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A Simple Twist of Fate
By Robert Dye and Christopher Scapelliti
Guitar World Acoustic
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How Goo Goo Dolls’ frontman John Rzeznik made a name for his band by manipulating the tuning pegs on his guitar.

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The applause at Philadelphia’s Electric Factory rises to raucous levels as John Rzeznik, singer and guitarist with the Goo Goo Dolls, begins strumming the ethereal chord progression that helped make "Name" the band’s first national hit. Three years after the song broke, Rzeznik is still obviously amazed at how a struggling punk trio from Buffalo, New York, struck gold with a pretty acoustic ballad.

"We decided to bury the song in the middle of our album, A Boy Named Goo," he explains to the audience, "because it’s a mellow acoustic song and we’re supposed to be a loud indie punk-rock band. We figured, that way, no one would hear it.

"Wouldn’t you know it?" he continues. "The song takes off, and soon every radio station is playing it. And I’m wondering, ‘What’s going to happen? All our fans are going to hate us!’"

Sure enough, says Rzeznik, one day he came home to find a letter waiting for him. "It began, ‘Dear Faggot.’" Rzeznik starts to laugh. "‘You suck. ‘Name’ sucks. You sold out, big-time. I used to like you, but now I hate you, and I’m getting rid of all your records. Signed, Indie Punk Rock Guy.’"

The audience is laughing with Rzeznik now. "I tell you," he sighs, "I can’t get a break."

 

In truth, John Rzeznik has gotten several breaks in recent years, beginning with the song that caused this hostile correspondent so much displeasure. Until the success of "Name," Rzeznik was just a musician in a seldom-heard but critically acclaimed three-piece punk band, always one step away from going back to the plumbing job for which he apprenticed in his teens. Prior to A Boy Named Goo, the Goo Goo Dolls released four records of punk-inspired power-pop: the group’s self-titled debut (1987), Jed (1989), Hold Me Up (1990) and Superstar Car Wash (1993). None of the albums went anywhere, although Superstar Car Wash brought the group some recognition, thanks to "We Are the Normal," as song Rzeznik co-wrote with Paul Westerburg, leader of the now-defunct Eighties punk-pop group the Replacements.

Then came "Name," a delicate acoustic ballad that was completely at odds with the Goo Goo Dolls’ image and music. For Rzeznik, the creation of the song was the defining moment in his career as a songwriter. Oddly, the song developed from the most unremarkable of circumstances.

"I get bored with standard tuning," Rzeznik explains matter-of-factly the day after the Electric Factory show. "I’m always twisting and turning the tuning pegs to find something new." When he came upon the unusual D-A-E-A-E-E tuning for "Name," it was a revelation. "For the first time," says Rzeznik, "I felt like a songwriter, instead of just a guitarist."

Soon after "Name" was released as a single, Rzeznik, bassist Robby Takac and drummer Mike Malinin (who replaced original Goo drummer George Tutuska) saw their fifth album, A Boy Named Goo, go on to sell two million copies and land them the opening slots for the likes of Bush and No Doubt. The group’s success might have been deemed a fluke, and, certainly, many critics who anticipated the Goo Goo’s had sold-out were only too glad to serve up that verdict.

Then came "Iris." In what could best be described as a "dj goo," Rzeznik once again twisted up the tuning pegs on his acoustic guitar and pulled out of a plum of a song. Written for the 1998 movie City of Angels, "Iris" also appears on the group’s latest album, Dizzy Up the Girl. Like "Name" before it, "Iris" has brought the Goo Goo Dolls to an even greater level of success and acclaim. And it doesn’t hurt that "Slide," the lead single from Dizzy Up the Girl - and yet another acoustic-based song – is doing brisk business on the charts as well.

For now, it seems, Rzeznik can put away those plumber’s tools and look forward with assurance. He is, in many ways, a post-Nineties alternative version of Bruce Springsteen: He’s a gifted storyteller and master showman; he’s also blue-collar to the bone – self-consciously so. His songs, drawn mainly from his own experiences growing up on Buffalo’s east side, speak of the hopes, dreams and frustrations of people caught alone in desperate situations, with no easy way out. "Broadway," from Dizzy Up the Girl, which explicates the cycle of destruction Rzeznik witnessed as a child, is one such song.

"When I was young, my dad used to take me down to the local bar, prop me up on the barstool, order a drink for himself and a soda and chips for me," says Rzeznik. "He’d give me a quarter for the pinball machine and sit there and drink. I’d look around and see all these kids who just turned 18, and they were hanging out there, sitting in the same chairs as their fathers. When they were old enough to drink with their dads, they took his place at the bar, carrying on the tradition.

"I decided I didn’t want to be like that."

Rzeznik’s resolve to make something more of his life is apparent in his music. It is characteristic of his songs that they project hope – a sense that everything will work out for his protagonists. Just as it has for John Rzeznik.

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GUITAR WORLD ACOUSTIC: On the Goo Goo Dolls’ earlier albums, the acoustic song always came at the end of the record, and it was basically a throwaway. Now you’ve hit it big, not just with one but three acoustic-based songs. Was this development the result of a conscious effort?

JOHN RZEZNIK: No, it wasn’t. I’ve always plated the acoustic guitar, but I finally got to a point where I felt the material I wrote on the acoustic was good enough to bring to the band. I’m not as afraid anymore of bringing new styles of music to them, and I’m not trying so hard to be punk, or whatever we were. I’m not afraid of being criticized anymore.

GWA: Prior to your success, did you resist the urge to write acoustic songs?

RZEZNIK: Definitely. But I felt that I had to move, change and grow. Playing acoustic was a good way to do that.

GWA: Do you feel it’s been a significant factor in your group’s longevity?

RZEZNIK: Absolutely. A lot of the punk bands paint themselves into a corner with a set of hard-and-fast rules that they can’t stray from. So they can’t grow, and they become obsolete very quickly. Only the Ramones can get away with making the same record seventeen times. [laughs] You have to grow.

GWA: Do you find it odd that the acoustic guitar isn’t usually regarded as a "punk" instrument? After all, you use it, and so have Green Day, the Replacements and the Violent Femmes.

RZEZNIK: And Ani DiFranco, too. Yeah, I would love to hear Rancid of someone like that do something with acoustic guitars. To me, punk was originally about pushing the limits of what you could write about, of wear on stage. But them it developed its own set of rules, and in its own way became a means of conformity. For instance, I was walking down South Street in Philadelphia yesterday, and all the punk stores had the same kinds of clothes and jewelry. The original punk spirit of individuality has really become mass-marketed. So these days, maybe winding the tuning pegs up and down on the guitar is more "punk" that some people think.

To me, the Replacements were the best punk band ever. The embodied what punk was all about – that complete rebellion, the complete "fuck you." And once Paul Westerburg started to expose his own inner feelings, the band was able to turn punk music in on itself. He did it in a real punk fashion.

GWA: Superstar Car Wash features "We Are the Normal," a song you co-wrote with Westerburg, who was a major influence on your writing. How did you collaboration come out?

RZEZNIK: We were on their last tour for a few shows. When it ended, I called him and asked if he would be interested in writing with me. He told me to send him something, so I sent him some music, and he wrote the lyrics and sent it back.

GWA: Westerburg has mellowed a but over the years, but he continues to write great songs and retain his credibility. Has his success in this regard been an inspiration to you?

RZEZNIK: Yeah. He was the first guy that took the step so everyone could follow after him. He gave everybody the balls to do it.

GWA: Who are some of your other influences?

RZEZNIK: Bob Mould [Husker D and Sugar] was a tremendous influence on me. Everyone says Westerburg influenced me, which is true, but Mould did it too. He’s a musical genius. He experiments with a lot of those open tunings, and he’s able to tap into the dirtiest, ugliest part of the soul and bang it out. You watch him play and you just go, "Fuck! That guy ain’t kidding around." With him, it’s all about the power of the music. He plays so hard and with such intensity, but he can also pick up an acoustic guitar and make you cry. That’s what I love. It was through Bob Mould that I found out about Richard Thompson, who also plays some awesome stuff.

I also like singer-songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, and John Prine too. He creates this image of quiet desperation in his songs. I think Prine has this hole inside of him that nothing will ever fill, no matter how much Budweiser he drinks. What he writes is so beautiful, and everything he writes is so real. It’s like looking at yourself in a mirror after you’ve been up for three days under a fluorescent light.

GWA: Do you relate to this working-class imagery?

RZEZNIK: Absolutely. Did you ever watch The Deer Hunter? Well, watch that movie and put on a John Prine record and this is my life. I was brought up in a part of Buffalo that I refer to as "Palookaville." It was a very ethnic, Polish working-class neighborhood, with a bar and a church on every corner. Every family had five or six kids, and an alcoholic in every house. And everyone would go get drunk on Saturday night and go to church on Sunday morning.

GWA: Is that the neighborhood depicted in "Broadway"?

RZEZNIK: Yeah. My parents died when I was fifteen, so I left that neighborhood and moved uptown to the college area. That got me away from the environment that killed my father. He could never rise above it, never see beyond it. He got drunk every day. Luckily, I’ve always had people around me who saw the potential for what is out there, especially Robby [Takac]. With "Broadway," I figured there was enough distance between me and the place where I grew up that I could make as strong a statement as I wanted without worrying about some mook coming to kick my ass.

GWA: When did you first pick up the guitar?

RZEZNIK: After my mother kicked over the drum set and said, "No more drums!" [laughs]. I played "Wipeout" a little too long that day! So I picked up my sister’s acoustic guitar. I was about 10 years old. When I played the acoustic, I always kept it to myself.

GWA: Why was that?

RZEZNIK: I don’t know. Because I was living by the rules. You’re not supposed to share that stuff. I mean, look at me now: I’m 32 years old, and people are still saying "fag."

GWA: How did you pick up your technique?

RZEZNIK: I’ve always watched other players. Once in a while, I’d ask somebody to show me something. But I’d usually get it wrong.

GWA: Were you aware of other styles than punk?

RZEZNIK: Oh, yeah. The punks were my peer group, and I identified with them and the music. But there was different stuff I listened to at home. I would listen to Al Di Meola’s Electric Rendezvous and guys like him. I would listen to Pink Floyd, Joe Jackson, Kiss, Cheap Trick.

GWA: What acoustic gear are you using these days?

RZEZNIK: I’m playing a black Guild acoustic with a Fishman pickup system. I tried using a mic system, but I got too much feedback. In concert I’m opting more to play my Alvarez-Yairi Fusion Series acoustic. It’s a sealed-chamber guitar - it doesn’t have a soundhole - and you can crank the shit out of them and they don’t have feedback. I also have a Turner thinline acoustic that I use live. It has a piezo pickup in it, and the guitar I actually pretty warm sounding – which is surprising, because it’s such a thin guitar and it has piezo, which is known for being rather cold-sounding. Live, I also use and MXR Microamp. If I have to play a solo on the acoustic, I kick that in, and I get a little extra "oomph."

When we recorded "Slide," I played a Taylor 812-C owned by Rob Cavallo [producer, Dizzy Up the Girl]. It sounded better than everything else in the studio. We also did overdubs with a Parker Fly, which blended nicely underneath everything. It added a nice boxy tone to the track. We used a C-12 A mic, a Telefunken or Neumann U47 and a tube DI.

For amps, I’ll use the new Fender Acoustasonic SFX if we’re doing a strictly acoustic gig. It expands the sound a little bit and gives it a more "live," stereo sound.

GWA: As the acoustic began to play a larger role in your music, how did your sound develop?

RZEZNIK: I feel like I’m on a quest to find the ultimate acoustic guitar sound. Piezo-electric pickups are good live, because they don’t feed back much, but they tend to miss a lot of the richness of the sound. Our biggest battle was just trying to find the right fear for this tour, because so much of the set is acoustic. On our last tour, we fought every single day to get a good acoustic guitar sound. We still fight against bad tone, but we’re getting better and dealing with it.

GWA: A few years ago, you had a long battle with writer’s block. What caused it?

RZEZNIK: It happened right after we came off the tour for A Boy Named Goo. For the first time in my life, I didn’t have a job except to be in this band. That scared me. Until A Boy Named Goo, we still had day jobs. I used to do indie radio promotion, and I was a hot dog vendor for a while.

Finally, we had some success with "Name." But with every little but of success, there was some backlash. We had always been an underground band with critical support, but once we started selling records, that support was gone. I didn’t think we were doing anything to "sell out," but people started perceiving it that way. And it hurt.

Then we had legal problems with our old record company [Metal Blade]. It got to a point where I just though, "Man, this sucks!" I didn’t want to play or write. I got nervous, too, because we’re living in a time now where so many bands have one hit and they’re gone. In the back of my mind I was thinking, "Well, I had my one hit. It’s over." I was just waiting to fail.

I finally got through the writer’s block by taking the advice of Don Was [producer]. He told me that whenever he felt stuck creatively, he would go to see a movie and pretend to score it. I’d been asked to contribute a song to the move City of Angels, so it was a good opportunity for me to try his advice. I went to see a test screening of the movie, and that night I went home and wrote "Iris."

The weird thing about writer’s block is that you’re writing all the time – you just don’t like what you’re writing. But you can’t censor yourself. You have to let things be bad first and then something good will come out of it.

GWA: "Iris" started attracting attention while you were working on Dizzy Up the Girl. Did that give you the confidence to focus more on the acoustic guitar?

RZEZNIK: Yeah. It definitely helped me solidify the rest of my songs, both the electric and the acoustic. Plus, Rob Cavallo made us take chances, whether that meant adding an acoustic, strings or a keyboard, leaving space in songs or using different tunings. You could always erase it, he said.

GWA: What led you to experiment with different tunings?

RZEZNIK: It was something I dragged over from playing the acoustic at home. I don’t read music, and I don’t know a lot of chords. Plus, I just got tired of standard tuning. And since we are a three-piece band, I was trying to fill up space. Whatever I could do in open tunings, to let those strings drone, helped a lot. Otherwise, everything started sounding the same to me.

Now I’ve got the acoustic and electric guitars rigged up with banjo tuners on the B’s and E’s and I Hipshot D-tuner on the low E. This allows me to tune the low E down to B, the B up to C, and the high E up to F#, or even G for a song like "Dizzy." The banjo tuners make it really easy to change tunings during the set.

GWA: How do you come up with some of your more intricate tunings?

I just sit and strum the guitar open and start winding. On "Iris," I wanted a droning sound underneath everything else. I wanted the guitar to hold the bottom of the song up, because I wanted the song to be based more on what I was singing. Since it was a song for a movie, I figured we could get a little more ornate with the instrumentation. I relied a lot on the melody.

GWA: "Acoustic #3" [from Dizzy Up the Girl] is a short song, but had it been longer, it might have become a huge ballad.

RZEZNIK: Right. I thought it was a good song, but I purposely made it two minutes long so it wouldn’t be used as a singe. I wanted to make a short transition between songs, like the Beatles did on Abbey Road. So after "Acoustic #3" comes the big epic, "Iris."

Ultimately, I want people to hear the rock stuff too, whether it’s acoustic of electric. There are so many ways to derive power in music other that a wall of screaming Marshalls. A woman like Ani DiFranco proves that time and time again. Someone saying something meaningful with and acoustic guitar can break down a lot of walls, more so that someone with a stack of Marshalls.