Super group featuring members of Chicago, Doobie Brothers bands pushes the right 'Button'

Ed Toth, drumer for The Doobie Brothers, Keith Howland, guitarist for Chicago and Doobie's bassist John Cowan.
Ed Toth, drumer for The Doobie Brothers, Keith Howland, guitarist for Chicago and Doobie's bassist John Cowan.

Sometimes it takes a while to record an album.

While the rock band Button's self-titled debut album is no "Chinese Democracy," (the Guns N Roses album that took about 14 years and $13 million from beginning to end), it did take the members of Button a few years to make their basement studio magic.

And there's a good reason why the recording process was so lengthy — the three members of Button all have families and lives and some pretty serious day jobs. Guitarist Keith Howland is the longest-running non-principal member of Chicago and bassist/vocalist John Cowan and drummer Ed Toth are part of the rhythm section for The Doobie Brothers. Combined, the three play hundreds of shows on the road year after year. They even tour the summer sheds together from time to time.

So, yes, the members of Button stay pretty busy.

But it was Music City that brought them together.

Released late in 2017, Button's debut album was recorded in a basement studio in Howland's home near Nashville, And with Cowan and Toth also living close by, it was convenient for the band to get together and record — that is when they had time off from the Doobies and Chicago.

The result is a mixture of rock, fusion and even prog rock. There are elements of Rush, Larry Carlton and Steve Lukather, "5150"-era Van Halen, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, Toto and The Beatles but with the voice of Cowan, who had a hit way before Garth Brooks with "Callin' Baton Rouge" when he was in New Grass Revival, Howland's guitar "nerdery" (he did attend Musicians Institute in LA) and the heavy precision of Toth. There are time changes, key changes, big choruses, spoken word bits, vintage tones and drum sounds, synths and bass riffs.

You know — it sounds like Button.

If you're expecting Button to sound like "Saturday in The Park" meets "Black Water," then don't. Those songs were written by Robert Lamm and Pat Simmons, respectively. Howland, Toth and Cowan are not principal members of Chicago and The Doobies. But, if you enjoyed the Howland-penned "Nice Girl" from Chicago's last studio album, then give Button a listen.

Howland will be playing with Chicago on May 11 at the Saenger Theater in New Orleans. Ticket information can be found at Ticketmaster.com.

The Doobie Brothers are hitting the road with Steely Dan. The Summer of Living Dangerously tour hits the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans on May 22. Tickets start at $27 and can be purchased here.

You can check out Button's debut album on Spotify, iTunes and Apple Music.

Secret Agent Orange

Keith Howland: This started when we were on tour with The Doobie Brothers in probably 2008. Their new bass player was John Cowan. And through touring together that summer, I found out that both John and Ed lived in Nashville. So, this idea came up of putting a cover band together when we weren't on the road. We put a band together called Secret Agent Orange and we played a few gigs in Nashville. We were playing Hendricks and Cream and Black Sabbath — I whipped out my Marshall and my Strat and we were just doing a bunch of fun cover tunes. John can sing the phone book and it would sound amazing. He was the lead singer in the band but not the bass player. John Billings, who was playing bass in the band, got real busy doing video work. So, we wanted to knock around some original material and we said, "Cowan, you should play bass." So in one afternoon, pretty much the majority of the material that's on the record was born. We just jammed for two or three hours and I started listening to the jams on airplanes and finding songs in them. Then we went back and plucked out the best stuff and made them into actual songs. Parts of the song "Kristofferson" were the actual recordings from that day and we just left it as is.

John Cowan: It started out as a fun cover band. I didn't meet Keith until like 2010 when we toured with Chicago that summer. We just started talking about playing some covers and I would just sing and our friend John Billings would play bass. We did some gigs and we would play "War Pigs" and Hall and Oates — it was just wacky. We did a funk version of the 10cc song "I'm Not In Love." We called ourselves Secret Agent Orange, which is a quote from "Trading Places." We just ended up at Keith's because he has a cool studio and he's a hell of an engineer, by the way. We were just jamming — I would have a riff or Keith would have a riff or Ed would have a groove and we just started recording the jams. We really didn't know what we were doing or what we were going to do, which was really cool. We didn't do a whole lot of digital editing. It was old school — like bands that I love like Little Feat and Yes, that’s the way they made records. At some point, I started writing lyrics. I wrote most of the lyrics. Keith wrote "Ode to Hank" and there's a Jeff Beck cover and a Kris Kristofferson song. It was great to write a record because I've always only had a song or two on albums.

Ed Toth: I had this idea to get a bunch of people together who were great players to go out and do some covers just for fun. I thought it would be cool to find people who had gigs like ours where they were extremely busy. We're not home all of the time and there's a real "out of sight, out mind" mentality in Nashville. I thought it would be cool to play some more off-the-wall covers and advertise for what it was — a couple of guys from The Doobie Brothers, a guy from Chicago, etc. So, we did that. And then Billings had to go off on the road.. So, the the three of us got together at Keith's house to work up some more covers and we just started jamming for fun. A couple of days after we had jammed, I got an email from Keith that had an MP3 of more than an hour of the stuff we had jammed on. He left a note saying, I think there are some songs here. Give it a listen." The next time we got together, we started throwing the covers out the window and started working on the material. This took place over the course of a couple of years, but it was really only a couple of weeks that we actually got together.

Let's make a record

John Cowan: I had the riff to "Take it Back" for like years. Bela Fleck had come to me many years before with the same idea to form sort of "power fusion trio" and I had that riff back then. But the project just never got off the ground. The same with the riffs for "Digit" and "Long Black Veil." I came in with those riffs. "Take it Back:" starts out as sort of Rush thing and then it goes into this like Beatles poppy thing. We just started a lot of things as these riffs and then we just it took it from there and created these songs.

Ed Toth: Keith's studio has some equipment in it but otherwise it's just like walking into a normal basement that's carpeted. I'm sure if someone was to get really nit-picky with it, you would hear some noise and maybe even the neighbor's dog. But the greatest thing about this record and why it has the vibe that it does is that there's something about making a record without realizing you were making a record. We had just put this together for fun. and then the next thing we know, we're listening back to the takes and we thought it sounded really good. I did the drums on an old Yamaha kit that Keith had that has the same drum heads on it it's had for 20 years. It's just really cool. We went in with a minimal amount of gear and just played music. I used a toy drum kit on "Black Veil." We used like one mic and recorded in the room where Keith's furnace is.

Keith Howland: We recorded it in my basement and we definitely took an old school approach to recording in that we didn't use click tracks or autotune and there was very little editing. We tried to keep it as minimal as possible. The song with the most editing is the opening song "Three Minute Egg." John and I laid the track down and then Ed came in and did the drums, which is one the most mind-blowing things I've seen because it was very difficult. My respect for Ed went way up that day.


John Cowan: I had a radio show on WSM, which was a peer-to-peer interview show. I had some great guests. The first person I interviewed was Leon Russell because I had worked in his band for three years. One of the interviews I got was Kris Kristofferson because I knew his manager. He was really great — everyone was great that I interviewed. The song called "Kristofferson" is actually the lyrics to "The Pilgrim," which is one of Kris' songs. We got the permission to use it.

Ode to Hank

Keith Howland: I had that one. Basically, it started with just Ed and I. "Ode To Hank" was pretty much my baby. I wrote it about Hank Steiger who was my guitar tech in Chicago for many years. He was also Terry Kath's guitar tech. Hank had been with them since like 71 or 72. He had been there for all of the heyday and he was one of Terry Kath's best buddies. Hank was my connection to Terry. He had been the guitar tech to all of the guys that had come before me. When I got in the band, in my mind, it was like the original guys, Hank and then the rest of us. Even though he was crew, he was like an original member of the band. Trust me, there are even more colorful stories I could have spoken word on the song but out of discretion, I decided to keep some of the more tame ones. He was a real interesting guy and he could really ruffle some people's feathers because he was very loyal. If someone walked by my guitars and he didn't know them, he would start barking at them because he didn't want my guitars to get messed up. He was an amazing guy with a great heart that on occasion could be misunderstood — he was an old school roadie.

What's next?

Ed Toth: I would really like for this to become a thing. If Warren Haynes can be in like four bands, surely we can all find a way to be in two. Really it comes down to the idea that we need to maybe look for some management and get them behind it musically. Keith is doing his thing with Chicago and John and I are doing our thing with the Doobies so we need to find those windows to put some stuff together. But with booking shows, you have to book them way ahead of time. You can't just call a place and say, "Hey. We would like to play there tomorrow." It's hard to plan that far ahead when you're dealing with operations that are as big as The Doobie Brothers and Chicago and the schedules are different. If we want to play in October, we should start booking the shows now. I look forward to balancing the two so we can start doing more Button.

John Cowan: The reality is that we all have kids and then we are all entrenched in the bands that we are all so blessed to be a part of and the Doobies are doing some deeper catalog stuff and it's starting to get really, really good. We were going to play last December and then my mother got sick. It's funny because when I'm off the road with the Doobies, I still have the John Cowan Band. I just feel unbelievably blessed to play in this band that has such a huge and devout fan base and take care of my family and then I get to be John Cowan from New Grass Revival, because that world still exists. And now I have Button. I hope we try to get together and play in the winter time. I have no complaints. But I do wish more people could hear this record.

Keith Howland: The challenge has been our schedules. This year when we put our schedules up against each other, it's almost comical because when I'm working with Chicago, they're off and when they're off, I'm on the road. We were going to do a show right after Christmas. We were in rehearsal and then John's mom got sick and we had to cancel. That was at the end of the December 2017. And now we’re looking at December 2018 because that's the next time we all have time off. We'll do it. It's interesting because we are all very grateful to have great gigs with great bands, but it's frustrating because we've made this cool record. If we were a small indie band, we would just load up the van and hit the road, but we can't really do that.