Jeff Porcaro’s Last DRUM! Interview

jeff porcaro

Music is part of the energy, but there is obviously an artist – someone who has something radical to say. Looking back, it was usually the real artists who had something quirky about them, something cool, something different that grabbed your interest. All of a sudden musicianship comes along and that’s not as tangible as somebody saying something radical. Whether it was Dylan or whoever. So, if Toto has a downfall, it’s that we’re mainly a musician’s band. It’s not like we have all these prolific things to say in our songs and those are the first and foremost things in our music. It’s not. And that’s another factor as to why it’s hard for us to stay up in this rock-and-roll/pop commercial realm. I don’t think we’ve been very successful lyrically saying something and, for me, that’s 80 percent of the real deal. Hendrix, Steely, Dylan, or whoever, they were saying something in their music. With us, it’s been more of “dig this cool arrangement, dig this cool production, dig this musicianship.” So that’s why it’s a different kind of band. To me it’s an uncomfortable band in the rock and roll world. Of course critics aren’t going to dig us. I wouldn’t dig the band either. It’s a good musical ensemble, but it’s not the real deal. Then again, it’s not the other end of the spectrum either. [We aren’t] people who look great dancing and have youth appeal and play disco music or whatever. We’re right in the middle of it.

DRUM!: Given your diverse and hectic musical lifestyle, with the constant session work and all, is there anything that would make you drop everything?
Porcaro: That’s a funny thing. My number one commitment used to be anything I was doing at the time because, hey, if I get to play, I’ll commit to it. But then the group thing became a great commitment because it was best friends playing together. But for me personally, my family is my biggest commitment. We were just in Hawaii and there was a guy playing on these log drums and it was grooving. And I thought, “Man, forget it. Quit all this stuff and just move over here with the family and groove on a log.” That would probably be a lot more fun than the crap I’ve been playing in the studio in L.A. So I know I could have fun playing any kind of music. I’ll tell you, though, I really miss playing the r&b stuff. I miss playing that probably more than anything – playing those old Motown hits in the high school band. Basically, I like listening to records. I like all sorts of music. I like keeping time.

DRUM!: Would you ever consider doing road work with anyone other than Toto?
Porcaro: I’ve entertained the thought and I’ve been offered some pretty big tours in recent days. But I just can’t do them like that anymore. It’s just not in my heart. I got offered this Dire Straits tour but it was for almost two years straight. The money would have been unbelievable. I would have been seeing parts of the world that I still haven’t seen to this day. But the bottom line is that I can’t stay on the road that long without wanting to be home and hang with the family. [Ed. Note: Porcaro had also declined an offer to tour with Bruce Springsteen.]

DRUM!: What’s the foreseeable future of the band?
Porcaro: The new record is done and we had a lot of fun making it. So after it comes out we’re planning to tour Europe, Japan, Australia and hopefully there’ll be some shows in the States. We’ve also offered our services to open for some people, so we’ll see what comes of that. And, I think this is the last album, contractually, that we have with Sony. They have an option to pick us up for another one, but it’ll be expensive. [Laughs.] If they don’t, though, we’ll have to look for a new record deal.

Porcaro’s Studio Sound: Memories From The Drum Doctor

Jeff Porcaro became one of the most sought-after session drummers in Los Angeles for a number of substantial reasons, not the least of which was his sound. And during the last eight years of his life, Ross Garfield – L.A.’s infamous Drum Doctor – did most of Porcaro’s studio cartage, drum setup and tuning. He remembers that Porcaro was a creature of habit and tended to use a very similar setup, no matter what kind of session he tackled. Normally, he played a Gretsch kit with 10" x 8", 12" x 8" and 13" x 9" mounted toms and a 14" x 14" floor tom. Porcaro used a 22" x 16" bass drum when Garfield began working with him, but soon switched to a 22" x 18" after hearing a similar one that Garfield had in his collection.

It wasn’t uncommon for Garfield to bring a large selection of snare drums to a session, although there were a few that Porcaro preferred. One of his favorites was an engraved 14" x 5" Ludwig Black Beauty from the early ’70s. For a secondary effects snare, Porcaro often used a 12" x 7" Brady snare drum made of Australian jarrah wood. In addition, he often recorded with two single-ply maple snare drums that Garfield constructed: a 14" x 5-1/2" with die-cast hoops and a 14" x 4" with a die-cast hoop on top and a triple-flanged hoop on the bottom.

Porcaro’s head selection was fairly conventional. For toms he would use Remo coated Ambassador batters with clear Ambassadors on the bottom. In the last several years Porcaro used a Remo Controlled Sound CS-0114-10 head for his snare batter, which is a coated head with a black dot on the underside. Garfield says that he introduced Porcaro to the model: “He was surprised that it had as much crack as it did,” Garfield says. “He always had used white Ambassadors until that point.”

Garfield also recommended Remo’s PowerStroke 3 bass drumhead to Porcaro, who fell in love with its deep sound. “That head really rocks, especially on a 22",” Garfield says. “It did what Jeff wanted it to do, because he usually had a lot of blanket inside of his bass drum. We used to have at least half of a packing blanket folded up inside of his bass drum. And with the PowerStroke 3 he didn’t need as much blanket.”

The only other drumhead muffling that Porcaro used was small rolled-up pieces of duct tape applied to the batter heads. “I would maybe put one piece on the 10", two pieces on the 12", two pieces on the 13" and maybe even three pieces on the 14",” Garfield says. “He would have me tune the toms as low as I could, so they’d be punchy.” Paiste was Porcaro’s cymbal company of choice, and he commonly used 13" Signature Heavy Hi-hats, 16" and 18" Signature Full and Fast Crashes and a 20" Signature Full Ride. In addition, Garfield says that Porcaro would occasionally ask him to set up splash and China cymbals whenever the session called for it.

The Drum Doctor had the unique opportunity to look over Porcaro’s shoulder and watch him work. “He was one of these guys people would wait for to get on their sessions,” Garfield remembers. “If he couldn’t do the gig, they might move the session around to fit his schedule. And as famous and as popular as he was, he really dug the fact that people called him to do the session. No matter what was going on with the rest of his life, when he walked into a session he would go, ’Yeah, let’s rock today!’ He had a really positive attitude, and it rubbed off on everyone around him.”

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