The Goo Goo Dolls
… Prepare to Get Dizzy: an Interview with Robby Takac
“I’m on the 34th floor, looking out my window,” says Robby Takac, speaking from his hotel room in midtown Manhattan. “Trust me, there’s nothing like this in Buffalo.” The bassist for the Goo Goo Dolls (his band mates are singer/guitarist John Rzeznik and drummer Mike Malinin) is enjoying the success of the group’s second number-one hit in their eleven year career: the romantic ballad, “Iris,” from the soundtrack to the film City of Angels. Yesterday, the band spent hours in the MTV studios and tonight they will perform “Iris” — complete with string section — on the Late Show with David Letterman. In every sense, they are a long way from their home town of Buffalo, New York.
At a time when few bands survive long enough to accumulate a catalog of recorded material, the Goo Goo Dolls’ endurance (not to mention their melodic, edgy power-punk music) is often compared to that of the late great, Replacements or even REM, who released half a dozen critically acclaimed albums before achieving mainstream success with the ironically entitled Out of Time in 1993. The comparison is something the band is used to hearing. “Our managers are always telling me that,” Takac says, incredulous. “To me, it just seems weird. It’s hard to see yourself that way, like when you’re doing your own laundry,” he laughs.
The Goo Goo Dolls sixth album, Dizzy Up the Girl, will be released on September 29th, the day before Takac’s 34th birthday. Takac and Rzeznik have been in Los Angeles mixing the record since January. “We brought some friends in to play on this record,” he tells me. “We’d never done that before.” The litany of guest musicians includes Tommy Keane, Benmont Tench from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and Tim Pearce from Rick Springfield’s band — who played the mandolin on “Iris.” “It’s interesting to get other people’s perspectives on your stuff,” he continues. “[The recording] was very free-form and really came together in a very unique way that we never had before.” Dizzy Up the Girl is certainly one of the more highly anticipated releases of late 1998.
How did the Goo Goo Dolls get involved with the soundtrack to City of Angels that produced this great hit song, “Iris”?
Our management company, Third Rail, has a film company as well — they were doing the City Of Angels movie. Johnny was out in Los Angeles for awhile and went to a screening. They screen films prior to there being a score, so that everyone involved can see what’s going on, so they can write to the film. John went home after he saw this screening and wrote a song. The story [of the movie] itself is pretty interesting, and that’s the perspective John wrote from. Then he called up the soundtrack coordinator, went down to his office and played it for him. They decided right away that they were going to [use it in the film], before even hearing our version, just by him going in and playing acoustically. So we all flew out and in a matter of a week, we were in the studio recording it.
When we actually turned it into the film, they thought that the version we did — that’s the version that you’re hearing on the radio right now — was a little bit too grandiose. So they replaced it [for the film] with John doing “Iris” by himself — an acoustic version. Obviously, we aren’t the marquee act on that record. It’s tough to go up against Alanis and U2. It’s a great record.
And “Iris” gave you a number one hit.
At one point it was number one in five formats. Right now [late July] it’s number three. It’s kind of rare, I think, to get five formats going, it’s a lot of ground to cross. We never really saw ourselves as cross-genre until “Name” got big. Our first record came out in 1987, and all of our records have had that element to them, even when we were sort of a hardcore band. But we’ve always been a bit more melodic than everyone else. We grew up listening to Hüsker Dü… drippy English new wave and stuff like that. I think that’s what led us down a bit more melodic of a path. If you listen to the first record and then you listen to the sixth record, it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t seem like the same band. At the time I was pretty much singing all the songs; John wasn’t even singing. He started singing after the second record. But if you listen from record to record, it makes perfect sense where we are now, in comparison to where we started. We went in and really made an effort to play well and to have our growth be nurtured as opposed to fighting it, like a lot of bands do.
Yeah but look at it this way: You’re in New York. Yesterday you did MTV all day and tonight you’re on Letterman. How does that feel to you?
It’s been such a slow build, I think we’ve managed to keep our heads. The first time we did TV was with Superstar Carwash — three records ago now — and that was Conan O’Brien. We’ve done Letterman three times, we’ve done Leno three times. MTV… I can’t even count the number of times we’ve been [on] there. It’s amazing you know, when MTV decides that they’re going to latch onto you, it’s like a roller coaster ride, man. They put you in just the oddest situations all the time. We did the Olympics through them, we played in Aspen through them, and down in Panama City, Florida, in the middle of a monsoon.
Would you guys move to Manhattan?
We lived here for a year actually. Johnny and I moved here right after the Boy Named Goo tour, which lasted 23 months. A long, long time. We stayed here for nine or ten months and wrote 90% of this new record here, which is called Dizzy Up The Girl.
Tell me about that, is the recording complete?
Yeah, it’s all recorded. Right now we’re mixing at this place called Ocean Way in Los Angeles with Jack Joseph Puig. He’s pretty hot at this particular point. He did all the Jellyfish records, produced and mixed them, so we thought he was coming from an interesting angle. I like to think that we’re trying to break a little bit of new ground every time we do something. We’ve been leery of going with the first guy, the logical choice. Jack was eclectic enough to where we thought he’d do a really cool job with this.
This record was really neat because we actually had enough money to go in and do it right. We looked at every single song as its own beast… it was really important for us to find the right vibe on every song. Simultaneously, as [the recording] is going on, “Iris” is going through the roof right? — so we’d record for three days and then have to go do something… Go play on a TV show or do this or that and come back. So it’s been sort of a process, time wise. A lot of the time we’d pretty much finish the song in a day, as far as the making of the bed of the song. Each song’s really got a character of its own; different amplifier, different drum sets, different procedures of recording, which added to the uniqueness of the songwriting itself. This record has some of the heaviest stuff and, at the same time, some of the sweetest stuff we’ve ever done.
Do you think you’ll put out a more rock single or will you stick with the ballad thing?
We generally don’t release ballads first. That was a big mistake that was made by [laughs] the meeting of the minds on the Superstar Carwash record, prior to A Boy Named Goo, with a song we had written with Paul Westerberg called “We Are the Normal.” It was the ballad from that record and I think they were going with the star-power, sort of thinking that Paul’s involvement may have moved it along. I think that it would have been a smarter to have gone with some rock tracks first, not expecting them to cross over. That’s sort of a weird predicament. We’re expected now to cross formats. So you really have to fight to get the rock single out first.
It’s kind of twisted, isn’t it?
The good thing is it’s not a prison for us, because it’s coincidentally one of the things we do. I don’t think John ever said to himself “I’m going to go write ‘Name’ now and I’m going to get on five formats.”
The five format formula…
Exactly. It’s just something he did and it worked.
What does the title of the record mean?
John has a friend who’s some sort of a workaholic, if you will. She works all day and night, a music industry person. I think he felt she was getting a little tense and he said to himself in his head one day, or at least so he tells me, that he needed to take her out and “dizzy her up a bit” so she could forget about work. That’s what it’s all about: going out and letting go for a little while.
It’s a very provocative title.
Yeah sure. I mean, the double entendres never hurt, right? It was actually the name of a song at one point, that was changed along the way. But it just sounded so unique and the imagery is really nice. When we first started kicking it around some of the feminist types had a bit of a problem with it.
I think it rules.
Once it’s put into perspective and you’re not looking at it so defensively, it’s sort of fun.
Yes, it is fun. Tell me about this “A Day in the Garden” Woodstock anniversary concert coming up on August 16.
That will actually be the first big show we do. We have a new rhythm guitarist now, a side guitarist, Nathan December. He played on the last REM tour, Adventures in Hifi or whatever. The Brain Explosion Tour. He’s been playing on and off with us for years and he’s joining us now, so we’re a little bit more free, playing live. It should be really interesting to see. I guess that show’s going to be pretty big. It sold 12,000 tickets the first day.
It’s got a good lineup, you, Marcy Playground, Dishwalla…
Third Eye Blind… Dishwalla opened up for us for four or three months last tour… a long time. We did a big club tour with them. They’re really cool guys.
Didn’t you guys open for Bush last year?
Those were four of the most humiliating months of my life. It was just very weird. I felt like I was sandwiched between this sort of comic-bookish spectacle.
Why is that?
We write and play rock songs — that’s pretty much our deal, there’s no smoke and mirrors, no craziness or anything like that. No fanfare…
No teenage girl camaraderie. Like, No Doubt, they’re really cool people — they were cool with us and we were cool with them, but it was just that the crowd seemed sort of bizarre to us. We weren’t used to sitting in a hockey arena full of 14 and 15 year olds. Our crowd is a little bit more diverse, and a lot of people who dug us didn’t want to pay at the $35 to sit through No Doubt, who no-one knew at the time, and certainly not Bush. Man, what happened with them? So fast, meteoric, up and down.
Who knows… maybe they’ll come back.
Yeah, you know what else is weird? Remember we were talking about the five format thing? The expectations of that? Isn’t it weird with a band like that, their first record sells six million copies and their next record sells a million and a half, and they’re talking about what a miserable failure it is. Like, wait a minute.
And so many bands don’t even get to sell a couple hundred thousand records.
Reprise never did that to Neil Young. Neil Young releases a record that sells nine copies and people go, “Let’s see what Neil’s going to do next!”
It’s very rare that anything new really moves me anymore. I wonder if a record is really good or if it’s just better than the last ten pieces of crap I listened to.
I’m not going to name any bands, but I’m sure that you could put a list together just as easily as I could, of bands that are basically one song bands.
One hit wonders.
And a label will sign them, and as long as they have that hit, they don’t care what’s on the rest of the record [laughs].
And have you noticed that there’s lot of almost “novelty” rock that’s coming out? Like that Harvey Danger song…
That was sort of my point.
And that “Closing Time” by Semisonic, who blow.
Keep going, I think you’ve got my list.
Cute little songs, but that’s it, and they’re on a major label, they have one hit song and they’re gone. Certainly you’ve had the better situation of making consistently good records that people over 12 will buy. It’s not like the Goo Goo Dolls are wondering “Gee, how do we top that song about hanging out in the liquor store?”
I feel like a prick, because you always want to be able to support your peers and what they do…
But crap is crap.
Good point [Laughs]. And the labels are nurturing this whole thing. They’re not looking for the next REM, I don’t think. It’s too much of a quick fix now and everybody’s so afraid this whole modern rock/alternative thing is just going to disappear. It’s already morphing itself into Top 40. The problem is that anything worth a shit that’s independent is getting scooped up, so [bands] don’t really have much of a chance to develop and grow.
Let’s wander onto another path now before our heads explode. I heard you and John on the radio just this morning doing a Fender guitar ad.
“We like Fender Guitars, they rock, we’re getting some for free just for doing this ad.” Did you get free guitars for that ad?
We’ve had a relationship with them for the past couple years, yeah. They’re really cool with us… anything we’d like to try. John gets these guitars put together that are a bit unorthodox, that he plays with a lot of different tunings. I’m sort of the same way, I play Fender Basses. Basically, the ads were cut from interviews. They’d send a guy into the studio when we were recording, set up a mike for an hour and they just talk to us.
They do make you sound pretty cool.
Have you heard the Richie Sambora one?
I think so.
It’s the most embarrassing thing I ever heard in my life. He goes [imitates Richie Sambora’s voice] “Hey, let’s face it, Guitars get you chicks. And nothing gets you chicks like a Fender Stratocaster!”
Are you kidding me? Like “I’m married to Heather Locklear, and you’re not!”
Actually that’s pretty funny.
Yes, it is. But I would assume it’s true. I think that’s why 90% of young, teenage males play the guitar. Chicks dig it. [laughs]