Reggie: Toto XIV charted in the Top 10 in nine different countries and just missed the Top 10 in a couple of others. It charted higher here in the US than a Toto record has in decades. What is your reaction to all of this chart success?
CJ Vanston: "It's real simple. There's a thirst for real music. There's a thirst for emotional depth in lyrics. And most importantly, harmonic richness. If you look through the great American Song Book, it's all beautiful chord progressions and melodies that have a profound effect on peoples emotions. Today the world has gone to a much more primal kind of music now that's very beat based. That does supply a very important part of music but it doesn't massage the emotional side as much, so people are just responding to this depth. It's like fresh water to them in the desert."
Reggie: You co-wrote "21rst Century Blues" with Steve Lukather. Tell us about how that song came about.
CJ: "We started, and said ‘we have to do a shuffle on this record.’ We called it our ‘Steely’ (Dan) shuffle. We had one on "Transition" (Steve Lukather solo release), and we decided to do a shuffle on this album. We love our shuffles! Steve and I just started playing along with a drum groove. Luke had a riff going (as CJ hums the riff) so I found a thing to go underneath that. The chorus was my riff (as CJ hums the chorus). Luke was going to solo over the verse chords, but I said “no we've got to find some really cool chords for you to solo over.” So I came up with some nice juicy harmonic stuff that Luke just soared over. The lyrics were almost all Steve. We're always trying to say something with this stuff. Steve and I both have pretty strong feelings on where society is at and where politics are going, how much money has taken over. If you look at "Transition" there are a lot of songs like that."
Reggie: You co-wrote "Holy War" with Luke and Joseph Williams. Could you please tell us about that song.
CJ: "Again Luke and I just sat down and started playing, free flowing. Usually within ten minutes we've got something that we're digging. We followed a path and got that track going. Luke had a great intro riff, then another cool one that we used for the middle part, the instrumental section, the Steve Porcaro extravaganza, which we built in. We wanted that from the beginning. We had a three syllable vocal hook (CJ mimics the hook “dah-da da"). I came up with ‘Live and Learn'. So we started writing lyrics for a story of living and learning your lessons. We finished them and said ‘those suck.’ Then we wrote another set of lyrics for another title which I can't remember.”
Reggie: It must not have been that great then.
CJ: "You know, they weren't bad. It was ok. But that doesn’t fly on a record like this. Then we played the track for Joe (Joseph Williams). We had a la la la vocal on it (CJ humming blah, blah, la, la as he is hunting for lyrics). And Joe said 'I have an idea'. He split and walked back in with the lyrics for "Holy War.” We just said okay, you're the lyricist on this song. Joe knocked it out of the park! Joe brought in the melody for the verse but that song was pretty intact musically. Lyrically he really rescued it. Took it to a much deeper place. And then those lyrics denoted the movie that we had to make instrumentally. I always want to make “the movie.” To me you should be able to mute the vocal and still get a sense of what the song is about. The track should be a film score for the lyrics. One example of that is I did an album of covers with Joe Cocker. One of the song's was "What's Going on" by Marvin Gaye. When I was a kid I always thought the singer was just waking through the neighborhood waving at people and saying ‘what's going on?’, because that track is so happy. That track does not match that lyric in my opinion and I LOVE Marvin Gaye. But that's a real disconnect. On Joe's version you can hear the crying women, the injustice and all that. So when Joseph came in with "Holy War" we had to paint that picture. You can hear that. What's going on in the world? Well there's a LOT of insane shit going on! And you can hear it, especially that middle section. It's the Holy War. Talk about two words that do not fucking go together! Holy and war! That was the onus for that entire arrangement."
Reggie: Were there any songs from this album left over?
CJ: "There weren't songs left over but there were grooves and song starts left over. We all had little things that we started but we said 'that's not going to make it.' This was a different record. I've done a lot of records where we had thirty songs and knocked it down to twelve. This record just didn't work out that way, because very simply everybody was so competitive, everybody was really chomping at the bit. And I mean GOOD competitive! I think when everyone heard the first track, Joe’s song ”Fortune", the songwriting gauntlet had been laid. Then I kind of laid down the gauntlet with the actual SOUND of the record that I was getting that everybody was digging. The template for the sound of the record was there. So everybody went 'OH!!!, well if that's the way this record is going to sound then I've got to write something that's going to match that level.' You know, these are some competitive mofos!"
Reggie: How about the bonus cut from the Japanese Edition, "Bend"?
CJ: "Oh man! That song! I don't think it's any news to anyone that there was a lot of push and pull on this record. There are a lot of strong personalities in this band of monster musicians. That's what makes the band great and part of being a producer is putting on the Dr. Phil hat on from time to time. People get attached to their ideas. They get attached to ‘this is the way I wrote this. This riff isn't going to change.’ Or this and that. After all those battles that had been fought, either won or lost, compromise wins in the end and even better music results because of it. Anyway, after all that negotiation and creative conflict, Steve Porcaro walks in at the end of the project with his song that says "we just all have to bend". Wow. Very Buddhist! I just look over at him like “you soothsayer!” Michael Sherwood was a big part of that song too with the lyrics. It was just so typical of Steve Porcaro to walk in after all the smoke had cleared and lay down the WORD. It's just his personality. He's so Zen and unaffected. He is very self assured and he knows where stands. That song was just so very typical of him, to walk in after all the dust had settled and here you go. Beautiful song. His arrangement simplicity is also very Zen. Less is more. It reminds me of Steve Jobs story. In college, he needed one more credit and the only class he could get was calligraphy. Didn’t want to take it. But calligraphy taught him simplicity and the Japanese less is more concept. That became the entire foundation for design at Apple. Elegant simplicity. And that's what Steve P has."
Reggie: You played synthesizer on eight tracks on this record, sang, co-wrote two songs, produced, engineered and mixed the entire album. Talk to us about all of your work on this record.
CJ: "Let's not forget studio manager, janitor, project coordinator and referee! No wonder I’m tired! Hahaha.”
Reggie: You've told me on previous interviews that the Toto guys were idols of yours years back. Now you are one of the cats.
CJ: “Well I guess so. I mean I don't want to say this with any ego but this just showed how much hard work I've done over 35 years to get really good at all this stuff. Only because I had to. I was not good at some of these things, but I got good out of necessity. Like singing my own background vocals. I'm don’t consider myself a singer but I know harmonies. I know breaths and I know phrasing, attitude and intent. I've sung parts to Streisand, Tina Turner and Joe Cocker. And I'm good at producing vocals. So on Luke's (solo album) "All's Well That Ends Well,” one of the songs needed backgrounds. So I just said fuck it I'm going to get a mic and put down 32 tracks of backgrounds, just as a scratch part, to show Luke the harmonies I was hearing. I massaged the parts and got rid of the bad notes. Then Luke came in and it blew his mind. “Those are STAYING!,” he said. Luke and I sound good together actually! But again, it’s just another example of how much hard work I've put in it. Being fearless helps…that’s how I learned all these different disciplines through the years.”
Reggie: I know from being around Luke and most of the other Toto cats that if you didn't have what it takes you wouldn't be here. It isn't ego talking. If you weren't good you wouldn't be around. You're just telling it like it is.
CJ: “Being asked by the band to be so intimately involved in this record was definitely a validation, a validation for all of the hard work. 35 years of relentless, endless hard work. Six days a week, 50 weeks a year. For me it really felt like bending down on one knee and getting the sword tapped on my shoulders, like St. George! (Toto song).”
Reggie: Michael McDonald sings on three tracks on this. He's on the DVD too where he gives a lot of love to Toto. He was a big part of the old Toto songs including the hits. He toured with Toto last year where they came out and played a few songs together. There is a special kinship here. He has an instantly recognizable voice.How important was it for him to come back and sin on this record?
CJ: "Well it was putting the family back together. What was interesting was I had written with Michael on Skunk's record. We hit it right off. He loved the track I did for him and also the vocal production. I have huge respect for him, he’s a national treasure! So we had our history, and when I walked into the room for the Toto record for his first session he was already there. (David) Paich got up to 'introduce' me to Michael. Well Michael just went up to me and said CJ! Then we hugged and Paich said 'you guys know each other?' I was like are you kidding? So I had a link to him also, which only enhanced the “family” part of this project. Obviously Toto goes way back with Michael. So having him in the room was a big deal. I think the greatest thing about having Michael McDonald on the record besides his inimitable sound was when we played him a bunch of rough mixes and he was hands down 'what is going on here? This is amazing!' So his validation really gave us all a lot of horsepower to get though the rest of the record. Once he's come in and said ‘this is an amazing record!’, you walk away with a bunch of gas in the tank."
Reggie: As soon as I heard "Running Out of Time", the first cut off the record it just grabbed me right out of the box. Not a lot of songs grab me like that after the first listen. Did you know there was something special about that song right away?
CJ: “Oh yes... it had the raw physicality of a Toto song. It's really got a beastly, power thing (as CJ mimics the thundering intro) as the bass is throbbing away. That's Tim Le Febrve on that. Right off the bat, when we started working on ‘Running,’ Joe and I got some cool vocal stuff going in no time. Joe and I work so fast together it's just stupid because he's such a monster musician, monster singer, monster with studio chops. And I engineer my own stuff because I hate waiting for somebody. I’m very quick. And I love doing vocals with Joe, he spoils you. So we laid down that scratch vocal really quickly (which ended up being the final of course) and I started to tweak the sound right away. I sculpted this cool sound on his vocal that was kind of distorted and fucked up, the sound referred back to this beast thing. I saw this giant lumbering juggernaut in this song, the juggernaut represented TIME. I wanted to make his voice be the voice of this juggernaut! So I found this distorted kind of sound and that was it! EVERYONE loved it and that track kind of unfolded. There's a lot of influences in there. There's a lot of ‘Yes’ on that song, those harmonies. We stacked some really obtuse harmonies buried in there.
Reggie: There a few epic numbers on Toto XIV. I had mentioned "Running Out of Time" already. "Burn". "Holy War", "Chinatown", "Orphan" and "Fortune" to me are all just great songs. You guys were calling this record Toto V as an homage or followup to Toto V which was the definitive Toto record. It won all the awards and had huge sales. Talk to us about calling this record Toto V.
CJ: Ya, now that... just STOP right there! THAT... happened VERY quickly. Somebody said okay... as a matter of fact Paich grabbed me by both shoulders and saying this is the best record we've made since Toto IV. We think it might be as good as Toto IV! That just gives me goose bumps when I think about that. Not only what an insanely great record IV was, what a huge influence it had on me as a musician, but also my connection to Greg Ladanyi who did a lot of engineering and mixed that record. It was and is a bonafide masterpiece. So because of that whole circle, when ‘Toto V’ concept was mentioned in the room, that really locked this record in. Everyone was saying, we're going to go back there, back to the future. The band’s sound through the years has drifted into a lot of different directions, sometimes I think they’ve strayed a little too far from their original sound. They ALWAYS make great records. But some may have sounded a bit like somebody's solo record as opposed to a Toto record. This record’s hologram to me is TOTO through and through.”
Reggie: This is a real reunion record of sorts with Steve Porcaro and David Hungate back full time. Lenny Castro back too on the record and touring. Like we mentioned Michael McDonald on the record. We also have Heather Porcaro deeply involved with photography and a great video for the song "Orphan".
CJ: "Tom Scott too. It's CRAZY. And again, Greg Ladanyi. And let me tell you, Mike (Porcaro) and Jeff (Porcaro) were in the room. It was a big family affair."
Reggie: Not that sheer numbers equate success but Toto XIV charted at #14 in the entire WORLD in its debut week. So I would guess that you guys thought this was a great record but that you didn't expect such phenomenal chart success.
CJ: “Well first of all I don't know the label that well and I didn't know how committed they were to this record. I think it's public knowledge that this album was the result of a contractual obligation. The band could have phoned this record in, easy. But there was too much pride. We said no. We are going to hit this out of the park. But marketing wise I didn't know what to expect from the label. It looks like their doing a great job. But honestly I generally don’t think about end result numbers-wise. I don't think about what people are going to think about it. I don't think about their opinions. I don't think about sales. I don't think about critics. I don't think about any of that. I really don't. People say that but I honestly don't. I don't fucking care because you have to make yourselves happy. I figure if you've got Toto in a room with me and everybody is pumped up, that's all I need to know! Goosebumps don’t LIE!”
Reggie: You have ALWAYS been very supportive of Steve Lukather and Toto. I have run into you at Luke gigs at the Baked Potato, other Luke gigs, the Grammy Museum for the Luke interview, at Toto and Ringo gigs and just recently at a Toto rehearsal which you said it was your third or fourth. You really are a true friend and fan. Does that make working with them any easier?
CJ: "It makes it both easier and harder. It's both because the whole thing gets intertwined. For me it's all in. I can't just come in and work with somebody. I always end up being friends with them, or we never work together again, which has rarely happened. First of all these are some truly great cats and they've seen everything. The friendship creates a safe zone. I think that by cultivating these friendships and supporting these guys, they all know I'm going to give everything, every single cell of my body. Which is what I did on this record. The friendship and support create a safe zone where the guys feel first of all their personalities are safe in this room and their musical ideas are safe in this room. Here's another point, everybody's always looking for something from these guys. They want their picture taken with them. They want a quote. They want them to listen to something that they did. They want their opinion on something. I was never really asking them for something, I was trying to be supportive and to give something back to this band that has given so much to me.
Reggie: My friend Vince Gill has a line in one of his songs that says 'Everybody wants a little piece of my time'.
CJ: "I know what that's like, boy oh boy!"
Reggie: I talked to Luke about your work on Toto XIV and this is what he had to say about you 'there would be no new Toto record without him! It was NOT an easy task, believe me! He made it great...No one else would have even come close to giving what he did!'
CJ: "Ya well... pretty deep. It's nice to be appreciated. You know to put all that work in and to have it not be appreciated... first of all I wouldn't have done it. I wouldn't have made it to the end."
Reggie: I talked to David Hungate after rehearsal and he said 'CJ Vanston did a great job producing it. I'm very excited to be a part of it.' Then from the road he said 'I only worked with CJ a couple of days but was very impressed. He'a a great musician as well as an engineer, and keeping that group of geniuses wrangled is no mean feat.'
CJ: "He would know!” (Laughing)
Reggie: He also sent his best.
CJ: GREAT! No, I think there's a bass imprint on a wall somewhere that he... he's been there! And I love David, my God what a musician and what a great cat. I hadn't met Dave in person but we've known each other on Facebook. His political stance is very brave considering where he lives! You know what I'm saying? He's NOT afraid and I love to see that. You know what? That fearlessness is how he plays bass and that's the kind of bass player I want. I don't want some scaredy cat playing bass. That's not the instrument to be a pussy on!"
Reggie: This is a really comfortable studio that makes you feel like you're at home.
CJ: "One of the most important things about our process is this room and how we record almost everything in this room. We talked about this a little bit before... there's not somebody out in another room sitting on the couch making phone calls, there's not somebody playing ping pong. If you're here then this is the only room you want to be in. It keeps everyone together. That’s why I've kind of kept this place a little Spartan outside the control room because THIS is where it all happens. It's a special room. A special place. On top of it all, this is a real control room, professionally designed, unlike so many ‘personal’ studios I see. It sounds amazing in here, and that translates to mastering and to the final product. I might add that this studio is NOT in my home!! Not a fan of ‘home’ studios for the most part, too many distractions. We’re in an ugly industrial building here, with nothing else to do but make great sounding music.”
Reggie: You are currently working on an album with Skunk Baxter here. Please tell us about that. You're working on it right here, correct?
CJ: “Well Skunk and I go back to doing sessions in Chicago in the 80’s. Seeing him walk into the studio was mind blowing if you lived in Chicago. We struck up a friendship, we have a shared love for aviation, the space program and technology. So when I started telling him about my knowledge of aircraft, military aircraft we really bonded with that. So when I moved out here in ’88 we started making some music together. It seemed like every time we were playing together some great music came out so we started putting little ideas down. It wasn't until a couple of years later that we tried to do a band. It didn't take. I was too busy number one. I was the big fault of that.
Then they tried doing another iteration with John Entwistle and Rick Livingston, who is a great singer. Don’t really know the ins and outs of that one. Then there was another famous singer that didn't work out, he really scuttled Jeff’s project. That took away an outlet for Jeff and he said 'I want to do these things with you, you’re the only guy I want to work with.’ It looks like it’s going to be called "Skunk". Our original thing was ‘BVB,’ meaning the ‘Baxter Vanston Band’ because it really is the two of us. But let’s face it, we’re hanging the pork chop around Jeff’s neck, he’s the legend, not me. We were piecemealing this one together, three hours on a Friday and then two months later two hours on a Monday. Everything was sounding great but it was taking forever.
So finally when the Toto record was done we decided we were going to put in the couple of months it was gonna take to finish it. So that's where we're at, we’re almost done. It's remarkably eclectic. It's all over the map. I'm very proud of it. Michael McDonald sings on it, we all wrote a song together. We had two stipulations for everyone who came in to sing on it. One, we all write together; and number two it's got to be outside your wheelhouse. We're not going to do the regular thing that you do. So the Michael McDonald song is I think, different than anything that he has ever done. Then Clint Black came in. Clint's a great guy by the way. I love Clint. He's a huge Steely Dan fan. So we said great, let’s use that as a jumping off point. Clint found a guitar riff that was kind of 'Steely Danny’ and we took it from there. No country at all. He’s very versatile I might add.
Then Jonny Lang came in, he’s a true ‘Blues God’ but we ended up with a ‘Prince meets Robert Palmer with a touch of Zeppelin’ vibe. Killer song. Jeff and Jonny trade riffs throughout it. So anyway, we stretched outside everyone’s comfort zones. There’s one more vocal on the record. We did a rock version of "My Old School". We were going to have Steve Tyler sing it, so he said ‘send me a demo.’ So Jeff put a scratch vocal on it. I kind of pumped him up full of some confidence and got him really singing. We sent it over to Steve Tyler to check out and he's like ‘tell me…why am I redoing this? It sounds great.’ So I talked Jeff into putting it on the record with his vocal. The rest of the record is instrumental.”
Reggie: Is there a time frame for the completion or release date for this album with Skunk?
CJ: "The record is probably going to be done in two or three weeks. Then we're going to decide what to do with it. We're looking at some very forward looking alternative ways to market this thing. This may come pre packaged in certain products. We'll go straight through the manufacturer for this. We have a lot of tie-ins with CES and all of the equipment manufacturers we've known through the years. We intend to use those. The LAST thing that we want to do is a traditional label and go out and sell X amount of copies and it's over. And there'll probably be also a limited edition version that'll come in a little guitar case with a USB stick and a history and interviews and all of that. We don't know exactly what were going to do but we do know one thing: we're going to finish the record and we're not going to allow any infestation from any third party sources. I don't tell them how to use their telephone or their e-mail, don't tell me how to make a record. Please. Done! Too old for that shit."
Reggie: Is there anything else that you wanted to add?
CJ: Ya you know the one thing I've realized through all of this is people have been trying to get me to do a solo project. I've got a lot of good will out there that I intend to capitalize on. I think at the end of this year or early next year I’m going to embark on that one and that's going to be quite a journey. All of the above people will be called in. It will be my turn to beat them up!
Reggie: You could get some pretty cool people on it.
CJ: You think? In addition to the Toto family I'll be giving Steve Vai a call, (Joe) Satriani, Will Lee, Paul Shaffer I want to get him to play on it. So many brothers I want to make music with again…Sklar, Keltner, Bissonette, the Spinal Tap boys…just a bunch of great singers and artists. More than anybody I would have loved to have Joe Cocker do something on it. His passing was a huge loss but his soul will live on."
Reggie: Thanks once again.