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Fifteen years after the group's first album, the Goo Goo Dolls name is still good for the occasional line drawn in the dirt. Quite a few haven't yet forgiven the GGDs for wearing their Replacements jones on their sleeve all the way to multiplatinum status, while Let It Be and Pleased to Meet Me will probably go gold after Paul Westerberg really is a grandpaboy.
And how hard was it to hear John Rzeznik sing "a tired song keeps playing on a tired radio" on the breakthrough hit "Name" and not think of the Goo Goo Dolls' power-ballad follow-up, "Iris"? Oxygen was easier to escape than that omnipresent song, which amazingly was never released as a single but scored massive amounts of airplay. Featured in the Meg Ryan chick-flick City of Angels, the Goo Goos almost became a chick-rock band by association. Suddenly, these former punks were on every lite-rock station in heavy rotation.
There's every indication that the Goo Goo Dolls were just as tired of their new repute as alternative balladeers. The group took five months off just to put some distance between its old songs and the new ones it was obligated to write. In the interim, the band released a compilation, What I Learned About Ego, Opinion, Art & Commerce, that lacked all the hits but included remixes of the band's misses, including "We Are the Normal," which Paul Westerberg himself co-wrote for the 1993 album Superstar Car Wash.
Still, all the Goo Goo Dolls learned about art and commerce was that, without the hits, only a measly 49,000 units were shifted.
"That was originally set up to be a European-only release to introduce people to the fact that we weren't Three Doors Down," says Robby Takac, the Goo Goo Dolls' bassist and other singer-songwriter. "Not bagging on Three Doors Down. Just saying we're not a brand-new band or a bunch of kids."
That should be apparent by Takac's Robitussin croak. "I don't sound like Barry White when I talk for nothing. I've played in every smoky nightclub on Earth," he says, laughing. "We've been making records for many, many years and we wanted people to walk down that path when we made that Ego, Opinion, Art & Commerce. Which is a very high-minded idea, and, as always, high-minded translates into didn't sell too much.' But it was a really energizing experience to make that record. 'Cause we got to relive some of the piss and vinegar that we had a few years ago and we sort of longed for that after hearing all those remixes. Gutterflower is a noticeably heavier record because of that."
"You're always trying to drag people from one record to the next," he continues, "and I guess the best way to do that is to fool them into thinking you're getting the same thing." He says this as he muses over having a stack of reviews that intimate that they've made the same record again.
While the girl on the sleeve of Gutterflower is cradling a rose in the same position that A Boy Named Goo's minder is holding up nothing, the new album offers some welcome surprises for people expecting an empty-handed sound-alike of their 1998 album Dizzy Up the Girl. The first single, "Here Is Gone," provided the album with its requisite Rzeznik heart-on-the-sleeve ballad, but the difference is that the string section has been given the night off, and an army of guitars provides a mighty drone in its stead. Also, the grunge-meets-sheen of "What Do You Need" and the album's brisk and doomy finale "Truth Is a Whisper" bring an element of danger and foreboding that was missing from the usual Goo Goo fare.
Recorded in the basement of the famous Capitol Tower where Frank Sinatra and Nat "King" Cole recorded all their best records, Gutterflower was a shrewd sculpting job of old microphones, preamps, EQs, tube compressors and vintage Marshall and Orange amplifiers with digital recording.
"We could go do a lo-fi record, but I don't think that would be advantageous to everyone, so we try to make records that sound good," says Takac. "What we were looking for was getting the sound as warm and analog as possible prior to getting it to the hard drive the warmth I used to hear on records when I was a kid. I think the record sounds pretty analog without sounding antiquated next to stuff on the radio now."
Maybe it's the beautiful old tube microphones or else it's having two hit albums under your belt, but Rzeznik sounds more confident that his melodies are all his own. And rather than obscure Takac's lovably lived-in voice with overdubs and filters, as was done on A Boy Named Goo, every piece of flesh hanging from the back of Takac's throat is way up in the mix now.
One holdover from Dizzy Up the Girl is the practice of individual songwriting credits, which couldn't make Takac's accountant very happy. He occupies a third of the new album, his been-there-done-that revisits to the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street providing the chipper contrast to Rzeznik's post-divorce ruminations. Forget the hit singles only the albums tell the real Goo Goo Dolls story of two lifelong friends. It's easy to imagine Rzeznik as the lovesick straight-A student who forgets to study for his tests while Takac is the C student with all the answers scribbled on his arm. With Rzeznik the recognized Goo Goo Dolls voice, Takac's radio-friendly contributions like "You Never Know" and "Up Up Up" stand little chance of snagging any ASCAP "most-played" awards.
"That's all right," says Takac, who, as the original lead singer of the group when it began in the late '80s, is about as gracious as you can expect a rocker to be. "From the very beginning I was trying to get John to sing. We had the semi-unique distinction of learning how to do things and play our instruments in front of everyone. I think one of the nicest things about this whole situation is that this is how the thing is supposed to work. I think the reason this has been able to happen is that we came from a place that was honest. You did what was real. You did what was supposed to be done, in spite of everything."
That place they came from was the dying steel town of Buffalo, New York, and the club the band first aired what Takac describes as "our sub-drunken teenage invalid opinion on everything" was The Continental.
"John, myself and our first drummer George decided we were just gonna put our heads down every Thursday and play for free or play for drinks until more people wanted to see us. After 30 or 40 shows, we had a problem with the bar owner, who turned out to be a great friend of ours. But we got thrown out of there for a couple of years. I dunno, things got broken, ill words were spoken. So we just started booking halls around town and realized people could come to see us and we could make money there. When I say money, I mean we'd split 80 bucks. So we did some shows in Rochester and before you know it, we're on a little circuit throughout the Northeast and we landed on a tour with a band called Gangrene in 1987 and went out a couple of months in a van with no windows. The vans got bigger, the venues have gotten bigger, and more people buy our records. That's kind of how it works."
Unlike the Replacements, the Goo Goo Dolls didn't have that punk success/failure inner struggle going on. The Goo Goos loved punk more as a music idiom rather than a lifestyle, so instead of instigating self-destructive stage antics, the trio stayed sober, stuck to their set list and seriously worked their fourth album A Boy Named Goo, an album Takac needs never hear again.
"A Boy Named Goo I heard a lot. I have that in my RAM. On that record, we were jumping up and down going, Look at us! Look at us! Look at us!' And nobody was. On Dizzy Up the Girl, it became people wanting to see what you were doing. That was great most of the time; then there were the points when it wasn't so great. Being from a small town like Buffalo, we're used to that on a small level. . . . That's why living in Los Angeles is pretty good at the moment. Our label is here, our management's here, and while we're shopping, De Niro might be around the corner. Nobody gives a shit if you're hanging around here."
Recently a fan who believed all Rzeznik's songs were about her had stalked the singer. When asked if Takac has someone bothering him, he laughs. "No one that I can't hit DELETE' and get rid of. Stalking on the Web has just gotten to comic proportions. There are some freaks out there. But 99.99999999 percent of the time, everybody just wants to say hi' and what's up' and they don't interrupt your dinner and they're not assholes and everything's cool."
Takac in turn knows how to respect the fans. When Warner Bros. was short-shrifting the group with its misinformed official band site, he instigated wresting control away from the corporate Webmasters. Now the band-controlled site includes a tour diary, gig photos and more personalized touches than the standard bio and sound clips. It probably helps that the Goo Goos aren't posting any unofficially released material.
"We don't write lots of songs. We use it all. . . . Anything we do you can get; we've never turned a demo in our entire career. We just go in and make a record."
Gutterflower's already surpassed Dizzy's peak chart position, zooming up to number four on Billboard's album chart in April. A new single, the swaggering "Big Machine," and its accompanying video will hopefully restore the album back in the Top 100 by the time the second leg of the tour, which opens in Phoenix, concludes.
For the moment, Takac seems more interested in talking like a music fan himself. After voicing disappointment that the Who canceled two shows and resumed their tour after losing the world's most incredible bass player, talk swings back to the 'Mats. "If you're a musician and the Replacements haven't somehow influenced you, then you've missed something huge."
"Anytime the Replacements had a new record, I would have to listen to them in a very precise manner. Otherwise it would cost me several copies of the album. 'Cause I would break them or throw 'em out the windows and stuff. . . . I had to realize that the first listen I would have no opinion, the second listen I would hate it. If I stopped there, I would be in big trouble. Because the third listen it would start to sink in, and by the fourth listen I knew I loved that record."
With that, Takac excuses himself, as he's about to be whisked away in a helicopter and dropped on top of a mountain in Alaska for VH1's Music in High Places. Even if the band performs "Iris" for the gazillionth time, it'll be with a team of sled dogs nearby. Not to mention Takac literally chilling on an iceberg for a video performance of "Slide." How can anyone work under these conditions?
"Hey," Takac shrugs, "remember, I'm from Buffalo."