Keyboardist and composer Steve Porcaro has scaled the upper heights of the music business for the better part of 40 years. From his acclaimed synth stylings alongside his brothers in the super group Toto, to his much sough-after songwriting for film and with artists such as Michael Jackson (“Human Nature”), Porcaro has inhabited just about every available musical role, save for solo artist. That is, until now.
This past June, Porcaro released Someday/Somehow, his first album as a leader. Three decades in the making, the album features his signature sounds and songwriting, with recorded guests that include vocalist Michael McDonald, and his late brothers Jeff on drums and Mike on bass.
Just days before the album’s release, Porcaro spoke with Keyboard via phone to talk about his late arrival onto the solo stage.
You’ve said that your first solo album Someday/Someway has actually been in the works since 1983. Can you talk about why it took so long to finish it?
The absolute number one thing that comes to mind when you ask that question is just deadlines. I’ve discovered that I’m absolutely useless without them, but I’m very good with them!
So you set yourself a 33-year deadline and you were able to meet it?
[Laughs.] You know, I kind of grew up in Toto, and we were masters of our domain in terms of being in the studio. On every album, we were tacking on another month, or another three weeks. They were always prying the masters out of our hands with every album. We were just stretching things out and getting as much time in the studio as we possibly could. It was always a fire drill in the end.
Was it always the goal for you to release albums as a leader? Or were you content just making good music, whatever way it came to you?
I never really thought about myself being the “star of the show.” I just wanted to be a member of a great band and hopefully be able to get enough of my own songs out there to really feel like a solid part of it. What happened with Toto was that I was in a band with so many other great songwriters. Right when I joined the band, my position was that of the second keyboard player. They brought me over because of what I had done with [Toto keyboardist] David Paich and [singer] Boz Scaggs. I covered David’s overdubs live. So I was initially asked to join the band for that reason—because I knew synthesizers. And if that was my lot in life and I was going to be the “synth guy,” I wanted to do the best f***ing synths I possibly could! I really dove into that with both feet, and my songwriting really took a back seat.
Who were you listening to when you were formulating your own ideas about playing synthesizers?
The very first time I ever heard them was probably Wendy Carlos, but it was really Keith Emerson that got me excited. Seeing Emerson, Lake and Palmer live in 1971 really started it for me. In Los Angeles at that time, there was a guy named Paul Beaver who was the guy in terms of renting Moog synthesizers. For instance, when Quincy Jones used a Moog synthesizer on the beginning of the Ironside main title theme, he went to Paul. Paul was the first guy to really have them in the studios, along with his partner Bernie Krause. The two of them had several albums out as Beaver & Krause. Paul had a studio in Hollywood where when you walked-in, there would be all of these Moog 3P [modular] synths lined up. He had them as rental units, and a guy named Phil Davies showed me some basics on them. I thought that the Keith Emerson sound on “Tarkus” was so huge, it had to be nine oscillators, which is what the 3P had. I thought that was the key to it. I was wrong! [Laughs.]
Toto was always a dual-keyboard band. That’s not an easy role for keyboardists to fit into.
For me it’s always been very easy. I’ve always loved working with other keyboardists, especially those who are better than me. That’s always been my M.O., and it always makes me raise my game. With Toto it was very simple, because David was the main songwriter in the band, and he wanted to be playing the basic meat-and-potatoes keyboard parts, whether it was piano, Rhodes, Hammond, etc. That’s usually what I do on my songs as well. With David’s songs, I would just run with it. I’d do my arrangements the way a string or brass arranger would do theirs. I’d start throwing ideas out, and I was having a ball. David’s a great writer: It was a pleasure spending two weeks working on the solo to “Rosanna” because it was such a great track.
So, fast-forwarding to now, how did the songs from your new album Someday/Somehow come together?
Well, over the years, whether it was for Toto or later on—because I left the band after the sixth album in 1987-1988—I just wanted to write my tunes. But I discovered that without a firm structure or deadline, it was very difficult for me to finish a song. To get that last third-verse lyric done and finally “check something off the list.”
Then I was doing some work for my friend [film composer] James Newton Howard. His career was just wailing, and I was helping him with synth parts and other things. And he asked me, “Do you want to try writing for film?” And I said, “I don’t know if I could write on command and have something done on Thursday!” I had never done that before. The way Toto worked was, if I had a song finished by the time the album was getting going, fine. If not, there were so many other writers in the band, it wasn’t like I was in trouble.
I’m working all the time, but the key thing is completing stuff. A lot of times when a part of a song would be kicking my ass or I just didn’t like it, I’d get distracted and I’d start writing another song and put the first one on the shelf for a while. Well, after 30 years, you end up with a lot of stuff on the shelf! So out of the 13 songs on the album, I’d say four or five were written recently. The rest had been languishing on the shelves and I finally brushed them off and finished them.
Recently, when Toto would do these live, VIP events at our shows and someone would ask when the next Toto album was coming out, [guitarist Steve] Lukather would answer, “The next thing that’s coming from our camp is Steve Porcaro’s solo album.” So between that and my brother [former Toto bassist] Mike passing away a over a year ago, I really said, “The clock is ticking here, and it’s time for me to finish a batch of songs and put them out there.” All of a sudden I just felt that it was time.
As a guy who is known as much for his sounds as he is for his songs, what kinds of gear did you use on the making of the new album?
It was really all over the map. Working as much in film as I do, I’m used to living in MIDI and I’m totally comfortable with it. And it’s a good thing, because there were several songs on the album that I needed to change the key for at the last minute. I decided that if I was going to sing them, they had to be in a lower key. Even songs like “Loved By a Fool,” which has quite an intense clavinet solo in the bridge, that was all living in MIDI and I was able to lower the whole thing by a half step.
What format were you working in on the album? Pro Tools? Logic?
I worked in Logic, for the most part. Over the years, I’ve worked in a million different formats—from 8-and 24-track tape, up through ADAT, Pro Tools and Logic. So everything existed in all of these different formats, and I had to wrangle it all down into Logic. And at the very end of the project, I wound-up outputting everything into stems so they could be mixed in Pro Tools.
Were you using a controller and soft synths or more hardware-based keyboards?
I mostly used a controller, but there’s a lot of piano on the album as well. I also did some live synths and some modular things with the Polyfusion. During the making of this album, I used the Yamaha Motif XF8 as my main controller. I’ve also been playing the new Montage from Yamaha. They are really f***king good! They don’t feel like just the “next one” from them: They have some cool stuff like audio input and an envelope follower so things can pulsate to whatever you’re putting into it, audio-wise.
Did you use any vintage keyboards on the album?
Absolutely! I used my Yamaha DX-1, a little bit of [Yamaha] CS-80, but I mostly did those sounds using my ES2 in Logic. There’s also the Polyfusion. Most of the other sounds came from my samples and my film-world library. I also played my Yamaha C7 piano. I always hated the way my piano sounded, but we added a room mic to the basic piano setup and it made all the difference in the world.
The first thing I thought when I put on the album’s lead track “Ready or Not” was, this must be a Porcaro record, because the time signatures are constantly shifting. Your family must have been born with some kind of genetic slide-rule that the rest of us don’t have!
[Laughs.] It is in seven, for the most part. There are a few bars of four here and there. It’s a weird way to start the album, but it’s definitely me.
You have some great guests on the album, including a heartfelt appearance from your brothers Jeff and Mike. How did that come to fruition?
The core band on the album includes Shannon Forest, who plays drums with Toto, as well as Rick Marotta, Robin DiMaggio, and Toss Panos on drums. Michael McDonald sings on “Swing Street,” and my brother Jeff played drums on the song “Back to You” along with my brother Mike. That song was a demo that I originally did at David Paich’s studio, The Manor. I did it straight to multitrack. The band heard it, dug it, and cut it. Lukather is a genius and always comes up with amazing things. but because I was taking up so much space in the track with these arpeggiated, sawtooth, sixteenth notes on synth, we could never find a guitar part that worked with it. So it sat on the shelf.
I was in a tape locker years ago and saw the masters for the song, so I grabbed them. It was my song and I was the sole songwriter, so I took it home and it sat on my shelf for around 20 years. As I was getting toward the end of the project, I just looked up when I opened my closet one day, and there it was. I transferred Jeff’s drum tracks that were from a 16-track drum master, along with Mike’s bass part, and I combined them with my original demo. So I was able to have my cake and eat it to. It was exactly how I envisioned the song.
STEVE PORCARO’S FAVORITE 5
FIVE ESSENTIAL PIECES OF GEAR USED ON SOMEDAY/SOMEHOW
1. Vital Arts Plectrum Virtual instrument featuring strummed, struck, and plucked strings, and string harmonics vitalartsmedia.com/plectrum.html
2. Polyfusion Modular Synthesizer Classic modular synthesizer synthmuseum.com/polyf/polyfusion01.html
3. Arturia Modular V Software re-creation of Moog modular synthesizer arturia.com/products/analog-classics/modular-v
4. Yamaha CS-80 Vintage hardware synth vintagesynth.com/yamaha/cs80.php
5. Apple Logic ES2 Virtual Synthesizer apple.com/logic-pro/plugins-and-sounds/