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The post-grunge veterans and Buffalo natives are in town Saturday at Express LIVE! to support their eleventh studio album "Boxes"

Robby Takac, bassist and vocalist for the Goo Goo Dolls, has a balanced take on the band’s likely permanent association with 1990s nostalgia.

“You never want to be thought of as something that’s from a past age,” he says during a phone call from Los Angeles last week. “But at the same time, there’s no denying we had some huge records during that time, you know? I guess the difference is with us and with a lot of bands is that we’ve managed to keep songs on the radio in one context or another for the past twenty years. Those songs may not have been as big as ‘Iris’, but it’s very difficult to have a song as big as ‘Iris’ – nearly no-one has had a song as big as ‘Iris’, if you want to use that as your benchmark. You’ve got to kind of watch where your goalposts are and keep looking upward and focusing.”

Takac may have just slightly undersold the commercial impact of “Iris”. Specifically written for the soundtrack of the 1998 Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan film City of Angels, it broke sales and airplay records across alternative rock, pop, and adult contemporary formats. Its sustained popularity pushed it back into the top twenty on Billboard’s US digital rock singles charts fourteen years after its initial release; in the UK, the song re-charted five separate times in the same number of years.

Unlike many of their contemporaries of the same era, the Goo Goo Dolls have retained big-label support with Warner Brothers, and have had four of five of their post-Dizzy Up the Girl studio albums debut in the US top ten. Takac, along with lead singer, guitarist and songwriter John Rzeznik, just tacked on the recently-released Boxes to their three-decade-spanning discography. Fans won’t notice any radical departures on the new record; Rzeznik’s gritty tenor is still the charismatic vehicle it always was, and the familiar acoustic guitar foundation that propelled songs like “Slide” and “Name” is present – even if many of the tracks lean a bit closer to OneRepublic territory than post-grunge now.

And now, the Dolls are back on the road with US dates through mid-December. On Saturday night, they’ll take the stage at the Arena District’s Express LIVE! along with Tulsa, Oklahoma alt-rock outfit SafetySuit.

I’ve been listening to Boxes for a few days now, and I want to ask specifically about “Free of Me”, which you wrote and sang on your own. I think it brings an interesting balance to the tracks that John sings. Its melody and instrumentation is really uplifting, but there seems to be this counter-emotion of sadness in the lyrics. What is it about?

“Ah… yeah, I think it’s about what a lot of rock songs are about – the dissolving or the birth of a relationship, you know? Yeah, it’s funny – a lot of the songs we write just in general as a band come on as sort of positive, but when you get a little deeper there’s a little bit more going on, I think. Not necessarily self help rock (laughs), but it does go deeper.”

I’ve read a lot about how John writes songs. I’m curious what your process is when you’re writing by yourself?

“I have a little recording setup in my basement in the lower floor of my house – and when I say it’s small, it’s really small. Basically I’ll just put a click track on or a drum beat and just play along. And I’m really a pretty horrible guitar player, but I’ll play along and go through some chord structures until I find something that I like. And I sort of clip together things, of these things that I like, as song ideas. Then I’ll sing phonetically – no words really – over top of what I’ve clipped together. At points then, I start to hear things that I’m singing. And I start to make out things and say ‘oh, it sounds like I’m singing this‘. I become sort of familiar with the patterns of vowels and the melodies, and that eventually turns into a song. And then I’ll take that idea and move that idea forward a little more – I’ll bring it over to my real studio in Buffalo. With this record, and the last record, too, it was just a couple of buddies at home kind of helping me out because I don’t play so well. And then I’ll bring those ideas in to the band and then we re-cut the demos with the band – and head in to make a record.”

You purchased and now run a studio called GCR Audio in your hometown of Buffalo. I know you’ve really focused on helping local talent, but you’ve also had some unbelievably big-name artists record there recently. How has that venture been going for you – and what’s your role with the studio now?

“It’s been going great, man. We’ve been doing a lot of stuff. James Taylor was in for awhile, and Michael (Angelakos) from Passion Pit was in. Every Time I Die did their last record there. Yeah, man – we’ve been doing a lot of stuff. We’ve had Li’l Wayne in – and a whole slew of local stuff…The Reign of Kindo – a lot of bands. And my wife (Miyoko Takac) is actually out right now with Shonen Knife touring around the country on my label; (they’ve) done some work there as well. A couple of the other bands I work with are making their way in and out of the States over the next year. Yeah, you know, I’m active, but I’ve been so busy with the Goo Goo Dolls the past year that this stuff sort of runs itself, if you will.”

This album has a lot of outside contributors, and John especially has had a lot of writing partners on this set of songs. That’s different than a lot of your past albums. What nudged you both in that direction this time around?

“I think John sort of started to write songs for Magnetic, which was our last record, and I think he felt like he had hit a wall, kind of. He had gone through this writer’s block thing for about ten years – and it’s not really writer’s block, it’s just the inability to make a decision as to what you’re actually going to do. The ideas were flowing, it was just nothing was catching, you know? I think when we were doing Magnetic, John thought to himself ‘you know, I’m going to try a different approach this time’. So, he started going with the producers who were going to work with the song. Usually just a nugget of an idea, and then they’d work on the song from there. And that’s how we made our last record. That was much different than the way we used to do records – the way we used to do (it) was we’d write fifteen songs…half write fifteen songs…and they try to crawl out from underneath this pile of unwritten songs, you know? Unfinished songs. And it was stressful, and sometimes it would take us six months to crawl out. For Magnetic, we just kind of did it one song at a time, or two songs at a time, and work with some other people – and really had a different process that we used.

But the difference between Magnetic and this record, because we used that process again…but I think having used that process once, we were much more well equipped to make a record that way and leave with what we were expecting to leave with. We had been through the scenario once. The twists and turns that led to things that  we weren’t entirely thrilled with on the last record…we were able to avoid this time and end up with a record that really made it happen in a big way for us – or at least we think so.”

The band has managed to stay with a big label for the long haul – and there are a lot of artists who came of age about the same time as the Goo Goo Dolls who haven’t been able to do that, or at least they’ve decided not to. You run your own label now – what roles do they play in artist development?

“For us, we’ve been with Warner Brothers for over twenty years now – our relationship with them is probably a little bit different than most people’s would be if they were to even get to Warner Brothers. But, there’s a huge proving ground now that exists – you can catch the ear of an attorney who perhaps knows somebody at Sony or knows somebody somewhere else that could walk your stuff in the door. But they’re still gonna ask the questions like ‘well, what does their social media look like? How many Spotify listens do they have? How many Shazams do they have?’, you know, like that kind of stuff. These are the things that people look for now. With regard to my label – and I think I would say it’s this way in most cases – it’s not a money-making proposition. Most record labels do it because that’s way they do – they love it. Some of them make a little money, but I can nearly guarantee you there aren’t many who are making a killing. I think you’ve gotta find some people who are invested in what you do. Our bands that we work with – and I’m not saying we’re their managers – but we do an awful lot more than a record label would do. Mostly because many of our bands don’t speak English very well (laughs), so we have to bridge that gap for them, too. But we put their tours together, and we do whatever we need to do to make it happen. I do think that a lot of it is that the patrons of the arts these days…people are excited about a certain type of music or a certain type of band.”

I was listening to your second album, Jed, the other day. You and John have been through a lot of stylistic changes, successes, obstacles – and I’m sure many more things than I could even count – together. How have you sustained that productive partnership over thirty years?

“John always jokes and says ‘we just ignore each other’. But I think that’s part of it. You have to look at things like any relationship – there are days when I’m keeping this thing together, there are days when he’s keeping it together. But I think we know…I think both of us know that together this is always our best shot. It gets confused sometimes, sure…there are times when that concept becomes confused. But I do think that when push comes to shove – and especially when we’re on stage – it’s pretty obvious that the sum of the parts are pretty strong.”
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