SINCE THEIR LATE-’60S FORMATION
in San Jose, California, the Doobie Brothers
have seen a staggering string of hits, a huge
number of bandmembers, and a phoenixlike
ability to endure. They are best known,
from a sonic standpoint, for interesting,
complementary guitar parts that rock, boogie,
groove, and occasionally transport the
listener to swamps, bayous, parks, trains,
and highways. Delivering those memorable
riffs are the funky/bluesy/rocker Tom
Johnston (think “China Grove” and “Long
Train Runnin’”) and folky fingerpicker Patrick
Simmons (Mr. “Black Water” to you).
The glue that has held those guitars together
since 1979 is the self-professed “new guy,”
John McFee, a Swiss Army Knife of a multiinstrumentalist
whose massive body of pre-
Doobie work includes playing lead on Elvis
Together, these three Hermanos Doobie
have an uncanny knack of finding the parts
and tones that work together like gears
meshing, which is precisely what they
have done on World Gone Crazy [HOR], the
band’s first studio album in a decade. Driving
electrics, ringing acoustics, and slinky
slide work adorn the 11 tracks that have
this classic American band back on the
radio and rockin’ down the highway on tour.
Ted Templeman produced you for the first
time in a long while. What does he bring to the
Johnston: He was a huge help in choosing
the songs. I played him a bunch of tunes,
some of which I hadn’t even thought about
using. Ted encouraged me to develop them
and a couple ended up being some of the
best songs on the album.
McFee: I played on Ted Templeman’s
first hit record as a producer, “Wild Night”
from Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey album.
What I liked about him then and now is
that he’s always thinking about the big
picture for the arrangement. I appreciate
that as a guitar player. We’ll talk about
a general approach and I’ll start playing.
He usually lets me follow my own
instincts for a while. Then, if he wants
to hear it in a more finely tuned direction,
he’ll say so.
Simmons: He has really good ears.
There were times when I was cutting a
track thinking I was playing it the way I did
on the demo. Ted would say, “It just doesn’t
sound like it did yesterday.” We’d listen to
the previous version and sure enough, I’d
be playing it differently. When you’re fingerpicking,
if you shift the pattern a little
bit, it can change the groove of the track.
Ted recognizes when something is different
and puts us back on track and that’s very,
Talk about the song “Law Dogs.” Who’s doing what?
Johnston: That song is really kind of a
departure. We’ve never done anything like
it before. I wrote that on slide and I’m not a
slide player, per se. John played Dobro and
I played the acoustic slide on his Collings.
We tracked at the same time.
It doesn’t sound like much of a departure to me.
McFee: It’s funny. I don’t think Tommy
realizes how strong his particular brand is—
his voice and his bluesy rock approach. That’s
what I hear on “Law Dogs.” He thinks it’s
a big departure because it’s got a loop on
it, but it still sounds like a funky Tom Johnston
You guys have always employed acoustic guitars
on your records, but it seems like there are more of
them on this one. What were your go-to acoustics?
Johnston: I played a Martin and a Collings
and I still use a Neumann U87 or a U67 to
Simmons: I played an Epiphone Texan
that I’ve owned since I was about 16 or 17
years old. I also used a Line 6 Variax Acoustic.
My main acoustic sound was a guitar made
by a guy here in Maui named Steve Grimes.
It’s got koa back and sides and a spruce top.
We cut the Variax tracks in Los Angeles and
then I overdubbed with my Epiphone and
McFee: The way we came to use the Variax
was we were cutting one of the songs in my
studio, I think it might have been “Far From
Home.” Pat and Mike Hossack, our drummer,
were there. Because we had drums and
acoustic guitar, we thought, “For tracking,
let’s just use the Variax so we don’t have
to worry about mic bleed. Then we’ll cut
it on the real acoustic later.” It sounded so
good, though, that we ended up keeping
it. It was totally convincing—just a great
How would you describe your various guitar
Johnston: I am the R&B chuck-a-chucka
guy, Pat is an incredible fingerpicker, and
John is a phenomenal guitar player, pedalsteel
player, violin player, Dobro player, slide
player—he can do anything.
McFee: I come from a pretty heavy country
music background, and by playing all these
other instruments I don’t just think in guitar
terms. The combination of Pat’s fingerpicking
and Tommy’s blues and funk approach is
what really makes the whole Doobie Brothers
sound happen in the first place. I feel like
I’m more of a utility player, and my job is to
enhance and build on the structure they’ve
Describe how some of your big hits, like “China
Grove” and “Black Water” came about.
Johnston: I wrote “China Grove” in the
same place as “Listen to the Music”—in the
bedroom I was living in on 12th St. in San
Jose. I came up with this idea on acoustic
and I went and grabbed our drummer, John
Hartman, at 2:30 in the morning. We went
down to the basement where I had my Bandmaster
and an SG or a Les Paul. I cranked it
up to 12 and let it rip.
Simmons: I stumbled on the riff to “Black
Water” first, and that’s all I really had. We
were in the studio recording the album prior
to that, The Captain and Me. I was sitting out
in the studio waiting between takes and I
played that part. All the sudden I heard the
talk-back go on and Ted Templeman says,
“What is that?” I said, “It’s just a little riff
that I came up with that I’ve been tweaking
with.” He goes, “I love that. You really
should write a song using that riff.”
How are the new songs going over on tour?
Johnston: They’ve been going over better
than any new songs we did in the past. In
the old days people would just sit there.
“What was that? That’s not ‘China Grove’
or ‘Black Water.’” The response to these new
songs is gratifying because we worked hard
to write some good tunes. To see them resonate
with people right off the bat really
makes you feel good.
You guys definitely sound like the old Doobies
on this record. Do you feel like your old selves?
Simmons: We sort of captured that
essence of what we started with. I think we
play a little better these days and sometimes
even sing better, but inside we’re always 16.
McFee: Well, if you put the emphasis
on “old” [laughs]. A lot of people have said
that. When we were making the record, we
weren’t saying, “Hey, let’s try to sound like
old times,” or anything like that. We were
just trying to make the best record we could.
I guess the result of trying to make a good
record was we ended up sounding like the