prasa > Modern Drummer, listopad 1988
Modern Drummer, November 1988
Jeff Porcaro: the feel of the music
By Robyn Flans
I'm driving in my car, thinking about what I'm going to write about Jeff
Porcaro. The volume of the radio is nearly off while my mind is
preoccupied, but suddenly I'm prompted to turn the music up. What I've
heard, almost subliminally, is a groove that feels so good. I laugh
when I realize it's Boz Scaggs' "Lowdown," and the subject of my
preoccupation is playing drums. I know that I heard that drum track
from an almost inaudible radio because I couldn't NOT hear it. The song
ends, and I change the station. The next song that blares from my
speakers is "Pamela," from the newest Toto album, The Seventh One. It's
that feel again, and it becomes obvious that that's what I want to
convey about Jeff Porcaro. Hours later, I'm sitting in a restaurant.
in the midst of a conversation with a friend, something I can barely
hear in the background catches my attention. It's "Georgie Porgie" from
Toto's first album, and I wonder why I haven't noticed any other music
that's been played in the restaurant all night. Maybe it has to do with
the fact that no one plays a groove like Jeff. If you've ever seen him
play live, you know it's because he commits his body and soul to the
feel of the music.
He'll laugh when he reads this, and I wish I could convey his contagious
laugh with words. He's been playing professionally since he was 17,
when he left high school to tour with Sonny & Cher, then graduating to
one of the more musically hip gigs around--Steely Dan. Then he became
one of the most employed session players, working for the full spectrum
of artists. He'll laugh at the accolades because he simply doesn't--or
won't--acknowledge his special gift.
In my 1983 interview with Jeff, he made one of the most ludicrous
statements anyone has ever uttered: "My time sucks." Yeah, right. But
Jeff would rather compliment someone he digs than talk about why people
dig him. His modesty doesn't allow him to wear attention well, and he
insists that his playing is just a stolen combination of influences.
What he overlooks is that he has synthesized those influences into a
style that is all his own. He may have absorbed his heros' playing, but
what has been born is an amalgamation that is combined with his own
vital, vibrant, emotional personality--the animated way he expresses
himself verbally, the sensitivity he possesses as a human being, the
lack of pretense, and his omnipresent vulnerability. All of that is
infused in his performance as a musician and creates that sound that
makes me feel a drum track he's played before I can identify the song.
RF: According to Toto's bio, the new album was done differently than
the past albums in that it was done live. Is that true?
JP: Somewhat true. The first thing different was that we had
coproducers that we worked well with. Toto has always produced their
own records, but then we're worried about the technical end, the control
room, the engineering, the making of work tapes, and on and on to the
mastering of the record. That takes up a lot of time. Plus, when
you're producing yourself, you listen to the track as a band. Maybe the
track is burnin', and it feels good, but maybe I'm listening to it and
thinking, "I know I could have done a little bit better on that bridge."
But I look around and everyone else is quite satisfied, and it IS
satisfactory, so I'm not going to cause waves by saying, "Let me do
another one." I know through experience everyone is going to say, "Man,
it sounds great," and we move on, because we're too kind to each other.
On this album, we had Billy Payne and George Massenburg, who we'd all
worked with before and respect highly. So if we cut that same track,
Billy or George might say, "Ah Jeff, try to do that thing you did
earlier on the bridge," and we'll go out and do another one. The reason
we would do another one is because we did this album as artists. We
weren't worried about all the technical things.
RF: Does it work the other way, too, where you tend to scrutinize too
much, and the producer might say, "I think it's cool the way it is"?
JP: That has happened, too, and that's also what they were there for.
They were there to push the potential to what it should be. We still
tried to arrange, dictate the sounds somewhat, and get the feel we
But back to live recording, when we did this album, we tried to do as
much rhythm section--bass, guitar, keyboards, and drums--in the studio,
with live vocal, as possible. This is the first album we've done where
we've heard a vocal going on while we cut. On a couple of songs--for
instance, "A Thousand Years" and "These Chains"--I actually listened to
the demo cassettes through headphones while I recorded the drum tracks.
It was like playing along to a record, which I did when I was learning
how to play. I did that on those particular tunes because the demos
were great, the two guys were singing, so it was definitely the right
tempo, and the production of the demos was such that I heard all the
parts. So I played along. The only other track that's not live is "You
Got Me." That track was a demo that David wrote for Whitney Houston.
We heard the song and said, "We should do this in Toto." The song felt
great; it was all electronics, drum machine, and stuff, and we decided
to add real drums, percussion, real horns, guitar, etc.
RF: The tune "Fahrenheit" was pretty machine-oriented.
JP: There were two tunes on that album that were Synclavier drums, and
the rest was real drums. "Fahrenheit" was half Synclavier, and the
choruses were real drums.
RF: How electronic are you these days?
JP: Less and less and less and less and less.
JP: I'm not particularly keen about them--how they are as instruments
to play or their sounds. A lot of people are very excited and think
their sounds are cool, but it's all very Mattel Toy to me. I still like
acoustic drums in a big room, and I feel I can match any sample by
playing drums in a proper room with proper recording, proper outboard
gear, gates, AMS's, and all sorts of digital things. You can process
real drums on the spot and they'll sound just as good as any of the
electronic crap around.
RF: Don't you use Dynacord electronic drums?
JP: Yeah, I use Dynacords for a couple of things. I don't trigger
Dynacord from my real drums much. Live, instead of setting up a bunch
of timbales and gongs, I'll use the Dynacord gong and its gated
RF: Like on what?
JP: "Africa," the "Dune Theme," "Mushanga," and a couple of things. On
this particular tour I won't be using it. Luis Conte will be using my
Dynacord stuff and performing those bits of information for us. My
brother Steve just produced a couple of tracks for Fernando Saunders,
the bass player. We did it at David Paich's studio, where I played my
whole Dynacord set. I've done it sometimes for people, but it doubly
goes to show me that nothing is as versatile as a real drumset and a
RF: When we did our last interview, machinery was running rampant...
JP: Was I into them then?
RF: You were more into the fantasy of what they could be, because it
was just starting.
JP: And I kept looking at them, saying, "You're light years away from
where you should be."
RF: But we were talking about being able to phone in a part in perfect
time. In our article "Drum Machines, Friend or Foe," you said, and I
quote, "I see a future of walking into a studio with a briefcase full of
my own sounds--all different kinds of sounds. They will be
electronically perfect. I can put them in a Linn machine, or whatever
is available in the future, and play like I always play."
JP: It still hasn't happened. Samples have happened, but what I saw
potentially back then was something that you could play as a player, and
be able to have your own sounds. That will happen in the future. But
it has to be something with all the beauty of playing--meaning it's a
physical thing, a dynamic thing. When my mind and my body say, "Man,
slam it," that has to come off. If they can duplicate what happens with
a real acoustic drum, yeah. Nobody's got real dynamics yet. I've heard
at the most five increments, and eveybody's joking themselves if they
think there's more than that. Electronic stuff is cool in its place,
but for me personally, it's still like the old days. When I first got
Syndrums, I used them on four records: a Boz Scaggs record [Down Two,
Then Left], a Diana Ross record, a Leo Sayer record [Thunder In My
Heart], and Carly Simon's "Nobody Does It Better," which was the first
record out with Syndrums on it. I did those four records in a one-month
period. Right after that I saw a Ford commercial with Syndrums, and I
threw up my hands and said, "Okay, that's it." As soon as you hear
something on a TV commercial, it's Mattel. It's a toy.
RF: In the studio, do you see a swing back to acoustic drums?
JP: Oh yes, I definitely do. First of all, a lot of people thought
we'd save time by programming drums--that they are efficient.
RF: That isn't true?
JP: I don't think that's true. I've gotten a lot of calls in the past
two years where people wanted me to replace drum machines. Then they
went back to just using clicks. Then they would say, "Let's get a
rhythm section." Studio owners have been tearing down the walls of
their 200-square-foot rooms for synthesizers to build 1,500-square-foot
rooms for live drums again. At least around here I've been seeing that
a lot. It's not cost efficient, either. They thought, "I don't have to
pay a lousy drummer no more; I can program stuff." But it takes people
hours and hours to do that, when a capable drummer can record as many
songs in a day and a half as it would take a week to program. And it'll
feel better and won't sound like every other record on the radio.
RF: Are you as negative about electronics as you're coming off to be?
JP: They're just not my cup of tea. I react to sounds form electronics
as I do to fireworks at Disneyland. I go, "Wow, that was great," but
fireworks at Disneyland are not anything like seeing a meteor explode--
hearing a real snare drum and the beauty of the drum. If it's a tune
where you don't want any dynamics out of the drummer, yes, electronics
are cool. You can get some pretty far-out electronic sounds, but for me
and the music I do, and for my career, gigs come up 10% of the time
where I have the opportunity to use those things.
RF: What does your set look like these days?
JP: A standard set. I guess Pearl is calling my set the jazz-style
drums. When I went to a photo session, it was with a set of drums that
weren't mine. When I got there, I said, "The toms seem deep; these
aren't my sizes." They said, "These are the standard sizes." They
explained that, in the past couple of years, the power-tom sizes became
their standard drum. They have the super power toms, but the standard
drums that have been around since the '20s and '30s, they call the jazz
drums now. So when you see pictures of me behind a drumset in an ad,
it's deceiving. It's my setup, but those aren't my sizes. I use Pearl
jazz-size toms, 10", 12", 13", and 14" and 16" floor toms, an 18 x 22
bass drum, a Pearl piccolo snare, a Pearl standard-size metal snare, and
I have a Ludwig Black Beauty and a 6 1/2" regular Ludwig metal snare
RF: I know you endorse Paiste Cymbals. What hi-hats do you favor,
since that's one of your trademarks?
JP: I have several pairs I like. I have a pair of 602 Paistes that I'm
in love with. I have a pair of 13" Zildjians--a Z on the bottom and a K
on top. One of my favorite pairs is an old, old, old A Zildjian 14" on
top and an Italian Tosco on the bottom that has four quarter-inch holes
drilled around the bell and two sets of rivets on each north, south,
east, and west point on the bottom cymbal. They're incredible. This
Tosco is real thick, but very brittle--not a lot of harmonics on the
bottom. That combination worked out great. I got the Tosco cymbal when
I was in Italy with Toto.
RF: Was work on the hi-hat something you concentrated on as a kid?
JP: No. It was probably the last instrument to come into my repertoire
of drum instruments. If it had been important to me or I had studied
the hi-hat or paid special attention to the hi-hat in general, it would
have been easier. This year, I'm finally comfortable playing quarter
notes on the hi-hat through a whole tune or through a whole groove.
See, I was never taught that way, so my foot would stay still. I was
taught to chick the hi-hat on 2 and 4 from old bebop records, and
everything else involved playing the hi-hat closed or a little bit
swishy open. I used to listen to all those Sly Stone records with Greg
Errico, and I loved his hi-hat stuff, and the guy who took over for him,
Andy Newmark. I stole a lot of hi-hat stuff from those two guys, plus
David Garibaldi and Bernard Purdie.
RF: So you did think about it?
JP: I thought as much about it as I did bass drum and snare drum stuff.
I'm talking about during this perod when I was really picking up stuff.
Pre-disco R&B stuff had a lot of hi-hat happening. Funk had a lot of
nice hi-hat stuff going on, like David Garibaldi and the Tower Of Power
stuff. But what I never realized or never heard or had the ears to
hear, was that Bernard always kept quarter notes, 8th notes, or even
16th notes going on the hi-hat with his foot--sometimes loud or
sometimes real tight and short--while he was playing 16ths or 8ths or
whatever on top. This didn't become obvious to me until I got out into
the real world and saw a lot more drummers playing. And when I would
try to do that . . . I'm not the most ambidextrous type guy, so
coordination with my feet would be real funny. John Guerin does stuff
with his foot that blew my mind. Tony Williams would blow my mind, so
then I'd go, "Gee Jeff, you've got to learn at least how to play quarter
notes. Oh yeah, this helps my time if I keep quarter notes going while
I'm filling. Good idea, Jeff." I didn't realize that until I was 21
years old. By the time I got to be 25 and 26 there were Vinnie Colaiuta
and all these guys whose hi-hat technique and ability was incredible.
So the only thing I ever woodshed if I'm sitting at a set of drums is
doing quarter notes with my left foot.
RF: Back to The Seventh One. What are your favorite tracks?
JP: I like them all, I really do. I think each one stands on its own
RF: Did you have particular fun on any of them?
JP: I had fun on "Mushanga" because, walking into the studio, I knew
what the thing was going to be, but I wanted to think of a new beat for
me--something different. I didn't want one of those situations where,
after I heard what I did, it ends up that I stole it or I'd heard it
before in some sort of context. It was fun doing that beat. Now that I
know it, I wish we could cut the track again. It was one of those
things where I had to figure out the sticking a certain way; there are
RF: Can you explain the beat?
JP: No, this beat of all beats you cannot explain. [laughs] It's
impossible. I sat for an hour trying to explain it to my dad, and he
was cracking up because it involves hitting every drum, the rim, the
head, the hi-hat, and it's all this split-hand stuff. It's basically a
simple thing once you do it, but it's confusing to figure out for the
first time--at least for me. And as soon as I got it, it was, "Quick,
let's cut the track." We just cut it with David and me, and I went into
a trance and tried to remember it, because a lot of it had to do with me
just getting comfortable with my sticking. The track came out great,
but then after we cut it, I finally got the beat down and started adding
more things, like playing quarter notes on the hi-hat and things like
And I like "These Chains," but that's because it's exactly a rip-off of
Bernard Purdie doing "Home At Last" on Aja. It's not exactly the same
beat, but that was the sole inspiration, just like with "Rosanna." I
like "Stay Away" a lot, the rock 'n' roll thing with Linda Ronstadt, and
I like "Anna" a lot, and the whole damn album.
RF: The bio also says that there has been sort of a re-commitment to
the band, and that you guys are taking less session work in order to
spend your energies here. Is that accurate?
JP: Every day that anything is needed for Toto we're all committed to
being here for what we need to do--whether that means touring, making a
record, writing, or whatever. Any time in between is up to each
individual guy to do what he wants to do with it. Me, I've always done
a lot of sessions, and I still do. I've got to admit it, I do sessions.
Other guys in Toto have been writing more. When I wake up, I don't get
inspired to spend a day or a week writing; that talent is not a natural
thing in me. But when I wake up in the morning, I'm tapping my foot, so
it's nice if I have a studio to go to so I can play some drums.
RF: I want to go through a list of songs and have you tell me how you
came up with the groove and the patterns, and what was the inspiration
and the approach.
JP: It's hard for me to remember that stuff, but I'll do the best I
RF: Do you remember "Your Gold Teeth II" (Steely Dan)?
JP: Oh yeah! I definitely recall "Your Gold Teeth II." It was written
in 6/8, 3/8, and 9/8; that is the way the bar phrases were written for
us. It was Chuck Rainey, me, and Michael Omartian for the basic
tracking session. We ran it down once, and all of us thought, "Wow,
this is going to be unbelievable," especially me, because I was 21 and I
wasn't the most experienced bebop player--and I am of the same mind
today. When I heard "Gold Teeth II," the first reaction in my nervous
little body was, "I am the wrong guy; I should not be here," knowing
the kind of tune and knowing those guys real well. They weren't really
aware of a lot of drummers back then, but they were aware of Jim Gordon,
and I thought Gordon could do a better job playing that. He was more
experienced at getting a better feel. I was very nervous about it.
Fortunately, the whole rhythm section had a bitch of a time. This was
my first sight-reading.
RF: It's a hard song.
JP: Not only that. You say, "Okay, it's a big band...," but it's not a
big band. It's a little quartet composition, and the phrasing of the
lyrics also had to swing. Fagen did the perfect thing. We lived near
each other, and we would hang out and listen to Charlie Mingus together.
He gave me some Mingus album with Dannie Richmond on drums, and he said,
"Listen to this for two days before coming to the studio." So I
listened to Dannie Richmond and tried to copy a couple of things he was
doing and copy a couple of things that I had heard my dad play. There
was this Mingus vibe to the rhythm of the song. I remember that
everybody had such a hard time that we would record other Steely Dan
songs, and every night before we'd leave, we'd play "Gold Teeth II"
once. I think it was about the fifth or seventh night of a four-week
tracking date that we got the track of "Gold Teeth II." Next?
RF: "Lowdown" (Boz Scaggs)
JP: "Lowdown" is from a David Paich composiiton that he wrote for what
would be Toto. David and I had done some demos in late '75, early '76.
There was this one song that, when we got to the fade, we snapped into a
completely different groove. That groove was bass drum on 1, the last
16th note of the second beat, and the third beat, 16th notes straight on
the hi-hat, and snare drum on 2 and 4. Boz Scaggs heard this song and
said he wanted to do it, but Paich said no, it was going to be for a
group we were going to have one day, but he would give him the fade. So
Paich took the fade and wrote "Lowdown" for Boz. Boz wrote lyrics and
melody and stuff, and we went into the studio. When we cut "Lowdown,"
it was 1976 and there was an Earth, Wind & Fire album out that I had
been playing over and over again. It might have been I Am or the one
before that. Instead of 16ths, the groove was quarter notes on the hi-
hat with the same beat I just described. We wanted to get that kind of
Earth, Wind & Fire medium dance-groove rhythm. But instead of doing
quarter notes, I did 8th notes, so if you take the figure I described to
you and substitute 8th notes on the hi-hat, and every two bars or so
open the hi-hat on the last 8th note of the fourth beat, that's it.
We cut it that way, but the producer said, "Gee, do you want to try
adding 16th notes?" because disco was starting to come in around '76. I
wasn't the keenest guy on disco and said, "Naw, you don't want to do
that, man. You don't want to ruin the groove." He said, "Just try it,"
and Paich and Boz said so too, so I overdubbed the hi-hat, which they
put on the opposite side of the stereo mix. While I was overdubbing the
simple 16ths, I started doing some accents and answering my hi-hat
stuff, and it got to be a lot of fun.
RF: "Love Me Tomorrow" (Boz Scaggs)
JP: The most reggae that I had heard at that part of my life was
probably Bob Marley. I hadn't heard of Peter Tosh or any of those cats
yet. Maybe the most up-to-date record that would tell you what I'm
talking about would be "Kid Charlemagne," but if you listen to the
groove on that and on "Haitian Divorce" from The Royal Scam, that's
Bernard Purdie. You'll hear some of the same kind of groove on the
Aretha and King Curtis Live At the Fillmore West albums, both of which
Bernard Purdie played on. On King Curtis Live At the Fillmore West,
when they do "Memphis Soul Stew," you get a taste of the Bernard Purdie
kind of shuffling type lope, very reggaeish, but it's a bad imitation of
RF: Were those timbales on it?
JP: Yes, set up right by the drums, and it was me.
RF: "Hold The Line" (Toto)
JP: That was me trying to play like Sly Stone's original drummer, Greg
Errico, who played drums on "Hot Fun In The Summertime." The hi-hat is
doing triplets, the snare drum is playing 2 and 4 backbeats, and the
bass drum is on 1 and the & of 2. That 8th note on the second beat is
an 8th-note triplet feel, pushed. When we did the tune, I said, "Gee,
this is going to be a heavy four-on-the-floor rocker, but we want a Sly
groove." The triplet groove of the tune was David's writing. It was
taking the Sly groove and meshing it with a harder rock caveman
RF: "Georgie Porgie" (Toto)
JP: "Georgie Porgie" is imitating all the Maurice and Freddie White
stuff, it's imitating Paul Humphrey heavily, it's imitating Earl Palmer
very heavily. When it comes to that groove, my biggest influences were
Paul Humphrey, Ed Geene, Earl Palmer, and the godfather of that 16th-
note groove, James Gadsen. That "Georgie Porgie" groove I owe to them.
RF: Would you explain that groove?
JP: It's the groove on 'Lowdown," just a different lift of it maybe, a
different tempo. I stole all those grooves from those guys, but I may
lay the beat just a little bit differently, depending on the song.
RF: Like "99."
JP: Right, "99" is from that same genre. It's my R&B chops that I got
from those people.
RF: "Dirty Laundry" (Don Henley)
JP: "Dirty Laundry" is just me laying it. It was an electronic track,
meaning it was sequenced; that Farfisa organ part is a sequence going
down, so I was just bashing. I played 1 on the bas drum, 2 and 4 on the
snare drum. I'm just pounding. It's just a groove.
RF: How did it come to you.
JP: If you took the drums out and listened to it, there would be
nothing else you could play to that song except that groove. Nothing
else fits. Because of the machine, the tempo is dictated, the dynamics,
and what the song is about, diry laundry. It's an attitude thing. The
backbeat was obviously laid back as far as I could lay the sucker back,
and I hit as hard as I could hit.
RF: "Africa" (Toto)
JP: I was about 11 when the New York World's Fair took place, and I
went to the African pavillion with my family. I saw the real thing; I
don't know what tribe, but there were these drummers playing, and my
mind was blown. The thing that blew my mind was that everybody was
playing one part. As a little kid in Connecticut, I would see these
Puerto Rican and Cuban cats jamming in the park. It was the first time
I witnessed somebody playing one beat and not straying from it, like a
religious experience, where it gets loud, and everyone goes into a
trance. I have always dug those kind of orchestras, whether it be a
band or all drummers. But I just love a bunch of guys saying one thing.
That's why I loved marching band, and I said, "Gee, someday there's
going to be a little drum orchestra where everybody plays one thing, and
you don't ever stray from it. You do it until you drop. You're
banished from that land if you move from that one part."
So when we were doing "Africa," I set up a bass drum, snare drum, and a
hi-hat, and Lenny Castro set up right in front of me with a conga. We
looked at each other and just started playing the basic groove--the bass
drum on 1, the & of 2, and 3. The backbeat is on 3, so it's a half-time
feel, and it's 16th notes on the hi-hat. Lenny started playing a conga
pattern. We played for five minutes on tape, no click, no nothing. We
just played. And I was singing the bass line for "Africa" in my mind,
so we had a relative tempo. Lenny and I went into the booth and
listened back to the five minutes of that same boring pattern. We
picked out the best two bars that we thought were grooving, and we
marked those two bars on tape. We made another mark four bars before
those two bars. Lenny and I went back out; I had a cowbell, Lenny had
a shaker. They gave us two new tracks, and they gave us the cue when
they saw the first mark go by. Lenny and I started playing to get into
the groove, so by the time that fifth bar came--which was the first bar
of the two bars we marked as the cool bars we liked--we were locked, and
we overdubbed shaker and cowbell. So there was bass drum, snare drum,
hi-hat, two congas, a cowbell, and a shaker. We went back in, cut the
tape, and made a one-bar tape loop that went 'round and 'round and
'round. The Linn machine was available to us. Maybe it would have
taken two minutes to program that in the Linn, and it took about half an
hour to do this. But a Linn Machine doesn't feel like that! So we had
an analog groove.
We tood that tape, transfered it onto another 24-track for six minutes,
and David Paich and I went out in the studio. The song started, and I
was sitting there with a complete drum set, and Paich was playing. When
he got to the fill before the chorus, I started playing the chorus, and
when the verse or the intro came back, I stopped playing. Then we had
piano and drums on tape. You have to realize that there are some odd
bars in "Africa," so when you have a one-bar loop going, all of a
sudden, sometimes Lenny's figure would turn around. So Lenny went in
and played the song again, but this time he changed his pattern a little
for the turn-arounds, for the fills, for the bridge, for the solo. We
kept his original part and the new one. Then we had to do bongos,
jingle sticks, and big shakers doing quarter notes, maybe stacking two
tracks of sleigh bells, two tracks of big jingle sticks, and two tracks
of tambourines all down to one track. I was trying to get the sounds I
would hear Milt Holland or Emil Richards have, or the sounds I would
hear in a National Geographic special, or the ones I heard at the New
York World's Fair.
RF: "Good For You" (Toto)
JP: That's just a rock 'n' roll thing.
RF: There's a great drum break in the middle of the song.
JP: Just that weird-feeling fill--that's all it is. I can't recall
what it is. The reason it's a weird-feeling fill is because it was one
of those spontaneous things; what you hear on that record is the first
time I ever played that fill.
RF: You don't have a problem with weird-feeling fills.
JP: The reason I don't have a problem is, first of all, they're weird-
feeling because I tried to do something else and I failed, but yet
something came out that still was sort of in time. If you listen to it,
that fill is rushing. After I learned that fill and I had to play it
live, there are live tapes where the fill was even hipper because it
layed where it was supposed to lay. Sometimes something good comes from
an accident or going for something.
RF: The Clapton song, "Forever Man."
JP: "Forever Man" is the kind of drumming I stole from Jim Gordon and
Jim Keltner. It's a very bad example of what you'd hear on those Tulsa
rock 'n' roll type tracks, like the Leon Russell or Delaney & Bonnie
type grooves Gordon, Keltner, and Chuck Blackwell would play.
RF: "Pamela" (Toto)
JP: I immediately thought of Stevie Wonder doing "Sir Duke." That's a
"Sir Duke" groove; Bernard Purdie did that groove.
RF: Let's talk about your approach to ballads. I love the feel to
songs like "I won't Hold You Back" and "Anna."
JP: My ballad playing is me emulating Jim Keltner, and all I thnk about
is Jim Keltner, Jim Keltner, Jim Keltner, Jim Keltner. Since I was 16
years old, I've had a vivid picture of Jim Keltner sitting at a set of
drums on my right. I think of relaxing the groove so that there's
space. I like space in ballads. And sometimes I like those long, open
fills I stole from Ringo Starr and Jim Keltner. Drummers have to be
sensitive to the song, the dynamics. Toto's ballads happen to give you
a lot of dynamics. You can get out there and still stay open.
RF: When you play the Baked Potato, you really let go. Most people
don't ever get to hear you play like that.
JP: It's because I'm allowed to play like that, because it's a small
club and I'm amongst my friends. A lot of drummers come by the Baked
Potato, and they're guys like Sonny Emory, who I'll meet for the first
time. I'll say, "Sonny, play a song." He plays and I think, "Oh shit,
I can never go up there again." When I play there, I try to get off
some chops; it's my one opportunity to get off stuff I don't normally
have an opportunity to do. I realized, though, that when I do it, I'm
holding back solos sometimes. You might not think so, but I know when
somebody gets into an outside thing where I don't have the facility to
be real free. I'm tight and nervous, playing too loud and too fast.
People don't see me do a lot of that because I'm not really good at it,
so I don't get called to do that a lot. There are better guys at that
then me--guys who are much more musical than me on a broad area. It's a
hard thing to explain. I got called by Zappa to do a couple of albums,
and I would not take the gig; I would blow the sesions, he'd be pissed,
and he'd never call again. When I've heard the material and seen charts,
there is stuff that I just can't do. I can't do stuff that Bozzio or
Vinnie can do.
RF: The feeling I get when I see you play the Potato, though, is that
there is a whole lot of you that is being repressed. I don't think I've
ever seen you miss what you were going for.
JP: But I have. I can smooth out a screw-up real cleverly.
RF: You must do it REAL cleverly.
JP: I do. You have to learn how to do that. When someone goes off into
an over-the-bar thing and it's a great figure, I'll hear Vinnie
immediately; his ears catch on to it, and he has the facility--the
motor sense from the mind, to the muscle, to the technique--to go bam,
just like reading a word. I don't, so I'll go for something, and I know
from my first 16th note that I've screwed up. I'll cover it with
something, and someone might say, "Gee, that's exciting," but it's
simple, it'll get me out of there, and I don't mess up the time. But
I'm sitting there frustrated as hell, and my arms are real stiff because
my nervous system goes nuts when I go for something where I'm thinking
so much. So I'm playing that uptempo samba that I don't have the chops
for, and I'm struggling. People see me smiling and sweating, and they
think I'm having the best time of my life, but actually I'm going
through terrors up there. My right hand, man, I'm holding the stick so
tight and going, "Please don't cramp, because if you cramp, I can't play
for two weeks, and man, I'd better start practicing again." All that
stuff goes thrugh my mind. Sometimes I have no business being up there,
for that particular band. Maybe there's an in-between where I don't
have to get into that outside stuff. There's stuff that I do play that
I think is exciting, which isn't mainstream stuff, but it also isnt'
RF: You're not Vinnie Colaiuta, but you're a different drummer.
JP: I know that, and I respect myself for what I am, believe me.
RF: It's all a matter of personal preference. Maybe the people who are
slayed by Vinnie aren't the ones who would be slayed by you, but
obviously there are people who would prefer to listen to you.
JP: I thank people for that, and I know that's true, but when people
say, "Man, Jeff, go for it. You've got time, you've got groove, you can
do things those guys do. Just woodshed, and don't be lazy," well, I'd
rather paint. Plus, I'm close to what those guys feel like as human
beings--what they feel like spiritually and artistically--and if I could
play like Vinnie, I would not be able to not use those chops. I know
people who don't like drummers because they think they're too busy. If
I had those chops, I would use them. It's impossible for Sonny Emory or
Gerry Brown not to use them. I know if I had the chops they have how
frustrating it would be to do sessions.
RF: My original point was that there is a whole side of you that very
few people get to see, And I've thought to myself that you must feel
awfully repressed doing sessions.
JP: Not at all. On some sessions I do--and you may not hear them--I get
to play that kind of stuff.
RF: Like what?
JP: Lots of instrumental stuff that's released in Japan. I thought on
albums like Katy Lied I did somewhat that kind of stuff. I have not
been frustrated or felt held back from anything I've wanted to do.
Believe me. Not yet. I'd love to have more time for the Baked Potato
type gigs--live gigs where I'd just play and not be under pressure,
RF: You dad recently said that what you played in the beginning was
hipper than what you play today. What did he mean by that?
JP: I don't know. Maybe he personally liked what I played when I was
younger more than what I play now.
RF: Do you agree? Were you more adventurous then?
JP: I really don't know. I might have been more adventurous with the
kind of music I was playing at the time. But I think I can look at some
stuff I played back then and disagree with that. Maybe some people
haven't heard all the stuff I've played over the years. Maybe people
who only heard me do Steely Dan stuff ten years ago think that's a lot
hipper than stuff I do now, but maybe they haven't heard all the stuff
I've done now.
RF: I assumed your father would have heard most of it, though.
JP: My father? He's maybe heard one tenth of everything I've ever
done. He doesn't buy pop records, and I don't go around to his house
saying, "Daddy, listen to what I played on." But I think my dad said
what I've been trying to tell everybody for years: I'm just a street
drummer. My father heard me play with Sonny & Cher more than he heard
me play with anybody. Maybe he's talking about what I played when I was
a really young kid, back in the Jack Dougherty days--that first album I
did that was like a big band that I did with Keltner. We played uptempo
sambas and stuff like that, so maybe he thought I'd be some great bebop
jazz fusion drummer or something.
RF: Let's talk about the studio. I would like to detail everybody's
function in that situation, and how it relates to you and affects you as
a drummer. First, the producer.
JP: There are many kinds of producers. I think the best way to do it
is give examples of different people. Say the producer is Gary Katz.
He is the kind of producer who knows his artist real well, and works for
the artist. He also knows the musicians, and he knows the artists'
music so well that he knows who is best suited for the session. As a
producer he has his set ways of doing records, but his set ways are many
different ways--whatever works best. He's the kind of producer who has
natural ears and can tell you things aren't feeling as good as they
should be or there's something wrong, and make those suggestions in a
very non-threatening way, and be very complimentary and understanding.
And that's the Gary Katz kind of producer.
RF: Considering that Steely Dan puts a drummer through hell, that's
JP: We're talking about the producer. [laughs] Let's take a Richard
Perry. Richard Perry is very well-versed in music and has a very good
musical background. He is a musician and a singer. Richard's sessions
may rely on having an arranger there, and Richard does a lot of big hit
records, so a drummer may get a lot of very set dictation from him.
People like Quincy Jones do more pre-production on the master tape,
meaning they will put the tracks together with great drum machine sounds
and sometimes with nice involved drum programs also. They already have
set in their minds the beat they want. Most of the time, I don't even
know why they hire a drummer, but if they do hire a drummer, they're
going to want the guy to duplicate what the drum machine is doing.
Sometimes Q will have a rhythm section thing. It depends on the project
that a versatile guy like Quincy is doing.
There there are producers who I call "figurehead" producers. They
should be executive producers. They may be there in the studio, but
they're leaving it mainly up to the arranger, the artist, or whoever.
Sometimes you find the producer to be one of the guys. If it's a five-
member band, he's the sixth member. They work with the band, they're
very helpful, and they're musicians, too. And a producer may be
different according to the project, because the artist may be more
dominating as far as what he wants, and rightfully so--not that the
producer doesn't have the same talent, but maybe the producer is just
there to help and oversee.
RF: The engineer.
JP: For drummers, the engineer is important. A lot of them have their
own different thing. They all have special mic's they like to use, some
have certain studios they like, some have certain consoles. Some
engineers might be very good, but they might be very set in their ways:
"This is the only way I get drum sounds." There are certain engineers I
work for who even have snare drums: "This is my snare drum." Some of
the drums my sound great, and there may be something special about them,
but there's always the size stick and who's hitting it. You may use the
same mic', with the same EQ, have your same level, record in the same
room, and it's still going to sound different. There are engineers who
don't like tom-toms. I remember when the Simmons first came out, there
was a particular engineer who just loved them because, "Man, it takes so
long to get tom sounds, but with Simmons, I just have to throw it up and
it's there." You also have engineers who are only used to a dead room.
If you put them in a live room, they go nuts. Some may be experienced
and versatile enough to make that change.
RF: How much latitude do you get?
JP: I've been fortunate that on the sessions I happen to do, I have a
lot of latitude. One of my favorite, favorite engineers is Al Schmidt.
Al Schmidt recorded all the rhythm stuff for Toto IV, and not once--for
that or anything since--did I ever hear, "Show up an hour ealry before
the session. Can I hear the bass drum? Can I hear the snare drum? I
have to set my gates. Can I hear the tom-toms?" I remember Roy Halee.
When I worked with him on a Paul Simon record in New York, Roy was the
same way--the kind of guy who listens to musicians play, and as you're
running a song down, is hearing how you play. It cracks me up how many
engineers never walk out into that room to hear what your instrument
sounds like. They just stay in that control room. "Snare drum doesn't
sound good, man." Al Schmidt, Roy Halee, and George Massenburg would
walk out into the room, listen to the sounds, and hear if I changed the
snare drum. What if I'm using a high-pitched piccolo snare drum on this
tune now, and I'm in a big open room. They walk around, they may put up
some more overhead parabolic reflectors, they may move the baffles in a
little closer, they may move a couple of the mic's to get a tighter
sound, but they listen and get your sound. Hopefully, you have an
understanding with the producer, the arranger, or artist of what that
sound is supposed to be. But, of course, you run into things like,
"Muffle your toms, that sympathetic ringing..." And you just came from
a studio where your drums were happening.
RF: The artist
JP: The functions vary, how good they are varies, how fun the music is
to play varies. But the artist, to me, is the most inspiring thing.
First of all, I'm being paid a high wage to work for him. Or, I'm being
paid a high wage to work for the producer who suggested to the artist
that I'm the guy to use. It depends on the session. Lately, on most
sessions I do, the artist has the influence. I'm a guy who gets upset
if I walk into the session early and hear someone bugging the artist
before he plays. Or if I see that the artist doesn't have what he
should have, I get personally upset. It becomes a personal thing to me.
It's important that the artist be comfortable and have what he needs so
all that's on his mind is to do his thing. If an artist gets the
musicians excited, you're going to get something good. I don't care
what style it is, you're going to get something good.
RF: I have to ask about Ricky Lee Jones. Carlos Vega mentioned his
experience in my interview with him, and he mentioned you.
JP: I was called to do the entire Ricky Lee Jones Pirates album. On
her first album, I got called in to replace a certain famous drummer's
drum part, and I replaced it. I forgot the name of the song, but it was
a ballad and I played brushes. She remembers that, so she wants me to
do her whole next album. The producers are Russ Titelman and Lenny
Waronker, and I get a tape of the demos a month before the sessions.
What a great thing. I go to the session, it's Chuck Rainey on bass,
Dean Parks on guitar, Russell Ferrante on piano, Lenny Castro on
percussion, and Ricky Lee Jones playing piano and singing. The drums
are in an isolation booth with a big glass going across so I can see
everybody in the main studio. I have my headphones on, and we start
going over the first song. After the first pass of the tune, Ricky Lee
in the phones goes, "Mr. Porcaro, I know you're know for keeping good
time, but on these sessions, I can't have you do that. With my music,
when I'm telling my story, I like things to speed up and slow down, and
I like peple to follow me." When she said it, there was something in
the tone of her voice that was weird, but that wasn't predominant in my
mind. The first thing that entered my mind was that it reminded me of
Seals & Crofts, who like to have their bridges up, but not radically.
So the natural thing for me to say to Lee Herschberg, the engineer, was,
"Can I have more of Ricky's vocal and piano in my phones," very calm.
We start playing again, and I'm pretty good at listening to people and
following. She stops halfway through and says, "The time is too
straight. You gotta loosen up a little bit. Did you notice on this one
line, I'm speeding the line up, and I need you to speed up with me." I
go, "I'm sorry. Lee, can I have a little bit more of Ricky's vocal.
Take my drums down in the phones just a little bit." We start again
from the top and we come to that same section and I hear her
intentionally speeding up, it seems like, and emphasizing it. I'm
following, and that's cool. She slows down again, and I thought I was
slowing down, but she stops again and says, "Can you hear me good? Try
to get our of your..." I got the impression she was saying to get out
of my "perfect studio musican" routine and be an artist for her. When
she said that, the blood rushed up to my head, because I'm always
nervous when I play for anybody, especially people who are critically
acclaimed and supposed to be the artistic statement of the times. So I
get real nervous because I don't want to be squaresville; I want to be
hip. And I look out into the studio, and all the guys in the band--who
I've know for years--are looking at me with this look on their faces,
and I think, "Wow, what's going on? This is real strange." So we do it
one more time, and it is so weird that I thnk it was Lenny Castro who
went into the control room and said something to Russ and Lenny Waronker
like, "Guys, what's going on? Call a break or something."
A break is called. Ricky is still at the piano, and I am sitting at my
drums going, "What the hell?" And I'm staring at her. She's not
looking at me, I'm just looking over at this person hunched over the
paino, and she's playing a different song than I have on the demo.
Lenny Castro comes to visit me, going, "Man, something is weird," and I
say to Lenny, "She's messing with me." I didn't want to go to Russ and
Lenny Waronker and cause a scene, but I told Lenny to tell them that
they better pay attention to what was going on--to call off the dogs or
I'd be skating. I'll take criticism, but I won't take anything that is
So I'm sitting down, and she's playing. She doesn't have headphones on,
but Chuck Rainey and I do, and we're playing along with her and it's
grooving! It's a shuffle groove, and Lenny and Russ hear it in the
booth and go over the talkback, "Ricky, put your phones on. Listen to
this." She puts her phones on, she's still playing, and she's going
"Yeah!" with a big smile on her face. I go to myself, "Thank God." So
Lenny and Russ say, "Let's move away from this first thing and do this,"
and I'm going, "Great!"
So we start laying the track down, and I come up to this simple fill:
triplets over one bar. It's written out on my music, and I play the
fill. She stops. She says, "You have to play harder." I say, "Okay,"
with a smile, and we start again. I have brand new heads. I like to
keep brand new Ambassador heads on my drums, and my toms are sounding
nice. I play the fill again. She stops. "You've got to play harder."
Everybody looks at me. I look at everybody. I go, "Okay, let's do it
again." We start again. One bar before the fill, I hear, louder than
hell in my phones, "We're coming up to the fill. Remember to play
hard," while we're grooving. I whack the shit out of my drums, as hard
as I've ever hit anything in my life. While I'm hitting them, she's
screaming, "Harder!" I stop. She stops. I'm looking at my drums. My
heads have dents in them; if I hit the drum lightly, it will buzz, and
I'm pissed. I'm steaming inside. I'm thinking, "Nobody talks to me
that way." Lenny Waronker says, "Let's do it again." We start again,
and everybody is looking at me while they are playing. We're coming up
to the fill, and she goes, "Play hard!" and I take my sticks like
daggers and I do the fill, except I stab holes through my tom-tom heads.
I land on my snare drum, both sticks are shaking, vibrating, bouncing on
the snare drum. I get up and pick up my gig bag. There's complete
silence. I slide open the sliding glass door, walk past her, down the
hallway, get in my car, and I drive home.
I get home, and the first call I get is from Lenny Castro. "It's insane
here. She's going to sue you. She's got all these musicians here and
you split." I said, "Let her sue me. Nobody, but nobody, talks to me
that way." If I was the wrong cat, the producers should have broken up
the session, called me over, and I would have been the first to say,
"Hey, you don't have to give me two day's notice. Find somebody else.
I'm the wrong drummer. I'm sorry, I wish I could have been a better
drummer for you guys, but I did the best I could." But they let a
situation go on way too long for anybody, especially someone like me who
worked for them before. I thought I demanded a little more respect.
She never sued me, and I didn't hear anything for a couple of years.
Last year I get a call from James Newton-Howard. He's producing Ricky
Lee Jones' album and he goes, "You won't believe this, but she wants you
to play on two songs." I go, "Does she know who I am?" What I really
didn't know, but had perceived--although I didn't take it into complete
consideration--was maybe, at the time, she was going through some hard
times, like we all go through, and I got messed with. Maybe we all
handle our hard times differently. The way James Newton-Howard
explained it over the phone was, "Maybe she doesn't remember that
situation too well." I said, "Whether she does or doesn't, I'd love to
play with her. I hold no grudges. I know that you, knowing that whole
story, won't let that happen. If I'm wrong, you'll just stop the
session and do an overdub while you find a drummer for the next
I get there. Ricky says, "Hi Jeff, good to see you again. You seem to
have lost weight." Well, actually I had gained 30 pounds from the last
time she saw me, so for a second I thought, "She's messing with me."
But I realized she was much more together than the last time I had seen
her, and she looked gorgeous. The plan was to do one song a day; we
were booked for six hours a day for two days. We did the first song in
two takes. "Thank you, see you guys tomorrow." The second song we did
in three takes. At the end of three takes, in front of the whole band,
including people who had been there when I had stabbed my drums with the
sticks, she says, "Jeff, I really have to tell you this. No drummer has
ever played so great for me, listened to my music so closely, understood
what I'm saying with lyrics, and has followed me as well as you. I just
want to thank you for the good tracks." I almost broke up laughing
because I had played no differently for her the year before.
The story got around where it was either Jeff who went way left under
the pressure--which I can go; I've gone left under less pressure,
believe me--or that Ricky went left on Jeff. Whatever the case may be,
that was just one situation. We've worked with each other under other
circumstances. Yet, I would still do the same thing with anybody. I'll
help you find somebody for your session. It's not like I'm a triple-
scale, $1000-a-day drummer, like a lot of drummers. I've been double
scale since 1975. I believe I get paid great for what I do, but if
anything, people will tell you I work for free and I don't charge for
overtime. So it wasn't an attitude trip or anything. i just demand
RF: Aside from the studio thing, there's Toto, which is your own.
Everybody thinks it's glamorous to have your own band. But isn't it
harder to be in your own band--where the successes and failures are
absolutely your own--than doing most session work, where you wash you
hands of it the minute you walk out that door?
JP: Get four MIT scholars and show them my career in the band, and show
them my career as a musician. They'll have me put in an insane asylum
for even thinking about being in a band. Being in a group is hard, too,
because you have five guys, but it's a study in boy scouting. It's a
little club. It's hard to keep a democracy together, as this country
knows, and Toto has done it for ten years. Not too many bands have been
together for ten years, and we've done it with the ups and downs of
being ripped off. We're not rich. If any of us put money away in our
early 20's that's still collecting interest, that's what we're buying
groceries with right now. Maybe it'll be better if this album does
well, but believe me, there have been so many opportunities for Toto to
have said, "Man, let's not be a band anymore because it's not
economical." But the joys of being in a band are so great, and the
potential of there being economic success doing something you love is
always there. I don't know how long it can last, because as everyone
gets older and there are more financial reponsibilities and families,
that is more important than anything. So other things start taking a
back seat. The importance of having freedom takes a back seat.