"I'm sitting here staring at a Rammstein billboard on Sunset Boulevard," says Goo Goo Dolls bassist Robby Takac by phone from Hollywood. "[Their music] does what it needs to do: shock and intrigue--and burn."
Takac's description of Rammstein, the new storm troopers of aggro-rock, would fit his own band just as well. Without the use of gimmicky drum loops or other modern accoutrements, the Goo Goo Dolls consistently turn out music that either moves people or makes them want to run around and break stuff.
According to conventional wisdom, the Goos should have been a one-hit wonder three times over by now. Instead, they're selling more records than ever while many of their contemporaries have fallen by the wayside and into the cutout bins. The success of the Goos has been attributed to nebulous factors such as drive, determination, and grit. A more likely explanation is Takac and guitarist Johnny Rzeznik's ability to crank out turbo-charged power-pop tunes by the dozen. It just took the right one--a ballad, no less--to get the ball rolling.
The seemingly sudden rise in stature of the Buffalo trio (current drummer Mike Malinin joined in 1995, replacing George Tutuska) actually took the better part of a decade. Starting off as beloved local scamps with attitude, the Goos were braying original songs like "Up Yours" and piss-and-vinegar covers of "Gimme Shelter" back in 1987, when Takac and Rzeznik were barely out of their teens. After toiling in music's minor leagues for years, the band was called up to The Show in 1992 with the release of Superstar Car Wash, which yielded the breakthrough radio anthem "We Are the Normal." Sounding for all the world like a lost Replacements classic (and cowritten, in fact, by Paul Westerberg), "We Are the Normal" had no trouble finding acceptance on alternative rock radio. But follow-up singles failed to make a similar impression.
The band's follow-up to Superstar appeared in March 1995 and initially performed a disappearing act. A Boy Named Goo seemed destined for failure despite the band's quantum leap forward in songwriting and tighter, more focused production that gave rabbit-punching classics like "Burnin' Up," "Flat Top," "Eyes Wide Open," and "Somethin' Bad" real sonic presence. But when the sleeper acoustic ballad "Name" hit the airwaves, it took the nation by storm. By the middle of 1996, A Boy Named Goo had surpassed $2 million in sales, dwarfing all the band's previous albums put together.
The Goos toured endlessly in an effort to capitalize on their success. But their newfound stardom really sunk in when they played a homecoming concert in Buffalo. "We sold out the hockey arena where we grew up," Takac remembers. "It was a brand new hockey arena on the first night it was open, and there were, like, 17,000 people in the crowd. I can remember standing there with our parents off to the side--all these faces [in the crowd], and it wasn't just faces I knew anymore. It was kind of weird because it was too big--I was sort of taken aback."
Hoping to buck the one-hit wonder tag that "Name" threatened to stamp on them, the Goos took some time off to come up with material for a follow-up album. But the process turned out to be an arduous one for Rzeznik, the band's chief songwriter. Nightmarishly blocked by the immense pressure to follow up a career-defining hit like "Name," Rzeznik eventually went into therapy to try to shake the stress. The result was a three-year gap between A Boy Named Goo and the band's latest album, Dizzy Up the Girl. In between, the Goos contributed to a series of mostly forgettable movie soundtracks: Tommy Boy, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, and Twister. They even recorded an upbeat version of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," for a Major League Baseball television ad. Ultimately, however, it was another soundtrack that restored Rzeznik's confidence in his own songwriting abilities.
When the soundtrack to the film City of Angels hit the shelves last March, Alanis Morissette's Zep-fueled "Uninvited" was the early-radio darling. But the Goos' "Iris" proved to be the album's real blockbuster. "Iris" became such a huge international hit that even the Top 10 success of "Name" began to look middling in comparison. And when Dizzy Up the Girl arrived in stores in September, with "Iris" included, it was guaranteed a running start.
"I think 'Iris' really helped John through that whole thing," Takac says of his partner's struggle with writer's block. "I know [past success] was choking up his writing for a while. I think the nervousness of following ['Name'] was huge."
"Iris" has remained a radio monster, and the subsequent success of the acoustic rocker "Slide" has helped drive sales of Dizzy Up the Girl up toward half a million. The band now plans to tour well into next year to keep the album comfortably aloft. Takac sounds genuinely relieved by the new album's fast start.
"Obviously, I'm happy after putting out so many records [that were] less than huge," he says. "For me, to do as well as the time before was always what I wanted to do--and if this one would have stiffed, I probably wouldn't have been all that thrilled."
Takac has reason to be happy with Dizzy Up the Girl, which sounds like a logical follow-up to A Boy Named Goo. It forsakes the breathless anthemic rockers that energized Boy, carving out a cleaner sonic territory where textured strings and acoustic guitars appear as often as power chords and supercharged breakdowns. That's not to say the Goos have mellowed out--Rzeznik's "Dizzy" kicks off the album in almost savage fashion, while Takac's driving tempos and agitated roar power "January Friend" and "Amigone." Purists may view the strings and radio-friendly choruses on Dizzy as proof that the band has sold out, but Takac considers the album a jump forward.
"Our challenge is always to make the next record the one that doesn't sound like the one before that--one that makes you feel like you've taken some sort of step," he says. "We really wanted to push the envelope on this one."
Takac says there were times during the sessions when he was unsure of exactly where things were headed musically. "It was really weird when we were making it," he reports. "Things seemed all over the place. And until it was actually finished and everything was mixed and sequenced together, it sort of seemed a little bit disjointed. But once we found the right running order, everything sort of fell in place."
Over the years, Takac has quietly served as the songwriting yin to Rzeznik's yang, and the bassist says his contributions, while "undercover from public sight," serve to keep the band on an even keel. "My songs have never been huge hits," he admits. "[But] they're sort of like that constant thing that keeps us where we are and keeps us what we are--John does all he can to stretch out as far as he possibly can at every given moment. I think that's really cool, especially because I get to play things that I wouldn't normally play."
Having created comfortable roles for themselves, the Goos are capable of handling success "better than, say, a bunch of twenty-year-olds who happened to stumble across a song," Takac notes. "We've been sort of building this career for years now, not even knowing that it was a career most of the time. I think right now it's a little bit easier for us to handle."
"And it's not like we don't appreciate every little thing that comes along," he adds, laughing. "Because at one point, we really appreciated a pack of bologna. It was like, 'Get out of here, a deli tray? Come on! We'll take the Saran Wrap off the top and take the rest with us! You don't mind, do ya?'"
Having climbed from the club scene to the world of arenas, Takac says he no longer feels the need to "stand on the edge and scream at people. Now it seems so different," he says. "I just don't feel the pressure to act like that anymore."
In his spare time, he even listens to Me'Shell N'degeocello and DJ Shadow ("I find his machine-made music to be very human"). "I listen to a lot of nonrock music just because I'm around [rock music] so much," Takac explains. "For an escape, the last thing I want to do is get my head ripped off by Marshalls."
And he has no problem passing the torch to a new generation of young, fired-up bands like Rammstein, the Deftones, or Korn. "God bless those guys," he says with an audible smile. "I don't understand a fuckin' thing they're doing, but God bless 'em--I feel the same way about 90 percent of what goes on these days, but all [we] can do is write rock music, and that's what we do."
Goo Goo Dolls. Wednesday, November 11, Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Ave., $6., Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.