The Doobie Brothers were one of the most popular bands in America when Michael McDonald joined their ranks in 1975. Frontman Tom Johnston had just departed due to medical issues and they wanted someone to contribute to the harmonies and add keyboards into the mix. At that point, McDonald was best known for his studio work with Steely Dan, and the group had no idea he was a brilliant songwriter until he showed them a demo for “Takin’ It to the Streets,” which quickly became the title for their sixth studio record and an enormous radio hit.
It was the beginning of a long string of McDonald-penned Doobie Brothers hits like “What a Fool Believes,” “Minute by Minute,” and “Real Love.” The group broke up in 1982 and it was the earlier “China Grove” lineup that re-formed five years later, though McDonald toured with them in 1995 and has guested sporadically with them ever since, often at corporate gigs. But this summer he’s hitting the road with the Doobies for an extensive 50th-anniversary tour.
We spoke to McDonald about the Doobie Brothers entering the Hall of Fame, plans for the upcoming tour, and what it’s like to be the captain of the Yacht Rock scene.
Congrats on the big news.
Thank you! It’s exciting, for sure.
What was your first reaction to hearing about it?
I guess I was a little apprehensive just in the sense that I didn’t want to assume too much too soon because you never know how these things are going to fall. Even just up to a couple of days ago, I thought, “Well, anything could happen.” But it’s great news for us. It’s very exciting. It’s always been an honor for me to work with the guys over the years. It’s been a huge chapter of my life. Just on a personal level, getting this award with these individuals means a lot.
Is this something you thought much about over the years? You guys have been eligible for a long time.
I don’t think I ever really thought about it too much, but I always thought it would be nice. And I thought the band, with or without me, just as a band, deserved the nod. They are such an American band, starting in 1970. I felt as an entity the band deserved a nod from the Hall of Fame, so I’m happy to see that happen and couldn’t be prouder to be a part of it.
The timing is pretty perfect because you guys are going on that huge tour this summer.
Going out for the 50th and having this be the way the year starts off is really exciting.
Bands usually play four songs. Any idea what you might play?
We don’t know yet. I’m guessing we’ll do “Long Train Runnin’,” “Listen to the Music” and maybe “Takin’ It to the Streets” and “Black Water.” That would be my guess.
You’re going in alongside Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode, T. Rex, Notorious B.I.G., and Whitney Houston.
There’s something about all those bands that I really enjoy a lot. More than anything, each of those bands has helped shape the form that rock & roll has taken over the years. That’s what I like to see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame do, pick those bands that have sculpted what we see rock & roll as today.
Can you envision an all-star jam between all you guys?
Sure. I’ve always found in those situations that it’s amazing how there’s usually mutual admiration on some level. A friend of mine, David Pack from Ambrosia, was just telling me the other day that he was on a plane with Ronnie James Dio one time. He said, “I don’t know what came over me, but I apologized for having written ‘I’m Not In Love.'” Maybe it was another ballad like “That’s How Much I Feel.” Either way, Ronnie said “Are you kidding? I’d give anything to write a song like that.” It just goes to show you.
Are you open to the idea of playing with Skunk Baxter and Tiran Porter at the induction?
Sure. Yeah. The way I look at it is that it’s a night for for anything to happen. Anything could happen and probably should. It’s a magical night for us and the one chance in a long time that we’d all get to play together and take the stage together.
I’m sure standing at the podium will be a very emotional moment for you.
It’s the culmination of a lot of years of traveling together and working together. We are fortunate that our friendship has remained the most important thing to us through all the various incarnations of the band. We all had an appreciation for what the band has meant to each of us individually and what it’s been as an experience collectively.
The band was never a real critic’s band, but in so many ways that just doesn’t matter.
Yeah. We always kind of had to look for our validation from our fans because that was really where we got it, on the road playing for people live and having that communication. As far as the media goes, we weren’t referred as a cutting-edge band.
I hear those songs all the time though. That matters more than what any critic wrote decades ago.
I hope you’re right. It certainly has been an amazing ride for us.
Are you thinking much about how the show will be structured this summer when you hit the road with them?
We haven’t really got into the nitty-gritty of it. We’ll probably start rehearsals in May. I’ve talked to [keyboardist] Billy Payne myself and John [McFee]. I’m just trying to get as much material from those guys as I can. I really want to come into this thing as finely meshed into it as I can with Billy. He’s such a phenomenal keyboard player and [has] always been one of my favorites. I want to know what he’s playing and what he thinks I should play and kind of go from there and suss out what my role in keyboards will be. I want to contribute. I don’t want to be the guy that jumps in the pool and splashes everybody who is having a great, great time without me.
With any band, but especially one on the larger size, you want to look for where you can be a contribution to the whole thing. And I know my job as singing will be just what it is. I’ll sing the songs that I sing and then just do backgrounds. I’m really looking forward to that. I’m looking forward to having less responsibility as a lead singer [than] I do with my band. When you’re out on the road for months, there’s always these periods of time where you’re gasping for air and hoping your voice will show up. It’s going to be fun for me to just sing a couple of songs a night.
I’ve seen Neil Young say that he used to love the CSNY tours since the whole thing wasn’t on his shoulders. It’s the same here. You’re just part of a band.
Yeah. I think that appeals to most people by nature. There are people that are gifted with great performing skills, but a lot of musicians are not. They were pushed out into the spotlight in certain circumstances, but would usually prefer to be pushed into the backline doing their thing and not having too much responsibility as far as performing goes. I think 80 percent of the musicians I know feel that way.
And Tom and Pat both really have their voices.
Yeah. The band has never sounded better to me. I saw them recently in Nashville. It struck me that this was the best they’ve ever sounded. It’s inspiring to see that. We’re all getting older. You think, “Geez, am I going to be able to do this forever? When do I give up the ghost?” It’s a physical endeavor like anything else. But to see those guys really nail it to the wall, and anyone, the Stones and all these different acts performing at the top of their game, with some of them in their seventies. It gives me great hope.
Are you going to sing any non-Doobies songs in the set?
I’m not sure about that. I think we’ll suss that out, but I’m going to do as much pre-studying and woodshedding as I can knowing that the band — and it’s always been this way — we figure out what we’ll do when we get together. We’ll see what feels good and what doesn’t feel good. There will be a lot of trial and error in rehearsals.
Are you working on any new songs right now?
I’ve actually been recording an album. It started out as an EP and I don’t know what it is at this point. As long as I can think of things to do, I’ll be recording. It’s actually a very simple project. It’s just live. A couple of tracks are with local musicians in Santa Barbara, just musicians I play with in the different local haunts there. I decided to pull them in for a little project. Everything is live. I’m playing live and singing live. I just thought I’d do something like that, that was really simple and kind of represented my experience in California.
It’s nothing too ambitious, really. Just myself and some local friends. We went up to a studio in Santa Barbara on the coast and just played some stuff live and decided what to record and hoped we’d remember the words by the time we got to taping. We’re all playing in one big room with an engineer. It’s a barn and we’re all on headphones in the same room tying to get out of everyone’s way.
When might that come out?
I’m hoping to get it ready to go as merch on the Doobies tour. We’re trying to come up with stuff for the merch area. I think the Doobies are coming out with an EP. They asked me if I had anything and said, “I’ve got about 100,000 copies of the last record I did since I can’t seem to give it away.” I’m going to bring those out on the tour. I thought I’d record this EP for fun just as a California experience.
Do you still get a kick out of being sampled by rap artists? I can’t hear “I Keep Forgettin'” today and not think about “Regulate.”
That was always fun. What I really found interesting was a lot of my synth sounds that have been sampled come from old records in the 1970s, not just the Doobies. Typically those sounds were things the producer and engineer hated that I came up with. I wasn’t too thrilled with it either, but it was the best I could figure out since I couldn’t work those contraptions very well. If I ever really wanted some decent synth sounds, I would call Billy Payne and get him to program some synths for me, which is what we did on “A Fool Believes.” On a lot of the other stuff I would go it alone. Nobody wanted to be in the room with me and a synthesizer. Let’s put it that way.
And so I hear a lot of that stuff on rap records in a different application where it sounds cool — that was kind of amusing to me. And “Regulate” in particular. I got a chance to meet Warren [G] on the road and his wife on the road. He’s a great guy. The first time I met him he was driving past me on the street in New York City. He rolled down the window and waved to me and we had two seconds to say hello.
They came down to a gig we did in Orange County. It was fun to sit and talk to him. That was one of the early stages of hip-hop sampling that kind of materialized from that point on.
Has any part of you grown weary of the term “Yacht Rock?”
I’ve always found it funny, those Internet episodes. It was uncanny how it’s almost become a genre of music. The way I look at it is, it’s something people love to laugh about, but they still have a certain affection for it. In the 1970s when we were writing songs, it was a time when pop musicians were exploring more traditional jazz chord progressions and stuff like that. There was actually a period of time where you couldn’t put enough chords in a song for the radio.
Then there was the great Eighties backlash to that. It’s just a cyclical thing. I toured with Steely Dan a few years ago. I was listening to them from the side of the stage one night and it struck me how amazing it was these guys were the darling of pop radio for more than a decade and their songs are so strange and so harmonically and chordally experimental in some ways, and yet harkening to more traditional musical entities like Duke Ellington. Who would have ever guessed that would have become popular music for a decade?
It’s a pretty amazing thing. And you’re on so many songs from that time, you’re kind of seen as the captain of Yacht Rock. Do you like that moniker?
[Laughs] I’ll take whatever I can get at my age.