By Chris Lord
How does a band formerly known as the Sex Maggots end up penning one of the most successful love songs in modern music history?
23 years on from the release of Iris and it’s unclear if even its chief architect knows. But speaking to the Goo Goo Dolls’ frontman and principal songwriter, John Rzeznik, from his home in New Jersey, you get the sense that he’s all about the journey, not the destination.
While the release of Rarities, the band’s new compilation of B-sides and lesser-known tracks, will help in filling the pandemic-sized gap felt by fans, somewhat more pertinent is the opportunity it’s given Rzeznik to reflect on 35 years of the Goo Goo Dolls. The band he formed in Buffalo, New York in 1986 with long-time friend and bandmate, Robby Takac. By the age of 16, both of Rzeznik’s parents had died, leaving him to be brought up by his older sisters. Music would become a welcome distraction when he first picked up a guitar and met Takac a couple of years later – inspired heavily by the British punk movement.
The Goo Goo Dolls’ initial albums channelled that same raucous energy before a huge musical shift in the late ‘90s. Originally written for the soundtrack of City of Angels, the 1998 film starring Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan, Iris was a bona fide, alt-rock blockbuster. The official music video has over 300 million YouTube views, while the single has shifted a million copies in the UK alone. Yet in spite of their success, Rzeznik seems largely unfazed by fame.
Of course, there’s a limit to how much you can learn about a person on a 40-minute Zoom call, but this writer is willing to hazard a guess that John is one of the good guys. Looking back on 35 years of steering the Goo Goo Dolls ship, his main source of pride is the fact that he’s still able to do it today, overcoming plenty of crises – both personal and professional – along the way. He seems to have kept himself firmly grounded, never losing touch of those tight-knit, working-class principles that he was raised on. An integral part of the Buffalonian experience, as he points out.
As Rarities is released, Rzeznik spoke to Metro.co.uk about life in and out of the Goo Goo Dolls.
Were your difficult early years useful in that they led you to find music and start a new life?
The band really became my family after my parents died. Just having that camaraderie, it was like having a new family.
If you hadn’t met Robby, how you do think your career might have gone?
I don’t think I would’ve pursued music as vigorously as we did, because he was more determined than I was. I was always like ‘yeah, let’s do this, have fun, whatever!’, but he convinced me that it was something that we should try to take seriously.
The more general fans of the Goo Goo Dolls probably aren’t as acquainted with the band’s punk rock beginnings – lest we forget you were originally called the Sex Maggots. Particularly with a Damned cover, does Rarities offer fresh insight into what makes you guys tick?
Yeah, but there are parts of that time that seep into everything we do. Maybe not the song, but it definitely seeps into the way that we record things. A lot of times the live versions of our songs become a lot more revved up.
Were there any other British punk bands that caught your attention?
I liked what the Sex Pistols did, but I didn’t discover them until it was all over with. I thought it was pretty amazing because I’d never heard anything like that before. But ultimately, I was more like ‘wow, The Clash’, and The Damned. And then a lot of other bands. The Ramones, Elvis Costello, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Smiths. There was so many great British bands that I was into in high school and college, and then starting this band with Robby. I just couldn’t play as well as those guys could! The Clash to me were always a more serious band. Being from a place like Buffalo, it was exciting to hear something like that. They’re still playing the same four Led Zeppelin songs on the radio here. I learned about all these bands through my older sisters and the underground indie record shops and clubs in Buffalo.
We’ve all had a lot of time to reflect and look back during the past year or so. Was putting this collection together a fun, cathartic experience?
It’s an interesting way to look back and see how we’ve evolved, how I’ve evolved. And look back fondly at some of those times. It brought me back to a lot of times and I realised that maybe there’s things that you need to get back in touch with.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of the band. After all these years, what are you most proud of?
The fact that we could hold this s*** together for that long [laughs]. It’s the honest answer. I can’t believe we held it together between marriages, divorces, rehabs, drug problems, drinking problems, money problems, record company problems, crazy people problems. Everything, you know. We’ve actually been able to hold it together.
What are the main regrets, if any?
I wish I hadn’t signed that first record deal [with Metal Blade] because I wound up having millions of dollars stolen from me. But if I hadn’t signed that deal, I might not have had a chance to make another record. And I’m sure I’d have a cool life, and probably be a bartender. Man, being a bartender was my favourite job. You got paid in cash, you had a reason to talk to every pretty girl in the bar, and then free drinks after hours.
On the topic of drinking, how has sobriety changed your outlook on the band and life in general?
In terms of the band, I find it more enjoyable and I’m sure everyone I work with finds me more enjoyable. The point that I got to was so dark, it was bad. I was completely counterproductive. Luckily everybody hung together with me. It was a little weird when I first got sober because everybody would go out to dinner, and nobody would drink. And everybody would be texting under the table ‘meet me at the bar after dinner, I think John’s gonna leave!’
It got to the point where I was like ‘look, you guys, this is my problem, not yours’, so I started ordering drinks for everybody. Whenever we would go out, I became the bartender! The thing is, the drugs and the booze are always gonna be there. I just can’t do ‘em. I lost my license and the quicker I accepted that, the easier it became.
Was it always just a by-product of being a rock star? Or did it run deeper? You’ve spoken before about your father’s struggles with alcohol.
Well, Buffalo is a very blue-collar, working-class town. It’s reinventing itself, but it was one of those cities where people worked shitty jobs in factories and then you got out and drank. That was the culture that Robby and I grew up in. It was a lot of fun, but it caught up to us.
The band has had quite a unique creative trajectory over the last three decades. From those early punk-edged albums to alternative rock, then to the more pop stylings of recent years. What do you see as the Goo Goo Dolls’ defining period?
What are we trying to define?
Let me ask you a different question. If someone asks you for a Goo Goo Dolls album, which one are you giving them?
Wow. Either Superstar Car Wash , because I really felt like I was actually learning how to be a songwriter, or Something For The Rest Us , which was a real weird, difficult record. I mean, these define two completely different times, but they were really close to the bone.
Iris is one of the most popular, recognisable love songs of all time. But would you say the band’s biggest love story is your friendship with Robby?
Yeah. He and I still get along, you know. We know better than to talk to each other every day. Even after 35 years, the thing that I love is that we were just up in Woodstock making a record, and every morning we went out to the diner and had breakfast with each other. We’d discuss everything. Life, the news, music, what we were gonna do in the studio that day, some stupid s*** I saw on TV. It’s nice to have someone to sit down and have a cup of coffee with in the morning after so much time.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes we hate other! I’m like ‘f*** you, I hate you!’, but he knows I don’t hate him.
Was Iris’ success as much a curse as it was a blessing? Everything you’ve done since has been held up against it.
Well, when you become that 10-year, overnight sensation, then all the real work starts. And the real criticism starts coming in. And people start hating on you. But I’m glad that song was a hit. It’s a whole lot better having a hit than not. Even if it casts a really long shadow over a lot of material.
As you said, everything we’ve done since has been compared to that. It’s annoying sometimes, but at the same time, I’m so happy that that song came into our lives and helped us to have a career. I can support my family and I get to travel around the world. I’m just happy that I put something out that that many people were affected by.
A few years ago, LA Weekly called your recent material MILFcore.
Ah, f*** those guys. You know, they even hated Iris when that came out, so f*** ‘em! I think the biggest thing that I’ve learned is that I can’t control what you think of me. In that way, the metrics of how I gauge my success have changed. It’s not ‘did I get to the top of the charts? Did I sell a million copies?’, it’s ‘am I happy with this?’
For the most part, would you say that you are?
Yeah. The new record that’s coming out next year, I really went back. Not to certain musical styles, but to a lot of the methodology that I used at the beginning. We recorded most of the album analogue, which forces you to make decisions. In the digital world, I can have 200 tracks. I can keep piling ideas on top of ideas, but this way I have to edit myself and choose the really great elements. You can’t use every idea, which I think is becoming a lost discipline. The album’s got this way leaner, meaner vibe to it.
I didn’t do a lot of collaborating this time, because I wanted to see what came out organically, sitting there in a chair playing the guitar. And then going into the studio with Robby and Craig [Macintyre, drummer] and just pounding out these ideas. Just the three of us in a room listening to the songs evolve organically. No disrespect to anybody that I’ve ever collaborated with, but I really feel like I needed to do this on my own to get back in touch with a part of me that freaks me out. The cliché of looking at the blank page. When you’re facing that on your own, it’s terrifying.
The Goo Goo Dolls’ Rarities is out now on Warner Bros.