Arts

Music

John Oates on pop music longevity — and never being out of touch

Hall and Oates recently released “Philly Forget Me Not,” their first new song since 2002.
Adam Bettcher/Getty Images
Hall and Oates recently released “Philly Forget Me Not,” their first new song since 2002.

Over the course of their near 50-year collaboration, Daryl Hall and John Oates have become the most successful pop duo in history, having sold more than 60 million records with 29 Top 40 hits, but a funny thing happened to them over the past decade. While their musical peers from their generation either quietly faded away or drifted into irrelevance, the blue-eyed-soul singer-songwriters became even more popular despite not releasing an album in 16 years. Hall and Oates, who play the Xfinity Center in Mansfield Thursday, have expanded their fan base, reaching new listeners as they continue to sell out arena shows around the world.

It’s a pretty nifty trick that few acts have managed to pull off in an industry with a very short memory. John Oates, though, doesn’t think there is much of a mystery behind the duo’s robust career resurgence. “It’s because of the songs,” he says via phone recently. “The songs stand the test of time and continue to do so. They reach across generations, and ultimately, that is the mark of a good song. Never underestimate the power of a good song to move people.”

Oates recognizes that thanks to sampling and media placement, younger people are discovering the band, whose dozens of hits including “You Make My Dreams,” “She’s Gone,” “Out of Touch,” “Private Eyes,” and “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” have become ingrained in the pop consciousness.

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“If you ask any songwriter what their ultimate goal is when writing a song, they would probably say writing a song that endures, becomes a classic, and speaks to all ages, and that’s what we’ve managed to do. Now younger generations are embracing the songs. The funny thing is it seems they’re appreciated now even more than when they first came out,” he says with a laugh. “It’s something I do not take for granted. It’s just an amazing thing for us.”

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The duo recently released “Philly Forget Me Not,” their first new song since their “Do It For Love Album” in 2002. It’s a throwback slice of Philly soul cooked up in collaboration with Train, which is co-headlining the band’s summer tour. The track evokes the band’s early days and pays homage to their musical roots.

Oates, 70, says the impetus to get back into the studio came from Train’s lead singer Pat Monahan, who co-wrote the song. “Pat was working with a few outside writers — and they came up with this idea. They said, ‘Here, this would be cool for you guys to do because you are touring together,’ and then we got involved. Daryl wrote a small portion of it. It all happened very quickly and just before we went on the road. We had a good time recording it.”

Fans hoping that the swinging single is a taste of a new album from the pop duo shouldn’t hold their breath. Oates was mostly dismissive of the idea of a full-length record happening anytime soon. “It’s not a precursor to something bigger at this point. Who knows what’s going to happen down the road, but right now we all know it’s a singles world. To be honest, I’m not sure it makes sense to do a bigger recording project now.”

Despite the long drought between albums, both Philadelphia natives have remained very busy when they are not on tour almost every year. Hall, 71, continues to host his popular webcast series “Live From Daryl’s House,” while Oates, who now lives in Nashville, released his excellent, anecdote-filled memoir, “Change of Seasons,” last year (just out in paperback). His latest solo record, “Arkansas,” came out earlier this year.

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“Arkansas” continues Oates’s solo exploration of American roots music as he and an expert collection of Nashville musicians dig into classic blues songs and songs from the earliest days of recorded popular music.

“I originally wanted to do a simple Mississippi John Hurt tribute record,” Oates says. “But as I began to play some of these songs with the band, I realized that a lot that are associated with just a solo guitar and voice blues tradition would sound great with a band. What ended up happening was I started looking deeper into Mississippi John Hurt’s life from 1926 to ’29, and I wondered what other songs he might have listened to or what might be on the radio in the early days of the phonograph machine.

“And I thought, well, I’ve been making hit records my whole life — that’s kind of what defined my career — so I looked to what the earliest hit records were. I’m talking the ones people were buying and playing at home. And the album became a snapshot of the earliest days of pop music.”

He says his fascination with the blues is in keeping with his original inspiration as a guitar player before he met Hall in the early 1970s. That influence also seeped into the duo’s music, which was initially steeped in R&B and soul (most prominently on their masterpiece, “Abandoned Luncheonette”). In fact, another reason the duo’s popularity endures is their music has always crossed genres and been embraced by both black and white audiences. Their hooks have been heavily sampled by hip-hop acts, and their soulful songs have received airplay on radio stations with groove-oriented or quiet storm formats.

The engaging, soft-spoken Oates acknowledges this phenomenon with enthusiasm. “Remember, we come from a racially integrated music scene in Philadelphia of the late ’60s and early ’70s, so that’s where the core of the collaboration between Daryl and I comes from. That music represents that moment before race in music really became divided and racial tensions in the country really began to boil. I think we’re representing a moment in time where music really does bring people together, and I am very proud of that fact.”

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As one-half of one of pop’s greatest acts, Oates remains quite attuned to modern pop and notes the shift in focus toward production and groove over melody. “Right now, technology and real life have become almost interchangeable, so it should be no surprise that modern pop music is a product of the available technology.

‘Now younger generations are embracing the songs. The funny thing is it seems they’re appreciated now even more than when they first came out.’

“That doesn’t mean it’s something I like or like to make, but for young performers and producers there’s amazing technology available to them, and it’s really shaping the sound of pop,” he says. “At this point, it seems technology is pop music. It makes for some good music, but I’m always going to be a believer in great songs. The songs have to be there. That’s the foundation.”

Daryl Hall and John Oates

At Xfinity Center, Mansfield, June 7 at 7 p.m. Tickets: From $35, www.livenation.com

Ken Capobianco can be reached at franznine@live.com.