As a member of The Goo Goo Dolls, John Rzeznik has received numerous accolades as a performer and a songwriter. The band's sixth release, Dizzy Up the Girl, amassed multi-platinum sales and brought the Goo Goo Dolls international acclaim. The album featured the hit tracks "Iris" and "Slide", for which John received the 2000 ASCAP Song of the Year award. The following excerpts are from an ASCAP sponsored panel held in Los Angeles earlier this year:
Is writing more of an inspirational thing, more than a vocational thing, or is a little bit of both?
Rzeznik: No, it's definitely more vocational than inspiration. It's the whole ninety nine percent perspiration thing. When I was trying to write that last record, I was sweating bullets. Inspiration is just like a little spark, and then, it's such a tiny little thing, at least for me. I don't know, some people can have these profound, extended inspirational things where they come out of their room with like a halo and ten songs. I hate that. I get a little germ of the idea, and then I've got to get out the hammer, the nails and the shovel, and start building. That's really a lot of it.
Do you have a way you prefer to write? Do you discipline yourself and doesn't it have to be an everyday thing?
Yeah, and you know what else I do? I just run tape and screw around with stuff. For me, it's like, if you let yourself go real free form and no one can hear you, you can make as many mistakes as you want. It really is like a stumble, learn to walk, stumble, and take a step kind of thing. You just keep going in there, and everything you play sucks for a long time. You really have to dig around until you find a little nugget, and then you go back, and listen to these things. They kind of grow from there. I always write music first because in my head, the music sets the mood. It can put you into a place, and you will listen to that, and think 'Oh, that song is real scary.' So, you write some scary words or something. It's just these weird kind of peripheral feelings and stuff.
That's interesting because some people will write a poem, and then put it to music. Some people will do it simultaneously with lyrics and music at the same time, but you mostly, write the music and then the lyrics. After you've completed a song's music, do you let the music evoke all of the words for you?
Pretty much because it puts you into a certain space. Then you mix that with certain things that may be going on in your life, or something that you've read, or a movie that you saw. I mean, you have a lifetime of experiences that you can draw from, and there is always more. I mean, that's just how I do it. Some people get really conceptual when they want to write.
When writing do you lean more heavily towards biography, or even autobiography than you do towards complete fiction?
You know, it's a little of both. It's like I will start something off, and it'll be this or that. It's kind of weird because sometimes when everything is done, and you'll look at it, and go, 'That's cool', because you're working at this whole different level where it's almost like beyond comprehension. Sometimes, I will start to realize what a song is really about a year after it is written. Sometimes you're too close to it, you can't see it, and you have to zoom out.
When you write something from your perspective, and it may be all about fishing from the fish's perspective, but everyone else may take it as a love song; does that matter to you, how the audience interprets it?
No, it's all their own interpretation. I can't compare a song to a Picasso painting, but I'm going to. So, it's like, everyone sees the guitar coming out of the woman's head, and it means something different, and that's it.
Something that I think that you would appreciate more is the person who says, 'What you wrote in that song is something that is meaningful and resonates with me.' I mean, I think that may be something that you aspire to.
That always gives me goose bumps when someone says that. I think that music is as much as medicine, and can really, really heal people and have an impact on them. I know that sounds really cheesy and clich�, but it's really true. You take that with you, and that's a good thing. It's really interesting because most of the people in this world aren't as lucky as we are. I mean, we get to earn a living doing something that we love, we get to be creative all the time, and we get to look like a freak, and it's cool.
Do you feel any responsibility as a songwriter?
Not so much as a song writer as being a guy in a band that people come to see, do you know what I mean? I don't try to peddle my agenda to people that come to see us, but we did a lot of service programs. We work for gun control, we collected canned food in every city we went to for homeless shelters, we raised a bunch of money for a women's shelter. I just think that it is every person's responsibility to give something back. We should be grateful for what we have, how lucky we are, and that we can do what we can.
When you're writing, I can only assume that you're not putting the expectations of the marketplace onto what you're doing.
No, that completely pollutes the intention. I always have this thing; if you write a really cool song, and then you put your leather pants on, you go out, and play, that's cool. That's playing with your image. If you put the leather pants on, and write a song to fit the pants, you're a total poser . You're being more conscious of your image than your craft, or whatever you want to call it, and you really have avoid that.
Do you think that it's important to kind of hone in on a certain style and create a space where people can identify you?
I think that you should do whatever feels good. That thing that makes the hair on the back of your neck standup, that's all. That's always the thing to follow. I mean, there is nothing wrong with having an eclectic kind of thing.
Were there any songs that you've written in, lets say, the last two or three records that when you finished them, you thought, 'Wow, this is good,'?
Yeah, yeah, when I finished writing 'Slide', I went, 'Wow, that's pretty good'. When we finished recording it, the rough tracks of it, I just went, 'Wow, that is kind of cool.' The arrangement was so weird, and it really just fell together naturally. It was just this really bizarre arrangement, and our drummer was explaining it to me. He's like a real, trained musician. It was neat to hear that, and it was cool. I remember being really terrified when I heard 'Iris' with the strings on it for the first time, because I was like, 'Gentlemen, we have turned a corner, there is no going back.'
Prior to starting the band, were you an 'In your bedroom' kind of writer'? Did you have a guitar? Were you trying to write songs?
Yeah, I always played the guitar, mostly in the bedroom, like everyone. I didn't get out much. I didn't play out much, or anything like that. When I met my partner, Robby [Takac], he was really, really, motivated to get out, and do shows. He was the only guy, out of the three of us, who actually had done shows on a regular basis. He really helped me to develop a work ethic about things. I realized that he was serious when we had been out having a good time the night before, and we were opening for Bad Brains which is a great band, an amazing band, and I just blew it off. I was just like, 'Nah, I'm not going,' and they came to the house, and dragged me out, and made me go and play, and I was like, 'Wow, this guy is serious.'
What were those early days like, were you guys gigging around the Buffalo area a lot?
Yeah, in Buffalo you headline Saturday night at The Continental, and that's it, really. We had to get real and just pick up. We got this record deal. It was like for fifteen hundred bucks that we got this record deal, and that's what we had to make the record. The record was with a company called Celluloid which doesn't even exist anymore. We made that record, and then we said, 'We've got to get out of here, and hit the road.' So, we borrowed our friends van, and we were like, 'Well, we're either going to do it, or we're going to starve to death." It was really just a sink or swim situation, and a tiny, tiny little bit of insanity about the whole thing. You have to take these tiny little opportunities no matter how ridiculous they seem because you never know what they're going to turn into.
How do you feel this audience could avoid being taken advantage of when opportunity presents itself?
Just don't be too anxious to sign anything. If you're really being honest with your music, and you're really sure of it, becoming a rock star or whatever you think that you're going to get is all kind of secondary. It doesn't matter if no one, but your boyfriend or your girlfriend hears your music. If one guy is going to sign you, the rest of them are going to try to get you. Don't be anxious.
Let's talk about publishing deals.
It's sweet to get a publishing deal. I think that it's really important to learn about publishing and understand it. You always make more money off of publishing than you do off of selling records. Sometimes, you make more money selling T-shirts than you do selling records. Which is interesting as well, but publishing is really important. I think that it's really important to have a good relationship with them because they can help you get your songs in movies, TV commercials or whatever. If you have a great publisher, years and years down the road, it can all really help you.
Did you ever find a point in your career, where the business sort of overtook what you were trying to do creatively to the point that it was blocking you and kept you from aspiring to where you wanted to be?
Yeah, there was a point where we wound up talking, spending more time with lawyers, litigators and stuff than we did playing music, and that was really painful. It was really a disheartening thing, and I wound up getting super disillusioned about the whole thing. If you take care of everything, a little bit at a time, from the start, you will never wind up in a crisis. Our publishing company was really good to us. We didn't have any money, they loaned us some money, and we had a hit.
How much are you involved in the whole record company machination that is about selling records and putting things onto the radio?
Well, you've got to do what you've got to do, but you shouldn't do something that makes you feel uncomfortable. There are things that make you feel uncomfortable to do, and you really try to avoid it, but once again, you go through and you learn your lessons, sometimes the hard way. You have to involve yourself to a certain degree because you have to know what you're getting involved in. It doesn't take a lot of brains to go out on tour, but it does take brains to guide your career. Once you have something that you're really proud of, and you really believe in, hopefully, someone will listen to you, like a record company.
Nowadays, as a consumer, I don't need to make much effort. All I need to do is turn on my computer, and if it's not being streamed into my house today, it will be in five years. The opportunities for the romantic ideas of guys who get together or girls that get together and just want to write songs and have a band is probably going to become more and more rare as the music business continues. What is your take on this?
It's very much like a pendulum, and that's why the human element is so important because a good song is a good song. Whether Ricky Martin is singing it or you are singing it. It doesn't matter what kind of music it is, and it just seems like everything turns over so quickly. It is really important to maintain your integrity through that stuff. If you want to do this for a living, there are compromises that you're going to have to make. I think that it's best to try and approach the situation, with 'How can we both come to an agreement where we are both happy?'.
But when you are submitting stuff, sometimes, a publishing company or a record company will look at you, and go, 'Well, there is not any continuity here.'
Then forget about them, and go somewhere else, if it's what you truly believe in. I mean, rejection is the biggest part of all of our lives, and you just have to get used to it. There is a great book called 'Zen Guitar'. It's an awesome book, because it talks about finding your spiritual pulse through your music. Music can be a really profound way of praying. I don't want to get too weird on everyone, but meditating and praying, like when you're sitting there playing your guitar or keyboard, you look up at the clock, and it's like four hours later. That's flow, that's a trance, that's an altered state of being. That's like you've tapped into something bigger than yourself, and we're all lucky to have that. I cannot stress that enough.
How important has management been in your career, and have you always had a manager?
It is really important that you find someone that you can trust, and someone who will take time with you. I have been with our management for ten years almost, because we all kind of came up together. We're like a family now. It's, I think, important to find someone that you can trust that's going to take time with you, and be honest with you. They need to have a vested interest in seeing you do well. Our management is like a team of people, and it's amazing how interdependent you are on all these people. We fight with each other, and we work stuff out. It's cool. Don't be afraid to fire people if they have to go because these people will intimidate the hell out of you. Don't be afraid of that because at the end of the day, people are going to give you all kinds of good advice, but it's your face out there and it's your songs. It's everything that is you and it's going to fall on your shoulders.
I think one of the reasons that music is most enjoyed is because it is one of those things that you live with more easily than anything else in pop culture. It is something that you can do everyday. It is a great responsibility to try to produce things that are honest, intellectually honest, emotionally honest, and everything else. You do that very well. Have you ever listened to other writers, from an early age, and thought, 'Wow, that's the goods'? Who are some of the songwriters who you really dig?
First and foremost, I like Paul Westerberg which is really an obvious influence in my music. He is honest. I really liked listening to him, he was so different from so many other things, and what really attracted me was the alternative music, because it was an open ground. It didn't have the rules that mainstream rock had at the time. You didn't have to write about cars and girls and how bad ass you were. It was like, you could really explore the world around you with it, and kind of make a statement in a way. I loved The Clash, and I mean, what does a fourteen-year-old know about English politics? They were talking about something other than their car. I like Westerberg for his honesty. Bob Mould, who is just so good with his words, makes you feel like he is taking a snapshot of a moment. It's like you have this thing in your head, a picture in your mind of where you've been. It could be a minute or it could be a whole summer, whatever.
Are there other books of fiction, movies, paintings or things outside of the music world that you find inspiring?
Yeah, I love Picasso, Chagall, and Miro a lot. I love Leonardo Da Vinci because that guy was amazing, and he did everything. I love old movies and I really like the way that you have to suspend your disbelief with those movies because everyone talks funny, and it's fun. I love history a lot, and I love documentary films about history. I love Tom Robbins, he's probably my favorite writer. I read a lot of non-fiction stuff, and 'How To' books.
Do you have those things with you when you're actually sitting down to write?
Yeah, I mean, you keep them around. You look at your dictionary, you find something, and it's right. Thesaurus' are also cool. I love words because I think that they have less limitations on them than music does. I mean, there are just so many more directions that you can go in with words than you can with music, and that is amazing.
I've always had this fear that what works in your bedroom and what works in your house will not measure up once that piece is completed and brought forth to fruition in recording. How much has it helped to have faith in your band that the sounds will always be there?
Once again, it's just, what does your gut tell you? I mean that is so much of everything that we do. From the time that you pick up your guitar, you play the song, you put on the tape recorder, you take it to the band, you'll work out the arrangement, and it changes. It goes through this time and time again, just changing and changing. Then you get into a recording studio with a producer and an engineer, and it changes again. I always use the analogy of Michaelangelo. I mean, you've got to let it go at a certain point. If the song is good, that's cool, as long as the song can come through. We had a couple of experiences early on with a producer that didn't want what we wanted to do, and it turned into a real battle, but the songs came through. That is what's important.
Is the music getting better? I think that the answer is yes.
Well, thank you very much. I never listen to our records when we are done with them. I don't listen to them until it's time to write another album, and then, I go back, and I listen to all of them. Every record that you do, the farther back that you go, the harder you laugh. That's the point about being uncertain about where you're going to go as a writer and as a musician. It's like, you kind have to let it flow, and let the song lead you. When you relinquish that desire to know and to have control over it, pretty amazing things can happen. I'm trying to get used to this concept, but it really makes my skin crawl. All I know is that I'm going to sit here, and I'm going to keep working until something inside me feels right.