Songwriter Interviews

David Paich of Toto

by Greg Prato

Share this post

Nowadays when you think of "pop music," it's understandable if you automatically think of disposable tunes performed by one-hit wonders, or artists that for the most part, all sound the same. But there was a time when there was such a thing as more sophisticated, well-crafted pop music, and David Paich was right in the middle of it.

After all, Paich co-penned such Boz Scaggs classics as "Lowdown" and "Lido Shuffle," co-formed Toto and co-penned their hits "Hold the Line," "Rosanna," and "Africa" (the latter of which he also sang lead on), and was part of the stellar session group on Michael Jackson's all-time classic, Thriller.

And Toto continues to rock n' roll to this day, as evidenced by the release of their 2015 album, Toto XIV (the band's first new full-length recording in nearly a full decade). When Paich spoke with Songfacts, he was up for discussing his band's latest studio offering, as well as looking back at the early days of music video, songwriting, and offering some advice for up-and-coming producers.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's discuss the new album, Toto XIV.

David Paich: We're very excited about this new album. There was a break because in 2006, when Falling in Between was released, we thought that might actually be our last album. And to our pleasant surprise, we still owed our record company one more album - you don't know until you actually check. So we were all very excited about that, and got a chance to put the old gang from the old neighborhood back together.

That's the other thing - it's kind of the original gang, which was myself, Steve Lukather from the original band, Steve Porcaro from the original band, David Hungate who is playing on this record, and Joseph Williams, who grew up in the same neighborhood and joined us after Toto IV. So it's got a lot of the core members of Toto, and we're very excited about the fact that all the bros were making music together.

When you find out that you've got to do another record, you go, "Well, what do we do? Do we just put together a lot of odds and ends here that we haven't already recorded?" We started pulling out our little pieces and everything, and realized that we wanted to get in and write an organic, homegrown Toto record from scratch and really make it count, put our hearts into it. And that's exactly what we did.

It has similarities to the first album, to the fourth album, and to the seventh album in these core members are here, and were actually writing together specifically for Toto. I think it was really a tribute to our band, that has been together that long, to come together and put out such a cool album. I'm really proud of all these guys.

Songfacts: How does the songwriting work primarily in Toto?

Paich: Well, it's interesting, because we're all producers and songwriters amongst ourselves. We've got Steve Lukather, who's written "I'll Be Over You" and other hits, and Steve Porcaro has written [Michael Jackson's] "Human Nature" and stuff. So we're all songwriters and producers in our own rights, but when we get into the studio, this kind of magical thing happens where we get into this "Toto mode" and start writing pieces for this particular ensemble. So it's a unique situation here.

It starts by people bringing in little pieces that they have, and playing them for other members of the band. Then two guys will get together and start working on them. Like, Joseph and myself started working on "Burn" and "Orphan" early on, and then Steve Lukather came in and started writing on "Orphan" later. So we'd get together sporadically.

But take "Running Out of Time," the first track. The second week, we just got in the studio together - Joseph, myself, and Lukather - and Lukather just started coming up with that heavy, anthemic riff in the beginning. It all just fell into place. I was playing keyboards, Joseph had a microphone in his hand, and it stated coming out, almost like you hear it there.

There's different permutations of how Toto writes. Steve Porcaro usually writes these songs - specifically "Steve Porcaro/Toto-esque songs" - and brings them to us, and sings and performs on them. So he has his own unique little style. It was done all sorts of ways, but it was very collaborative amongst the four of us. And I think our songwriting has gotten better through the years. Now, we're much more into the songs being story-driven, lyrically. It's a more mature and refined Toto, but still rocking.

Songfacts: How would you describe the Thriller sessions?

Paich: They were really interesting. They had similarities to other sessions where you see a lot of your colleagues and peers in the hallway. But Quincy Jones was at the helm, and he's a master producer. It's amazing to work with him, because he always gets out of the box. He'll juxtapose players that ordinarily wouldn't be with other players, so you have all these keyboard players, all these guitarists, and all these singers and writers.

But Michael was very involved in it, and he's a perfectionist. One of the greatest artists that ever was, and we miss him dearly. One of the true legendary artists. He was always in the room with us, privately, saying, "I just want you to have total freedom to do whatever you want. Just think of Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel - do whatever you need to do here. Sky's the limit." So he'd give us total freedom. It was a fun project, because everybody knew it was going to be top-shelf, it was going to be everybody's best game, and it was going to be something special. I don't think anybody could predict the numbers that it did, but we knew it was going to be real quality.

Rod Temperton was writing, and he's a great writer. He took the helm there [Temperton wrote "Thriller," "The Lady in My Life" and "Baby Be Mine"]. Then there's the Paul McCartney/Michael Jackson duet that I played on ["The Girl is Mine"] and helped co-arrange, along with Steve Lukather and Quincy, and Jeff Porcaro was there. That was a magic moment in the studio. To start off an album, where you look around, and there's Paul and Linda McCartney, and there's George Martin and Geoffrey Emerick, and then there's Quincy Jones and Bruce Swedien, it was like, "I've died and gone to producer's heaven and artist's heaven, and I'm sitting in the room with these guys." It was one of those "pinch me" moments.

Songfacts: Was there a point during the writing or recording of Toto IV that you realized it was going to be a special album?

Paich: When we finished "Rosanna," we knew that we were on to something. Because the whole album had this consistency, and it had this sound to it - stemming from [engineer] Al Schmitt and from the way that the songs had been coming together and everybody's participation. We never knew it would do as well as it did. You never know that. It's so hard. It's like capturing lightning in a bottle, when you're thinking about hit records. Just to have a nibble is a big deal. But when you get up into that Top 20 or Top 10, it becomes a logjam up there and very slow movement.

We're very blessed - there's a lot of luck involved with that and a lot of it is the way people are perceiving the music. It just happened to click at the time. We're very lucky. There was no way we could predict it, but in our hearts, we felt that we had something really good and we knew it was going to be a great album.

Songfacts: You just mentioned the song "Rosanna," and I've noticed a lot of the songs that you've written have women's names in the title, such as "Goodbye Elenore," "Holyanna," and "Pamela." Are those songs about actual people?

The Ray Charles album filled with song titles containing girl's names is Dedicated to You, released in 1961. Here's the track list:

"Hardhearted Hannah"
"Nancy (With the Laughing Face)"
"Margie"
"Ruby"
"Rosetta"
"Stella by Starlight"
"Cherry"
"Josephine"
"Candy"
"Marie"
"Diane"
"Sweet Georgia Brown"
Paich: Let me tell you a story. My father [Marty Paich] had arranged an album for Ray Charles many years ago, and it was all girls' names on it. I remember pulling the record out, saying, "Look at this, it's all girls' names." Every song was a girl's name. That's when I started doing that - I was one of the first to start going, "OK, my dad did it on this album here."

"Rosanna" was about a high school love, one of my first loves, but I just tagged another Rosanna's name on there because she was going at the time with Steve Porcaro, my best friend. He had just met her and was looking to title a song with her name, and it just fit perfectly for that song right there. So it's got her name on it, but it's really about another high school sweetheart, which is how songs happen sometimes.

"Holyanna," my sister and all of her girlfriends went to girls' Catholic schools, so that's a girls' Catholic school song. They all used to flirt with me, so that's an amalgamation of a couple of my sister's girlfriends that I rolled into one girl, Holyanna.

Songfacts: And was there a real woman behind the song "Hold the Line"?

Paich: No. On "Hold the Line," my parents were the first ones on my block to get a rotary phone. You guys can't remember that, because this is a digital age now, but a rotary phone, when you have more than one line, there are buttons on the phone so more people can call and it rolls over - that's why they call them "rotary phones." Well, when I was in high school, all of a sudden the phone started ringing off the hook, and I had a situation where I was at the dinner table and I had three girls all call at the same time, so all the lights were flashing. I was kind of juggling girlfriends, and that's how that came about.

And it was just a little riff that I had. On my first piano, when I moved away from home to go to college, I bought a little three-quarter upright, and I played that opening riff for days. I think they gave me eviction notices - people were pounding on the door, saying, "Stop that!" And once I tagged "Hold the Line" on it, the rest was just simple high school writing about everything that love isn't - to figure out what it is.

Songfacts: I recall hearing that the song "Africa" was inspired by a documentary, but with lines such as "cure what's deep inside" - was that you?

Paich: That was me using a lot of writer's license. I remember seeing lots of films of starving and famine when I was a kid in pictures of Africa. Then I'd seen some movies and read a lot of the National Geographics, and always wanted to go to Africa, so I romanticized this story about a social worker that goes over there and falls in love with working with the country and doing good. But he also falls in love and has to make a choice between helping people for the rest of his life or having a family and doing that kind of thing.

There's a little metaphor involved here, because I was at the age where I was so immersed in my work, 24/7, that at times I felt like I was becoming just a victim of my work. There was a little bit of autobiographical information in there: being consumed by my work, not having time to go out and pursue getting married and raising a family and doing all the things that other people do that were my age at the time. So, it could be semi-autobiographical at that point.

Songfacts: Looking back, what did you think about the Toto music videos?

Paich: Makes me laugh! It was fun. We were trying to do art - no one had ever done that kind of stuff. The first videos, all they wanted you to do was stand on the stage and play, and have fans waving in front of you. That's what we got our budgets for. We saw these as opportunities to make little movies - little episodic vignettes - so we started with the Hydra album doing murky, kind of dark videos. But when it came to Toto IV, we were on tour heavily, so the roller coaster would be: fly you in, and say, "Here's a director. We're going to do two videos this day. You're on a soundstage, you do it."

Cynthia Rhodes, who was married to Richard Marx for 25 years, has quite a connection to both rock n' roll and film. First breaking into showbiz as a dancer at The Tubes' over-the-top live performances, Rhodes then appeared in the music video for "Rosanna" before landing roles in such films as Flashdance, Staying Alive, Runaway, and Dirty Dancing. She was also briefly a member of the new wave pop act Animotion, appearing on their 1989 album, Animotion (Room to Move).
But in "Rosanna," there's a part where it goes, "Not quite a year since she went away" (finger snaps) and I had seen a Phil Collins video where they had done this semi-cool take-off on West Side Story, but not a lot of dancing around - just a couple of guys in an alleyway snapping their fingers, backlit [probably his video for "You Can't Hurry Love"]. So I conveyed this to Steve Barron, who was our director at the time. I said, "I want it to feel like West Side Story." So we got down to the lot, and all of a sudden, there's like, ten pairs of guys dressed in leather jackets like Grease, jumping around and dancing! Of course, the band looks at me with disdain, like this is another one of my brilliant ideas to do this West Side Story thing.

I had known Cynthia Rhodes from The Tubes - I had worked with them - so they got her to be the girl dancer, and away we went. There's a day of shooting on that. And it's funny when you look back on it - we had a big hoot, but at the time, we were trying to do things different. And as a result of that, when Michael Jackson did "Beat It," I think he had seen the chain-linked fence that we had used, that I had gotten watching The Tubes having a chain-linked fence on stage, and I think he got that from there. So it became this butterfly effect: people watching other people's videos. It's pretty funny to watch those videos. But at the time, we were proud of them.

Songfacts: I did a book a few years ago that focused on early MTV and music videos [MTV Ruled the World: The Early Years of Music Videos], and while Michael Jackson seems to get the credit for being one of the first artists to make videos that weren't simply an artist performing on a stage, Toto was also one of the first to do so, with the "Rosanna" and "Africa" videos.

Paich: Sure. And Michael, we used to talk about it, because I was involved in working with him. I co-produced with Steve Porcaro the Victory album for The Jacksons, and a lot of what we used to talk about was how negative the record companies were, that they didn't want to make videos. They didn't see the worth of investing any money in them. And Michael was like, "I don't believe that. I want to invest my own money into it." He would ask me a lot of questions about it, and I would tell him, "Well, here's what we did. We totally believed in doing videos as a marketing tool, and that you can say something with videos."

So that was kind of a launching point. After talking to us, Michael got serious about videos. He put some deep dough into it, and really started backing his own stuff. A lot of that - "Billie Jean" and stuff - was his own money he put back into that, which a lot of artists weren't doing at that time. I applaud him in having the faith in himself to market himself that way.

In addition to his many other talents, Paich is also a respected producer. His production credits include the Oscar-nominated tune "The Girl Who Used to Be Me" (penned by Marvin Hamlisch and Alan and Marilyn Bergman, for the film Shirley Valentine), The Jacksons (specifically the tracks "Wait" and "The Hurt" off Victory), plus tracks by Billy Preston, Jon Anderson, and Tramaine Hawkins. Toto produce their albums as a band, earning David, along with Bobby Kimbal, Steve Lukather, Jeff Porcaro, Michael Porcaro and Steve Porcaro, a Grammy Award for Producer of the Year on Toto IV.
Songfacts: What is your philosophy as a producer?

Paich: When I produce, it's to try and let the artist come through, and to be able to hear the song and hear the artist performing it. I learned at an early age from people like Lou Adler and Louis Shelton - who produced Seals and Crofts records - that a producer's job was to make sure the artist wasn't aware of one thing: a budget. There is no budget. Don't worry about the budget, and don't worry about the clock ticking - we're not on a schedule. That's so the artist could be free to create. I like to hear a great song with inspired performance. That's my philosophy.

Songfacts: Which production that you've been involved in are you the most proud of?

Paich: I would say that there are three of them at the moment. One was when I produced "Got to Be Real" for Cheryl Lynn with my father, which became a big record, and I thought that was a very good record. Of course, Toto IV, is one of the things I'm most proud of. And I just did a jazz album with a young 16-year-old savant, a virtuoso named Andreas Varady, who is on Verve Records. Quincy Jones and David Foster called me to produce this young kid, and he was just truly amazing. I couldn't believe it - he plays like George Benson. So I got to get away from doing all the vocals and just sit down and make a hi-fi jazz record and be a jazz producer. It was over the last year. It's on Verve, and it's called Andreas Varady, and it's one of the things I'm most proud of because I was able to not only compose a song and play it in a jazz group, but also, to get the feel of producing and sit back, and just let it happen - let the music happen and experience what jazz producers do all the time.

Songfacts: Lastly, what advice would you give to someone just getting started producing artists?

Paich: Just go with your gut instincts. And believe in yourself and think positive. You need to just be a beam of light that blasts through the darkness - as Quincy Jones used to tell me. Make sure you're well versed in all your tools, get yourself a laptop with a lot of memory, and look for the song. In all this crazy production, make sure there's a song and a lyric underneath all that stuff. And that's what's great about what kids are doing today: they're still songwriting. So, find where that song is, and don't lose sight of it when you heap on all the production.

March 18, 2015
For more Toto, visit totoofficial.com

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 1

  • Richard Pickel from Ma - But Just Visiting The Old Folks At Home For A Few Months. Been In Ca And Nv For YearsThriller was titled Starlight until early on the day it was recorded. The writer woke up from a dream in which he'd seen the word Thriller in large letters on a movie theatre marquee, and quickly changed the title/lyrics. He wrote the title, hit song for Michael Jackson's large hit album immediately before Thriller: Off The Wall, and other hits for MJ, as the article mentioned, and for other acts, as well as for his own act: Heatwave. In East Oakland, as we waited at a bus stop for a bus to downtown Oakland, then downtown Scam Francisco, three young black guys asked me if I liked music. I said "I think Michael Jackson has gone to the top of the pop music heap with his last album, Off The Wall. It will be interesting to see what he does next."
see more comments

Jello BiafraSongwriter Interviews

The former Dead Kennedys frontman on the past, present and future of the band, what music makes us "pliant and stupid," and what he learned from Alice Cooper.

Matt SorumSongwriter Interviews

When he joined Guns N' Roses in 1990, Matt helped them craft an orchestral sound; his mezzo fortes and pianissimos are all over "November Rain."

Dave MasonSongwriter Interviews

Dave reveals the inspiration for "Feelin' Alright" and explains how the first song he ever wrote became the biggest hit for his band Traffic.

Graduation SongsFact or Fiction

Have you got the smarts to know which of these graduation song stories are real?

Neal Smith - "I'm Eighteen"They're Playing My Song

With the band in danger of being dropped from their label, Alice Cooper drummer Neal Smith co-wrote the song that started their trek from horror show curiosity to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Director Wes Edwards ("Drunk on a Plane")Song Writing

Wes Edwards takes us behind the scenes of videos he shot for Jason Aldean, Dierks Bentley and Chase Bryant. The train was real - the airplane was not.