Jeff Babko Interview
From supporting James Taylor to entertaining television audiences on ABC?s Jimmy Kimmel Live, Jeff Babko has, at his young age, already had a varied musical career.
Talk to almost any musician out of Los Angeles, and they rant and rave about Jeff. Rightfully so, because he is one most promising keyboardists out there. A musical collaborator with Mike Landau, Simon Phillips, Jeff Richman among many, Jeff has just released his first record as a composer – Broject and it is surely one of the hottest albums this winter. We recently talked to Jeff.
AL: You have had the chance to perform and excel with studio greats such as Michael Landau and Steve Lukather. You have toured with Toto and even substituted for Larry Goldings in the James Taylor band. Do you consider yourself just one of the luckiest guys or was there more to this then serendipity?>
JB: Thanks, man. This is a complex question– you’re gonna get a complex answer!
Well, you say one of the luckiest guys– luck IS part of it, but there’s more. I mean, I definitely wake up every day and am so thankful for the blessings that have come to my life. So many musicians would love to do what I’m so fortunate to do every day! Sure– a couple things have fallen in my lap, and there are clearly about 4 dozen keyboard players even in L.A. alone that could do what I do– or actually do MORE than what I do! But it’s a combination that I think keeps me working. Probably number one is a complete dedication to making sure I stay passionate about the music. So many guys seem to have gotten lazy or uninspired in their playing– or safe.
I’m probably not a super-technician like Otmaro Ruiz or Scott Kinsey or Steve Weingart– some of my favorite players here in town. But every time I sit down to play, I give 100% of my spirit and attention to the music at hand.
Second of all, it’s probably having a good attitude. I love hanging with all of those guys you mentioned, and we have a great time. You know– who wants a spoiled sport on their gig?
Also… it’s doing your homework. With the James Taylor gig, Larry Goldings was having a new baby and didn’t want to go out for a portion of the tour.
So he sent me board tapes of the show. I played that show through every day and was as prepared as I could be. We had no rehearsal for James’ thing– I just had to go hit it on a gig in front of 4,000 people. With Steve Gadd! Believe me– I was nervous– VERY nervous, but felt prepared. Sometimes I’ll just play the demos or the music I have to learn in my car OVER and OVER again until I’ve internalized it.
Finally, you know, I grew up in L.A. wanting to do EXACTLY what I’m doing! That IS lucky, isn’t it!? But over the years, going to clubs since I was 14 and checking out all of the records I could with Luke, Landau, all the L.A greats– by the time I was of age to collaborate with these guys, I was so familiar with their work that it seemed to click! I mean– with Toto– that was the most surreal– I remember transcribing David Paich’s parts in my parents’ living room when Toto IV came out! And there I was– in Oslo, Norway– playing the SAME parts to about 10,000 people. That’s when you feel really blessed, really lucky like you say, and like any hard work and research and love for the music pays off.
AL: The University of Miami and Cal Arts played a big role in your evolution as a musician.
JB: Dave Roitstein at Cal Arts is an underrated master of teaching and sharing his knowledge and soul with students. I can’t say enough about him. I was brought to him when I was 10– I had the good fortune of growing up in a house just blocks from the school. David took a 10 year old on a journey, growing up and maturing musically. He exposed me to things slowly– first through the pop music I understood (including Toto!), and then exposing me to Chick Corea, Charlie Parker, transcribing all this great stuff. Then, he sent me off to U.M. to study with HIS guru: Vince Maggio. Vince has since retired from U.M. but he was the most beautiful solo pianist– and had a great sense of swing. I’ve done my best to apply that to grooving– even in a contemporary setting– grooving with a click, or with a band– doing my best not to rush, etc. The composition teacher at U.M., Ron Miller, is a seriously underrated educator and composer. He has a great concept of modes and chords that is really beautiful. Also at U.M., the hang with the fellow students and teachers, and gigging in Miami– that was a huge experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world. I’ve kept many of the connections I made at Miami, and I’m so thankful for all of them!
AL: How did you end-up playing piano and keyboards?
JB: My dad’s a music teacher and writer. He had a great little Wurlitzer upright piano in his office and you couldn’t keep me away from it. He taught me a little bit at first, and then got me lessons at the age of 5 or so. I feel like the piano chose me– not vice versa! Most musicians I know feel the same way– music’s not the easiest business– but you feel like it’s your destiny– for better or worse!
AL: L.A. musicians often mention your name when talking about the best players in town. You have to have versatility and adaptiveness to get this reputation.
JB: Are you serious?? That’s nice! Who are these people!?? Haha… Maybe my first answer explained a little of that. But I try to keep a really fresh, young head about music– not to lose my love of discovery– new music, concepts, etc. So many musicians– songwriters, players– have taught me and exposed me to so much great music. And I LIKE a lot of different kinds of music. I do a lot of hip-hop sessions. Most of the tracks I play over lately I’ve really been digging. It’s a different kind of thinking– the hip-hop guys. But you try to get inside the producers’ heads and it’s so happening what they’re doing. I don’t think it’s so easy to be versatile if you don’t like different types of things. It won’t sound legit. But wow– how nice that people would say that about me! That’s awesome– I’m definitely touched and honored to be thought of that way.
AL: It took a while to release your first solo project . Could you talk about your musical ideas for ‘Broject’ ?
JB: Actually, officially, it’s my second solo project. Misfits of Silence was released when I was about 23. That was a more straight ahead original jazz thing. I’m pretty proud of that, although it was mastered so poorly that the whole album is really quiet. Kinda ruined it. But the music is nice. I may remaster it someday. Thankfully, Simon Phillips really dug it, and it’s part of why I started playing with him, which led to so much else.
Anyway– Broject DID take a while. Too long. Problem was– I wrote about this on my website (www.jeffbabko.com)– I had a concept for what I wanted my next record to be– and the concept kept changing. But at the end of 8 years, I had all this music on tape. And I liked a lot of it! All of it had Toss Panos playing drums. So I picked what I thought kinda worked, and tweaked it, edited it on Pro Tools at home, did some overdubs– made some songs out of some of the long jams. Then, when I was out with James Taylor, Mike Landau expressed interest in mixing it! I was totally honored. That gave me the final impetus to really finish it. Mike was so generous with his time, and did such a nice job making it sound great. Also, Simon really encouraged me to complete it. He said he really dug the music– he really digs Toss, too. It’s tough putting out your own record with no backing. It’s tough to convince yourself to shell out bread for each step– studio time, mixing, mastering, artwork, pressing. And I don’t think– I hope I’m not– an egotist or something– where I want to show off for all these people my hot record! But I felt like people deserved to hear some music– all these other great guys had played on it, too– and it deserved to be heard. So I put all of these convoluted concepts together, and it became Broject. I’m happy it’s done!! And I think it turned out to be a really fun listen. I hope!
AL: Who do you draw your influences from when you write music. Are they mostly piano players ?
JB: It’s everything. I could go on and on! With writing– it takes me SO much to actually present a piece of music, no matter how simple, to a band to play. Just 2 days ago I wrote something for a gig that night that I didn’t even present to the guys at rehearsal! So I’m sensitive about my writing. But on Broject a lot of it is Toss and myself jamming at his studio and me editing it into a song.
On a song like Yours, that was composed at home– the first half was composed, and then about a year later I discovered it again on my hard drive and finished it. I’m really proud of that song– I like it. Some of the other songs were written on the road, or on a a pad of paper at a coffeehouse, or at my studio at home. I don’t know what directly inspires my writing– probably everything I listen to, or even everything I feel from life experiences.
AL: What has been some of your favorite musical experiences?
JB: So many! I’ve been blessed to have so many amazing experiences. A few I can remember? Well– David Paich’s phone message asking me to sub for him was big! Not very musical, but meant a lot to me! Very surreal! And then, I just remember that Oslo gig– open air to the whole city– and thousands and thousands of people there– to see me playing with some of my heroes. Amazing. I remember J.J., the keyboard tech, leaning over to me and saying, You’ll never forget this. He was right. It was weird starting the piano riff on Hold the Line every night, and people are clapping! I’m thinking, It’s not me– I’m just the messenger! I didn’t write it! But that was crazy– amazing. I have cool experiences almost every day, where I find myself grinning from ear to ear. I’d been going to see Brandon Fields’ gigs in L.A. since I was in high school. He always had such killer bands– Walt Fowler, Bissonette, Mitch Forman, Dave Goldblatt, Jimmy Johnson, John Pena– and the gigs would be so firey. When I started playing with his band, I was super-honored, and it was so surreal to be playing some of that stuff actually ON his band now. Playing with Simon Phillips– there’s a HUGE highlight. That was my first kind of REAL player’s gig. With the real cats. Mitch Forman– another one of my heroes– called me to sub for him on a European tour with Simon. I was floored! I was, at the time, out with Julio Iglesias, pretty miserable. I got Simon’s solo CD, Symbiosis, and listened to it over and over and over again. I remember I was doing a video shoot for Julio and just had the headphones on the whole time with Simon’s record. Anyway, Si scheduled a little rehearsal– kind of to audition me. Jimmy Earl was the bass player. I was so nervous to play with the cats, but felt prepared with the music. Simon was happy! That tour, and the following tours, meant so much to me. What a great band– the amazing Andy Timmons on guitar. And Europe– the fans were so wonderful, so sweet and supportive. And Simon believed in me completely. How special is that? Now Simon and Jimmy Earl are two of my good friends, and people I collaborate with often. I see Jimmy every day at the Kimmel show. Those Simon tours were really incredible. The Lukather Santamental experience was crazy, too. What an honor, for Luke to ask me to help arrange all the stuff on the record. I’d been going to see Luke with Lobotomys at the Palomino and Potato for years. And to have him ask me– that was just great. We made a really good record– I’m very proud of it. Great contributions from Edgar Winter and others– that was a special project. Also this Larry Carlton record I’ve been working on. Larry’s playing is actually one of the key elements that bridged my understanding of music from rock/pop to jazz. His playing made so much sense to me. Soulful, with some jazz vocabulary, but also the bends and familiar sounds that rock guitar had. He is so soulful, both personally and musically. His Last Nite record meant a lot to me, as did his playing on The Nightfly and on the Crusaders Southern Comfort, which my dad would play around the house when I was a kid! Collaborating with Larry and knowing him is a great, great honor. I could really go on and on– every experience is so special to me.
AL: If you had to make just crazy music who would you have in your band ?
JB: Just crazy, huh? Hmm. Nels Cline on guitar maybe? I played with him in Mark Isham’s band– what an inventive musician. I have ideas of trying to put a keyboard group together. I love what Scott Kinsey does at his gigs, with samples and programming– also he’s such a killer player– and maybe Mitchel Forman, Larry Goldings, Russ Ferrante, Greg Kurstin– who knows? I’m proud to know all these guys, and I have a feeling we could make something a little crazy. Who knows if they’d be into it! I have a band called Shogun Warrior here in L.A. that gets pretty crazy. Toshi Yanagi on guitar, Toss, John Daversa on trumpet and Mike Elizondo on bass. We try to take it left every now and then! Curt Bisquera, Matt Chamberlain, Eric Shermerhorn, Gary Novak, and others have also collaborated on it. It’s a great creative outlet for us– we play once a month at the Potato.
AL: There was a time when legends like Steve Wonder wrote great music like Secret Life of Plantsand Innervisions that still are timeless and fresh today. We dont see to much of that happening anymore.
JB: Yeah– there’s only one Stevie! I had the honor of playing with him earlier this summer and learned of his DEEP, DEEP musicality first hand. He lives, breathes music. He is music! It’s like he’s a diety or something– just one Stevie. He came into rehearsal and just BURNED Too High– fast, with Will Kennedy just burning on a straight ahead groove. AMAZING!! We have to discover someone with Stevie’s dedication and soul– that’s gonna be tough. But there are bands like Radiohead and the Flaming Lips that are pushing the envelope compositionally and production-wise. You may not always dig the result– but they ARE pushing it. Also, a great guy– Lewis Taylor. British R&B guy– his records are pretty deep– compositionally and in production. They’ve been a big inspiration.
AL: You were put in a room with Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Joe Zawinul and Steve Wonder. You had 10 minutes to perform for each of them. What would you do ?
JB: Choke! Hard! That’s what I’d probably do. Haha– honestly? Probably what I SHOULD do is just listen to them. If they wanted me to play, they could indicate so. But otherwise, I’d just let the experience take over, and see what happened. It’d be pretty cool though!
AL: Whats next for Jeff Babko ?
JB: Umm… well now I’m about an hour late going to the gym and running some errands before the TV show! That’s honestly what’s next! Haha– but in general– I’ve never known what’s next in store for my career or my life, and all’s been really unexpected and wonderful. I have the TV show every night– we’re on until January of 2006, which is a blessing. Making a living doing this– music– is such a gift. Hopefully collaborate some more with Simon. Jason Scheff has asked me to help him write some stuff for his new project. I’d like to do more songwriting in general. Luke’s also asked me– we’ll see– I’d love to write with him. We wrote one song for the Santamental album– I’m real proud of that. We’ll see, ya know? I’m up for anything!
AL: What is the funniest experience you had backing someone on Jimmy’s show?
JB: Ooh– I probably couldn’t talk about it!! There are lots. We have a segment called Future Talent Showcase with some pretty questionable talent. We’re often holding back some serious smiles during that.
Hmm… but the musicians that sit in with us? I don’t want to get in trouble. A couple have some pretty sad attitudes. No names. But most are so cool– Steve Miller was great, Edgar, George Benson, Jeffrey Osborne, Joe Walsh was awesome. Glenn Tilbrook from Squeeze was really great. The Tower of Power horns were a thrill for me. It’s a fun gig for sure!