By Alessandro Corona
In a world where one-hit wonders ruled the music scene – one band, the Goo Goo Dolls, became a mainstay on the alternative charts with several hits throughout the late '90s and well into the 2000s. Since their introduction into radio rock consciousness with their first big single, “Name,” the group quickly elevated to a household name after their song “Iris” was chosen for the soundtrack of the movie “City of Angels."
Over the band’s nearly 40-year tenure, lead singer/songwriter John Rzeznik has penned a host of Grammy-nominated tunes, the most recognizable being “Slide” and “Black Balloon.” I recently had the honor of chatting with Rzeznik (before their Riverbend show on Friday, Aug. 18) about his tumultuous upbringing in Buffalo, his unique guitar style and his recent decision to live a sober life.
Q: Do you have any memories of coming through Cincinnati?
A: There's that diner in the bottom of the Carew Tower (Hathaway’s). We used to go there whenever we were there. There are a couple of really great guitar shops. I don't eat it anymore, but we used to do the Skyline Chili run every time. And playing at Bogart's.
Then across the street, there was Sudsy Malone's – the laundromat with the bar. Who the hell wants to fold clothes when they're bombed? It's a fun idea, but it's not going to work because everybody's going to get hammered and have to go home and they're going to leave their laundry.
Q: You grew up in Buffalo, and lost your parents at a young age. I read that you were influenced by your sisters' tastes in music and picked up guitar when you were in high school. Processing that experience is a theme that's in a lot of your songs. How did that experience growing up influence your songwriting?
A: First of all, being the only boy in a family of five kids with four older sisters, I think that had a profound influence on me as far as being brought up in a house full of women and absorbing their taste in music. And then growing up Catholic will influence everything that you do. We went to church six days a week for nine years. That was a big influence on me.
And then discovering all the original punk rock and new wave music and dance music. If you like punk rock, you could still like Depeche Mode and The Cure and The Chameleons and all those bands – Elvis Costello as well as The Buzzcocks and The Clash.
I was into a lot of different kinds of music, but it was all underground in Buffalo at the time. I was very influenced by the college radio station WBNY. It was a 100-watt college radio station. And I lived close enough to the university that I could listen to the new bands. It was a big influence on me.
Obviously, when my parents died, that's going to change your worldview forever. And dying at a young age like they did, and so quickly under weird circumstances. It definitely plays into your psyche. I'm affected by those experiences every day.
Q: Goo Goo Dolls has been a band for over 30 years now. How do you keep your songwriting process fresh? And how do you see the role of guitar rock in the modern musical world?
A: I think it's diminishing. Popular music is more urban – hip-hop and R&B based. It’s more electronic and deals with different subject matter than guitar rock. I try to write what speaks to me and what speaks to my audience. I've been playing guitar and writing guitar songs for 40 years, almost.
I love experimenting around with keyboards. Some of my favorite songs have been written by bands like Nine Inch Nails and Depeche Mode and New Order. It's not a big jumping-off point for me to experiment with electronics, but I meld the two things together.
Q: I remember obsessing over "Name" after hearing it on the radio, but you really blew up when the video for "Iris" came out. How do you see the role of music videos in your success?
A: They were very instrumental in our success. MTV and VH1 and alternative rock radio, which became mainstream radio at that time. There's just no place for music videos anymore because they're not going to play it. The way the system is set up with streaming, etc., it's incredibly unfair to artists and especially writers. We are very blessed and lucky because we're an older band and we stayed out on the road for 30 years and built a huge audience.
Q: What's your take on licensing?
A: I've had car commercials, I've had beer commercials, I've had a lot of music used in movies and television. At this point, it's cheaper for music supervisors to hire someone to anonymously create something that sounds like you. There's no unity or solidarity among musicians because it's so dog-eat-dog. 50,000 songs get uploaded a day. How are you going to unionize that? It's come down the same as it always has – there's a small group of people who are exploiting artists.
A really smart lawyer said, "I wouldn't sign this contract if I was you, John. But then again, I don't want to be a rock star." I never realized what a true statement that was because my first record deal was horrible. But I signed it because I wanted to be a rock star.
Q: You use a lot of nonstandard tunings. It really threw me for a loop when I was trying to learn your songs. What influenced you to switch things up from song to song?
A:Bob Mould's guitar playing is a huge influence on me. Costello, Page, Joni Mitchell, Stephen Stills, Ry Cooder – all musicians who use alternate tunings.
Q: You've been sober for nearly 10 years now. Congratulations.
A: All I can say is I'm happy, but I'm bored. That's the only thing about being sober that bugs me sometimes.
Q: Other than slowing things down a bit, how would you say it's changed your lifestyle?
A: I'm way healthier than I was 20 years ago. I had to quit or I was going to die. That's not hyperbole. There was so much alcoholism and drug abuse in our family growing up. I didn't want that for my daughter. Once I got the family disease of alcoholism, my negativity toward my father changed because I could actually sympathize.
He pretty much killed himself with drugs and booze, food and everything else he could be addicted to. I always have to keep an eye out for that because sometimes I will spend too much money on musical equipment and things like that, or I'll eat too much sugar or whatever. I have an addict brain, so I've got to keep an eye on it.
Goo Goo Dolls: The Big Night Out Tour with O.A.R.
When: 7 p.m., Friday, Aug. 18.
Where: PNC Pavilion, 6295 Kellogg Ave., Anderson Township.