The Doobie Brothers: ‘We Don't Try To Beat People Over The Head With Our New Material’

6 April 2023 | 11:15 am | Cyclone Wehner

We catch up with The Doobie Brothers' Michael McDonald and Patrick "Pat" Simmons ahead of their highly anticipated return to Aus for Bluesfest.

(Pic by Clay Patrick McBride)

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The Doobie Brothers may be celebrating their 50th anniversary with an epic tour, but they're more than a heritage act. In 2023 the American band behind the classic hits Listen To The Music, Long Train Runnin' and What A Fool Believes appeal to multiple generations – among them yacht rock devotees, hip-hop heads and Supernatural fans. And The Doobies are leaning into their eternal cool. "It was the '70s, and now we are 70s," declares Patrick "Pat" Simmons.

The Doobies are returning to Australia to headline Bluesfest 2023 in Bryon Bay and Melbourne and hot-ticket side-shows – with multi-tasking founding members Simmons and Tom Johnston, guitarist John McFee and vocalist/keyboardist Michael McDonald touring together after a quarter of a century. "Some of our best memories are of coming to Australia to play as The Doobies," says McDonald. "So it's really wonderful to get a chance to get back there as this band one more time, you know?" 

Today McDonald and Simmons are Zooming separately – the former online pre-schedule. "I got on earlier, just 'cause I wanna make sure I could figure it out," a professorial McDonald, in plaid, explains, alluding to potential tech "snafu". He's interrupted by a lively canine. "She's a nightmare, actually," McDonald says fondly. "Satan incarnate, this one." 

The jovial Simmons, long hair tucked under a baseball cap, logs on 15 minutes in, joking, "Sorry to be late here, but I'm usually late." The Doobies' sole constant member over five decades, the acclaimed guitarist occasionally addresses McDonald directly, calling him "Mike", the chat intimate. Indeed, given their status as rock legends, The Doobies are super-chilled. "We're a bunch of pretty hang-loose people for the most part," Simmons volunteers. 

The seventysomethings might be tempted to simply savour the spoils of success, rather than subject themselves to a gruelling tour itinerary beginning belatedly in 2021 due to COVID-19 – stop one the Iowa State Fair. What spurs them on? "I think my wife's possession of our credit cards is probably the biggest motivator there," McDonald says dryly. "But, no, I'm kidding. You know, we still love doing it. To be honest with you, I think all the time about, 'What's retirement look like and what would that be like?,' but I haven't found a good enough reason to do that yet. 

"But it's possible it could happen in the not-so-distant future. At a certain point, it might be too much to ask for the audiences to come out and hear us play when we're at a certain age; it just doesn't make sense anymore, as all things do. So, for now, we've just been enjoying it – and the audiences have been great." 

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The 2020 Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductees have incrementally assumed control of their own chronicle, Simmons and Johnston latterly publishing Long Train Runnin': Our Story Of The Doobie Brothers. In fact, The Doobies became a supergroup accidentally. 

The Doobies formed in San José, Northern California, in 1970, with Johnston on lead vocals and guitar. They developed an expansive mode of Americana, with accomplished instrumentation, harmonies and biker imagery. Early, the band had dual drummers: the late John Hartman and Michael Hossack. Scouted by the Warner Bros Records exec, and their future producer, Ted Templeman, The Doobies debuted quietly in 1971 with a country-tinged eponymous album. But the next year they burst out with Toulouse Street – home to the evergreen Listen To The Music. The Doobies subsequently enjoyed a US#1 with Simmons' swampy Black Water off 1974's What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits.

From the outset, The Doobies' line-up was fluid. Alas, mid-decade, Johnston, the band's primary songwriter alongside Simmons, retreated because of illness. The guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter recommended his old Steely Dan bandmate McDonald as a stand-in, only he soon settled in. With McDonald as frontman, The Doobies pivoted to R&B, blue-eyed soul and jazz-fusion – 1976's Takin' It To The Streets intermediate. The band reached their commercial zenith with 1978's Minute By Minute – the single What A Fool Believes (penned by McDonald and pal Kenny Loggins) scoring the Grammy for both Record and Song Of The Year. It's since been proclaimed "the ultimate yacht rock song".

McDonald downplays past speculation about creative push-and-pull. "It was really more circumstance than real tensions within the band. For a while, Tom was on a hiatus from the group, for health reasons, but also kind of ventured off into his solo career for a minute 'cause it was I think easier for him to manage. 

"The band's different direction was more of a consequence of the void that was left by Tommy leaving. It wasn't so much a conscious [thought], 'Oh, we gotta change this up…'

"So the band overall had a big part in the change of sound that happened from 1975 on. But I think mostly the change, as it appeared to the audience, had more to do with Tom not being there than it did with my presence."

The Doobies were always "pretty eclectic", McDonald posits. "I was just another phase of that kind of stylistic wandering that they'd always done."

Exhausted by their momentum, The Doobies split in 1982. McDonald went solo with his adult contemporary hit I Keep Forgettin' (Every Time You're Near). But, within five years, the band reunited – Johnston now back as lead. However, McDonald stayed in contact, turning up to shows or on projects as a guest. "We've been friends all these years, even when we haven't always operated together as a band," he says. McDonald and Simmons were "practically neighbours" in Hawaii. Their offspring bonded.

McDonald officially rejoined The Doobies in late 2019, the quartet announcing their 50th anniversary tour at a sold-out Nashville concert. "Pat and I had talked about the possibility of me coming back out with the band," he reveals. "It was something I always in the back of my mind hoped would happen someday. I always missed kinda playing with the band."

McDonald remembers studying The Doobies that evening before accompanying them for an encore. "They never sounded better – just as a spectator, as a person in the audience, I was amazed at how good they sounded live and how energetic the show was," he enthuses. So far the dynamic has been easy, McDonald in familiar surrounds. "In some ways, it's kinda like riding a bike." 

In 2021 The Doobies released Liberté – their first original album since 2010's World Gone Crazy, albeit missing McDonald's input. A homage to the fabled bar Chateau Liberté in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the LP bridges anthemic and soft rock; nostalgia and currency. The band have plugged Johnston's power ballad Shine Your Light, yet Simmons' rousing Cannonball captures their zest for life.

The Doobies sought Grammy-winning producer John Shanks (recently in Bon Jovi's fold) to not only guide them, but also to avoid indecision, Simmons says. "He's just a nice guy and real creative himself."

Simmons has never ceased having song ideas. "You're always thinking about the next project, the next song – you're writing the next whatever you wanna record. I think Mike can testify to that. It's something that's ongoing." 

But The Doobies' artistic process is increasingly considered. "I think, for guys like us, we used to [be], like, 'Oh, we gotta make an album every year and we gotta keep up with it… We just had a hit, we better keep going, we'll get another hit.'

"I don't think that's how we approach things – and I know that's how we don't approach things – anymore. It's more like, 'Thank God we had some hit records and we had some fun and we had audience acceptance and so on.' [But] it was always about the music and creativity and art.

"I think that's kinda where we see ourselves at this point in life. Whatever we do, we wanna do with intention and purpose and try to do something focussed and to the best of your ability."

That particularly relates to Liberté's lyrics, which arose from topical discussions, Simmons recalls. The multi-instrumentalist co-wrote the sweet ballad We Are More Than Love with Shanks about marital commitments – but it plausibly allegorises The Doobies' longevity. "One time we were going, 'God, so many of our friends' marriages broke up during the pandemic!,'" Simmons laughs. "They were with their spouses all that time – for years, decades. And then the pandemic hit and they had to be with them every day and it was like, 'Okay, well, that's over…' At some point, I said, 'Well, you know, it takes more than love to have a relationship that lasts. You have to have more than love.'"

Ironically, Liberté's greatest advocate could be McDonald. "I love the new album," he rhapsodises. "What I really like about the album is it seems to lyrically talk about life as it is for all of us today." McDonald cites a song such as We Are More Than Love. "You know, those are the kinda realisations you come to at our age. So it's timely. I think that's important when you're trying to make a record – that you're really trying to communicate with people. It really should be coming from where you're at now and not be too reminiscent of other times or trying to recapture something that is not really where you're at in this stage of life." 

McDonald struggles with song concepts, asking himself, "Well, what the hell do I wanna write about at 71-years-old?" He rues about "watching HGTV [Home & Garden Television]," Simmons, 74, chuckling along. "So," McDonald reasons, "you have to kinda look a little deeper – but I think that's a good thing." 

And, here, "deeper" means tempered. "As a writer, for myself, as I get older, I feel like, if I'm gonna come up with something, it's probably gonna be a little deeper in thought than what I was writing in my 20s – which was, if this track had a groove, we could almost write any lyric we felt that phonetically made sense. It didn't have to be very deep – or it just could be about having a good time because, when you're in your 20s, that's pretty much all you think about."

Simmons interjects, "That's pretty much all I think about now!" McDonald laughs drolly, "Me too." 

In the '80s The Doobies fell out of fashion – apparently victims of ubiquity. McDonald is fascinated by cyclic popularity. "I kinda enjoy watching the whole thing change," he states. Though The Doobies had previously experimented with New Wave synthy textures on 1977's Echoes Of Love, they were deemed passé. "I think in the '80s we were thought of in the same category as some diseased tribe from a zombie land or something," McDonald says good-naturedly. "Nobody wanted to know about music from the '70s – and rightfully. I mean, that's just the way it goes. The pendulum swings." Unfortunately, the band acquired "pathetic comic value".

But, in the '90s, The Doobies experienced a revival, re-emerging as the pop culture phenom they are today. The UK girl group Bananarama covered Long Train Runnin', acid house-style, with flamenco guitar. And McDonald was embraced as a hip-hop fave. "I was flattered more than anything," he offers. 

The Doobies rubbed off on West Coast rappers – Warren G flipping McDonald's I Keep Forgettin' for his cruisy G-funk banger Regulate, featuring Nate Dogg. "My kids still love Warren G's version of the I Keep Forgettin' track more than mine," McDonald jests. "They've always thought that the better version." Meek Mill's Amen with Drake sampled The Doobies' Minute By Minute, while The Avalanches lifted from Black Water for their nu-disco Subways. McDonald feels "blessed" to have collaborated with Thundercat (plus Loggins) on the avant-groove Show You The Way. "I guess I always find it kinda surprising that [younger acts] even have heard of us. So it's always a compliment to know that they, on some level, were fans of what we did 30 years ago."

Most notably, The Doobies (and McDonald) are nowadays hailed as progenitors of yacht rock – less a genre classification than an aesthetic descriptor retrospectively applied to '70s music. "I don't know what it is, to be honest with you," McDonald admits. Again, his kids clued him in.

McDonald isn't precious – yacht rock icon or no, he relished being spoofed in the animated sitcom Family Guy. "They've poked fun at me especially. But it's all in good fun. I'm always flattered by it – I get a kick out of it. My kids really get a kick out of it."

Several Doobies songs from the '70s were memorably synced for the cult TV show Supernatural. But Simmons reckons that new listeners are predominantly rediscovering the band randomly via the Web. He himself uncovers music on YouTube. "I don't know what we did without the Internet," Simmons marvels. "I don't know how I could drive around without maps!"

It transpires that The Doobies intend to record a reunion project – this go with McDonald. "Mike brought in a song by The Staple Singers and we cut a track during the pandemic – we did sort of an isolation track – and I think it's a phenomenal track," Simmons shares, prompting McDonald to remind him of the title (it's a cover of the civil rights-inspired Freedom Highway). "It's a great song," he reiterates. "It's really timely for where we are in the world." The Doobies hope to reconnect with Shanks in the studio.

McDonald envisages that The Doobies' writing will be more collaborative, in keeping with their approach to arrangements. "I think we're all looking forward to possibly cross-pollinating more than maybe we even did in the past as far as writing each song."

Nonetheless, Simmons suggests that the band members don't have to be involved in every number. "You can't have your feelings hurt if you're not doing anything, because maybe it just doesn't need it. So don't let it bother you, that's the thing – just go with the flow.

"When you look at a project, it's more than just this song or that song or this part… It's a statement of many parts. So you're gonna get a chance to express yourself. Don't sweat it, you know?" 

Above all, The Doobies will continue the trajectory of Liberté. "I think this is an opportunity for us to come across with some thoughts that are really relevant to us at this age," McDonald ponders. "I think Liberté did that for the band. And I think anything we do, coming up here, hopefully will be on the same track, the same journey – just trying to actually be a band at this point in time in our lives."

Simmons chortles, "I've got a couple of songs: one is I'm Going Out To Eat Again and the other one is It Looks Like It's Time For Bed." McDonald banters, "It sounds like a couple of hits right there."

The Doobie Brothers aren't jaded about touring, even as they extend their current run. "At our age, we don't get in a lot of trouble out there," McDonald says. "We just pretty much focus on the shows and plan and, once we get through the rehearsal stage and we get things worked out, then it's just a matter of applying that to the actual stage and live."

Mind, despite his prep, scenarios often change in rehearsal – a challenge he welcomes. "We've all learned that over the years, but it always seems to come back and surprise us again. We get out on the road and we always feel like our last two shows, we finally got it – and it's time to go home… But everything is a learning curve. As long as we're out there working, it seems like we're learning something every day."

In planning setlists, The Doobies are as pragmatic as they are gracious. The group understand that fans want to hear the hits instead of fresh fare (after all, their '70s Best Of... is certified Diamond Stateside). "I feel that we owe that to our audience," Simmons affirms. "Not to be a jukebox, but to be responsive to why we're selling tickets to the show, why people are there – they're there to hear certain songs." Still, he adds, "we always try to dig a little deeper," throwing in rarities. "It's fun for us to do that 'cause it keeps things more interesting and alive." The band do touch on Liberté. But, Simmons stresses, "We don't try to beat people over the head with our new material." He quips, "We're not like Bob Dylan – he goes out on the road, he goes, 'You're not hearing anything except my new album, sorry!'" 

Yet McDonald "wishes" that they were performing more from Liberté, as it's another chapter in the story. "Whether I participated on that particular album is not really important, as much as it's where the band is at, at this moment in time. I think, in some ways, it gives more meaning to all the other stuff – 'cause it kinda takes you through the timeline of the band's consciousness."

The Doobie Brothers are headlining Bluesfest this Easter long weekend. They will headline the Crossroads stage on Monday, 10 April. But before that, they perform at Sydney’s State Theatre on April 6 and Bluesfest Melbourne on April 8.