John McFee of the Doobie Brothers: Something Else! Interview
John McFee joined Preston Frazier for the Something Else! Sitdown as the Doobie Brothers gear up for a fall headlining tour to run from September through November. They’ve also just released a new concert recording, ‘The Doobie Brothers: Live From The Beacon Theatre,’ which will feature entire-album readings of both 1972’s ‘Toulouse Street’ and 1973’s ‘The Captain and Me.’ McFee discusses planned new music from the Doobie Brothers, continuing shared dates with Santana and the prospects of a solo project.
PRESTON FRAZIER: Thanks for taking a few minutes out of your rehearsal. You are resuming a pretty busy summer tour schedule. How is the current leg different than the last leg of this tour with Santana?
JOHN McFEE: Well, it’s different all the time. Some nights [longtime Doobie Brothers frontman] Tom [Johnston], [co-founder] Pat [Simmons] or myself or even all three of us will sit in with Carlos for a song or two. There’s a certain amount of jamming going on. We also change our set up a little bit from show to show, so every night’s a little different. Also the band really has been gelling. We get along really well. There’s a lot of connection with our band and Santana.
PRESTON FRAZIER: After this leg with Santana you’re going out as a headliner. Will you be doing the Captain and Me/Toulouse Street, set since the Live at the Beacon Theater CD/DVD set came out a few weeks ago?
JOHN McFEE: We always do songs from those albums, since they are songs we have to play. “Black Water,” for example, didn’t come from those albums but we included it on the new CD. We may do some special shows. We like to do a mix of the hits, but you’ll be hearing a bunch of those songs.
PRESTON FRAZIER: I think besides Pat Simmons, I’ve seen you in more Doobie Brothers shows than any other member. One thing that comes across on the new album is your versatility as a musician. On the Live at the Beacon album, you even play cello in addition to violin, dobro, pedal steel and lead guitar …
JOHN McFEE: Well, there were so many different parts on the Captain and Mealbum. It really depends on the set list. Over the years, the set list changes and I’m a team player, so I play what’s best for the song.
PRESTON FRAZIER: Has your role changed since you joined the band in 1979? You came back in 1993, and have been there ever since.
JOHN McFEE: When I first joined, Tommy wasn’t there and Michael McDonald was the focus of our shows. It was the McDonald era, so the music was different. Yet, in many ways my role was the same as it is now. I’m a team player. I’m lucky to have a lot of instruments around growing up, so my attitude has always been, ‘OK, you need that, I’ll play that.’ That part of my role has always been the same. I think, right now, the band’s is in a really good space. We have never played better. We have Billy Payne on keyboards. He’s played on almost every Doobie Brothers album, including the iconic piano parts on “China Groove” and “Rockin’ Down the Highway.” We have Marc Russo on sax, who’s been with us for a long time. We have Ed Toth on drums and John Cowan on bass – he’s also an amazing singer – and we just added Marc Quinones on percussion, who spent two decades as a member of the Allman Brothers Band. It’s really exciting to hit the stage these days.
PRESTON FRAZIER: One of your roles on the One Step Closer and Sibling Rivalryalbums was as a songwriter. You contributed the title track to One Step Closer and the jazz instrumental, “South Bay Strut.” On Sibling Rivalry, you wrote and sung “Angels of Madness,” which is one of the best Doobie Brothers songs over the last 20 years. You didn’t write or sing on the last album, World Gone Crazy. Are you contributing songs to the upcoming EP by the Doobies?
JOHN McFEE: So far, we are focusing on songs which feature Tom and Pat’s writing. We’ve been working with producer John Shanks, and it’s really material from those guys. I tend to not want the spot light. It’s not as if there is someone keeping me from contributing. It’s of my own choosing. When [the late Doobie Brothers drummer] Keith [Knudson] and I were in Southern Pacific, I did a lot of the writing and the lead vocals as well, but in this band I feel lucky that I get to do what I do. What Pat and Tommy does really works.
PRESTON FRAZIER: I’m not putting Pat and Tom down, but you’ve written so many great songs – and especially on the Southern Pacific albums Killbilly Hill and Zuma, your vocals and guitar smoked.
JOHN McFEE: Thanks. Those albums were, in so many ways, me getting back to my roots. That Telecaster sound was my roots, but the Doobies are an opportunity for me to be supportive in what makes the band work.
PRESTON FRAZIER: With World Gone Crazy, you engineered some…
JOHN McFEE: Yes, a lot was recorded at my studio. We did some recordings at Sunset Sound, but a lot was done at my place.
PRESTON FRAZIER: You are also an active producer. I remember a Jon Cowan album a few years ago that you produced and played on that was amazing!
JOHN McFEE: Yes! That was the album Sixty. It was an honor to produce such an incredible singer and player. I’m very proud of that.
PRESTON FRAZIER: You mentioned John Shanks producing the new Doobie Brothers’ EP. Are you working on any new albums as a producer?
JOHN McFEE: Well, my wife made me promise to focus on doing a solo album. I’ve avoided it for years, but since I’m not getting any younger I’ve started to work on it. I’ve worked with Timothy B. Schmit and Chicago, and a lot of different artists recently. I tend to stay pretty busy. When I’m off the road, I tend to stay very busy. The solo stuff is fairly well along. I hope to have something out late this year or early next year.
PRESTON FRAZIER: How about the new Doobie Brothers’ EP?
JOHN McFEE: Well, we are hoping to have the mixes done in the late fall. Maybe it will be done by the end of the year, if not early in 2020.
PRESTON FRAZIER: What is your on-stage set up for the Doobie Brothers?
JOHN McFEE: I’m almost exclusively using Line 6 gear. I use a Line Six pedal board and a Line Six Veriax guitar standard. I go direct from my Helix to the front of the house with no aps on stage. I use Steinberger MS design violins and cellos. An Epiphone banjo. I’m also using an ETS [East Texas Steel] Pedal Steel guitar.
PRESTON FRAZIER: John, thanks for taking the time out of rehearsal for this. One more question: What are your Top 5 favorite albums?
JOHN McFEE: That’s a hard one! Let’s see. All the Beatles albums. Buck Owens and the Buckaroos’ Carnegie Hall Concert is a classic. It’s the best country live album ever. Stephane Grappelli is a violinist who I love. Any of his stuff with Django Reinhardt, or his solo work. Buddy Emmons is a classic pedal-steel player. Emmons Guitar Incorporated, or the Black Album. Buddy Emmons’ Steel Guitar is also a great album. Moby Grape’s first album is a classic, too – as well as anything by Rhonda Vincent.