“I wanted to become less afraid of electronic instruments so I could use them in a more complex songwriting style.”
Restlessness is a virtue for recording artists who are willing to expand their sonic horizons instead of relying on what comes naturally to them. Case in point: John Rzeznik of Goo Goo Dolls, a guy who could easily coast his way up the charts by merely tapping into the inherent knack he has for penning the kinds of hooks and melodies that made megahits out of songs like Iris, Name, Slide, Black Balloon, and scores more.
Rather than repeating himself, Rzeznik (the first z is silent, BTW) was quite insistent on pushing the production boundaries for the Goo Goo Dolls’ 11th studio album, Boxes, out today via various formats from Warner Bros.
“I got together with some really interesting folks and decided to not leave anything off the table,” Rzeznik told Digital Trends. “I really tried to push it out productionwise, songwise, and writingwise.”
Limit-pushing and electronic-vein-tapping are evident throughout Boxes, from the underwater vocal break punctuating a pivotal moment on The Pin to the pleading twists and turns of Reverse to the raw beats and breathy vocals collectively fueling So Alive. (One thing Rzeznik does remain in close touch with is coming up with short, succinct song titles. “Hey, you gotta call them something, and I don’t draw it out,” he laughed.)
And while the Goos tested some production boundaries on their noble 2013 effort Magnetic, Rzeznik felt it only scratched the surface. “The new album sort of became an extension of Magnetic, but Boxes is more tightly focused,” he conceded. “The material is stronger.”
On the eve of the album’s release, Rzeznik called DT to discuss incorporating EDM into Boxes, the pros and cons of streaming, and accepting in-studio reality checks. He knows when not to let it slide.
Digital Trends: There are some different textures on Boxes, some even more than what people might expect. Did that all come from your directive?
John Rzeznik: I wanted things to change a little bit. I’ve been listening to a lot of really interesting music lately, and it’s interesting to work with people who are younger than you. For example, I collaborated with two young brothers who are in an EDM group called Cash Cash [Jean Paul Makhlouf and Alex Makhlouf].
I was really blown away by them, because I wanted to understand how that music worked. I’d ask them, “How does this work? How do you make music like this?” They were great, and I got invited into their little circle. We did a song together, and it was fun. It was really a lot of fun.
Which song did you guys do together?
Oh, this was a couple of years ago. It’s not even on the album. I wanted to see how it’s done, because it’s so ubiquitous.
Did working with Cash Cash affect how you now approach your own songwriting?
No, it was more about becoming less afraid of electronic instruments, and then using them with guitars and a more complex songwriting style. That was the idea, but I don’t know if it worked. (chuckles)
Digital has a brittle edge to it, and vinyl doesn’t.
I mean, I’m always going to have my stamp on whatever it is I do — there’s just no way around it. I am who I am. Whatever I’m thinking in my mind about what I’m writing is going to get filtered through my brain and my hands, and then it’s going to come out on the track, in its own way. It has its own identity.
To be able to work with other people who think completely differently than me was just really fun. There were times when I’d go, “Whoa! I would have never even thought of that!” (chuckles) It was like getting these fun surprises along the way.
What’s the best way to listen to Boxes? I’m a big vinyl guy, and I’m looking forward to getting the 180-gram LP. Is that something you’re still down with?
Yeah. I gotta say — I was with someone who has a $5,000 turntable, those humongous McIntosh amps, and giant speakers. I listened to the album on that system, and it was pretty friggin’ astounding.
I don’t want to be pretentious about it, but there really is a difference with vinyl. To me, digital always has this brittle edge to it, and vinyl doesn’t have that. It’s a mechanical thing that’s happening. There’s a needle reading bumps, and converting that to electrical energy. And then that energy turns into sonic energy, and it’s physically moving air into a room.
When I’m in the studio, I go digital, because who can afford recording tape? I would need 300 reels of it to make a record. But the front end of it is all classic Neve consoles and Telefunken microphones — all the really big, fat stuff they were using in the ’60s. That helps, but it’s so strange to me that you can record at 192/24, but when it gets onto CDs, it’s 44.1/16.
It’s all compressed down, and a lot of the information gets filled in digitally. And some of the detail you worked so hard to create in the studio doesn’t even come across, like that percussion sound on the title track to Boxes. How did you do that?
That’s our drummer, Craig Macintyre. He took a metal paint tray and put it in a snare stand. We miked it, ran it through a distorted guitar amplifier, and then we just smashed the shit out of it with a compressor. We came up with that sound, and it was crazy.
We went digging around in the studio’s storage room, the workshop, and we found an old Fairchild Spring Reverb, which nobody wanted to use. It was broken and they had to fix it, since nobody had used it in so long. We just parked that in the studio and used it on everything, because it sounded so cool! That thing had to be almost 50 years old.
I love that! Boxes sounds like a good hi-res headphones album to me, but a lot of people are going to stream it and access it on Spotify. How do you feel about that?
I think it’s awesome — I just wish they’d pay us! (laughs heartily) It’s an incredible way of getting music, but it’s also easily trackable. Paying artists should be incredibly easy, you know? They just don’t want to.
The thing that pisses me off about it is, it’s a content-driven business. Unfortunately, the people providing the content don’t have the wherewithal or the balls to take these companies on.
It is a shame. I do pay the premium on Spotify, so the artists can get something out of it.
Yeah, me too.
And I often use Spotify as a feeder system. I love the recommendations I get in Inspired by Your Taste and Just for You, so if a band like The Wild Feathers comes up, and I like them — which I do — after I listen, I save the music to my library, and then I also go buy the CD on Amazon.
That’s great. That’s an interesting way to do it. Yeah, the streaming thing is good — there just has to be some more equitable distribution of [payments]. Last time I was in Sweden, I found it really interesting, because the people I talked to there said, “iTunes is irrelevant. We do Spotify.”
The people providing the content don’t have the balls to take [streaming] companies on.
And I always try to find the most obscure shit on there. It’s pretty good. I’ve stumped it a few times.
What’s something pretty obscure that you’ve gotten into lately?
It’s really old, but it still sounded so good — do you remember a band called Head Candy?
Oh yeah, Head Candy! They were on one of those small labels in the early ’90s called Link Records. I think the label name was shown in a word balloon, or something like that.
They were from the early ’90s, and they were obviously influenced heavily by psychedelic drugs. They had something like Timothy Leary talking, with these weird delays. That record is so good! And the songwriting is too. It was nice to hear it again.
That was a cool period, the early ’90s. There was a lot of that psychedelic thing going on, which was cool. I always thought Echo and The Bunnymen were like that, on their earlier records. Jesus and Mary Chain, obviously, and Curve — that whole kind of sonic wash, where everything was soaked in reverb.
Right, bands like Lush, and Slowdive —
Yeah, and I always loved the Cocteau Twins, too.
Back to your album. Flood is one of my favorite tracks on Boxes. Who’s doing the female counter vocal?
This girl has so got her shit together — it’s Sydney Sierota, from Echosmith [best known for their indie hit Cool Kids, which scored 1.3 million downloads in 2014].
I just love her voice, because you know who that girl sounds like? Herself. She’s not trying to do all these crazy R&B chops or trying to be someone else — she sounds like herself.
When we were able to get it together with her, she came in the studio and kicked that song’s ass. I was like, “Wow!” I was so blown away by her.
There’s also some interesting strings and piano lines at the beginning of that song.
The strings we already had in the box. Those little one-note piano lines? I usually come up with those, because that’s about all I can do. (laughs) It’s on Long Way Home, and also on the topline to So Alive.
If we had real radio penetration these days, So Alive would be on every radio station there is. It seems like an automatic hit to me.
Thanks, I appreciate that. There’s something to be said for driving around in your car and hearing songs like that one come on the radio. At least we have satellite radio for moments like that.
Your voice is very much centered in the mix when those songs begin. Is that your choice? Sometimes there’s reverb and echo, sometimes not.
I wanted to see how electronic music is done, because it’s so ubiquitous.
It’s all about arranging it, and throwing ideas back and forth. I worked with Drew Pearson [who’s also produced OneRepublic and Phillip Phillips], who did about half the record. Greg Wattenberg did the other half. We’ve been friends and working together for about 15 years. Working with Greg is amazing, because if something sucks, he just says, “That sucks. Do something else. I’m annoyed.”
That’s good. You need somebody to give you a reality check in the studio.
Oh, totally! And if he does something I think is shitty, I’ll say, “Nah, don’t like it.” And then we go on. Once in a while, you’ve gotta get up and go take a walk, because it stings. (laughs)
“What are you saying? That’s my precious baby you’re talking about!”
Exactly! Exactly! But it’s like, “Let’s not fall in love with our own reflection,” you know? Songwriting can be such a self-indulgent process, not to mention the fact that you are laying yourself out there, on the line. Everyone thinks their baby is beautiful. But let’s face it — the world is full of ugly people! (both laugh)
I would also say one mark of good songwriting is good editing.
Yeah, otherwise, some of my songs would be 9 minutes long, if I had my way (mock-whines): “But there’s this really cool part that starts in at 3 minutes…”
It’s the weird thing about making albums now. I had been questioning the concept of making an album, because the vast majority of people who consume music do it song by song now.
True. But as an artist, do you feel more like you need to put a longer “statement” out there?
You want to. But there’s never a concept for the album; the concept becomes an afterthought. I won’t even listen to the record after it’s mixed for a few weeks. I’ll listen to it to make sure the mixes are proper. I’ll go back a few weeks later and listen like I’m listening to any record. Then it becomes clear: “Oh wow, that’s totally where your head was at when you were doing this.” Getting some distance from it helps that.