Toto’s Steve Porcaro Talks About His New Debut Solo Album: Exclusive Interview
The birth of Someday/Somehow, the debut solo release from Toto co-founder Steve Porcaro wasn’t something that came together overnight. But as he was in the middle of working with Toto and writing for other artists, as well scoring some music for television and film, across the decades, he was well aware of the material that was accumulating.
“When you’re writing and you’re doing it for a living, you’re always shooting to try to write something that other artists will want to record, something that’s not so personal,” the veteran keyboardist and songwriter tells Ultimate Classic Rock. “But it’s usually the case for me that I’ll start something and maybe it will start that way as a good general song for anybody, but then it kind of often takes on a life of its own. And then I just feel like I’m kind of filling in the spaces. Sometimes it comes out and it’s not a standard pop song that any artist would want to record, it’s something kind of unique and I think, ‘Well, if no one else wants to do this, I’ll record it someday.’”
That “someday” arrived about a year ago, after Porcaro and the members of Toto had wrapped up work on the Toto XIV album. His brother Mike died following a long battle with ALS, and Porcaro became acutely aware that he shouldn’t put his own material to the side any longer.
“That was really key in just all of the sudden realizing how much time is whizzing by and how fast it’s going by,” he says. “We all think about that all of the time, but all of the sudden, after Mike passed, it was just really unsettling to me. I realized I really had to get my s--- together and get this stuff done and get it finished and treat it professionally. You know, the way I treat all of my other work when I’m getting paid, which is to get it done and deliver it and stop messing around.”
For a long time, Porcaro envisioned the album as “being more of a Quincy Jones type of thing,” one that he would produce and enlist friends and associates to handle the vocals.”I didn’t care who sang them and I didn’t have any ego about that, I just wanted to get them done the way I heard it,” he says. “But you know, being back with Toto these last several years and traveling with them, I realized that there is that section of Toto fans that like it when I sing and they enjoy it when I sing. Now, with the technology that’s available, it made it a lot less painful.”
In the end, Porcaro sings seven of the album’s 13 tracks. Vocalists Michael Sherwood, Jamie Kimmett and Mabvuto Carpenter helped to fill in the remaining gaps, along with longtime friend Michael McDonald, who stepped in to add his signature vocals to two songs, “Swing Street” and “Night of Our Own.”
“When I was thinking about the album and doing it, those songs kind of jumped out, like, I just wanted someone else to sing on it and while I was thinking about singers, I thought of Michael and he obliged,” Porcaro notes. “He said he’d love to do it and it came out great. It’s such an honor to work with a singer’s singer, you know, a real singer. It’s so great to have [someone] come in that it’s just an embarrassment of riches, every pass they sing is amazing and you just get to choose what take is better and what line is better. It’s an embarrassment of riches when it’s a guy like Michael McDonald.”
“Back to You” is one of the oldest songs on the album, initially recorded as a demo by Toto in 1983, and as Porcaro reveals, it wound up on the sidelines at that time. But thankfully, as he would discover many years later, he had a backup copy, one which allowed him to make music with his brothers one more time.
“David [Paich] and I, the way we worked, we often made [copies of] the work tapes from the masters where I would throw the drums across," he recalls. "On that particular tune though, Toto had recorded it and they had forgotten about it. It was the only time that [Steve Lukather] had tried a bunch of guitar parts on a song of mine and it just didn’t work. It just wasn’t a guitar type of tune. It lost its magic, so it was shelved, but I grabbed those tapes [of] Jeff’s master drum tracks with Mike on bass. I had grabbed those tapes and they’ve been sitting in my closet for years. ‘Back to You’ was actually one of the last songs to wind up [on this record], I wasn’t even thinking about it for the longest time. And then when I really knew I had to figure out and flesh out what was going on the album, I opened that closet door one time and there was the tapes staring at me and I was like, ‘I’ve got to finish that up.’
Finishing off the track was something that came with a good amount of challenges. He started with his original demo parts and added in Jeff’s drums and Mike’s bass. From that point, he had to wrestle with it a bit to bring it all together properly.
“It was a rarity for Toto to cut to a click and it still was on tape,” he points out. “Tape stretches, and there’s very minute fluctuations in the speed when things are recording. It was really a technical challenge to get everything really locked up the way I wanted to. And then there was always only one verse written of that song, so right then, just a few months ago, I wrote the second verse and did the vocal. And then I added a synth section, a bridge that was just a big analog synth section.”
All of the work that it took to bring “Back to You” to the finish line was worth it, to be able to include it on the new album and hearing the final results is something that still makes Porcaro quite emotional.
“It made me really miss them both a lot, just thinking about what could have been,” he says. “It’s tough every time I hear that song. It so sticks out, just the way the drums were recorded [by] Greg Ladanyi, the way my brother Mike kicks ass on that tune, the bass part he came up with. To think that it could have all easily just sat on a shelf forever. ... But yeah, every time I hear that tune, it shakes me up.”
Porcaro has plenty of memories that come flooding back when he listens to the work that he did with his brothers.
“The whole brother thing is very complicated, but you know, with them as players. … Jeff was just always, no matter what he was doing, he was the leader of the session,” he says. “Jeff was the one who told you when the track was done. Jeff was the cheerleader on the date and he was always enthusiastic about getting it and nailing it and having fun doing it. When I listen to Mike’s bass part on there, I just get this big smile, because it really shows where, you know, again, Mike wasn’t a really flashy bass player, he didn’t do a lot of going up and down the neck, but I think his playing on ‘Back to You’ and what he brought to the table on it just really shows how talented Mike was and what he brought to the table.”
He is quick to agree that the musical history of the Porcaro family is really something and that with so much music surrounding the young brothers in their early days, it seems unlikely that they could have pursued any other kind of career, but he also is very aware that they were quite fortunate to grow up at the time that they did.
“[We were] so lucky and especially when you look at the landscape today. When someone comes to me and says they want to be a studio musician in L.A., [you have] to try to explain to people how that doesn’t exist anymore,” he says. “Even growing up, there were two versions of our high school band -- the older one with Jeff and Paich, and then me and Luke were the younger guys, and Mike was kind of in between both of them. We lived for homecoming dance, for the proms and all of those things that were a chance to play. We lived for that stuff in high school. I had a daughter at a very young age and believe me, by the time she was in junior high school and started going to the dances, I’d always park the car and try to sneak in, because I wanted to hear the band, right? And there never was a band. It was always a DJ.”
The absence of those opportunities leaves a big void for today’s artists who are working to develop as players and make their own mark.
“You begin to wonder, Where do kids play? Who has a chance to play? What do you do? Because you know, we weren’t playing in clubs in high school -- we were playing dances and stuff. I guess now, the only answer is that you go to the Roxy or whatever and do the pay to play thing,” he says. “You sell tickets to your relatives to come see you play at the Roxy. That time period was crucial to Toto and our development at that age and as a band and setting bar at that early age, which I think was hugely important. A lot of kids were so into their instrument and yeah, maybe they loved Led Zeppelin and they’re copying Jimmy Page’s guitar solos or whatever. But we had -- and I think this is the same for David Paich and my older brother, we were always very aware, even at a very young age, of where the bar was, as far as being a professional musician and not just somebody who is playing in a band and impressing themselves. I feel bad for kids these days that don’t have that.”
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