(John McFee)

Once again I had the chance to ask a few question. John found the page on the i-net during January 1997. After he had contacted me I dared to sent John "twenty questions" (okay, quite a few) which John answered all. Special thanks to John for taking the time to do this. I hope you enjoy John's answers.

Before you started with Clover you were in a band called The Tiny Hearing Aid Company. Was that your first band?

Before joining the Tiny Hearing Aid Company I had played with a number of bands in Southern California. Even though I was quite young I came along at the time when the Beatles and first wave "British Invasion" groups were inspiring people in my general age range to make music. I had started playing when I was really young and although the music I had been brought up on and had focused on made me more of a country musician than a rock'n'roll player the simple fact that I could actually play at all made people want me to be in their bands. When I met the guys that later became the Tiny Hearing Aid Company I knew they were the ones I wanted to play with, though, because they were really creative and very unrestricted musically.

All the guys who played in that band became members of Clover, except your brother Bob. Did he have other plans and what does he do today?

My brother Bob has always been something of a vagabond and still is today. For a few years recently he was working as an assistant in Johnny Ciambotti's chiropractic clinic, but now he's back wandering.

Why did you change the name The Tiny Hearing Aid Company to Clover? Do you remember whose idea it was?

Well, I don't remember exactly why we changed the name but I think it was mainly because we had gone through a few changes (my brother and a couple of other players) settling on a lineup. After we really clicked in with Ciambotti I think that it just seemed like a new name would be a good idea, and as I recall Johnny came up with the name.

You started with Clover in 1967 when bands like Quicksilver and the Dead had their big time. Did those bands influence you?

Actually, I know that Alex did like the early Dead; I'm not sure how he liked their later music. Having started out following Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, Joe Maphis and other great country guitarists I have to be honest and say that I personally never paid much attention to any of the groups from the Bay Area during that early "San Francisco Sound" scene, with the exception of Moby Grape. I still think Moby Grape were absolutely the best, and I would have to say that I have been influenced by their music. Please don't take this as a put down of the Dead (as you may know, I have done a lot of work with Mickey Hart and played on the Dead's "Mars Hotel" album) or Quicksilver - it's just that as a guitarist I had evolved a set of standards at that time by which to I felt compelled to judge myself and other musicians and I was pretty particular.

Among other venues you played the Avalon and the Fillmore. Today these names sound like magic. Was it magic when you played there? In what regard did Graham's Fillmore and Chet Helms' Avalon differ?

I would have to say that there probably was an element of magic floating around those places at that time. Mind you, during that period I was doing some brain bending drugs like so many of my contemporaries, so my judgement may not be the most objective. In spite of the drugs being used, or coexisting with it, were some (I believe) absolutely sane and virtuous values - a sincere quest for expansion of one's musical horizons amongst both musicians and listeners, tolerance, brotherhood, and a lot of other idealistic attitudes that seem to be sadly missing from much of today's world. I think a lot of the magic came from those attitudes, and not from the drugs.

As far as the differences between the Fillmore and the Avalon, a lot of the same acts were playing both venues, but even then Bill Graham was a real business person. My recollection is that at the Avalon, it seemed more like the people running it were just like the people going to the shows; at the Fillmore if you had any dealings with the staff it was more like dealing with conventional shopkeepers or business people. That's not necessarily bad, but it had a little more of an "establishment" feel around the edges. The main feeling, though, came from the music and the audience so it didn't make for that much difference in the overall experience.

By the way, I played a benefit for Chet Helms, who was having some health difficulties, about a year and a half ago (as part of a group featuring Stu Cook and Doug Clifford from CCR, Peter Lewis from Moby Grape, Doug Sahm of Sir Douglas fame, and if he hadn't fallen ill Steve Miller was to be part of the group) complete with 1960s style light show and everything. Many of the old groups played and it was really nice.

Which songs of the two Fantasy albums do you like best? Why did you leave Fantasy?

Gee, picking favorite songs is a tough question. The first song that comes to mind as a favorite is "Could You Call It Love" - even though we recorded under the most primitive conditions imaginable the vocals sound big and the whole track has a smooth, dreamy quality. "Shotgun" still kind of blows my mind because I was just a kid when we cut that stuff, and the guitar playing is (if I do say so myself) pretty cool.

We left Fantasy because their entire advertising budget for Clover's two albums totalled 0 dollars and 0 cents. Nobody knew we had a record out! I don't feel bitter about it but Fantasy had experienced this fantastic success with our buddies in Creedence and seemed to think that all you had to do was press up copies of an album on demand and it would sell. It took them a while to realize that it was a rare set of circumstances that led to the Creedence phenomenon and that it wasn't likely to occur with a lot of frequency. I remember one meeting with Ralph J. Gleason, the famous music journalist who had joined the staff of Fantasy Records, where Ciambotti got so angry he jumped over the desk and started strangling Ralph and wrestled him to the floor with his hands around Ralph's neck before they could finally be separated. After that I think the relationship with Fantasy was, to put it mildly, doomed.

In 1971 Sean and Huey joined the band. How did you get in contact with them? Was it by audition?

Wow, it's been so long and so much has happened since then that I've really got to think about that. Well, I know that Sean was playing in a bluegrass group called the "Hereford Heart Stringers" and the Mill Valley-Sausalito musical community was a pretty small scene at that time. Sean was playing, as I recall, mostly upright bass and singing but also playing some accordion and when they played someplace that had a piano he would play piano. We all became friends and started doing some playing on the streets in a sort of loose knit bluegrass combo, at places like Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco, with various combinations of players. Sometimes I would play fiddle, sometimes Dobro, and in a similarly loose way at some point Sean started sitting in on piano at Clover gigs. He played great, could also sing great, and it didn't take us long to beg him to join us.

As for Huey, Huey and Alex had, as I recall, known each other when they were in grade school or junior high. Nobody had seen Huey for a while after he went away to school in the East, but at some point he was back in Marin and although I can't remember exactly when or how it happened, Huey also started jamming with us. I still think he hasn't gotten the recognition he should for his harmonica playing, but he was and is a very soulful player. His outgoing manner and fantastic energy really gave Clover a kick in the butt, and pretty soon he was one of us.

As far as you can remember - who was Clover's most visible band leader or were all band members equally involved in the daily band life?

I think that Clover was a band where everybody had a different personality that made it so that musically, everybody contributed in their own way in equal measure. Having said that, I think that the guys who kind of pushed things along in terms of direction and "business" (if the word "business" could possibly be applied to Clover) I'd have to say that Ciambotti, Huey, and Alex each had a lot to do with it. Before Huey was there, I think Ciambotti was the most forceful in terms of influencing the overall scene. Alex always led in a more subtle way through his songwriting and in an odd way through his state of mind - we kind of followed Alex's moods.

When Huey joined up, he had tons of energy and enthusiasm and came up with many, many schemes to try to get us going with a new record deal. He was great, but ironically when we finally got a deal it had more to do with a record company wanting us really for what we had always been - a true California band that blended a little of everything into its music - than any real calculated efforts. Unfortunately by the time we got a record out we were up against the whole "punk" and "new wave" thing and nobody seemed to want to hear a California band with lots of harmonies doing songs incorporating diverse musical styles.

Did you constantly tour with Clover when you had no recording contract? How did you make your money?

What money? Actually, we did continue to play gigs pretty much constantly. As for making extra money, I did all kinds of session work, for one thing. I really, really, believed in Clover and did everything I could to make ends meet and still hang in there with the band. This wasn't too bad when I was single, but eventually it became a problem.

In one interview Huey said that you left Clover and joined the Doobies because of some financial reason he never understood. Was it really the money and did your departure lead to Clover's demise?

One of these days I've got to remember to bring that up and talk about it with Huey. We talked for about and hour on the phone just a couple of days ago and I didn't even think to bring up that issue because I just enjoy it whenever we get to talk and there's always a lot of catching up to do anyway. I know it bummed him out when I left, but it really never occurred to me that he didn't understand the "financial" reason I needed to be gainfully employed. Perhaps it's because I really hate to categorize it as a "financial" reason in the first place - it was really survival for my family.

The fact is, we had just moved back to California from the U.K. and my wife had given birth to our son, Shane. I felt an obligation to provide food, housing, and clothing for our family. This is the only reason that I left Clover - at that time we were having legal problems with our former management, and couldn't sign a recording contract or conduct any real business as Clover and did not know when or if anything would give with that situation. You know, for years I turned down good money offers from major artists to stay with Clover, so I had proven my loyalty and the fact that money is not my prime motivation at all when it comes to musical affairs many times over.

As a matter of fact, the Doobies didn't call me even though they wanted to when they were looking for a guitarist because I had a reputation for turning down great offers; I found out about the Doobies opening by chance. It just happened that I was at a place in my life where it made sense, but believe me it wasn't easy for me emotionally because I really loved Clover, and besides any "music business" considerations I did and do love the members as my friends.

Your career with the Doobie Brothers seemed to find a quick end with the 1983 "Farewell Tour" - how did you feel then?

I was disappointed that although I'd already had a chance to play with the band for about 4 years at the time of the breakup (longer than a lot of bands stay together in total) I felt that the band still had a lot to offer. I also felt like I never really got to contribute to a studio album of new material in a way that came near my personal potential with the group; we only did one studio album (One Step Closer) during that time period because we were on the road so much. Being with the Doobies had, though, been a great time and I felt that I had learned some good things by being part of the band.

How did Southern Pacific see the light of day and is Southern Pacific defunct?

Southern Pacific evolved out of a bunch of us who had been, in different combinations, doing a number of country music recording sessions for such artists as Emmylou Harris, the Kendalls, Karen Brooks, Johnny Cash, and others. We got to talking and decided to see what would happen if we just went in to the studio together and did some stuff that we would like to hear ourselves. Originally, the group had James Burton on guitar and I was playing pedal steel and violin. Then Albert Lee took James' place briefly, and by the time we were making the first record I was playing all the lead guitar in addition to steel and fiddle. We broke up a few years ago, in a situation oddly reminscent of Clover (although at least Southern Pacific had some real success) in that we had management problems that led to our demise.

What are your next major plans with the Doobie Brothers?

We're working on new material right now and hope to get a new album's worth of songs ready sometime this year. We're doing concert dates, with the bulk of the touring booked during the summer so that we can continue to have time to work on the new music.

Being the Doobie in charge of the band's web page - how do you like that job and what do you think about the internet?

At first I was really reticent to take on the web site. Some of the members had asked me about doing it when we first decided we wanted to have a web site, but I declined because I didn't want anything to potentially get in the way of our interaction as music making friends together. You know, things like, what if they don't like my graphics ideas, what if we clash over how to lay it out, stuff like that. Well, we hired a company to build the site and the band wasn't happy with it so they asked me (knowing that I am somewhat computer crazed) again to help fix it. Since then I've redone the whole thing - there's not one pixel of the original site left, with the exception of the counter. I do enjoy doing it except that it sometimes takes me away from the music a little too much.

My view of the internet is that it can be many things for the net surfer - great, horrible, interesting, boring - but it is truly a work in progress. I see it as a sort of "wild frontier" of communication, and there's a lot that I like about that phase of its evolution. The things that bother me, though, actually have mostly to do with the issues that affect building and maintaining a web site - the somewhat haphazard way in which HTML tags are developing, the lack of standards amongst browsers and so forth.

What other recordings did you work on in the last few years?

Outside of the Doobie Brothers I've probably done more country music than anything else. In the last year, I've been on Ricky Scaggs' newest album and John Michael Montgomery's latest as well. I also do a lot of work with the Japanese superstar Eikichi Yazawa as his musical director and sometimes record producer.

What can you tell us about the new Peter Lewis album. What does it mean to you?

Peter's record was a real labor of love. As I mentioned in response to one of your other questions, I was a huge Moby Grape fan. When the opportunity came up to work with Peter I jumped at it. Because of budget issues and my overall schedule, I did the work on a work-when-we-can basis, but we really focused on the songs and the arrangements and took our time. I think it really paid off, because I feel like it's one of the best records I've ever heard - in large measure because thanks to Peter's songwriting we had such great material to start with - and perhaps the best I've ever been part of.

What bands/kinds of music do you listen to now?

Oddly enough, or perhaps not so oddly, I don't get much of a chance to hear other people's music. I'm always busy working musically on things I need to do, so there's not a lot of time left over for recreational listening. I have heard some new music that I have liked, though, but since radio stations in the U.S. rarely bother to mention the names of the artists I don't know who they are.

My listening habits are perhaps best summed up thus: I have a 6 CD changer/player in my car and today's lineup is - Stevie Wonder-Talking Book; The Lovin'Spoonful-Do You Believe In Magic/Daydream; Musica Antiqua Koln-Antonio Vivaldi Sonata in D Minor (favorite piece); Paco de Lucia-Fantasia Flamenca de Paco de Lucia; Stephane Grappelli-Shades of Django; and Howlin' Wolf-The Real Folk Blues. I don't have any of my favorite country instrumentalist recordings on CD which is the only reason that Buddy Emmons, Chet Atkins, or some of my other country favorites aren't really represented stylistically amongst today's 6 CDs.

What is Alex Call doing these days - do you ever see him? Do you ever see the other Clover members?

I haven't been in touch with Alex much lately but I understand that he's doing some writing in Nashville with some of the writers down there. I think this is good because Alex's greatest strength has probably always been as a writer. I saw Huey and Sean on New Year's Eve - we (the Doobies) were shooting a T.V. special in Las Vegas and Huey and the boys were doing their own New Year's Eve gig down the street; the Doobies show finished earlier because it was being broadcast live for the Eastern time zone and I got to go watch Huey's whole show and hang out and talk with Huey and Sean before and after their show.

I haven't seen Johnny Ciambotti in a while, although we talk now and then by phone. Sean and I can e-mail each other now, which is great because our schedules are so random. I talk to Kevin Wells, who joined the group on drums when we were living in England, pretty frequently - he ended up marrying my first wife (they didn't meet until several years after my first marriage ended) and we stay in touch. To be honest, I wish I could see all the Clover guys a lot more often than I do.

Any chance Clover will ever get back together (not taking into account that Sean and Huey don't believe in it)?

Well, I for one hope that we at least get all the guys together one of these days and play some of the old songs and jam a little together. In fact, it seems really sad to me to think of it not happening. A couple of years ago it almost happened - as part of a gathering honoring San Francisco's long time music journalist Joel Selvin. They wanted Clover to play, and we had all made it work with our schedules when for some reason Alex decided he had to do some recording project or something. I think it was one of those things where he felt that if he didn't do whatever it was that a chance to make a new record was going to pass him by, so I don't begrudge him that - but I was really disappointed when it fell through.

At least I've had the chance to play on a couple of Huey's records, and Alex's as well (although even that was a long time ago now), and Huey played on one of Southern Pacific's albums; we also have had a number of chances to jam through the years since Clover broke up, but I'm ready to play some Clover music any time the rest of the guys want to get together.

Last question: Will the Clover albums be released on CD before the year 2000 and what is the message to your fans?

You know, I hadn't given much thought to the fact that the Clover music is not available on CD. I think I'll look into that; I'm not even sure who owns the rights to the material anymore. It's always amazed us when anybody has shown an awareness of Clover's existence, a point of view which had a lot to do with the title "Unavailable" for our first British-recorded album; this mind set makes issuing a statement to our fans a bit tricky. We always had musicians who liked us, even admired us, but we had a lot of problems getting it to the point where the public knew anything about us - gee, we couldn't even find people who didn't like us because how could they dislike something they'd never heard of? I suppose I'd like to just say that it is genuinely heart-warming to think that there are at least a few folks out there who have heard the music we made and find something that they can enjoy in it.


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