Monday, July 14, 2014

Long Doobie Runnin: A Q&A with Patrick Simmons

Posted By on Mon, Jul 14, 2014 at 10:06 AM

The Doobie Brothers: John McFee (left), Tom Johnston, and Patrick Simmons.
  • Courtesy the Doobie Brothers
  • The Doobie Brothers: John McFee (left), Tom Johnston, and Patrick Simmons.

In the Doobie Brothers' 40-year+ career, with over 40 million records sold, only one Doobie has remained lit for the entire saga: the guitar and voice of Patrick Simmons. The band has recently completed a new album of some of their classic tunes with some noteworthy guest appearances and is hitting the road this summer with Peter Frampton. Before heading to Atlanta for a show at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre on Thurs., July 17, Simmons checked in to talk about his influences, changing lead singers mid-career, guitars, motorcycles, and his old band mate, Skip Spence.

You’ve been working on a new album of classic songs with guest appearances from some notable country music stars. Was it a different experience working on songs that you had already recorded?

I would say probably was. (It’s the) first time we worked with David Huff, who was the producer. He made everybody feel comfortable. He’s a great producer, so he really did right by us. He brought in a studio band to cut the tracks, so that was different from what we’ve done in the past. It actually made things much easier. They had rehearsed the songs and worked on arrangements that David kind of came up with. They don’t differ wildly from the originals, but there’s a few little twists and turns here and there that give them a little different personality. Then the players themselves were just incredible studio guys from Nashville so they threw a little extra something into the tracks that we probably might not have come up with. There was also some different instrumentation. I think we had two guitar players including whoever in the [Doobies] band was playing guitar. In that case, sometimes it was all three of us, and then a steel player, keyboard player, bass player, drummer, and then there was a utility guy that might be playing banjo, or mandolin, or bazouki on different tracks. Pretty interesting overall, the whole thing was a different approach to what we would normally do. For us as individuals, it was a real kick in the pants to have that thing going on. We’ve played these songs for a long time so, we all know them very well. When we originally cut the tracks a lot of times, some of us didn’t know the songs much at all, so we were shooting around in the dark for a part. But now that we’ve been playing these songs, it was much quicker in terms of getting the tracks and to have that extra energy, and that extra assurance in what we were going to play. Really a lot of fun, overall.

You are known for your finger picking technique. Did you start out with that approach or did you gravitate towards it as you progressed?

Probably strumming more, back in the old days. I started out learning country music because my neighbor was the one that taught me to play, just a friend of mine. His parents were in a country band and so I learned some of those tunes. You know, Johnny Cash stuff, just some traditional hillbilly folk tunes and stuff. Then, years later, I saw other players playing with their fingers. People like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Hoyt Axton, those guys were all finger players. I got very interested in that. As I grew a little bit older, folk music became very popular and it was on television a lot. I used to watch “Hootenanny” every week and you’d see all these people playing these traditional styles of music and I really liked that. I wanted to do that. And, long about that time, think I was about 11 or 12 years old, I heard Chet Atkins. I listened to that and it just totally blew my mind. I’d never heard anything like that in my life. Chet was experimenting with reverb and all the stuff Les Paul was doing, but Chet was kind of mirroring that in the country field. I heard that, and that, to me, was a moment that took my playing to another place. So then I started trying to imitate that. I bought Chet Atkins records and tried to memorize songs that he played. Then, not too long after that, I was old enough to go to clubs in San Jose and there were great pickers who were playing more folk blues. Jorma Kaukonen is a great example of a guy that was playing around San Jose, and he wound up in Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. I flipped when I saw that and I went home and practiced and practiced and just basically learned to play that. I would go see Jorma as often as I could and just sit there a few feet away from him and watch him play until I was confident that I had mastered that technique. And I’ve continued it to this day.

What was it like to play with Skip Spence?

(Laughs and pauses) Skip was a maniac. (more laughs) He was such a … I love Skip. He was another San Jose guy and he had played folk music around town for quite a while, and I used to run into him here and there. When he started playing drums for Jefferson Airplane, I was kind of confused because I thought, “Isn’t he a guitar player? I don’t remember ever seeing him play drums.” Then I read something that he had never played drums before, they just liked the way he looked and thought “You could be a good drummer, (laughs) you should learn drums!”

I thought he did pretty well on that first record, it kind of blew my mind. He really taught himself, I think. Maybe he had some drum background, I don’t know, I never heard of it, but he did really well. I think he was just a versatile musician. Then when he did that first record with the Moby Grape, I just thought that was a great, great record. I loved the songs that he contributed. All the guys were great, but knowing Skip personally it was kind of “Oh wow, these songs are so good!” Then I ran into him a couple of years later in San Jose just walking around and we reestablished a friendship. Unbeknownst to me, he was friends with Tom Johnston and John Hartman [of the Doobie Brothers]. So he’s the one that introduced me to them. He was playing with them in a little combo that they had earlier. Skip had a band called Pachuco and there was a gig that the rest of those guys in that band weren’t able to play, and Skip had been jamming around with Tom and John and another bass player at that time. So he cobbled them together and they ended up playing this gig that I was also on the bill, and Skip introduced me to John and Tom and we got to be friends. All of us jammed together from time to time. Skip was just a fountain of energy, basically. An interesting … Stylist, (warm reminiscent laughter) an all around good guy.

What did you think of his solo album, OAR? Do you think it was a good representation of him?

I’ll be honest with you man, I don’t want to degrade the legacy of anything. But at the time he was working on that, Skip had some behavioral issues he was dealing with, like anxiety. He had been on medication for a while. I don’t really know what was going on with him during that time period, but he was having some hard times. You know, phasing in and out of reality. I think it’s evident when you listen to that record, that there were some troubling moments in terms of what he brought to that record, because if you listen to other things with the Jefferson Airplane and the Grape, you can see the difference in his performance. That being said, I thought there were some brilliant moments with the songs and some sort of interesting departures from something that could have been mainstream and something that was kind of surreal. When I look back and I listen to it, I know that he wasn’t hitting on all cylinders, but at the same time its almost Dali-esque where he went with that. And I love that about the record. It’s an honest guy going through some difficult times in his life attempting to create art. Some of the greatest art ever has been brought to the public under those conditions. So in a sense, it’s classic. It’s a classic moment in his life. Knowing him, I’ve seen him on all levels: very intuitive and very together a good amount of time, and also in semi schizophrenic states. I will always admire him as an artist, musician, and as a friend.

Takin’ It To The Streets is clearly a pivotal album for the band for obvious reasons like the introduction of Michael McDonald and the limited contribution of Tom Johnston. But it also sounds as though the entire band is branching into other types of music and pushing your boundaries. Was that the case?

Absolutely. As in everything with this band, everything is an evolution: An accidental random positioning of musicians and songs, as was that record. If there was anything more random, (laughs) it probably hasn’t happened in this band. We went in to record that record and Tom was unable to get in there and work on the record. We had scheduled the studio time to work on the project and I had X number of songs in my back pocket that I was bringing in to offer up. I think Tommy already cut maybe four or five songs that were incomplete but they were some interesting tracks that we had recorded and perhaps might rerecord. Nonetheless, it was some promising things that he had done. But at the time we were sort of, “We have the studio time, what are we gonna do?” Ted Templeman, producer said ,“Why don’t you come in and we’ll record the tracks that you and I talked about of your songs and then we’ll reassess where we’re at and we’ll try and figure it out. Maybe I can get Tom in to work thru with some time, but lets just keep working as though we’re making this record.” We went in and cut maybe three or four of my songs and the tracks turned out good. Prior to going into the studio I was telling Ted, “There’s this guy I’ve been working with on some tracks, a keyboard player, Michael McDonald, and he’s such a great player. If it’s ok with you I’d like to bring him in and have him cut these tracks with me. Do you mind?” He was (reluctant voice) “Well, we usually use Bill Payne.” And I said, “We can always put Bill Payne on the tracks if you feel that would be better, but in the meantime do you mind if I bring Mike in and have him play? Ted said, “Sure, let’s go with that.” So I brought in Mike. At the time we also had a percussionist, Bobby LaKind, we wanted to bring to the studio. Ted was like “Are you sure?” I said, “Yeah, you know Bobby’s been playing with us live and I think he’s really a good addition for some of the tracks I’ve been working on, one in particular.” Ted said, “Oh, ok bring him along, we’ve got nothing to lose. If it doesn’t work out I’ll just set him aside and we’ll tell him it’s gonna be an overdub or something.”

So we go in, set up, and play the tracks and both Michael and Bobby performed flawlessly. Ted was completely enthused: “Oh man, you nailed it, I’m so glad you brought these guys in, this is fabulous!” Everybody was beaming. Bobby, as far as I know, had never played on anybody’s record. He worked for the production coordinator for the band on the lighting crew and he had just been sitting in with us from time to time playing congas. But I really liked what he brought to the mix, so I brought him and he played perfectly. So we cut the tracks and we’re sitting around, and we thought, “What are we gonna do? What about Tommy?” Ted says, “I don’t know, he’s telling me he doesn’t think he’s going to be able to finish these tracks. He might be able to do one or two, but he’s not feeling good and doesn’t feel like he’s going to be able to contribute much. Do you have any other songs?” I said, “I do, but this guy Mike McDonald is really a good singer and he’s written a couple of songs and I think you should check it out.” He goes, “Pat I don’t know about bringing something else into the band at this point. If we’re gonna go on I’d rather you front the band and you sing the songs and we’ll build it around you.” And I go, “You should listen to the songs (laughs).” So Mike’s sitting down at the piano and Ted’s sitting across from me behind Mike and Mike starts playing (sings intro of “Takin’ It To The Streets”). Ted looks up at me and his eyes get really wide and he mouths at me, “Oh my God” (laughs). He had no idea Mike had that voice, he had never heard him sing before. Ted is a huge R&B guy. That’s where he cut his teeth. Even though he was the drummer in Harpers Bizzare, whenever we were in the studio his references were often coming from Motown, Stax/Volt, that kind of stuff. He heard Mike sing and he said, “We’ve got to cut that (laughs).” That was kind of the beginning of that journey and it just went on from there.

Most electric guitarists are usually identified with a type of guitar, whereas you had the Gibson ES-335 in the early early and the Fender Stratocaster later on. Which is your go to these days?

These days I’m a Strat guy, but I do love the 335. It has a really great warm sound to it. You can make it rock, you can make it bluesy, you can make it jazzy, it’s got a little bit of everything, but likewise, the Strat can equally embrace all those types of music. But like I said I’m more a Strat guy these days, I just feel more comfortable with it. I like the edge that they bring to rhythm parts. But I do play my 335 at home; it’s been my go to in my home studio. I’m playing that a lot more these days. I’ve also got a Gibson L5 that’s one of my favorite guitars. It’s a little fat Gibson, I love that sound as well.

What about a go to bike? Any favorite Motorcycles?

Favorite Motorcycle? (laughs) You know, I’m working on a bike that I’m going to ride across the country, a 1929 JD that I’m going to ride from Daytona, Fla to Takoma, Wash. in September in the Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run. I’m doing that with a bunch of other people. My wife is riding a 1934 Harley DL. So that’s my go to bike right now that I’m dialing in to do that ride with, so I’m pretty excited about that. We did a ride last summer where I rode my Harley 1914 two-speed, and my wife rode her 1915 from Sturgis to Milwaukee for the Harley 110. That’s about 1,000 miles on a 1914 so that was pretty burly (laughs). I’m looking forward to this.

The Doobie Brothers and Peter Frampton play Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park on Thurs., July 17. $40.35-$113.70.

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