Reverb Interview: The Doobie Brothers' Tom Johnston and Pat Simmons on Touring, Gear and Band Evolution

Since 1970, when Tom Johnston began forming The Doobie Brothers with Patrick Simmons, the band has sold more than 48 million albums, won four GRAMMY Awards, and earned seven multi-platinum, six platinum and 11 gold albums. Beyond those accomplishments, Best of the Doobies has been certified by the Recording Industry Association of America as having gone “Diamond,” by selling more than 10 million copies in the United States.

Now the band’s hitting the festival circuit with John McFee — on guitar, pedal steel, dobro, fiddle and vocals — and bringing the Doobie’s signature combination of harmonies, chicken pickin’ and chucka-chucka rhythms to a new generation of festival goers and expanding its base to include country fans, a deft move initiated with their 2014 release Southbound. The album, which debuted at No. 16 on Billboard, featured vocals by a who’s-who of country artists, including Blake Shelton, Zac Brown Band, Brad Paisley and Toby Keith.

With 30 dates ahead of them with Journey and Dave Mason, Johnston — who wrote "Listen To The Music," "Rockin Down The Highway," "China Grove" and others — and Simmons, who wrote “Black Water,” “South City Midnight Lady,” “Dependin’ On You” and many more, made time to speak with Reverb about the band’s resurgence, its new management, how their approaches to writing and recording have continued to evolve and how they are bringing their live-in-studio sound to festivals around the United States.

What's new and cool with the Doobie Brothers?

Tom: We have a new member at keyboards, Bill Payne from Little Feat, who is a very, very welcome addition. He's like a reincarnation of Professor Longhair. He's a phenomenal keyboard player and he can play anything, it doesn't matter what style, but he has a lot of that New Orleans stuff in there.

Pat: Bill’s played keyboards on almost every record we've ever made. We’ve always kept in touch with him and he has been a close friend to Tom, John McFee and myself for more than 40 years. He brings so much of our original sound to the band because he's played on so many great songs: “China Grove,” “Rockin Down the Highway,” “Jesus is Just All Right.” So, having him there to do the original parts is amazing. He's an inspirational guy and a great writer as well.

We also have great new management, which has taken a huge load off my shoulders. I'm the guy who has been here; everybody else left at different times. I ended up having to help reorganize the band and find new players and organize rehearsals, recording sessions and songwriting. Having other people to take up some of the slack has been a huge gift to me and enabled me to enjoy the music more and not have to worry about the business and the details so much, and that really feels good to me.

The band has gone through a lot of lineups over the years, how have the writing and recording processes changed along with that?

Tom: I've been experimenting by writing with people in Nashville for a little over a year now and it's really different from what I've been used to. In the old days I would start with just a guitar and that's how I would bring it in. As far as an album would go, you'd come in and say “here are the [chord] changes,” and Pat would come up with a guitar part to complement it, the drummers would work on the drum parts. Now I come in with a track, and because of software, I'm able to pretty much give them the song the way I hear it. That doesn't mean it won't be changed and hopefully for the better. So the songs are a lot more developed.

I use a lot of MIDI stuff. I use Digital Performer. It provides me the ability to flesh out the tunes and that's what it's all about. I can play the guitar or sing directly into the computer, and I can also do keyboard, bass and drums via keyboards with various programs, be it a Hammond B3 or whatever. The software allows you to take it much further than in the old days.

Pat: I sit with my axe and maybe have a riff or something that I've stumbled on, or some chords that have been running through my head, and start throwing chords together and they turn into something. It's more accidental writing; I come up with something that’s intriguing and then follow it to see where it leads. Other things suggest themselves. I'll maybe have a sequence of chords in my head, a suggested chord that should follow, and then I'll hunt and peck until I find that chord. I do have legal pads, little books, and I'll carry those around with me, especially when I’m on the road. I’ll hear something, a phrase or something and write it down and then, from that, some lyrics that fit. Then I'll go find a guitar and start hunting and pecking again.

Let’s talk gear; Tom, you’re still a Paul Reed Smith guy?

Tom: Yeah, I have been since 1985. That’s what I play on the road and at home. I use the Custom 24, and I've got later versions of them now. I have two that I play throughout the set and then I have a backup for each of those. I only keep the ones that I'm going to be playing. The original PRS guitars, I bought off the rack. I was going out on a USO tour and took that with me. At home I have a hollow-body electric that Paul [Reed Smith] made for me as well. I occasionally use Fender guitars for that specific sound.

I'm using a Martin D-42 on a couple of songs and a Collings. It was a gift from a big fan who lives in Austin. He gave each of us a Collings guitar and so I chose to duplicate the one I had at home and use it on the road. It sounds killer.

How about you, Pat?

Pat: I’ve played the same electric guitars live and in the studio since maybe the late '70s. My guitar tech, Mark Brown, built a couple for Bonnie Raitt and other people. I was looking at his work and I said, “That's really nice, where's mine?” And so he built me a Strat-style guitar like [former bandmate] Jeff Baxter's, only mine’s made of something lighter, like ash.

I had another really old vintage Strat and pretty soon I was hooked, but it was a rare guitar. That's when I asked Mark to make me this Strat. Three of them, actually; it's got EMG pick-ups in it. Then Mark retired and Joe Vali, my brother in law, came to work for me. He taught guitar building at the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery and built me one using Mark's guitar as a template, only he made this guitar out of koa. That's been my number one guitar. They all have active electronics and a mid-range boost. Something to put a little more grind into the guitar.

For acoustics, I've been working with Taylor and using their guitars again in my live rig. They have been so wonderful in terms of the sound onstage and it translates into the studio as well.

How about amps and pedals? It looks like you're playing pretty lean if that's your main board. What all have you got on there?

Tom: I really like the sound of the PRS Archon amp. It has a good, clean sound, and then I use a Fender Supersonic for the rhythm stuff. There is another thing on the horizon: a Kemper that my guitar tech is trying to talk me into using. It's basically a modeling device. You can get pretty much any sound you want to a powered speaker. I tried it out for the first time in Connecticut the other day, but I only had 15 minutes, so that's hardly enough time to give it a road test. For pedals, it’s a controller between the two amps, and maybe phasing on one song and delay on another song. I don't use a lot of effects. It's really pretty straightforward. Mostly I'm using the amp sound.

Pat: I'm pretty old school, I'm using a Mesa Boogie Mark V amplifier with a 4x12 speaker cabinets. I have a B rig for our fly dates; normally we're trucking our equipment to the gigs but sometimes we can't get it there in time so we have a second set of equipment in order to make it, and for that I use a JCM800 Marshall amp. My distortion is coming from the distortion channels. Besides that I've got an Electro Harmonix Micro Pog, which is like an octave divider, an XTS Pegasus Boost, a [Fulltone] Choralflange and an old Boss Rotary pedal. I also use a TC Electronics delay pedal and a Texas Two Step by Pedalworx occasionally.

Our live sound is more like a live studio version of the band. We all use in-ear monitors, so we don't have to have that monitor bleed on onstage. A lot of our guitar amplifiers are mic'd offstage so we don't have a lot of blaring sound misplaced in the mix. People come away saying, “man, you guys sound better than ever!” And a lot of it is that we have a great engineer [Bruce Knight] mixing the band, and we approach like we would if we were recording an album. The quality is way better than we ever had in the old days.

Tell me about recording Southbound

Tom: We really enjoyed that. We were working with some of the best Nashville studio guys on the planet. The guy who wrote the song would usually be the only one in the studio at the time of recording; they'd knock it out in two takes -- bang -- and it was done. Phenomenal. It was tight, and it sounded great, and you had instrumentation from electric to acoustic guitar, maybe a high-string, maybe a mandolin and definitely a pedal steel, keyboards and Dobro. And then the artists got involved. Most had already chosen the song they wanted to do and would do their thing in another town. That's the wonder of Pro Tools. I did fly to LA to watch “Listen to the Music” with Blake Shelton. That was a lot of fun, I enjoyed that guy, he's a good guy. I also got to watch Chris Young do part of “China Grove.”

I'm sure they had a lot of stories about hearing your music for the first time and how much it meant to them. Any of those stand out?

Tom: I was shocked by that. We're not a country act, although we have Americana in our sound with Pat's fingerpicking and John playing violin, pedal steel and fingerpicking. But I was amazed at how much these guys loved the band and they could name off the tracks and what they were doing when they came out and all of this kind of stuff. It was really humbling and made me feel like we did something right.

You’ve played many styles of music with many lineups, and yet it's always instantly recognizable as a Doobie Brothers song. How do you pull that off?

Tom: One thing that remains consistent in all of the albums is the vocals. The other thing is rhythm style and fingerpicking. If you stick those three together, that's the very root basis of the band. If you take a song like “Listen to the Music” or “Long Train Running,” you've got all three of those going on. You've got that chukka-chukka rhythm style, you've got Pat doing picking on it and you've got the harmonies. If you take something like “Black Water” or “Evil Woman” or any one of a number of songs you'll hear Pat's voice. For the way the band is now, that's the basis of what this band sounds like.

The Doobie Brothers performing live

The Doobies are really active on the festival circuit as of late. How is the show different now compared to the past? Are the audiences different?

Pat: That's a continuous thing for us: road dogs. It comes from a lifetime of playing for audiences. When I’m on the stage, I want to communicate my enjoyment of what I'm doing to the audience and make them feel good. We always had a little bit older audience, even when we were starting out. It's great music and we’ve had appeal across a few generations. That's always been a real positive thing for us and gave us longevity. The older crowd is still listening but then we have younger fans. For them, it's not all about the music. It's about the message, it's about the performance, it's about the dancing.

Tom: The show really has not changed a great deal in the last 10 years. The idea is to play songs that you think will get them involved. There are some songs we play every night, but what keeps those songs fresh is the crowd’s reaction and our interaction with them; then on a few songs, demonstrating your musicality by stretching out a little bit and doing some deep cuts.

All along, it's all about the songs. It's about the strength of the energy that we put out when we're playing live and that hasn't changed."

We see a gamut of ages, especially when we’re doing sheds and outdoor festivals; people our age to kids who have discovered us through streaming or downloading. It's no longer, “my dad turned me onto you.” They're too young for that. We have played a couple of festivals with what you would consider jam bands, but we've also played country festivals. It's a mix and match, if you will. We played one last year in Quebec that had the Foo Fighters, Rolling Stones and some EDM acts — every kind of music you can think of. I like the challenge of trying to get a bunch of people off that maybe you don't know.

What's the one thing that you want Reverb readers to know, think about or remember when they see a fresh story about the Doobie Brothers?

Pat: We've been working and doing stuff all along, we just never really had anybody giving us much credit for it. Our new management has a little more pride in us these days. They’re trying to get us a better shows and beat the drum a little louder for us.

Tom: All along, it's all about the songs. It's about the strength of the energy that we put out when we're playing live and that hasn't changed.

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