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Headed back to town Monday night for a show at Northerly Island with special guest Phillip Phillips, I spoke with Goo Goo Dolls guitarist and vocalist Johnny Rzeznik about fond memories performing at Cabaret Metro, his band's latest EP You Should Be Happy, and managing expectations after the crossover success of singles like "Name" and "Iris"...

For over thirty years, guitarist/vocalist Johnny Rzeznik and bassist/vocalist Robby Takac have made up the core of Buffalo rock band Goo Goo Dolls. But it's a partnership that goes beyond merely writing and performing together.

"I’m grateful every day that [Robby is] in my life," said Rzeznik of a relationship that helped him deal with the unthinkable mid-90s success of Goo Goo Dolls singles like "Name" and "Iris."

In 1995, "Name" unexpectedly hit #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, crossing over to a pop audience from the alternative world and fueling double platinum sales of the album A Boy Named Goo.

It's the type of success that most bands never see. It's also the type of success that can derail a group, as nearly impossible to achieve expectations begin to take over in the aftermath.

"I was freaking out because I felt like I had just won the lottery with the song, 'Name,'" Rzeznik said. "And then everybody was looking at me going, 'Wow. That’s amazing. You picked the winning lottery numbers… Do it again!'"

Despite the new pressure and expectations, the Goo Goo Dolls didn't just duplicate the success of "Name," they eclipsed it.

"Iris" was released in 1998 as part of the soundtrack to the Nic Cage/Meg Ryan film City of Angels and hit #1 on the modern rock, pop and adult contemporary charts en route to becoming the most played song of 1998. Later, it was released as part of the next Goo Goo Dolls studio album, 1998's triple platinum Dizzy Up the Girl.

In "Iris," Rzeznik didn't just create another hit, he created one which was virtually ubiquitous as one of the most successful crossover singles in the history of recorded music.

Unlike many of their 90s peers, Goo Goo Dolls never quit writing and releasing new music and, as a result, haven't been forced to rely solely upon their back catalog to continue to tour. In 2016, they released their eleventh studio album Boxes, one which attempts to push their music forward through collaboration. This past May they explored new sounds on the brand new You Should Be Happy EP.

I spoke over the phone with Rzeznik last week from Los Angeles only hours before the first show of a Goo Goo Dolls American tour that brings the group back to Chicago Monday night. We spoke about some of the band's early performances at Metro, writing the 1993 hit "We Are the Normal" with Paul Westerberg of The Replacements and the level of difficulty involved in keeping expectations realistic following breakthrough sales and success. A lightly edited transcript of that conversation follows below...

Q. Let’s start with the tour. It kicks off tonight in L.A. and brings you to Chicago on July 24th. What’s it like after all these years now starting a new tour and heading back out on the road?

Johnny Rzeznik: Starting a new tour – you always get butterflies or jitters, or whatever you want to call it, because you’re going to be playing some new songs or some different songs. You just hope that you work out the setlist to the point where people are happy with what they get.

We're going to be playing a bunch of hits and some new stuff. You know, you've gotta play some new stuff so people can get up and use the bathroom. (laughs) But hopefully they don't.

Q. From the clubs to the outdoor venues, you've performed in Chicago quite a bit over the course of the last thirty years or so. Is there a fond memory that sticks out?

Rzeznik: Well, to me, every time we go to Chicago it’s great. See, whenever we go to Chicago, I plan my entire trip around what I’m going to eat and where I’m going to eat it.

Some of my favorite memories are playing Cabaret Metro. I just remember playing the Metro for the first time and going, “Wow! This is the biggest room I’ve ever played.” It’s such a cool vibe in there.

And Chicago is one of those cities that embraced our band before we got popular like in a more mainstream way. We could go there and we could actually make money. We could pay our rent playing in Chicago. That’s always a good thing.

Q. Was there a point in your thirty years where it finally hit you that you might be able to do this for a while? That music was something you’d be able to sustain as a career? Was there a moment like that that forced you to look differently at things moving forward?

Rzeznik: Yeah, it was sort of when somebody finally paid attention to our music. It sort of made Robby and I kind of stand up and go, “Oh, ok. Alright. Well, this is kind of a job. It’s an amazing job and it’s really cool. But, yeah, we gotta take this seriously.” Like, why would you blow an opportunity?

I always feel like that. Robby and I have always sort of been like, “Listen, let’s not piss this away. Let’s just keep going as hard as we can.”

Q. Well, last year Goo Goo Dolls put out the Boxes album and, just this past May, you guys put out the new You Should Be Happy EP. The five songs on the EP, did they grow out of sessions for the Boxes album?

Rzeznik: One did. Well, two of them. Two of the songs.

One was a remix by a guy named Alex Aldi for the song “Boxes.” And I thought he did an amazing job. If you listen to the album version and then his version, I thought it was a really cool spin on what we had done. He made it very sort of modern. It was something that someone my age would never think to do but he really brought it forward. He moved that song forward.

Not that the old version wasn’t good – I was very happy with that – but when I heard what he did, I was like, “Wow! This is so cool!” I get excited about a lot of the things that younger people are doing, you know? To just meld that kind of thing that we do with what Alex does is kind of interesting. And it was kind of a teachable moment for me.

We wrote the other two songs – “Tattered Edge” and “Use Me” – after [the Boxes] sessions. So there was new material. “Walk Away” was left off the album for some reason. I don’t know why.

Q. There was a lot of collaboration on Boxes. What was the process like with these new songs and where do you see it heading as you guys work on more?

Rzeznik: Well, I was at a place where I just wanted to learn more. So I hunted down people that I thought were really interesting. I asked around, “Who’s really interesting and what have they done?” Then I got a hold of them. There were people that didn’t want to work with me that I really wanted to work with and then there were people that really wanted to work with me. So we got together. And some of it didn’t work out but mostly it did.

I just think that the power of collaborating sometimes is so important. It can actually expand what your… I’m limited, you know? And the person I collaborate with is limited. But they’re limited in other areas than me. So if we can pool our resources, we can expand what’s going on. That was always sort of the rule.

Somebody can take a piece of music and go, “Hey, what if you did this?” And if it was something that I never thought of before, and I like it, then I’d be like, “Alright. Yeah, let’s do it.”

Q. When you phrase it like that, that you want to learn, it makes me think back to the Superstar Car Wash album [in 1993]. Looking back at that, and your writing with Paul Westerberg, the Goo Goo Dolls were headed in kind of a direction at that point that he had already been with The Replacements in terms of moving from a certain sound on the early records to one more embracing of song structure which started to touch on ballads a bit. Were you able to learn from that experience? What was it like writing with Paul?

(*** Editor's note: Rzeznik wrote the music for "We Are the Normal" and Westerberg wrote the words via a collaboration based on exchange of ideas shared through the U.S. mail)

Rzeznik: I mean, we did the whole thing through the mail. We were never in the same room with each other.

It was typical of what that guy’s all about. You do something really cool, he gets excited and then… writes you a nasty letter saying don’t talk to me. It’s typical for that guy. But I’m no different than any of the other people in that guy’s life I suppose.

But we wrote a great song together. Though it was through corresponding through the mail – which I think is f-----g hilarious. It was a much slower process back then.

It was one of those things. But that was when I realized, “You know, this guy has been a big influence on me.” As well as bands like Echo & The Bunnymen and The Cure and The Clash.

Soul Asylum and Husker Du. I was always into sort of that midwestern alternative rock.

R.E.M. and all these bands were big influences on us. That’s when I realized, you have to grow beyond your influences. And that was a liberating feeling. To start writing songs where it was like, “Wow, I’m moving past that.”

Q. You grew up with the album and Goo Goo Dolls sort of hit during what looks now to have been kind of the last hurrah, so to speak, for that format in the mid to late 90s. How does it feel to be part of a new era now where the album is no longer a necessity and you can kind of just release songs as you finish them? Are you able to embrace that?

Rzeznik: I love it. I hated the fact that we had to wait like three years to put a record out. You gotta sit down and write twelve songs.

What I love about it is the moment it hits me, I can make a phone call, get in the studio, get together with the band, lay the track down and then boom – a week later I can have it up on iTunes, YouTube or whatever.

So the immediacy of it I think is great. And because the world has changed so much, well, you better be immediate with things. Because people don’t have the attention span to wait three years for a record.

Q. You mentioned earlier the amount of detail that you guys put into making sure the setlist is right. So many of your 90s peers have to rely on full performances of the back catalog but you guys literally never stopped releasing new music. So how difficult is it to put that setlist together and decide how much nostalgia is too much?

Rzeznik: Well… Anything that was like a legitimate hit – like hit the top ten or top fifteen on the charts – anything that’s a legitimate hit. We’ve got fourteen songs like that. Maybe twelve or thirteen songs. You absolutely have to play those songs. Because people are paying money to come and see you play and they want to hear the songs that they know and love. And there’s something really fun about that.

And, yeah, there’s a certain amount of nostalgia to that but our audience has been really, really accepting of watching us grow and put out new material. And the feedback for that material has been really, really positive.

For the most part.

Obviously, you’re going to get emails from people that are like, “Play something off Jed! Your new music sucks!” You get s--t like that. But it’s like, who cares?

Q. The level of success Goo Goo Dolls hit with a song like “Name” is something that most bands never get to experience. And it’s the kind of success that can put an early end to a lot of bands. Then you guys went out and exceeded that success with “Iris” only a few years later. How difficult was it to try and look at your career with reasonable expectations at that point and, looking back now, how hard was it avoiding some of the pitfalls that type of success can tend to bring?

Rzeznik: I’ll tell you what, there were two things that I had going for me: Robby and my manager Pat [Magnarella].

They made everything very pragmatic. They kept everything very down to earth. I was freaking out. I was freaking out because I felt like I had just won the lottery with the song, “Name.” And then everybody was looking at me going, “Wow. That’s amazing. You picked the winning lottery numbers… Do it again!”

They helped me realize, “Look, right now, it’s luck.” When you have one hit, it’s luck. When you have two hits, it’s equal parts luck and skill (laughs). But then you go on to three or four or seven or ten. And then you’re like, “Ok, yes. There is luck. But there is some skill involved in this.” There’s more skill than luck involved in it. And it goes into the old saying, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

So it was Pat and Robby. And myself being from Buffalo.

When you grow up in Buffalo, there’s only so pretentious you can be. And people from Buffalo aren’t allowed to have nervous breakdowns. I’m sorry, if you have a nervous breakdown in the middle of winter in Buffalo, you’re gonna die. They’re gonna find you in a snow bank in April (laughs). You know? So we weren’t allowed to have a nervous breakdown.

Now… did we have problems with substance abuse and relationships and every other thing? And did we lose friends? Yeah.

Yeah, the success definitely cost something.

But the point was we were all still close with each other and still had each other’s best interests at heart. Even in the worst of the times that came later. And we got through all those bad times and then we got over our problems and decided that we still had something that was worth doing.

And I’m grateful every day that I still get to do it. And I’m grateful every day that those guys are in my life.
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