An Interview with John Oates, Superjam Musical Director
John Oates’ musical feats can be measured in heavyweight numbers:
—eight Number One hits and 60 million records sold as a part of the powerhouse duo, Hall and Oates. But this summer, at his first-ever Bonnaroo, Oates will take on a new challenge that has a far less measurable metric for success. He will serve as musical director and on-stage performer for one of the festival’s Superjams, the ”Rock-n-Soul Dance Party,” featuring Jim James with special guests Larry Graham, Zigaboo Modeliste, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Bilal, and others to be announced. This gig is all about mystique and moving the crowd.
We spoke with Oates about how he envisions his role and what to expect from a band that he is helping to build with soul power, even if for onenightonly.
How did you get involved with this summer’s Superjam?
I was introduced to Carl Broemel from My Morning Jacket. Carl reached out to me when they were playing at Red Rocks, and asked if I wanted to come by and sit in. My wife and I went over to Red Rocks, and we hung out with the band and I played with them that evening. It was an awesome show. We just hit it off.
A few months later, I got a call from their manager saying that Jim James was going to host the Superjam. He wanted it to be a rock and soul kind of revue, and thought I would be a good person to be the musical director and pull it together. I think for a number of reasons—one, I’m old enough to know that music really well, and two, I’m fairly organized. I’ve obviously been with Daryl Hall for many years, putting on shows and putting bands together. I was very honored that they would ask me. I got excited about it and jumped right in.
When did you begin working on the line-up and plan for the show?
I went to work right away. I began to coordinate with Jim, and we discussed the style and started throwing songs together. About a month and a half ago, Jim had a little break, and I went up to Louisville and hung out with him and we really honed in on the set. In the meantime, we began to reach out to the various guests and to pull together a really incredible band. We basically have a house band, and then we plan to keep it loose and really spontaneous, with a lot of guest vocalists popping in and out.
It’s going to be a work in progress right up to the show itself. And that’s what makes it so exciting—we have a plan, but the plan has a lot of flexibility built into it. It’s reacting to the moment that makes Superjam so exciting and so cool for us on stage and for the audience. Because really, we’ll go in there with an idea, but who knows what will happen in the course of an evening?
Superjams are built around several significant relationships on stage that hold the experimental aspects of the show together. How has that worked for you in building the band?
This goes back to the moment I stepped on stage with My Morning Jacket at Red Rocks. We just had a ball. It was seamless, it was fun, it was kinetic and exciting. And I think that carries over. Since I’ve gotten to know Jim a lot better lately, he’s an incredibly amazing and creative person, and it’s his vibe and his reputation, combined with what I bring to the table—the two of us, we’re kind of the nexus, and then people start going, “Hey, I want to start playing with these guys.”
We got Larry Graham to play bass. That lends a certain type of authenticity. And then we got the Preservation Hall horns; those guys are just incredible, and they have a relationship with My Morning Jacket because they’ve done shows together. Then all this synergy starts to work together. We got Zig from the Meters [Zigaboo Modeliste], who is one of the great drummers of all time. He’s so unique and so well-respected that people hear these names and see this amazing collection of talents start to form. It’s like a solar system. It starts to suck in planets from outside.
This is a band that is forming now, over several months, but will only rehearse days before the show. How do you make sure that all goes smoothly?
In addition to my role as music director in terms of playing and singing, part of my job is to make sure the nuts and bolts are covered. There’s all these little fractional elements that have to come together. It’s like building a house, it all starts from the foundation. If you don’t have a good foundation, I don’t care how fancy the house looks above the ground, it’s not going to hold up, it’s going to fall apart. So the house band is the foundation and now that we have that foundation, all the fancy stuff is starting to come aboard.
What have you heard from others about playing Superjam? What are your expectations?
It’s a little bit daunting, but rather than look at it as something that’s intimidating, I look at it as a challenge. I want this to be the best Superjam that’s ever happened. Jim and I are on the same page—we want this to be mind-blowing, nothing less than that will be satisfactory. Why not reach for the stars when you’re doing something like this, that only happens once in a lifetime? Pedal to the metal, let’s go, and that’s what we’re going to do. I have no doubt in my mind, the kids are going to go crazy when they see this.
There are some great Philly Soul elements to the ensemble, as well as New Orleans and Nashville legends. What kind of range are you aspiring to?
When we started putting our song list together, that might have been the most challenging part. When you’re going to do a show like this, and you have the entire history of pop music at your disposal, where do you start, where do you stop? Every song is like a dream song. We kept saying, “Let’s do this, let’s do this, let’s do this,” and before we knew it, we had 30 songs. Jim and I looked at each other and said, “We can’t do 30 songs.” As it stands, we’re still doing a lot—the list stands at 21 songs, which is a lot of music. We’re going to get our money’s worth, no way around it. And keeping it open for people to just jump on stage because they happen to be there and turned on and want to participate is going to make it even better.
You have your own impressive and legendary catalog. Do you think of this show as a part of your body of work? Or will this be a crazy, funky one-off for the ages?
Right now, it’s a crazy, funky one-off. For me, it’s another notch in the belt, in terms of clicking off major career moments. Having played Madison Square Garden, playing the Apollo Theater, doing Live Aid—this is a really, really significant moment for me. I think what this gives me a chance to do is to bring all the experience I’ve garnered over 40 years of being a professional musician. No one else can do that, because they don’t have the breadth and experience, other than maybe Zig or Larry Graham. I think that it’s something special.
It feels like, even though I didn’t realize it, I’ve been preparing for this moment for a long time. I look at music, pop music in particular, as a growing legacy. I feel like I have my place in that thread, but at the same time, the thread continues—Jim James is how that thread continues, and Bilal, and people like that. I feel like I’m standing in the middle of it. So I think my biggest challenge on the night of the show might be to make sure that I’m so present, I don’t let a second of the experience pass me by.