Women in Music 2016

John Oates Talks Rock Hall, Touring & Upcoming Jam Session With Miguel, Win Butler

Misha Vladimirskiy/FilterlessCo
John Oates hangs out during Outside Lands 2013.

Guitarist/singer/producer/songwriter John Oates, half of famed duo Hall & Oates, will serve as musical director for PoWoW! A Live Superstar Mashup, set for March 5 at the Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival in Lake Okeechobee, Fla. Produced by longtime Bonnaroo SuperJam director Paul Peck, now one of the producers of OkeeFest, PoWoW will feature Grammy-winning vocalists Miguel and Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler as co-creative directors who, with Oates, will lead a genre-busting band of master musicians that includes Kamasi Washington, George Porter, Jr., and Zigaboo Modeliste, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Chris Karns, and Eric Krasno and Neal Evans.

Hall & Oates will also perform at OkeeFest, part of a summer Live Nation tour that will take the Rock & Roll Hall of Famers across America with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue on board, beginning May 13 at Gexa Energy Pavilion in Dallas. Billboard spoke with Oates, who splits his time between his Nashville and Colorado homes (and the road), about what it takes to put the PoWoW together, the ongoing Hall & Oates renaissance, and the art of collaboration.

So you're the musical director of PoWoW at OkeeFest, what does that entail?

This is pretty crazy stuff, I'm working on it every day already, I'm jumping in there. It's like corralling cats, you've got a lot of great, talented, amazing players, all of whom are busy, and all of whom have an idea of what they want to do and how they want to do it, and I've got to be the guy who kind of tries to pull it together. It's a lot of logistical stuff in addition to the musical stuff.

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How did this opportunity come your way?

In 2013, Paul [Peck] asked Jim James from My Morning Jacket to be the host and curator of the Super Jam at Bonnaroo, and Jim had an idea where he wanted to do this rock/soul kind of thing. I had jammed and sat in with My Morning Jacket a few times, and had become friends with them, and Jim reached out to me and asked if I could help them pull those elements together. So I jumped on board with Jim, and Jim and I put that whole show together, with Larry Graham from Sly and the Family Stone, Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes, we got R. Kelly and Billy Idol. It just became this big thing, and I used a few folks from the Nashville solo rhythm section, Kevin McEndree and Steve Mackey, we had [The Meters'] Zig [Modeliste] on drums, we had the Preservation Hall guys. We pulled that off in a really cool way, and it was one of the best things I've ever done, I'll never forget it. So when it came time for this one, Paul reached out to me and said, ‘hey, do you want to jump in on this thing with Win Butler from Arcade Fire and Miguel?" I was a little hesitant, because I knew how much work it entailed, but Paul said he wanted this one to be a bit looser, a bit more jammy and dancey, and I said, "OK, I'll give it a try." So I jumped in, now I'm in the middle of it, and we're gonna pull it off.

Can you give me an idea of the musical direction?

It's gonna be… I'm not sure what it's gonna be, yet. I'm still waiting to get input from a few of the guys, but so far it's going to be an amazing collection of incredible players. We've got George Porter Jr. on bass, we've got Zig on drums, so right there we've got a great foundation. We've got the Preservation Hall guys, so I know them. I met with Miguel last week, and we kind of fleshed out a set list, and now I'm waiting for a few other components to add their two cents. It's going to be a combination of R&B, rock, classic rock, and we're going to try to tie it together with a DJ kind of thing. I don't know how it's going to work, but we'll make it work.

Isn't that kind of the beauty of it, working without a net?

You're right, it is, that's what you do. There's certain things that you have to have nailed down, the nuts and bolts kind of stuff, but once you have that, you just have to have a leap of faith and just hope that you can pull it off.

How difficult was it to get a basic set list together?

One of the hardest things is to get started. When you're going to do a jam like this, where you can pull from any song in the universe, that's a lot of material to go through. You have to have a focus, and Miguel and Win both had similar ideas: they wanted to do something where they incorporated classic rock and R&B with a more modern hip-hop and dance sensibility. So that was the rules going in, and we've worked around that.

Did you know these guys before this?

No, I didn't know either of those two guys. I know of them, but I didn't know them. All the other guys I knew, I'm just taking recommendations from people, Eric Krasno is going to be a second guitar player and he has a hip-hop DJ he's worked with he's bringing in. There's going to be some new elements for sure, I think this particular show is going to be heavy on percussion. If you're gonna have a dance party you better have a groove, right? These guys are pros and they'll do a great job.

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Collaboration is sort of the foundation of your career, right?

I have learned to become a collaborator over the years. It started out, of course, many, many years ago with Daryl and our collaboration, learning how to do that, learning how to be a team player and be part of something is a big part of this. In Nashville, it's all about collaboration, working with people, every songwriting session is unique kind of experience with collaboration, because everyone's a little bit different. It depends on the roles you're playing. Sometimes when you're collaborating, you steer it, and other times you're trying to help someone get to where they want to go. Those roles change constantly, and that's a big part of it, knowing when to drive the bus and when to just help out.

Your summer tour with Sharon Jones & Dap Kings and Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, that sounds like a party.

It's going to be an amazing show, and I'm so glad those guys jumped on board with us, I love both those bands, I think it brings kind of a youthful energy to what we do. We know those guys, I've jammed with Trombone Shorty and those guys, and Daryl's had Sharon Jones on his TV show ["Daryl's House"], so there's as connection there. We really like it when there's a connection, we don't like just doing these random things where you just put something together for business purposes.

Hall & Oates were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, what does that mean to you?

To be honest with you, I think it meant a lot more to other people. It's a validation of career accomplishment, but our lives would have gone on just fine without it. Having it I guess is just like a doctor hanging up another shingle in his office.

You studied journalism, right?

Yeah, I was a journalism major at Temple University.

So what would you ask you?

(Laughing) That's a really good question. I would say I'd ask why, after all these years, is it worth doing this sort of thing, and what do you get out of it. And there's really only one answer to that: it's an appreciation of talent and not wasting an opportunity that doesn't come around very often. I think what every creative person yearns for and dreams of is having creative freedom. Everyone wants it, very few get it. The success of Daryl and I with Hall & Oates has provided me and Daryl with this unique ability to have complete creative freedom. We have this thing that we do together that supports everything, and then our individual things are completely wide open for basically anything. That's a really amazing and unique place to be, so what I want to do is be an example for other people to not waste that opportunity, to make the most of it, and do everything I can to enjoy and explore and celebrate that creative freedom. Not many people get it, and I have it, so I don't want to waste it.

Man, that was as good question and better answer, but I'm glad you didn't stick with the journalism thing, were better off for it.

Well, I'm in the process of writing a memoir with a co-writer, so I'm getting my journalism chops back a little bit.

Do you have anything else in the pipeline?

There's going to be a memorial at Music City Winery [in Nashville] on Feb. 26 for [late guitarist] Pete Huttlinger. I'm gonna go and say a few words, because he was a good friend of mine, and it was an incredible loss, for guitar players especially, and for musicians in general. That's going to be a cool thing for people who want to honor his life.