More than four decades after he and musical partner Daryl Hall released their debut album, John Oates is not only going strong – he is branching out musically in several ways. The singer has assembled an ambitious new project, A Good Road to Follow, which will see him release singles on a monthly basis, including collaborations with Hot Chelle Rae, Ryan Tedder, Vince Gill, Taylor Swift producer Nathan Chapman and many more. Eventually Oates will tour behind the singles, though he anticipates that happening in 2014, after people have heard more of them.
But Bonnaroo attendees will see him there this weekend: he’s serving as musical director for the festival’s annual SuperJam. While we don’t want to give away too much, he gave us the full set list. Trust us – it will be something to see. Expect surprises. “R. Kelly might stop by,” Oates told Rolling Stone.
Oates is basking in the opportunity to lead a group that includes Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Sly and the Family Stone‘s Larry Graham. “I’ve been waiting my whole life to play this set,” which will include several Sly songs, Prince‘s “1999,” the Temptations‘ “Standing on Shaky Ground” and many more surprises, he says.
In addition to coming full circle, as he says, releasing a series of singles and leading the Rock ‘n’ Soul Dance Party at Bonnaroo, Oates continues to tour with Hall. They are planning a full series of dates this year, including San Francisco’s Outside Lands. Rolling Stone spoke with Oates about festivals, having two careers and his future dream collaborators on the ongoing A Good Road to Follow.
Will you be touring for the solo album?
Yes and no. It’s not an album – it’s a series of singles that are going to be released one at a time over a period of this year. I’m not going to gear up and do a tour, but, yes, I’m gonna start to play. I’m actually thinking of playing more after people get a chance to hear a whole variety and the unusual nature of this project, but that’ll probably be next year.
The way music is disseminated now is so different than it used to be. What made you go this route?
I began to write some really cool songs, I got excited about the writing, because everything starts with the writing of the songs. It just seems like people’s mentality and frame of mind is they really don’t have the energy or attention span for an album’s worth of music. But I thought, “These songs are so good I don’t want to just have them languish on a CD somewhere.” I started thinking about individual playlists and the way people listen to music in a more modern world today and I said, “Why not just release a series of singles?” I realized this is just full-circle from where I came from when I was a kid, when my whole world revolved around singles. All of a sudden the world kind of opened up creatively – I could work with all sorts of different people. I have a lot of friends who are involved in everything from Americana to blues to R&B to pop to country. I came up with the idea of A Good Road to Follow, which is a musical journey.
Can you give us a preview of some of the tracks?
Each song has its own story. When I first went to Nashville to write in the early Nineties, one of the first people I met and became friends with was a guy named Keith Follese. Keith and his wife, Adrienne, had written Number One songs for Martina McBride, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, all sorts of people. I got to know them and their family. They have these two young boys who were probably four and six or seven years old. Those boys have gone on to become Ryan and Jamie Follese in the group Hot Chelle Rae – the lead singer and drummer. They’re great guys, really talented, a lot of energy, and they’re really making some fantastic pop records, which I relate to.
It reminds me of the way Daryl and I were in the early Eighties. They have that same kind of energy and attitude. They asked me to help them record a new version of “You Make My Dreams Come True” for an AMfar compilation a lot of the new bands were doing, and so I brought the guitar I played on the original track, and I played and sang background, and while I had them in the studio, I told them about this project. They jumped on board, and it’s a total modern, state-of-the-art pop song.
Then with Vince Gill, he and I wrote a song in his living room and recorded it in his house, and we all played on it. We did the song in one day. In every instance I wanted to enter the world of the collaborator that I was working with, and that goes down the line. I did a song [“Stone Cold Love”] with Ryan Tedder from OneRepublic in Denver in his home studio, and it’s a really unique song. I’m so excited about what’s going on with this music.
Who else would you like to collaborate with?
I’d like to do something with the Avett Brothers. I love those guys, and I’ve played with them – did a bunch of festivals with them last summer. There’s no end to this. Here’s a perfect example: I’m doing Bonnaroo with Jim James, and Jim wants to do one with me. I’m just gonna keep myself open to the possibilities.
Who else are you playing with at the SuperJam?
We’ve got this incredible band that we’ve assembled: Carl Broemel from My Morning Jacket is playing lead guitar, we’ve got Ziggy Modeliste from the Meters playing drums, Larry Graham from Sly and the Family Stone is playing bass. We’ve got Becca Bramlett and Wendy Moten, who are two of my favorite singers, singing background and leads. Bilal Oliver, from Philadelphia, is coming out, R. Kelly may show up. We’ve got Lee Fields, the Preservation Hall Jazz horns – it’s just off the charts. The theme of our SuperJam is called Rock ‘N’ Soul Dance Party, and it’s just a ridiculous set list. It’s crazy. We’re doing a whole block of Sly stuff, obviously, because of Larry. We’re doing everything from the Meters to Prince to the Band to John Lennon to the O’Jays. I’ve been waiting my whole life to do this set.
You and Daryl are playing Outside Lands, which has a phenomenal lineup. How does that inspire you musically, to play with artists from Kaskade and D‘Angelo to the National to McCartney, Willie Nelson, Gary Clark Jr. and on and on?
I love festivals because it puts Daryl and I in front of a whole new group of people who might not necessarily come to a Hall and Oates show. At the same time, we just did Jazz Fest. We’ve been wanting to play Jazz Fest for 20 years, and we closed the show Sunday night. There were, like, 20,000 people going nuts – it was just amazing. So we’re really into doing the festivals. We’re gonna be doing a lot more of them. Bonnaroo, I’m hanging for a couple of days. I’m gonna check all sorts of things out.
Are there specific Hall and Oates songs that you‘ve either developed a new appreciation for or you love playing now?
“I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” is a song that has been a showstopper from the day it was written because of its groove, and the groove has been, over the years, our most sampled and most ubiquitous groove. But that song has become a showcase for the band over the years. We treat it the way a traditional jazz player would treat a song. It’s a song that is used as a jumping-off point to stretch out. It becomes this kind of R&B, fun extravaganza of musicianship, playing and improvisation.
You‘re in a very cool situation where you have this successful group, but you can do individual projects as well.
Daryl and I have always seen ourselves that way and it’s really cool, because we can come together and seamlessly transition. We can be Hall and Oates and we do our thing and people love it, and the songs seem to still resonate with fans, new and old. And at the same time we go our separate ways and we can be complete individuals. Not many people can actually do that, and I am so blessed and fortunate to be able to do it, and I don’t take it for granted. I try to relish every second of it.