Tracking Down is a Stereogum franchise in which we talk to artists who have been out of the spotlight for a minute.
You don’t have to have been alive in 1998 to instantly recognize that jangly mandolin, swelling strings, and those crisp acoustic chords. The Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris,” a single written for the late-’90s Nic Cage-Meg Ryan cryfest City Of Angels, continues its ubiquity, even 20 years after it first dominated the airwaves. Turn on any soft-rock station, hit the grocery store, or visit a dentist’s office — you might just hear lead singer John Rzeznik’s gravelly croon.
And if it’s not “Iris,” it could be one of a string of other Clinton-era classics, many of which show up on the Buffalo group’s sixth, breakout record, Dizzy Up The Girl, which turns 20 years old tomorrow. Rzeznik, who has faithfully put out album after album since the band’s inception in 1986 (their 11th effort, Boxes, came out in 2016), has nothing but profound appreciation for the music that made him and his Dolls partner, bassist Robby Takac, famous. Not only is he more than happy to play songs like “Black Balloon,” “Slide,” and “Broadway” (among others) as many times as audiences want to hear them, but he’s still positive that every show he plays is going to be his last.
“A lot people don’t remember that Robby and I put out five records before that record came out,” Rzeznik tells me, referencing the band’s earlier, edgier material, like 1989’s Jed and 1993’s Superstar Car Wash. “[So] I’m convinced every time I walk out on stage [that] this is the last dollar I’m ever going to make. So I’d better do it right.”
“The good part about being a pessimist is, when something bad happens, you’re never really devastated by it,” he continues. “And when something good happens, it’s such a bonus.”
Contrary to his fatalistic outlook, Rzeznik will hit the road again, and soon, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Dizzy Up The Girl. The band will play the album in full at a series of North American concerts beginning 9/30. But first Rzeznik chatted with me to reminisce about Dizzy; feeling awkward around Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, and Bruce Springsteen; playing the MTV Beach House; and why he never expected to start a family or even live past 50.
STEREOGUM: Tell me about the live album, The Audience Is This Way, you released this summer.
JOHN RZEZNIK: We recorded 100 shows, then we had to go dig through all of them and find the best ones or eliminate the worst ones. Then we kind of put it together. It was over the course of a few years. So it’s interesting to hear some of the audiences are really big and some of them are small. That was something that the record company wanted us to do. We’re going to put it out just on vinyl. It goes back; all of our tours go back. We always play new music, but you know you have to play all the hits. I always think that’s really sort of an insult to the audience if you don’t play them the songs that they know.
STEREOGUM: It seems like you have an especially good relationship with your hits from the ’90s and early ’00s.
RZEZNIK: Yeah. My god, a lot of people actually liked a few songs I wrote. I mean that’s pretty amazing.
STEREOGUM: You and the band are preparing to go on tour for the 20th anniversary of Dizzy Up The Girl. But the Goo Goo Dolls were putting out records for a decade prior to that. What do you think about when you look back at 30 years of Goo Goo Dolls?
RZEZNIK: “Holy shit, I’m old” is the first thing I think of. It’s like, my god, I’ve never done anything else in my life. I’ve been in this band longer than I haven’t been in this band. It’s pretty crazy to think about that.
STEREOGUM: What keeps you invested in it?
RZEZNIK: You know what, it still feels good to do. It still feels right and people still want to come see us. It would be silly not to do it, you know? It beats working for a living.
STEREOGUM: That’s the dream, when your work never really feels like work.
RZEZNIK: Yeah, my job is really pretty awesome, actually. I mean it’s getting a little more difficult at times; it tries my patience a little bit more because I just want to be where my daughter is. She’s so much fun, man, and I don’t get to see her all the time. We FaceTime every day. It’s sweet but it’s kind of heartbreaking at the same time. This kid is so cool. It’s so strange to be talking about that. I mean, I never would have thought about that 20 years ago when this record came out.
STEREOGUM: At what point did you start thinking about kids?
RZEZNIK: I didn’t think about having kids until like I was 48, 49 years old. I was just sort of like, “Why do I want this?” I mean, I spent 10, maybe like 12 or 13 years being completely soused all the time. I was a very selfish alcoholic/addict kind of guy just kind of doing my thing and I had no room in my life for anything or anybody except my music and my drinking. After I got cleaned up and stayed that way for a while, it just sort of naturally fell into place.
STEREOGUM: I was going back and reading some interviews you did around the time that Dizzy Up the Girl came out.
RZEZNIK: I can’t imagine what kind of bullshit came out of my mouth.
STEREOGUM: A lot of it was pretty introspective. In a 1999 interview for Teen People, you were talking about your upbringing and your dad and getting out of Buffalo. You talked about how you found music as a late teen and how it saved you from being drunk all of the time and how you never wanted to end up like your father.
RZEZNIK: Yeah, and being like everyone I grew up with. I mean my mother always wanted us to be individuals. She always instilled that into our brains which was incredibly painful for an adolescent to deal with. But I mean I started life as the odd guy out because I was the only boy in my family. My dad wasn’t around a lot so it was like from day one I got carried in the door and I wasn’t like anybody else. It put this kind of distance between me and them. I’m close to my sisters but I would never be as close as they would be with each other.
STEREOGUM: But then in more recent interviews, you’ve talked about the fact that you still spent a lot of years not being sober.
RZEZNIK: There was a point in time where I really believed that I was supposed to die like my father, which is basically prematurely and very drunk. I thought my destiny was to drink myself to death. I didn’t think I would live past 50 because he didn’t live past 50. It took me a long time. I was sober three years by the time I said, “I’m not my father. I don’t have to live his life.”
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting that you would think that even when your life became so radically different from your father’s.
RZEZNIK: My life was nothing like my father’s. But that was one of the main reasons that two of my sisters and I never thought that we would have kids. I think a lot of it had to do with the chaotic upbringing that we had. [But] you know, I met the right person.
STEREOGUM: It’s remarkable that you and Robby Takac have been playing together, and truly remained friends, for this long. I think that’s a rarity in the music world. Egos tend to get in the way.
RZEZNIK: Yeah, it’s pretty rare. Robby and I, we definitely had a lot of fights. Everybody had to learn how to respect each other’s boundaries and just not get into any of this peripheral bullshit rock star behavior with each other. It’s like, you hear about all these bands that are huge and they have to walk in separate doors, they can’t talk to each other, they’ve got to fly on different planes. It’s like, I understand we all need a break from each other, but I’m actually glad to see [him]. I still have breakfast with Robby every morning when we’re working or on tour. He and I get together and discuss what’s going on and have some coffee and hang out. It’s a good thing.
STEREOGUM: I thought that video you and Robby produced to announce the Dizzy Up The Girl anniversary tour, where you’re poking fun at yourselves and “Iris,” was pretty funny.
RZEZNIK: Yeah. You know, you have to. I don’t think it was tongue-in-cheek enough. I watched it and I went, “Uh I hope nobody will take this seriously.”
STEREOGUM: I hope no one DOES take it seriously.
RZEZNIK: It was definitely meant as a joke. Neither of us are actors. It was fun doing it. You’ve got to take the piss out of yourself.
STEREOGUM: It was endearing. Speaking of “Iris,” it’s a bit of an understatement to say that it was played a lot on the radio upon release, and years later. Did there ever come a point where you just couldn’t listen to it anymore?
RZEZNIK: No, no, no. Honest to god. I never once got sick of playing that song. People used to come up to me all the time and go, “I love that song man but I’m really sick of hearing it every two minutes.” I had to think to myself, I mean I was just trying to be modest with myself or whatever, but I’m grateful that something like that song came into my life. That song really literally changed my life and it certainly was a part of a lot of other people’s lives. To experience a gift like that is pretty amazing.
STEREOGUM: When all of this was going down, when Dizzy Up The Girl really hit it big, was there ever a point where you looked back and you were like, “Jesus, I can’t believe this happened?”
RZEZNIK: Yeah, it was pretty crazy. Like, standing in a room with Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts having a conversation with them like normal people and then thinking about it and going, “Wow, that was weird.”
Robby and I used to say to each other, “This is a really nice neighborhood we’re strolling through but let’s not get used to it because we’re musicians. We’re not celebrities. We’re musicians.” Eventually the shine wears off of you and you have to go back to work. If I wanted to be a celebrity, I wouldn’t have been a musician.
I’m grateful that the success we had came later because I’m sure either him or me would’ve died, because it was really heavy. A lot of parts that [came with fame] were very disingenuous. For example, I didn’t get any better looking, but all the girls that wanted to hang out with me got better looking. All of a sudden all these girls wanted to talk to me that never wanted to talk to me before. It’s like, okay, I’ll roll with it for a little while.
STEREOGUM: It’s funny you say that — I was watching this video earlier today of you guys playing at the MTV Beach House in 1999. Was that weird at the time? I mean, I know how odd I feel as a 31-year-old walking into Urban Outfitters. Was that at all weird just being in your early 30s and playing to just a giant crowd of 19-year-olds who are triple-kissing each other or whatever?
RZEZNIK: Yeah, a little bit, but you know there are worse things I could do with my life. I don’t think anybody really paid attention to the fact that we were 10 years older than them. Whenever I got involved in those situations, I would go in, I would sit on the bus or in the dressing room or wherever I was and then I would get called to do my bit and we would get out of there as fast as possible.
STEREOGUM: At the risk of being mobbed or something?
RZEZNIK: No. Just at the risk of, I don’t know, getting sucked into a weird scene. It was about sort of sensing the weird superficiality of the whole thing and being like, “Yeah, I’m here and I’m happy that I get to be here but like these are not my friends.” I still got the same friends I had from 30 years ago; they’re still my friends.
STEREOGUM: Well that’s kind fascinating that you can keep that mindset.
RZEZNIK: [Laughs] Well, I didn’t say we kept it 100% of the time.
STEREOGUM: Ha. So when “Iris” came out, did other studios come knocking down your door to write songs for their films?
RZEZNIK: A few. The director for City Of Angels, we sort of had a disagreement. I did two songs for a Disney movie which was probably the most incredible experience in my life, getting to work with all these people from Disney. They have a way that they work. When you go work for Disney, they give you a little book and you read this little book and it kind of tells you, “This is the way we do things” and you adhere to that set of rules or suggestions. It’s really fun. I was so blown away that a couple of hundred people could work together so closely for such a long period of time and really support each other and support the project to make it a success. I got caught up in that, “Come on, team. We’re going to be great!”
STEREOGUM: One other thing I always loved about Dizzy is that there’s so much orchestration. That’s what keeps those songs feeling classic to me. Whose decision was it to add string arrangements?
RZEZNIK: I had a producer that wanted to use strings and I finally had enough money to hire the string players.
STEREOGUM: Well, there you go. Here’s something else I always wondered. In the song “Slide,” you sing to a person named “May.” Who is “May”?
RZEZNIK: No one. Just a name that came out of my mouth in the studio.
STEREOGUM: Ah. You sing that name with such affection.
RZEZNIK: Thank you very much. I appreciate that. That song is very much East Side Story kind of thing. When I say East Side Story, I just mean I grew up on the east side of Buffalo. That was a not-so-apocryphal tale about some hard choices and dealing with a very rigid culture with a lot of demands put on the people who are part of that community, whether it was religious pressure, family pressure. It was really interesting to me to examine all those things.
STEREOGUM: Did you grow up with that sort of conservationism?
RZEZNIK: Everybody was a democrat where we grew up. It was a blue-collar town and the democrats represented the working class and the unions. But very, very super-conservative Catholic, very proud immigrant community, very stoic.
I remember meeting one of my father’s old friends after I had done a long interview and I mentioned some stuff about my family. I remembered him taking me aside and saying, “Listen, you don’t talk about your family like that in public. You don’t say nothing.”
I just sort of laughed about it because it was just like, yeah, it was so old school, that’s how it worked there. You keep that in the family and you don’t talk to anybody about it because you can’t lose your pride.
STEREOGUM: Well speaking of leaving home, you’ve done so much touring in your 30 years as a band. Looking at all of the acts you’ve hit the road with — the bubblegum-pop bands of the late ’90s and early ’00s, more radio-“alternative” groups, like Collective Soul, and even some legacy acts like Sheryl Crow and Bon Jovi — who stands out to you the most, if anyone?
RZEZNIK: I actually had a conversation with Bruce Springsteen and he said, “Hi, welcome to the family” because we were doing this show. I said, “Hi” and I shook his hand and I said, “I have no idea what to say to you.” He kind of laughed about it and walked away. I was like, “Well there you go Rzeznik, you missed your chance.”
STEREOGUM: He probably gets that a lot.
RZEZNIK: That guy’s a force of nature. I don’t know what that guy eats for breakfast, but I want some.
Goo Goo Dolls Tour Dates:
09/30 Phoenix, AZ @ The Van Buren
10/02 Houston, TX @ House of Blues
10/03 Dallas, TX @ House of Blues
10/05 Saint Louis, MO @ The Pageant
10/06 Indianapolis, IN @ Old National Centre – Murat Theatre
10/07 Nashville, TN @ Ryman Auditorium
10/09 Atlanta, GA @ Tabernacle
10/10 Charlotte, NC @ The Fillmore Charlotte
10/12 Philadelphia, PA @ The Fillmore
10/13 Washington, DC @ The Anthem
10/15 New York, NY @ Beacon Theatre
10/16 Red Bank, NJ @ Count Basie Theatre
10/17 Boston, MA @ House of Blues
10/19 Buffalo, NY @ Shea’s Performing Arts Center
10/20 Buffalo, NY @ Shea’s Performing Arts Center
10/21 Toronto, ON @ Rebel Complex
10/23 Detroit, MI @ The Fillmore Detroit
10/24 Grand Rapids, MI @ 20 Monroe Live
10/26 Chicago, IL @ Chicago Theatre
10/27 Minneapolis, MN @ State Theatre
10/28 Kansas City, MO @ Uptown Theater
10/30 Denver, CO @ Paramount Theatre
11/01 Salt Lake City, UT @ The Depot
11/03 Seattle, WA @ The Paramount Theatre
11/08 San Diego, CA @ House of Blues
11/09 Los Angeles, CA @ Hollywood Palladium
11/10 Las Vegas, NV @ The Joint