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Toto keyboardist David Paich is content to get the last laugh

By the unwritten rules of rock and roll, Toto never should’ve had a hit single (let alone 14). And the band of gifted studio artists is still going strong.

By Ken Sharp

Since emerging onto the music scene with a self-titled debut album in 1979, Toto has never strayed from the cross hairs of music snobs.

Apparently, if you’re a group of studio musicians who decide you’d like to be the band instead of always staying in the shadows and backing someone else’s work, you must have sold out to corporate music, right? How else do you explain all those hit singles, all those gold and platinum records and all those Grammys?

Well, if your band is Toto, the explanation is pretty easy. You’ve written a rock-solid catalog of songs that stand the test of time, your members are ridiculously talented and your worldwide fan base eagerly awaits your every album and tour. Toto’s latest offering, “35th Anniversary Live in Poland,” offers a great introduction to the band and its catalog, showcasing hits and deep cuts alike.

Still struggling to understand? Then sit back and let Toto keyboardist and chief songwriter David Paich explain.

Toto 1988 Columbia Records publicity photo

Toto in 1988. Columbia Records publicity photo.

GOLDMINE: Toto is celebrating its 35th anniversary as a band. What’s the best part of your continued success?
DAVID PAICH: The best part of our continued success is our camaraderie and our friendship and how much fun we have. We’ve been friends since high school, and it’s not only the music that’s the connective tissue that binds us together, but our wacky sense of humor and being able to do this great thing called music throughout the years. We’re really blessed and really fortunate to have such great fans out there. They keep wanting us to come out and play.

GM: Toto’s “Live in Poland” DVD/CD shows off the band in the live arena. How does the group take on a different dimension in a live setting?
DP: Well, it’s a great thing. I heard an interview with Sting, and he was so right ... He said that the records are just blueprints for the real music. When you play songs live, it becomes this communion with the audience; there’s this audience participation stuff that comes into play. Just playing in a 10,000-seat arena, the dynamics and the acoustics and the ambience and the whole spirit, it is totally different out there. So it’s a whole lot of fun out there, and when you play live, you find that certain types of compositions lend themselves to a live presentation even better than they do on a record. Listen to “Better World” on record, and it’s very dynamic. But when you play that live, it’s just epic when you hear the crowd singing along and 10,000 people chanting with you.

GM: Toto has been hard to categorize. The new DVD shows off the group’s wide range, where you’re adept at rockers, pop, prog rock, ballads and jazz-inflected tunes.
DP: Well, this has been a real journey with this band. Because of the diverse musicianship in the band, we’re able to play all these different kinds of music — pretty much whatever comes to my mind for us. It’s been a blessing and a curse. We’re able to do these poppy kinds of things, but our souls were much more into the prog thing, which was more alternative, progressive-rock stuff. We were way influenced by bands like Yes and Genesis and ELP in the early days. So the new DVD allows everybody to see this other side of the band. You have songs like “Better World” and “Hydra” and “Home of the Brave.” We wanted to show 35 years of not just our hits, but we also wanted to do some of the fans’ favorite cuts off some of the albums over the years. We polled our fans and asked them, “What songs would you guys like to hear after 35 years?” Again, it’s been about the fans. Without them, we wouldn’t be here.

Toto Live in Poland on Blu-ray

GM: Toto has always been way more popular outside of the States. Can you explain why?
DP: I think it’s because we toured a lot more outside of America. The reason we did that is when you have a band of this caliber of musicianship, the kind of show we were trying to do was along the lines of a group like Genesis or Pink Floyd. We certainly didn’t have the money to put on huge shows, but we wanted to put on the biggest little show we possibly could with lights and staging. So we had to go where we could economically afford to take all of our gear. We had tons of instruments, especially back in the day. We were carrying a 9–foot grand piano and Hammond organs and modular synthesizers, not unlike ELP, which cost money. So it was more affordable with the offers that we were getting from Europe and Japan to play bigger places over there. And we started out playing big places over there, which was really fun. In America, it’s kind of a pecking order, and we did that with other bands and other artists like Boz Scaggs and Seals and Crofts. But America is so huge, and you have to hit all these secondary markets and then hit all the main cities, which we’d done in our youth touring with all these artists. So we thought maybe if we went abroad and established ourselves, it would help us coming back over here. It’s taken so many years, but we’re finally back here doing our thing with our DVD (laughs), and it seems to be pretty popular now. It was No. 1 at Amazon, so I think people are rediscovering us right now in the United States.

David Paich Toto keyboardist publicity photo

Although you may not recognize David Paich's name, you certainly know his work, both with Toto and in the studio with a variety of memorable artists on memorable projects including Boz Scaggs ("Silk Degrees") and Steely Dan ("Pretzel Logic" and "Katy Lied." Publicity photo/Roger Ottosson Photography.

GM: You mentioned Boz Scaggs. You co-wrote two of Boz Scaggs’ biggest hits, “Lowdown” and “Lido.” Tell us about that collaboration.
DP: Well, that was just magical. I was lucky enough to be put together with him by our drummer, Jeff Porcaro, who had been working with Boz. Boz had been producing a guitarist who’d been with The Allman Brothers named Les Dudek. Boz was looking for someone to co-write an album with, and Jeff threw him together with me. And I’ll always be appreciative of that. It was one of the greatest pairings I’ve ever had an opportunity to work with. My father had a ranch in Santa Ynez, just north of Santa Barbara, and we sat down at his piano and penned most of that stuff. He sat down and came up with this little doo-wop kind of thing, this ’50s groove on “Lido.” I heard that and just took off with it. It was very a very collaborative effort. He’s a great lyricist, and he’s able to come up with some great stories. We wrote most of that album in about a week, just on a grand piano.

GM: David, you grew up in a family with jazz as the primary influence. How did that love of jazz shape your songwriting and musicianship in Toto?
DP: I think being the son of a great jazz musician ... First of all, you take music very seriously. It’s not just a hobby. You take music seriously, almost like how classical musicians take it, except that it’s jazz. To play jazz correctly, you have to study at least a little bit of classical music on a harmonic and technical level. I think being a jazz player equips you with a bit more tools than just being a rock player. I think harmonically you’re able to move around faster, because your ear is attuned to the direction you go with this or that chord. You pick up on it really quickly because that’s what jazz improvisation is. It’s a lot of ear stuff. Also, I think the sensitivity to the playing is something you pick up on. There’s finesse when you hear jazz guys play, because they play lighter than heavy rock players. So when you play rock and roll and you have a jazz background, you’re not always bashing it out. If you hear a Steely Dan record or a Boz Scaggs record or a Seals and Crofts record, there’s a certain feel and sound to it that’s caused by guys who were jazz players playing rock and roll. It has this finesse and lightness of touch to it. I think jazz equips you with the harmonic and technical tools to be sensitive to approach different kinds of music.

GM: What are some of the most important lessons you learned as a songwriter?
DP: In terms of songwriting, I think you need to make sure you get a good foundation in English literature. All the great lyricists like Jimmy Webb, Bernie Taupin and Donald (Fagen) and Walter (Becker) were English lit guys. I tell kids, “Go to school, go to college and read as much stuff as you can ’cause it helps you with your lyrics writing. Songwriting is a visceral art, and you’ve just got to follow your gut instincts. How does it feel to you when you do it? Does it move you when you get a certain chord or lyric right? Trust yourself and never give up at it. I think for every decent song I’ve written, I probably have 10 horrible songs I’ve had to go through writing to get to that one good song. You’ve got to hang in there. It takes focus, and sometimes it takes collaboration. And it does take discipline because you’re spending a lot of time by yourself in a little room making music and creating something.

Toto Holyanna video

GM: “All Us Boys” is one of the band’s most underrated rockers.
DP: “All Us Boys” was probably the first demo that Toto ever did for CBS. We came up with that the first weekend me and Jeff Porcaro came and got our band together. There was actually no one in the band yet except for me and Jeff, and all of sudden people started showing up that we knew. First, Steve Lukather came down and said, “I’ve heard about this band, and I want to audition.” We put his guitar on “All Us Boys,” and that’s the guitar you hear on that, which is just unbelievable wailing guitar. We were kind of winging it there. That song really captured the spirit of the band. We were real rockers at the time. As for me, I’d been influence by Elton John on the “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” album and just anybody that was playing piano. I really liked David Bowie and all these different artists that were out at the time, so it was kind of a collective influence. But I think that was pretty much the inception of my style of writing rock and roll right there. You’re hearing us in our youth, doing punk rock stuff right there.

GM: The video is nutty.
DP: (Laughs.) Yeah, it’s pretty crazy. You saw us go from little kids to men to old men in that video. We get a real laugh out of that when we see that video today. People weren’t doing those kinds of videos at the time. Instead, they were doing in-concert type of videos, like with Journey, where you had a crowd in front of you, and you performed the song onstage. We were one of the first bands that wanted to do these little story vignettes. We saw this as an opportunity to do something interesting, and a lot of people started doing that afterward.

GM: “Hold the Line” kicked things off for the band and was the group’s first major hit; it’s also one of the key songs showcased on the new live CD/DVD.
DP: All I knew is that song was catchy. I had just moved out of my folks’ house into Westwood. I was going to college, and I got a little upright piano. I sat down and the first riff that I started playing was the opening riff of “Hold the Line.” I probably played it for three days; people were a banging on my door, and I think I got eviction notices. “Stop playing that song!” It was on in power rotation; it was on repeat. And then I finally came up with a verse for it. That was one of the first songs that the band ever rehearsed. It was like, “Let’s see if this is a real band or not.” When I played that song, it pretty much sounded like the record, so we knew right then that we had a band here. I never knew “Hold the Line” was gonna be pulled off our first record as a single. It’s funny, because we’re friends with the guitarists, Danny Kortchmar and Waddy Wachtel, and in New York they called it a doo-wop song, which are songs guys used to sing on the street corner. But I never saw it like that, because I was more influenced by Sly & The Family Stone’s “Hot Fun in the Summertime.” I mean, that’s where that triplet feel really came from for me. I laughed when that came out. They were floored because they thought we were gonna do all this progressive-rock stuff, and that’s the first song that was released as a single, which is kind of a nostalgic-fashioned piece.

Toto and supporting musicians take a bow during the "Live In Poland" performance. Photo credit Darek Kawka.

Toto and supporting musicians take a bow at the end of the "Live In Poland" performance. Photo credit Darek Kawka.

GM: The other single from the album “I’ll Supply the Love” also garnered a ton of airplay.

DP: We haven’t been playing that live in a long time.

GM: Why?
DP: Well, that’s a good question. Maybe because it’s the signature song of another singer, Bobby Kimball, who’s not with us anymore. We’ve talked about bringing that one back. We used to do songs in such high keys in those days that we’d have to lower the key to do it. That song was always a favorite of ours because it sounded like a simple rocker, but yet it had some interesting arrangements and sections in it. Again, that was a song that was unique to Toto.

GM: Set the record straight: Was “Rosanna” written about the actress Rosanna Arquette?
DP: It was her name that was actually the inspiration. I had kind of written it about the first girl I met in high school. So I got the story from that, and then Steve Porcaro walked into the kitchen where I was working on some lyrics. Once I start writing a song, I don’t stop playing it for days. (Sings) “Not quite a year since she went away.” So Steve walks in and introduces me to Rosanna Arquette, and she was stunning in her charming way. I threw her name in, and it seemed to work perfectly. I immediately fell in love with her on the spot and went, “Wow, what a chick!” It’s my curse; all these guys will get these girls, and I’ll be forever working on my songs by myself in the studio. But that’s proved to be wrong, because now I’ve been married for 29 years and I have a daughter. So I even got lucky. (Laughs.)

GM: You’ve played on many high-profile sessions through the years. One of them was a session for “The Girl is Mine” with Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney. That’s not one but two of the top icons in music history. So, just another day at the office?
DP: It was one of those pinch-me moments. I walk into the studio, and there’s Paul McCartney sitting there playing his song. Then Quincy Jones said, “Paul, let David sit down, because he’s gonna really lay this down and show everybody how it goes.” I was like, “What do you mean I’m gonna show everybody how this goes? Paul McCartney’s playing the piano!” (Laughs.) So I walk into the studio, and you have Paul McCartney, and standing behind him is George Martin — who’s one of my favorite producers — and Geoff Emerick, the Beatles’ engineer. Then you have Michael Jackson standing there with Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien, his engineer on “Thriller.” It doesn’t get much heavier in a room. That’s really the ultimate seasoned professionals in that room; to have that much talent in that room was incredible. When you finally realize you’re not in a dream, which takes about five minutes to pull yourself out of that, you start playing, and you realize these are the most talented guys. When we were warming up and getting sounds, we started playing a couple of Motown hits, and Paul and Michael were singing this little duet on it. It was really one of the ultimate highlights of my life and one of the most magical sessions I’ve ever been on.

GM: Steely Dan are notorious perfectionists in the studio. You played on a few of their records, like “Black Friday” from “Katy Lied.” Guess you passed the audition?
DP: The first song I played on was “Night by Night” from their “Pretzel Logic” album. Jeff Porcaro was a super Steely Dan freak. We’d heard some singles that they’d done but didn’t know they were the band they turned out to be. Jeff just loved them because he loved lyrics. He loved Dylan and especially loved Jimi Hendrix’s lyrics. And the next band he loved was Steely Dan, and that was because of Donald Fagen. He discovered them at a very early age. So anyhow, Steely Dan were looking for musicians. Jeff had played on one of the songs on “Pretzel Logic” called “Parker’s Band” prior to that with the drummer, Jim Gordon. Jeff said, “I know this bass player and keyboard player, David Hungate and David Paich,” so he brought us in, and we did the song “Night by Night” on that record. That was kind of our audition, and they liked us enough to call us back on the “Katy Lied” album. We did “Black Friday,” and I played on “Dr. Wu,” as well. It was a great session with myself, Michael Omartian, Chuck Rainey on bass and Rick Derringer on guitar. It was so much fun to hear Donald singing the song for the first time. I mean, you’re playing the song, but your impetus is these great lyrics that you’re hearing. So that kind of turns whatever smile you had on your face to this little darker side, and you dig in a little harder.

Toto band publicity photo 1982 Columbia

Toto in 1982, the year "Toto IV" was released. That album best reflects the band's sound and story, according to keyboardist David Paich. Columbia Records publicity photo.

GM: What Toto album best tells the band’s story, and why?
DP: That would have to be the “Toto IV” record. That’s a hard one; our seventh album is a great one, as is our first album, which I always love because of the way we made it and the care we put into it. When you want to hear the Toto sound, it’s “Toto IV” that delivers it best with songs like “Rosanna” and “Africa” and “Afraid of Love.” We were in a zone at the time, plus the way it was mixed by Greg Ladanyi. That album became our sound, and it ended up influencing a lot of other young musicians.

GM: Do you have a man cave? If so, what would we find in it?
DP: I don’t have just a man cave; I have a man building almost. I have a house that had a house and a guest house, but it also has a five-car garage. I took three of the garages and made it into a recording studio. I was just in there last night doing a demo. It’s kind of my man cave, but I call it the office. That’s’ where I go to work, across the street from my house. It’s kind of a workplace. What you’ll find in there is my 9-foot grand piano which I bought right before Toto’s first album — which I played on all the Toto albums — so it’s set up and miked there. Then you’ll see some odds and ends from the old days, like a 24-track sitting there and some Fairchild limiters. But mainly what you’re gonna see are computer screens, because we use Logic and Pro Tools these days to make records. The boards are smaller, and it’s all virtual on the computer screen nowadays. I have microphones and a set of drums in another room. I’m still recording like a garage band, because I’m in a garage. (Laughs.) GM