Toto bassist Shem von Schroeck: Something Else! Interview

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Bassist Shem von Schroeck had already had an impressive career before starting another string of tour dates with Toto this month. He’d already boasted gigs with with Kenny Loggins, Don Felder, Steve Perry, Gary Wright and Ambrosia, among many others. Preston Frazier caught up with Schroeck to discuss the new Toto shows, working with Loggins and Felder, and how he started a career that also includes well-respected work in symphonic and opera circles …

PRESTON FRAZIER: I recall hearing that Toto will be touring through 2020. Are you committed to them through that time, too?
SHEM VON SCHROECK: Yes, I am. I told them whatever they do, I would love to be the last bass player they have. I love the gig; I love the guys. I’m a fan just like you are, too. I want to be there as long as they need me. [Steve] Lukather will have Toto working as long as he wants to. So, the “40 Trips” tour will go on to 2020, but we will keep going. There’s nothing to indicate the band will come to a halt. No one wants to quit. [Vocalist] Joe [Williams] wants to keep going. Everyone wants to keep going.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Can you weave Loggins and Felder in between Toto?
SHEM VON SCHROECK: Yes, I can – and I do. Both Kenny and Don know that Toto is my No. 1 call, but I make myself available when needed. Don has a stable of musicians that he can call on bass, guitar, keys and drums. He has a deep bench. Kenny, too, has a roster he can call on. The difference with Toto is it’s a band. There are no subs. You are not allowed to sub out that gig, and you shouldn’t. It’s a band. That’s why they are my No. 1 gig. Plus, it’s my favorite of the three.

PRESTON FRAZIER: What are your other creative outlets?
SHEM VON SCHROECK: There’s my Son of Arthur album I released back in 2001. That was a fun project. I wanted to do an all-acoustic, analog album. The stuff I’ve been doing in my studio lately has been more orchestral related and score-based. I have an orchestral background. I went to Manhattan School of Music out of high school. I’ve been getting calls to score music. I have a couple of documentaries I’m going to be doing. I have completed a lot of projects. Take a look at my SoundCloud page. My focus is composing on my time off, when I’m not on the road with Toto. I love scoring stuff for pictures.

PRESTON FRAZIER: What is your vocal practice routine? Is it the same for Toto and your operatic performances?
SHEM VON SCHROECK: It’s really not that different. Proper vocal technique is the same whether you are singing opera, or Broadway, or in the rock and pop context. As far as preparation: Preston, the best thing you can do for your voice is to get sleep. I’m more protective of my sleep than the average person. Sleep keeps the voice preserved.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Which are the most difficult songs in the Toto set for you to sing? I would imagine “Spanish Sea” is a challenge.
SHEM VON SCHROECK: It’s really not. I’d say “Hold the Line” is more difficult than “Spanish Sea.” When you have that big high-C note coming in “Spanish Sea,” you are ready for it. It’s almost like standing at the edge of a diving board. You are ready for it. The dive may look impressive, but it’s really the walk up to the board before you spring. It’s really the technique before the dive. It’s the same with singing. You have the big note coming and you get ready. It’s the onset preparation before the note. Once the muscle memory kicks in, it’s really not that difficult. Songs like “Only the Children” and “Home of the Brave” present a challenge, because the backing vocals are high and they stay in the same register throughout. There are tricks to obtain the stamina. It’s the smart singer who has the long singing career.

PRESTON FRAZIER: How do you get the bass parts down?
SHEM VON SCHROECK: The guys will send me the set list and tell me what keys the songs are in. I just listen and learn them by ear. We have band rehearsals and move forward.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Do you get feedback from the band on what you are playing?
SHEM VON SCHROECK: Not really. As long as it’s in the pocket. But that’s not a problem playing with [drummer] Shannon [Forrest]. It really works. We play well together. Dave [Paich] is almost Loggins-like in that he searches for new ways to play things. He bounces a lot of ideas around. Lukather has never said anything about a part I’ve played. I think Steve [Porcaro] has only said one thing in terms of a note-phrasing in “Lea.”

PRESTON FRAZIER: Are you getting a click in you in-ear monitors?
SHEM VON SCHROECK: I don’t want it. I only want to hear Shannon play. My monitor mix is different with Toto than any other band I’ve worked with. I have a little of everyone in the mix, but predominately it’s my bass, my voice and the drums.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Let’s talk about you musical history.
SHEM VON SCHROECK: Sure. Drums were my first instrument. I’ve been playing as long as I can remember. I then went to piano around seven years old, then picked up my brother’s bass. He didn’t get into it, so I would mess around with it just for fun. I found that I loved it.

PRESTON FRAZIER: What was your first touring gig?
SHEM VON SCHROECK: Well, I had a band called the Doctors in the New York area. We played around town and I was playing bass and singing lead vocals. That was back in the ’80s. That band moved to L.A and we played until about ’91. That was my first rocking out kind of thing. When I moved to Los Angeles in 1989, I got a call from the band Ambrosia. They were looking for a singing bass player to replace Joe Puerta. Joe was with Bruce Hornsby and the Range. They invited me to come down to audition, and I got the gig on the spot. That was the first touring band I gigged with.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Did you cover David [Pack]’s vocal parts and Joe’s bass parts?
SHEM VON SCHROECK: How it worked out was that the first year Joe wasn’t around. I played bass and sang his parts. The following year, Joe came back so they moved me over to percussion and I sang the high parts. I played percussion with the band until 2000. It wasn’t until David left the band that I picked up the acoustic guitar and sang David’s vocals with the band. I was with them from 1989 until 2002.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Did Kenny Loggins come after Ambrosia?
SHEM VON SCHROECK: I actually started working with Kenny Loggins in ’94, while still with Ambrosia. I got a call to sub for Freddy Washington. Freddy became very busy working with Michael Jackson and I moved into the bass-player slot after a while, because I knew the music. Kenny made some band changes, and in 2002 he called me again to be his MD [musical director]. I guess technically, I’ve been with Kenny since ’94.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Kenny doesn’t have as an aggressive touring schedule as, say, a band like Chicago.
SHEM VON SCHROECK: Right, neither Kenny nor Don. They don’t do much large scale touring anymore. They do more the weekend-warrior stuff, where they will go out and do shows from Thursday through Sunday and return home Monday. They will hit a certain geographical pocket. With Don Felder, I didn’t do any major touring with him until 2014. We were on a festival bill with Styx and Foreigner. That was an entire summer of gigs. Don’s a great opening act for Styx.

PRESTON FRAZIER: How did Felder find you?
SHEM VON SCHROECK: Felder saw me play with Loggins and Messina in 2005 at the Greek Theater in L.A. He reached out to me after seeing the show, as he wanted a person who could do the Timothy B. Schmit / Randy Meisner type stuff for his band, since he’s doing mostly Eagles songs. Don really doesn’t hold auditions. He sees guys he likes, and uses them. I’ve been with Don since 2006, on and off when I’m available.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Kenny released a live Soundstage DVD recently. You were the musical director.
SHEM VON SCHROECK: That’s right! It included Michael McDonald and David Foster. We shot that in August of 2016 in the Chicago area.

PRESTON FRAZIER: How did it differ from your normal role with Kenny Loggins?
SHEM VON SCHROECK: That show was a bigger production than a routine Loggins live concert. I did all the string arrangements. I think we had eight strings. The song “Real Thing” features my arrangement. You can see me conducting them on stage. There is also a gospel choir that sang some things that I arranged. Other than the opening vocal group on “Whenever I Call You Friend,” I did all the vocal arrangements. It was a high-pressure thing. We had two days of shooting, the primary and backup. It was stressful because Kenny has a reputation, and it’s accurate, that he changes arrangements constantly. I taught the choir the first day, then Kenny came in and said ‘Well, I’m hearing it this way,’ and changed everything. It’s pressure, but those challenges are the job.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Were you in Don Felder’s band with Stevie D [Steve DiStanislao]?
SHEM VON SCHROECK: That’s right. Actually, I have known Stevie since ’92. The first touring thing we did was Loggins and Messina in 2005. We did a six-month tour of the U.S. We then brought him into Kenny’s band in 2006. When I started working with Don, and he was looking for a drummer, I told him I’ll give him the best drummer he’s ever heard. Stevie’s been playing with Don, off and on ever since.

PRESTON FRAZIER: I first saw him with CPR [Crosby, Prevar and Raymond] in the ’90s and a few more times. I think the last time was on David Gilmour’s last tour.
SHEM VON SCHROECK: Yes, that right. We had an EP project together in 2014 called The Apex. It came about when we were on the road with Kenny. Guitarist Chris Rodriquez was on that tour, too. We had a lot of fun playing in the band and said the three of us could be our own band – kind of like a power trio. I went home and started writing songs in my studio. I sent the ideas to the guys and they said: “Yeah, this is the way we should go.” Chris became really busy with Keith Urban and wasn’t available. So, I just played guitar on everything. I sent things to Stevie and he added drum tracks. We started adding backing vocals and and it went on from there. It went from being a power trio to a power duo. We released the three-song EP with an idea to build on it, but we are just so busy with gigs, etc. It’s an on-going thing, and a work in progress.

PRESTON FRAZIER: What are you playing on this tour with Toto?
SHEM VON SCHROECK: Sandberg VM5 and TM5 35” scale bass guitars (five strings), D’Addario EXL190 Nickel Wound Bass Custom light and XL Nickel Round Wound Singles strings; GK Gear 1001 RB, 115 RBH, 410 RBH units

PRESTON FRAZIER: Finally, what are your Top 5 favorite albums?
SHEM VON SCHROECK: Herbert von Karajan conducting of Die Walküre on the Deutsche Gramophone label – 1967 (a Richard Wagner opera); The Empire Strikes Back soundtrack by John Williams; The Police – Regatta de Blanc; Kings X – Dog Man; and Toto – Isolation. Honorable mentions: Yes – Tales from Topographic Oceans and Chicago 18.

Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier is a bass-playing lawyer living in Atlanta. His first Steely Dan exposure was with an eight-track cassette of 'Pretzel Logic.' He can be reached at slangofages@icloud.com; follow him on Twitter: @slangofages. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Preston Frazier
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