You would think that after writing multiple hits, winning awards and being honored with the Songwriter Hall of Fame Hal David Award, John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls is a confident man at ease with his place in life. In fact, the Buffalo native has been restlessly searching for inspiration and coming to terms with who he is as a person. His lyrics have always referenced inner turmoil. On 1998’s Dizzy Up The Girl smash hit “Slide” he sang “You live with all your faults” and on “Broadway” from the same album, he revisited his teenage years where he would accompany his father to the local bar and watch fathers and sons drink their life away: “See the young man sitting in the old man’s bar/Waiting for his turn to die.”
On Boxes, their fifth album since the multi-platinum Dizzy, Rzeznik is finally in a good place. He’s married now and on the title track he proudly sings “I’m looking forward to the best days we’ll have.” On “So Alive” he addresses the past and his own battle with the bottle and coming out ahead (“Looking in the mirror/Making peace with the enemy”).
American Songwriter caught up with Rzeznik again at their tour stop at NYC’s Beacon Theatre to discuss Boxes, strange guitar tunings, co-writing, reaching for new sounds and confronting your worst realizations about yourself.
It’s been 20 years since “Name” put the band in the spotlight. How do you maintain a conversation with your fans and keep them interested?
Wow! That’s a great question. I guess I kinda just write what I write and hopefully those people are still relating to it.
Does your writing process change as you get older? Are you writing for yourself or for the fans?
Obviously my position has changed and the things I’m writing about have changed. But a lot of it is still about everyday situations. In my opinion, and just in my case, I have to keep the process in my own space. You’re writing for yourself at first. There are lots of songs that just sit in my drawer that no one will hear. They’re almost a little too self-absorbed. Hopefully people can relate to the things I’m writing about. I think my music appeals to people in my age group. There are some new younger faces and we’re doing well on the live circuit but I always see a lot of familiar faces in the audience.
Can you point to a song off Boxes that you’re proud to say ‘hey, I’m a songwriter. Check this song out!”
The song “Pin” is a good one, believe it or not. I love that song. I know that sounds weird. It was such a leap out of my comfort zone, musically speaking. It’s got a cool vibe to it. I co-wrote it with Drew Pearson. He does really interesting works. One day he’s working with Pentatonix and then it’s Katy Perry. He’s the most un-jaded person. It was fun and we built songs from the ground up, which is always great.
Boxes features more co-writes than any of your other releases. A lot of songwriters are put together and work on a schedule. They’ll set up meetings with different writers and see whether they click. Is that how you approached co-writing?
No. We hung out first. There has to be chemistry. You gotta like the people you write with, I think. Because I’m a ‘professional songwriter’ (laughs), I get offered these sessions where they ask you to write with different writers. There were times it felt too factory-like. I couldn’t appreciate it. Nothing came out of any of those sessions. The labels are desperate for hits and only hits that these young writers who get their first deal will tell me they’re writing with one person in the morning and then two more in the afternoon and then three more the next day. It’s like ‘I haven’t even sat down and had a laugh with you first and we have to write something!’ How are you going to develop your own identity?
I had an experience with a successful new young band that approached me and then after not hearing back from them I contacted their publisher. He wanted to see some examples of songs I’d written. It was like I had to audition! I’d rather find someone who hasn’t done anything and develop a relationship and find out who they are and make turn them into a great artist. It breaks my heart when I see talented writers with great songs. And then you have these mega-management companies that make you audition! No! It shouldn’t work like that.
I was talking with a friend of mine in Nashville who is a very successful writer. He’s had many hits. He’s used to the ‘hold’ game. He sent a publisher a CD of all his hits and basically said ‘if this isn’t good enough then I’m not the guy for you.’ I like that attitude. You know it’s difficult enough these days. It’s so important to develop a relationship with a writer. You want to write something that’s legitimate and long lasting. Otherwise it’s just churn and burn. The song will run up the charts and then its gone in two months. There’s no intrinsic value. The X factor wasn’t put into it. It came from a formula and not someone’s guts.
Well, your songs have lasted for many years and are still heard on the radio.
Yeah, well ‘knock wood.’
Are you comfortable with the fact that you are a professional songwriter? You’ve received so many accolades (Songwriters Hall of Fame, Billboard, Grammys). Yet you sounded a little insecure saying those words earlier.
It’s what I do but I can’t do it on command. You want it to be real and have value.
There needs to be a level and trust and respect when you are co-writing. You have to be able to recognize the other person is looking out for the best interest of the song.
Yes exactly. You have to get to that point in the relationship where you’re able to check your ego.
I work with Gregg Wattenberg. He’s great, the best, really interesting. You have to be comfortable with the person and not get offended when they say something isn’t good. There were a few times when I had to leave the room and walk around the block and walk off my anger at what I was told about the songs. Then I’d get back in the room and realize I fell in love with my own reflection there. It’d hard because you get the idea in your mind and work for days on your songs. You’re carving a neuropath way of how you think the song should sound.
This is my favorite part of the collaboration process. I’ll get this idea of how the song should be. I’m heading down the road. I’ve got my verse, my pre-chorus and ready to hit he hook. Then bam! My collaborator will come along and T-bone me right at the hook with something different. And I’ll be like “I never in a million years would have thought of that!” Then all of a sudden everything grows. It gets huge!
How often does a chorus turn out to be a verse? Or vice versa?
Oh yes that happens. Here’s another thing I’m a big fan of. If we’re in the room writing together and I write 80% of the song, we’ll still split it in half. End of discussion. Of course if you’re not contributing at all that’s different. Then the song is never going to get finished. But when you’re playing with someone and having a good time that’s the magic. You can really get down deep into it so you have to be open to new ideas and evolving.
Where did you get the title Boxes?
It relates to how we’re all put in our own boxes and we do our own little things. I also heard this story about Peter Gabriel and I don’t know if it’s true. When he finishes a song he puts each of his lyrics and music into separate boxes. I thought that was cool because I have a notebook for every song and it goes into this folder. All my ideas, doodles, sketches and little journal notes. They’re all written in marble notebooks and yellow legal pads. They get filed into an art portfolio folder with a piece of tape over it that says ‘boxes.’ Then I’ll throw it in the garage (laughs)!
So you’re handwriting your lyrics and not working on a computer?
I only do that when I need to print out lyrics for a show or rehearsal.
The creative process is pencil to paper for you, then?
Yes, pencil to paper. I really believe there’s a connection that’s made from your brain to what hits the paper.
“Come To Me” from Magnetic is interesting in that it’s basically one verse and straight into the chorus.
That’s where it felt good and it was the right spot. I wrote it with Gregg Wattenberg. Like I said, he’s a good sounding board for what needs to happen and when.
Are you still finding inspiration in strange alternate guitar tunings?
Yes! I can’t quite remember what the tuning is but for the song “Souls In The Machine” on the new album I remember tuning the low E up to G. I’m sitting there with my safety goggles on, cringing and hoping the string doesn’t break while I’m tuning.
The alternate tuning idea was one of the things that first intrigued me about your guitar playing.
In the early days we were a trio and I was really influenced by Husker Du. I needed to make the sound really big and full. The tunings gave our band’s sound a nice drone. I used to put banjo tuners on the guitar. I’ve just recently discovered that Godin makes a cool midi guitar and Roland has this weird guitar synthesizer effect unit called the GR-55. Together, you can dial up any tuning and make stuff up on the fly. It’s an awesome writing tool and you don’t break any strings. You can really do some insane things with it. It sounds great! I take it on the road with me for songwriting ideas, or if I’m doing a small flyaway radio show.
What is acoustic guitar of choice these days?
I’m using Taylors with the Expression system because they’re amazing. Retro Instruments makes this effect unit called OP-6, which is basically an old RCA mic pre. I run it with a Distressor. Man, it’s badass! Then I added a TC Electronic Bodyrez, a small pinky size pedal, which is just a mid-cut. It adds a lot of whoomph. I hate that pingy, tingy acoustic sound and this fixes that.
There’s one particular guitar you’ve used to record some of your biggest hits. I understand there’s an interesting backstory.
Yes! The ‘magic Taylor!’ Our producer at the time, Rob Cavallo has this guitar that’s been used by me, Green Day and so many other artists who have had hits with it. I didn’t have any great guitars back when I wrote “Name.” I thought Rob was going to have a heart attack when I first started winding the strings up and down! But he’s another guy who was always open to any crazy ideas I had.
Did you originally write “Name” on that guitar?
No, it was written in that tuning on another guitar at home. And then we used the magic Taylor to record the track.
How about “Slide?”
“Slide” is interesting because when we finally got into the studio to record, one of the guitars I used was this Parker Acoustic Fly guitar. It’s a very weird and unique tone. I’m surprised I did it. I’m more into traditional old sounds.
What sounds were you looking for on Boxes?
For the new record our guitar tones needed the classic sounds, a Gibson Hummingbird tone or a Taylor tone. I have this old Robert Johnson style Gibson L-5 that we used. To record, we put a ribbon mic about eight feet away from the guitar. Then we put a sofa in the live room. I would sit on the sofa and that would deaden the sound. Then we put an awesome ribbon mic up and ran that through the Retro OP-6 and either a Fairchild or 1176. We also had a Dean Markley Soundhole pickup that went into an isolation booth and into a little Emery amp. It’s an amp where you can swap out the tubes to get different amp configurations. We cranked it, with a 57 mic in front of it and mixed a little of that into the track. We tried to be purist about it.
Did you have a particular style you were emulating or trying to achieve?
JR: We were discussing classic albums from the ‘60’s and ‘70’s and their acoustic sounds. Like Jimmy Page’s Hummingbird on classic Led Zeppelin. Another sound we tried to emulate was Paul Simon’s acoustic guitar on those old Simon and Garfunkel records. One of the things Drew Pearson pointed out to me was that there was nothing else playing. How do you get that big acoustic sound? You have to subtract to get more.
Any new bands you’re listening to these days?
Tribe Society, who were out with us this past summer tour. Small Black- I like the songwriting. There’s a lot of retro synth keyboard sound to them. I’ve always loved all kinds of music. Back when I listened to the Ramones I was also listening to Gary Numan and Depeche Mode. It all figures in. Whether it was played on a synth or an acoustic guitar, as long as the song had a hook, that’s what I was listening for. It’s all about the hook!
I got together with Cash Cash, an EDM group. I wanted to see how that music was made so we got together and wrote a song. It was still songwriting. The tools were different but the songwriting process was the same. And I was very impressed with them and how talented they were.
A lot goes into dance music production.
Yes a lot goes into it. But the construction and production is very intricate. It blew me away. And then on the other end of the spectrum it’s nice to just sit in a room and strum an acoustic guitar. It’s about getting to the core of what resonates with you.
There’s a song called “So Alive” on the new record. It’s about being sober for three months. It’s pretty hard-nosed. The first three months of being sober is a relief. You’re just relieved. It gets hard after three months. The real world comes along. It doesn’t stop. All of a sudden you have to go back. And I’d look at the real world and it became very, very clear to me why I drank. I remember hanging out in a hotel after a solo acoustic show a couple years ago and I just had to start pounding beers. I was so wound up and terrified. The adrenaline was so high that pounding beers was the only way to come down from it. The reasons I drank became very evident. Once I realized that I knew I had to stop. I can’t stop when I start. Like if I drink a Pepsi I’m not thinking about where I’m getting my thirtieth Pepsi. But if I have one sip of beer I want to know where my thirtieth beer is, and I better have enough for tomorrow too! “So Alive” addresses that whole place in someone’s life. You gotta get tough. I used to run away from situations and go pound booze. For the first time in my life I couldn’t be a sissy and run away from it. I had to stand in it.
Has your wife helped ground you?
She has been my biggest cheerleader. The other day she told me “You know, you haven’t made me cry in over two years.” And I was just like (stabs heart) “Well you’re gonna make me cry right now!” It was the most bittersweet thing anyone has said to me. There’s a song in this somewhere!