During the 1980s, Daryl Hall and John Oates created their "rock and soul" sound by manipulating new musical technology, and with the help of music videos became what Billboard describes as the top-selling duo in rock, with 34 songs reaching the Top 100 chart. Since singing backup for Smokey Robinson almost 40 years ago, Hall has proved himself to be one of the best white soul singers of all time with hits like "Sara Smile." His falsetto is so sweet on "One On One," listeners might not realize the lyrics are sports metaphors. "I switch naturally between my natural voice and my falsetto; it kind of flows and overlaps," says Hall, who doesn't like the term blue-eyed soul. "I am a second tenor — if you want to get technical about it — but my falsetto increases my range considerably."
Hall and Oates met in the late 1960s. In the '70s, the duo released the hits "She's Gone" and their first No. 1 single, "Rich Girl." In the early '80s, Hall and Oates set out on some experimentation, including Hall's partnership with King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp — which sounds like a dream combo but was not a success at the time. In the mid-'80s Hall and Oates produced their own work, finally hitting their stride with songs like "Kiss On My List," "You Make My Dreams," and the adult-funk megahit "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)," from 1981's Private Eyes album.
"Today we have a good problem," Hall says. "We can't even play all of our hits in one set, or else we'd have to play for three hours. That's not a brag, it's the truth. And that being said, we like to throw in some lesser-known songs like 'Uncanny.'"
Aside from a 2006 Christmas album, the duo have not written or recorded original material together since 2003's Do It For the Love. Hall has publicly suggested that, outside of their live shows, the duo's writing partnership is over. "John and I are together through our body of work," Hall says. "Even during our recording time, which extended all of those years, we didn't write that much together. You can't really tell from the credits, but we wrote a lot separately. We did come together on some really important songs like 'She's Gone' and 'Maneater' and 'Out of Touch,' but most of the songs were written more separately. We've always been two solo artists working together. We've tried to maintain a separateness, which is one of the reasons we're still together, really."
Despite roots in Philly soul, much of Hall and Oates' work featured synthesizers and other electronic effects, creating new wave soul-pop. Today, Hall prefers a more organic sound.
"I've come up through every kind of technology in music," he says. "When I started out it was four-track reel-to-reel and the only nonacoustic instruments you could play were the electric guitar, electric piano and organ. I saw the Moog become the Polymoog, and all different kinds of advances in keyboard technology in the '80s. My music in the '80s reflected that, because I was making use of all these new tools. Now I've sort of gone past all that because I don't really feel the technology has gone any farther than it did then. ... So I just sort of revert to a more simplistic way of production and recording now than I did in the '80s."
This approach and sound is on display in Hall's web and TV show Live From Daryl's House (www.livefromdarylshouse.com), in which the singer invites old friends (Joe Walsh) and hip younger artists (Minus the Bear) into his home in upstate New York to jam, mostly on old Hall and Oates tunes. The show has traveled to Todd Rundgren's Hawaiian home, but mostly Hall pairs up with artists like Chromeo and Cee Lo Green.
Hall also records solo work, such as 2011's Laughing Down Crying. His singing on that album is immediately recognizable and as pleasing as ever, though the songs have less open space than Hall and Oates' best work. Known as an electric piano man in Hall and Oates, Hall fills up his newer work with guitars. "I started playing piano when I was 5, then throughout my teenage years grew proficient on keyboards; then in my 20s, I started picking up the guitar," he says. "I thought the guitar would complete my ability to write different styles and play different ways. I go back and forth, but especially on stage I like playing guitar."
At times, it has been difficult to discern Oates' role in the duo's success. He last made headlines in 1989 for shaving off his moustache (in favor of a soul patch). Oates' bio states that, before meeting Hall, "One night you might catch John wearing a sharkskin suit playing everything from doo-wop to the big R&B hits of the day with his band. The next night it was not unusual to find him playing his acoustic guitar in a local coffeehouse singing Appalachian folk ballads."
More recently, Oates performed songs from his 2008 solo album 1000 Miles of Life with Hall on Live From Daryl's House. In 2011, Elektra released Oates' Mississippi Mile, which features a collaboration with country star Vince Gill and purports to touch on "roots blues, modern pop, contemporary country, experimental Americana and Philly soul." Oates' genre-blending eclecticism seems better suited to his latest ongoing series of digital releases, Good Road To Follow.
Oates also joins Hall's band on the road to play the hits. Instead of Hall and Oates' iconic lineup of guitarist G.E. Smith and late bassist Tom "T-Bone" Wolk (both helped power the Saturday Night Live band from 1985 to 1995), the duo is now backed by the Daryl's House band. "I always use that same band," Hall says. "That's my band. And when John is in it, it's his band. We have a great musical relationship and I've had a lot of these guys for quite a while. (Most) of them I've known for decades. Our saxophone player Charles 'Mr. Casual' DeChant joined our band in 1975."
As evidenced by Live at Daryl's House, the band often gives Hall and Oates' hits, especially those from the '80s, a more organic feel. "I think the songs have evolved, and in some cases maybe devolved into a more simplistic style," Hall says. "I've been playing the Hall and Oates catalog so many different ways over the years. We've done acoustic tours without any electric instruments at all. We've played shows that were more electronically oriented. Now, the band I have, their style really allows all the different elements to be involved in the arrangements. They don't sound like the records, but if you listen to our set it's all of a piece now."
By Frank Etheridge
PHOENIX 5:30 p.m. - 7 p.m. saturday, MAY 4 | GENTILLY stage
Photo by ARNAUD POTIER
Reached by phone while at the trip-friendly confines of California's Coachella festival, a three-day freakout in the desert that is more Burning Man than baby boomer gathering, Phoenix bassist Deck d'Arcy talks about the French band's new light show.
"We've been working a lot on it, and we're pretty happy about how it turned out," d'Arcy says from the festival grounds, where the band served as headliners on its first American tour in years. "When we all saw it finished, we were like, 'Wow ... that is psychedelic.'"
The psychedelic label has been applied frequently to the latest album by the four men (d'Arcy, vocalist Thomas Mars, guitarists Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai) from Versailles, France. Lush, ambient synthesizers and danceable rhythms mark much of Bankrupt!. (Loyaute/Glassnote). Media coverage featuring heavy use of the term started in January when the band announced Bankrupt!'s release and has continued on the current tour, through Coachella and to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Asked about the extended organ waves that introduce the album's title track (which clocks in at just under seven minutes, a combined long time and rare sound for international pop sensations), d'Arcy says the extended organ-wave intro to the title track was recorded two years ago in rural Australia — and under the influence of a shaman the band consulted while there.
"We were just finishing up a tour (in Australia) and ended up in some random town, doing random things, making these random recordings. We went to see this shaman, who was really cool. ... It's funny to think now about the end result."
Such strange, spontaneous recording compels fans and scribes alike to apply the psychedelic label in describing a band they felt they knew so well just a few years ago. But Phoenix's post-shaman departure — from previous practices, preconceived notions, or perhaps even reality itself — is but one part of a band that is older, wiser and light years removed from its breakout year in 2009. Four years ago, the talented quartet of friends in their mid-30s became big-time stars upon the release of the insanely popular Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, their fourth LP. The power-pop masterstroke packed popular punch, from dance-floor favorites "1901" and "Lisztomania" — which were so accessible they made it into American wedding-DJ sets. The band's popularitu also prompted a tabloid-cover wedding when Mars tied the knot with filmmaker Sofia Coppola, whom he met while producing the soundtrack to her haunting 1999 movie The Virgin Suicides.
Finding itself in uncharted territory, Phoenix — a highly stylized, quintessentially French group that recalls aspects of the swagger of '70s disco-era Rolling Stones, sing-along frivolity of ABBA, and intrepid aesthetic of Daft Punk — decided to plot its own course. The band turned the remix/mashup notion running rampant in today's music industry on its plagiarizing head by offering on its website multiple remixes and recordings of tracks from Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, which ultimately went gold and won the 2010 Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album. That spawned countless remixes, most notably ones from Passion Pit and Animal Collective. Concert and festival promoters from across the globe tossed big-dollar offers at them for several years, but Phoenix declined. Instead, they put together the pieces for Bankrupt! in relative obscurity, recording most of it in a space they rented in a seedy neighborhood in Paris.
"We like mysteries," d'Arcy says to explain why the band kept its cards so close to the chest over the last several years. "We like corrupting them around the present vision. Because you sometimes don't see while the eye is open. Since we started, that's been our consciousness."
Their shared shamanistic sense of pursuing music in its purest form is evident when the bandmates all play a rotation of instruments, as they did while recording Bankrupt!. Experimental in every regard, Phoenix used a cheap toy keyboard on some parts of the album and also paid $17,000 on eBay for the vintage console also used to mix Michael Jackson's Thriller.
If there's any cohesive account to glean from listening to Phoenix's latest album, it's one of precocious talents developing a bit of cynicism and world-weary wisdom while also having a fine time globetrotting the world as rock stars. You'll find lyrics such as "Scandinavian leather/ Drakkar Noir/ Fake riches, oblivious tales," ("Drakkar Noir") and "When every piece of every costume is stolen" ("SOS in Bel Air"). But then you'll hear about Mars floating pixielike into an adoring crowd and oozing gratitude upon the raucous conclusion of the band's first stop on its current tour in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Asked about the meaning of the lyrics in "SOS in Bel Air," d'Arcy offers little insight into their collective consciousness, deflecting instead: "We get asked about the meaning of that song a lot. All I can tell you is that it's seen through very French eyes. Obviously, everybody knows this Bel Air is in California. But it is also a French name meaning beautiful air."
D'Arcy is less opaque when providing an explanation to the album's title. "We liked the edgy symbol to it," he says. "Going bankrupt — it's being on the edge of failing."
While hardly on the edge of failing, either commercially or artistically, Phoenix places other layers — like its trademark synthesizers sailing over the wail of Fender guitars — on the word's connotation.
"No matter if it's a gig, an album, a tour, we put everything, all whole lives, into it," d'Arcy says. "So there's also this meaning of emotionally bankrupt. We gave everything we had to get to this point. So in that way it's meant as a term for absolute commitment. There's a notion of the absolute in bankruptcy that we like."