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By Alan Sculley

As El Paso’s summer festivals continue, many locals are looking forward to one of the city’s longest-running events: the El Paso Downtown Street Fest. On top of getting to see headliners Seether, Neon Trees, Goo Goo Dolls and Collective Soul, festivalgoers can enjoy a car show and a plethora of local bands and artists this weekend.

Saturday will bring the city a taste of the ’90s as the fest features alt-rock bands Collective Soul and Goo Goo Dolls, but fans will still get to hear new tunes from the groups as well.

Last month, Goo Goo Dolls released their eleventh studio album, “Boxes.” The two years that preceded the album’s release saw big changes, especially for singer-guitarist John Rzeznik.

With “Boxes,” Rzeznik and his bandmate, bassist Robby Takac, have become a duo following the departure of long-time drummer Mike Malinin. And they’ve arguably introduced more new musical elements on “Boxes” than on any Goo Goo Dolls album since 1995’s “A Boy Named Goo.” That album gave the group its first major hit single, “Name,” and signaled a shift away from the scrappy punk sound of its earlier albums toward a poppier, more accessible sound that has helped make Goo Goo Dolls a fixture on mainstream radio for the past two decades.

For Rzeznik, changes on a personal level have been even more seismic. He has gotten married and turned his life around by getting sober and staying that way for the past year and a half. It’s had a big impact.

“Well, I’m not a miserable prick to everyone anymore. That’s a good thing,” Rzeznik said in an early June phone interview.

“I wake up in the morning and actually feel hope in my heart and I look forward to getting through my day, which was not the case. It’s like, you know, it was like I was wearing my father’s clothes, like hand-me-downs. My father was a brutal alcoholic, just crazy.  I thought that was my destiny as well. … I finally got slapped in the head hard enough to go get help.

“The best part about it is seeing my friendships heal up a little at a time,” he said. “Just to get a phone call from Robby out of nowhere, for no reason, just to say hello. The first time that happened, it made me cry because I was like, ‘Wow, I think this is starting to heal up.’”

Rzeznik’s new sober perspective certainly had an effect on Goo Goo Dolls’ music. Lyrically, “Boxes” has several songs (“Reverse,” “Flood” and “Boxes”) that relate to the changes in his life. Perhaps more fundamentally, Rzeznik went into the album eager to change up his songwriting approach and, as he put it, “throw out the rule book” on what a Goo Goo Dolls song should sound like.

He looked to outside tunesmiths to help him freshen up the songwriting process.

“I insisted that we start from zero,” he said. “We’d just walk into a room. We don’t know what the hell we’re going to do. Let’s just do it. One day we wanted to play with synthesizers. The next day we wanted to play with a beat box. The next day we just wanted to play acoustic guitars. It was that loose.”

The music that emerged on “Boxes” still sounds like the Goo Goo Dolls of recent vintage, with plenty of mid-tempo pop tunes that have graceful melodies. But there are plenty of stylistic and production touches injected into songs that bring the songs more in line with today’s glossy Top 40 pop sound, such as vocal effects in “Reverse” and the way the first single, “So Alive,” uses those two words as a big sing-along refrain.

Rzeznik doesn’t deny that today’s pop trends figured into the production on “Boxes.”

“I mean, like the guys we hired to produce and the guy we hired to mix the album, Mark Endert, they’re very … all over that world,” Rzeznik said. “If I didn’t like it, I wasn’t going to do it. … We just wanted to have an open mind. We wanted to do what’s best for the band, and it felt like growth, so why not?”

Goo Goo Dolls’ hits won’t be neglected at their concerts, Rzeznik assured.

“I get kind of ticked off when artists won’t play their hits; it’s sort of like, ‘Come on, man, people are paying money to come see you,’” he said. “We definitely want to play some of the new stuff, but there’s definitely required stuff that we have to play.”
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