By Larry Widen Special to OnMilwaukee Published Nov 01, 2022 at 10:31 AM Photography: Claire Marie Vogel

"And I'd give up forever to touch you
'Cause I know that you feel me somehow
You're the closest to heaven that I'll ever be
And I don't want to go home right now"

- John Rzeznik, “Iris”

The Goo Goo Dolls released a new album, "Chaos in Bloom," earlier this summer. Shortly after that, the hit song “Iris” topped one billion streams on Spotify. Not bad for a group once labeled "the best band no one’s heard of."

Led by singer-songwriter John Rzeznik, the Goo Goo Dolls currently have 19 hit singles and sales of 15 million albums worldwide to their credit. The band came together in 1986 in Buffalo, New York, and forged a sound that combined punk, hard rock and alt rock. The following year they were picked up by a small record label who released their self-titled first album.

In 1995, the band broke into the mainstream with “Name," a hit single that Rzeznik calls "a very personal, very confessional kind of song." In a recent interview with OnMilwaukee, Rzeznik talked about the band’s early days, his process for writing songs and what the audience can expect when Goo Goo Dolls performs at The Pabst Theater on Nov. 2.

OnMilwaukee: What was it like forming a band in Buffalo?

John Rzeznik: It was difficult because we couldn’t find places to play. All the clubs at that time wanted cover bands, and we just didn’t want to do that. We included a few covers in our set, like Prince’s “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” or “Down on the Corner” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, stuff that we liked. But those were ways to fill out our set, you know? The music scene in Buffalo wasn’t right for us in the early '80s. There were no alt-rock clubs then, so we created our own. We rented a hall, put up the posters ourselves, anything to create some awareness for the music we wanted to play. That’s risky because you never know if anyone’s going to listen. But we were lucky. People began coming to the shows and the band caught fire.

Why did you want to be a musician?

I was 13 or 14 when I heard my first punk rock records. Stuff like The Ramones, The Replacements, Husker Du, The Clash. I loved those bands because it wasn’t the typical grandiose junk that was being played then. Punk appealed to me because it sounded like real people playing music. I latched onto it because of that. Honestly, I was kind of a square peg, you know? 

By the time “Name” was released, you had already moved into a distinctive style that allowed you to express yourself differently.

Yeah, definitely. Thank God the music business wasn’t like it is now. Executives in the music business saw our potential and aligned us with people who could help us grow. I don’t think that exists anymore, someone saying, "I’ll take a chance on two or three records and see where it goes."

It seems like musicians have to be great right away now. There’s no opportunity to fail.

You said that very succinctly. That’s why there are 19 writers working on every song. If you’re not given a chance to fail, you’ll never learn anything. Success is built on a series of failures. There’re so many talented artists out there right now. Young people with vision and tenacity will always shine and come out on top. They may not be able to live in a mansion on a hill anymore, but at least they’re doing something they love.

Where does your inspiration to write come from?

It just comes. Sometimes you have to chase it, but it comes. I try to be sensitive to the moment when the opportunity presents itself. That’s the moment when there’s a spark and I’ll say, "OK, John, now get to work." Sometimes an idea comes from a line in a movie, or something in a conversation. I like to get in the car and drive. I keep a little tape recorder with me, and I’ll just start singing whatever comes to mind. Inspiration is everywhere. 

Why does "Iris" continue to be such a mainstay in your live shows?

I think it’s a song everyone can relate to in some way. This guy is willing to give up immortality so he can be human and feel pain. Life can be very painful and heartbreakingly beautiful at the same time. “Iris” catches that moment.

As a rock song, the lyrics are very poignant. A romantic poet could have written them 200 years ago.

Wow! Thank you very much!

How does a band hang together over four decades?

We view the band as a partnership, and you live up to your agreements. There’s a need to compromise, and we all know that. You’re never going to get everything you want, so don’t even try. It all comes down to respecting each other.

Does that extend to the creative output?

Yeah, I think so. Robby (Takac) and I are like sovereign nations. (Laughs) We don’t write a lot together because art isn’t something to be done by a committee. He has his vision, and I have mine. But it works. This band is not going to be divided into factions. I’m not going to play that game. Robby’s a good partner, and we can be honest with each other. I’ve got a drawer full of songs that weren’t good enough to go on an album.

You’re touring in support of “Chaos in Bloom," the band’s 13th album.  

I did the bulk of the production on this album, so it has my sound. I learned how to produce an album along the way, but this is the first time I did it myself. When I got in over my head, I reached out to friends and other producers for help. It’s like, I hear the part in my head, but I’m not a good enough musician to play it. I’m an uneducated musician who stepped out of the garage a long time ago and began singing and writing songs of my own.

Does the current setlist draw from all phases of the band, or does it primarily focus on just current and recent songs?

We’ll go back as far as the early '90s, but nothing from the first couple albums. We were babies when we made those. (Laughs) We’ll do stuff the fans want to hear. We could say we’re playing the entire “Chaos in Bloom” album, but that would be self-indulgent. We’re entertainers and people pay a lot of money to see the show. The last thing we want to do is disappoint them.

I’m so glad to be back in Milwaukee. It reminds me of my hometown of Buffalo. We’ve played at Summerfest, which is such fun. I’m not blowing smoke. I love Milwaukee, the people, the food and the SafeHouse. I know the SafeHouse is for tourists – but hey, I’m a tourist!