Survival in the world of popular music is not guaranteed, no matter how many hits you’ve had in the past. Every time you step into the recording studio, the slate is essentially wiped clean. You’ve got to start all over again, because in the, say, three years since you last released new music, the pop-culture world might well have forgotten your name.
This can be both liberating and frightening. Mostly, it’s frightening, though. The more hits you’ve had, the more successes in your past, the greater the pressure and the deeper the fear.
The Goo Goo Dolls were already a band of survivors by the time they broke out of Buffalo and onto the world stage with the hits “Name” and then “Iris.” They’d been at it for the better part of a decade by that point. The survival instincts learned and practiced during that time turned out to be essential, for John Rzeznik and Robby Takac would go on to rack up 14 Top 10 hits on the adult contemporary chart, and be honored by Billboard’s “Top 100 Pop Songs 1992-2012” with the inclusion of three tracks, including the No. 1 ranking for “Iris.” They’d started life as a punk-pop band, but by the end of the ’90s, the Goo Goo Dolls were considered a pop singles band, and for pop singles bands to survive, the hits need to keep coming.
Everything appeared to be going swimmingly for the band, at least from the outside. Then in 2010, the Goos released “Something for the Rest of Us,” and though it did yield another AC hit in “Home,” a dark undercurrent ran through the album. Primary songwriter Rzeznik’s biggest songs have always contrasted existential yearning against romantic optimism, but with “Something,” the balance seemed to have tipped toward despair. Some might argue that this change gave the band’s music more emotional heft, but clearly, Rzeznik was not in a good place, if these lyrics were anything to judge by.
One might have been excused for assuming that the pressure had gotten to the band, but with the release in early summer of “Magnetic,” a substantially sunnier, more optimistic and light-footed Goo Goo Dolls appeared. Working with songwriting collaborators and a short list of top-flight modern pop producers, Rzeznik and Takac concocted an uplifting batch of songs that, compared with the dark clouds that lingered over its predecessor, made “Magnetic” appear a confident step into the light. Rzeznik, who married his longtime girlfriend in July, seemed to have made it through his dark night of the soul.
The Goos spent most of the summer sharing a bill with Matchbox Twenty and playing to full arenas and outdoor sheds. However, the band will be the sole headliner when it comes home to play what Rzeznik calls “the DMZ between Buffalo and Rochester,” the Darien Lake Performing Arts Center, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
I spoke with Rzeznik and Takac separately by phone as their tour bus pulled out of New York City en route to a gig in Massachusetts last weekend. They spoke candidly of the sometimes turbulent journey between “Something for the Rest of Us” and “Magnetic.”
There seems to be a significant change in the perspective presented by the lyrics between your last album, “Something For the Rest Of Us,” and this new one, “Magnetic.” From the outside, it appears to be a move from darkness toward light.
Yes, definitely. When I wrote the lyrics for “Something For the Rest of Us,” I was going through a really dark period. I was feeling way too affected by things going on in the world. I was heavily depressed. Drinking way too much. I just got into a very heavy frame of mind. The songs reflected that.
Do you regret having made that record now? I find those songs pretty powerful.
No, not at all. The songs hold up, and they are an honest reflection of where I was when I wrote them. But that wasn’t a healthy place to stay. So I took care of some personal stuff. When it came time to make “Magnetic,” I really wanted to collaborate with some other writers and producers. Doing that helped bring me out of myself. I’ve been so used to writing by myself and being solitary during the work process. It was a huge relief to work with other people, and to make the whole process fun again. It was like going back to songwriting school.
Did this have a tangible effect on the way “Magnetic” ended up being made?
It did. There couldn’t be any ego involved. Working with a Gregg Wattenberg or an Andy Stochansky, for example, these guys are among the best at what they do, and they’re gonna be comfortable saying, “Man, that song you’re working on? It kinda sucks.” (laughs) It taught me not to fall in love with every single idea I have, and protect it like it’s my child, or something. I developed a real work ethic, living in New York and working with these guys every day.
So the end result is what you were hoping for? “Magnetic” doesn’t sound like you guys repeating yourselves or attempting to relive the past.
Not repeating the past was the goal. I needed to expand the canvas. Working with a few different producers and collaborating on songwriting made it a much more enjoyable and free-flowing process, too. You know, I just didn’t want to sit around by myself all day, working on songs in seclusion. I wanted to have fun working.
Did the more enjoyable working process end up giving the lyrics a sunnier perspective?
I think so. For me, the album has a bit of a theme. And the theme is, allow yourself to be vulnerable again. You know, as you get older, you tend to get more cynical, more world-weary, more protective and insular. It’s somewhat understandable. Life can be difficult. But the thing is, the more guarded and cynical you are, the less chance you have of experiencing things like joy and hope. I found that when I allowed myself to be vulnerable again, I let a lot of that darkness go.
Your songwriting contributions to the new album are very interesting and quite different from what you’ve done in the past. They are very melodic and intricately arranged.
I didn’t want to just be the guy doing power-pop and punk songs, you know? (laughs) John’s approach to this new record affected me, too. He very much came in with the idea that we had to try to go somewhere we’d never gone before, somewhere we’d never been in the past. We had to try to find new angles on things, new places to go. (Producer) Gregg Wattenberg pushed me, too, in some ways. He challenged me to take the songs in a different direction.
You recorded some parts of the album at your own GCR Studios in Buffalo. When I’ve been there recently, it’s amazing how it just has the vibe of an artist’s workshop, like a den of creativity, or a salon. You’ve got some very talented people on staff down there now.
Yes, Justin Rose is an incredible engineer and producer, and now Richie English is doing string arrangements and recording strings right there in the studio with local players he works with, who are amazing. We did my demo for “Happiest of Days” at GCR, and Richie came up with a string arrangement and recorded it with his team. We ended up using the strings from the demo, which never happens! When I played them for Wattenberg, he was blown away – strings are never in tune, even at the most expensive studios in the world, and these were perfect! So that was just incredibly cool.
With several different producers on the album, how did you maintain the sense of flow and the vibe of continuity? Was it a challenge to make the album feel like an album and not just a collection of songs?
It was, but the reason I think it worked is, it’s always the same three guys playing, you know? No matter what happens, we still sound like ourselves.
You’ve been out on the road this summer, playing a lot of dates with Matchbox Twenty. Has it been a good pairing?
It really has, because the vibe has been really good. When the vibe is not good when you’re touring with another band, it can be absolute torture. But they’re great guys, and we come from a similar thing, in that we’ve never really gone away, we’ve weathered changes over the decades. This tour didn’t feel like nostalgia at all.
Fans have certain songs they absolutely expect to hear, though. Does it get old?
No, because here’s the thing you have to remember – it’s the songs that put us where we are and allow us to stay here. Take away the songs, and we’re out looking for jobs, you know? So while I can appreciate that some bands who have been around a long time will either skip their biggest hits or radically rearrange them in order to keep themselves entertained, we are always aware that the people are there to hear the songs that made them become our fans in the first place. It’s an honor to play those songs for them.
You know, music-making is self-indulgent at the beginning, when you’re in the creative process. But once that music turns into a record and is released, it belongs to everyone at that point. So really, we’re all just sharing the songs. They belong to the fans as much as they belong to us.
Story topics: Goo Goo Dolls