The Outer Limits: Toto
they were inspired by prog heavyweights, had surprising depth on their records and still dream of writing a concept album. So now we ask: How prog were Toto?
The members of Toto laugh – a lot. With good reason. They’ve just made an album that proves to everyone there’s more to the band in 2015 than mere nostalgia. In fact, it’s being favourably compared to the iconic Toto IV, released in 1982.
“That all comes from something I said about Toto XIV,” remarks keyboard player Steve Porcaro. “I told someone that, for me, this is the natural follow-up to …IV. I didn’t mean it as a slight to everything we’ve done since that album came out, but it feels like this is where we should have gone musically. It stays true to all of our artistic beliefs.”
And when it comes to their musical convictions, there’s no question where Toto feel they fit best.
“When we started out in 1977, we wanted to be known as a progressive rock band, but with a melodic sensibility,” reveals guitarist Steve Lukather. “All of us grew up on 70s giants like Yes, Genesis and Pink Floyd. And we got a lot of inspiration for our vocal harmonies from Gentle Giant.”
Keyboard player David Paich accentuates this love for prog by pointing out what first impressed him about Lukather. “I saw him playing in a band at a high school dance. You know what he was doing? Yes material. I knew then that I had to work with him one day. When we started this band, we were particularly inspired by ELP and Yes. We used to take their records apart, analyse what made them special, and have this as the basis on which we constructed our songs.”
Porcaro regards himself as the person who kept Toto firmly on the prog path while others were busily expanding their sound.
“We brought in groove, jazz fusion, rock’n’roll and so many other influences, which came from some of the guys working previously with Steely Dan and Boz Scaggs. But I was always determined we shouldn’t stray too far from the progressive ways which brought us together. I wanted to experiment with ideas on my synthesiser, but was never really encouraged to do so. I was seen as the fly in the ointment. Now, though, it’s all changed, and the others love what I’m doing.”
For many, of course, Toto are represented by their raft of hit singles, including Hold The Line, Rosanna and Africa. And Lukather freely admits that this is a source of some frustration for the band.
“Look, I’m happy we’ve had hits. They’ve given me a great lifestyle. But I do wish the record label at the time [Columbia] had put out some of our more challenging songs as singles.
“There are some who know us as ‘That Africa band’. But we’ve had loads of people who only recognise the hits, then come to see us live and are amazed at what we are really like. Because what we do on record is only part of the story. Like our prog heroes, we use the albums as springboards.”
“I’ve always really loved Toto’s combination of exquisite musicianship and amazingly catchy tunes,” reveals Threshold keyboard player Richard West with genuine enthusiasm. “I consider I Won’t Hold You Back to be one of the best rock ballads ever written. I’m going to be first in line to buy Toto XIV. Moments like this don’t come along too often.”
Porcaro believes the band realised the importance of having commercial success before the likes of Yes and Genesis got the message.
“We always appreciated the art of writing three-and-a-half-minute pop songs, and understood their importance in the development of our career. There’s nothing wrong with that sort of material, as long as you do it cleverly and don’t undermine your own musical beliefs.
“We did seem to get to that conclusion a few years before others like Yes came to the same realisation. So, were we pioneers in giving prog a presence in the singles chart? I would never presume to say anything like that. I’m sure others like Yes took a different route to making that decision.”
Despite being ingrained on the American progressive scene for four decades, Toto insist they have little in common with peers like Styx and Kansas, as Paich readily outlines.
“I like a lot of what these bands do. But for me they are more pop-oriented than we’ve ever been. Toto were, and are, more in line with the British scene. We’ve not strayed too far from those roots, although we have never stood still musically, and always sought ways of moving our music forward into new areas.”
When it comes to taking note of what’s happening on the cutting edge of technology, Toto have been open to everything, as Porcaro explains.
“To us, being truly progressive means always remaining aware of the way things are changing. And right now, there are so many exciting things happening that we want to bring into our sound. For instance, when you listen to what people are doing in the area of EDM [electronic dance music], then you’ll appreciate that there’s so much we still can do to progress.”
“The last thing we want to do is be static,” adds Lukather. “We’d quickly get bored by doing the same thing over and over again. All you then become is a retro act, and while that might suit some others, it’s not what gets our juices flowing.
“It is amazing how much talent there is around. Musicians who might not fit into the conventional way of thinking about prog, but can offer a fresh way of observing music. There’s Skrillex, for instance. He’s a brilliant producer, DJ and songwriter in EDM. I can say that with certainty, because he recently hooked up with us in the studio. And it was such a productive collaboration. When you see him working full on, then you understand how innovative he is. He opened my ears to new ways of getting sounds, and that can only benefit us in the future. You realise how easy it is in the modern era to get anything.”
Paich reckons that the way in which studio technology has changed has re-emphasised the importance of creativity for Toto. “If you know things are there for you at the touch of a button,” he says, “then it allows you to spend more time on the artistic side of your music.”
This mentality can be heard on Toto XIV, an album all of the band agree sees them back at the top of their game.
“These days, there’s no point in any heritage band – and I suppose that’s the way we’re defined – in doing an album just for the sake of it,” insists Lukather. “You have to really feel you’ve got something to offer. We know we have. It could be the last Toto album, who knows? So we had the approach of giving it our all, and really pushing ourselves on every front. We were like six rampant bulls locked up in a room with a cow – and she’s on heat!”
Paich is also quick to praise producer C.J. Vanston for his role in keeping everyone on track in the studio. “He has history with us, and so understands what drives Toto. He didn’t have an easy job because we all have such strong opinions, but he was a great sounding board for ideas, and could ensure there was a balance between being experimental and retaining a focus to the music.”
But is there a definable Toto style or sound? Something that’s unique to this band? Lukather puts it very simply.
“You start with Yes and Pink Floyd, then add in Steely Dan and John McLaughlin, before finally stirring in a Deep Purple influence. What you get out is Toto. Those are the various elements which have always made up our sound. When you analyse it in that way, it all sounds so easy. But I can assure you it’s not.”
Paich, though, is a little less convinced that there is a signature sound that defines the band.
“Actually, I’m not so sure we’ve ever had one. You can identify certain strands which run through our songs. There’s a lot of harmonies – which is why it’s great for us to have four singers in the current line-up – a beat and groove, strong melodies, musicianship... and usually there’s something a little different in the way we arrange it all.
“I suppose our true skill lies in always being able to turn on a dime, and take any song in any direction. We are fully flexible and can always think on our feet, both live and in the studio. Ultimately, this is what would be cited as a progressive approach to music. I’ll leave it to others to decide whether it adds up to a sound nobody else has.”
Lukather also reckons that the chemistry between the core members of the band, which also includes returning vocalist Joseph Williams, has been vital on the new album.
“We know each other so well that we don’t even need to talk. A glance can say everything. Instinctively, we all understand when something is ready for release. Hey, we’ve had so much fun doing this album, I really do feel like I’m 15 years old again. We may be older guys on the outside, but the spirit inside is still that of teenage tearaways.”
Despite everything the band have accomplished already in their career, they still have ambitions. For example, Porcaro would love to make...
“A concept album! I’m the keyboard nerd, so I’ve often felt we should do our version of Tales From Topographic Oceans...”
“Actually, we came close to making this album conceptual,” laughs Paich. “When we wrote Great Expectations, the final track, it had such a strong narrative running through the lyrics that we did think it might be interesting to have this at the core, and to have all the rest of the songs revolve around it. But we couldn’t make the idea work. Instead, each song has a storyline, but these aren’t linked.”
Lukather, though, insists that in one respect, Toto XIV has a firm connection to what Yes et al were doing 40 years ago.
“We’ve made an album. One that flows. These days, too many bands are satisfied if there are one or two decent tunes on a record. But an album isn’t merely a collection of unlinked songs. You want to play it all the way through, again and again. We like to think we’re helping people rediscover the art of what makes listening to an album a special experience.”
Toto XIV is out on March 23 via Frontiers Music. For more information, see the website at http://www.totoofficial.com.
**Toto clearly feel they have a prog influence. But do you, the readers, hold with that line?** “Not prog at first, prog in the late 70s, not in the 80s, prog in the 90s – present.” Scott Devenish “Prog-lite. I only caught them in the 80s.” Daniel Black “They could prog when they wanted to.” Jorgen Bakken “Some prog influence. Great musicians, but I think they’re more AOR.” John Trickett “They weren’t ‘were’. They have a new album on the way and they’re definitely prog.” Rabbi Misha “About as prog as Dorothy’s dog.” Julian Pearce “Not. In the 80s they were classified rock or soft rock.” Jim Jones “Who cares? Hold The Line is an absolute jam!” Sam Smith “I’d put them close to 90125-era Yes. Great musicians playing catchy pop rock, with some prog hints.” Cuilleog “Caught In The Balance – as prog as you can get. Toto have always been a band of many parts and influences, prog being one.” Jerry Clarke “Too poppy to be considered prog, but very good at what they do.” Tony O’Neil “In places, very. Check out songs like Better World, Hydra and Falling In Between. That’s very prog.” Rob Lindop “More pop rock than prog rock I would suggest.” Paul Corder “How about Yoso? That was some great prog [Erm, really? – Ed].” Duncan Cook “Not! Not!” Pete Gifford “I think they had everything from prog to rock to pop. It’s one of those bands that is caught between labels. And that’s a good thing.” Oscar Sunhill “No.” Christopher Buist “Influenced by?” Graziano Agostini “Toto-ally not prog. See what I did there?” Ian Scammans “Toto? Groan...” Bob ‘Progbob’ Mason “Not very, but still excellent.” Brian Goodison