Goo Goo Dolls Prescribe an Aural Miracle Pill

Photo by Ed Gregory.

When budding songwriters finally connect with their muse, the moment is a literal gamechanger — and it’s something that might just make the difference between being part of a permanent cult-level outfit or transitioning into a superstar act that can fill arenas and stadiums on a consistent basis.

Such is the case with Goo Goo Dolls, the pride of Buffalo, New York whose lineup’s backbone for over 33 years and counting consists of a pair of lifelong friends — guitarist/vocalist John Rzeznik (at left under the umbrella in the above photo) and bassist/vocalist Robby Takac. Once the Goos moved somewhat beyond their punk-centric roots and were able to tap into said muse, a string of economically named hits followed in their 1990s wake — “Iris,” “Name,” “Dizzy,” “Slide,” and “Black Balloon” among them, to name but a few — and they’ve been able to mine that prime songwriting vein ever since. Current evidence of their aural-prescription mastery can be found on Miracle Pill (Warner Records), released on September 13. The band’s 12th studio album, Miracle Pill is a fine mixture of declarative intent (“Indestructible”), wary lament (“Money, Fame & Fortune”), and undeniably Beatlesque ear candy (“Think It Over”).

Rzeznik ascribes the Goos’ inherent audience connectivity to a combination of being true to one’s self as a writer while also being able to embellish each tale without alienating the listener’s relationship with it (and them). “I suppose a certain amount of what I do is always autobiographical — and then it completely switches to fiction!” Rzeznik concedes with a laugh. “It’s amazing. A lot of my songs are based on a true story, and then they sort of weave their way out into becoming something else.”

Rzeznik (53), Takac (54), and I all got on the line together not long before Miracle Pill was released to discuss finding analog sounds in a digital world, how to make albums that are immersive experiences, and what the secret to their longevity is. We’re so ready for the better things to come. . .

Mike Mettler: The breadth of the Miracle Pill recording palette seems to lend itself more to the vinyl listening experience, would you agree?
John Rzeznik: I think so, because we did so much old-school stuff in terms of how we recorded it. Ironically, a lot of the recording of that album was done by a kid who’s only 28 or 29 years old, and he’s so into the old-school way of doing things from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. He and I had been investing in this rack of gear, microphones, and old amps. We were scouring the internet and talking to older guitar techs and engineers. We had a conversation with the great producer and engineer Al Schmitt about how to mike an acoustic guitar the old way, you know? The old-school way.

So, we would get these beautiful sounds, and then we’d put them in the digital realm. And then what I like to do is mutilate the sounds with digital plug-ins. (chuckles) What I found as the biggest thrust of this world of making plug-ins and doing everything “virtually,” or whatever you want to call it — the main focus of all of that technology is trying to make the recordings sound like they were done on analog gear. They’re creating digital algorithms and impulse responses to make everything sound old, and shi--y!

Mettler: And real.
Rzeznik: And real! It’s like, instead of putting sugar in your coffee, you put in saccharin. I like recording into the digital realm just for the convenience of it, because tape’s a real pain in the ass. And what is it, Robby — you’ve only got 12 or 13 minutes per tape?

Robby Takac: Yeah — it’s around 13 minutes, which costs about 400 bucks.

Mettler: It’s a labor of love when you’re doing it that way. Have you thought about going all-analog at some point anyway?
Rzeznik: Yes. But I think it would always hit the digital realm, because I love being able to manipulate and mutilate sounds that way — especially keyboards. When we were making this album, we got into this thing where we had found this box where you could take a pedalboard like the one you have on the floor with all of your guitar pedals, and it would change the impedance of everything. You could plug it right into the console. We would be using distortion pedals on shakers and tambourines, plus wah-wah pedals and stompboxes — all this crazy analog stuff we’d use to make sounds on the album.

Takac: I often compare the differences between that and making a record on tape like we used to. It would begin like you were given a word processor and all the programs and plug-ins you could put into it, but then you’ve gotta go back to the typewriter again. I think sitting there without all the advantages of the digital technology would just be so unbelievably limited, to go back and record directly to tape. You’d miss all these awesome opportunities to do things if we were just living in that [tape] world.

Rzeznik: I’m on the flipside of that. It would be kind of fun. At some point, I’d like to get the whole band in the room at once, and just roll the tape and play live.

Takac: It’s funny — we did what John said, once. We went into a studio with this guy up in Washington where we set up and played in a room as a band. And it did sound like a buncha guys playing together in a room, but it didn’t sound like something you’d hear on the radio. Does that make any sense?

Mettler: Yeah, it does — it sounded more like a jam session, is what you’re saying.
Takac: It was almost like a jam session, right — but it wasn’t like a record, so we ended up pulling it back again. You’d really have to do so much pre-production to do that type of thing.

Rzeznik: Well, you should do pre-production. You really should.

Takac: Or just a little amount.

Rzeznik: It’s interesting. You’d have to bring in extra musicians. I think it’d be kind of fun to take the time, prepare what you’re going to do, get together with five or six people, and learn the song down, cold. And even if you’re still using a digital platform, when the drums, the bass, and the guitar are playing together, there’s a push and pull between the instruments. And that’s fantastic, rather than recording it all individually.

The one thing we always say, because it is digital technology, is that you can manipulate timing and being in tune, and all that stuff, so much. It’s more like, “Listen — don’t cut the drums to the click! You can play to the click, but don’t edit the drums to the click. Let ’em breathe and go back and forth and rise and fall in a human way.” That’s still pretty important.

Mettler: At the beginning of “Lights,” where it sounds a little bit sampled and there’s some surface noise going on there too — would that be an example of “being human” with it?
Rzeznik: Yeah, in just messing around with stuff. What’s really fun is we were running a lot of vocals and other instruments through the filter sections of pedalboards. And the bass guitar too — we were running it through an old Moog synthesizer, using the super-low-end stuff and playing along with it. It’s exciting to do that.

Mettler: It sure sounds like it. And then there’s the beginning of the title track “Miracle Pill,” which reminds me of a John Lennon solo track where you have a little bit of echo on your vocal. That gave me a very Lennonesque feel there.
Rzeznik: Well, I’m a huge fan of that Lennon style. We did a song called “The Pin” on the last record [May 2016’s Boxes] — and I loved that song, because we used a big tape echo on it and an old spring reverb that we had that’s the size of a refrigerator (laughs), and then this piano thing. And Lennon, he hated the sound of his own voice. On a lot of that Lennon solo stuff, they used this really heavy slapback on his vocal, and I thought it was really interesting because, to me, “The Pin” was sort of this cross between Lennon and [David] Bowie, production-wise. I wanted to try to do that again on this album where we could, because I love that.

Mettler: Well done, I’d say. Robby, for one of the songs you sing, “Life’s a Message,” I wrote down that it had a “Kate Bush-like intro” to it. Does that assessment sound right to you?
Takac: Yeah yeah yeah. I wrote a lot of stuff on synthesizer, and we ended up carrying a lot of that over to the finished tracks, and often in an unpredictable way. A lot of that stuff sounded pretty unique, and we ended up using a lot of it.

Photo by Bob Mussel.

Mettler: There’s a very ’80s kind of feel to some of the background stuff on that track too, which sounds like it was your intent. It’s vintage but modern, in how you put it all together there. Just like you planned it!
Takac: (laughs) Right, exactly.

Rzeznik: It seems like a lot of people are looking backward to find the new sound.

Mettler: Sure does. Here’s a question for each of you guys. When you were growing up in Buffalo, what was the first record you bought that still has some impact on you today, one of those audio talismans from back in the day?
Takac: I was given a cassette copy of The Rolling Stones’ psychedelic greatest hits, [September 1969’s] Through the Past, Darkly (Big Hits, Vol. 2). For me, that was kind of the soundtrack to my childhood. [Through the Past, Darkly included some of The Stones’ “trippier” songs of that late-’60s era, such as “2000 Light Years From Home,” “She’s a Rainbow,” and “Dandelion.”]

Rzeznik: And, oddly enough, the first album that I was really exposed to, and really deeply loved, was [December 1971’s] Hot Rocks, which was The Stones’ greatest hits from, what was it, ’64 to ’71? Do you remember that one?

Mettler: Yeah, I do. It was a double album, and it came with a black sticker on the cellophane wrapper that I actually put across the top of the front cover, because I didn’t want to lose it since it listed all the song titles. That’s the cover that has their five heads within each other, right?
Rzeznik: Yeah, the five heads within each other. And the gatefold is that big collage of all the photographs — so cool!

Mettler: That was when you picked up an album and realized that it was a real experience, the whole ritual of it. Will we get a similar tactile kind of experience with the Miracle Pill vinyl?
Rzeznik: It is going to be cool, because it comes in a lot of different color choices. I mean, I remember when just opening up an album was exciting, and the artwork was so important. It became an immersive experience.

When we first started doing the digital thing, I thought to myself, “Wow, this is going to be incredible, because you’ll be able to go so deep with the digital booklet. You’ll have videoclips and crazy art, a lot of interactive sorts of things and all your lyrics, and everything!” But, I don’t know — that all seems to be overlooked now.

Takac: Your record cover has become that size of your pinky now, you know? (all chuckle)

Mettler: Another thing I like about Miracle Pill is it comes in at a nice, concise 40 minutes. That must be a conscious decision in that you feel that’s about the right length for an album-listening experience these days.
Rzeznik: I think that these were just the best songs, and they just happened to come in at that time.

Takac: Maybe subconsciously, from us growing up, that that’s how we hear how long an album to be.

Mettler: You just wrapped up a summer tour with Train, where you did shorter sets than when you headline. Will we get a 90-minute set or longer from you in the fall?
Rzeznik: Yeah, we’ll go 90-plus. I guess we could play for about three hours, but it would devolve into a lot of extended jam sessions and cover tunes, you know?

Takac: And we’d only be able to tour for like two weeks! (both laugh heartily)

Mettler: I did see you guys at CBGB in New York and Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey back in 1991, and during those sets, you did do some of those really fast, punk-style covers.
Takac: That was fun, man.

Rzeznik: Yeah, it was fun. But, believe it or not, at the time, we were like, “Wait a minute — you gotta do a cover tune. Why?” They wouldn’t play you on college radio unless you had a punked-up cover of a classic song, you know? (chuckles) So we would do a couple of those, and they would play them on college radio stations around the country.

Mettler: And then maybe they’d play “Laughing” [the lead track from the Goos’ third album, 1990’s Hold Me Up] after they played your take on [The Plimsouls’] “A Million Miles Away” [also from the same album].
Takac: That was the hope! (all chuckle) You had to be introduced through a cover song.

Mettler: Do you have tapes from those days in your archives? Have you thought about going back and releasing any of that material at some point?
Rzeznik: You know what’s crazy is that I was just with my manager in his office, and he said, “I was cleaning out my storage space,” and he brought out this enormous box of DAT tapes — remember those? And he goes, “I can’t listen to any of them because I don’t have a DAT player, and I don’t even know if you can get them anymore.” I went online to Reverb [an online marketplace for new, vintage, and current gear] and I bought him a DAT machine — a big old Sony DAT player — for $200. The thing was like $2 grand when it was new. Since then, he’s been sifting through live shows, demos, and all this stuff I didn’t even know existed.

Mettler: Cool. Would you put together a box set of that stuff, or maybe come up with a subscription series through your website that people could buy it all from? Or maybe do some Best of Live and Best of the Demos volumes that you could release on vinyl on, say, Record Store Day?
Rzeznik: Wow, I never even thought of that! That’s a pretty cool idea.

Mettler: Sorry, I didn’t mean to give you more work to do. (chuckles)
Rzeznik: No, you’re giving me good ideas!

Mettler: (laughs) Okay, good! Do you recall that nexus point where you knew things had changed? There are a few touchstones, of course, but what’s the one where you guys really felt like, “Okay, now we’re really at the next stage in our career”?
Rzeznik: I think it started early, with [February 1993’s] Superstar Car Wash. That was the first sort of shift, because that’s when I was like, “Oh wow! I think I can really write songs” — instead of just writing “goofs,” you know what I mean? A lot of the music on the first couple of albums was just goofy. We wrote those songs in under an hour. It wasn’t like a ton of thought went into most of it.

Mettler: Sure, but I still like “Out of the Red” [another track from Hold Me Up].
Rzeznik: Well, there were messages in there, but we were young and we were going, “What’s the brass ring we’re trying to grab? I don’t know — playing a weekend at The Continental?”

Takac: Yeah — and for a case of beer, and a couple more fans to talk to, you know?

Rzeznik: Those were the things, but when I hit the age of 23 or 24, I just started to go, “I think I can really do this!”

Mettler: I remember Superstar Car Wash getting that Paul Westerberg seal of approval, which kind of reminded me of when John Mellencamp shifted gears from his pop roots to where you realized, “Okay, this guy is a major songwriter.” He was a great singer of pop stuff, but now an added depth was there where you could see the seeds had been planted for him to get there. That sounds like the same thing for you guys. You had the seeds already.
Rzeznik: I was also told by producers and guys I respected, including Westerberg, “You’ve gotta write. You’ve gotta write until you freak yourself out.” You try to find that thing inside you. [Westerberg, the acclaimed singer/songwriter/guitarist of the notable Minneapolis band The Replacements, co-wrote Superstar Car Wash’s “We Are the Normal” with Rzeznik, a track that made it to No. 5 on the Modern Rock chart.]

The thing I loved most about Westerberg and [Hüsker Dü’s] Bob Mould — and I never really cited him, Bob Mould, as an influence, but I’d go back and listen to those earlier records of ours and go, “There’s so much Mould here, it’s ridiculous!”

Takac: Well, you played guitar a lot like him.

Rzeznik: Yeah. And, you know, Bob Mould is just pure, raw emotion. That is a man with a big, deep soul who’s just baring it for the world. And lyrically, how clever he is.

Takac: And how interesting it all is too, yeah.

Mettler: Just what he did on [Hüsker Dü’s October 1983 EP] Metal Circus alone — it still blows me away. Let’s finish by talking about your long-term friendship. What is it, like 33 years now that you guys have been friends?
Takac: It’s like we’re family.

Rzeznik: It’s been 20, 25 years. 25 years.

Takac: So, what, we’ve only been friends for 25 of the 33 years? (both laugh)

Rzeznik: Yeah! (chuckles some more)

Takac: Well, we’ve been doing this together our whole lives. We’ve been doing it together much longer that we haven’t, you know?

Rzeznik: It’s strange, because we got together when I was, like, 19, and we’ve been going for that long. For the first 8 or 9 years of the band, we would go out and do a tour, become homeless (Takac laughs) and have girlfriends who would let you stay with them. And then you’d go back out and hit the van and go, “I swear to God, this is the one where we make it, baby! I’ll see you in a year!” (both laugh heartily)