After four decades of musical adventures, they’re still grooving

“I was surprised to hear people come up and say, ‘Man, that new album is classic Doobie Brothers!’” says Tom Johnston with a chuckle. “I thought that was awesome. That’s pretty hip.” World Gone Crazy, the Doobies’ first new album in a decade, is indeed immediately identifiable as the work of the group that first rose to prominence in the 1970s with hits like “Listen to the Music,” “Black Water” and “China Grove.” The singer and guitarist says that no matter how many stylistic avenues they may take along the way, his band can’t help sounding like itself. “We’ve grown,” Johnston says, “but we come from the same place.”

It was 40 years ago that Johnston first teamed with fellow original member Patrick Simmons, the vocalist and guitarist who has been the only constant in the Doobies’ oft-changing lineup. Today the group also includes multi-instrumentalist John McFee (a member for two years in the early 1980s who returned in 1993) and drummer Michael Hossack (who joined for two years in the early 1970s and has remained off and on since 1987). Johnston himself was absent from the band from 1977 through 1987, and with him went much of the Doobies’ trademark ’70s sound—exchanged for the smooth R&B style of his replacement, singer and keyboardist Michael McDonald (who turns up singing background on one World Gone Crazy track). The new album further reconnects with the group’s roots through the involvement of Ted Templeman, who produced or co-produced all of the Doobies’ 1970s classics. We caught up with Johnston, Simmons and McFee during a tour stop in Nashville.

Why so long since the last record?

SIMMONS: We were being cautious. Things have changed so much since the last one we recorded. We weren’t ready to jump into something headfirst. We wanted to make sure whatever we did was going to have some quality to it, that we weren’t going to just crap something out to have it on the market. We wanted to make sure it was good, that it was presented properly, and that whoever we worked with could at least get it out into the marketplace.

JOHNSTON: The other thing, of course, was to come up with the right songs. We started the process of talking to Ted and getting this moving in 2005. He has a studio at his house, and we recorded a couple of things there just to see what it would sound like. Pretty much all the songs were written by that time, and we started culling the songs we wanted to use. By 2007 we were actually doing the recording.

How did you reconnect with Ted?

SIMMONS: He heard we were in town rehearsing and came by to see us. We had a casual conversation, and at the end of the day he asked if we had any new songs. We went from there. He came back and said, “I like what you’re doing, would you like to try some recording?”

How did you pick the songs?

JOHNSTON: That’s one of the great things about having a producer—they help you select the right songs, the ones that will be best suited to what you’re doing now. So Ted spent time with Pat and me. In my case, he came to my house, sat on the floor and I just played him stuff that was on my hard drive. I firmly believe that it’s good to have an outside person involved when you’re picking the songs. Otherwise it gets democratic and you don’t necessarily come up with the best songs.

What is the songwriting process like for each of you?

SIMMONS: I do pretty much everything on guitar. I work on something until I feel it has a form. I play that until I at least have a verse and a chorus that I’m comfortable with, some kind of frame that makes sense and a semi-arrangement. I try to keep it up here [points at his head] so that by the time we get to recording I know it well enough to play it by myself. Sometimes lyrics come at the same time as music. Sometimes I scribble things down and incorporate them later. I very rarely write lyrics and try to fit music to those lyrics.

JOHNSTON: I write on guitar and keyboards, and I use software, in this case Digital Performer. It’s something I’ve done over the last 10 years. As the software has progressed I’ve tried to progress with it. I’m not a genius at it by any means, but I can facilitate myself, playing drums, bass, keyboards, horn parts. Then I also lay down the guitar tracks, the vocals, background vocals, all that stuff. I look at the software like a real board, doing all the mixing with it and fleshing it out that way. The lyrics pretty much come last, as they always have. Some songs write themselves—and to me, those are the best ones. Those things are magical. Then there are some songs you have to struggle with. Sometimes those come out great, and sometimes they don’t.

How did Michael McDonald get involved with the new album?

SIMMONS: As the tune [“Don’t Say Goodbye”] started to take shape, it started to sound retro to me, like the era when Michael was in the band. So, Ted said, “What would you think about having Mike come in and sing some backgrounds?” I had Mike and two women [Gail Swanson and McDonald’s wife Amy Holland McDonald] sing, which gave it that Steely Dan sound. I think he did a great job.

How did you manage to make the record sound so cohesive?

SIMMONS: Believe it or not, I think the sequencing of songs has something to do with that. The way the songs fall one after another doesn’t shock you from one song to the next. It makes sense. There’s a little difference between each song, and at the same time our signature sound—because I do think we have that going on—helps it make sense.

Do you feel obliged to sound like the Doobie Brothers?

JOHNSTON: I think the Doobie Brothers sound like the Doobie Brothers just because of who’s in the band. Part of that is the vocal sound, and part is the rhythm structures we use and things like that. But with growth comes new ideas, and a lot of them on this record have stepped out of what used to be. It’s not the same stuff we always do—yet there’s a familiarity there. We did step outside the boundaries of what most people think of as a Doobie Brothers record on this.

McFEE: The focus of this band has always been doing the best music it can do at that particular point in time. That’s probably why it still sounds like the Doobie Brothers when people hear it. The band’s never tried to limit itself stylistically in any aspect of the music, and that’s still there.

What are your hopes for the band?

JOHNSTON: I imagine we’ll keep doing what we’ve always done. Hopefully this album will have some success and people will get to hear it, because we spent a lot of time making it and we’re proud of it. And we’re a live band, we’re used to playing live, we’ve been doing it a long time and we still enjoy it. We just want to keep on grooving.

–Chris Neal

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