Jeff Porcaro

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Julia Stoff

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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 wanted.

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.

RF: Why?

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 timbales.

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 human being.

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 drum.

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 merits.

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 no overdubs.

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 that.

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 can.

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 Purdie.

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 approach.

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' fusion.

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, having fun.

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 quite interesting.

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 unnecessary.

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 session."

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 respect--human respect.

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.