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Interview: SIMON PHILLIPS (Toto)

Rock Stars...

Platinum selling Toto have recently announced some UK dates in 2007 to tie in with an extensive European tour and the release of 'Falling In Between' their best album for many years. Together with the single ' Bottom of Your Soul' which has picked up radio play across Europe you could be forgiven for thinking that things are on the up for a band who's biggest hits such as 'Hold The Line', 'Rosanna', and 'Africa' were in the 80's.

Given the critical acclaim for the new album, clearly Toto are in one of their most creative phases and although drummer Simon Phillips is very happy with the new album he shows more than a passing concern for the contemporary recording scene. This after all is an industry that can't find a home for Toto in either the UK or US, and as a consequence the new 'Falling in Between' has been released by the Italian Frontier label.

Simon Phillips

Juggling both the phone and his 6 month year old son, Simon kindly updated me how the band who sell out concerts all around the world have seemingly made the transition from corporate expectation to creative independence.

I started by quoting vocalist Bobby Kimball who called Toto 'An ever changing constant work in progress'. Is that fair assment of Toto?

I think that's the case with any healthy working band to be honest. I think change is what music is really all about; Well it certainly is as far as Toto is concerned; We're not just another rock band as we bring jazz and other elements into the band and when you play a lot of dates different elements do come in.

Before asking you about about 'Falling In Between' I want to go back to the preceding 'Through the Looking Glass' CD which was your first independent record. Was there a feeling in the band that this was a project without the corporate expectations on your back?

In a way that is true but I have to say there was never any overt interference on the previous studio album 'Mindfields'. But the point about having a big company behind you like Sony is that it is really a double edged sword, and it works both ways. You do need them after all to market and sell your product and they can do that. But I think from their perspective we were essentially a ballads band and that is how they saw us.

They ended up putting us into the box of being an 80's rock ballad band. We would point to the fact that 'Rosanna', 'Hold the Line' and even 'Africa' for that matter, were hits on their own. And yet when we delivered new songs they kind of listened to the record and then they would always suggest the same kind of song to be picked.

There were other problems too as we liked to get out songs down quite quickly whereas the A&R guy John Kalodner (Foreigner/Journey/Asia) would come down to the studio to hear demos. Now from our perspective 'demos' - that's demos in inverted commas - were not what we were about.

We'd play and then record. He was used to a band doing several demos whereas we were always afraid that what we just got down might be lost at a later studio session. His response was,'I've never worked with such a bunch of disorganised musicians in my life' (laughs)

In fact when we recorded 'Tambu' - which was my first album with the band, but their ninth - we went for a much more organic, stripped down, 80's type of Rock & Roll album with a distinctly different styling from before. I suppose 'Mindfields' was in fact a return to that bigger 80's sound with lots more compression, backing vocals, and reverb.

By the time of 'Looking Glass' we didn't have a record project at all, so we could start afresh. Up to this point we had only been used to recording in big studios with big budgets. So we were feeling our way. I was doing some engineering and had worked with pro tools for a while, and I tried to convince the band that it was ok to work differently as long as you know what you are doing.

Toto

As it happened Steve Luthaker came to my house and heard some of the stuff, and said 'wow this is really good, and as good as anything we have done' and I think it turned the band around. So what we did was, I did some pre production work and set up the sounds and had someone poised with their finger over the record button. So essentially we were recording most what was going on. I'd record a section and then play on another section, then record again, and then maybe I'd edit it. Then we'd listen to the arrangements and then maybe work on something that needed re writing, and suddenly we had a demo!

On the new record I really I wanted it to be as live as possible because in the past we had ended up sounding different to what the band was like when it really played. If you do the same song 30 to 40 times in that session mode thing you lose a lot. So from my perspective there really was something about forcing the band to play it once or twice like in the old days and then nailing it down. I think we did 7 takes on 'Falling In Between' in all. It was the most takes I've ever done on any song ever! So I said 'let's go Home'.

We did a couple of more takes the next day which were awful so I went back to the control room, cued up 'Take Number 5' and played it. I think most of the band was next door having a cup of tea, and they came in and said 'what is this?, it sounds great'. In fact it was all about utilising a different psychology of playing. It was like going back to when we were kids instead of the session musician approach.

Having said that, the title track is quite a complex song and I had to try a slightly different approach, by playing it few times to get it nice and tight, but at the same time I wanted something of a raggedy feel. That was certainly the case on 'Tainted World' There was no click track or anything like that and again it was an attempt to get the band's live feel - a big difference from previous recordings. The live sound on that track was the result of what was almost a mistake became a final take!

So really you were instrumental in a lot of the production of the album?

Well I had a significant input but it was really a three way thing with David (Paitch) and Steve (Luthaker) We conferred constantly and hacked it out. And so in the end it was always the three of us.

So how do you explain the fresh input of strong material and the feeling that this is your best effort for years?

Well a lot of it came down to the timing of the thing and the fact we came into the studio empty handed. Also when you write with different people you come up with different things. It was like having an audience when you were writing. It's a good thing in a way and gives you a different energy.

Toto
TOTO - (left to right) Bobby Kimball (Vocals), Mike Porcaro (Bass), Steve Lukather (Guitar, Vocals), Simon Phillips (Drums), Greg Phillinganes (Keyboards, Vocals)

There are some high profile guests on the album, I'm thinking of Ian Anderson on 'Hook' and Tom Scott on 'Spiritual Man' in particular. Were they already lined up to play on the sings?

Well we didn't in all honesty have any such ideas when we first set out writing the tracks. I started 'Hook' for example and Mike and Luke came up with a verse and groove, and then I added the B section to it - a kind of Prog rock thing, in the Purple/Tull kind of perspective. I think Dave said wouldn't it be nice if we could get Ian to play on it. We put in a call and met him in town and it worked. As regards Tom, he had already worked with us before so when his name came up for a ballad (laughs) it seemed natural.

The single 'Bottom of Your Soul ' also worked well and we all seemed to like it and it's got some radio play in Europe though I don't think the label has the financial clout to give it that extra bit of push. It's the same problem of financing what you do on limited resources.

It took 9 months to record the album. Is this the longest birth of any Toto album?

Well it certainly is the longest I've ever taken on any album. It was mainly because we were financing it all ourselves, as there was no big record company advance. We did other bits in between. I mean it wasn't a matter of just going into the studio and doing it.

The reality of the situation is that we all had different things to do outside of recording this album. I went to Asia for example to do some drum clinics and Steve did some shows in New York. But there was a sense of continuity For example, when I wasn't there I hired in another engineer to keep on top of the project and so we all basically kept it together.

At other times I worked at technical stuff such as tidying up stuff on the guitar overdubs. We then spoke to Steve McManus about mixing the album I was able to download the MP3's for comments and then talked it through with Steve, and eventually it was finally done after nearly 10 months.

Simon Phillips
Photo ©2007 Lee Millward/GRTR!

Given your track record of a string of hits, a succession of chart albums and sell out concerts can you get any kind of a handle on why the band struggle in the States and yet prosper worldwide?

Well I'm not sure we are the only ones in that position as bands like Foreigner don't really do a lot in the US anymore and Journey don't do anything over here at all. A lot of the 'bigger' rock bands play casinos in the States and there aren't many outside of Metallica who can still do arena tours. I think it's fair to say that rock and roll in the US is nearly none existent now.

Toto's chequered history with the record company comes down to politics. The band lost its foothold with the record company when the first guy who signed them left (it was before I joined obviously), and the next guy had a problem with the guy before, so that became an issue and Toto were caught in between.

Also there was the strange situation that most of CBS bands played in isolation in as much as they weren't in contact with many of the other bands on the label. But Toto was made up of session guys who played with everyone, and on everyone else's records, so they naturally talked to each other about the record company etc.

So I guess CBS got uncomfortable with having a band that wasn't as in the dark as their contemporaries were. So politically it all got a bit confusing and threatening and the band was subsequently dropped by the label. But as regards popularity in the States I have t admit Toto didn't do the same amount of touring that we do now!

Do you see the irony of a band like Toto that comprises top session guys earning most of its living from touring now?

Yes its very ironic (laughs), especially the notion of session guys being out on the road doing the amount of gigs we have done in the last ten years. But you have to do it because the alternative of relying on the recording industry has gone.

People simply don't buy cd's like before, and even Tower Records in Sherman Oaks near where I live has closed completely. In fact the only big store stocking cd's now is Barnes & Noble and they sell them amongst the books and coffee! But I can also see things from the other side, as I try and run a recording studio, but it's a nightmare trying to run it along commercial lines.

You mentioned other projects outside of Toto. How is your fusion project going?

Well again, financially it is very difficult. In the 90's Toto finished a two year run moreorless and that allowed me and Luke to do our own projects. But even then time was limited. I spent about 2 months on engineering and mixing the 'Toto Live in Amsterdam ' DVD and then I had planned to set out with my own band. But the '98 tour was eventually cancelled as it made no financial sense with the costs of trucks, fuel, hotels etc. On top of that the clubs couldn't pay the guarantees we needed. So I had done the '97 tour with my own band to promote the 'Symbiosis' album and had partly subsidised that myself to get the band out there and seen, with a view to looking towards a future higher profile tour.

The reality was there was no next time as we came unstuck. I've still got hopes for the project and might re-issue the records we made but I do ask myself how will they be sold? I might even start my own e label and sell them direct without any hard copies in place. The band did recently play a live date at a local club to me the Baked Potato and that was great as everyone came out and it was a great gig.

Aside from your playing as you have mentioned you do seem to have got more involved with engineering side, side of things, especially with Toto. Is that something you will send more time on in the future?

I'm not sure. I kind of evolved into being an engineer pretty much in the way I came to work on the new album. I did some co-production work in the 80's in the UK with Mike Oldfield, on the 'Crises', 'Discovery' and 'Islands' albums, but no one really knew about that over here in the US. So as regards Toto my role just evolved as I'd assumed the band would work with the likes of Elliot Sheiner and Ed Cherney. But I ended up engineering 'Through the Looking Glass' and mixed a few tracks for them. But I wasn't planning to do the last album because of the stress involved, but it kind of fell into my lap really, so I ended up doing it. But in the end I'm keen to stress it's always up to the band to decide. I would gladly step back at any time.


Interview December 2006 Pete Feenstra

Album review

Simon Phillips website

Toto website


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