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From their indie rocking, punk-loving days in late 80s Buffalo, New York, to their enduring reputation as one of the most loved bands to grace the charts, the Goo Goo Dolls have always been defined by one constant: near perfect songwriting. It’s that very songwriting that’s given them countless inescapable hits over the last two-and-a-half decades, many of which find themselves rocketing back up the charts even after only a few lines are muttered on primetime television. 15 years since that song was released, things have changed for the Goo Goo Dolls. John Rzeznik – singer, guitarist, songwriter – is now sober, playing the co-writing game, and about to be married. And he should know a thing or two about wedding songs, right?  ‘Iris’ has been the first dance choice for many newly weds – famously, Avril Lavigne – yet he has no idea what he and his fiancé will dance to first.

‘I’m just so happy to be getting married,’ he laughs. We’re sitting in John’s five-star central London hotel as he embarks on a stint of UK promo for his tenth studio album, Magnetic. ‘It’s not really my wedding it’s all hers. I’m just pleased we’re doing it.’

Settling down with John as he plucks away on one of his Taylors, (who knows what tuning it is in, I’m not even sure he knows!) we mention that we caught sight of him on daytime TV the day before our interview, something he’s quick to laugh off. ‘Oh, I know, right? I was on a cooking show yesterday I was like, “What?” It was fun and I got a lot of tips from the chef,’ he chuckles.

There’s more reason for John to celebrate, not because of newly acquired cooking tips, though. Thankfully, for us, John has continued to follow his pen and his guitar to write the Goo Goo Dolls’ latest studio album Magnetic, the first new music since 2010’s Something For The Rest Of Us. It’s easy to see why the Goo Goo Dolls are such an accomplished act and why they resonate with such a wide cache of listeners – transcending genres, age groups and styles is something they’ve always done, earning John the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame Hal David Starlight Award. Not to mention their four Grammy nominations, 14 Top Ten radio hits, their last three albums charting in the Top 30 on the Billboard Top 200, and, of course, ‘Iris’ spending nearly 12 straight months on the Billboard Charts holding the number one slot for 17 consecutive weeks. As they prepare to release their tenth studio album Magnetic the Goo Goo Dolls have just topped worldwide accumulative sales in excess of 10 million.

‘It’s pretty amazing that we’ve been able to make 10 albums, let alone sell 10 million records. Through all the ups and downs of doing this, it’s just incredible that we’ve all actually stuck together and kept going for it.’

‘There’s nothing really that special about it,’ John says of the album’s name. ‘The fact is that my manager just called me and said, “We need an album title, try to make it short, try one word” and I replied, “Magnetic”. I just spat that word out, I don’t know where it came from. We did toy around with one hundred other names but I’m very bad at naming things and putting titles to my songs, I usually leave that until the very last minute. We went out on tour for Something For The Rest Of Us in 2010 and we were out for almost two years with that. I moved to New York when that finished and started work on Magnetic. From the first time I’d picked up my guitar and put pen to paper, writing, recording, mixing, it took me about 10 months to do the whole thing.’

John describes Magnetic as a more “handmade” album, focusing on one song at a time. A method attributed to the fact the band used multiple producers for this record (Greg Wattenberg, John Shanks, Rob Cavallo, Gregg Wells) and recorded it in different cities (London, LA, New York) over that 10 month period. One major difference in John’s writing of the record was that this time he approached co-writers, something he’s never done before, something that eventually lead to a “refreshed” end product, and something which is testament to the band’s longevity.

‘I felt as thought I’d spent the last 20 years working in a vacuum by myself and I felt that I needed to go back to school, if you like. I wanted to get some other takes on my songwriting and I really wanted to learn from these great producers and songwriters. I was really overwhelmed by the power of collaboration and just how much a piece of music can grow from adding the right person to it.’

A lot of songwriters can be intensely precious of their work, so allowing others into that mix, after not doing so for more than 20 years, was a big step for John. ‘It was, yes, because there’s definitely a certain of preciousness about it all – we all tend to fall in love with our own reflection! So it is humbling to have someone come along and tell you the truth, even if it was something you didn’t want to hear. I really needed that and we upped our game because of it. One of the most important things about writing songs, especially at this stage in my life and career, is that you need to have a work ethic. There’s a lot of sweat that goes into these songs, you know?’

What’s the secret to the Goo Goo Dolls’ timeless endurance? John’s ability to write classic pop records and, in that respect, Magnetic is no different, but the distinct shift in direction to a shinier, more upbeat approach means this album is one that bursts with an energetic renewal. Having recently battled demons in his personal life, it’s no surprise that a shiner, upbeat record means a happier John. Although, as we congratulate John on being sober, it’s not all sunshine and roses…

‘Thank you,’ he says through a grin, ‘my bartender doesn’t seem to think it’s a good thing, though! I think a lot of Magnetic is a reflection of where I am right now. I’m in a pretty good spot in my life right now and the band is getting along better than we have in years. Certain things in your life change and you just feel better for it. When we made Something For The Rest Of Us, I was in a really bad place in my life. Everyone goes through hard times, and I just happened to be making a record during my tough times. It was a pretty honest reflection of where I was then, and this is an honest reflection of what I was thinking, feeling and doing when I was writing these songs. It was a joy to get up and work every day where I wasn’t sitting in a room by myself. I was learning from other writers and good friends I have a lot of respect for and they have respect for me. It was just all about the joy of sitting in a room and not spending a year alone in that room. When it came down to the process of making the album, the different approach to it was a really fun and lighthearted experience because every few days I would be working with someone different, in a new city – it was very cathartic. When you lock yourself in a recording studio with the band, an engineer and a producer, it can go on like for months which is torture to me.’

Having written several movie themes (‘Iris’ for City of Angels, ‘I’m Still Here’ for Disney’s Treasure Planet, ‘Before It’s Too Late’ for Transformers) John stresses how different it is writing for a major motion picture. ‘There’s a huge variance there because if I’m writing for film I will have my subject matter in front of me and I’m playing a supporting role to what I see on film and what I see in the script. The groundwork is already there and all I have to do is tailor a piece of music to support the director’s vision. I love doing those songs. I’d really like to do more.’

It’s exuberant feeling to turn on the radio and hear your favourite song, for any Goo Goo Dolls fans this is a more than usual occurrence. In fact, driving to London on the day of the interview we’d already heard ‘Slide’ from 1998’s Dizzy Up The Girl. Songs released decades ago from John’s back catalogue are still constantly played on mainstream radio and if Magnetic’s lead single ‘Rebel Beat’ is anything to go by, this album is unquestionably going to pump out the radio hits.

‘I have my hopes and wishes for ‘Rebel Beat’ to be a big hit. I’m really proud of that song, but I’m also really grateful of all the success we have had in the past from songs that are nearly 15 years old. I think that ‘Come To Me’ is the most emotionally honest song from the new album. It cuts straight to the point without any pretention.’ The deluxe edition of Magnetic comes with two bonus tracks, ‘Home’ from Something For The Rest Of Us and ‘Black Balloon’ from Dizzy Up The Girl. ‘I think they’re just really good live versions of those songs and it was nice to hear ‘Black Balloon’ in that way. It was a big hit in the day and is one of my favourites.’

As we delve in the area of commercial success, I wonder how much of that hangs over his head when writing his new material. He tries not to worry about the charts, but he assures me that it’s not always easy. ‘I’m grateful to have something hanging over my head,’ he says. ‘I’m really happy that we’ve had successful songs but you always want your new material to poke out and sometimes that’s not the case. There are so many things that go into making a song successful so it’s always on my mind.’

Before John wrote ‘Iris’, he went through a well-documented bout of writer’s block. So, how do we get over writer’s block, and what are the chances of the breakthrough song becoming one of the most recognisable ever written?

‘Do you want the honest answer?’ he asks, ‘I just sat down and I was like, “Okay, God, if this is what I’m supposed to be doing with my life, just give me a sign” and then it was there. Writer’s block is nothing more than fear of two things. The first is the fear that you’re going to lose what you have, which is the ability to write and, secondly, it’s a fear of not getting what you want, which is a big hit. I’ll call any artist a liar if they say that they don’t want a hit song. I think those two things can really paralyse you if you’re more concerned with the results and outside of songwriting rather than what the emotional core of it is. Of course I want hits because I’ve had plenty of songs that aren’t, but it’s a lot more fun to have those hits!’

Although with Magnetic’s new sound it’s clear that John isn’t one to stick around in the past and keen to grow up, he admits that playing the old songs as he’s done so for years never gets tiring. ‘I love playing the old hits. I think it’s my job to play those songs. I think that when people spend a chunk of money to come and see you play live, you owe it to them.’

Diehard Goo Goo Dolls fan or not, chances are you’ll have seen, or heard, their headline gig of 2004 in hometown Buffalo, NY. Plagued with torrential downpours and acoustic guitars shorting-out, it was a career-defining point for John. ‘The Buffalo gig turned out to be such an iconic gig. That monsoon that came about was a blessing in disguise because it made that whole thing much more intimate. The week leading up to that gig was such a nightmare. The logistics of putting a show together to cater for 60,000 people was huge. I had to go out and beg for money to get portable toilets because the city wouldn’t provide toilets for that many people,’ he says laughing. ‘We were trying to breathe some life back into our hometown. It sucked trying to put it together but it turned out great and was crucial to the Goo Goo Dolls.’

As we reminisce about the Buffalo gig, I mention that I caught the Goo Goo Dolls play ‘Iris’ to a similarly damp crowd at the 2007 V Festival in Staffordshire and, smiling, he hands me the guitar he played that day. One he calls the “Iris guitar”, albeit missing one string and in some opening tuning.

‘That is one of my favourites,’ nodding his head to the Taylor sat on my lap. ‘It’s a 610ce, this is the “Iris guitar”. I love the 610s and the 810s especially so because of the electronics that they have. They’re very natural and retain the woody tone all of the time. A lot of the time I think acoustic guitars can sound rubbish when you put them through a PA or run them through amps, you know? The Expression System is great, the instruments are beautifully made and they stay in tune very well, even for me! There was always a guitar and a piano around the house as my parents were both musicians to some capacity, but I was around 10 or 11 when I first picked up an acoustic. A lot of my songs are written on acoustic, and I love going out and playing the songs completely stripped back when it’s just me and a Taylor. I think that meaning of the song becomes a lot clearer that way. For me, it helps to get back in touch with the meanings of those songs – it’s very raw. Standing up there nearly naked, really, you rely on connecting with the initial emotion of that piece of music.’

Whilst we’re chatting about his Taylors, I notice that on the back of the 610’s neck there are homemade fret markers on the fifth, seventh and twelfth frets made from glowing tape. ‘Ah, it’s because it’s too dark when I’m on stage,’ he laughs. ‘I can never see where or what I’m playing so I needed to make my own modifications.’ Similarly, there’s some double-sided tape on the body of the guitar above the soundhole clutching two plectrums.

John’s songwriting is synonymous with alternate tunings and recently he’s been hitting the road with his acoustics playing a mix of classics and a selection of new tracks, some of which he’s playing in standard tuning. Cue the collective “gasp”. ‘I do that from time to time, you know!’ he laughs, ‘and I am trying to do that some more. To be honest, the reason I started writing in alternate tunings was because I was never a great guitar player and never took any lessons. I wasn’t able to get the sounds that I wanted because I didn’t have the physical dexterity in my fingers and I was also playing in a three-piece band, so I just started twisting the strings until I could drone and keep the sound of the band full. That was something I borrowed from Jimmy Page and Bob Mould. Bob used a lot of open tunings in Hüsker Dü because he was filling in space, and it also creates a sound that’s not easily duplicated by other people.’

The confidence and enthusiasm in Magnetic rings true with a band just starting out. It’s fresh, contemporary and a lot of fun to listen to, all of which is suggestive of a band that has many good years ahead still. ‘One of the greatest things that I was able to do was work with a few really young guys – we’re talking 20-year-olds. It was really interesting to work with people who have always worked on a computer and who have always been in the digital realm, who’ve never seen a tape machine! Their influences are so much different to mine, and they have endless stimulation from the internet and their attitudes have really been shaped by modern culture. It’s interesting and very exciting to hear the difference between us and then being able to put those things together was so much fun. It’s like an old fart learning new tricks!

Like many songwriters before him, John’s still driven by the idea that he is yet to write his greatest song. ‘I don’t think there’s such a thing as perfect. You can try and strive for perfection but it doesn’t exist. There are people who got close. I still strive for perfection, I certainly don’t think I’m there, but if I keep trying I’m sure I’ll come up with something good.’

Magnetic is out now. The Goo Goo Dolls tour the UK throughout October 2013.


Guy Little
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