Pat Simmons Jr
A&E

The Santa Cruz Roots of Pat Simmons Jr.’s Music and Activism

Son of Doobie Brothers co-founding guitarist comes to Moe’s Alley

PHOTO: SASHA NITZE

Most mainlanders know the meaning of aloha, but fewer have heard of Aloha Aina. That’s a bit ironic, considering that the concept of Aloha ʻĀinais arguably even more integral to the Hawaiian way of life. While it literally translates to “love of the land,” the meaning in everyday life is far more complex, encompassing not only one’s connection to the Earth, but also environmental consciousness and cultural understanding of all types.

It’s also the principle by which Pat Simmons Jr. lives his life. He’s primarily known for his music, which is to be expected when you’re the son of a founding member of one of the most famous groups of the ’70s and ’80s—Doobie Brothers guitarist Patrick Simmons—and your own musical career began when you were barely old enough to walk.

But the 28-year-old Simmons, who released his debut album This Mountain in 2017 and is currently working on a follow-up, sees his music mainly as a medium for his message. And sometimes, he’s torn between whether musical activism or direct action is the best way to get it across—to the point that it’s even a little bit hard for him to be on his current West Coast tour, which comes to Moe’s Alley on Aug. 1.

On the Big Island, the showdown between protestors and the TMT Observatory Corporation over a planned Thirty Meter Telescope construction project on Mauna Kea has intensified over the last week. Though Simmons lives on Maui, he says this is an issue that affects all Hawaiians.

“My message is Aloha ʻĀina,” says Simmons.For me, my ultimate hope and goal with my music right now is to spread the word about what’s happening in Hawaii. It’s so hard for me to be away right now, knowing that my ohana, my Hawaiian family, is standing up for their sacred mountain and trying to protect the place they call home. If I was home, I’d be right there on the front lines.”

Being out on tour also means less time he can be at home farming with his family. “When I’m not playing my music, I’m mostly weeding gardens and planting,” he says. “The indigenous people had a whole agricultural system that they passed down for generations, these agricultural practices. I’ve really learned a lot from what they grew—a lot of root vegetables, a really special plant called taro. In Hawaii, it’s called kalo. My family and I grow a lot of it, and a lot of fruits.”

BACK TO THE LAND Simmons farms and gardens on Maui. PHOTO: SASHA NITZE

BACK TO THE LAND Simmons farms and gardens on Maui. PHOTO: SASHA NITZE

And, let’s face it, the coconuts are not going to pick themselves.

“Coconuts are a big part of our life. I actually climb coconut trees with a harness,” says Simmons. “I’ve got my whole harness setup, where I can get way up in a tree and belay down the coconuts, which are hundreds of pounds.” 

Clearly, coconut-picking is not what people expect from the son of a rock star.

“People expect that I’m this fancy, riding-the-high-life, rock-star kind of person,” he says. “And in some ways, I did grow up with that, because I was on tour with my dad and grew up backstage. Whereas at home, I grew up in the country with all the local Hawaiian kids. I grew up where most of my friends had never even heard the Doobie Brothers.”

JUST ANOTHER KID

Another Hawaiian word Simmons feels a close connection to is haole, the word for a non-native Hawaiian. That’s the outsider status that Simmons started from on Maui, where he moved with his family from his native Northern California at age 5. Though he fell in love with the island’s indigenous culture, he had to prove himself at every turn—particularly with surfing, which has long been a huge part of his life.

“I was just another local kid, another haole, another white kid in Maui,” he says. “I had to make a name for myself there, being a surfer in the lineup. Nobody cares who your dad is. It’s a different world out there.”

He wasn’t the only superstar offspring going through a bit of haole culture shock. One of his close friends growing up was Lukas Nelson, son of country music legend Willie Nelson. The two formed their first band at age 12, complete with exactly the kind of terrible band name you’d expect from a pre-teen group musically situated somewhere between the Jimi Hendrix Experience and punk rock.

“The first band we had was a little garage band,” Simmons recalls. “I was the singer, Lukas was the lead guitar player. His brother Micah, who goes by Particle Kid now in his band, he was the drummer. We played all around Maui; that was my first experience writing music and performing it. We all had calluses on our fingers because we were just learning to play guitar. We were practicing hard, and our fingers were getting sore, so we called our band Kalice.”

It may sound adorably silly now, but behind the adolescent energy, the seeds of something deeper were already being planted.

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“We were all kind of becoming hippies at that age, because of who our parents were,” says Simmons. “Willie Nelson’s a real activist himself, so we were exposed to that at a young age. I remember being 12 years old when the Iraq War began, right after 9/11. There were war and oil protests happening all around the country, and I remember being at marches with my family and the Nelson family on Maui. We’d go march in the streets. We were exposed to activism and aware of the environmental crisis at a very young age. Some of our songs were about that kind of stuff.”

Lukas Nelson remembers that he and his brother Micah “had a blast” in Kalice. 

“Pat was our best friend, and still is,” Nelson says. “When we were young, we were all just kids skateboarding and playing video games and watching South Park. At a certain point, Pat decided—as we all did—that being conscientious and aware of our social and environmental responsibilities as humans was an important part of our growth.”

Nelson says he understands exactly where Simmons is coming from with his musical mission, and how it was shaped by their upbringing. “Growing up in Hawaii, we are confronted with a diversity and exposure to nature that many on the mainland aren’t,” says Nelson. “We can see firsthand the importance of preserving culture, and the impact that an invading culture can have on social development. As people of European decent, we had to be educated about the way Hawaiian lands were stolen, and it is our responsibility to make sure that proper respect to the land and native culture is given.”

WAITING IN THE WINGS

While Kalice gave him his first shot at songwriting, it wasn’t Simmons’ first exposure to the stage—far from it. That came over numerous Doobie Brothers tours, where he would wait every night to be called out for the band’s traditional last song, “Listen to the Music.”

“When I was about one and a half, two years old—just starting to walk even—I would get out on stage with my dad, and I just wanted to be out there. I don’t even remember when I started doing this. I was probably two or something, but they used to put these big soundproof headphones on my head to protect my ears, and I would walk out on stage in front of thousands of people with my little plastic guitar and just rock out. Like, I had no fear of it. I was totally having fun, and I just wanted to do that—every night I had to do it. Nobody was pushing me to do it. I wanted to.”

And he did it for years, until he got his own guitar at 10 years old and started to learn chords. When the Nelson brothers went on to form their own band after Kalice, Simmons had gotten more into surfing and skateboarding. But within a couple of years, he wanted to pursue music again, and his first-ever solo gig came at age 16, opening for the Doobie Brothers at Mountain Winery in Saratoga. 

SANTA CRUZ HOMESTEADING

As any Doobie Brothers fan knows, that’s not the Simmons family’s only connection to this area. The Doobies got their start in San Jose, where co-founder Patrick Simmons Sr. was born. He was introduced to Tom Johnston and John Hartman in 1970 by Skip Spence of Moby Grape, and the band began playing the local scene. In the early days, they found a devoted following among bikers, playing regularly at the Santa Cruz Mountain biker bar Chateau Liberté to Hell’s Angels and other biker gangs. John McFee, who joined the Doobie Brothers in 1979, grew up in Santa Cruz.

The Doobies’ lineup has famously been a revolving door over the years, with members coming and going—and sometimes coming back. Simmons Sr. has been the only member to be part of every era in the band’s almost half-century of existence (it did disband completely for a few years in the ’80s). He, Johnston and McFee are now the core of the line-up, which is currently touring the U.S. and Canada, and returns to Northern California to play the East Bay and San Francisco in September.

doobie-1931Many local fans know that at the height of the Doobies’ fame in the 1970s, Simmons Sr. lived in Santa Cruz, but they may not have known that he was paving the way for his future son’s Aloha ʻĀina.

“My parents have always kind of been homesteader people,” says Simmons. “Not a lot of people realize this about my dad, but even when he was on tour in the ’70s, he used to raise 20 goats, and chickens. He had a whole farm in Santa Cruz. When he was off tour, he was milking goats and stuff, and living the country lifestyle.”

It’s true, confirms the elder Simmons. “We were out near Branciforte Drive, where it meets Vine Hill Road,” says Simmons Sr. “We did have goats in those days. I grew apples, and had a big garden. I was the king of raspberries—they grow good in Santa Cruz, huge production! I still love those damn things. Nothing like fresh raspberries right off the vine.”

When he moved to Maui with his wife Cris and the kids, Simmons Sr. continued working the land. “I started planting trees—citrus, avocados, lychees, papayas, macadamias, coconuts, and more. I always loved growing things, and stuff grows fast in Hawaii,” he says. “I think Pat probably absorbed some of that, and more from friends of his who were even more fanatical about growing. Then he studied permaculture, arbor techniques, grafting, and a whole range of farming, both in college and privately. He’s an amazing taro farmer. Of course it’s all organic, which is what we all try to eat.”

EXPLORING BEYOND THE MOUNTAIN

Simmons Sr. has gotten to witness the evolution of his son’s musical career from a unique perspective. He has been playing with him for years, and produced This Mountain.

“Pat has his own style, and approach to writing, and performing,” he says. “More than anything—and I think this is important—he is authentic. His songs come from the heart, and from personal experience, which is something I value personally. I like songs that tell a little story, and it’s best, for me anyway, when the story is a lived experience.”

It’s been a thrill, he says, to watch his son develop as an artist. “I’ve enjoyed music so much all my life. Pat got bit by the same bug, and I see how much enjoyment he gets from it as well. When we play together, it’s as good as it gets,” says Simmons Sr.

This Mountain was defined by strong hooks, Simmons’ environmental messages and a laid-back, often rootsy folk sound. For this follow-up album, which he hopes to release by the end of the year, he’s taken a somewhat different approach.

“I really enjoyed making This Mountain, but I left a lot of the decisions up to my dad,” says Simmons. “This time around, I’ve been choosing the material, just being more creative in my own way. Being the sole producer for the first time.”

As a result, he’s finding himself exploring more in the studio.

“I grew up listening to reggae music, and there’s a few reggae tunes in there. Which is, like, my ultimate dream, really. I grew up listening to Bob Marley and all the epic reggae musicians, and coming from Hawaii, that’s a big, big influence out there,” he says. “But I play all kinds of music, and there’s definitely a country, bluegrass-y vibe in there, and then kind of a Jack Johnson funk-folk acoustic blues. We even have a straight-up blues tune thrown in there. So it’s kind of a medley of all the different genres I love to perform and listen to.”

The first album had a coastal feel, and it was fun to see if you could tell what was NorCal influence and what was Hawaiian—they’re similar in a lot of ways, Simmons admits. There will likely be a similarly watery touch to his upcoming record, since he has rediscovered surfing after a bout with cancer brought him face to face with his own mortality.

TIDAL PULL Simmons surfing in Maui. PHOTO: MAKOTO

TIDAL PULL Simmons surfing in Maui. PHOTO: MAKOTO

“When I was 23 years old, I got diagnosed with testicular cancer. I went through chemo, and after chemo I was really pretty rattled, just realizing how fragile my life really is. I started thinking about the things I love in my life, and the ocean and surfing was just something that popped up again,” he says. “And so right after chemo, I started surfing again. It helped me find peace and joy in my life again. I get up almost every morning and go look for waves in the dark at 5 am. I’m committed. I do my best to try to get out there every day.”

Another Hawaiian word that is especially important to Simmons is na-au—intuition, which is how he is finding his way through his music career and his life.

“Part of my mission with the music is to really utilize my opportunity to talk about these important things, because we’re in such a pivotal moment as a species, and people need to wake up to the realities that we face on the planet,” he says. “It’s not easy, because there’s so much of the industry side of the music, where you’ve gotta write a song and it’s got to be catchy, and it’s gotta sell. There’s that whole pressure that I feel. But really, when I listen to my heart, when I tap deep into my na-au, I just keep following these messages that need to be heard.”

Pat Simmons Jr. performs with his band at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 1, at Moe’s Alley, 1535 Commercial Way, Santa Cruz. $10 advance/$15 day of show. 479-1854, moesalley.com.

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