From the November/December 1991 issue of Drum! magazine
It’s 2 P.M. in North Hollywood, California. As the summer sun turns streets into asphalt skillets, residents flock in droves toward the nearest beach, pool, or air-conditioned sanctuary. For those en route to the Power Plant rehearsal complex, however, they’re about to discover that the real heat isn’t taking place outdoors, but deep within the carpeted walls of Studio #2 where a new, stripped-down incarnation of Toto has taken up temporary residence. Comprised of Jeff Porcaro on drums, brother Mike on bass, David Paich on keys, and Steve Lukather on guitar/lead vocals, the band is conducting full-blown concert rehearsals and testing new material for their upcoming record.
At the far corner of the dimly lit room, just past an onlooking Eddie Van Halen and Stuart Hamm, sits Jeff Porcaro, peering at the tribe from behind his glistening set of blue Pearls. Four clicks of his Regal Tips ring out, and, like a hammer on the forehead, the band launches into a ferocious instrumental romp. With a cigarette hanging loosely in his mouth, bandanna wrapped around his head, and a menacing Rod Serling lip-grimace on his face, Jeff proceeds to burn like a five-alarm fire.
Two hours and ten songs later—capped by a grueling, triple-stroke bass drum workout on the Sly Stone tune, “Higher”—he emerges from behind the pummeled tubs, holding his hip, limping, and laughing. “Man, I’m getting too old for this!” High fives are exchanged and slowly the room clears. For Jeff, the next stop is Chuck E. Cheese’s pizza parlor for his son’s five-year birthday party. “See you tomorrow,” and off he goes.
The next day is, if anything, more intense. With the deadline of an upcoming Ventura Theater warmup show looming nearer, the boys are buckling down. While Jeff finalizes the art design for the concert T-shirts, Paich grills the backup vocalists. Lukather, on the other hand, fiendishly recites lewd prose from a tattered paperback (which elicits a chorus of belly-laughter and jeers). Minutes later though, it’s back to the grindstone. The band cruises through their monster hits “Hold The Line,” “Rosanna,” and “Africa” before Jeff and percussionist Chris Trujillo rip into a dizzying, syncopated duet. Next come the new tunes, the dark and moody “Kingdom Of Desire” and “On The Run,” an up-tempo shuffle. As the day wears on, the band-members grow increasingly confident with the arrangements and performances. In less than a week the gear will be packed up, loaded onto the trucks, and the tour will officially begin.
And so goes the brilliant and ever-blossoming career of L.A.’s top-gun drummer. His chops have never been tastier, as those fortunate enough to catch the ’91 tour will attest. For others, however, they can check out Jeff’s latest by picking up new discs from Toto, Bruce Springsteen, Dire Straits, Richard Marx, and 10CC—not to mention the hundreds of other cuts he’s graced. DRUM! caught up with Jeff amid the rehearsal madness and compiled the following report.
DRUM!: What changes, if any, has your drumming gone through over the past couple of years?
Jeff Porcaro: I just keep getting worse. [laughs]
Seriously, at one point you said that you were focusing on developing your left foot.
And I still don’t have it together, man. It’s so hard to find the time. First of all, I’m 37 years old now. I have two kids, another on the way, and I enjoy being a father and a husband. I mean, I could shine all this on and be a farmer—and enjoy life that way. But, don’t get me wrong, I do like playing the drums. It’s just that I don’t get much time to woodshed. Any free time I have away from the family is wrapped up in doing sessions or working with Toto. So I’m finding myself trying to sneak into sessions early so I can have an hour by myself to work on new things, new ideas. But, basically, I’m still trying to refine my time. That’s all I think about, still, is time and groove. And I’m still trying to get it right. Really! It’s a hard thing.
Listening back to some of your earliest tracks, and following through to the present, there’s never appeared to be a period when your time wasn’t happening.
You know, I think I was real fortunate to have been exposed to time at a very early age—especially with my Dad [Joe Porcaro] playing all the time. When I was young and listening to music, I really listened to music. I mean, I wasn’t listening to music for the party of it, but for the groove. I was heavy into bebop. It was that cymbal beat “ding ding da-ding, ding da-ding.” When that was grooving, when guys like Elvin Jones were walking, that, to me, was time. And so, I find it frustrating because people say, “Yeah man, your time is good.” And I go, “Look, I appreciate it.” But my ears, over time, have gotten so in tune to listening to time and groove that I get real critical of myself. I can honestly say that, out of all the sessions I’ve done, there’s probably only one where I was satisfied with the way it felt.
Which record are you talking about?
The Steely Dan tune “FM,” which was just an overdub to a click track. That tune, for whatever reason, just felt the best to me. But I’ve never been happy, man. It’s just so hard for me to listen to stuff I’ve played on. It just frustrates me.
You’ve said that you don’t consider yourself to be a real drum enthusiast. No drums around the house or anything?
Yeah, it’s true. A lot of students ask my dad about me, how often I practice, how I play things and so forth. And, I’ve got to be honest, my dad calls me a “street drummer.” He taught me when I was about nine years old for two years on and off and that was it. I mean, I never even made it through that first Buddy Rich rudiment book, or whatever. My technique is the worst. People might look at me and say, “You’ve got good technique,” and yeah, okay, if you get to play ten hours a day, six days a week, for the past 20 years like I have then, yeah, you develop some sort of technique. But it’s nothing really.
Nonetheless, you’ve developed some hand and foot things that are definitely worth talking about. For instance, your ability to play double- and triple-strokes on the bass drum pedal. How did you get it happening?
I tried to copy a beat that I heard a guy do on a record and the only way to do it was to figure out how he was getting a double beat on the bass drum. And I couldn’t make it happen by doing two separate beats on the pedal. You can’t do that. So the way I made it work was by sliding my foot up the pedal. And it maybe took two years to get it where that action felt natural.
How did you get your one-handed, sixteenth note hi-hat technique together?
It’s something that I learned by watching and listening to other drummers. If you play an R&B thing with sixteenth-notes and you switch over to a two-handed thing after a certain tempo, then to me, it becomes a completely different feel. I was used to listening to James Gadson and Ed Green, Marvin Gaye records, all those Motown records. Those grooves sounded like silk, and all those guys did it one-handed. So when I was young and started doing sessions, if someone asked for a sixteenth-note groove, then that’s the way I did it. But I used to go nuts because keeping those sixteenth’s going without fatigue isn’t an easy thing to do. It’s just a thing where the more you do it, the better you get at it. Same with shuffles, same with everything. See, I’ve never played one original thing, ever! And if I did play an original thing, I would tell you. But what I like to do when I copy something is to experiment with different accents. Like, when I play a regular dotted-eighth shuffle, for instance, I try to find all the different ways to make it lope.
On the subject of shuffles and lopes, your name seems to have become synonymous with a certain half-time shuffle groove.
Sometimes that hurts my feelings, and I’m very serious about this. I’ve heard it now for too many years where people will say, “Yeah that ‘Rosanna’ groove, that’s the Jeff Porcaro feel.”
But “Rosanna” is just one of many notable grooves you’ve played. Take “Mushanga” for instance.
Well, Steve Gadd had made a trip to PIT to give a clinic, and my father happened to be there. Then, later, my father showed me this fast samba that Steve played for the class. It had to do with an inverted paradiddle. “Mushanga” is basically the sticking from that same thing. Then I added some stuff to it. The tom pattern came from listening to Floyd Sneed of Three Dog Night on the tune “King Solomon’s Mines.” There were all of these toms going on and that’s what I wanted to hear. So that was in my head when I was working on “Mushanga.” I’m still waiting for that original idea.
You’ve said that when you were cutting “Africa” you made a tape loop. Have you experimented with loops since then?
Lots of times. I did a 10CC record in New York several months ago that had this really nice hypnotic thing and I said, “Let’s make a loop.” And they were like, “What, a loop?” And I said, “Yeah, like the old days.” And the problem was that we couldn’t find an analog machine that didn’t have all these computer things on it. Most of these new analog machines now can’t do tape loops unless you disconnect a bunch of electronics. So they said, “How do you do it?” And I said, “Let me go out there, play to a click, and I’m just going to play bass drum, cross stick, and hi-hat for 16 bars. Then I’ll pick my best two bars. We’ll rewind the tape and start it four bars before that section. I’ll start overdubbing some percussion, some cowbell, shaker, a little tom part, a conga part and then loop it all.” Then, on the downbeat of the loop, I played this big revolutionary-type rope drum. It was a huge, like 20″ x 20″ drum. And the room at Bearsville was just big enough for us to place the room mikes just right so that we got a natural sixteenth-note delay happening, without using digital effects. It was almost the way Bonham used to do it—that stone hallway he used to record in.
Let’s talk about some of your other sessions for a moment. The direct-to-disk record James Newton Howard & Friends [Sheffield Labs] must have been an incredible challenge?
Those are very high-pressure records because you can’t screw up. Say, if you have five songs on one side and you mess up song five, then you have to start all over again. And there’s no rest in between tunes. If the first tune is a burner in 7/8, then you’ve got the amount of time between songs on an album to A, change your music if you’re reading; and B, just get yourself psyched up for the next tune which is a waltz with brushes. You know what it’s like when you’re playing real hard to make a quick switch to a slower tempo-your hands are still shaking from the intensity from the track before. It’s tough.
Approximately how many sessions do you think you’ve done?
Last year a British publishing company put out an encyclopedia of music which had a listing of musicians and the records they’d played on. I had quite a few, but it was probably actually only half of what I’d played on. A lot of stuff never even gets released. Probably half the stuff that anybody does never sees the light of day, it’s on some shelf somewhere.
“It’s the in-between stuff, for me, that gives you the groove. You strip that stuff away and you’ve got nothing.”Jeff Porcaro
Do you try and keep a copy of each record at home for posterity?
No. l used to do that, but not anymore. I’ll be in the car and hear something on the radio and say “Oh, this is cool.” And someone will say, “Yeah man, that’s you on that track.” You forget sometimes. A lot of people think that you spend six months in the studio with an artist. But no, most of the time it’s not like that. You walk in one day, see a chart, play the tune, and then split. And lots of times you’ll forget what the tune even was.
Have you ever done a session where your drum sounds were later replaced with bad samples or something of that nature?
Yeah, some stuff where they later on triggered other samples or gated everything. I hate gates. You’re not hearing the little ghost notes and all the little breathing. It’s the in-between stuff, for me, that gives you the groove. You strip that stuff away and you’ve got nothing. You’ve got boom-chank-boom-chank. So, that doesn’t happen too often, but when it does, I keep it in mind next time l get called to do a project with that person.
What advice would you give to a drummer getting ready for his or her first session?
Basically, try not to think too much. Because your playing starts to sound like thinking. It’s funny, I’ve seen some guys get really hung up thinking too much about the music. People should be more honest with themselves. People need to relax and have fun. When you get your first studio call, you’d better not play any of the crap you’ve been rehearsing or reading out of books. You’d better just play time. Period! Really good time. And make it tasty. And have dynamics, listen to the lyrics of the song, and be there as a timekeeper. If someone calls on you to pull a trick or two out of your hat, then cool. But basically, that producer, that engineer, that arranger, or that singer, they aren’t drummers. They’re not going, “Wow man, dig how cool that cat’s playing.” They’re saying, “Dig how cool that groove is.” They only know groove and time. They don’t know that you have a nice wrist or you’re doing nice things with your fingers and stuff like that.
Two months later, the scene shifts to the posh recording studios of A&M in downtown Hollywood. With the band back from a hugely successful European tour, it’s track-cutting time. Once again DRUM! was on the scene, and it went something like this.
10:00 A.M. Matt Luneau and Paul Hurd of the Drum Doctor arrive at Studio A with Jeff’s equipment. They wheel in several different drum sets, an array of Paiste cymbals (including a couple of unidentified prototypes) and an Anvil case full of snare drums. The kit is set up in the main room of the studio—a large, ambient room with wooden floors and a high ceiling. By 10:15, the drums are locked into place and the process of changing heads begins. Coated Remo Ambassadors are installed on the top sides of the snare and toms while a Remo PowerStroke 3 is the choice for the bass drum. Jeff’s snare is cranked tightly while the toms are a bit looser—with the bottom heads tuned slightly lower than the top heads to produce a subtle pitch bend effect. A packing blanket is placed inside the bass drum and secured with a sandbag.
10:40 A.M. After tuning the kit, Matt and Paul depart and the engineers from A&M begin placing microphones. The selection includes an AKG Dl2 and a Neumann 47FET on the bass drum, AKG 414’s on the toms, a Shure SM57 on the top of the snare and a Sennheiser 441 on the bottom, a 452-10 condenser on the hi-hat, and six AKG C12’s as overheads-two directly over the kit, two approximately six feet in front of the kit, and another two at approximately 12 feet in front.
11:00 A.M. Jeff arrives, tells a hilarious Ike Turner session story, grabs a pair of sticks, and starts to warm up behind the kit. After 15 minutes, Ross Garfield, AKA “The Drum Doctor,” arrives with a snare drum for Jeff to try out. It’s a 14″ x 5″ Solid/Select maple shell, Tama die-cast hoops, a Sonor throw-off, and a 42-strand snare. Jeff loves it. According to Ross, “Jeff’s got the tuning thing down, but he likes to have a second set of ears sometimes.”
11:30 A.M. Engineer Greg Ladanyi wheels a pair of bass cabinets into the studio and positions them on each side of Jeff’s bass drum. His plan is to route the bass drum signal through the speakers and mike them for additional ambiance.
1:00 P.M. The process of getting drum sounds begins. As Jeff hits each drum repeatedly, Ladanyi works the huge Neve console like a mad scientist. With no outboard effects (other than a bit of compression here and there) he quickly achieves a very lively and very powerful drum sound. When he starts bleeding the bass drum through the cabinets, everyone in the control room seems amazed.
1:45 P.M. As Jeff lets rip on the kit, Ladanyi rolls tape. Soon after, he invites Jeff into the control room to hear the playback. Jeff returns to the studio to tweak the 14″ floor tom and change a crash cymbal. Once done, he’s ready to track.
3:00 P.M. David Paich, the last band member to arrive, enters the studio and takes a seat behind his heaping pile of MIDI gear. The band is set up in a circle, face-to-face, in the same room. Each musician has a remote mixing console which allows them to customize their own headphone/monitor mixes. With the guitar and bass amplifiers isolated in separate booths, they’re ready to cut the basic tracks for “I’ll Never Hurt You” together, without a click.
3:40 P.M. After a console problem is fixed, they’re once again ready to roll. The first time through is solid, but, unfortunately, Jeff’s headphones fly off his head haffway through the take.
4:00 P.M. As an added precaution, John “JJ” Jessel—Paich’s long-time keyboard tech—brings in an Alesis SR-16 drum machine for a click reference. Jeff quickly creates a repetitive eighth-note handclap and cowbell pattern to play along with. A couple of takes later, it’s a keeper—with no overdubs necessary.
12:00 P.M. With the basic tracks for “I’ll Never Hurt You” in the can, today’s goal is to cut “Don’t Chain My Heart,” a mid-tempo shuffle written by Paich.
12:35 P.M. Jeff arrives and, along with Lukather and Mike Porcaro, starts to warm up in the studio. For this tune, Jeff is laying down a solid four-on-thefloor kick pattern with a tasty offbeat shuffle pattern over the top. He’s programmed an eighth-note triplet click pattern on the Alesis SR-16.
1:50 P.M. Paich finally arrives and the tape starts to roll. After the first time through, Ladanyi calls the band into the control room to hear the playback. Afterwards, everyone is convinced that Jeff’s track is a keeper.
2:05 P.M. After soloing the bass and drums, they indeed decide to keep the drums. The process of singularly overdubbing bass, rhythm guitar, and keyboards begins. Lukather, now behind the board, relates to Ladanyi, “Whatever we do, we’ve got to make sure that we don’t fix the life out of these tunes.” Jeff agrees. “If we punch the bass guitar in and out too much, my fills are going to start sounding stiff.”
2:30 P.M. With the bass and drum tracks now complete, the band gives the tune a high-volumed playback. Heads bob, arms flail, and high-fives abound. Lukather turns to Jeff, slaps him on the back and says, “Awesome man. Awesome. This is one of your finest!” And on that note, the control room empties. Just another day in the studio for the man with the golden groove.
A SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY
- Toto: Toto; Hydra; Turn Back; Toto 4; Isolation; Dune (Motion Picture Soundtrack); Fahrenheit; The Seventh One; Past To Present.
- Michael Jackson, Thriller
- Steely Dan, Pretzel Logic; Katy Lied; Gaucho
- Boz Scaggs, Silk Degrees; Down Two Then Left; Middle Man
- Elton John, Too Low For Zero
- Paul McCartney, Give My Regard To Broadstreet
- Hall & Oates, Beauty On A Backstreet
- Jackson Browne, The Pretender
- Dan Fogelberg, Windows And Walls
- Larry Carlton, Larry Carlton; Friends
- Diana Ross, Baby It’s Me
- Rickie Lee Jones, Rickie lee Jones
- Don Henley, I Can’t Stand Still
- Lionel Richie, Can’t Slow Down
- Cher, Bittersweet White Light
- Donald Fagan, The Nightfly
- Melissa Manchester, Hey Ricky