David Paich of Toto – Whispers of Some Quiet Conversation
by Jay S. Jacobs
36 years is a huge chunk of anyone’s life, particularly if you are just about to turn 60 at the end of the upcoming month. Keyboardist David Paich was in his mid-twenties when he hooked up with a bunch of high school friends to create the session musician super-group Toto, including guitarist Steve Lukather and brothers keyboardist Steve Porcaro, drummer Jeff Porcaro and bassist Mike Porcaro. Another friend, singer James Williams, was an original member of the group but left to pursue his solo dream before Toto’s first album, eventually returning to the fold starting with the group’s six album, Fahrenheit (1986). Bobby Kimball handled lead vocals for the first five albums.
The amazing thing is, even though the guys were young when Toto first started in 1978, all of the members of Toto were already veterans of the music scene. Paich, for example, had been a session musician since his teens. Through his father, the producer and performer Marty Paich, he learned about the music business early, playing on such classic albums as Barbra Streisand’s The Way We Were and Seals & Crofts’ Diamond Girl way back in 1973.
By the time he was in his early 20s, Paich had gotten his buddies together to become the band for Boz Scaggs’ breakthrough album Silk Degrees, for which Paich co-wrote the two huge singles “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle.” Toto was formed soon after that breakout, hitting the charts right away with the rock classic “Hold the Line.” Over the years Toto returned to the singles charts multiple times, peaking with the huge album IV which contained three of the band’s biggest singles, “Rosanna” (which peaked at 2 on the Billboard pop charts), “Africa” (the band’s only number one single) and “I Won’t Hold You Back.”
All of those Toto hits and more are on the band’s new live CD and DVD, 35th Anniversary Live in Poland. It is a chronicle of last year’s reunion tour, in which the band members decided to get back together to help one of their own, bassist Michael Porcaro, who has been diagnosed with the deadly disease ALS and was having trouble keeping up with medical bills. The show finds the band in fine form, doing tight and joyous versions of their classics and a bunch of album tracks. The band members enjoyed the tour so much that they decided to tour the States again this year. They are also working on their first studio album since 2008.
As 35th Anniversary Live in Poland was readied for release, we sat down with Paich to discuss the band’s career, reunion tour, the live album and video and the first new studio tracks they have put together in eight years.
How crazy is it to think that Toto is over 35 years old now?
Oh man, it’s surrealistic, I’ll tell you. To know we’ve been playing since high school in this band, with all the guys from the neighborhood. The fact that we’re not just 35 [years old], but it’s been 35 years we’ve been together, is a mind-blower. When we get on stage, it’s just like we’re zapped into a time machine. It’s like we’re back in high school on stage. It’s the most fun you can have, pretty much. We’re very blessed and very lucky to be here, still kicking it onstage with the guys.
Like you said, you guys have known each other since you were in high school. How did the band first get together?
It’s a very interesting story. My father [Marty Paich] was a musical arranger for a lot of artists out here. People like Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald. Also he had worked with Glen Campbell. He was the musical director of The Glen Campbell Show back in the 70s. Joe Porcaro, who was from Connecticut, brought his family out here. My father was looking for a percussionist for the TV show that aired every Sunday. He was auditioning people and Joe Porcaro fit the bill. He hired Joe. I used to play in the pit orchestra – I was about 15 years old at the time – and Joe heard me playing piano downstairs with my dad’s band. He said his son had a great band in the Valley, and wanted to know if I wanted to audition for it, and hooked me up with Jeff Porcaro.
I walked in and heard the best band I’ve ever heard in my life, to this day. It was a band called Still Life, what was Jeff Porcaro’s band. It was a soul rock band from the valley. The rest is history. I met Steve Porcaro. I met Mike Porcaro. Through them I met Steve Lukather and Joseph Williams. Everybody was hanging out in that area, at Grant High School, in the San Fernando Valley. We became friends and then session players after that. We did Boz Scaggs’ Silk Degrees, myself and Jeff and David Hungate. Then we decided it was time to launch the old band back together. We put the call out there and here we are today.
Lots of bands reunite for selfish reasons, but Toto is doing it for one of the most worthy reasons I’ve heard, to help a brother in need. How did the decision to get back together for the anniversary tour come together?
I’m glad you asked that, because we want to bring some awareness to this. In 2008, Toto did its last concert in Japan. We did a special concert with Boz Scaggs, where we played with him and he came up and played with us. In 2010, our bass player Mike Porcaro had been stricken with this terrible disease called ALS [Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a/k/a Lou Gehrig’s disease]. He had had it for a while. He wasn’t able to play bass anymore because of this. It’s terrible. We got on the phone – Steve Lukather and I – and we wanted to try and do a fundraiser to try and help him out financially. We figured: Toto, we’re musicians, we’re not doctors. We can’t heal him, so what is the next best thing we can do? We can try and give him a little comfort and release some stress and give some financial support. We were going to do a couple of gigs in the Los Angeles area, but then realized that to really make a difference, put a dent in the bills, we’d have to do a half dozen to ten or more gigs here.
Our manager at the time called me and said some offers were coming in to do a summer tour. It would make more sense, and we could help him out. Be more effective that way. We put a band together here, an all-LA band, pretty much. People called up. Nathan East was one of the first people to call me. I had Simon Phillips. I had Steve Porcaro. I think we called Jenny Douglas at the time, and singer Mabvuto Carter. And Steve Lukather and Joseph Williams. We went out to start basically trying to raise some money for Mike and his family. And bring out ALS awareness to the world, so that they start trying to find a cure for this. We started in 2010 and we documented this on this last Toto DVD Live in Poland concert. That’s kind of a documentation of four years of doing that every summer.
Why did you guys decide on that particular show for the DVD and CD release?
That’s interesting. When we first started talking about where to do it, Steve Lukather had been out on his solo tours. He does solo albums. He’s very active. He said the crowds were great in Poland. So in the back of our head, we always had this [idea] “it would be great to shoot something in Poland.” Our friend Dave Gilmour from Pink Floyd had done Live in Gdańsk. We saw the crowds there. Well, as it turns out, we booked the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam, which is a 10,000 seater, to shoot it. It ended up not working out, because it was too early in the tour and we wanted to have more time to work out some of the kinks in the show. So we started wanting to book it for Paris and then Toulouse, in France. But as the French are consistently, they have what is called transportation strikes. They had one right at that time where we were getting ready to do our video. So we had to move the whole shoot to a later date.
The only date we could find was the Atlas Arena in Łódź, Poland. We just took a chance, threw the dice there, and ended up with one of the greatest crowds we ever had, as you can see when everybody gets the chance to see the video. They are just fantastic. They sang “Happy Birthday” to me when I walked out. Now I know a little bit about what went on with The Beatles when they walked onstage, because people were just screaming. It was so much fun. What a great crowd. Very appreciative of good music.
Was that the whole set list for the show, or did you choose between some songs?
That was the whole show, what you saw there. That list of our show, which was a culmination of 35 years going from album to album, and even picking up some songs that we haven’t played before live.
It’s a great cross section of the band’s music, but you skipped over a few hits like “I’ll Supply the Love,” “Make Believe,” “Georgy Porgy” and “Without Your Love” for some deeper album tracks. How did you decide on which ones to use?
Right. That’s an interesting question, because that was tough. We had done “Georgy Porgy” every year we toured. So we figured, we’re going to do this stuff, but we don’t want to make it just a show of our hits here. If we have to lose some, what are we going to lose? “Georgy Porgy” I think was one of the first ones that we lost there, because we’d played it every tour. “I’ll Supply,” I think that was just a choice because it was one of the ones that… we’re having Joseph Williams in the band, who is an incredible singer and is now our lead singer and was on Fahrenheit and The Seventh One. We wanted to get into more music that he had sung on. Songs like “Pamela,” which was a big hit.
So it was trading out. It came out to compromises and trading songs. Okay, I’ll take out “I’ll Supply the Love,” but let’s put in “Pamela,” that Joseph sung and was also a hit. That was a little bit difficult. We couldn’t do all of them. We wanted to. Maybe the next couple of years we’ll bring some of those back into the fold here. I’m curious, what are some of the songs that you mentioned that we didn’t do that you thought [we should play]… did you say “Make Believe?”
Yes, “Make Believe” is actually one of my favorite of your songs, though I know it wasn’t one of your biggest hits. Also, “Without Your Love.”
Right, right. “Without Your Love” is something that we’ve been trying to push back into the set, also. Maybe we’ll make it here one of these days.
Even before your debut album, the band members made a splash as Boz Scagg’s band in Silk Degrees, and you co-wrote both of Boz’ big hit singles. Lots of the members of the band made livings before and after as session musicians. How do you think that experience has made the band tighter as a group?
What it does is it lets you go out and really charge your batteries with other artists out there. When bands just play their own music all the time, it’s kind of draining to keep touring and do an album. I think that going out and doing sessions with other people has kept it fresh with us. Not only that, you bring back the experience of that session to your own group. When you go out and work with an Elton John, or you work with a Paul McCartney, or a Michael Jackson, or a Quincy Jones, or Cheap Trick, or I worked with Pink – you learn from other artists. You learn from other engineers. You’re adding this to your encyclopedia of knowledge, your tool chest.
It’s made Toto an unique thing, because we have all these experiences with hundreds, several thousands of other albums with other people that normally you wouldn’t get. A band would probably do maybe between five to 20 albums, that’s all they do. We’ve done several thousand albums. With other people, so we have much more experience and have that much more to draw on. I think it keeps it fresh and it gives us a wider range to draw from.
In 1979 when the debut album hit and “Hold the Line” became such as smash, what was that like to finally find your music at the top of the charts?
Boy, I’ll tell you, I’ll never forget it. I was stunned when I first turned on the radio and heard it. I started freaking out, because I recognized the song and secondly I recognized it was something I played on. I had heard myself played before and you never quite get used to that, because you’re always going, “Oh, wow, I played on that.” But when it was the first time when it was one of our songs, I couldn’t call everybody in the band fast enough. I was like a little teenager. I’m calling everybody and their phones are all busy because they’re trying to call me. “Are you hearing this new song?” We couldn’t believe [it.] So many times artists and bands we’ve been in, they’d put out an album and it would do nothing. Or it would take a year to get on the radio. Something accidentally would happen. All of the sudden, like a month after we delivered this album, we have a hit single. We were just taken aback by it. It was a huge thrill for us. I’ll never forget it. It made it a lot of fun.
How crazy is it when a song you wrote, “Africa,” has become an all-time standard with a huge life of its own for years and years afterwards?
(laughs) I’m telling you, that’s been an amazing journey with that song. I never realized it [back then]. It was kind of an extra, the extra cut on the Toto IV record. We had most of the record finished and I came up with this. I’d just gotten some new instruments from Yamaha and sat down and wrote a little piece here. The guys were like, “Hey, save it for your solo album.” Which means: “It doesn’t go on this record. We love it, but it shouldn’t go on this record here. We’ve got plenty of things.” We decided we wanted to just use it to have fun and experiment with and do something new and different on the record. It was a throwaway cut.
As a result of it, not only was it Toto’s number one record here in the United States, but I got invited in 2009 to perform at the United Nations when they introduced Bishop Desmond Tutu and gave him the lifetime achievement humanitarian award. I played with Paul Simon’s band and sang it there at the United Nations. That was “pinch me” moment, an I’m dreaming kind of thing. Then after that, you turn on the TV and there’s Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon doing a two-minute spoof on TV. Then there’sFamily Guy, with Peter Griffin and the whole thing. I’ve learned to laugh at myself a little bit here and not take it so seriously. At the same time, I’ve been very lucky, very blessed, to have a song that has communicated – basically has transcended – all these years, and is still a favorite of a lot of people around the world. It’s a calling card. I do it when I do functions for South by Southwest, for the United Nations. I’ve been very blessed with that song right there. That’s why we perform it. We do an extended version of it live.
I always thought it was interesting the way the record label pushed the band. You always did all sorts of music, from the most straight-ahead AOR of the debut to a more melodic softer sound. Yet eventually, they would only really push the ballads. Do you enjoy being able to change up with styles and moods in your music?
We do. We’re kind of like character actors, the way those guys are. We like to see ourselves playing different roles all the time. You’re right, the record company, it was kind of a double-edged curse: being able to be so versatile that we’d be able to do songs like “I’ll Be Over You” and “I Won’t Hold You Back” and have these R&B hits, ballads. The record company would just immediately go to those instead of the harder rock stuff, which we were really… when you listen to the harder rock stuff, that’s more of the way we sounded when we were in high school. At the same time, we’re grateful to have had the “I’ll Be Over You”s and the “Georgy Porgy”s. We always wanted to have more of a progressive music image that’s tougher for our audience. That’s why we to this day are playing songs like “Hydra” and “St. George [and the Dragon]” when we go out and do our live show. But, that’s the way that goes.
MTV really embraced “Rosanna” and “Africa,” but I read in the book I Want My MTV that eventually you guys felt it was sort of a waste to make videos for the network. How much do you feel the video revolution changed up the whole scene back then?
You know what? Different band members have different opinions when it comes to this kind of stuff. In retrospect, a lot of times videos would come to no avail out there, but my personal viewpoint – and I used to talk to Michael Jackson about it – is that you have to promote yourself. It’s a marketing tool. You have to believe in yourself. I think that it’s just that videos have changed the face of the music. People don’t just listen to music anymore, they watch music and listen to it. What you’re seeing affects the way that you perceive the lyrics and the way that you’re perceiving the song. Sometimes it’s good to have someone define things for you. Other times it’s not. Sometimes you don’t want someone giving you your explanation of what it’s supposed to be. I think it’s an interesting marriage, and a great marriage, the same way ballet or opera combines music with theater. It’s no different from that.
I just saw Kenny Ortega, the director of “Rosanna,” on Dancing With the Stars the other night. I was waving to him (laughs) from my living room, hoping he’d see me on TV. Kenny! My man! He did the “Rosanna” video with Cindy Rhodes, the famous video. It was a lot of fun, a lot of madness. Michael Jackson saw that video and asked me what influenced me. I said we have one section that says (sings), “Not quite a year since she went away.” It was the B section. I’d seen the Phil Collins video where they mimicked an alley scene from West Side Story. I told Kenny Ortega that I saw this as kind of parodying West Side Story,which he took literally and put in these male dancers and had them dancing around and everything. Which I got hell from my band for. (laughs) When we went down there, we had to tone it down a little bit. Michael Jackson ended up using the same concept on “Beat It,” when he had the gangs and the wire fence. I had the mesh wire fence come down. We were all just trying to get our music across and trying to market. It was our way of marketing it. With low budgets, as compared to the big budgets that advertisers have when they go out there.
Speaking of Michael, you played keyboards on Thriller, which became the biggest album ever. What was it like to be part of such an iconic album?
It was a real honor and a real treat to do that. I’ll tell you, there were several keyboard players that played on that. I have to give credit to Greg Phillingames, who has been a Toto member before, and he did a lot of the keyboards on it. I was able to play on “The Girl Is Mine,” the duet with Michael and Paul McCartney, and also “Human Nature.” What a thrill it is to work with Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson. First of all, you’re given total freedom, really, to do whatever it is you want to do. They have such respect for the musicians that they hire. It’s really like painting. Just like Michael said, “You come in here, I want you to feel like Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel.” They were words he uses, you know? You could just do anything you want. If you hear orchestra, if you hear choir, you hear any of this, or sampling, or anything, whatever it is you want to do, use your imagination. I think they taught to let musicians be more imaginative than most producers do when you go it.
You’ve played with so many other great artists. What were some of your other favorite session gigs?
Boy, that list goes on. One of my heroes is Elton John, who I had a chance to play with. We recorded with Steve Porcaro, myself and James [Newton] Howard a song called “Nobody Wins” on an older Elton album (ed. note: the 1981 album The Fox). I played organ on “Trouble” for Pink. I worked with Seals & Crofts, who were a group from the late 60s, early 70s. We had some hits. I was with them and arranged some stuff for them. Of course Boz Scaggs was how I kind of got my musical start. Who else? I played on The Way We Were with Barbra Streisand, which my dad produced. God, this list, I can always think of them except when someone asks me. I’m not looking at my list right now of how many people. All kinds of people. Great artists like Don Henley, Jackson Browne. Wonderful people.
Your father was also a musician. Do you think that made doing it professionally seem like a more viable career choice?
Absolutely. I had the most fun working with my father. The most interesting life, sitting next to him, watching. His peers and colleagues and friends were people like John Williams (ed. note: who is also Toto singer Joseph Williams’ father) and Andre Previn, so it was on a very high level. I got to see orchestras being arranged for and recorded with people like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan when I was very young. So I got addicted to music at a very early age. My dad was a jazz pianist, so I felt like this seems like a great thing to do, be a jazz musician. Of course, The Beatles came out and changed all that. I can’t say what a satisfying journey it was in life I had growing up under my father’s tutelage. Him teaching me how to orchestrate and all about music, and how important it was to find a band to play. I was always able to call him and ask him questions when I got stuck and needed some answers. He always had them.
The music business has changed so much and become rather broken since the band’s heyday, with piracy, low streaming payments and all. How is it different recording independently than on a major? Also, do you think a band like Toto could make it now?
That’s really an interesting concept. We’ve always asked ourselves. Some people say: If you’d tried to do the same band today, you’d never make it, because you’ve got to look this way and you’ve got to be able to do this, you have to have this kind of singer and everything. I think I would have probably changed the lineup today, but… it’s very competitive today. I don’t envy young people that are having to go out there. But I do want to say that I’m for them and I think they should try to go out and seek careers in music. I try and encourage people to do it, because you can do it. But it’s become such a profession, where before, when I grew up, it was like joining the circus. It was frowned upon. You’re going to do what? You’re going to be in a rock and roll band? Why don’t you get a real job? Now there’s people, instead of being a lawyer, or doctor, people want their kids to be singers or musicians. Which is nothing wrong with that, certainly, because I grew up that way. It’s just more difficult. It’s like with comedians, where you had 200 before, you have 200,000 now. The numbers are all exponential and I think it makes it more competitive and harder.
Luckily Toto had toured enough and had enough success to where we are able to make our own records and do something we always just wanted to do. Which is just to be left alone. To make our own music, so that people can at least hear it, even if it just sells ten copies. You’re hearing the music that we made. It wasn’t made by somebody else. It wasn’t produced by somebody else, or influenced by other people. What you are hearing is us. Now we have the recording studios and the technology where we don’t have to get these huge budgets to go in and pay recording studios. Now we’re able to put that money to better use.
I hear you guys are now working on a new studio album. What can we expect from that?
We are indeed. You can expect some really good music on this one. We’re back to our old adventurous times from the early days. The time off has allowed us to, again, recharge our batteries. I was really looking forward to doing one more. I always say this is going to be our last Toto album. I said that last album, and here we are making another album. We have eight songs recorded so far. I just can’t tell you, this is going to be one of my favorite albums we’ve put out. We’ve got a couple more songs to record, but the songs between myself, Steve Lukather, Steve Porcaro has got a song on there, Joseph Williams. We’re reaching out, trying to challenge ourselves, doing a longer-form piece and some different things. But it still sounds current for us. We’re very excited about it and having lots of fun making it.
Will you be previewing the new songs on your upcoming tour?
We’re not going to be doing that just yet, because they still are having lyrics being written to them. And we have a set, because we’re taking it out and playing gigs with Michael McDonald on the road. We’re also going to be doing a PBS special in September I found out, so we have to do something that we have consistently rehearsed, so that we have it down. But probably next year you will hear some of the newer material implemented into the show.
Last year you guys toured Europe and America, for the first time in years. Were you pleasantly surprised by the reaction of the crowds?
We were. We were. It was such a great thrill to be home and to have all the people in the US, where they actually understand our humor and jokes. To see good old people in New York and Pennsylvania and Philly and all back east. Some of our fans that grew up, just like we did, and are still around enjoying our music.