Their latest, World Gone Crazy, took about 3 years to complete. It is highly refined in a Steely Dan kind of way: clean and clear with expert musicians. That's one advantage of being The Doobie Brothers - you can bring in Willie Nelson to sing background, call up Little Feat founder Billy Payne to add piano, and get Karl Perazzo of Santana for percussion. Former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald even shows up on the track "Don't Say Goodbye." Ted Templeman, who worked on all the early Doobie Brothers albums and most of the good stuff by Van Halen, is back to produce.
Doobie Brothers guitarists Tom Johnston and Pat Simmons are their primary songwriters and handle the vocals: Tom is "China Grove" and Pat is "Black Water." For World Gone Crazy, they wrote separately, which has its advantages. Tom told us about making the album, which you can find on iTunes and Amazon.
Tom Johnston: Even though I would rather have worked more steadily on it, I'm glad it turned out the way it did. Because some of the songs would not be where they are right now had it not taken that long. Things happened for a reason, that's how I look at it. When you're writing a song, the song kind of writes itself, and you know it happened for a reason. It's not like you sat down to beat yourself to death trying to come up with a tune. It's like you're channeling the energy, and that's kind of how it was for some of the songs on this record for me.
SF: Do you guys use the most modern production techniques; Pro Tools computers and stuff, or do you try to go old school?
Tom: No, we don't go old school, we do new stuff. There is still tape available, you can still buy it, and some people still believe in that. I am of the school of most people can't tell the flippin' difference. People with my hearing ability, for instance, it really doesn't make any difference. (laughing) The thing about Pro Tools is that there's no rewind, no fast forward. Also, you can layer and layer and layer, and you don't have to worry about the limitations of a two-inch tape. You have no limitations, you can go as far as you want. And with new programs like Melodyne, you can readjust notes it's incredible what you can do.
SF: How is it different making an album now versus in 1972?
Tom: Well, in the old days we were doing an album a year. Bang, bang, bang, bang. That was just the way it was. You'd be on the road for long periods of time and you'd come off the road and go straight in the studio you were expected to produce an album a year. That was part of the deal.
In this case, there was no record company, we paid for the album, we did it at our own pace and however we wanted, and we hadn't done one for ten years, so the album-a-year was definitely out the window. And even though we're still doing about 90 shows a year, I think the biggest difference on this album was probably three-fold:
First of all, we got back together with Ted (Templeman), who we hadn't worked with in the longest time, which I thought was essential in having a record. We needed a producer. We had to have one. And the most important part for me for a producer is song selection, because if it's left up to the band it becomes democratic, and then you've got problems because you won't get your best material that way. And the last album we did is vivid proof of that. There's some good songs on it, and it was really well recorded and well played, but with four different guys singing on the album there was no cohesive "here's the Doobies" kind of thing, it was confusing. On this album, with Ted's help, we picked the songs, and then went on to record the basics.
The second difference is there are periods in there where the writers, myself and Pat, went off and did a lot of the work on the tunes by ourselves. Instead of sitting in with the whole band in the studio the whole time, we might be in another town or at least another studio. Pat lives in Hawaii, so he did a lot of his stuff there. So there was a separation there that didn't used to occur. We were always in the studio, we were always in L.A., we were always in Amigo Studios, where we did all our albums in those days.
The third thing is that the band produced it as much as Ted produced it. It's just having the direction of the songs to start with is a huge boon. Because then it takes the onus off the band of saying, "Oh, well I want to do this, I want to do that." The old days we just walked in the door with whatever we had, and Ted would pick the idea that you used. It was really produced by Ted, specifically, and that's how it was for the longest time. And this one really wasn't like that.
SF: How do you think the album came out?
Tom: I'm happier with this album than any album we've done since somewhere in the early '70s. I think this album has more quality tunes, the thought process behind them was better, I think the messages on them are better. I think it really came out well.
Tom took us through some other tracks on the album as well.
"Old Juarez" is an old West theme, if you will. It's a Mexican old West, about what Juarez was like in the Zapata era: Some young gun slinger running around getting himself in trouble by fooling around with a married woman.
"New York Dream" is all about older women and younger men, which is called Cougars, but it's also as much about relationships in general and about a lady not taking care of herself.
"A Brighter Day" is about a young guy who has the gift of being able to tell the future and see things returning, called second sight, which I believe is an old southern Louisiana term. It's an old blues term, is what it is. Then all the newsies go down to ask him what he sees, and he proceeds to tell them that mankind is screwing up by going to war all the time, and they need to talk more. It's kind of like the new version of "Listen to the Music." It's the positive would trump the negative if people got together, talked, and used music and things like that as a base. That's what "Listen to the Music" was all about: using music as our way of communicating, because it's an international language, you don't have to worry about the words. Music itself brings you up, it's just a lifting experience.
"Young Man's Game" is guys our age taking a look at the young ones coming up and what's going on, and the fact that we're still out here doing it, and are still rocking.
For more on The Doobie Brothers classic songs, check out our 2009 interview with Tom Johnston. Their official site is doobiebros.com.
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