Hall & Oates is the most successful pop duo of all time -- commercially -- bigger than the Everly Brothers, Simon & Garfunkel, Ashford and Simpson, Loggins and Messina, Cheech and Chong, you name it.
What does John Oates make of that?
"It's a hollow achievement," he says in a phone interview. "We win by attrition, we win because we've managed to stay together longer than most of those people. So, yeah, we're the biggest-selling music duo of all time. OK. Move on."
That chart success started in a big way with the MTV era in 1980-81, but Hall & Oates, which performs a sold-out show at Stage AE tonight, goes all the way back to 1967 when the Daryl Hall and John Oates met as students at Temple University. They released a debut album on Atlantic Records in 1969 before hitting their stride with 1973's "Abandoned Luncheonette," which included such folk-rock gems as "She's Gone" and "Las Vegas Turnaround." To some fans, it's the ultimate Hall & Oates album. Mr. Oates is in that camp as well.
"I look back at 'Abandoned Luncheonette' as my favorite album that Daryl and I have ever done, without a doubt. It was the perfect storm of creativity. It was Daryl and I, having just moved to New York City, having been on the road for one year with our first solo album under our belt, having a great collection of musicians around us, and meeting Arif Mardin, who produced that album and was a production genius and a mentor, really. We wrote good songs, we had incredible musical support. I think that album was a more pure statement of where Daryl and I come from. It was a combination of my rootsy folk stuff with R&B and touches of rock. In that regard, it's the classic Hall & Oates album."
Of course, Hall & Oates fans turn out in droves these days to hear stuff from that classic album. Right?
"No," he says. "Not at all. I think our fans have gotten a lot younger, and I think our fans are more fixated on our hits of the '80s at this point. We have an incredible cross-section of an audience -- the really old guard fans, older people who have been around since the early '70s. And then we have an entirely new generation who have been turned on by [the webcast] 'Live From Daryl's House' and all the new bands that have been talking about us, and the resurgence and interest in the '80s."
Sure enough, whereas some '70s duos would have split or faded, Hall & Oates, who suffered a three-year slump after "Rich Girl" hit No. 1 in 1977, rebounded in 1980-81 by embracing the modern New Wave and reinventing themselves on five No. 1 hits, including "Kiss Is on My List," "Private Eyes" and "Maneater."
"We evolved through the era of the '70s in a lot of ways," Mr. Oates says. "First of all, in the middle of '70s we went to LA for about three or four albums only because the producer we were working with was living there and convinced us to do it. We were never very comfortable with it and really unhappy with it, but in retrospect, I look back on that period of time as what led us to our tremendous success in the '80s. It created the impetus for us to say, 'You know what, we're going to go back to New York and record with our own band. We're going to produce ourselves -- and that led to our success.
"MTV had just started. We were friends with the guys at MTV. They wanted us to be involved from the ground up. We were the first video guest VJs on the show. We had one of the first videos to be played. New York had a vibe that we bought into, and that was very streamlined pop. Just ... '80s. Look at the clothes, look at the styles and you'll know what it is. We started writing these songs that began to click and connect on radio, and we never saw that we were actually changing. That's where we were as songwriters, as artists."
Although a lot of veteran artists look back at that time, at that '80s sound, with some regret, Mr. Oates says, "Everybody bought into it. You have to remember, musicians are very, very much affected in the creative process by their tools, and you have to remember it was a very unique time. It was really the end of the analog era and the very birth of the digital era. We were straddling those two worlds, and so as these new digital recording devices and instruments became available, we of course adopted them immediately."
That doesn't mean he cringes when he has to play songs like "Maneater," as opposed to "Sara Smile."
"This is a complex subject," he says, "but if you distill the songwriting, if you strip away all the production of the various eras and just take the songs -- for instance, if I were to sit in a living room and play 'Sara Smile' on an acoustic guitar and play 'Maneater' on an acoustic guitar -- there's not really that much difference. It's our unique chord sensibilities and melodic sensibilities that we impose over our chords that make our songs what they are. The production is really window dressing and icing on the cake."
Despite the duo's winning formula over two solid decades, Hall & Oates have been on different tracks lately as recording artists. Mr. Hall released his fifth solo album, "Laughing Down Crying," last year, and The John Oates Band has been busy touring the rootsy album, "Mississippi Mile." Their last album together of original material -- setting aside a covers project and Christmas album -- was 2003's "Do it for Love."
"I think Daryl and I have created a body of work that stands the test of time, and for me, personally, I feel like the future of Hall & Oates is really our past. That may sound like a contradiction in terms, but it's really not. We've created so much music that I think there's material that people haven't even heard or appreciated. There's album tracks that are so interesting as far as I'm concerned, and our boxed set is a good representative of our career.
"For me, I feel like people want to hear a certain thing from Daryl and I, and we're proud of our past and happy to play that, but at the same time, we're constantly moving forward as creative people. We're not afraid to step back into [the past], but we don't want to live there."
Scott Mervis: email@example.com; 412-263-2576. Twitter: @scottmervis_pg.