Photo: Steve Porcaro, American keyboardist, songwriter and original member of the rock band Toto. Photo courtesy of Jerry Lofaro.
Toto’s Steve Porcaro Has The Answer To Human Nature . . . Just Write A Song About It
An original member of the band Toto, Steve Porcaro’s musical vocabulary and experience have been well documented in the music industry and spans over 40 years. With credits ranging from Composer, Arranger, Director, Producer, Songwriter, Keyboardist, Organ Moog Bass, Synthesizer Programming Engineer, Strings, Horns and Vocals, Porcaro has done it all!
Those titles and the hits that accompany them are, quite simply, legendary.
Most notable is his work on Michael Jackson’s hit, “Thriller,” which not only continues to hold the record for the most weeks at number one on the Billboard charts, but also featured another of Jackson’s hits, “Human Nature” written by Porcaro and Lyricist John Bettis.
Porcaro’s musical flexibility could very well have something to do with his family ancestry. His father Joe Porcaro has been lauded as one of the great session drummers, holding an impressive resume that includes the likes of Sinatra (both Frank and daughter Nancy), Sarah Vaughn, Pink Floyd, The Monkees, Madonna and Gladys Knight.
Keeping it all in the family, Steve Porcaro’s brothers, Jeff and Mike Porcaro, were also accomplished and successful musicians in their own right.
Despite the many years of success, both on the charts and scoring films, Porcaro isn’t winding down by any means, nor has he lost his edge in the game, having released “Someday Somehow” in 2016. In fact, if you like reading liner notes, it’s easy to see that Porcaro has no shortage of friends to call upon when recording, as included on the LP are band mates from Toto: Steve Lukather, Lenny Castro, Shannon Forrest, and old friend Michael McDonald, former band member of The Doobie Brothers.
Pulling back the curtain on Porcaro’s intriguing life, you’ll find that, since the beginning of his career and right up to now, a few things remain certain. He views his work with a musician’s ear, he still has the curiosity of a new apprentice, and leads all with an open poet’s heart.
Before he played the Colosseum at Caesars Windsor in late August, I caught up with Steve Porcaro at his studio in Los Angeles, California, via telephone, to unravel the varied and complicated world known as the music industry. So, as the lyrics play in your head to Toto’s songs: “Hold the Line,” “Rosanna,” “Africa” and more, read his replies to my questions and a few from fans here in Windsor.
Biz X: You come from a professional musical home. Knowing the pitfalls in the industry personally, how supportive were your parents for them to send all three of their children out into the industry?
Steve Porcaro (SP): They were very concerned, while always being supportive. My father could sight read music with a full orchestra for film scores. It was a lot of dedication. My brother, Jeff, kind of spearheaded the way. Being a natural talent and force of nature, we all kind of held on to his coattails.
Biz X: Equipment has come a long way, from the towers and racks of equipment, to chips and programs. What do you see coming for keyboards?
SP: I love what the new technology brings. [For] guys like me, who do film scores, it is really coming together. In the future, they are going to get wise to the fact that, as far as actual controllers go, the keyboards that you play, there is vast room for improvement and possibilities, [and] new technologies to interface with.
Biz X: Your musical palette is full and wide. You go from jazz, to rock to blues, having worked with just about every major artist. Not to mention that you have been on the charts in some way or some form since the ’70s. How do you keep that creative licence going?
SP: I love it all. My dad taught us to always remain a student. There’s always something new in synthesizers and technology — always something new to master. Some people like to just kind of fool around with this stuff and use presets and have a superficial relationship with the equipment. I love to pick certain pieces of gear and software and really roll my sleeves up and get in there.Biz X: Do you ever get writer’s block?
SP: Constantly. A huge lesson that I learned is that you sometimes have to treat this like a 9 to 5 job. There are times I just don’t want to go in and work, but you have to, and, [during] those times, you know you just have to come up with something.
Biz X: Toto has always had much more fame and appreciation in Europe than in the United States. Do you think that European audiences have a more sophisticated palette, musically?
SP: Yes, I always kind of thought that about Europe and Japan. When jazz artists Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea started playing funk music and synthesizer, they were blasted by the U.S. critics for selling out. In Japan, the audience had no problem with them using different instruments. They don’t have that purist attitude — they embraced it.
Biz X: What would you tell a band getting ready to sign a multi-album deal to be wary of?
SP: It’s hard for me to be optimistic about the record business. It’s just being uncovered to us now the loose ends that lawyers left open years ago. Record deals, especially, are so stacked against artists — I don’t care if you’re beginning, or how long you’ve been around. Record companies have these arms of distribution that just no one else has and are able to get your music to places that you just can’t on your own. Right now, it’s a completely different model. You’re kind of on your own as far as demos go and videos, and it’s only when they see you getting so many hits on YouTube that they [record labels] even kind of talk to you. They want to see the numbers. You sign these record deals, they take any money you used to make your record, [and] they more than make sure they recoup. But, when it comes time for you to get paid, for you to get the money coming to you as part of your signed contract, you have to hire an Attorney to do an audit. They just don’t do what they are supposed to do. Then you have to cut a deal with an Attorney to pay them a percentage to get what’s coming to you. It’s terrible.
Biz X: You have children in the industry. Do you have the same kind of apprehension your parents did?
SP: Even more so, it’s frightening. Everyone has a studio in their bedroom and I love the egalitarian aspect of it. You don’t need to have hundreds of thousands of dollars and a record budget to make music. I love that. But, there is also a glut of crap to wade through.
Biz X: Is the key to staying in the music industry being flexible?
SP: For me, it’s been absolutely necessary to be flexible, to be adaptable, to be able to change situations. Having mostly done records and then moving into film, which is very, very different from what I was doing in the record business, it helps to always be hungry and forever be a student. To maintain success is always elusive and you want to keep coming up with new stuff and new ideas.
Biz X: What is one thing you would tell people starting in the music industry?
SP: To carve out your own individual niche in the business. Do something no one else does.
Biz X: Are you that hard on yourself when you write music?
SP: Oh, yeah. What sees the light of day is minuscule [compared] to the number of ideas that I threw against the wall.
And now for something different, Biz X magazine readers had a chance to ask Steve Porcaro a few questions . . .
Maureen C: How does the writer decide if the song is for himself, or someone else?
SP: Good question. I’ve often dealt with that very issue. I don’t consider myself much of a singer. I never felt confident enough to sing in front of people. I never wanted to be a singer in the first place. I wanted to hear my songs done the way I heard them in my head. Once Joseph Williams (Toto) was in the band, I felt there was a guy with a voice that could take direction and could use on a lot of my songs. It [also] depends on how good my imagination is. Sometimes, we write for ourselves, for our own voices and, other times, you can go way off the range and imagine some amazing singer instead of yourself. A great singer can also improvise and ad lib, bringing nuances that you would never expect or never thought of.
Michael P: What song that you wrote, knowing now what you didn’t know then, would you change?
SP: None of them, thank God.
Irene M: How important is the element of storytelling in the composition of a song?
SP: I think it’s hugely important. There is way too little of it in Toto’s music, and my own music. Lyrics have always been elusive. They have always been a challenge to us. Toto was always kind of a musician’s band. Lyrics weren’t really as important to us as much as pocket and groove and chord changes. That’s why I love collaborating with guys like John Bettis, who bring lyric writing to the level of music that we play.
To keep up to date with Porcaro on social media visit: Facebook.com/steveporcaromusic.
From working backstage production to the radio airwaves Lori Baldassi has involved in the music industry on a number of professional levels for many years. Having spoken in front of the CRTC, Baldassi holds a certificate in Adjudication from York University Toronto and is a graduate of St. Clair College’s Media Convergence program. If you have any questions for her, please email:[email protected].