Throwback Thursday: Where were you in 2002, when Goo Goo Dolls were in Gutterflower mode??
Where were you in 2002, when Goo Goo Dolls were in Gutterflower mode?
You don’t have to major in music or be especially techie to appreciate this Throwback Thursday gem that was recently discovered *ahem* ‘Tucked Away’ deep in the AG Archives.
Yes, there’s some shop-talk, but hang tight if you have ever wondered how John Rzeznik manages to come up with those cool, ever so slightly left-of-center tunings, and what method he employs to remember what goes where.
Make sure you continue to the very end of the interview. The last eleven words are pretty powerful.
Now, do read on…
Guitar World Acoustic
In John Rzeznik’s handsome Southern California home there is an unobtrusive space that he jokingly refers to as “the lab.” While the empty beer cans, and cigarette butts and balled-up scrap paper that litter the place clearly indicate that this is not the central research center of the National Institute of Health, it is nevertheless a place where a great mind- specifically Rzeznik’s- works to create beautiful somethings from nothing. In place of beakers filled with noxious green fluids is an arsenal of acoustic guitars, and instead of the smocked men and women of science is Rzeznik himself, obviously at home in the room where he wrote many of the songs comprising the band’s seventh studio album, Gutterflower (Warner Bros.).
“I was in the lab putting them together for about a year,” says Rzeznik. “I had all my guitars in there in a bunch of different tunings. For the lyrics, I would write things down in a stream-of-consciousness style on yellow legal paper or a Post-it note.” In order to remember specific tuning he’d devised for a given song, Rzeznik “taped the paper with the lyrics to the back of whatever I instrument was using.”
Rzeznik’s “system” of recall, primitive though it may be, is essential for a mean known for concocting oddball tunings faster than a speeding album with a bullet. We’re not talking open G here, or dropped D, or even the paternal-sounding D A D G A D. Remember, the Goo Goo Dolls first hit the big time with the 1995 breakthrough smash “Name,” a song that Rzeznik wrote and recorded with his acoustic guitar tuned, low to high D A E A E E. The guitarist also employed unusual tunings on subsequent hits like “Iris,” “Black Balloon,” and “Slide.” So here’s Johnny and his Post-its, like any true man of science seeking to create order out of potential and chaos. And hits-big, big hits.
It’s no surprise, then, that those egregiously tuned acoustic guitars play a central role on Gutterflower as well. Tracks like “Sympathy” and the first single, “Here Is Gone,” feature the droning open strings and lush overtones that have, in recent years, become Rzeznik’s trademark. The sound that is now universally recognized as pure Goo is a far cry from the noise made by the band in their pre-platinum days, when Rzeznik and cofounder and bassist/vocalist Robbie Takac would emulate the distorted guitar blasts and punch-drunk vocalism of groups like the Replacements and Husker Du, gleefully kicking out their jams in the “loud, fast rules” tradition.
The transformation the Goo Goo Dolls have undergone between then and now has been well documented. The bratty garage-punkers of Goo Goo Dolls (1987), Jed (1989), and Hold Me Up (1990) have become the ethereally sensitive, mainstream pop-rockers of A Boy Named Goo (1995), Dizzy Up The Girl (1998) and now Gutterflower. The connecting link between these two personas is 1993’s Superstar Car Wash, and album that while rooted in the Goo’s thrashy- but- melodic approach also signaled the emergence of Rzeznik’s acoustic guitar as an integral part of the band’s sound- most notably on the track “We Are The Normal,” a collaboration with ex-Replacements front man Paul Westberg.
While the Goo Goo Dolls are today most identified with Rzeznik’s poignant detuned ballads, the band’s old dirty vibe still rears its head every so often, as on the Takac-penned Gutterflower track “Tucked Away.” As for Rzeznik, he may be a platinum-plated artist who mixes easily and often among the decaying beautiful people on Hollywood Blvd., but his heart still belong to his blue-collar home of Buffalo. This enormously successful artist speaks of the city with the hushed reverence other men feel for Jerusalem, Mecca and Liverpool. John Rzeznik is the gutterflower- a punk kid from the streets who has blossomed into a creative commercial star of the first magnitude.
Guitar World Acoustic: With two platinum records under your belt, you’re now a bonafide rock star.
John Rzeznik: I don’t feel like one. Bad rock star. I’m a bad rock star.
GWA: How so?
Rzeznik: Because I don’t fuck everything that moves [laughs] And it’s weirder than I thought it would be. It was an amazing thing to have happen, but I really didn’t realize what comes with the territory. How much work it would be-and how much I would drink while on tour!
GWA: You put a lot of hard work on the road-two years- in support of the Dizzy Up The Girl album.
Rzeznik: When that tour hit 21 or 22 months I started to go off the edge. Friends who spent time with me on tour said, “You’ve got a really great life, but how long before it drives you nuts?” And I figured it out- 18 months! I’ve got enough stamina for that long. I was looking for a party and I found it. Fame is great until you’ve been on the other side for five minutes. You start looking for quick comfort in all the wrong places. You want to short-circuit the meaninglessness of it in a lot of ways. So you start drinking a lot on the road…Listen to me- another rock star whining about his problems!
GWA: But it must be nice to be surrounded by people eager to cater to your every whim.
Rzeznik: Well, I don’t like to have people kissing my ass. I’ve been around guys who have that, and it deludes you. It makes you fee like you can’t be wrong- that you’re infallible.
GWA: Does all that ass-kissing affect your songwriting?
Rzeznik: It does, but in a bad way-it makes you stop trying. I always tell the people around me, “If I’m screwing up, let me know. This is no time to be kissing my ass. We have too much to lose.” When you’re in the middle of a whirlwind you don’t see what the hell is going on. You’re so busy trying to get everything you’ve dreamed about, you forget to keep an eye on yourself. I don’t want to fuck things up by having a false sense of who or what I am because of what I’ve accomplished. That sets you up for a huge fall. There’s potential for a heartbreak when you derive your personal happiness from “I’ve got a million dollars in the bank,” or ” “I’m banging model X, ” or whatever. Your human value doesn’t increase just because you did something. You’re still the same person.
GWA: September 11 put a lot if that in perspective-what matters and what doesn’t. You were in the middle of recording Gutterflower at that time. How did the attack and its aftermath affect the making of the album?
Rzeznik: After September 11, the band shut down for a couple of weeks. We just sat and watched TV, though I did perform with the guys from Limp Bizkit on the Tribute to Heroes TV special, which was an honor and a great experience. When I finally came back and listened to what we had been working on, I thought to myself, “What the hell am I going to sing or write about that’s going to mean anything?” For me, what happened on 9/11 brought to the forefront the insignificance of most of what goes on in this country. We’re spoiled, you know? We have time to watch a game show where people get tortured in a chair.
GWA: You’ve lived in Southern California for the past few years. The song “What A Scene” is clearly an attack on the vapidity and the self-important emptiness of life in Hollywood. The “How does it feel?” line echoes Dylan in “Like A Rolling Stone,” where he rails against people who think they are “It.”
Rzeznik: The ironic thing about me and California is that most people come out here to get noticed and discovered, but I came to evaporate. Nobody knows me here and that’s great. I walk down the street and nobody cares who I am. A lot of the lyrics on”What A Scene” are about me trying to figure out where I fit in. I don’t feel like California is my permanent home. I managed to find what must be the only East Coast-looking house around-it reminds me of Buffalo.
GWA: I know you’ve had difficulty in the past with your lyric writing. How did it go this time?
Rzeznik: The lyrics were more difficult this time around than on our last album. Rob Cavallo, our producer, helped me deal with the problem by sitting me outside the studio, putting the proverbial gun to my head and saying, “Do it.” Which was great-it was like cramming for a final exam. I didn’t have time to second-guess myself-I had to get to the essence of what the songs were about and do it fast.
Here’s something that may strike you as neurotic: When we were on tour last time we would listen to other bands’ demo tapes, and sometimes I would think, “Wow, this is really bad.” But when I would think about how much that recording means to them and how all their dreams were riding on it, I felt like, “Who am I to judge what somebody else creates or does?” And then, of course, it led to my questioning what I do, what I create. I think what I do is pretty cool, but how do I know? How does anyone know? Our music, but it makes me tap my foot and I’m happy with it.
GWA: As someone who’s felt insecure about his work, how do you respond to bad reviews?
Rzeznik: I tell you, I’ve gotten over my phobia of music critics. It’s important to detach yourself from what people say or write. I used to get pretty upset when we got shit press- I told one writer I was going to pound his head into the curb. He either didn’t listen to the record or totally lacked the depth-not that it was so deep- to understand what it was about. But now I realize he just didn’t get it, and that’s okay. In the final analysis, the only valid opinion is “I don’t like it,” or “I like it.”
GWA: So you’ve developed a thicker skin.
Rzeznik: Yes. I got my feelings hurt a few times, but you just have to say, “That’s life.” What am I going to do, run and hide? I don’t write music for critics or hipsters. I write for me.
GWA: The Goo Goo Dolls have enjoyed their greatest success with acoustic-based songs that are built around unusual tunings. Do you feel any pressure to continue writing in that vein?
Rzeznik: No. It worked out that way for this album because that’s just where it went. It’s what sounded best. We wanted to really get into the overtones, the droning. I wanted to make things more dissonant and find different kinds of harmonic structures.
GWA: Some of your best-known songs employ what you came up with through experimentation. Have you ever used tunings associated with other artists, say, Jimmy Page or David Crosby?
Rzeznik: I’ve tried some of the tunings Page used in Led Zeppelin, but I always wind up messing around with them. When I come across a sound I like I get my tuner- it’s important to have a tuner handy- and write down the sequence so I don’t forget it. I’m anxious to see if any of the tunings I used on this album have ever been used by other guitarists.
GWA: Do you use any particular strange tunings on Gutterflower?
Rzeznik: “Big Machine” was written on a four string guitar. Actually, it was a regular six- string, but I cut two strings off- the D and the high E- because they were getting in the way. That left jus the E,A,G and B strings, which i detuned to D# A# A# D. And it worked- it’s so infectious. When I came up with the riff, I was so excited that I kept calling my friends and saying, “Check this riff out!” Now it’s my favorite song on the record.
GWA: Are there six-string parts on that song as well?
Rzeznik: Yeah, I did some overdubs of power chords to bring the dynamics up in the bridge and chorus. Tim Pierce did this cool arpeggio part on it too. I did this thing at the end of the song that I think [Cars guitarist] Elliot Easton used to do, which was take a Les Paul and triple the single-note parts to give it a fat, throaty sound.
GWA: Is that you playing the mandolin part on “Sympathy”?
Rzeznik: I played some of it, and Tim plays some mandolin as well.
GWA: There’s a lot of lush guitar overdubs on this record.
Rzeznik: That’s mostly Tim. He came in and added an ambient flavor to the songs. He takes a simple melody and makes it work, knowing exactly where to add that punctuation and drive the point home. And he has this great collection of guitars and pedals that he knows how to use. He’s so tasteful.
GWA: Did you use a B-Bender on “It’s Over”?
Rzeznik: Yeah, on a Tele. The B-Bender is the coolest thing ever. Who ever came up with that idea?
GWA: Gene Parsons and Clarence White of the Byrds.
Rzeznik: Really? No shit! It’s really really cool.
GWA: What other guitars did you use on Gutterflower?
Rzenik: A lot of Guilds, a Chet Atkins and also Parker Fly electric. I usually stacked up a Guild and the Chet Atkins because they compliment each other nicely. On “What A Scene” there’s three seperate acoustics- a Gibson J-200, a Guild and a Chet Akins- and then I stuck a clean electric underneath it.
Many of the acoustic parts on this record lay a foundation for the songs, but they’re not always the main instruments. On all of my songs, I always try to play one electric part in standard. and then Tim will come in and play his part in standard. So if there are a total of five guitar tracks, I might do two in an altered tuning and one in standard tuning, and then Tim will add his parts.
GWA: How about amps and effects?
Rzeznik: I put this sick amp rig together. It has a Bogner Shiva, a Matchless Chieftain, a Marshall Plexi with Mullard tubes and a Naylor Superdrive 60, which is the most amazing, heavy sounding amp. We also used a lot of the Line 6 stuff in the studio. It’s great for expanding your creative potential-there are so many different possibilties. But most people just use the presets, because they want to sound like someone else.
GWA: They feel they need to follow.
Rzeznik: Fuck that. Take the Stevie Ray Vaughan preset or whatever and whack the hell out of it and run it trough something else. Put a wound G string on your electric. Poke a hole in your speaker like the Kinks did. Be creative. The worst that could happen is that it sucks.