Picking His Spots: Q&A with String Instrument Virtuoso John McFee

Picking His Spots: Q&A with String Instrument Virtuoso John McFee

Best known as a longtime member of The Doobie Brothers, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist John McFee has also provided key support to Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Steve Miller, the Grateful Dead, and many more rock and country artists. We checked in with McFee recently to see what he’s up to musically in this unique time, and to learn what’s next for him and the Doobies.

You’re currently working on a solo album. What is the story behind this one and when will it be available for the world to listen?

Picking His Spots: Q&A with String Instrument Virtuoso John McFee

Well, in 2018 I promised my wife to at least start my “debut” solo project in 2019. Her request was really the result of having watched me work on so many other people’s projects and always put off doing something of my own over the course of so many years that she felt I needed a little prodding. Miraculously, I actually did start the project in 2019 and am now nearing completion in 2020. I expect to get it out to the public sometime later in the summer or early fall.

What have you been doing to balance both performing with the Doobie Brothers and your new personal initiatives?

The Doobie Brothers remain the top priority for me, as we’re a real team, and with our crew and all those involved I feel it’s important to respect the complexities of scheduling anything that we do. These are friends and family and we all depend on each other. Whether it’s with the band, other artists I work with, or my solo project, it’s all about the music, anyway. So the music itself and coordinating with my collaborators is what leads me in how I allocate my time.

How will the sound of your solo album be similar or different from the Doobie Brothers’ signature sound?

Well, I’m probably the least qualified to assess that objectively, but there will inevitably be elements of the Doobies’ sound present. I will, however, be leaning a little harder in some instances towards my country roots, particularly on a couple of instrumentals I’ve written that are part of the project. I’m also incorporating more of my bowed string instrument playing, with violin, viola, and cello, then I’ve ever used with the Doobie Brothers. My lead vocal work may surprise some people, too. Although I’ve filled in for both Pat and Tom on lead vocals while playing live a number of times through the years, I’ve only done one lead vocal on a Doobie Brothers album – the song “Angels of Madness” from Sibling Rivalry.

What A-T gear is your favorite to use when recording?

Picking His Spots: Q&A with String Instrument Virtuoso John McFee

I have to say that I totally rely on a pair of AT4060 microphones of mine. The AT4060 is really my favorite all-around microphone ever. I’m using it, for example, on all my lead and background vocals on my solo project, as well as on any of my acoustic string instruments – guitars, banjo, mandolin, violin, viola, cello, dobro, autoharp, you name it. My headphones of choice are the ATH-M50x – they’re all I use when working on recordings.

The Doobie Brothers are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year – congratulations! How is the band celebrating this milestone?

Well, we were going to be celebrating it with a year of extensive touring, featuring Michael McDonald back in the band. Due to the situation with the coronavirus, that has now been rescheduled for next year, 2021. We were also inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which just happened to coincide with our 50th anniversary. The induction ceremony has been rescheduled from May 2 to November 7, so hopefully that event can take place later this year. In addition to that, we do have some new music – five songs produced by John Shanks – that will be released sometime this year, although exactly when has yet to be determined. Meanwhile, we have so far done two “lockdown” videos to keep the music flowing. “Black Water” was first posted on the Rolling Stone website, and has been incredibly well received. We did one of “Listen to the Music” that aired on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on June 9. We’ll undoubtedly be doing more of these, so we’re all staying on a positive musical path through this pandemic year. You know, the lemons and lemonade thing.

If you hadn’t become a musician, what would you be doing right now?

Good question. It’s hard to say, really. For one thing, I had a difficult childhood and music really saved my life – it was my refuge, the place where I could make my own world. I started really young, and music is what carried me through some very trying circumstances. I was also attracted to drawing, painting, and graphic arts, as well, and at one point thought that I would be doing that as my main pursuit, but music drew me in completely over time. Anyway, if I weren’t doing music, I’d probably be painting and drawing.

What advice do you have for someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?

Picking His Spots: Q&A with String Instrument Virtuoso John McFee

It’s hard not to give a humorous response to that question, like something about making better choices in footsteps. But seriously, probably the only worthwhile bit of advice I might offer anyone who wants to be a musician is one word: practice. The time and focus one puts into learning an instrument or developing their voice or building an approach to songwriting is all important; there is no substitute for hard work.

How can fans stay connected with you and learn more about tour dates and album releases?

Ha! I have to laugh because, as of now, I personally have no social media presence. The band’s social media is the closest I get to that world. I know I will have to put some things in place soon for this because of this solo project, but my reason for avoiding it goes back to when I was the webmaster for the Doobie Brothers website. In the earliest days of bands (or anybody) putting together websites, we hired a company to build a site for us and the band was unhappy with the results. I have been a bit of a computer geek going back to the origins of personal computers and the guys knew this and asked me if I could “fix” the original website. With great reluctance (after all, what if they didn’t like what I did? We have to play music together …) I agreed to give it a try and ended up doing our website for about eight years. Finally, I had to get away from that because: 1) it was taking up too much of my time, and 2) since I had made a link for people to contact me, as webmaster, with any issues, I saw firsthand how crazy opening the door to the world on the internet could get. It scared me, honestly. And so I have steered clear of social media as an individual. I guess I would say to check back in a few months. At the very least, there will probably be some kind of announcement on the Doobies’ website (www.doobiebrothers.com), so that would be the initial place to check.

What did you think of John McFee’s favorite A-T recording gear? Comment below!

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