David Paich, co-founder of Toto: Something Else! Interview

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Toto has begun rehearsing for its 2013 tour, which kicks off May 30 in Europe. David Paich and Co. will also be making a few rare U.S. appearances, beginning in late summer — something he says “almost feels like a homecoming after so long away.”

In this exclusive SER Sitdown, Paich discusses their plans to dig deeper into Toto’s catalog this time around, the construction of his signature hit “Africa,” his lengthy musical relationship with Boz Scaggs, and the prospects of a long-awaited studio effort.

Paich also updates us on the ailing Mike Porcaro. The bassist quit touring with Toto in 2007, and an announcement followed in 2010 that he was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Toto broke up that same year, but has since reformed for concert appearances like these, with proceeds going to Porcaro and his family …

NICK DERISO: I understand the new tour is going to explore some lesser-known tracks Toto’s vast catalog. Do you worry that it will be difficult to recapture the spark from those early sessions, more than three decades on?
DAVID PAICH: It’s an interesting question. You’d think that it would be, but as soon as you start playing a song, and you start hearing it, it’s like being zapped into a time machine. You go right back to where you were when you first wrote it, and first played it. Just like when you’re listening to the radio sometimes, people will say songs like “Hold the Line” or “Rosanna” are the soundtrack to their lives. It puts you back in that time frame. The music works that way for us, too. This time, we’re doing “Hydra,” we’re doing “St. George and the Dragon,” and we may be doing a special version of “99.” I think we’re going to dust off “Georgy Porgy,” too. We have a whole lot of things to go back to from the last 35 years. Of course, there are some technical challenges to some of the songs. So, we’ll have to brush off the cobwebs, and get in the mindset. But that’s part of Toto’s method, anyway. We work at it. Some songs are quite easy to jump back into, and others will take some rehearsing.

NICK DERISO: Despite prog-inspired things like “Hydra,” and the world music influences of “Africa,” it never seemed like Toto got the credit it deserved for pushing the envelope. Maybe pulling some of those deep cuts out will begin to remedy that.
DAVID PAICH: I hope so. We’re not just a classic-rock hits band. We were more of a progressive nature, especially when we first came out, and we’ve returned to that over the years. We’d like people to see how we play (2006’s) “Falling in Between,” (1999’s) “Better World” and some of these more challenging, almost Pink Floyd-esque type songs that have a little more depth to them.

NICK DERISO: One of the most fascinating things about “Africa,” the longer I’ve lived with that song, is your use of the early Yamaha synthesizer — rather than a piano. It sounds almost like a kalimba.
DAVID PAICH: That was a GS1 we were using, which was this phenomenal instrument that Yamaha came out with that had all these different new sounds from what was called FM technology, which stands for frequency modulation. So, we were able to get a GS1 and a programmer, which looked like a huge old-fashioned TV set that sat on top with four screens. We knew a guy named Gary Leuenberger from Stanford University who knew how to program it. He helped us with some of these sounds on “Africa,” and one of them was that sound — that kalimba African thumb piano thing. We were searching, trying to break some new ground. That was typical Toto. We not only used that, but also an instrument called a flapamba, which you’ve heard on Steely Dan’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” It was an exotic wooden African instrument, from the xylophone or marimba family. It was really fun to experiment. (Legendary late Toto drummer) Jeff (Porcaro) even made some walking sticks, where he took two sticks and put bottle caps on the top and bottom like they do in South Africa, and you can hear them keeping the pulse in the opening.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Steve Lukather and Billy Sherwood stopped by for a lively discussion of lesser-known Toto gems, including “Angela,” “The Other Side,” “Good For You,” and others.]

NICK DERISO: I love the way that song has evolved in the live setting, with (touring Toto bassist) Nathan East’s improvisational chants at the end. That’s connected “Africa” back to your original inspiration.
DAVID PAICH: It really has. It’s funny, Sting always says the record is just a blueprint for what actually will take place later on, and I believe that. You get not only the energy of the crowd, and their participation, and then you bring in one of our other brothers from another mother. His roots are from South Africa from his father and grandfather, so when you hear him sing, it’s authentic. It just puts a magical chill down your spine, to hear that in an auditorium. When you hear the real soul of what you were going for, what you always imagined in your head — and, even sometimes, what you hadn’t imagined — it’s just icing on the cake. It’s so magical, to have those moments happen.

NICK DERISO: In your mind, is all of this leading to a long-awaited new studio album?
DAVID PAICH: I thought that Falling in Between would be our Abbey Road album. But every time we get into a rehearsal with this particular band, someone always says: “Maybe we should cut an album.” It’s funny, because I always hear music in two facets: There’s music I hear specifically for Toto in my head, things that only Toto would end up making — songs that are unique to Toto. Then there are other things, when I’m writing songs for other people. In the back of our heads, because we all have our own studios, we always have this temptation — this carrot dangling in front of us — to go make an album. So, I cannot say “never” with Toto. We don’t have anything on the books right now. But you never know when Toto might surprise us, might surprise even me, and go back in the studio to try to cut some things.

NICK DERISO: Certainly, one of your most important collaborations outside of Toto has been with Boz Scaggs over the years. In a recent talk with us, he called his relationship with you the most important one of his musical life.
DAVID PAICH: I’m very flattered by that compliment. He had a full musical life before we ever met, and then he was just able to pivot. He had such yearnings to be more progressive and to grow from the blues thing he was doing before — and he was a natural. So, the feeling is mutual. I’m not sure if Toto would have happened as soon, or quite the same way, without (their early sideman work on Scaggs’ 1976 breakout solo effort) Silk Degrees. Those were formative years for Jeffrey Porcaro, (early Toto bassist) David Hungate and myself. It was instrumental in launching Toto. So, I owe him a lot. That was a turning-point album. He allowed me so much freedom, and we were able to write just a whole range of things. We went from Stones-y rock ‘n’ roll to pop R&B to some jazzy things like on “Harbor Lights.” Jeff — to whom I owe the introduction to Boz Scaggs — was the most important guy I ever met in my life. When you put those kind of guys in the studio, and give them freedom, you end up with things like Silk Degrees. You end up with things like Toto IV.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Boz Scaggs joined us to discuss touring with Dukes of September, his long layoff in the 1980s, and how he got his groove on in Memphis.]

NICK DERISO: I was fascinated when I finally got to hear the demo for “Miss Sun” (released on 1998’s Toto XX), which became a favorite after you gave it to Boz Scaggs. I didn’t know before then that there’d been a fully formed version by Toto.
DAVID PAICH: I had been a big Al Green fan. When I was growing up, before we started Toto, I had one tape in my car — Al Green’s Greatest Hits. It’s all I listened to for a couple of months. I was a big fan of his, and of Sly Stone. So, that song just came out of me. It was one of the first things Toto cut, when we went into the studio to get our deal. I think it’s even one of the first things we played and wrote. And we didn’t even put it on our first album, to Columbia’s amazement at the time. (Laughs.) I wanted to release that with Toto eventually, but Boz wanted it so badly that I finally gave in. I’m glad, because he had a hit record with it — and wrote his own little special story on it. There were some different words on my version, so it ends up almost being two songs within the same song. It’s always been special to me.

NICK DERISO: In the past, you’ve avoided solo work, preferring to pour your creativity into Toto. But as the time between the band’s studio efforts widens, have you gotten the itch to do your own thing?
DAVID PAICH: There’s another side of me that wants to do a solo album, but it’s much more along the lines of Leonard Cohen and Daniel Lanois — this very unproduced, songwriter-ish thing, with my singing songs on a piano with a drummer like Jim Keltner. Just very simple, and very broken down. I may throw something out here one of these days, with songs that people haven’t heard that show a different side of me.

NICK DERISO: Having grown up in a jazz family, in my mind I always saw you doing that kind of record.
DAVID PAICH: My first passion was jazz, which is why I co-produced a record for James Torme a couple of years back. My father (pianist/composer Marty Paich) had worked with his father, Mel Torme. We did an thing called Love For Sale, and it’s a great album. We’re continuing to work together. I’m also working on an album right now with a keyboardist named Mike Lang, doing kind of an instrumental world music thing. It’s been a labor of love, over the last few years in our spare time. Mike is one of the great piano players in Los Angeles. Once every couple of months, because he’s busy and I’m busy, we’ll get together and throw something together. Hopefully, when I get back off of this tour, we’re going to wrap it up. With world music, there’s no rules. It’s another side of me. I really love what we’re doing, as far as keyboard and being able to do something much more organic, homegrown and along the jazz lines. Hopefully, people will be seeing something from me in the near future.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Steve Lukather on the high points from his lengthy career with Toto, and how they are carrying on after the departure of two Porcaro brothers.]

NICK DERISO: Close listeners will find those jazz influences across your career — from the work with George Benson (Paich co-wrote the 1983 hit “Lady Love Me”) to Toto songs like “Georgy Porgy.”
DAVID PAICH: “Georgy Porgy” was inspired, first of all, from growing up around a father who played jazz. But when I heard Leon Ware’s song for Marvin Gaye, called “I Want You,” it was a big influence on my life. At the time, Quincy Jones had done The Dude, and different instrumental albums. Throw in a little bit of Barry White, too, on the drum riff (laughs), and you have that song, basically.

NICK DERISO: How is Mike doing?
DAVID PAICH: I was just with Mike, and his subtle wit had me in stitches laughing. It’s such a heartbreaking situation, because ALS is such a degenerative disease. That’s one of the reasons that we’re going out, to spread ALS awareness. It’s one of those mysterious diseases that just eludes people until it’s too late. We’re trying to get more people interested in it, and more doctors researching it. We aren’t doctors, so we can’t cure ALS it but maybe through touring we can raise global awareness that will motivate more people to find a solution. Unfortunately, Mike can’t play music anymore but I know he still has music in his head and on his mind. He is surrounded by a family of musicians. He has a great smile. We had dinner with his family, and it was fabulous. He’s hanging in there, and he sends his best to all of the fans and all of the people who’ve supported him.

NICK DERISO: After Mike was stricken with this terrible illness, you briefly retired from the road. Do you think you would have eventually come back anyway? Can you really stay away from Toto?
DAVID PAICH: Musicians, you go through those phases. But we just have this desire to play in front of our fans. It keeps creeping up on us. In 2008, I thought: “Well, this is our last chapter,” and that we had done enough. After a while though, I longed to get out there — not so much hear the applause of the fans, but just to make music for people to hear. It’s so much fun. We’ve had a love affair with Toto audiences for years. I also get to play with great musicians like Steve Lukather, Nathan East and Simon Phillips in a band, not to mention Steve Porcaro, Amy Keys and Joe Williams. It’s a musician’s haven to be with people who work at such a high level. In basketball, they call them franchise players. You have to play with great musicians to keep growing, and those guys keep me growing and keep me on my toes.

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