Jeff Babko interview, November 2007

By Will Minting, November 2007

If you say Los Angeles Cats, there is no doubt that the name Jeff Babko will be on the list. Will Minting teams up with Jeff Babko to an into deep talk about what´s going on.

Will: I’ve seen you performing with Toto during European summer festivals in 2000 and on Simon Phillips European tour a couple of years before that. Your discography and gig schedule reveal a huge array of musical genres, from orchestral work to jazz to fusion oriented Christmas song arrangements with Steve Lukather.

Many fans will also know you for Doves of Fire, your LA club project with Luke, Simon and Melvin Davis, the Vantage Point CD and DVD “jazzumentary” and your frequent TV sessions and LA jazz club gigs. Whilst I am sure that each of these – and way more besides – were incredible experiences, which project really hit the spot for you?

Jeff: Well, it’s hard to choose one project, honestly. I mean, all the people you mentioned that I collaborated with are so meaningful to me, and I’m truly a fan of every one of them.  Simon’s thing was deep, and we’ve had such a long lasting connection that has produced so many fun and interesting moments, pushing me into really exciting situations for years, you know?  It’s funny, I had been really checking out Simon’s stuff for the 6 months preceding his call for me.

I’d seen this Roger Daltrey tribute to the music of Pete Townshend that was scary, and this “Rocks, Pebbles and Sand” Stanley Clarke record, and the drummer on the tour I was on hipped me to his solo record, “Symbiosis.” So it was pretty amazing to get to work with him at that point, as I’d really been digging his thing! And then Luke, I’d been a fan of his for so long, going to the Baked Potato to see him with Lobotomys, and having been a big fan of Toto, of course.  He’s one of those icons that raises the bar, when people discover you work with Luke, your stock kind of goes up!

I’ll say that one special experience was making Luke’s “Santamental” record. Whenever I hear one of those tunes we did I smile. Very special experience for sure. And the fact that Luke allowed me to “derange” and tweak those Christmas standards so much, really fun. What a fun record that was– I’m very proud of it. Appearing with Toto during the summer of 2000 was surreal for me. I’d stand up there in front of tens of thousands of people, playing this music I’d been listening and learning from since I was a kid. I’m so happy I had that opportunity, and grateful and still shocked that Paich asked me to do it.  What a highlight.

Will: I’m sure there’s more…

Jeff: Other things you hadn’t mentioned that meant a lot to me were getting to sub for Larry Goldings on a James Taylor tour. James is another one– I never would have thought I’d have the opportunity to play with someone that iconic and important, and there I was. So  strange! And with that ridiculous band:  Gadd, Landau, Jimmy Johnson, Walt Fowler, “Blue” Lou Marini, Luis Conte, I was so nervous and honored. Amazing experience. I’m excited that we have another hit coming up this summer. Playing with guys like Steve Gadd really raises your playing level.

I’ve been doing so much television in that last 8 years that I’d have to include that, too. I first started with Martin Short, who has been a great friend and collaborator over the years. I’d been such a fan of his before working with him, and still get the chance to work with him and hang with him, so much fun. And now my gig for the last 4 1/2 years has been “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” where I get to hang with my best friends every day and be a part of a really fun, entertaining show. Also so many awesome musical guests have “sat in” with our band, and that’s been really fun. See, there’s a REALLY long answer! But I could never limit a most special project to one.  I’m too blown away by so many– I’m sure I missed a few.

Will: I gather that like me, Toto were your childhood heroes. Paich has given me a couple of piano lessons, as has Greg Phillinganes but how was it for you? Hahaha. Had you spent many years figuring out the chords to Georgy Porgy before the call came?

Jeff: I’d done my best to learn all of “Toto IV” when it came out.  I was 10, and that record in particular meant a lot to me. I knew they were THE session guys in L.A., which is what I wanted to do, too. It was the ultimate. The parts were so perfect, and the tunes were so great. I’d checked out Paich so much on that record, that it was pretty crazy playing them onstage.

Will: Everybody I have interviewed volunteers their favourite anecdote about spending time with the Toto guys, usually involving a tale about Luke being up to no good!

Jeff: OK, I’ll trump them with a GOOD story about Luke! On the 2000 tour, in East Germany, I looked down into the audience during the first tune, and two German dudes were sitting there, the one one guy with his arms folded, giving me a dirty look. Every time I’d do a featured keyboard part, he’d shake his head and start blabbing to his friend. I could tell he was pissed I was there instead of Paich, and just stood directly in front of me pouting,  yapping about how I wasn’t Paich. Finally I took a solo and he just stink-eyed me big time, and I got really pissed. Luke noticed me and asked me what was wrong, and after I told him, he immediately got on the mike and BERATED this guy! I wish I could remember the exact, not-so-delicate words, but it was fantastic, in true Luke form. Then the friend of this dumb guy started laughing at him– I think he was sick of the complaining, too. Incidentally, I’ve heard similar stories from other “replacement” guys in bands, Jason Scheff from Chicago, as well as the horn guys that sub on that band, Larry Klimas and Nick Lane.  Some fans can be so silly. Of course, I’ve got some great, more “colourful” Luke stories too…but he’s such a warm-hearted guy that he should get some attention for the great dude he is, too!

Will: Just a minute on the geeky stuff. You’re a well known Fender Rhodes player, and your sound really blew me away when I first heard you play live. I know you have a lot of gear including vintage synths but if you choose just two keyboards to take on a rock tour, what would you choose?

Jeff: Aww, wow, that’s tough. It would have to depend on the tour– what sounds it required. Usually, unfortunately, you have to have these “big box” keyboards that have lots of sound options on them, ala a Motif or Triton or something. But I’ve always connected with the Fender Rhodes more than any instrument, I think even more that the piano sometimes! Even when I was young and everyone was unloading their Rhodes for a shiny, new DX7, I was buying their old Rhodes for cheap!  It’s such a rich, brilliant instrument.  If it’s a rock tour though, sometimes the Rhodes is too slick and smooth to rock. So probably a Hammond B3 and a piano! Fun tour for the keyboard tech!

Will: You recently released “Mondo Trio”. Am I correct in assuming this is a project that emerged from your jam nights at the Baked Potato?

Jeff: Actually no. The three of us had never played together. I’d played with Vinnie and Jeff seperately, but this record was truly an experiment. I lucked out, I reached out to them and they were totally into it. We had two days to become a unit, but honestly it only took about two seconds. I should mention that the engineer, Niko Bolas, another old friend of Toto’s, was another part of the jam, capturing this rocking, raw sound. But the vibe is much like a jam night at the Potato. We just let things unfold as we played, what you hear is exactly what happened. All first takes.

Will: My buddy Steve Weingart was telling me a little about Jason Scheff’s “Life” project, with you and Steve on keyboards. What’s happening with that project now and can you imagine duelling keyboards with Steve Weingart in a live situation?

Jeff: Yes I can imagine it! I’ve been a fan of Steve’s for a long time. For Jason to put us together was a privilege for me. I had so much fun interacting with him, and of course with the rest of those guys. All of us reacting to one another, just a lot of fun.

It’s rare that keyboard players get to play with other keyboard players, especially in situations like that one. But I think we keyboardists have a serious camaraderie, at least here in L.A. I’m such a fan of so many keyboard players here in town, and we all seem to get along. There’s so much talent here among just keyboard players; it’s kind of ridiculous. I’m just hanging on! So yeah, getting to hear Steve and be in a real time situation like that with him was really fun. Unfortunately nothing’s happened lately though because Jason’s been out with Chicago.  Hopefully we’ll pick it up again soon.

Will: What’s entailed in a days work for a TV show musician? Who decides what tunes you’ll be playing and how much rehearsal time do you get before going live?

Jeff:  We’re lucky with the Kimmel show because we’re all friends, and we all respect one another. Decisions are generally made as a group. We see what the vibe is that day and pick tunes accordingly. As far as picking new tunes to learn, guys make suggestions, and then we have to see what songs clear for usage! That’s often the hard part. Also I’ll do a lot of research.

I’ll see what KROQ, the local radio station, is playing, and see if any songs from their playlist is adaptable to our band. And then any old tunes we all dig. Funk tunes, “classic rock” tunes, whatever. We throw it into the pot and see what clears. Finally, when we all agree that this or that song will work and let’s go for it, what seems to happen is that Toshi Yanagi, the guitarist, and Jimmy Earl, the bassist like to create their own charts for the tunes. That way they have their own systems for remembering the stuff. Jimmy’s very meticulous with his charts! I’ll write the charts out for the horn players. As far as rehearsal, it’s funny, we’re getting looser about that.

We’ve played some of this stuff so much that there’s really no need to rehearse, unless there’s an audio issue. Or a new tune– then we’ll go downstairs and run it.  But we’ve been rehearsing a lot less, saving it for show, and for the most part, it’s been fine! We’re so lucky at Kimmel, we’re all buds, and Cleto, our bandleader, is about the least “bossiest” boss of all time.

Will: Please tell us a little more about writing the arrangements for and recording (in 7 days?) Santamental with Lukather. Luke told me a while back that you pretty much wrote the arrangements and that it was all ready by the time you recorded with Eddie Van Halen, Slash, Mike Landau, Edgar Winter and others? Apparently The Steakhouse was decked out in Christmas decorations in June! Hahaha

Jeff:  It was an amazing project. It was very brief; I was having coffee somewhere (as I often am), and Luke called my cell saying, “I have a crazy offer to do a Christmas album, and you have to do it with me!”  So we’re off to the races at that point. We went to the local music store and picked out some Christmas books. Funny thing, the guy at the music store said that cats are always getting Christmas books in July because that’s when you record all the Christmas albums!

Anyway, we culled through the books and chose tunes. Then we discussed possible approaches for each tune. Some ended up working, some not. We were going to try to cut “White Christmas” but every demo I did sounded super cheesy, it was hard to de-cheese that one. But otherwise, you know, Luke would say, “Let’s go for a slow Jeff Beck vibe on this one,” or whatever. I remember coming up with the concept for “Angels We Have Heard On High (Gloria in Exelsis Deo)” while driving up Laurel Canyon, as kind of a mid-tempo Peter Gabriel thing with a loop, but when we cut it as a band it turned into more of an Earth, Wind & Fire thing. That’s one of my favorites, actually. And I twisted “Greensleeves” around, too, which Luke seemed to enjoy. And yes, Bissonette brought his very own Christmas lawn art to the studio! Good times.

Will: You mentioned your deep connection with Simon Phillips. The Vantage Point DVD explains in some detail how that came about, and I guess you’re scheduling another project with Simon in the future? Can you imagine Doves of Fire performing further afield, as Los Lobotomys did when they came to Europe in 1994?

Jeff: Doves was a huge event for me, what an honor. Playing those killer Mahavishnu tunes with those giants, wow. Jan Hammer’s been one of my absolute heroes, so all I could do was stand, or slump in his shoes! I wish we could do something again. Simon actually recorded our Japanese tour but I don’t know if it will ever surface. And regarding more work with Simon in the future, I don’t think we’ll ever stop. The only thing holding us back is his commitment to Toto; they’ve been out so much over the last year and a half.

We actually re-formed a Simon electric band late last year with Dean Brown on guitar, Alphonso Johnson on bass, and Everette Harp on saxophone, which was really fun. This is the 10th anniversary of our first Simon solo tour, and I would love to have commemorated that, but Simon’s Toto thing is too time consuming. That tour was very special to me, with the genius Andy Timmons on guitar, Jimmy Earl on bass, and Wendell Brooks on saxophones. We played later with Jerry Watts on bass and then Melvin Davis and Jimmy Johnson. But that first tour was so special for me. I’ll never forget first hearing Andy Timmons– wow!

Will: What do you like doing when you’re not in the studio or onstage?

Jeff: Haha… hang with my wife! I prefer to be at home if I’m not working, but when you work doing what you love, it’s almost not really work sometimes. So sometimes that line blurs a little. The music never leaves me, I’m staring right now at my giant tower of CD’s, remember those?! I’m always listening in the car to something, new gospel, old fusion, new rock, experimental music, whatever, all the time, and here at home I’m watching old Miles Davis videos or something. Music doesn’t really shut off for me. We like to snowboard in the wintertime, or just take off to Santa Barbara or go to Hawaii if and when we can. Or just hang out.

Will: Which new artists inspire you and which CDs do you have in your car right now?

Jeff: I’m really into this Cornelius record, “Sensuous.” He’s brilliant. What a sonic experience. Also Blonde Redhead’s “23” record, and this band Deerhoof from SF. In the car right now is either Herbie Hancock “The Prisoner” or the last, brilliant Michael Brecker record. But I think the last thing I was listening to was Sirius radio, the black gospel station, Israel & New Breed or something?  So much ridiculous stuff out there!

Will: Please tell us more about the Mondo Trio sessions. Other than the musicians involved, what made this project special to you?

Jeff: Everything about it was special. The fact that it actually happened is special! I can’t believe we collected those dudes in one room and made it happen. It just played out as I would have dreamed. Jeff Coffin’s tunes were perfect for it, and everyone’s contributions, Vinnie, Niko Bolas, even the assistants, were so heartfelt and dedicated. And I’m so thankful that Souvik Dutta at Abstractlogix was behind it so much. I just lucked out on that one.

Will: What advice would you give a keen rock keyboard player to develop his Jazz or Fusion skills?

Jeff: It’s interesting; a lot of young students or parents of younger folks ask me similar questions. “How do I get Johnny to start playing jazz?” or whatever. You know, “Johnny” has to start LISTENING to and DIGGING jazz first. Why force someone to play something they’re not into? It’s not like there’s a buttload of money to be made in the world of jazz, unless your the top 100th of a 100th percent! If “Johnny” is listening to System of a Down or the Red Hot Chili Peppers, by all means, let him pursue that! Jazz infects YOU.

If you’re meant to play jazz or fusion, you will. You’ll want to learn Charlie Parker solos or transcribe Keith Jarrett, to allow the vocabulary become a part of you. You’ll be listening to a lot of it. When I was young, I was fortunate to have a wonderful teacher, David Roitstein, who would expose me to a little bit at a time. But I was also going out and obsessively buying albums and tapes, again, remember those!? I’d obsessively get into Ramsey Lewis, or Herbie, or George Duke, or Miles, or Coltrane. I was lucky that everyone was unloading their old vinyl, so I could find these records for 99 cents sometimes! I’d buy old rock and R&B records and study the credits. If Richard Tee or Paich or Phillinganes is playing on the record, I know there’s going to be some gem on there! So that’s the long answer, in order to get anybody to develop his jazz skills, he or she must really study, consume, and enjoy the music and the vocabulary. Then it will come from within.

Will: That’s cool advice. Whenever I check the Baked Potato schedule, you seem to be playing with a couple of different line ups every week! What makes that room such a High Temple of Fusion? Justin has always made me feel very welcome and I guess the artists also feel that vibe?

Jeff: Yeah, the Potato is a special place. You must have checked this month’s schedule, ’cause I’m there a lot this month! But not every month. My wife is out of town so I took every gig there that I could so I can shed a little bit! Usually once or twice a month. Once a month we have this collaborative group that I’m very proud of, called Shogun Warrior. A bassist/producer friend of mine, Mike Elizondo, started it about 5 years ago. It’s our one opportunity every month to stretch.

Now usually Jimmy Johnson, Toss Panos, Toshi Yanagi, and a brilliant trumpet player named John Daversa do the gig. We recorded some gigs this spring, I’m very proud of the results. We’ve taken the band to some really exciting places. I’ve been going to the Spud since I was a kid. I first saw Don Randi’s band there, and immediately loved the vibe of the club, how could you not? And it always sounds GREAT in there! I’d go almost every week, well, every week I could afford it, back in high school. I saw Lobotomys, a band called Coma with David Goldblatt, Landau and Vinnie, I saw Joe Sample with J.R. and Brandon Fields, all these amazing bands when I was so young and impressionable. The room, as well as the Randi family, lends itself to great music and great musicians. I don’t know what we’d do without it.

Read more about Jeff Babko at his official website.