Published October 2022 in RANGE
by Yasmine Shemesh
John Rzeznik just woke up in a hotel room in New York, his home state, where Goo Goo Dolls are currently touring. Finally being on the road again feels really good, the frontman exhales, speaking to RANGE over Zoom. The alternative rock band had to postpone this outing twice due to the pandemic. Now, they’re supporting the release of their 13th studio album, Chaos in Bloom. It’s a milestone for Goo Goo Dolls in many ways and an important entry in their catalog. It’s not only an album that showcases the band’s mastery at capturing the emotional gravitas of the human condition while holding a mirror up to the complicated world we live in. It’s also the most ambitious work they’ve released in their recent history. Memorable melodies and layered instrumentation form a dynamic and compelling musical landscape in which Rzeznik’s distinctive voice — powerful, throaty, and as emotive as ever — belts to big choruses. More than anything, though, it maintains an uncompromising spirit that recalls Goo Goo Dolls’ roots.
Before breaking through in the late 90s with their landmark album, Dizzy Up the Girl (1998), which gave era-defining hits like “Slide,” “Black Balloon,” and, of course, “Iris,” Rzeznik and co-founder, bassist, and vocalist Robby Takac were just a band in Buffalo determined to make it. They hung posters on telephone poles, rented out halls because local clubs wouldn’t book them, and got the college radio station to play their band’s songs. There wasn’t a music scene in Buffalo that accepted them, so they created their own. “If we were going to follow the rules that were laid down in front of us and the limitations of that, we were never going to get anywhere,” Rzeznik says.
Goo Goo Dolls formed in 1986. The band had a punk-leaning sound in those days, as heard on early albums like 1989’s Jed and 1993’s Superstar Car Wash. But their influences always ranged widely. Rzeznik loved The Descendents and Buzzcocks as much as he loved Depeche Mode, Peter Gabriel, and Bruce Springsteen. “There’s a pretty wide scope of music that I was listening to, from metal to dance music,” Rzeznik remembers. “I just liked whatever song had a good hook, you know? A lot of it had a huge influence on me. I was more a fan of songs than bands.”
“Eleanor Rigby” was probably the first to really blow him away. Rzeznik was in grade three the first time he heard the Beatles song. There was something about those classical strings, those arrangements of violin, viola, and cello, that was so compelling, even to a kid. Songs like that—which Rzeznik heard courtesy of his four older sisters “who bought the records in the house,” he laughs—would shape the music he liked and the way he’d write.
That varied foundation holds a significant presence on Chaos in Bloom, which, musically, has an experimental palette that feels refreshing and playful despite the album’s more serious lyrical themes (more on those in a minute). It’s a credit to Rzeznik, who produced the record himself—the first time he’s done so in full for Goo Goo Dolls—in a deliberate effort to retain creative autonomy.
“I had a lot of ideas of my own and I wanted to get my ideas across as much as I could,” he says. “I was able to actually play in the studio—play in the sense of, I’m going to experiment with this piece of equipment or I’m going to hang a microphone off the ceiling and try to get a cool sound out of it. Just things that most producers don’t want to do anymore because it’s cost prohibitive, because there’s no record budgets anymore. So we decided to go for it. And I was very cognizant of that, well, you may not get a song on the radio or you may not have a hit on this record. But it’s like, who cares? I want to enjoy this. I’m at a point in my life where I need to enjoy whatever time there is left in doing this. And we had a lot of fun.”
It begs the question, of course: after all this time, why is this only the first Goo Goo Dolls record Rzeznik has produced? He pauses for a second. “Because I started to doubt my own ability to get my message across,” Rzeznik answers. “I had a rough time with a record executive and it got very discouraging. And I actually really started to doubt myself as a writer, because no matter what I did, it was not good enough for this person. So, I started to rely on other people a lot more and I think a bit of the message got lost in that. It’s embarrassing to say, but I had to shake this off. And doing it this way, I think, was the best way because it was a big risk. And you gotta take a big risk.”
Chaos in Bloom was recorded at Dreamland Studios, a historic space set in an old church built in 1896 and located on the edge of the Onteora Lake Trail, just outside Woodstock. Rzeznik, Takac, and their bandmates stayed at the house on the property, sharing meals and spending their days writing and recording. “There was a free-flow of energy there,” Rzeznik describes of the studio atmosphere, which lent itself to the band’s creative process and encouraged them to approach things in ways they normally wouldn’t. Rzeznik remembers walking into the live room one day and finding drummer Craig Macintyre at the piano. He had no idea Macintyre could play so well. “That’s really good,” Rzeznik said. “Let’s make that into a song.”
It became “You Are the Answer,” a melodic rock ballad about love during times of difficulty that starts out minimally, just keys and Rzeznik’s voice, then builds with roaring guitar and spontaneous tambourine. It’s an album standout and captures a live-off-the-floor energy that flows through the record, another intentional choice. Rzeznik listened to live recordings of the band before going into the studio, comparing those versions with their album counterparts. He found himself preferring the live renditions. “There’s a little more aggression, a little more energy on them,” he says. “That’s what needed to be captured in the studio.”
It fuels Chaos in Bloom’s charged subject matter, which grapples with the state of our modern world. “My faith in everything has definitely been challenged, especially over the past five or six years, where there has been a sea change in political discourse and society,” Rzeznik says. It’s hard to make sense of it, all at once. Rzeznik is impassioned as he talks about pandemic uncertainty, how it was weaponized and politicized; the civil unrest; the obscenely unequal concentrations of wealth; now, the attack on women’s rights, with the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade. He expresses his disbelief at the ways in which, more and more, our society feels like a dystopia—a world his five-year-old daughter is growing up in.
“The political system is just such bullshit and it’s all broken,” he says, exasperated.
“I think we are, in this country, involved in a huge power struggle for the soul of who we are. That’s where a lot of the songs [on Chaos in Bloom] came from, without being blatant in certain ways.”
Take “Yeah, I Like You,” for example. With revved-up guitar and a sing-along chorus, it’s a piece of satire poking fun at internet celebrity. But, at the core, it is concerned with how inextricable we’re becoming with social media and technology.
“I don’t want [my daughter] getting her value from how many people ‘like’ her video,” Rzeznik says. “That is so unhealthy. Self-esteem has ‘self’ attached to the front of it because it’s what you believe about yourself. It’s an inside job. Something that you need to have strength when the world is trying to beat you down. You have to be able to stand up on your own. You’re born with this completely authentic person. And I just want my kid to be herself before anything else.”
Still, there’s hope. It’s an anchor in songs like “Let the Sun,” a slow-burning acoustic ballad about power corruption (Mean man / Take a seat, man / Why don’t you let somebody else / Try to speak, man?) that explodes into a shimmering concluding reprise: Let the sun come back again (come back again, come back again). “I think I’m cautiously optimistic about things,” Rzeznik considers. “You gotta have a little bit of hope. I mean, when you look around at the world, people who have no hope, that’s when crazy, desperate things start to happen. Everyone deserves to have hope.”
And to maintain human connection—it’s imperative to a meaningful life, he adds. “I believe that people need to get out and get together and interface with each other real-time,” Rzeznik laughs. “You know, analog!”
Speaking of which: Rzeznik collects vintage recording equipment, some that date back to the ‘30s, and vintage guitars. For Chaos in Bloom, he wanted to capture that feeling, the kind you can only get with those instruments recorded to tape. So that’s what Goo Goo Dolls did. There are modern elements to the album, too—“At some point in time, you have to dump a lot of what you’ve done into a computer to sort of wrangle it all together”—but Rzeznik wanted to ensure that feeling was there. “I don’t want to make something that’s pristine. I like adding dirt to everything. I’m very much into distortion and harmonic content that you can only get—a noise, just, noise—from a guitar amplifier hissing in the background before the music comes in.” Rzeznik had also been listening to Oasis and The Rolling Stones as he began thinking about the record. “I’m just like, oh my god, they sound incredible, but, man, it’s chaos! Especially the old Stones records, when you hear how out of time and out of key they are. But it works. It’s greasy and it has soul. And that’s what modern music production is doing its best to just completely strip out in sterilized quantities.”
You can hear those big, electric, Oasis-like guitars on “Superstar,” wrapping around lines like, I think the world spins ’round you / You make me feel so weightless, oh / Teach me to fly so high like you, which is representative of Rzeznik’s gift for writing timeless, poetic songs that reach right into your soul. “You try to read a lot,” he says of nurturing his craft. “And you listen to a lot of other musicians. And read poetry, which sometimes is very difficult. It’s like sitting there reading poetry. Ugh!” Rzeznik laughs. “But just making observations. Keeping your ears open to what brilliant things come out of people’s mouths every day.”
Of course, some of Rzeznik’s most beautiful lines appear on “Iris,” the magnificent, mandolin-driven, Grammy-nominated hit that launched the band to international acclaim: “Yeah, you bleed just to know you’re alive / And I don’t want to the world to see me, ‘cause I don’t think that they’d understand.” The ballad, initially written for the City of Angels soundtrack, has endured as one of the most iconic alternative rock songs of the 90s—and one of the greatest pop songs of all time—and is Goo Goo Dolls’ signature. It’s one of those rare songs that remains profoundly relatable for how it depicts universal feelings of loneliness, of feeling like you don’t belong, of yearning for love. “Iris” has been covered by everyone from New Found Glory to Phoebe Bridgers and Maggie Rogers, and recently reached one billion streams on Spotify.
“That song came from a very intense time in my life,” Rzeznik says. “I was living in a hotel in Los Angeles after I got divorced from my first wife. It was fun and sad all at the same time: the excitement of having a career that was finally starting to take off, but then the sadness of this 10 year relationship ending simultaneously, and they were just butting against each other. The circumstances, I think, had a lot to do with creating that piece of music.”
Rzeznik is proud of how widely “Iris” resonates. It’s part of an enduring legacy Goo Goo Dolls has built around a pure and true love for their craft—of chasing the possibilities of where music can go emotionally and creatively. “I still get excited when I’m sitting there, just noodling on a guitar and something, boom!, pops out of it that I think sounds cool or feels cool and the hair on my arms stands up,” Rzeznik says. As the world changes, and as the music business changes, sometimes you have to reframe your definitions of success, he adds pragmatically. ”To me, at this point in my life, failure is quitting. That’s it. That’s the only way I can fail; if I stop, if I give up. [Music] is kind of a selfish process and that has to be fulfilled. And you hope that you stay in touch with the world enough so that people can relate to what you’re creating.”