Jeff Porcaro never had visions of being the world's greatest drummer. He didn't believe in putting that kind of pressure on himself. And even though drums have shaped and molded virtually every facet of his present life, he's never once been controlled by them.
Porcaro know where he's at as a drummer. Sure, he plays in an internationally acclaimed band, but as far as he's concerned, that does not entitle him to the adulation he's been given. He has a hard time accepting the fact that he's earned it. To Jeff, such laurels are for the truly dedicated: the Gadds, the Bellsons, the Hakims, the Williams. It's not that he doesn't believe in himself, he just has a certain perspective on where his career has taken him and why. His ever-present respect for his peers account for all that he's learned. His strongest convictions are for integrity in music and for the love of his family.
Don't take him the wrong way; he just speaks his mind. And don't, for a second, think he's second guessed or regretted anything that's happened to him. Jeff Porcaro has a firm grip on his life. He knows who he is.
R: Over the past couple of years, Toto has toured after each album release, but not in the United States...
J: That's right. Economically, it just couldn't be done. Our last three years on the raod have been supported by bank loans, not by sales of records. For the Isolation record, we're still in the minus column. Fahrenheit had a pretty decent hit, but when it came to recouping record budgets it only broke about even.
R: Isn't that frustrating after putting all the time into a record?
J: Yes, it's very frustrating. And there's even more behind it -- the time, the love and hard work you put into it. On the business/commercial side, there are videos that have to support the record. Some record companies will pay for a portion of one, but most groups are responsible for the money part. The average video can cost upwards of $100,000 of your money. So you're spending a lot on your future.
Tours can also be really costly. Let's say you book even a short, two-month tour, paying the crews, buses, planes, hotels. That's big bucks. It costs us $30,000 per day to go out. And we only make between $15-$20,000 per gig, so that means we're consistently $10-$15,000 in the hole most every night. How many new groups who are starting can afford that kind of money? We still can't! (laughs) If the record sells, you hope the royalties, which you're supposedly getting to feed your family and pay the rent, will pay off whatever loans you had to take out to go on the road in the first place. It's a huge gamble. We finally paid off a $250,000 bank loan about three months ago, when we were finishing up this latest album. The Seventh One. That loan was to pay off the last two tours.
R: That's amazing.
J: That's reality. But it's up and down, like any group. We had a couple of years that were great. The records were successful. That meant there were good gigs. Let me be honest with you. We've been together 10 years, and last year we each brought home $550 per week for two months straight for the first time on the road in Toto's career. We'd be paying singers, percussionists and horn players anywhere between $2000-$3000 per week. With political tensions as they are in the world, touring will be less and less. Pretty soon, you'll be seeing major acts play like 10 cities in the world, filming two or three of them, and making Asia, Europe and the US satellite deals for cable companies. And they'll be making their big bucks that way -- just like they're doing with the professional prize fights.
R: That's going to be very discouraging to a lot of players.
J: I know. But that's what it is. The music business isn't exactly stable.
R: So how do you survive, being constantly in the red?
J: You survive, hopefully, off the times that were successful. Sometimes it takes outside work. Maybe other artists will record one of your tunes or something like that. Steve Porcaro, Luke and David Paich have all had good success at that end. You just do what you have to do in order to survive.
R: You (Toto) don't seem too caught up in this video madness.
J: Videos have just cost us a ton of money. No one has really gotten to know Toto through a video. I think Toto's better suited to us really playing than doing some conceptual thing. Toto's not a band of posers. We cannot dance or dress and make 14-year olds go crazy. We just don't have that.
Videos, at first, were a required vehicle to getting our songs played in Europe. Then MTV hit. Ah, a new promotional angle here -- especially for acts. Teen gods and idols. For the rock and metal type acts, it's great; the selling point to those bands is their visual show. The costumes, lights, staging, make-up, the hair. Toto's had this thing against directors who will come in and say, "Oh, this is what it's going to look like, boys." And you'll say, "No, man, it can't look like that, 'cause this is what you're going to see." But $100,000 later you don't see that. You can't say, "I hate it. Don't release it." There's no more money. If you don't like it, tough, unless you own it. The reality is that not many people do. The consolation is, at least your song is still playing in the background.
R: Do you see a change in the record industry focus toward the older and revived artists?
J: I'm digging it. I'll still be working when I'm sixty!
R: Don't you think it's a little bit discouraging to the new artists?
J: Yes, but there's two sides to that coin. There's also frustration by what's available. Everybody in the industry does their own demographic investigation as to what's hot and what their region loves and wants to hear. I have to be very honest. I find it hard to listen to Top 40 radio. I could see people saying, "Gee, I've got to turn back to a station where I can relate a little to the performers." Look at a guy like Sting. Dig what he's playing now as opposed to what he did in the first Police album. Now, you can sit back and see that he had the talent from the beginning and that his talent just keeps on growing. Nothing sidetracked him.
I listen, and I'm sure you do too, to music from awhile ago. You'll hear players and singers you enjoyed, but their stuff doesn't quite hold up now. Yet one of the guys, be it a Winwood or a Clapton or someone like that, will have done something that still really makes it. And now he's grown and he's still got something to say that's going to blow you away. So you'd better be a monster if you think you're going to hold back guys who have their health together, and their chops and their writing still fresh. These guys are hungry again! The best thing you can do is listen, listen, listen -- and miss a few meals.
R: Let's talk about your new album, The seventh one. There's a different attitude on some of the tunes. There's fresh input...
J: Definitely. There's a rawness that wasn't present in the last couple of albums. It feels like what our first or second records felt like. When we made that first album we decided that it wasn't going to be an R&B, rock or fusion album. We love all kinds of music -- Hendrix, Beatles, Chick Corea. It should be a melting pot of all our influences and what we like. We wanted to be an international band and we wanted to be on the radio, so we figured we had to do commercial music for people to hear us. Then after awhile, they'll follow you if you stretch out into different musical directions and appreciate some extensive playing. It's tough, though, trying to get Wonder Bread America to be into grooves, let alone to really understand some nice musical things.
After Toto IV, Bobby Kimball left the band. We had to find someone we knew in our hearts could do it all. Not only from a singing standpoint, but someone who was cool as a person. This is a very democratic band. We're musicians. The show biz attitude we can do without. We went through a lengthy process. It wasn't a cattle call, we didn't want that. Jason Scheff, who now plays bass and sings in Chicago, came in and said, "Man, don't you remember Joseph Willaims?" When Toto was first starting, he was 16 and practicing with a high school band at Leeds, and he was good! So I called his publsiher and they sent a tape. This was the guy; writing-wise, lyric-wise, he was serious about his music. Well-schooled in every area and comfortable with all phrasings and grooves. And he keeps getting better!
So Joseph joined us in the middle of the last album, Fahrenheit. At the beginning of the album we thought, "Toto is now going to be a five man unit." If we're going to go out live, who's going to do Hold the line or sing the second part of Rosanna or the high part in Africa? There's all this stuff we went through. So, getting back to the new album. You're hearing Joseph after being on tour, writing on the road and at home with us. All the songs were written before we went into the studio. The other albums had tunes on them that were piecemeal jobs. A lot of times it was just me and Paich with a click track, 'cause we never knew who was going to sing. On all these new tracks, Joseph was in an isloation booth singing live while we were cutting. We weren't second guessing where a singer's going to lay it.
On The seventh one we could go into the studio as artists and not as producers and worriers, wondering how we were going to pull this one off and have people like it. The burden was off. It had to be a combination like a Bill Payne and George Massenburg to produce us. There were many combinations of people, both producers and players, that we knew and respected. With Payne, you'd look up and see a guy who you've worked with before in a rhythm section, plus it's a guy from Little Feat!! So you have that respect. We were blessed with two great pairs of ears.
R: Tell me about recording your drums.
J: For every tune it was something new and different. One track was recorded at A&M in the new, big studio. All the rest were done at The Complex. These rooms weren't meant to be recording studios; they're huge film sound stages. We located the drums in every part of the room, depending on how live we wanted the sound to be. Massenburg would have these plastic acrylic sheets that he would bend and make into parabolic reflectors. The sheets would hang overhead. Say, as an example, on the tune Mushanga, he would lower these down so that, because I'm playing on the rims of the toms, the mics would pick up the tightness of the rims pattern, as the sound was reflecting a shorter distance. Any room or overhead mics would pick up the resonance and ambiance from the room and the toms themselves.
We used B&K's for overheads, which are incredible for cymbals, real high fidelity. As far as drums go, I used my standard sized Pearl Maple kit. No power toms. 10", 12", 13", 14" and 16" floor toms. My bass drum is oversized. It's 18"x22". With snare drums, I used a variety. An old Ludwig Black Beauty, a Pearl Piccolo, a Ludwig chrome and a custom Valley Drum Piccolo. The choice of snare changed with the texture and style of each tune. When we record, there's never any real rules. If there's a new drum or mic or effect or whatever, we'll try it.
R: How do you react to the engineer who has difficulty recording your sound? Who runs for the paper towels and duct tape before hearing the sound of your kit?
J: First of all, I think every drummer has to be aware of the room he's in. I've been fortunate enough that nobody's ever messed with my drums too much. People have their own ideas of what sounds good. A lot of engineers are set in their ways on how they can get a sound. It's a lot easier for them -- 'cause time is money in the studio -- when that producer or artist has a particular sound preference. Now, obviously, with the advent of samplers and machines, a lot of them won't even care what the acoustic kit sounds like because later on they can re-trigger. With acoustics alone, it's a different situation.
I basically keep my drums wide open. I think most engineers are in agreement with that. I take a 1" by 1 1/2" piece of duct tape and roll it, making a tube and put one on the edge of each drum, no matter what size. That's always a good starting point for me. Also, I bring a lot of snare drums. Engineers and producers will have their own, too. They''ll say, "This is my snare. I've used it on all my records. That's what they are comfortable with. Sometimes I can't justify why they insist on certain things, but you have to flow with it. Period.
Hopefully, it's guys like Al Schmidt, George Massenburg, or Greg Ladanyi. You do a date with these kind of engineers and you never do a drum check! You run the tune down a few times for rehearsal, and by the time you're ready for take one, your drums sound fantastic! They figure, "Gee, you're a musician, and you're out there with other musicians. Your drums must be tuned the way you think they're good for the tune. If it calls for a high, pitched, ringy snare and a deep, rich punchy bass drum, it's my job to catch that sound!"
R: After many tours and albums working with percussionist Lenny Castro, you're now going out with Luis Conte.
J: Yeah! Both those cats are great. Luis is amazing; he has to be the groove king. Lenny was with us for 9 years, but unfortunately couldn't make this tour. I was worried; with not much money, how could I find someone? I called Luis for a recommendation. I knew he went out with Madonna and Al Di Meola; I was scared to even ask him! He said, "I'll go." I almost died! Luis is a true band player. He plays differently than Lenny, obviously. Having a new guy just puts a different tilt on the groove. He listens. He makes me feel strong when I play...
R: You have been through some pretty trying times with nerves and insecurity.
J: I always have insecurities about my hands cramping up. They used to a lot, and still do once in awhile. All my fingers would cramp and shut tight. You couldn't pry them apart. When I went on the road with Steely Dan, I went nuts! Toward the end of the show my hands would be twitching. I sweat heavy so I would hold on to the sticks too tight, then I would cramp. I started shaving the lacquer off my sticks, and that helped. I have small hands and they hurt after I play because I hit so hard. It's just something in my heart; it feels better to play hard and really kick it out.
I'm alway nervous before going on stage. I'll try to warm up and talk to myself and stuff, but that hasn't done a lot for me over the years. On the last tour, I finally found my groove. After every show, I soak my arms in a big bucket of ice water. It kills me at first, but then it feels great. It's the same thing baseball pitchers do. The swelling goes down. The next day I wouldn't be tight or my bones wouldn't ache. Also, for that last four years I've had sticks made where they just dip the tip and the shoulder taper in lacquer only. Nothing much slips out of my hands now.
R: You have a great influence on other players. Younger guys especially. A lot of cats are listening to you now.
J: I find it very hard to accept that, to this day. I guess in about the last three years it's been kind of a responsibility to me.
R: Are you adapting to that responsibility?
J: Well, we all have our heroes that we set as our standard of what to strive for and deem as high level playing. I don't see myself as anywhere near the people that I admire, whether it be drums or on a personal human level. So when somebody tells me they admire me or I see a kid with a poster of me in their room, I feel like saying, "Have you heard about Jim Keltner or Bernard Purdie? You should be checking these guys out first." But people say, "Oh, but Jeff, your time feel and the music..." Well, I'm talking about that stuff, too.
It's the old adage about being in the right place at the right time. I've been real, real lucky. I can give you a historical rundown. Dates. Why. What happened. Who got sick. I left high school with Sonny and Cher. Someone asked me, "How you gonna get a real hip gig if you're playing The beat goes on in a tuxedo?" When I came to Los Angeles to do the TV show, there were guys like Tom Scott and Pete Christlieb in the band. They heard me and were kind enough to recommend me for other dates. I can't tell you how many others are left behind.
Let's face it; it's the law of supply and demand. I went through a lot of years of unbelievable guilt as far as how successfull I would get in the studio. And I feel I was only successful because of experience, not because I was some drumming phenomenon. How you play with phones, with a click, with a rhythm section is all experience, experience, experience. Reading, too. I can't read shit. When I see a dotted quarter with an eighth note, I've gotten to know what that little figure sounds like. If I scuffle, I say to myself, "Okay, just play time through this, listen to what the guitar player or bassist played and nail it the second time."
It's hard for me when anyone tells me they admire me, when there's cats out there younger and far hipper. But for those who like my style of playing, I'm grateful, and I'm there for whatever you need. I would love to be more of an all-around drummer. I'd love to be able to do stuff like Bozzio, Colaiuta, Weckl, Sonny Emory. It frustrates me, and I get so mad at myself, 'cause in my mind, I hear everything and want to go to them while I'm playing, but the motor skills and mechanicals just aren't up to it. But honestly, and in reality, I don't really know in my heart if I was ever a drummer like that.
I'll tell you what I dig. In the Sting movie, Bring on the night, Omar Hakim taking off on that tune. That's nice. Real musical. Like Tony Willaims, Jack DeJohnette. That's being real free and comfortable. I don't take my drums seriously, and they do.
R: You have to take it seriously to a point. You're doing the same thing. It's something from your heart. And your integrity is to a level where you care about the music and what you're playing and what's going on around you. Don't you think these other guys feel that same integrity and pride with the type of music they put out?
J: Okay, yes, to a point. When I see a lot of press, though, about Tony and Omar and cats like that, I say, "Right on." These are dedicated musicians for their instrument. I'm not putting myself down or saying that I have to be like that, but I think adulation should go to guys like that. Imagine... you're practicing every day, getting your chops up, playing some deep shit and suddenly this punk, Jeff Porcaro, is picking up a Grammy. Now he may deserve it. But I can see the other side. In the real world, the painted, tainted show biz world, there's some jive-ness there to me. These guys should have what I have. Whether it be admiration or money or whatever. In respect for those true pioneers, their records should be heard by everybody, every day. Tony Williams, John Coltrane and Miles Davis should all be household names.
Rhythm, June 1988