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 Costello’s “Alison.”
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 table?
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, very important.
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 thing.
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 mic them.
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 Grimes guitars.
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 acoustic sound.
How would you describe your various guitar roles?
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 already started.
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 Doobie Brothers.