You don’t need a degree in musicology to know that Daryl Hall and John Oates grew up listening to lots of Philly soul. The sound penetrates the music found on the duo’s comprehensive new four-disc box, Do What You Want, Be Who Are You, which will be released next week. The compilation stretches back to their pre-Hall & Oates days and includes one song from Oates’ Masters and two from Halls’ Temptones. It also features all of the duo's hits, live material from a 1975 London show and a new 60-page color booklet with photos and testimonials from celebrity fans like Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump and Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. In separate interviews, Hall and Oates talked about the box and the 40 years they’ve spent together. —Jeff Niesel
You guys prefer to do your interviews separately. What’s the reason for that? You still get along with each other, don’t you?
Hall: Um, I think we communicate with the world better separately.
Oates: It’s just easier to talk and not step on each other — especially in phone interviews.
Do What You Want, Be Who You Are is an extensive collection of tunes that starts with songs from the Temptones and the Masters. What strikes you about listening to those early songs? Can you hear the makings of what would become Daryl Hall and John Oates?
Hall: Absolutely. When you listen to either one of those songs, either mine or John’s, you really hear it all right there. It’s really R&B. We’re just teenagers. The melodies are there, and the chords are there.
Oates: You hear a lot of things. You hear youth, you hear exuberance, you hear excitement. You hear inexperience. It’s like looking at a photo album of your family and seeing photos of when you were a kid. What strikes me in the early stuff is that we were fortunate enough to grow up in a time when the music industry allows you to make creative mistakes, which is the antithesis of what’s happening today. If you take our first three albums, which are Whole Oates, which is an acoustic, singer-songwriter album, Abandoned Luncheonette, which is acoustic and R&B combined, and War Babies, which is an experimental rock album, and look at the very different styles, you see what ended up happening was a synthesis of those three styles. Had we not been able to do that, we may have never succeeded.
Disc One also includes a handful of tunes from a 1975 show in London. Was that a particularly good concert?
Hall: When you’re dealing with early documents and things, that was one that we happened to have. What’s great is that that band was consistent. Other than the band I have today, that was the best band we’ve ever had, and I didn’t realize it at the time. I overlooked the abilities those guys had. When I go back and listen to those tracks, it blows me away. The guitar playing of Todd Sharp is incredible. I can see why they liked us in England. We were hot.
Oates: The thing I remember most about that concert was jetlag. We did it the day after we arrived. I had to slap myself to stay awake. The band was great. I think because we were so tired and out of whack, it was like we were playing unconsciously. The band was on fire that night. The audience was enthusiastic. At the time, we were an underground, hip cult band. You have to take it in that context. We were the darlings of the underground London scene.
You’ve described the ’70s as a “learning process.” What did you learn during that era?
Hall: I think we learned what our limits were. I was forced to listen to all these songs, something I don’t normally do. But I’m glad I did. It gives me an overview I never had. I can see these guys came from a regional background. We entered the world from that perspective. You can hear us interacting with all the different experiences, whether it’s New York City or our European experiences and our days in California. It shows how we evolved into these seekers of sounds. We were putting Philadelphia against country music or against what they used to call prog rock or the California sound of the ’70s. We were trying to stretch our songs and see what worked and didn’t work. We learned as much from our failures as we did from our successes. It’s an incredible journey.
Oates: We learned a lot of things. We figured out what we wanted to do. If anything happened in the ’70s, that’s the most important thing. That led us to the ’80s. We realized we functioned best when left to our own devices. We realized we didn’t want to be recording in L.A. We realized we wanted to record with our band and not studio musicians. We banked all that information and in the ’80s it all came together.
Voices became a huge hit. What contributed to its success?
Hall: I think two things. To be simplistic, one is that the world came to us. Whatever we were doing suddenly became the sound they wanted to hear. Number two is that we threw out all the outsiders and produced it ourselves with our band. It’s our first true solo production.
Oates: The two albums we made before Voices were Along the Red Ledge, which is one of my favorites, by the way, and X-Static. We made those albums with David Foster. Everyone knows him as a mega producer but before that he had never produced an album. We were his first artist. I remember when we were making X-Static, he said, “Why am I here? You guys are just making this album yourselves.” That’s when the light bulb went off and we decided that’s what we’d do in the future.
You weren’t particularly prolific in the ’90s. What happened?
Hall: I think music changed. People were listening to different things. We had an initial run as far as people’s interest goes. We were looking for things separately. That was the beginning of us looking at ourselves as individual musicians. I moved to England and worked out of there most of the time. I made two solo records then and in the mid-’90s, we came back together and regrouped a bit. We started doing stuff again in the same spirit as the Voices album.
Oates: At the end of the ’80s after we are the world and live aid, we didn’t think there was anything more we could do. We traveled the world and had mega success. A number of things happened on a personal level. I got divorced and we lost our manager and it just wasn’t happening. It was the beginning of grunge, and we didn’t fit in that world. We were the exact opposite of that, so the time wasn’t right for us. We did our own thing. I moved to Colorado and got my life back on track. I got remarried and had a kid and built a house. I did things that were more important to me.
Were you surprised to hear you’ve had an influence on guys like Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump and Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard?
Hall: I’m a little surprised. My whole Life at Daryl’s House show is based on this idea of new artists and the interaction between the real thing, which is me, and them, which is the real thing too. It is fascinating and I’m doing my best to use that as a creative stepping off point.
Oates: Yeah, a little bit. But we were the music of their youth and that makes perfect sense. I had the music of my youth. That’s the way pop music has always been. That’s what pop music is. It’s taking influences from the earlier days and learning from that.
Rappers have even sampled the music.
Hall: Well, yeah, but it goes back to what I was saying earlier. It doesn’t surprise me that we’ve been influencing the whole rap scene. It always surprises me how much we influenced the Fall Out Boys and Finger Elevens, the off-the-wall rock music. That used to surprise me back in the day when Van Halen used to come to the shows. For God’s sake, Gene Simmons is a fan. We’ve had a crazy influence on the hard rockers over the years. I think it’s our energy and our state of mind.
Oates: That makes perfect sense. The R& B community has always been one of our biggest supporters. One of our big goals was to get onto white radio. In the ’60s, there were no formats. There were hits on the radio and then there was the birth of FM, which meant anything that wasn’t a hit. In the ’70s, you started having disco, rock and R&B and dance. It’s an honor that people would take those grooves and do something new with them.
Have you seen 500 Days of Summer? What do you think of the use of “You Make My Dreams,” which is used in a key sequence?
Hall: I think it’s unusual to have a song be the point of something because it’s usually background music. To see it used as a focal point, I find it very flattering.
Oates: Yes, I saw the movie. I think it’s the highlight of the film.
Between the NARM award you got earlier this summer and your upcoming show at the Spectrum, it’s been a busy year for the group. Talk about what it’s been like to have so much work.
Hall: In some strange way, there’s more going on now than there was in 1983. We are bigger and seem to have more of an overall impact on the world. It’s really a challenge to me. I don’t have enough days in the week to do what I have to do. I’ve never been this busy in my life. It’s good busy but man, I do not have the time.
Oates: It’s a little overwhelming. I booked a lot of solo work a long time ago for the fall. At the time, there was nothing going on for the fall. Then, the Hall and Oates box set took on a life of its own and all this other stuff started happening. Now my fall is so busy, I can barely deal with it. I’m looking forward to the holidays, so I can shut it down a bit.
With over 60 million albums sold, you’re the best-selling pop duo of all time. What’s it gonna take for a Rock Hall induction?
Hall: Tell your friends in Cleveland about that. It ain’t my job. I think there’s a certain cadre of people — the old guard — who run the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum who are fighting old battles. I won those battles a long time ago.
Oates: I don’t know what it will take. It will take the inner circle of people with influence to decide we’re worthy. It really doesn’t matter. If it happens, I’ll be happy. If it doesn’t, I’ll be okay. Being elected to the American Songwriters Hall of Fame was much more of an important honor and satisfying.