Some artists are well known and respected inside the biz, but for various reasons they don’t rise to that “name” status that makes readers’ polls and garners media attention. In the case of journeyman CJ Vanston, he’s more focused on doing the work than promoting himself. And he has certainly been being doing the work! He’s done more than 500 recording sessions; toured with Joe Cocker, Tina Turner, and Tears For Fears; served as a writing/production partner for Steve Lukather; scored most of Christopher Guest’s movies; produced the new Toto record; and has held down what is possibly the most dangerous keyboard chair in rock ’n’ roll for the past 20 years: playing with Spinal Tap! Long admired within the business, Vanston sat down with Keyboard for a long-overdue discussion about his career, his music, and our favorite subject: gear.
“He feels music with all his heart and can bust you apart with chords and melody. Whether it be comedy, jazz, prog he's got it all; a joyous maker of sound and I'm honored to know him.” -- Keith Emerson on CJ Vanston.
Let’s start at the beginning: CJ, the early years.
My dad was a renowned jazz piano player where I grew up [Lansing, Michigan]. He was a very Bill Evans kind of guy: understated, but with chops. There used to be lines around the block to hear his trio. Our apartment was on top of the stage, so I was hearing that trio every night from age of three on.
I studied classical piano from an early age, and got a good background in technique, harmony and such. I had a scholarship to go to college, but that summer I saw an all-black horn band that changed my life, introducing me to the world of funk. I was playing in my jazz band, and the lead singer came in and was listening to me play. I walked off the stage and he’s standing right there and says, “Y’all playing with us now.” So I blew off college and got on a school bus with an 11-piece R&B horn band.
What was your rig back then?
Well, this was 1974. I had a Rhodes and a mini Korg. I took that mini Korg and put duct tape on the tuning knob, so I could use it like a pitch wheel. All I wanted was a Minimoog. When I graduated high school my dad bought me a Buick Skylark, which I immediately sold for a Minimoog. And then went and got a loan and got a [Yamaha] CP-70 and a Oberheim four-voice.
After the band broke up, I ended up spending a year with Elvis imitators. I wasn’t that into Elvis, but we had a blast, and that’s where I learned how to write horn charts. The next band I joined made a record at Pumpkin Studios [Chicago], which is where Styx recorded. I walked into that studio, and just knew I’d found my home. The engineer on the session—Gary Loizzo,who did all those Styx records—told me, “My god, you’re so good at this, you gotta move to Chicago; you’ll just take over here.” So I moved, he hooked me up, and within a year, I became the first-call guy in Chicago, doing sessions. All from my first recording session!
It was a lot of jingles back then, right?
Six sessions a day, five days a week—just incredible. I was coaxing banjo, harmonica, pedal steel, oboe, out of a Prophet 5that nobody was really getting then. Over time, I built a huge keyboard rig that included the [Roland] Jupiter 8.I had the first [Yamaha] KX88 in town, rackmount [Akai] S-1000s, all that stuff. It grew to three racks that were six feet tall that I brought to each session. I’m sitting in my studio here; it’s 2,000 square feet, and probably 1,000 of it is vintage gear—75 to 85 keyboards.
From that era of gear, what are your favorites?
Really simple: the Oberheim Four Voice. It has a beautiful, organic sound that has never been superseded. Also, I have two racks of eight [Yamaha] TX816s. Those things, my God, you could shave with them, their transients and the attacks are so fast.
Any other stand-out gear?
The next era of stuff that came in was the Korg Wavestation, the Prophet VS. These were mini-PPG kind of things, where you could cycle through waveforms. That really interested me; the sound was moving. It sounded more like nature to me than a synthesizer.
You posted something on Facebook recently about a Peter Cetera track, “Have You Ever Been in Love?” and called out the Wavestation specifically.
I listened to that track after all these years, and I got tears in my eyes. Here’s how that type of session would go down: We’d listen to the demo in the control room. The drummer writes his chart, the players confirm the chord changes. But I’ve got to decide what I’m going to do production-wise. So I discuss with the artist or the producer: “I think I’ll do a pad in the chorus, and maybe some kind of percussive thing during the verse.” [And they’d say,] “Oh, that’s great. Do it.”
I had my three racks, so I decide to get my TX-816s going in the verse. Now I got this pad I gotta do in the chorus. Well, I hit the Wavestation for the little modulating, high-end wind on top. I would use my Oberheim for the fatness, bring in some of my Waldorf stuff to create a little warbling thing in there. I ended up using six synthesizers, all MIDI’d together, just for my pad. And that’s why, when I listened back to the song, I went, “Listen how rich those sounds are.”
By then you’d obviously moved to LA.
Well, in Chicago, there was this guy named Dick Marx; he was the jingle producer: “Double your pleasure, double your fun” for Wrigleys gum. “Two scoops of raisins” for Kellogg’s Raisin Bran cereal. He became my mentor and took me under his wing. His son is Richard Marx, who was in L.A., and Dick kept telling him, “You’ve got to use this C.J. guy on a song.” And Richard was like, “One of your jingle guys?” I think he was a little suspicious.
So Richard gave me a cassette of a tune he wrote that he didn’t know what to do with. I heard the song, and it blew me away. I knew right away it was a hit. And I decided I had to move to L.A. and make records—enough with these 60-second jingles. It had been a great skill set to learn; I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything, but I had to make records.
The demo was for the song, “Right Here Waiting.” That whole track is me: there’s the Oberheim, the bass is the S-1000. I used the E-mu ProFormance half-rack piano module. Amazingly, my demo ended being used as the track. The record company wanted to do drums and this big production, but Richard was smart enough to say, “No, this is it.”
Well, that track had such an effect on radio. It went the other way from everything else. Next thing you know, my phone is ringing off the hook: “Phil Ramone wants you to work on this record,” and “Desmond Child wants you to work on this,” and Greg Ladanyi, and David Foster, and Humberto Gatica. That record opened up my whole world here. I finally found my home.
How did you get the Spinal Tap gig?
I had done some gigs with Katey Segal, with Russ Kunkel on drums. One day I got a message on my answering machine: “CJ, man, it’s Russell. I got the gig from hell. Give me a call.”
And that’s one of those moments where you stand over the answering machine going, “Okay, what is this going to be?” So I called him and I said, “It’s Michael Jackson.” He goes, “No, it’s better than that.” I said, “Well, you’re touring with James; is it James Taylor?” “No, way better. It’s Spinal Tap.” It was a one-nighter, playing for Marshall amps at the 1991 NAMM show. That’s all they needed me for, and there was hardly any bread.
I hung up that phone and I just said to myself, “There is never going to be another keyboard player in this band. I’m going to take this gig, and rip it a new one.” I found the samples for all the parts on the record, showed up for rehearsal, we ran the first song, and these guys are looking back like, “Who is this guy?” I had it all nailed, the first time through. And that was that.
I made them sound pretty big; we started doing more and more gigs, and it just turned into a thing. We did a record in ’95, Break Like the Wind and went out on a world tour. In the middle of the tour, Chris Guest told me he had a movie he was working on and I said, “Well, I gotta do the music for that.” And he said, “I didn’t know you did that.” I said, “Are you kidding?” Of course, I’d never scored a movie in my life. And that ended up being Waiting for Guffman.
Boy, there were some amazing moments. Playing Carnegie Hall with Spinal Tap was one of the most surreal moments of my life. That really is wrong on so many levels.
You’ve worked a lot with Steve Lukather, which led you to produce Toto, one of your seminal influence bands. Talk about life coming full circle.
Funny how that happens, isn’t it? I would have cut my toes off when I was 19 to work with these guys. You work your ass off for 35 years, and you end up getting what you want.
I met Luke on a Richard Marx session, and we ended up doing hundreds of sessions over the next 25 years. So we became friends as session players, and then he called me in to work on some of his solo stuff. We wrote some tunes together, I played my parts, and then he went off to finish the record with some engineer. He played me some mixes, and they just sounded awful. [I said], “Steve, these don’t sound like the record we made,” and I played him the original demos. He agreed and said, “I want you to be my producer and mix the record.” So I did, and the record [Lukather] was well-received by the fans, and got some critical acclaim. We did the whole next record [Transition] together; I’m so proud of that project, it was amazing.
The band heard that record and decided I should be the guy to record and mix their live DVD [35th Anniversary Tour - Live in Poland], which like the rest of my career I claimed to know everything about, yet knew nothing. I worked my ass off on it, and it came out amazing. I think I had hung around with them enough for them to know, “This guy’s invested in us, and knows us.” So they hired me to produce this new record. And I gotta tell you, it’s their Sgt. Pepper’s. These guys are really at a striking place in their lives right now; it’s like a fine wine. I think this record’s gonna really blow a lot of people away. Name better musicians on planet Earth. There is no such thing.
You’ve moved pretty far into the box gearwise. What do you use?
I’m a true-blue Logic guy and I have been for over ten years. And where it’s at now with Logic X is just incredible—just the basic stuff that’s included. I use Main Stage as my live rig. Just my laptop and a [Yamaha] S-90 or Motif: two outputs, have a nice day. If anything happened and I had to use another computer, I could easily switch the system all over.
In the studio I’m still using a MOTU 2408. I’ve got all Apogee in and out, Apogee Big Ben for my clock. I use a Presonus monitor station, for switching. I’m loving my JBL 6300 series speakers. I have a beautiful control room; it is a real control room built by a real studio builder, not a drywall square that people call a studio. So what you hear here is what you’re going to hear. Everybody just comes to me with their stems. And I’ve got all my stuff sitting here, so yeah, I’ll pull my Wurly out, or I’ll pull down my Four Voice, or whatever. I’ve got the new Roland Jupiter 80, I love that. I’m really loving some of the sounds on the new Casio PX-5S.
I’m a huge [Spectrasonics] Omnisphere fan. I use [Synthogy] Ivory a lot. I just like the box because, especially working on a record like this, we’ve got 11 songs, and Lukather will walk in [and say], “Hey, I want to put a part on the end of blah-blah-blah.”
Any other go-to processing plug-ins?
I hate to give this one away, because it is so incredible—EZmix, by ToonTrack. It’s so easy to use, and is one of the most stunning plug-ins I’ve ever used. It provides all your chorus, flange, delay, tape simulator, multiband compressor, compressor, reverb, plate reverb, spring reverb. But the interface opens up, and it’s only two knobs and a bunch of presets. They farmed the presets out to all these incredible engineers like Chuck Ainlay, who I highly respect.
Let’s say you have a snare drum, and it’s the top mic. You type in “snare top,” and here’s a list of 75 presets. Now you can bang through these and find something that’s kind of close. And it creates a jumping-off point. What it’s really great for is finding a distinctive vocal sound.
I’ve got pretty much everything Universal Audio makes. Melodyne is a huge tool in the studio, and not in the sense most people think about. I don’t go through and tune vocal tracks front to back, the way so many people do. Melodyne lets me save a vocal track that has more emotion, and only fix a few small spots. I’ll also use it to mute out the leakage in tom-tom tracks. I use it as my de-esser, because the esses show up as an individual blob that I can reduce the gain on.
Is your go-to Rhodes sound in the studio in the box?
It’s the Logic EVP88, yeah. I’ve got my tine settings, and a whole channel strip [compressor and EQ settings]. Unless I’m going for a more DX7 thing, then I use [Native Instruments] FM8.
I’ve been using (AAS) Lounge Lizard, but I tend to pull my Wurly out. That’s a tough one. I’ll tell you, the other good one is the Casio PX-5S. I dig having the slider for the amount of distortion. It’s between the Casio and the Lounge Lizard.
For film scoring and other productions, what do you use for strings?
Well, strings are an interesting thing. I’ve got a bunch of different libraries; I’ve got the 8Dio stuff, the Vienna stuff. For sustained strings, it’s really hard to tell the difference between these different titles to me. And one of the best patches existing is the Hollywood Strings in Omnisphere; that’s a beautiful sound. But the best one I have is something I created years ago on my S-1000, using a mixture of Sample Cell and a live date I did; those are my own personal samples. Now, that’s for just sustained pad strings. When you get into key switching and articulations, that’s when I go over to the VSL or the 8Dio libraries.
Do you practice?
Every single night of my life. The Bill Evans fake book, the real book, classical stuff. I never really practiced my scales after I was 15. But to this day, I always end my day working on whatever book I've got going. I did a lot of wood shedding to keep my chops up, and I still try to.
It’s a big, wide swath trying to keep current on synth sounds, and owning the latest synths. My god, that’s enough responsibility. But also, to have enough of a foot in the past to know, when they ask for some Meade Lux Lewis, or Billy Preston, or whatever. You gotta know what that is.
Jerry Kovarsky: CJ Vanston is a great storyteller, and he shared so many great ones during the course of the interview, which we didn’t have room to include in the print . Here are some choice ones that couldn’t fit into the print interview in the March 2015 issue, so we proudly present them here. Enjoy!
More on Spinal Tap
Two more stories. We played the Royal Albert Hall in London, and taped a New Year’s Eve special there, “The Return of Spinal Tap.” It was a very elaborate show. They came flying in from the ceiling, we had huge props. A very orchestrated, choreographed show.
We were doing sound check, and we’re in Royal Albert Hall, I’m just looking up at that pipe organ. It’s 40 rows up in the back of the hall, and I was talking about it with Chris, when this older gentleman comes over and says, “You talking about the pipe organ?” and I said, “Oh, my God, that thing is amazing. I’m the keyboard player in the band.” He goes, “Would you like to have a play?” “Would I like to have a play? Oh, you’re kidding me.” He says, “No. Would you like to have a play?”
So they took me up to the pipe organ, and gave me this letter from the Queen that says, “This is the Queen’s pipe organ, this will be treated with the utmost respect. Here are the settings we suggest. So I pulled out every stop, stood on the bench and played “Smoke on the Water” at full volume.
There was a song in the set called “Christmas with the Devil,” and I said, “What if I did an pipe organ intro thing that fits right in?” They said, “Oh, my God, that’s great.” So we tried it at sound check. Well, the band is so loud, they can’t hear the pipe organ.
So we hooked up eight AKG 441 mics so the pipe organ could be heard over Spinal Tap. At the end of the song before it, one of the road crew led me up there with a flashlight. I did this intro standing on the bench, and leaning over and playing the Royal Albert pipe organ. I lean back and look between my legs and saw the Royal Albert Hall crowd and I thought, “Buddy, it’s probably not going to get much better than this. You’d better soak this up.” It was amazing.
Another one was, we were playing Milwaukee, and Lee Sklar was there, one of the greatest bass players of all time. He was on the road playing with Tracy Chapman, had a night off, and I said, “You gotta sit in on BigBottom.” But he says, “No, I just want to watch the show.” So I put him in the third row.
Well, the thing I want him to see is, at the end of BigBottom, we used to have this skull that came down. Jim is the name of the skull—you can see him in the movie. The prop is about as big as a Volkswagen. And his eyes light up and smoke comes out of his ears. But what people don’t see in the movie is that later on they had rebuilt that prop, so at the end of BigBottom, the head turns around and it’s a woman’s ass, with panties on, and smoke comes out of her ass on the last note. I can’t wait for Sklar to see this.
So we played the tune, I don’t remember who was sitting in with us. We hit the last chord, and I look up, and see Sklar’s glasses reflecting in the third row. He looks like the Shroud of Turin sitting out there with his beard, and I look back and this Jim skull is moving like four inches and—click, click, click—it’s stuck. It’s not moving.
And again, this thing’s the size of a Volkswagen and probably weighs 800 pounds. I looked up at the monitor behind the drummer, and thought, “If I climb up on that, I bet I could reach that thing.” So I ran back there, and I motioned them, like, “Hold the last chord.” I ran back, I climbed up on top of this monitor, it’s just all I can reach, I grab the bottom, and I’m turning this huge thing above my head, inch by inch. And I thought, “I’m going to snap the cables and this is coming down on me. If this is how I go, I’m a legend.”
And with all my strength I turned that thing around, and I got it so it was facing the other way. Right then the spotlight hits me, and I’m screaming as loud as I can, because I’m running out of strength, the smoke comes out of the ass, and the crowd just thought it was part of the show. That’s just one of those moments where it’s just surreal.
The guys are such brilliant wits. We did the MTV Awards in Australia, we walked off the stage and a reporter asked Nigel, “How do you find the music business here in Australia?” And without missing a beat, Chris [Christopher Guest, who plays Nigel], “It’s the same as the States, except your career goes down the drain the opposite way.”
You worked with Toto on their new studio album. They’re so good on so many levels. Each person solely on their instrument, but also in their collective ability to serve the music, not just do their own thing.
Oh, they’re not noodlers. These are parts guys. They’re parts guys, man.
They could bring it if they need to, but they have the taste and respect for the music.
Well, it’s like the beautiful woman that walks around in the skin-tight cutoffs. You don’t need to do that. You’re selling it too hard. Jeans and a T-shirt, you know? They’re very reserved about what they do. And that goes back to, you look at Miles. Miles could play a million notes. He didn’t have to do that. Bill Evans could burn like people didn’t recognize he could. Oh, my God. He never did that. That’s not what music’s about.
That’s NAMM show booth time.
Exactly, that’s NAMM show stuff. You know, I’ve always been way more interested in making music for women. Because women have way better taste than men do when it comes to that stuff. And wherever there’s women, there’s men. Every time. I’m sorry. I have no interest in in that noodley chops stuff. I mean, I did that for a while; I’m guilty as charged. But it’s not my thing any more.
Most people would be intimidated coming in to this group of people who defined the L.A. session sound, likely thinking, “They can do it themselves.” But you have such a relationship with them, just like you were part of the band?
More than that, we’re a tag team. I’m at David Paich’s the other day and he’s like, “You take a pass at this piano thing.” He actually said something like, “We gotta bring in Greg Phillinganes to play the end of this.” And I said, “Why?” He goes, “Because he’s great.” And I said, “Yeah, but so are we. Why are we going to call another guy when there’s you and me in a room?” He goes, “OK, let’s see what you got.” It was very good-natured. I went in there, and in one take, that’s on the record. I like that competition. I like that feeling. I don’t back down from that. That doesn’t vibe me at all.
So there’s no fear?
I would just back you up. There’s an incredible amount of fear. But I conquer it. I’m scared to death, are you kidding? But it’s the fear of sucking, and there are only two outcomes. Either you suck or you dominate. The middle ground is unacceptable. Serve the song.
So anyway, this piano thing was funny, it was Paich nudging me to go out there and play. And I said, “No, you do it, man. You’re the man.” “No, let’s see you do it.” And so I did it, and he came out and hugged me. He had tears in his eyes. It was a great moment. So we played it for Lukather today, and Paich knows Luke’s gonna shoot it right down. Because they have this history together, he knows Luke doesn’t like that kind of thing that I did. And Luke loved it. Paich said to me, “I’m going to kill you. I hate you.” [Laughs.] And I said, “Oh, I see, you set me up, so you wouldn’t get shot down. You bastard.” We had a good laugh about that.
More tech talk: in-the-box versus hardware?
I’m not patching in a hardware reverb, or whatever. And I don’t feel the need to. I learned how to engineer from Greg Ladanyi, and he did all these Toto records. He was a huge proponent of working in-the-box. He would say, “If you can’t make in-the-box sound good, then you don’t know what you’re doing.” His contention was that it’s easier to be sloppy on analog gear. Everything kind of gets smoothed over by the tape and the beautiful Neve console and all that hardware. But to make computer stuff sound warm, you gotta know what you’re doing.
Using a laptop on stage?
I did that whole Tears for Fears tour on a laptop. And I used a Korg CX-3 as an organ controller so I had functional drawbars, running MainStage. I love the organ in Logic. As a matter of fact, I did one Cocker tour where I only used the EVB3 organ plug-in. I chose that over renting a B-3, because you never know what you’re going to get. When Keith Emerson sat in with Spinal Tap he said, “Where’s your organ coming from?” I said, “That’s from the laptop.” He goes, “No, no, no. Don’t bullshit me.” I said, “That’s from my laptop.” He says, “Everybody tries to do this to me, but I know that’s not where it’s coming from.” I said, “Keith, this is EVB3.” He goes, “Where’d you get this tone?” And I said, “I put up my idol’s records and copied it.” He goes, “Who’s your idol?” I said, “You, brother. That’s why you’re digging the tone, it is your tone.”
So I played that whole cover circuit of the Midwest for a few years like that. And I learned all the riffs, man. I studied those records like an encyclopedia. All the Steely Dan, (Weather Report) HeavyWeather, Gino Vannelli, Toto.
“CJ’s combination of chops, technical prowess and huge ears make him an indispensable part of ours or any team. He and I share a brain--I get it next week.” -- Steve Porcaro
Were you ever a jazz snob?
I wasn’t a snob, I just didn’t know any better. I liked rock ’n’ roll. I will say this. I was into my Yes and my Emerson, Lake & Palmer. I was very deep into Herbie Hancock’s Thrust. Yes Fragile, ELP Trilogy, Weather Report,Zappa. So I was very eclectic in my taste. But I hadn’t dug into the funk scene. And so then came the Ohio Players, and Parliament, and then Earth, Wind & Fire, and my life was changed forever.
I wouldn’t trade my time frame for any place in history. I was born in ’57, and I was old enough, like I said, to hear my dad’s jazz trio, the whole bop thing. I watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, watched the first Moog come out. And fell in love with Keith Emerson’s playing and watched everything change, and embraced the whole thing. I got my first Minimoog when I was 17 years old. Just prime.
Pretty incredible times.
Going to K-Mart, and walking out with, “Oh, this band looks cool, it’s got this crashing Hindenburg on the front. OK, that’s Led Zeppelin, let’s see what they sound like? OK, who’s this? Birds of Fire, that’s a beautiful-looking cover.” Mahavishnu. “I’m going to get a Frank Zappa record, and I’m going to get some Cat Stevens and Stevie Wonder,” and then putting this stuff on and getting my mind completely blown.
And that brings up something. I work with a lot of young artists, and I had a young artist, where Jeff “Skunk” Baxter came in to play guitar on it, and they said, “Oh my god, that old guy’s so good,” when he left. And I said, “That old guy was in Steely Dan,” and they said, “Who’s Steely Dan?” And I said, well, he was in the Doobie Brothers. “Who’s the Doobie Brothers?” And I said, “You know what? If you don’t know who those two bands are, I don’t think you can call yourself a musician, honestly. Because you don’t know your history.” And they said, “Well, that’s because you’re old,” and I said, “No, you’re wrong there. Because when I was your age, which is 21, I knew the history of music back to the 1600s. I knew Frankie Valli, I knew Rudy Vallee, I knew Scriabin, I knew the difference between Mozart and Beethoven by listening. And I didn’t have the Internet. We just had a desire then.”
And I appreciate that their bandwidth has been polluted. The bandwidth today is divided greatly between so many different things. But we had a primal desire to find the truth in music that I don’t see today.
Remember how when you wanted to learn something and you had to drop the needle on a record?
At the library!
Now you can find videos that show you how to play parts from songs. What a wealth of information we now have at our fingertips.
And I’m not trying to fault anyone. I’m trying to focus attention on how fragmented our attention spans have become. And I think it reflects in some of the music today. Trust me, I’m the last who wants to be that old guy saying there’s no good music anymore. There’s some incredible music out there. As a matter of fact, I subscribe to an Internet channel called GrooveSalad. It’s kind of chill electronica. These kids are unbelievable, there’s some great stuff going on. But taken as a whole, the inspiration level is lacking. And I think it’s due to this fragmentation of attention span.
Let’s also remember that there was also crap music back then. There’s always been crap music.
Right—go look at the Top 10 at any one point. At the time that Hendrix was doing his most amazing stuff, there was also Bobby Goldsboro and the Archies, or whatever.
Oh, “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy, I Got Love In My Tummy.” Absolutely, it’s always been that way. There’s always been lame s***. I really think you are what you listen to, and I really take time to check out what’s going on. All I’m saying is, the business has changed so much, and the social aspect—again, that attention span thing—the amount of time kids have to devote to actively listening to music has changed.
Can you share some “big break” or “connections” stories?
When I first got out to L.A. I did a showcase, and the sound guy came up to me and he said, “My god, who are you, with your sounds and stuff. I’ve never heard anything like this.” And I said, “Well, I just moved here from Chicago.” And he said, “My boss would love you.” And I said, “Who’s your boss?” And he said, “Don Henley.”
So I auditioned for Don Henley’s tour, and it ended up from 40 guys down to two. I was offered the gig, but I had to shave my beard, and I wouldn’t. I wound up not doing the gig after all. A couple of weeks later, Don’s at a party and runs into Katey Saga from Married With Children, who is a great, dynamite singer, and is trying to put a band together. She says, “Hey, I need a keyboard player,” and Don says, “I know a great guy, but he’s got an ugly beard. Named CJ”
So I got in Katey Segal’s band, and Russ Kunkel is the drummer. He started listening to these tracks that I was doing, “Who did these?” “I did these.” “Who wrote the charts?” “I did.” He said, “I got two guys I want you to meet.” One was Greg Ladanyi, who mixed the Toto records, and the other was Christopher Guest from Spinal Tap. And so losing that Henley gig became the launching pad for me. That and Richard Marx’s record.
So if I was teaching a college course, I would tell the story that you know where failure is going to lead you. Actually, I wouldn’t call it failure, because I stuck up for who I was.
Talk about some of the bigger productions from that time.
Well, one of the early ones was for an artist named Martika, who was being produced by Prince. They had a song they just couldn’t finish (“Love, Thy Will Be Done”). They gave it to 13 guys. And I took it, and created this mini-symphony out of it. And I got the gig out of the 13 guys, it got back to Prince, and he hired me to play on some more stuff from there. That was a huge one-up. Without ever meeting him. But we worked together. I ended up playing B-3 on a bunch his stuff, and he wrote me back, “Brother, that’s the best B-3 I’ve heard since Sly and the Family Stone.”
When did you start with organ/B-3?
Well, I never had a B-3. I never really learned on a real B-3. But I was schooled on it, I loved Jack McDuff, I loved Jimmy Smith, and then Keith Emerson came out with that tone that sounded like a f***in’ army tank. His organ tone killed me.
I would go back to Toto. I listened to those Toto records, and on one side of the stage you got David Paich, who I perceived as the meat-and-potatoes, jazz, blues, stride, New Orleans piano guy who could blow great B-3. The other side of the stage is Steve Porcaro, the mad scientist programmer guy who could take any modular synth and flip it on its ear. And I decided I wanted to be the guy in the middle. And that’s what I ended up doing. Working for Joe Cocker is where I brought all those things together.
I did a couple of records with Joe, and they said, “Do you play B-3?” and I said, “Oh, are you kidding?” Of course I’d never really played a real B-3. I ended up going on tour with Joe playing B-3 and piano for the first tour, and then ended up adding synth and doing all that stuff. And I just took to the B-3 like water.
What time frame was that first tour?
The record Have a Little Faith, that would’ve been about ’93 or ’94. I ended up arranging that whole record. Writing all the orchestra parts, doing all the keyboards, and doing the tour, which we started at Woodstock in front of 400,000 people. I started the 25-year anniversary of Woodstock with a keyboard solo. That was amazing. So that gave me a lot of confidence. You can blow B-3 on a Joe Cocker tour, you’re probably doing something right. I started getting hired to do a lot of B-3 stuff.
You recently posted online about you and Joe Cocker doing “You Are So Beautiful” on TV.
It was Leno, Valentine’s Day 2005. I remember it like it was yesterday. Yeah, we did “You Are So Beautiful.” No net, on the tightrope, piano and vocal. Joe and I became very tight through our years of working together, and I knew how to send music his way, and give him a boost, you know. And obviously, he did the same thing back to me. Hearing his voice every night, come through the monitor; that’s one of the greatest thrills of my life. He’s such an amazing musician, and a beautiful man. But that night we walked off the stage and I just thought, “You know, if they gave me a hundred tries, I’d never play that better than that. That’s as good as we can do that.” A very fulfilling performance.
Those can be rare.
Yeah. But at the same time, I got this gift of the red-light thing, man. That’s when I’m the best. Some people wither under that. Some really great musicians that I know. The pressure’s on, they kind of wilt. You hear them play on their own and you’re like, “Dude, why don’t you do that at the session?” But for some reason, I kind of dig the pressure.
What do you do that helps feed a vocalist, that supports them?
Well, you gotta believe in the music. And you gotta be inside that music, and know where it is. And love it. That’s such an amazing song, and I kind of made it my own, I did my own little arrangement. And it’s this cycle, where he hits a certain note, you get the goose bumps, and you kind of send something back, and he sends more your way.
And this happens with the audience, the same thing, that cycle of inspiration. As opposed to just trying to get through the song, or just trying to play everything right, it’s really going to the next level of a cosmic participation in the whole oeuvre of the thing. Not to sound hippie, but the vibration of the thing. You’re beyond the music, you’re beyond the notes. Getting to that point, that elevated state is something I’ve always been good at. Just because I love being there, where I’m not looking at my fingers, I’m not thinking about the chords, but you’re into really—a lot of times I find myself, when I’m playing that well, I’m really thinking about the lyrics, and actually seeing a movie in my head. And it doesn’t hurt to have a guy like Joe Cocker sing it. I say, “Guy like Joe Cocker.” There’s nobody like Joe Cocker!
Does it relate to feeding an alternative harmony, another voicing, or just something in the dynamic, rhythmic attitude, or all of the above?
Dynamics are huge, but the singer creates a lot of those. And you really have to be joined with the singer, and the two of you really go into a different place. It’s funny, I’m having a hard time verbalizing this, and I usually don’t have a hard time doing that. But all I would say is, the sooner I get to a place where I’m not thinking about the notes, I’m not thinking about my fingers, I’m not even thinking about me as a human being playing music. You’re a participant in this energy field that moves people. Because as you know, when music is right you can make people cry, you can make people dance, you can make them put their fists in the air.
So you’re creating energy, where there wasn’t energy before. And the sooner you can get beyond all those notes and into that world—it’s actuallyabout becoming more of a listener than a player.
Tell us about working with Barbra Streisand.
David Foster called me to work on a Barbra Streisand record. They had this piano track that a bunch of guys had attacked, and it hadn’t come out right. Humberto Gatica was the engineer. I sat down at the piano, there’s this chart, a bunch of notes, crazy reading. And they had the little display monitor on the piano. “Okay, let’s give it a try.” They hit Play, and there’s this conductor waving his arms.
I’ve got a real thing with conductors. Because a downbeat in Russia is not a downbeat in Belgium. They really create this confusion that I don’t relate to. So I said, “You gotta turn that screen off, I can’t watch that guy. He’s driving me nuts.” they asked, “Well, how are you going to know where the time is?” And I said, “Turn her up. Let me hear her breathe.” And that was that. I played that take, and that’s what’s on the record. It’s on Back to Broadway. Barbra was in the control room and said, “I like that guy. He doesn’t watch the conductor, he listens to me breathe.” That’s really going back to what you were asking about how you take the music to the next level. How many guys are going to watch the conductor? Probably 90 out of 100.
It’s what you’re supposed to do.
Yeah, but that’s wrong. It’s Barbra f***ing Streisand. Turn. Her. Up. Turn the display monitor off. And she saw that kind of organic thing happen in front of her and went, “That’s great .”
Did you have any mentors in that time frame, in L.A.?
Not directly, no. Because I had already learned it all from their records. And that would be Michael Boddicker, Steve Porcaro, Ralph Grierson, Ian Underwood. You know, these kind of guys. Mind blowing. Casey Young. I had woodshedded all their stuff. I read everything I could read.
And you know what? You know where I got a large part of my knowledge? Keyboard magazine. This magazine was as big a part of my career as all these records we talk about. It was like crack to me. Getting the latest issue and finding out what everybody was doing. The magazine was so well reported that I could really learn all these tricks and tips, and there were patches, there were session logs. I remember in Guitar Player magazine, Tommy Tedesco had a column and talked about all his sessions. So between those magazines I learned a lot.
So when I moved here, I didn’t work with Steve Porcaro, I didn’t work with Ian Underwood, I didn’t work with Michael Boddicker. But I knew enough to be scared of them, and that I’d better get my game together. They were intimidating guys, man. And still are.
Maybe in your mind. Sweet guys.
I’m not talking about them being personally intimidating. I’m saying, you listen to Michael Boddicker on the Manhattan Transfer stuff, or you listen to Steve Porcaro on “Human Nature,” or “Rosanna”, you listen to some film score stuff with Mike Lang or Ralph Grierson, and that’s intimidating, man. Nicest guys on planet Earth, but get out of here, these guys are monsters. And God bless Chicago, but if I could be number one there, it was time for me to move.
The stimulus of not being the big fish in a small pond.
Hey, you know what? A lot of great stuff comes from complete fear and panic. And that’s when 90 percent of people fold, and the ten percent become greater. I always wanted to be in that ten percent.
More Keyboard magazine fun:
It’s a complete aside, but if I didn’t tell this story it would be a sacrilege. As you know, I do all Christopher Guest’s movies, and have from way back. And we were doing For Your Consideration, which would have been the fourth movie? Let’s see, it was Guffman, Mighty Wind, Best in Show, yeah, fourth movie.
I actually played three different roles in that movie. I’ve got little cameos in all his movies, but this role, which was not much of a stretch, was “smarmy band leader” for a late-night talk show. So I wrote this theme for this talk show, (sings), and the joke I wrote in was where it stops, I reach over to the turntable and go wacka wacka wacka wow, and the last chord comes in. When I played Chris the demo he goes, “That’s it. You’re playing the guy. This is in the movie.”
So I went in for wardrobe fitting and makeup, the whole thing. Here’s the day of the shoot, I’ve got my band, I’ve got Joe Satriani, and a bunch of great musicians, Curt Bisquera on drums. All my keyboards are over there, and do we have everything, do I have everything I need? And I went, oh, my God, I don’t have a turntable. I realized I had this old Philips turntable upstairs, so I went up and grabbed it. We’re walking out the door and I said, “Oh, my God, I don’t have a record.” I have no LPs at my studio; they’re all at my house. And we’re running late, it’s time to get to the set, what am I going to do?
Meanwhile, my assistant is running around, he’s calling people. He’s going to get an LP sent over there, or somebody’s going to run to Amoeba and pick one up. And I looked down, just this chagrined look, and all of a sudden I went, “Tom, hang up the phone.” He goes, “What?” I said, “Hang up.” I said, “Look down at the turntable.” And on the turntable is one of those Keyboard magazine rip-out black floppy records.
We called them soundpages back then …
That soundpage is still on my Philips turntable. And I said, “We’re off the hook, Tom.” So in that movie, when I scratch the record, that’s a Keyboard magazine sound page sitting on there. That was a good moment.