you can’t be all things to all people. Even pop music has changed. There is no such thing as all things to all people. You have a tribe, and you have a very avid tribe, and that tribe supports you. And I think that’s what all musicians should strive for today if they want to be realistic. That’s what sustains you and gives you a career.
Looking back on your career, you and John Oates got an early boost from Todd Rundgren’s production assistance. And he seems to still be a friend—he was also a guest on your show.
I’ve known Todd almost as long as I’ve known John! We grew up very close, physically, to each other in southeastern Pennsylvania. He’s an old friend. He and I share a lot of the same musical influences. We listened to the same people as teenagers. We exhibit that in slightly different ways but also in similar ways, so working with Todd is very effortless. He’s a real kindred spirit.
He was producing the New York Dolls around the same time he produced the Hall & Oates album War Babies. Did he ever drag you down to Max’s Kansas City to see those bands?
Did I see them? Of course! I lived in New York. It was a small scene. I went to one of their first performances, at the Mercer Arts Center—almost like a clubhouse for new music back in the day. I was very aware and interacted with all the 70s New York people, even though I wasn’t doing the same sort of music. I was following the sort of Philadelphia trail. I was around the Ramones and Talking Heads and Television and Debbie Harry and the New York Dolls and everybody else. That was the New York scene.
It seems like with your 1980 solo album, Sacred Songs, that you were attempting to do something in the new wave vein, very different from the ‘Philadelphia trail.’ It was made in collaboration with Robert Fripp and was supposed to be part of a monumental trilogy, but it was delayed and lost all its potential steam by the time it was released.
You know, if you look at my music, it’s always been playing around with my roots. The only album that was even remotely close to what you might call the ‘Sound of Philadelphia’ in its pure form is a record I did with John not too long ago called Our Kind of Soul, where we literally took old Philly songs and I wrote some songs and released them with our songs. John Oates and me are part of the sound of Philadelphia—when I started, my first records were made with Gamble and Huff, Tony Bell and those people. But when I got together with John, we decided we were going to do our own version of the sound of Philadelphia, which encompasses a lot more than what the O’Jays and Spinners were known to do. So to answer your question in a long way, Sacred Songs is just another example of that. You listen to a song like ‘Why Was It So Easy’ that’s really taken to a realm that’s not that different from a lot of other records I did—where I took my natural soul thing and put it in an expanded context. To me, that’s all part of a pattern. It was surprising to some people at the time, but of course that was a real era of trying to put people in boxes, and that album certainly didn’t fit into what their box for me was in those days. But now people listen to it and they realize how groundbreaking it was. I just listened to it recently and I was doing things that people are just now starting to do.
Some songs, like ‘NYCNY,’ are really punky, new wave, Bowie-type songs. But your record label didn’t want it to come out?
Record labels … record labels don’t know anything! All they want is to make money! They probably thought I was going to do ‘Rich Girl, Jr.’ I don’t know what they thought. That’s always the problem with any artist. You have to please yourself, and then you also have to work within the constrictions of committee opinions and things like that. I’ve been an indie artist for a long time, and I’m now signed to Verve. I have a good working relationship with Verve so far, and I hope that continues. But I’m true to myself.
And it’s worked—you and John Oates by some metrics are the most successful musical duo of all time, and it’s your songwriting that has driven that success. What’s the secret of writing a hit song? Is it like you say on Sacred Songs, that you’ve got to have ‘Something in 4-4 Time’?
Well, sometimes I write in 7—ha ha! But I think the world kind of marches along to the 4/4 beat. Maybe occasionally the 6/8 beat or the 12, but man, that’s a hard thing for me to be objective about! What I do is just what I do. I write from the heart, I write from reality, I write from my true feelings, I put my true soul into it—and if people like it, that’s great, and that’s what I try and do.