Headliner finds Goo Goo Dolls’ creative driving force and songwriting duo, Robby Takac and John Rzeznik in a contemplative mood when we reach them over separate calls to discuss their new rarities collection. Fittingly entitled Rarities and spanning the first 12 of the band’s 30 years (and counting) career, this new compilation is a veritable treasure trove for fans of the band, featuring previously unheard studio outtakes, covers and live performances from 1995-2007. It is not Rarities alone, however, that has prompted the pair to take a rare backwards glance at their time together. Currently working on a new studio record, Takac and Rzeznik have taken something of an artistic sojourn, both literal and figurative, to the place where it all began for them more than three decades ago…
We are joined first by bassist and vocalist Takac, who calls us from the studio in which the band wrote and recorded some of their earliest material. Located in the Buffalo woods, he describes it as an idyllic retreat for the band, who have decided to return to their roots for what will be their next album, eschewing the trappings of the city to focus solely on making music and recapturing some of the spirit that shaped their formative recordings.
“It’s been cool, but I’ve never felt more like a city boy in my life,” Takac laughs with an easy charm, his voice possessed of the kind of weathered, road-worn drawl that only 30 years of rock stardom can provide. “We were sleeping in an old church, the walls were full of interesting things that made noise during the night, there were some animals mangled by hawks left on our porch, deer running through the yard... It was amazing but our band hasn’t been sequestered like that, doing nothing but making a record, for an awful long time. It brings you back to that place when you’re just getting started, when we had nothing else going on. All we had was making music. It’s been decades since then and our lives have progressed in a lot of ways, so it’s great to alleviate as much of the distraction as you can.”
Vocalist and guitarist, Rzeznik, concurs on the subject when Headliner speaks to him a few days later. Like his cohort, his is a voice that bears the excesses of a three-decade career, albeit with a tone that floats somewhere between dreamy and meditative.
“We went back to the original process,” he explains, elaborating on the decision to adopt a more traditional approach in the studio. “It was really fun and that is how you get to the core of a song, I truly believe that. That said, it’s a bigger pain in the ass than sitting around in these nice, tight writing sessions, but the music has to have some grease – I call it grease – on it, and it has to have some soul to it. You have to get to the heart of what you’re doing. When you bring a piece of music into a bunch of guys, you’re sharing a really vulnerable moment with those people; I’m scanning the room looking for turned up lips and rolling eyes. But it’s really fun, getting the feedback from the other guys, or hearing a mistake and going, ‘Robby, what the hell did you just play? That was awesome’!”
Rzeznik also offers some insight into the technical crossover of old and new methods that underpins the band’s upcoming material.
“The recording process itself was a hybrid of digital and analog, but mostly analog.” He continues. ”I wanted to record the album in analog, not because it sounds so much better than digital – which it does, but let’s not go down that rabbit hole! – but because I wanted to limit the number of tracks that we had. I wanted to be able to make decisions. The biggest thing when we started recording digitally was going from having 48 tracks or 24 tracks to having 125 or 300 tracks, so you get these songs that are dense bricks of music and they lack nuance. I may have 17 guitar parts that I think are all really cool but we have to get rid of 15 of them. That loaned itself to a much more open-sounding record. There is a dynamic and breath on the album, which is exciting to me.”
This period of reflection, both in regard to the band’s creative process and the decision to release a rarities compilation, was provoked in part by the pandemic. For a band as busy as Goo Goo Dolls, with 13 studio albums to their name and a regular fixture on the live circuit, the past 18 months have put their working lives on hold for an unusually lengthy period. So when Rzeznik happened upon a bundle of lost recordings, it offered a new project to embark on and provided the opportunity to keep their fans sated with a new release.
“We used to have these things called DAT recordings and we found a closet full of them, but we had nothing to play them on,” Rzeznik recalls. “So I went on eBay, bought a DAT machine and gave it to my manager. He started going through all these old recordings of us, alternate versions of things, live things, and he said there was a lot of interesting stuff. He gave it to me and I was like, ‘this is pretty cool’. There’s a lot of rough stuff on there, which I like. And during the pandemic, for full disclosure, we just wanted to keep putting things out there as much as we could. It was a chance to have a look at a really fun period for this band.”
For Takac, the Rarities project presented a way of staying occupied during the uncertainty of lockdown.
“It’s been a weird year for everyone, especially people in bands, because our whole existence is shared with this huge group of people,” he says. “And after doing it for so many years, you don’t take it for granted, but you don’t realise what an important part of your life that is. We and the label had a lot of time to reflect on what was going on. We don’t often have time to dig through old boxes of pictures and stuff and Warner Bros was going through their vaults at the time and had a significant amount of things... and there is way more where this came from. So, we felt it was a good time to share some of what we had collected over the years. It was just good to be busy, and a lot of people didn’t have the luxury of staying busy during this time.
“As for the selection process, we just reached in, closed our eyes and grabbed a handful. There are so many things we did as special one-offs, and I think that era is one that a lot of people discovered us during. It was a classic period of the band.”
While not typically a band predisposed to nostalgic reminiscence, Takac did take pleasure in rediscovering not just some of the music they were making, but also the wildly different headspace they were in at the time.
“A lot of the recordings were from radio station appearances, so we could probably do a 40-record box set of acoustics versions of Slide because we have so many,” he laughs. “That was one of the things I was amazed by – how much effort we put into breaking those records. You can hear us singing at 6am on some of them and you can tell we were up all night, because we were throwing down hard back then! We’re teetotallers these days, so it brought back memories of some of those all-nighters that ended up at radio sessions in the mornings. Looking through that vault was a lot of fun. It was a cool walk through time. We don’t do a lot of that with this group, we always move forward and try to worry about what’s next. Maybe we’re superstitious about looking back.”
In each of Headliner’s conversations with Takac and Rzeznik, talk turns naturally to the vast, incalculable changes that have altered the music industry over the course of their career. While they could scarcely have predicted the incredible success they would go on to achieve when they first started out, the digital revolution that continues to shape and reshape the business would arguably have been even more difficult to foresee.
“The internet and the availability of digital services changed everything, I don’t think any of us could have foreseen this,” Takac says. “I’m sitting in the exact same space where we made our first album, and just to think about the difference... If we were lucky, we sold 10,000 copies of that first album, but it took so much to make that record happen, months of getting it together and manufacturing and finding a label. Now these kids come in here, they record a song, and they already have the artwork, they mix it that night and they are uploading it for distribution on the way out of the door. I never thought I’d be having that conversation 30 years ago. It’s an unrecognizable business, but it’s become exciting again.
“There will always be the mainstream of music, and that is awesome because for some people that’s all they need. But now you can find what you want. Bands I’ve never heard of before are selling out the LA Forum. That wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago. Now you can find the music you want and stay away from what you don’t want. It’s an exciting time right now. For a band like us, our fans know where we are. The business is about to make another huge change with NFTs… It feels like a direct outreach to your fanbase and it will all be based on a purchase rather than social media. It just makes it easier.”
As for how the band has managed to navigate such immense change and maintain their success, the pair point to hard work and good management from the people they surrounded themselves with.
“I didn’t think we were going to last long,” states Rzeznik. “Especially after we had one song that was a hit. For me, having one hit song was like hitting the slot machine, then everyone applauded and said ‘do it again’! And we just kept going and going, that was the key thing. We didn’t get a chance to really celebrate our big success because our manager told us to keep our heads down and that was when the real work started. With that in mind, Robby and I cut loose some dead weight and just got on with our career and really tried to learn and listen to everything and put out as much material as possible.”
“We were lucky enough to find people early on who pointed us in a good direction; we were able to keep the vibe we were trying to put out there,” Takac notes. “We’ve formed a huge community of people and they participate and connect with each other. On the other side, you’re not making money selling records anymore so you have to figure out a way to deal with that. Luckily people come to see us play because we have a lot of songs people want to hear, so we’re able to make some money. It’s not that way for some bands and that sucks, but we’ve been able to shift our business model that way. We do a lot more touring – obviously not over the last year. You just make it work.”
For now, Takac and Rzeznik are relishing the return of some form of normality to their world. With the release of Rarities and a new studio album in the offing, as well as the gradual return of live music, there will be plenty to keep them busy over the coming months.
“We’re going to start a full tour at the beginning of June 2022, but we’re doing a show here and there,” Rzeznik says as we bid our farewells. “Things are starting to open up. We skipped the last summer touring and this summer we’re obviously not out – to take two years out in a row for this band is crazy. We’ve never done that. Mostly because we’re masochists! But we’ll do 110-120 shows a year, and I think that’s the reason we’ve had some longevity.
“But it’s nice to have the chance to miss someone. I sat up in the woods for two and a half months with Robby and the band and by the eighth week I was excited to get away from them so I could miss them again!”