The Popdose Interview: Tom Johnston of The Doobie Brothers
New albums from a classic band or artist can sometimes be a dodgy proposition. But when I saw the news last year that The Doobie Brothers had a new album on tap, their first release of new material in 10 years, I was intrigued. The Doobies had an ace up their sleeve – they had coaxed (and as you can see from the conversation below, one could argue that it was the songs) legendary producer and longtime Doobie associate/friend Ted Templeman (Van Halen, Aerosmith, Little Feat) out of his semi-retired state to produce what would become World Gone Crazy. Since the album’s release in late 2010, the Doobies have been turning heads, notching a top 40 debut on the Billboard Top 200 charts and even generating radio airplay which came initially via the first single “Nobody,” a song that was rescued and re-recorded at the suggestion of Templeman from their original self-titled 1971 debut release (and it holds special significance as being the first song and also the first album they ever recorded with Templeman).
2011 finds the band very busy with the success of World Gone Crazy – they recently made their debut on the Grand Ole Opry and have continued to make new strides internationally with recent concert dates in Australia and New Zealand and a flurry of activities confirmed for the rest of the year. In talking with Doobie Brothers principal member Tom Johnston (vocals/guitars), the band’s goals were simple – they wanted to make a good album. And they’ve certainly done that and a lot more, proving to the non-believers and naysayers that there’s plenty of gas left in the tank. With an incredible career that now stretches past the 40 year mark, The Doobie Brothers show no sign of slowing down and if you’ve heard the new album, you know there’s a lot to celebrate about that. If you haven’t heard World Gone Crazy, do yourself a favor and pick it up – if you’ve ever been a Doobie Brothers fan either casually or hardcore, World Gone Crazy is mandatory listening.
Matt Wardlaw: Congrats on the new record! As you move past your 40th anniversary as a band, I’ve been reading plenty of great reviews, including one that called the album one of your best since What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits. That’s a huge compliment and I would certainly say that this is one of the best records you’ve done since reuniting.
Tom Johnston: It’s the best record we’ve done since reuniting as far as I’m concerned and that includes all four of them. I think this is head and shoulders above anything we’ve done, including Cycles. Cycles was okay but it didn’t come close to the musicianship and the quality of the tunes and the arrangements. Yeah, this one really is a good body of work and we’re all really happy with it.
At this point, it seems like The Doobie Brothers are finding their way inside the recording studio once every 10 years or so to make a new record. For this new album, which came first – the idea of making a record or the idea of doing it with Ted Templeman?
You know, they were almost synonymous actually, in as much as Ted was the one who kind of initially threw it out there. We had toyed around with recording and stuff as long ago as 1996 or something like that. And that was of course before we did our last thing. Since we put out the last one, which was Sibling Rivalry, we didn’t use a producer and it sounded like it [laughs], I would have to say that 2005 was when we actually started just dabbling.
And that’s literally the correct word, “dabbling,” because we’d just fool around in John’s [Doobies guitarist John McFee] studio a little bit and then we ended up fooling around in Sonoma a little bit. And mainly that was trying to see how it worked with Ted, if that would work out at all. We finally made a hard decision around 2007 – we had a couple of songs, but that was it, the rest of the songs had yet to be picked. And to me, between that and some lyric direction on some of the songs, the most important thing that Ted has done on this record was picking the songs that we used. Because they were already there, they just needed to be in some cases, fleshed out, but to pick the actual songs was huge.
Because going in there without that, you’re misdirected and you don’t have a plan and that’s not a good way to go. So we had all of that sussed before we ever started and then we started cutting the basics in Sunset Sound and even though some of those got altered later on, we had the better part of that done in a fairly quick amount of time. And then we proceeded to overdub the stuff and things started to go in different directions. And by that I mean that Ted would be there some of the time and Ted wouldn’t be there some of the time. So we did a lot of this as just kind of a co-production thing where he would be there for some of the stuff but he wasn’t there for everything, so we would do a lot of this stuff on our own.
You have an incredible recording history with Ted and probably one of the longer running relationships period when looking at artists, groups and producers. How did it happen when the band initially reunited that you ended up working with Rodney Mills on those first two records instead of Ted in the initial reunion period?
In the initial period, it was going to be Ted and it was going to be with Warners [Warner Brothers Records] and then for whatever reason, I can’t even tell you what they were, because I don’t know, we ended up with Capitol and not Ted. And then we really initially started off with Charlie Midnight and Eddie Schwartz and then halfway through that, we ended up going to Rodney Mills to finish up Cycles and then he did all of Brotherhood. So that’s just the way that worked out. And then that was the only two albums we did on Capitol and then after that we didn’t do anything until Sibling Rivalry and that was sort of back with Warners but really in a very roundabout way – it was more with Rhino than Warners proper. And we didn’t use a producer, which to me was not a good idea. Although that’s a good sounding album as far as fidelity, that’s wonderful and everything, but you’ve got four different people singing lead on it and the planning wasn’t there, the big thing I was talking about when you go in – it was all over the place. As a result, there were some good songs on it, but it’s not even in the neighborhood of the one that we just finished.
Well, certainly the sales experience seems to be night and day when you compare Sibling Rivalry with the reaction to World Gone Crazy. You’ve really had an overwhelmingly positive response to this album.
We have and anybody that’s listened to it has been pretty much knocked out and it seems to grow on people as well, that’s another thing I hear regularly. They like it the first time they hear it, but the more they play it, the more they like it and that’s a good thing. I’ve been amazed at how favorably people have reviewed this album. Not because I don’t think it’s good – I think it’s great, I just didn’t know what to expect, to be honest with you. Overall, it’s been extremely favorable.
With the landscape being so different from the last time that you released an album, what were the expectations? And as a group that doesn’t necessarily have to make albums, what was the inspiration to make one?
Well, I think Pat [Doobies guitarist/vocalist Patrick Simmons] and I had songs that we wanted to record and I think that was part of it. The other part of it was that we wanted to raise the public’s awareness [of the Doobie Brothers]. We play 90-100 shows a year, but there was still times when we would be playing out there, every year we go out there and we do all of these gigs and then somebody comes up and says “God, when did you guys get back together!” That’s frustrating [laughs], that’s not something you want to hear. So the other thing about doing an album is to raise a level of awareness, the fact that we’ve been doing this again solid since 1989 without stopping. And also, just to put out a really good product, not just something like we did the last time around. Sibling Rivalry, which I didn’t think that was that great of a product to be honest with you – it was okay and sonically, like I said, it was great, but between the lines a couple of tunes are good but overall it’s just kind of confusing. This one is just the opposite – this thing goes back to the quality of…..and when I say this, I don’t mean song style wise, I’m only talking about quality, how good of an album it is – it goes back to the quality of the early stuff that we did. One thing about this album that sets it apart is the fact that it is so diverse.
You know, I’ve heard a similar version of that story from Robin Wilson of the Gin Blossoms and people asking him if his band is still together. Does that surprise you, especially with access to the internet that people are asking if your band is still going, or if Michael McDonald is still in the lineup, stuff like that?
I haven’t been asked specifically if Michael was still with us and I really haven’t been asked specifically are you guys still together, but the times that I’ve been asked “when did you guys get back together” are generally from somebody either in an audience or perhaps someone who works at the venue we were playing at that was involved in some capacity with putting the show on. And they’re going “God, you guys are KILLING,” they’re knocked out by the show and we’re going “this is not new!” We’ve been doing this every stinkin’ night! The band is playing ever than it ever has and I’m not just saying that, it’s the literal truth, because everybody’s taken the time to practice more and hone their craft more and everybody is definitely more present mentally in every other kind of way and it’s just a really tight band. We get up and put on an excellent show and people respond accordingly. That was frustrating and I think that was another reason to do an album to let people know “hey, these guys still enjoy what they’re doing” – they still go out there and put it all out on the stage, probably better than they ever did to be honest with you. It’s certainly something to spend your money and time doing by going to watch the show. And in the case of the record itself, as you said the landscape has really changed. You can only hope on that end of it, because there are so many products out there, it’s insane.
“Nobody” was the first track that many people heard from this album and similar to “The Doctor,” I think it is a track that’s introducing a whole new generation of fans to The Doobie Brothers. Even though I’ve got the Doobie records and I’ve heard the original version [from the band’s first album], I don’t think the average person realized that it was an older track just because it sounds so much like the classic Doobies sound that you’ve really become known for since you originally recorded it the first time.
Yeah, well we completely redid it – that’s something that Ted requested us to do, it wasn’t something the band came up with. He wanted us to redo it because he felt like it never got the proper attention it deserved, because he always liked the song and we only did it the one time and that was the first album we ever did and it really didn’t sound very good. So we completely tore it apart and rebuilt it. But it still has the same chord structures and the same chukka-chukka guitars, but other than that, everything has been revamped – new drums, new bass, some keyboards stuff, John doing a picking part over the top of the chukka-chukka as well as a little slide work. Pat coming up with that intro at the front end of it, it’s just a whole different treatment for that song.
That intro really does add so much, but if you compare the original version with the version on the new album, the differences really are striking. It’s almost like since you recorded it on the first record, you guys really have become pretty practiced at the art of being The Doobie Brothers.[Laughs] Yeah, we’ve spent a few years working on that!
Reading up on the process that went into making this record, I read a quote from you personally that indicated that you had a hard drive of songs to pull from as material for the new album. What’s your songwriting process and what do you generally use to get this stuff down on tape – is it recording stuff at home, on the road, both? What’s your process?
You know, for whatever reason, I’ve never written on the road. There’s a couple of songs that got written on the road, but overall I don’t, I do all of my writing at home. Nowadays, I use software – simply because it allows me to flesh out the tune. If I have an idea, I don’t have to call a bass player or a drummer to come over and do whatever, I can just sit there and do it myself with my hands. I can play the bass line, I can play the drums, I can play keyboard parts – because I’m fluent enough on keys. In fact, I wrote three songs on keyboards for this album. I can play strings, I can play B-3 and at the same time, I can play directly into the computer on my guitar and I can also do all of the singing. I can do the background parts, I can do the lead parts and there are no limitations. So to me, that’s awesome and the other part about that is that you go places because you don’t have any limitations like you used to have when it was just me and a guitar [and because of that] you have a tendency to go exploring and that’s great. Yeah, I love writing and I enjoy writing as a hobby – I’ve got tons of songs up there. They’re not all done – there are a whole lot of songs up there that we didn’t use. They’re still waiting to see the light of day and when I get some time, I always end up playing music.
I definitely like the exploratory feel of this album – there are some really different sounds scattered throughout the record. “A Brighter Day” which kicks off the album has a nice little island-like vibe, for example and there’s a lot of that kind of diversity on this album. When you look at “A Brighter Day,” “Chateau” and “Nobody,” any one of those three could have kicked off the album, so how tough was it to nail down the final sequence and specifically, the opening track?
It took a little bit – I think there were three different versions of that and basically what we had to do was come to agreement on which one we were going to use. Initially, what you’re listening to wasn’t the original sequence. But we ended up using a little different sequence and everybody ended up being able to live with that, so that’s where we went. It’s not easy, it really does make a difference on how people hear the album by the tracks that are introduced to them in the sequence that they are introduced to them. And you want to catch ‘em – first thing you want to do is snare ‘em right off the bat and then you want something that’s going to keep their attention span. As far as being up and down in the styles of music, you have to figure that one out really carefully. Where we are now, what I will say is that people have responded really favorably to it and that to me is the biggest thing that you did something right. Because people say that not only did they like the album, but it grows on them and that to me is great, I like hearing that. Because [sometimes] it’s just like yeah, it was cool the first time and after that it’s just repetition, but that’s not the case. They say “I keep finding things that I didn’t hear the first time through or I discover another tune that I didn’t know the first time through.” So they didn’t pay much attention to it and all of the sudden they really like that song, because it’s farther down in the sequence, and that’s a good thing.
You’ve mentioned that “A Brighter Day” is one of the songs that benefited from the extended period that you were working on this album. How did that one change from where it started to what we’re hearing now?
A lot. [Laughs] Well first of all, you can look at that as several stages – Teddy came up to my house and sat down in my studio and we just sat and listened to songs, I just played him a lot of songs. And that one wasn’t anything that I’d even planned on using – it was really in a rudimentary form, it was just a track. There was some really rough vocal I did on it, but it was really rough. And he said “man, you oughta develop this,” so we cut it in the studio and got to a certain point with it and I said “you know what, this isn’t where it needs to be at all – this is not what I had in mind when I fleshed it out and finished it and put the words on it and everything.” I said “this is not good” and I was ready to take it off the album. And then I took it and there were three days I spent in Sausalito at Studio D and I brought Billy Payne out, who I’d been wanting to use anyway.
We took that track and we dumped everything on it except for the drums, the bass and John’s guitar parts. And all of this other stuff that had been laid on it, trying to get to where it was supposed to be, we just tossed it. We started over again with Billy doing this keyboard part that was just phenomenal. And he always is, I mean the guy’s a magician, he’s unbelievable. He put on this gospel piano part and it just lifted the song instantly. I went “oh my God, that’s what it’s been missing, right there!” That just changed the whole program. And then he put down some great B-3 stuff too and then to me, that was the place when that song became the song that it is now. Even though we had all of the vocals and all that, it didn’t matter, that’s when the song became what it is now. So even though it talks about the islands and all, the feeling of it is almost an R&B gospel track with steel drums over the top of it and that kind of stuff. And then you add in the people that we brought in to do some background vocals – actually people who had been singing with Michael Jackson [vocalists Dorian Holley, Nayanna Holley, Darry Phinnessee and Siedah Garrett] – and they added another level to it that hadn’t been there previously. Because the breakdown, we didn’t have anything and I said “it really needs something in there, it’s just sitting.”
Breakdowns are great and all that but if there’s nothing going on, that’s it is. And they came up with this part where they do that little vocal scatting thing that they do – they must have figured it out before they came in, because they just started doing it. I said “there’s no way in the world that you guys are just thinking this up as you’re going – I’m not buying it!” [Laughs] It was too polished, way too polished. They just nailed it and I said “wow,” I was just sitting there with my jaw on the floor going “man, that’s unbelievable, that’s just great.” They added a huge lift to that song as well. So it got changed around a lot and the same thing could be said for “World Gone Crazy” – I redid all of the piano parts on that with Billy, redid the bass part, redid the drums – we had Gregg Bissonette come in and redo the drums [on that track], because the song wasn’t anywhere in the neighborhood of what I was thinking – it sounded like a country western track when it got done. I said “uh uh, no – this is supposed to be a New Orleans feelin’ thing , man and it is not!” First of all, Gregg coming in, that was a huge change and that was before Billy so that made a big difference, a huge difference.
And then when Billy came in and put all of that Professor Longhair stuff over the top of it I said “Okay, we’re there – we’re where we need to be now.” That made all of the difference. Those moments like that, I can’t tell you; those are like golden moments, so satisfying.
I think it’s safe to say that Billy has earned his stripes as an honorary Doobie at this point.
Oh yeah. I guess he started working with us in the studio in ’72, he was on “Jesus,” [“Jesus Is Just Alright,” from Toulouse Street in 1972] I think that was the first thing he played on. But God knows, he’s played on a lot of tunes!
Wrapping up, is there a song on the new album that sticks out as something that is a direction that you wouldn’t have seen the Doobie Brothers going into if you were forecasting future moves?
There are a couple of songs that would fit that description, one of them being “World Gone Crazy.” Never. That’s not something that the band normally does. The same could be said of “A Brighter Day” and there’s a few songs actually, a bunch of songs! “Old Juarez,” that’s not something we ever probably would have done before. I could say the same thing about “Law Dogs,” because I’ve never written a song on slide before and that’s the first time I’d ever done that, but that went off in another direction as well! That’s what I like about the diversity of this album and being allowed to go to those places and yet somehow everybody always says it still sounds like the group and that’s very cool.