Q&A: Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins on their long history as soulful yacht rock bros
Kenny Loggins has been thinking lately about “Danger Zone” — specifically whom he might ask to help remake his classic 1980s rock song for the “Top Gun” sequel currently in production.
“I’d love to do it with the Foo Fighters,” said the veteran singer and songwriter. “And Needtobreathe is great. Or there’s a band out there called Greta Van something or other …”
Greta Van Fleet?
“Yeah!” he replied. “That guy has a Zeppelin thing going that’s pretty interesting.”
Before he nails down the “Danger Zone” duet, Loggins will team with a more familiar partner, Michael McDonald, for a pair of concerts at the Hollywood Bowl.
The shows on Friday and Saturday are set to look back even further than “Top Gun,” to the late ’70s and early ’80s, when Loggins and McDonald were among the smooth and soulful bros creating what’s now called yacht rock. (Christopher Cross, of “Sailing” fame, is also on the bill.)
The two, known for co-writing hits like “What a Fool Believes” and “This Is It,” still perform together regularly. And last year they joined Thundercat, the L.A.-based jazz-funk bassist, for a shimmering cut on his acclaimed “Drunk” album.
But this weekend’s gig, with accompaniment by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, should be something special, McDonald promised in a joint phone call with Loggins the other day.
“We’re gonna try to give the audience as much collaboration as we can,” he said.
You’d both established yourselves separately — Michael with the Doobie Brothers and Kenny with Loggins & Messina — before you began working together. How did your careers intertwine?
Kenny Loggins: I like to say that Mike and I were writing together before we met. I drove over to his house in — Sherman Oaks, was it?
Michael McDonald: Studio City. Kenny had reached out to me through Tiran Porter from the Doobies, and we’d made a point to get together.
Loggins: I was unpacking my guitar and the door to his house was open, and I heard him singing ideas around “What a Fool Believes.” He had that verse melody; it was pretty solid. Then he stopped where he had no more ideas, and my imagination kept going and I heard the B section in my head. So I knocked on the door and we shake hands and I go, “I think I know the next part of that song.”
Are you in the habit of popping into places and offering your advice?
Loggins: If you’re a fledgling songwriter, just leave your door open and I’ll be right over.
What had you heard in Michael’s singing or writing that made you want to work with him?
Loggins: Oh, that was [the Doobie Brothers’] “Livin’ on the Fault Line.” To me that song made it immediately recognizable that this guy’s gonna be a major force. Same way I felt the first time I heard [Steve] Winwood’s voice with Traffic. I don’t mean to embarrass you, Michael. But I just instantly related to what he was doing, and I wanted to be a part of it.
McDonald: And when I heard Kenny’s first solo record — although I’d been a fan of Loggins & Messina — that was the moment that in my mind put him in a different place as a musician, writer, producer, arranger.
That record spun off “Celebrate Me Home,” which has become one of Kenny’s signature songs.
Loggins: It was a huge departure for me musically. I started off as a folkie guy with an acoustic guitar, and I was hearing all these changes in my head. I had no idea what they were, how to do them. So I had to bring in all these great players. Bob James was my primary arranger and keyboard player — how lucky is that?
James was known as a jazz guy.
Loggins: This whole thing they’re calling yacht rock was where jazz and smooth jazz were merging with pop. And there were a lot of artists that were plugging into it. Joni Mitchell, she did a record with [saxophonist] Tom Scott, then took a huge step to the left and did one with [bassist] Jaco [Pastorius] and cats like that. Paul Simon had the New York crew on his records. It felt like the next logical place.
But the two of you turned yacht rock into something like a lifestyle.
Loggins: The night we wrote “What a Fool Believes,” I knew we had a big fish. I didn’t sleep at all.
You were pumped.
Loggins: Totally psyched.
McDonald: Me too.
Loggins: Not in a self-conscious way where we knew we were at the start of a movement or anything pretentious like that. We were just on fire with this new kind of music that was happening.
Did it ever strike you as a contradiction that you were making records with sophisticated music-nerd vibes at the same time that you were being perceived as these easygoing sex symbols?
Loggins: You go ahead, Mike, being the sex symbol of the duo.
McDonald: I don’t know that we were all that aware of that kind of promotional idea. Both of us in high school did what we did to get girls; we somehow figured out that worked. But I don’t think either one of us ever figured ourselves to be sex symbols.
Loggins: I had buckteeth and big ears and a short haircut. I was about as far from a sex symbol as any human could be. But I’m not sure about the premise of your question. When you say “nerdy,” it feels like you mean “intellectual” or “analytical,” and we’re never analytical with our music. It’s all about what feels right in the moment — what moved me? That’s the core of the piece. Like the opening line of “This Is It”: “There’ve been times in my life / I’ve been wondering why.” To me, you could open a book with that.
But surely you take pleasure in doing something in a more interesting way than it’s typically done? With more complicated chords or whatever?
McDonald: In the back of your mind you’ll think, “Oh, the band is gonna enjoy playing this progression.”
Loggins: When Mike and I write together, yeah, if we hit something we feel we’ve heard before, we’re purposely gonna move away from it — like, how else can we approach this?
You both live in Santa Barbara. Run into each other often?
McDonald: We’re both usually on the road. I don’t think we spend all that much time in town.
Do your kids hang out?
Loggins: Well, my kids don’t do drugs.
McDonald: And my kids don’t rob banks. I actually ran into Kenny’s daughter the other day at the ice cream place. Or at least I thought it was her. I didn’t say anything — I thought she’d think I was some creepy old dude.
Loggins: She probably already did.
Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins and Christopher Cross with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave.
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