TOTO - Official Website - TOTO Interviews

Another Lifetime cover Interview with Simon Phillips and Jeff Babko, 1998
How do you start writing a song? Do you start out with a drum pattern in your head or do you start with a melody?
They're all different. Generally they will start on the keyboard, not the drum kit. And they usually start out with some sequence of a few chords which are very close to melody. It's all different. Some will start with a little sequence of chords which will be very melody related but will be the sort of basis of the song. Let's say "Out Of The Blue" started off with literally those chords and that is the melody [hums]. That's exactly where that started from. "Kumi Na Moja" however started off with a sequencer part which turned into an acoustic guitar part which then was sampled, but it started off with setting up a delay. You just stumble across a sound, you set up a delay and [hums]... and I didn't even know what time it was in, it just felt good, I worked it out, "Oh, it's 11, OK". So I set the sequencer up, get it clicking away, and put it in and then... melody, straight away. On top of that. Some of it goes from melody first. It's hard to say, you know, everyone is different. And very occasionally I might be playing the drums and come up with something and then run in or record a little bit and put it down. "Jungleyes" for example was something I knew what I wanted to do, I had a concept, but I really didn't have any music yet. So when I went over to Ray's house in London I said "OK, I want to do a Drum and Bass/Jungle thing." That sort of thing. He went "OK". So we went through a load of CD ROMs, listened to a load of Drum and Bass rhythms until we got a good tempo and a good feel which is actually different to what we ended up with. It's a real metamorphosis but it started off with me telling Ray the whole concept, I said "This is how it basically is, real fast drums, real slow moving but really cool adult chords, complex harmony with lots of space." And I sang him an idea, but I really wanted him to lead the way on that one. I had the concept but I wanted him to sort of feed the composition. So "OK. What do you mean, like this..." [hums] It started coming up like that, so... we put that in the sequencer and then we started coming up with the melody The verse is basically Ray's. That's his thing. Then it came to the bridge and that's my section [hums]. Like this you know. Then we had enough of it down, like a sort of sketch, and then I took it back to L.A., transferred it over to my software and then just worked on it for the next few days. There's quite a lot of intricate arranging going on as well. That's "Jungleyes", you know.
You finish a song before you go into the studio, so you have a clear concept of what the musicians should play...
I have a whole demo done...
Or do they add some parts?
Well, yeah,... What I like do to... I like to get a full demo, I do a whole arrangement and then I go out and play a drum track. And then I start working at what I'm gonna play on the drums. And sometimes that changes because a lot of it starts off on the machine and then I'm learning how to play these songs. I haven't actually really played the drums to them. I may have nipped out and tried a few things, "OK, that'll do", but then I come in to listen, I go "It's not really working", and I love the music but I don't like the drum part yet. And the whole beginning of "Jungleyes" was wrong like for a long time, for a few days, you know, two or three days, it was like "What is wrong with that". And the mistake I was making was, I was forcing something to be there that the machine was doing. And it can never really be like that. So I just said to myself "Listen, why don't you approach it as if it were someone else's session and here's the music, what would you play?" I sat down and I had the whole track - guitar, bass, keyboards - in the headphones and just listened to it and slowly pieced together a drum part, and that's how the groove came.
So you compose a lot with the sequencer...
I have to, because I can't write straight to manuscript, I was never taught, so I don't know any theory.
And you program all the instruments...
All the instruments, all the parts, the bass part... the bass parts are very intricate and specific And then what I do is I give the demo to a copyist and he then transcribes it and writes out a Bass chart, a Master rhythm chart, a transposed horn chart, Guitar chart, depending how complex the chart is and then... we then go into rehearsals. It's then up to everybody... they hear the demo, a lot of it they have to get around, it's not easy, it's like "Hang on a minute, right, OK", you know, and it takes a little while to get it together, and then, as they get a hold if it, they start to make it their own, you see what I mean. And I want them to do that. I say "This is how my demo is, that's how I envisage it. Now it's up to you to take it and improve on it. I'm not a bass player, I'm a drummer. That's my idea for the bass and some of the notes are very important as is the groove, but I'm sure you can do a lot better than I can do". And of course they can, because it's their instrument. Same with Andy, and same with Ray, same with Jeff. But some of it is very... I mean as you hear on the gig and you hear the record, some of it is very close, it never changed from my original demo. You know like the bridge in "Eyes Blue For You", that's exactly as it's written, every single thing [hums].
So you kept it exactly as it was written...
Yeah, but there are other parts, which are looser, where I say "Do something, I'm not really married to that section, make it a bit more organic". The trouble is with machines, you have the limit of me, I'm not a keyboard player, so they are all very straight keyboard parts, you know, it's only what I put in. So it's limited by my limitation of playing those instruments. So it needs everybody then to take it to the next step.
It's amazing how "alive" it sounds. You wouldn't think it started out as programming...
Right, right... Yeah but you know, programming is... I think people really get... I think because on MTV and on the radio, we hear a lot of programmed music. But that's just because it's bad production. And it's because people let the machine rule them, you know.. There's a lot of stuff I've done using machine and people think it's real drums. But it took me two days to do one track, where I could have played the track in ten minutes. That's the difference.
If you had played on it...
Yeah. You know it's the limit of... really... the user. The computer just does what you tell it, you know. But MIDI information, it is a bit strange. It does water it down somehow. It's very hard to know exactly how or why. For example on "Eyes Blue For You", I had an S770 with a Fender Rhodes sample. It's a damn good sample and I'm playing it, so it's not got a lot of dynamics, it just sounds a bit... you know... but it sounds like a Fender Rhodes and people go "Oh yeah". But then when you hear Jeff play the Fender Rhodes it's a totally different instrument. It suddenly has body, movement, feel and fluidity and...you know...
[Jeff] Bad time...
[Simon laughs] Good time, good time! You know, so that's why I love real instruments.
Is there a difference between writing instrumental songs and songs with lyrics?
Oh, very much so. Yeah. Your basic difference is that a voice is limited in terms of range. Probably two octaves.
[To Jeff] Would you say a good voice is about two octaves?
[Jeff] Depends...
[To Jeff] A good, real good singer...
[Jeff] Well... To be in the element of what sounds good for that particular singer actually, the range is very limited. You start going outside and then it sounds thinner...
Simon: I would say a couple of octaves you got really to use. An instrument - five octaves! Maybe more, depending on the instrument. So there you go, for a start you got a whole different thing. You can do melodically much bigger jumps. With a voice it sounds stupid [hums], you know. But on the guitar it sounds great, listen to "Eyes Blue For You" [hums]. You know... So that's... to start with that's your big difference. The other difference is with vocal music, harmonically, it can be so much simpler, you know. One chord if you want, maybe three changes. And the melody almost can be one note or two notes. Yet it can be a great song because it's the lyrics and the way it's sung, you know. Look "Africa" [hums]... It's only four notes I've used so far. You see what I mean. It's a whole different thing. If you try to do that instrumentally and... I think it really just is a bit lame. Not in all cases. Listen to "The Pump" [hums]... But we wrote that really very much as a very simple, bluesy kind of thing. And the melody is incredibly simple. But harmonically it's very intricate. When you get to the bridge and the chorus, there's a lot of passing chords [hums]... You see what I mean. So... but nine times out of ten I think there's a lot of people, lot of guitar... solo guitar heroes, whatever, doing instrumental music and it's... it's pretty plane and ordinary. And I think personally it's real boring. You know... So... And I'm not a guitarist either, so... I want it to be a musical event, so I tend to just really get experimental in terms of the musicality of it. You know, harmonically. Oh, yes, there's a huge difference... huge difference.
So you have a lot of freedom in composing when you're writing instrumental songs. If you contribute to a Toto song, which has lyrics and vocals, you must be very limited...
Yes and no. Take the song "Slipped Away", basically I did the whole chorus section on that. And harmonically it's quite interesting the way it goes. It's a little bit odd. It's more of a Peter Gabriel thing, more of a chant thing. But it works. And the verse is... Luke came up with that [hums] ... that's pretty simple. It is very different and it's easier for me really to write instrumental music because I don't sing. And when I start writing vocal music I can get so far, but I really need someone who will come up with some words or can sing along with it. So it's more difficult. But I actually really enjoy it as well. It's a very different hat.
I was wondering when I listened to your songs... how do you come up with the titles for your songs? There's some really weird titles like "Starfish Spaghetti"...
That's right...
I listened to the song and I thought "How's this music related to that title?"
Yeah... Well... I mean there's two things to that. I think a lot of instrumental music has terrible titles. And I really try to make something of it. But that's also the other difficult thing. Without lyrics you don't really have a storyline, you know. So it's almost really silly calling something... an instrumental song giving it a title... really. But there again, you sort of have to. So, often, I'm still using a working title. I guess sometimes just certain things... just have something, and I do try... you know when I write, I don't write at all politically, at all. It's nothing to do with, really, what's going on, it's just purely music. But sometimes like for example "Jungleyes" was really to do with using a jungle rhythm, drum and bass rhythm. And I just sort of thought... I don't know where "Jungleyes" came from, but I thought it was actually quite a nice title... "Jungleyes", so it sort of made sense. "Eyes Blue For You" is Ray's title, he often uses the double entendre, you know. Ah... "Kumi Na Moja"... I had a...
[To Jeff] What was it called before?
[Jeff] "Eleven8"
Simon: Yeah, I didn't know what to call it, so I just called it "Eleven8", you know. I just saved it as a file - the word Eleven and the figure 8. And I didn't know really what to call it and I was looking through dictionaries, books, I was trying to get some sort of... "What is this about?". And my girlfriend, she can speak Swahili, so she said "Why don't you call it Eleven8 in Swahili, Kumi Na Moja?" I said "That's beautiful, that sounds great, Kumi Na Moja." That's a great sounding title.
And it fits to the song...
Yeah, you know. It's ten and one. Or one and ten, something like that. So, that's it. Kumi Na Moja. And it's a lovely title. And I wrote it on top of the chart and everybody seemed to go "Oh yeah, that's cool, what does it mean?" "Mountain High" was just like "Think of a song, what's romantic, what does it sound like?" Sounds like flying over some hills, great, "Mountain High", it's a ski resort where we go skiing sometimes. You know... It's probably not my strongest point, but when I get a record together I really like to try and get some decent titles because a lot of instrumental songs, a lot of instrumental albums have terrible, terrible naive titles...
[Jeff] The worst
Simon: And Ray just has some... He has a very strange sense of humour, so he comes up with these weird titles which I love, you know, just because it's Ray, I suppose. And the whole thing about "Symbiosis", which I really liked the idea of that word...
How did you come up with the idea of using a third bass drum?
Well... Because the sort of sounds that are used in drums and bass, drum machine or samples/loops, it was more in keeping with that style to use a different bass drum sound. I went over to Dave Weckl's house last year to install Shure a bass drum mic for him in the same way that I do it and he had just added an 18 inch bass drum to his kit. I had never played an 18" before and I really loved it - I thought the sound was just wonderful. I loved the sound but thought that there was no way for me to use it until I was writing "Jungleyes" and I was starting to record the demo and I thought "This would be cool if the opening groove was played on a little bass drum and a little snare drum" - a second kit - if you will. It worked out so after hours of figuring out how to connect the 18" physically to the kit so I could actually play it I used it on the record and as a result I feel I have to use it live.
But now that you've tied the third bass drum to your kit, you intend to keep it there, I guess...
Pretty much, yeah, I think so. I mean I don't know... Depends, if I use it on the Toto record, if for any reason, then it'll be there. If I don't, then maybe I won't have it then.
You said once that you think that the band is constantly improving during the tour. How do you feel this or notice it? Is it like jumps or is it like a flow?
What tends to happen is the first few shows, everybody's still getting it together and still learning, there's still a few mistakes. And then sometimes it's a bit rough and everybody has a bad night and you just have to sit down and talk about it a little bit. And then things sort of iron themselves out and they get better and better and better. But then it gets hard to keep it up there. You have a string of good shows and then you have a show where everybody's down on energy or whatever. And then you get a situation where the consistency is very good and even if one or two people are not having a great night you can actually make it work. The band will pull through because it's got a lot of experience and everybody else sort of helps carry it. And even when people feel not so good, they're almost gonna play better anyway, because they're just used to doing it. It's very rare when you get a bad night when everybody just has a bad night. Usually what happens is, what's happened recently, we got very tired. We did ten shows in a row. The shows throughout that ten were remarkable. Maybe the last show got a little bit tired. And tonight, it was OK, but the thing is, the standard is pretty high now, the consistency is pretty high, so you sort of run a little bit on automatic but maybe you don't enjoy it as much. So, it's interesting how a band goes through phases, you know. It gets better and better and then it just gets to a consistent level and it's a question of whether it was a great gig and you really enjoyed it or it was just an OK gig which was a very good gig but we all know that it could have been a better night. But not every night can be fantastic, even feelingwise. It's hard to play the same thing night after night.
What do you do if you feel it's not a great night or you don't feel well? Can you sort of disguise this?
As a professional musician, absolutely, yeah. Just like an actor could, just like as a newsreader can, yeah. I mean, that's part of your profession that gets you through that. Because what you do, there's a lot of things you can fall back to. Let's say tonight, we had a day off yesterday, I was very, very tired the night before and my back was hurting and I felt run down. The day off was great and tonight I was a little bit stiff, it was the "Day off syndrome". And I felt "OK, tonight's gonna be a little tricky if I try to do tricky things". So I actually just decided to play a little simpler tonight and just concentrate on the groove and not get bugged about the sound as the sound was real strange tonight. Try just not to let it affect you, just play through it. So you sort of fall back on your experience, really. That's what it is.
Do you already have plans for your next solo album?
No, the only plans I have is for a live album which is why I am recording all these shows or most of these shows. That's really what I'm going to be doing, wading through all the tapes, finding the best takes and start to put it together, if there's any mistakes, correct those and then start mixing it. But that's the only plan for a solo record, but really now I'm going to give it a rest and concentrate musically on Toto in terms of composition.
So do you know yet if you want to continue working with this band you're touring with?
Oh yeah, very much so. I mean we'll probably do quite a few shows this year and I definitely want to carry on with this band, absolutely. But obviously the thing is we have a Toto commitment coming up so there's going to be a couple of years where, you know...
Same things with Los Lobotomys...
Yeah, it's gonna be like that and all these guys are gonna start doing different things and I hope that at the end of it we can all get back together again and play. I think that'll depend on what Andy's going to do as he's pursuing his own solo project now. I just hope that when the time comes everybody's available to do it. You know, I don't want to lose this band, definitely not.
What's the difference if you play with Toto or Lobotomys or this band?
Well, different music. It's very, very different music, three different entities, you know, different people. This is my solo project, so it's very close to me. Toto is my band project which is... you know, that's another thing, it's a whole different arena. That's sharing it with three other people, there's a lot more diplomacy involved, democratic decisions, it's a different thing. Lobotomys... we haven't really done anything for a while, so I don't know really where that stands right now. You know, sometimes we play together in Los Angeles and we probably will do that for fun... They did a show without me recently, Gregg played with them at the Baked Potato and probably what will happen is that there'll be a gig that we will do in Los Angeles and we'll just get together and play for fun. And we'll probably have a great time and we'll think "Hey, maybe we should start thinking about doing something", you know. That's usually how it happens. But right now I don't know will happen.
We've talked about how you write songs for your own albums. How is it if your write for a Toto song? I guess you don't make a full demo or something like that...
No, it's a little more sketchy. What I do is, I work on ideas on my own or maybe with Mike and record it into a sequencer, and then, when everybody comes around for a writing session I play what I have and they listen to it and they go "Not mad about that", "Really like that", "That's great, let's use that", and we go on from there. This new record, I think we might do some different things. I know that Luke and I want to get together and do some writing together. I know that I want to get together with David and do some stuff as I never really got together with David on his own, so I think there's some cool stuff that we could do. And we will probably also do some writing when all four of us turn up, either in Luke's studio or my studio, and we'll just play and see what happens. With this Toto record we're going to write a lot of songs so there'll be many different ways that those songs will come about. So, it's experimental, really.
So do you already have sort of a concept for the new album or is it just whatever comes to mind?
I don't, I know Luke has quite a few songs. I would imagine Dave has probably a few songs. I have a couple of things, a couple of ideas but I haven't really sat down and thought about it yet. I have some ideas that I want to introduce to the band, stylistically, which are pretty radical but I'm not quite sure what they are yet. They're sort of there and that's the best way to start, you know.
So you're gonna work on them as soon as you get home from this tour?
Yeah. I'm going to be writing some music with Ray Russell for some film music, so that's actually the first thing, but once that's done I should be back into writing mode and starting to think about songs, really, just writing songs and thinking about lyrics and getting maybe some lyric writers to write some stuff.
But there's no date yet for the release of this record?
No date at all.
Do you exercise to be fit to play the drums, because I mean it must be really physically demanding playing drums, especially on tour every night for two hours...
[Simon yawns]
[Laughter]

Timing...timing...
Yeah, I mean when we're on tour, I do a lot of stretching exercises just because playing that drum kit is quite tough going and it puts a lot of stress on my body, I have to stretch. But in terms of when I'm at home I'm not very good about it, no, I don't.
And you don't need it? You always have enough strength and power?
I get the strength by playing. When I start the tour, I need to work up to it, you know. Like the beginning of this tour, I was like [gasps] after a few songs, whereas now it's not quite as bad as that and you build strength purely by playing. But I tend to not do anything special working out wise. I find it's a whole different set of muscles anyway, so... I don't know. I'm not very good at that.
When you're at home, do you play everyday?
No... No, I don't. Maybe a week goes by and I don't play. It depends what I'm doing. If I'm writing music I don't play very often. If I'm doing other stuff, then I don't play. I mean it's difficult to find time. And a lot of times you're doing business, you're on the phone all day and I'd love to go play, but it's seven o'clock in the evening and I'm hungry and I haven't played drums yet, and I wanted to play at ten in the morning, you know. It's just... that's how the day goes sometimes which is... I guess it's down to discipline, really.
Are you still doing sessions or are you too busy with your other projects?
I haven't done many sessions at all. I did an album with a guy called John Sykes just before Christmas and a couple of projects but very little, because I've been concentrating so much on this project that I just haven't the time to do other things.
And do you want to go back to doing sessions or is this a part of your life that's behind you?
Oh... I don't really want do it the way I used to but I do enjoy doing sessions occasionally. I mean it's quite interesting, it's really lovely to be living in Los Angeles or living wherever you are and going to a studio for some hours, playing and then coming back home. I mean it seems now, at the moment, I have to go on a plane and spend two months in a country or a few countries to play music. Whereas when I'm at home... you see what I mean... so it's actually really nice to get up and go "Wow, time for a session", I'll have some breakfast, I'll get in the car, I'll go to Capitol or wherever...
Like everybody's going to work...
Yeah, it's actually... I really love it and in a way I would quite like to do a bit more of that but still... you know, I'm very fortunate to be able to play in a band ... going on the road and playing music like this...
So that's what you really want to do, be in a band...
Oh yeah. I've been like that for a very long time, it's just it hasn't been like that. But that's my... to me, it's always been my goal, just it didn't really happen until very late.
So for you it's was no difficult decision to go to Los Angeles and jump in to Toto...
No... Well I was going to Los Angeles anyway, I had made that choice separately, because I just had it up to here with England, I was also going through a divorce, so I really didn't want to stay in England. So I was going to move to L.A. anyway, it's just that I didn't know what I was going to do when I got there, you know. And the fact that Toto coincided with that made a lot more sense. But in in terms of joining Toto, it wasn't a difficult decision at all, it was a very easy decision. It was great, you know.
When you're playing your own music and when you're playing Toto music it's pretty different styles of music...
Yes...
So what kind of music do you listen to, what's your favorite kind of music?
Wow!... Hm... It's weird because right now I would probably actually get off much more listening to some songs. You know, listening to like more of a pop thing or rock thing. Only because we're playing this all the time. I'm just interested in lots of things though, you know. Whatever anybody brings up and puts on I'm there, ready to listen to it. But it's funny that sometimes I don't really have enough time to listen to music. I wish I could, you know. But I would say it's probably different music to the one I'm playing.
Really?
Yeah. Oh yeah, always. I think I've always been like that. At the beginning of this tour, I'm more sort of zoned in to playing this music but then, when we play it every night, I want to listen to something else.
But generally the music you're doing is the one you like or you'd like to hear from other people?
Oh, no, I like to hear all sorts of things and I like to play all sorts of music. You know, it's very refreshing to me after doing this to go back to Toto and hear a voice. Or even something else, not even Toto, you know, doing a session, it's actually a breath of fresh air, it's like "Oh wow!" When playing this music, sometimes I feel the pressure to play the way I play. Sometimes there's a lot of pressure on that. Sometimes I'd really like to just sit down and [makes a monotone drumming gesture]... you know... It's weird... it's very weird.
So you easily adapt to different styles of music...
Yeah. Oh yes, very naturally, yeah.
It doesn't matter to you what kind of music you're actually playing...
No, as long as it's real and as long as it's good... I mean, if it's really just not very good then I'm not very interested in it. But as long as it's got... you know, some heart, then it's great, yeah.
What else do you like besides music? Do you have any other hobbies? Do you still do car racing?
Well, I'm still very much into it. I haven't raced a car since I left England. Because... two reasons really... or three... It's a little bit harder in the States. I've not really met... or been involved in that sort of scene in the States. It's very expensive. And since I left England and getting divorced and everything I've sort of been spending most of my time trying to sort of get back out of that situation. However, I've done some go cart, no racing, but I've been driving go carts and that I enjoy a lot. Myself and Dave Weckl sometimes go to a place called "Riverside" where there's a great cart track and we go and do a lapping day. I'm still very into it, I mean I video all the Grand Prix. And I'm still watching it and I still read a lot about it. I get this magazine called "Autosport", an English magazine, I get it sent to the States. So I'm pretty up-to-date with what's going on. Been out of date right now, but...
So your big dream is driving a Williams?
Yeah [laughs]. Oh, I mean I absolutely one day would love to drive a formula 3 car, let alone a formula 1. Because I'm realistic enough to know that it's actually very difficult driving a formula 1 car. And you need to work up to it. There is however a place in France which has the old AGS formula 1 car. And you can go over there, it costs quite a lot of money, but you go there, they stick you in a formula Vauxhall Lotus (Opel in Germany) which is a two litre engine, wings and slicks. So you get used to driving a racing car to start with if you've never driven one before. And you also get to learn the circuit and get used to the speed a little bit and how to drive, because a racing car is very different. And then if they're satisfied with you they let you out in the AGS formula 1 car which they tune slightly different, the electronic management is... it's all tampered down a bit because... I mean... you wouldn't be able to drive a formula 1 car. You'd be off for the first corner because you have to drive them very aggressively and there's no way you'd be able to because you'd be going [clings to an imaginary steering wheel and puts on a frightened look] "Huh", like that, you know. So, it's very hard, even for any of these guys to sit into a Formula Ford 1600 and they'd be going "Bloody Hell". I mean if I got into a Formula Ford 1600 now, not having driven one for a long time, it would take me a few laps to get back into it, maybe a whole day. Because it's like "Wow! This really feels fast" and you'd be braking way early and driving too slowly around the corners but at least I remember what it was like and I'd be able to get back up there probably.
So you did that very often when you lived in England?
When I could, wasn't that often, but I owned my own car, it was run by a very professional team which is now called the Super Nova team which runs Formula 3000 cars. They won the Formula 3000 championship last year. So I had great mechanics. The team manager, David Sears is a racing driver himself, so I had the benefit of great guidance, great tutoring and everything. And I drove when I could. It wasn't as often as I would have liked because of my schedule. And you have to be very serious about it. The thing about it... because basically it's a dangerous pastime you have to be very serious about it. You can't just go in "Haha", put the visor down, "Ha, great fun!", no you have to really get serious about it because if you do mess up it can cost you very dearly. And playing drums for me is very important. And I've had one bad accident and I was very lucky. So, you really have to be very very clearheaded and know when to stop. But as you can see I'm very into it, I talk more about it than drumming.
So is there anything else you like or do you spend all your time with music?
Ah, right now... I mean I have a lovely girlfriend, so any time outside of music I spend with her. But there's nothing really specific that I'm doing at the moment outside of music and the only thing is maybe going to a motor race or going to see a movie or something like that. You know, I have put a lot of time and energy into this project over the last two years so there really hasn't been time left over for doing much else... Sleeping... That's about it.
When you get time for it...
Yeah, yeah...
Thanks to:
Ines + Gerhard Seitz, Michael Riesenbeck, Jasmine and Yushin for suggesting questions
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