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HANGING AT THE CHATEAU WITH PAT SIMMONS OF THE DOOBIE BROTHERS

By Jeb Wright

The Doobie Brothers put out an amazing new album in 2010 titled World Gone Crazy. The album saw the band reunite with producer Ted Templeman for the first time in nearly three decades. The result is a classic sounding Doobie Brothers album, easily the best thing they have done since their heyday.

In this interview guitarist Pat Simmons reveals the Doobie approach to songwriting as well as how he used a fan’s riff to create a new song. Pat talks about how he got former Doobie Michael McDonald to come in for some background vocals and what it was like co-writing a tune with living legend Willie Nelson.

Pat takes us back in time to when the Doobie Brothers were known as a biker band and also talks about how one of his favorite guitars was stolen by a drug dealer and how a fan stole it back.


Jeb: This new album is excellent. You guys still sound like the Doobie Brothers after all these years. But before we talk about that I have to ask you about something. I was flipping channels on the TV and saw an episode of What’s Happening with Rerun and Rodge, and on this episode, the Doobies. How did that come about?

Pat: It was our crazy publicist. He was friends with the producer and he asked us if we wanted to do it. Some guys said it would be great and some guys said no way. We went ahead and did it. All these years later is seems to be the thing we are most famous for.

Jeb: The last time I saw the Doobie Brothers was in Atlanta opening for Bad Company and it was fun, flawlessly executed and everyone was singing along. What makes you still have what it takes live?

Pat: We have forty years of music so that helps. People wouldn’t care about us if they didn’t like the music. I think our music is kind of a throwback to a lot of different eras. We owe a little bit to the San Francisco sound, or maybe I should call it the San Francisco point of view. By that I mean that you stay true to yourself and who you really are. We know we are the Doobie Brothers. We have borrowed things along the way but we have survived the psychedelic thing, the disco thing and we are now surviving the hip-hop thing and we are still here. We have always been a mix of R&B, traditional music, pop music --- by that I mean the Beatles and Crosby, Stills & Nash. We are a rock n’ roll band, first and foremost but we have a lot of echoes of other things as well. If people listen to our records they will hear the rhythm guitar, which is more R&B and they will hear more traditional music like Mississippi John Hurt. If you put us under a microscope then those are the two types of music we are mostly made off.

Jeb: Do you and Tom have different influences? Do you find you have places your tastes overlap and that is where you get the sound?

Pat: You hit the nail on the head; it really is an overlap. We have John, who is nice enough to facilitate whatever we come up with. He has a very large vocabulary so he is able to contribute to both of our visions, song wise and arrangement wise.

Jeb: Let’s jump into talking about World Gone Crazy. I have gone crazy for it. I played this for a friend of mine who loves the Doobies and he was grinning ear-to-ear. Another friend hears us jamming out and he comes in the room. He is more of a metal head. He asks who we are listening to and I tell him and he says, “Man, I love the Doobies.” How do you get such a cross appeal?

Pat: Another element that is solidly imbedded in our music is rock n’ roll. I have played all types of rock. I started out playing instrumental guitar when Duane Eddy was popular. I played a lot of surf stuff like the Ventures. I was a huge fan of Bill Haley and the Comets. Along come bands like Cream, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. I come from San Francisco and all you ever hear at concerts from those bands, like the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Jefferson Airplane, is feedback because they crank their amps so loud. Tom and I pretty much played straight ahead rock n’ roll till we got into those bands. They thought louder was better and we subscribed to that theory. We bought the biggest amps we could and cranked them up as loud as they could go. That has been a part of our lives since. We do a lot of different things in the studio but when we play live then we crank it up. There is nothing like good, old-fashioned rock n’ roll. I think we enjoy that as much as anything. Again, it is probably the influence of the psychedelic era as much as anything.

Jeb: The new album starts out with a song called “It’s a Brighter Day” that Tom wrote. It sounds like the Doobies meet Jimmy Buffet.

Pat: It sounded even more so like that when we started it. It turned a little more R&B when we got into it.

Jeb: The showpiece song on the album is “Château” written by Pat Simmons and Ted Templeman.

Pat: I had been working on the track, and developed it, to a certain point. I had another song and I brought it into play for the guys and our producer said, “Man, I really like that but I think the song could go in another direction.” I asked him what he meant and he said, “Let me think about it.” A few days later, when we were rehearsing the track he said, “This song reminds me of The Château“, which is a club where we used to play at in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It was kind of a biker bar, hippie place. Ted came to see us there when he was thinking about signing us. He had heard our demo and he wanted to see us live.

He and the President of Warner Brothers showed up at this biker bar and were dressed in their sweater vests and their button down collars. They went and sat at a table in the back of the place and I could see them and they looked petrified. All of these bikers, Hells Angels, are standing up while we are playing and they are wearing their colors and they are stomping their feet and drinking. It was a pretty wild scene. It wasn’t anything really out of hand; it was more of a Roadhouse kind of vibe. They came up to us afterwards and said, “That was one of the coolest experiences we have ever had. We were scared shitless but we really loved the whole thing.” After that Warner Brothers labeled us “The Biker Band”, which came pretty much from those two guys and what they had seen.

After Ted heard the song he said, “You guys should write the song with some images of that club and the era. Do you mind if I write down some ideas that I have?” He scribbled down some ideas and part of the lyrics ended up in the song. I took it home and simplified the lyrics a bit but they are basically his lyrics. I figured this was rock n’ roll and I didn’t want to get too complicated.

Jeb: Back in those days people would say that Ted Templeman was the sixth member of the band but in your case he must have been the 12th member.

Pat: He really was a part of the band. He played on the records as well. He played percussion on this record. I think I even had him doing some singing. He played part of the drums on “What a Fool Believes.” There are two drums on that track. I am not sure what we are actually hearing in the mix but we went around and around with the approach to that tune. Finally, Ted went out and played drums while I stayed in the studio with the engineer. I told him, “That’s the one.” I think we ended up cutting thirty more tracks but we came back to the one with Ted.

Jeb: How long has it been since Ted produced a Doobie Brothers album and how did it come about this time?

Pat: It had been twenty-eight years. Ted came by and saw us at rehearsals and he thought we sounded good. He asked if we had any material we were working on. He asked if he could hear some of the demos and we played them for him. He came out the next day and said he would like to give it a try with him helping to produce the track. It took us a while to get in the groove as Ted has been retired for a long time. He still has the chops. It was the same with us as we had not made a record in ten years.

Jeb: I am wondering if Ted being back in the production role is why I am so excited about this new album and why it has such a classic Doobie Brothers sound to it.

Pat: I have no doubt at all. Ted and I wrote three songs together, which is pretty unusual. We really collaborated on this record. Usually I have a song and Ted comes in and does a little scribbling here and there to finalize something. This time we started from scratch. The rest of the tracks that we worked on, I had a riff but we sat down and brainstormed together for direction, lyrics and melodies.

Jeb: Another one you co-wrote with him is “Far From Home.” It is a great song. I have kids growing up and leaving home, I understand the emotional part of the song.

Pat: That may be the one that is closest to me in terms of feeling that I really nailed it. It was an unusual way to approach a theme and I had not done anything like that before. A fan has been sending me riffs since he was a teenager, he is now thirty some years old with kids of his own. I always encouraged him because I always thought he had some great ideas, more for his sake than mine. When I got that demo from him he had some riffs that really touched me. I borrowed the main riff and turned it into the song. He was very happy when I asked him about it as he had been waiting for years for me to do something. I took it home and came up with some ideas of my own . He had a riff in his particular arrangement that he used as an afterthought and I used it a lot more. I made a demo of it and played it for Ted and he said that he felt there was something magical about that track. He asked if he could work on that track with me and I said sure. We moved some of the riffs around and kicked around some ideas about lyrical content .

Jeb: I am sure the fans love the song “Say Goodbye.” Why did you feel the need to bring your former band mate Michael McDonald in for that song?

Pat: It is because of the type of song that it is. It is a little bit Latin jazz. Ted is really the one who made the suggestion. The track reminded me a little bit of a Steely Dan track. When Mike was in the band a lot of his background vocals kind of echoed some of the work that he had done with Steely Dan. Mike gets a certain kind of sound.

He has a place over here in Maui. As I was putting the guitars down on the track, he had called and asked me to dinner, so I knew that was a good time for me to ask him to be on the album. I asked him about doing background vocals and he said, “Sure, it sounds like fun.” I asked him, “Would you bring your wife?” I wanted to get a female voice on there as well. I asked another friend of mine named Gail Swanson to sing with Mike and Mimi as well. With Mike and the two girls there is a certain sound that we get. You really get a real blend of voices. We mixed him a little hotter and made him pop out a little bit because we wanted that quality.

Jeb: There are still fans that think there are issues between the band and Michael McDonald.

Pat: I think the only issue was that Mike liked the idea of being a solo artist. That does not go well when you are with guys who want you to just stay around and play. He is very successful at what he does and I think he likes the freedom of being able to call the shots that you don’t always have in a band. The issue was really just that he wanted to be a solo artist. It wasn’t that he disliked the band or disliked the music. He writes enough songs that he can do what he does.

Jeb: How did he get into the band? Also, philosophically, from a musical perspective was Michael McDonald the right choice?

Pat: Was Mike the right choice? I don’t think it was a matter of making choices at that time. We were just trying to get through a tour that we had booked and that we had responsibilities to live up to the contracts we had made.

When we finished the tour we were also in the middle of recording an album. Warner Brothers was really pushing us to get another album out. I had written four or five songs. Tommy said that he didn’t want to do the album and that he needed time off and that he needed a break. He told us to figure it out. There wasn’t really any choices we had to make other than, “What do we do now?” We recorded my songs but we didn’t know what to do next. I had heard a couple of tracks that Mike had been working on. I thought that in the meantime we could try to cut a couple with Mike. The first track that we cut was “Taking It to the Streets.” That really worked so we asked him what else he had.

Most bands, like Journey, go out to YouTube but that wasn’t in our radar. I don’t think we would ever do that. It is probably part of that San Francisco thinking of we are who we are and we know who we are not. I think when you do that then you paint yourself into a corner and you go, “Our career is sounding like this.” We wanted the freedom to do something this week and then do something else next week. If Tommy left or I left I don’t think we would be replaced by people who sound just like us. That is not a very creative way of doing things. Being creative is more important to me than being successful. If you are not creative, and instead are a karaoke band of yourself, then where exactly are you taking your career? I think that is a mistake. I guess I shouldn’t say that, as I have all the respect in the world for a band like Journey; they are great. I love this kid that is singing for them now but, on the same token, in my opinion, you don’t have to do that.  

Jeb: It becomes more of a business plan than a band.

Pat: We still feel like we are artists and not businessmen. People perceive us as artists; you understand.

Jeb: You are not slagging Journey, you’re just saying this is the difference between us and them.

Pat: A better band to parallel against would be Jefferson Airplane. They became Jefferson Starship and then Starship. They had great songs and they didn’t try to replace people with people who sounded just like the other members.

Jeb: You have a co-write on the new album with Willie Nelson. Did you know Willie before this album?

Pat: I do know Willie. He lives in Maui. We know each other through our kids as they are friends. My wife and his wife are also friends. It really came about because our families are close. Willie said to me, “I would like to write something with you sometime.”

Jeb: I am a rocker and I do not like country but Willie is Willie and that would be very cool to have him say that to me.

Pat: It was cool. I am really fortunate to be able to do something like that. It is one of those things you can tell your grandkids about.

Jeb: And the Doobies get to work with a man who is very famous for his love of doobies.

Pat: That is exactly right; it all works all the way around.

Jeb: I don’t know the history of the album artwork but I think it is pretty cool.

Pat: The artwork came by the way of a guy named Peter Wood. It is an odd thing how it came about. Peter was an artist from New Orleans. He does a lot of folk art. He did a lot of work for the House of Blues. John had taken a picture of that artwork when he was in New Orleans. It was hanging outside of a building. He just was passing by and took a snapshot of it; that had to be five or six years ago.

When we were trying to come up with a concept we couldn’t really think of anything. John said, “I have a photo of this painting that I took down in New Orleans.” He showed it to me and I just loved it. I loved the color and how it is crazy. It has that New Orleans vibe to it.

We started looking for the artist but we didn’t know who painted it. John didn’t even remember where he took the snapshot. We thought maybe we could take an ad out in the paper or put something on our website. I said, “You know I have this friend named Hutch Hutchinson who plays with Bonnie Raitt and Hutch knows everyone. Hutch plays with the Neville Brothers down in New Orleans and he plays with this keyboard player named John Cleary. He even knows Dr. John.” My wife said, “Well, then why don’t you call Hutch?” So I did. Hutch says, “That does look familiar. I am going to call John Cleary.”

Hutch called back in a couple of days and he said, “I found the artist. His name is Peter Wood and he used to be John Cleary's roommate. John had an email so here is his email.” I emailed him and told him what was going on and he said that he would love to be a part of that. He told me that he didn’t have the original painting anymore because he had sold it. He said it was in one of the House of Blues but he didn’t know where. He said he could paint another one but that it wouldn’t be exactly like it. I told the guys and they said that they really loved that one. I told Peter and he said, “I still think that I own the image. Even though I sold the painting, the image is still mine so I think you could use it.” We paid him a fee and bought the image for the cover and for some future stuff. And that is the story of how the album cover came to be. The cover is of Robert Johnson and he is being chased by the hellhounds.

Jeb: Last one: I have a photo of the two of us together backstage. You have an amazingly beautiful guitar strapped on you in the picture.

Pat: My guitar tech, who happens to be my brother in law, built that. His name is Joe Valley and he teaches in Phoenix, Arizona. I have had that guitar over ten years and it actually got stolen. Somebody found it in a drug dealer’s house. One of our fans went into the drug dealer’s house and stole it back. It got stolen when we were playing in New England. The guy snuck in when everyone’s backs were turned and stole it right out of the rack. It took two or three years to get that one back.

 

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