Rest easy, Philadelphia. John Oates is in on the joke.
He's watched, and laughed at, Yacht Rock.
He's the first to aim interested parties in the direction of John Oates Will Fucking Kill You, a combination of Warholian pop portraiture and Shepard Fairey sloganeering by Atlanta-based artist GutterPop that uses '80s-era promotional photos of Oates.
And we spoke several days before a prime-time Saturday Night Live election special, but no doubt Oates was laughing at Fred Armisen's impression of him, even though the comedian donned Oates' look circa 1985.
Because despite the fact that Oates' upper lip has been naked to the world for nearly 20 years, the 'stache is forever.
John Oates' mustache has become a pop-culture phenomenon almost wholly removed from the musician himself. And far from simply indulging an irony-obsessed generation, Oates has jumped on the bandwagon. He's developing an animated series, J-Stache, in which he provides the voice of his family-man self (pictured, opposite) and comedian Dave Attell voices his mustache.
"My mustache is actually an evil superhero," Oates explains. "I'm trying to lead the good life and leave all that rock 'n' roll craziness behind, but the mustache is trying to drag me back into it. There's also a cult of mustachioed entertainers, but I really can't go into too much detail. It's really funny, really hip and cool."
Still, despite the newfound and somewhat inexplicable popularity of his facial hair and the fact that by his own admission, "the mustache is back in style," Oates insists that it's gone for good, its removal invested with a bit more personal importance than the simple act of shaving might imply.
Oates grew the 'stache immediately after graduating high school, and it remained for 26 years, until Hall & Oates found themselves in Tokyo by invitation of Yoko Ono, playing a festival show commemorating the 10th anniversary of John Lennon's death.
"After the show," he recalls, "I remember distinctly looking at myself in the mirror, and I just didn't look like the guy that I was. I don't even know how to describe it, but it looked like the mustache was in the wrong place. So I just shaved it off. And the next morning I felt like a different person, like I had shed the image of this guy from the old days. I think it had a lot to do with me moving on as a person and growing up — leaving the old John behind. I never looked back after that."
For many musicians — especially those who, as Hall & Oates were in 1990, are seeing their popularity ebb — such a drastic change in image could be seen as an act of desperation or surrender. But Oates and his longtime musical partner, Daryl Hall, were never your typical rock stars. According to Oates, the duo has weathered the pendulum swings of a 35-year career by staying focused on the music, not the stardom.
"I never really tried to make it," Oates insists. "Daryl and I just did what we did and worked really hard and little by little things fell into place. We had our setbacks and we had our tremendous successes, but I never identified myself as a person with my image and with my pop standing. I've seen a lot of artists do that, and it's a really sad and dangerous place to live."
It's a healthy attitude for Oates to take, especially since he suffered the most by that image, even during the duo's heyday. While Hall became the cover boy, the fair-haired frontman with the golden voice, and Oates became something akin to comic relief — the diminutive, goofy (OK, that Jingle Bell Rock video didn't help), guitar-wielding sidekick. But Oates shrugs off those negative perceptions.
"People like to shoot you down when you're popular. Especially in the old days, the rock press always considered having big No. 1 records less than hip for some weird reason. My response was always, if it's so easy, why doesn't everyone do it? But the thing I'm most proud of is that we made albums with substance. We never made an album with a big hit like 'Maneater' and then filled it out with a bunch of crap just to get the album out. To this day, that's still where we're coming from. We believe in music, we're passionate about it, it's how we express ourselves, and it represents our lives."
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That love of music for music's sake is more reminiscent of the attitude of folk musicians — which makes perfect sense, since Oates started out as a folkie growing up in North Wales. It's an image that returns in pure form on Oates' newly released second solo album, 1000 Miles of Life (PS/U-Watch), on which he teams with the likes of Béla Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Blues Traveler's John Popper.
The album is only Oates' second as a solo artist, his first coming six years ago, more than 30 years into his recording career.
"I'm not one of these people that felt like I needed to do a solo album just to do it," he says. "I had to have a reason. I know that seems like a crazy amount of time, but all through the '70s and '80s, I worked so much with Hall & Oates and when I stopped touring and recording, I dabbled in other things. I became a pilot, I drove race cars, I traveled around the world. And then in the '90s, when Daryl and I weren't working very much, I concentrated on starting a family. After I settled into that lifestyle, it was my wife who encouraged me to make an album."
After the release of that solo debut, Phunk Shui, in 2002, Oates considered the solo bug out of his system, and resumed his diminished touring schedule with Hall & Oates. But he continued writing songs amid the alpaca and emu at the Aspen, Colo., ranch where his wife rescues exotic animals. The death of three close compatriots in 2007 drove him back into the studio.
"Arif Mardin, who was our producer in the early '70s; Jerry Lynn Williams, who I worked with on an album in the early '90s and who was a very important American pop songwriter; and my good friend and guitar teacher Jerry Ricks, who was very instrumental in me getting involved in the folk scene in Philadelphia and teaching me a lot about traditional American music — all passed away last year," Oates says. "So it seemed like time to stop wasting time. I realized there was a whole other side to my musical personality that the world had never seen, and I got this sense of urgency about that."
The acoustic, bluesy folk tunes that populate 1000 Miles of Life may seem a total departure to those used to the slickly produced pop-soul of Hall & Oates. But it's always been a part of his background, Oates says, and is definitely a component of those hit tunes.
"I think you're hearing it in a more pure form, because it's just me," he says. "But if you really want to distill and analyze the Hall & Oates sound, it's a combination of traditional American acoustic music and Philly R&B."
That combination came from the respective backgrounds of Hall and Oates, who met while students at Temple University in the late '60s. The two had been aware of each other while they were in rival bands: Hall with The Temptones and Oates with The Masters. But when a riot, complete with gunplay, broke out at a battle of the bands, the two found themselves sheltered in the same elevator, and a partnership was born.
"It's very complicated," Oates says when asked how such a strange beginning has led to such an enduring partnership. "We're very different as people, which I think is good because we don't get in each other's way. But on the professional side we're very similar in how we approach music, how passionate we are about it, and of course our roots."
Despite a seven-year gap in activity in the '90s, Hall & Oates have never officially split. Oates says their freedom to pursue other projects, especially as their popularity has slackened, has meant they've never had to consider calling it quits. They're currently on hiatus for this year, and maybe longer, to concentrate on their own projects — Oates on his solo album and a concert series he's producing in Aspen, Hall on Live From Daryl's House, a series of Internet broadcasts.
"It's part of my life, not all of my life," Oates says of the duo. "I'm very proud of the legacy and the history we've created, and the best thing about it is that when I go out and play these songs, I'm not embarrassed about anything. I'm still excited to play good songs like 'She's Gone' and 'Sara Smile' and 'No Can Do.' At the same time, I love having the freedom that I think I've earned over the past 35 years to do whatever I want. That's a great place to be as an artist. I don't think you can be in a better place."