With sincere apologies to Simon & Garfunkel and to a far lesser degree Cagney & Lacey, Daryl Hall & John Oates are the biggest duo of all time. The legendary musicians have a staggering arsenal of hits – from “Maneater” to “Private Eyes,” and have survived the 1980s virtually unscathed with the exception an occasional “Saturday Night Live” jab or perhaps that “Adult Education” music video. Getting serious, the two have been pop royalty since they met up in that 1970s, selling out venues for some four decades now.
On Oct. 13, the pair will release a box set entitled Do What You Want, Be What You Are, which is an impressive collection of the hit makers’ singles, rarities, and live tracks. The compilation comes on the heels of the duo’s scene stealing “appearance” in this summer’s hit dramedy 500 Days of Summer. Who could forget Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s choreographed dance number to “You Make My Dreams Come True” after he got lucky with Zooey Deschanel? No one.
I spoke to Oates the other day about how that film’s impacted he and Hall, his recent solo album “1,000 Miles of Life,” and how much work went into the box set. And no John Oates interview would be complete without asking him about his far-gone infamous mustache…
How long has this box set been in development?
The project was put on the back burner for quite a long time, but this year it got resurrected and Daryl and I both got into it creatively – hands on. Working with the guys at Sony Legacy was great, because they were real fans and really had a lot of passion for the music. They did a lot of amazing archival work in digging out tapes and stuff like that.
How much digging did you guys do?
I dug some things out of my vault, Daryl had some stuff of his, and together it was a really great project. I had some stuff — for instance — the live tracks that appear on the set. They are from our first concert in England in 1974 — it was the first time we went and performed there. I had it actually on video tape which we took the audio from and remixed it and remastered it. It’s impressive. The band was on fire that night. We didn’t have a lot of material to draw from at that time, so the arrangements are sort of really baroque . It’s a unique glimpse into where we were at at that time.
I’m far enough away from a lot of the music now and I’m pretty amazed at the depth of the material and the wide variety of production styles and approaches that we evolved through over the years. I think it’s pretty impressive. I know I sound like I’m talking from my ego but I’m trying to be as objective as I can.
How difficult was it to get the content down to four discs and not extend to a fifth or sixth?
Well, we could have gone further. You can always go further especially when there’s 400-plus songs to pick from but I think it’s a great cross section. It shows the variety and eclecticness of some of our approaches. For the casual fan, it’s going to be eye opening. I think they’ll discover things about us that are above and beyond the hits. But for the true fan, this is going to be a real collector’s item.
It staggering how many hits you guys have yet a lot of time you aren’t given the respect you deserve. Do you find that?
I think in the past journalists who were contemporary to us in the ’70’s and ’80’s never really gave us the right respect, I don’t think. I think there was a stigma to being a band that had success on Top 40 radio, but I think now after the passage of time, the respect has changed a lot because we’re being mentioned by a lot of younger, newer cutting edge bands talking about how influential we were, and how much respect they had for our body of work. I also think rock journalism is just not that important really [now.] I think it’s more about what people really like, what they care about, and the newer generation doesn’t pay attention to what people tell them. They make their own decisions, and on that note, there’s a whole different level of respect.
How big has 500 Days of Summer‘s dance scene been for you guys?
You know I’m not actually feeling it right now, but I kind of sense it at the live shows. It’s definitely happening. Younger audiences are rediscovering our music and not just from vehicles like 500 Days of Summer, but like I said the various newer bands out there. It’s kind of a sum total of these things that kick in. Our audiences are getting younger, and younger fans are going back to look at the older material.
It is impressive though how you two can blend in with a soundtrack featuring the likes of Regina Spektor and Feist…
I’ve always said this, and I always feel this way, it comes down to the song. If the song holds up, then it stands the test of time and transcends eras and generations. That’s what we’re finding with our material, and I think that’s where the positive reactions are coming from. The songs sound good. They hold up and they’re pretty much as contemporary as a lot of things that are out there.
What’d you make of the “You Make My Dreams Come True” scene?
It was an amazing moment. It was the moment for me. It wasn’t the climax of the movie but in a sense it was. I think for a lot of people that euphoria of falling in love, and being in love- a lot of people tried to capture that and express that in song, in writing and movies, books, and whatever. It came out of nowhere, and was very creative and very surprising.
On paper, that scene could’ve destroyed the movie.
Yeah, it could have. Maybe. It didn’t.
You guys don’t have 20 top singles in a row anymore but yet there you are on The Daily Show or being mocked on Saturday Night Live last year. You simply don’t ever go away — perhaps it’s because you tour repeatedly?
I’m going to take that answer backwards. I think the fact we never really stopped touring is one of the reasons why we never turned into a nostalgia act. We still have vitality, passion, a great band and we play like we mean it. There’s so much value in that you can’t even calculate it. That being said, you said they make fun of us on Saturday Night Live. I guess they do, but at the same time, of all the groups or duos out there, they pick us to use because we’ve achieved this iconic status of sorts. They’re not going to pick someone the world doesn’t recognize. I don’t look at it like they’re picking on us.
We’re a very efficient vehicle for them to use as a parody because as soon as you see two people with big blond hair and a big mustache and that ’80s look, there’s an instant recognition factor. I don’t want to put myself in the same place but if you put up a picture of Babe Ruth — everybody knows who that is. It puts you in a place and time. We have that kind of status especially when it comes to ’80s.
I have to ask you about the mustache thing. People still figure you have one even though you haven’t in decades, and whenever you are imitated, it’s always with a stache…
It became a look — an iconic look that I created in a weird backhanded way I guess. I’m stuck with it, and the world is stuck with it. I don’t have to live with it luckily but it is part of my history. It represents something.
And you’ve embraced it in recent years — writing the foreward for my book “Sweet Stache”, taking part in a cartoon about your stache gone wild (“J-Stache”), and playing “Stache Bash” next month. Did that take some time to get comfortable with?
It had a lot more meaning for me when I shaved it off and I could look at myself — I explain that in the foreward basically. To me, in a strange way and I know it might sound funny, but it’s no longer me. It’s an image. It’s like a logo almost, and that’s how I look at it. And if that’s a brand or a logo, and it works and people relate to it, then cool.
What’s Daryl’s reaction to your embracing of the mustache?
I think he’s unaware of it. He doesn’t pay attention to that. He’s pretty focused on himself and things he’s doing. When we work together as Hall & Oates — he’s focused on that. The moment that ends, he’s completely focused on his “Live from Daryl’s House” (web series) and his life. He’s got a lot going on. I don’t think it means a lot to him, but I might be wrong.
You have stayed together despite the rock-and-roll cliche. How so? I mean you guys should be grabbing each other’s throats by now…
Well I don’t know about that. I mean why should we not be talking to each other? We have a very unique relationship based on a lot of commonality and a lot of differentiation between the two of us. If I wasn’t the personality I am, there would be no Hall & Oates. If he wasn’t the personality he is, there would be no Hall & Oates. We call our company Two Headed Monster, and in a sense it’s a joke, but it’s not a joke. What we do together creates something so much larger than the two of us individually.
I think in music and a lot of creative fields, people’s egos get in the way of their ability of seeing the big picture. I think one thing Daryl and I have already had is the ability to see the big picture. I think he recognizes my strong points, and I recognize his strong points. I think we have a mutual respect for those strong points, and go out of our way to overlook and work around the small little insignificant issues that are in conflict. That’s really what we’ve always done. I think it’s to our credit that we’ve had enough common sense to be able to do that.
And you support each other’s solo work, which is cool. Your album last year was terrific. Was it a rewarding experience?
Incredible rewarding. It opened up a whole new world to me. I think it’s the strongest songwriting I’ve ever done. It’s not exactly the happiest album in the world, but it’s very personal and it’s real.
Lastly, I have to ask you since you came out of the same era – what do you make of the media surrounding Michael Jackson’s death?
He was a controversial figure during his life, and a controversial figure during his death. He was supremely talented, and supremely flawed which is not unusual with creative people. It doesn’t surprise me. I knew Michael. I didn’t know him very well, but we’ve met on a number of occasions, he came to our shows in LA and always said how much a lot of our music influenced him, and we did “We are the World” and all that. I think now after he’s passed away, I think the artistry and his musical legacy is what’s going to remain rather than the controversy and personal flaws. I think that’s good.