By: Dennis Cook
When most bands hit their 40th anniversary they make a big deal about it, issuing grand statements, box sets and generally making sure folks take note. Not so with The Doobie Brothers, who hit the four decade mark this year and have chosen to focus on their first new studio album in 10 years, a European tour, festival appearances and their usual steady gigging around the States. Today's Doobies – original members Tom Johnston (vocals, guitar) and Pat Simmons (vocals, guitar) and John McFee (guitars, various stringed things) and longtime drummer Michael Hossack - are more excited than ever to be doing their thing.
|The Doobie Brothers 2010|
"This is just another year," chuckles Simmons. "[Anniversaries] are often a marketing ploy for a publicist or something. We're not interested in that."
"I can't remember half of the 40 years!" exclaims Johnston. "I'll tell you one thing I have noticed is the band's gotten better with time. Our live show's improved vastly – everybody's better on their instrument and people take the trouble to practice at home and work on their voices. I think our live show now is better than it's ever been. Another big plus is the guys in the band today. John adds so many musical ideas we'd never have come up with previously. He adds whole new dimensions to the band – slide, violin, fingerpicking, any number of things. I get comments after our shows, where people say, 'It looks like you guys are having a blast up there!' We are. We love getting people rollin' and rockin'."
There's a serious blue-collar ethic to the Brothers, where sweat, roadwork and genuine craftsmanship seriously matter. Each chapter in their history has been earned through honest labor, which imbues their music with something rich and real. After 40 years, it'd be easy enough to not put their shoulders into what they do, but that wouldn't be the Doobie way.
"I never think about the number of years we've been together. What's important is where you're at, right here, right now. If somebody asks me what my favorite song is I say, 'The one I'm working on right now.' Everything else is already done," says Johnston. "The most important thing is to move forward. I don't think this band has ever tried to take the easy way out. We've always been proud of what we do, but we don't sit around talking about it. We're always chipping away at it, trying to make music that sounds good."
Their new album, World Gone Crazy (released independently September 28 on HOR Records), is one of the strongest installments in a catalogue that stretches 13 studio albums deep. The record includes cameos from former Doobie Michael McDonald, Willie Nelson and Little Feat's Bill Payne, but it's the quality songwriting and ageless voices of Simmons and Johnston that ring out most loudly. World Gone Crazy is a fine mixture of familiar Doobies textures but it's also unmistakably the sound of the band moving forward, trying fresh things, stretching themselves.
"I think we weren't trying to copy ourselves or anything, but I think we knew it should sound like a Doobie Brothers record. We always just go in with the goal of making the best record we can but not this type or that type of record," says Simmons. "We wanted to go a little further on this record than on some earlier records because we didn't have a record company breathing down our necks. We did it with some independent funding and we're pretty excited about it. People are responding very appropriately to the new tracks in concert. They don't go crazy like with 'China Grove,' but they're listening really attentively and clapping along. And the reaction to the new songs after we play a show has been really strong."
"It's not a rubberstamp version of a Doobie Brothers album, but it's like a Doobie Brothers album because we have no limits. We took advantage of that and went some places we've never been before. I'm enjoying this album more than anything we've done in a long time," says Johnston. "I've always looked at our music this way – and maybe it's an oversimplification – we're basically an American band. We play stuff from all genres of American music – R&B, blues, rock 'n' roll, things that are sort of country, some things that are almost bluegrass. We cover a lot of areas and this [new] album is a good example of that. This album's definitely got some different stuff on it, but when people hear it they'll know who it is."
McDonald's guest turn on "Don't Say Goodbye" is one of the new album's standouts.
"Mike is such a consummate artist, and when I was working on the track I thought he'd be perfect. When he came in, it was so effortless. He knew exactly what I wanted. He brought his own viewpoint on the melody and the cadence and where to put the accents. He just nailed it," says Simmons. "When I started working on that track I felt it had a Steely Dan kind of vibe, and I thought how much I'd love to hear Mike's voice with a lady's voice like on 'Peg' and 'Aja.' So I asked his wife [Amy Holland-McDonald] to come in and sing with him to create that effect. I told him straight out, 'I'd like it to sound like the stuff you did for Donald and Walter.' I also had Gail Swanson at the session, who's just great, and I had the two ladies sing with Mike, and they found the sound I'd been searching for."
World Gone Crazy reunites the band with producer Ted Templeman, who helmed the majority of the group's amazing run of 1970s releases.
"Ted's most important contribution was picking the tunes. We didn't have a producer on our previous album, Sibling Rivalry (2000), and I wasn't comfortable doing that. With four different singers and songs going everywhere, it's a challenge. With [World Gone Crazy], I sat down in my studio with Ted with about 70 songs on my hard drive and he helped find the right ones," says Johnston. "This album took about three years to make, which normally might not be a good thing but it gave me the chance to finish some songs I was ready to throw away, including 'A Brighter Day' [the album's lush, inviting opener]. I called Billy Payne to come play keyboards on a couple songs. In three days, he lifted ['A Brighter Day'] to a place it'd never been before, just utterly changed it and it became what I had in mind. I was just dancing around, and I did the same thing with 'World Gone Crazy,' where he played the piano the way I wanted to hear it, which was New Orleans style. He took it where it needed to go, and he did the same thing on 'Young Man's Game.' I love his playing on anything and he's such a great guy."
|The Doobie Brothers 2010|
One of the only nods to their 40th anniversary is the remake of "Nobody," which originally appeared as the first cut on the Doobie Brothers' self-titled debut in 1970.
"It's definitely an upgrade. Nobody was that excited about doing it. It was the first thing we ever put out and it's 40 years old. I told them, 'It never got a fair shot. We have to redo it.' On the new version we took the motor out, took the wheels off, and put in a different drum style, different bass – which is Bob Glaub, who plays on the whole album except for one song. I asked John to play a chunka-chunka guitar part over the top, and that made a big difference. And there's an intro that was never there before. It has a groove, and it never really used to," says Johnston. "By the time we got it done, everybody was pretty stoked with it."
The new "Nobody" also spotlights one of the Doobie Brothers' enduring strengths – their harmonies. The Doobies still do it the old fashioned way, unlike the majority of auto-tuned and tweaked vocals today.
"I hate that. I don't believe in that or people doing shows where they lip-sync and don't really sing. There's a whole lot of stuff going on today that just annoys me. You're just rippin' the people off. You're not giving them a real show when you do that. The same thing can said about auto-tune," says Johnston. "We just do it the way we've always done it – sing it till you get it right or be happy with what you did get. What you hear on our albums is the way it was."
Continue reading for Pat Simmons' remembrances of the band's early days in the Bay Area and more...