When we scored a ticket to the 2013 Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, we expected a lot of things—four days of nonstop music, the sweltering Tennessee-in-June heat for which the festival's known, a seemingly endless dance party and, of course, outrageous fun. One thing we didn't expect to see, however, was a rendition of Sam & Dave's "When Something's Wrong With My Baby" sung by Alabama Shakes' Brittany Howard and John Oates of the famed '80s duo Hall & Oates, an R. Kelly cover of Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," a Billy Idol-led version of T. Rex's "Bang a Gong (Get It On)," and Sly and the Family Stone's Larry Graham slapping his bass to hits like "Dance to the Music," "Hot Fun in the Summertime" and "Higher," among several other performances of iconic songs, all on the same stage over one three-hour set—but that's precisely what happened on Saturday night at Bonnaroo's annual Superjam.
After the show, we sat down with John Oates, who served as musical director of the Superjam alongside Jim James (who hosted the event and led a rendition of John Lennon's "Instant Karma"), to discuss Bonnaroo 2013, his new album, the possibility of a Hall & Oates reunion and more.
What was it like directing the Bonnaroo Superjam this year? It was a very ambitious project for Jim [James] and I, and it was pretty amazing to pull off that wide a variety of music with that many moving parts. We never rehearsed with R. Kelly or Billy Idol—we didn't even see them—so we really didn't know what was going to happen. And we only rehearsed for two days in Nashville. I was really proud of everybody because everyone did their pre-work and really was pro.
Just how did everything come together for this show? It evolved over a period of six months. Last summer, I met Carl Broemel from MMJ, and Carl introduced me to Jim and asked me if I would sit in with those guys at Red Rocks [Amphitheatre] in Colorado. So we went down to Red Rocks and hung out with the band and I sat in with them on the encore, and there was just a chemistry there, a really good vibe. About a month or two later, Jim had been asked to host the Superjam and his manager called me...then Jim and I started conceptualizing...I said, "Let's have the superstars be our guests. Let's have a core band that is totally locked down and ready to go," because you can take the best five or six musicians in the world and put them in the room, and they won't necessarily make a great band. The chemistry and synergy of a band has more to do with time spent together and mentally knowing each other. So it kind of happened organically, but with a lot of planning and thought.
John Oates, from left, R. Kelly and Jim James perform at the Bonnaroo 2013 Superjam on June 15, 2013, in Manchester, Tennessee. (Photo by Douglas Mason/Getty Images.) In addition to Bonnaroo, you've been busy working on your newest project, "Good Road to Follow"—can you tell us more about that? It's a series of collaborations with all people I love. Moving and traveling are themes for me, both physically and creatively, and that's where the title came from. I came up with the idea of releasing a series of singles, and the idea of taking a musical journey seemed to make sense. And because it's not an album and there's no necessity to have continuity or flow or consistency, each song stands on its own.
The first single just came out with a pop band called Hot Chelle Rae; I've known two of the boys in this group since they've been about 6 or 7 years old because I used to write songs for their dad. We wrote a song together in the studio—"High Maintenance"—and then I said, "I want to record it exactly like you guys would make a modern pop record." I wanted to go into their world, so to speak.
Watch John Oates and Hot Chelle Rae perform "High Maintenance":
Then there are two very, very different songs that I've done with Jim Lauderdale, who's an amazing songwriter known for his country and bluegrass music. One song's called "Six Men," the idea for which came to me during Jam Cruise last year. My wife and I were getting off the boat in Jamaica, and we had a van driver pick us up and drive us from the boat to the airport, so we're in the van and he was talking to us in the rear-view mirror and telling us about how he drives famous people around all the time, and how they think they're this or that, and saying, "Who do they think they are?" It wasn't angry, it was kind of just his observation. Then we stop at the airport, and he turns around and looks at me and says, "Look, just remember, no matter who you are, in the end, six men are gonna lay you down." And that was the song. That's how it started. "Six Men" addresses the fact that no matter what you achieve or how self-important you might think you are, we are all the same as human beings in the end, and the value of your soul is all that matters.
We're sure you get this question about Hall & Oates all the time, but what potential is there for a reunion between you and Daryl? Well, I never say never, but it's highly doubtful. We have been together for over 40 years and we have made an incredible legacy of music, but we have this huge problem: We have too many hits. I know that may sound stupid, but it's not, and I'll tell you why: When we play, people come to hear those hits, and we can't even play all of our hits in one set. So it's like the "handcuffs of success"—we have to respect our audience because even though we've played a song a million times, that's what they're coming for. So we do that, but at the same time, we have an unbelievable catalogue of music.
Watch a video about Hall & Oates' historic "We Are the World" session.
Are you interested in collaborating with any other artists at the moment? Yes. Absolutely. All the time. I love what Alabama Shakes is doing—it's kind of like what grunge did to rock 'n' roll, they're doing to R&B. Brittany [Howard] grew up in an old-school musical family, so that music was part of her DNA, but she brings a youthful energy and a new-generation perspective to it. I think unique collaborations are what's going to set artists apart in the future; I think that's the way the world's going. There's just so much out there. There's so much going on. You just have to.
What artists/musical styles have been most influential to you? Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Curtis Mayfield, the Temptations, Mississippi John Hurt, Doc Watson and Dave Van Ronk. In terms of style, I kind of have a split musical personality. I've got my kind of old school R&B side, which goes back as far as early rock 'n' roll through Memphis, Chicago and Philly, and then I've got my rootsy, traditional Americana music that goes back to folk, blues, Delta blues and Appalachian—and it's a blending of those two things that is what I think I do. That's me.
Remembering your iconic mustache from the '80s, if you could have any celebrity's 'stache today, whose would it be? Putting on someone else's 'stache would be like wearing someone else's old underwear. Yuck!
"Good Road to Follow" also includes collaborations with Vince Gill, Jim James, Preservation Hall, George Porter Jr. of the Meters, Ryan Tedder, Sam Bush and Jeff Black. For more on John Oates, visit johnoates.com.