”They called me about a week after Jeff Porcaro passed… they’d grown up together, they’d lost a blood brother, and suddenly the all-American West Coast band has a tea bag in it!” How Simon Phillips joined and left Toto

Simon Phillips
(Image credit: Getty Images)

In 2014 Simon Phillips ended his 21-year tenure with Toto, soon after releasing his fifth solo album. It was the ideal time to look back with Prog on a multi-genre drumming career that started with a terrifying radio performance when he was 13 and took him around the world with David Gilmour, The Who and many others.

You’ve been working in acoustic jazz combo Vantage Point and playing in Japan in the trio Hiromi, with virtuoso pianist Hiromi Uehara and contrabass guitarist Anthony Jackson. You’ve just released Protocol II, marking the 25th anniversary of your demo solo album Protocol. Your Protocol group – Ernest Tibbs on bass, Andy Timmons on guitars and Steve Weingart on keyboards – are starting on another album soon. How has your compositional approach changed since the first Protocol album?

It’s changed enormously. When I did the original Protocol record in ’88 I’d been composing music for a few years, but it was still pretty basic. I used to make demos where all the arrangements were fairly intricate and I got a copyist to write charts for everybody.

This time I was able to let go a lot of the compositions and let the band just do their thing and develop ideas in the studio. That was the big difference: it comes with experience and confidence.

Protocol II reminds us of some of the melodic jazz-fusion music of the 70s, like Brand X and Return To Forever.

I’m very pleased to hear that because it was what I was aiming for, going back to that era in terms of melody and composition. I don’t know if you know this, but I actually filled in for Phil Collins in Brand X when he went on tour with Genesis in ’77 with Chester Thompson. I never played a gig with them but we made a lot of recordings – just cassette recordings – in the rehearsal room.

My issue with jazz-rock or fusion is that the compositions weren’t always that great. But it’s very important that the composition comes first. Also, in those days we made the records live. It’s crazy that it gets so dragged out now and I get tired of it as a producer and an engineer. I want to keep moving and I think that comes across in Protocol II. There’s a freshness there in terms of the performance.

What was the session you played as a 13-year-old?

I joined my Dad’s band, the Sid Phillips Band, when I was 12. In 1971 he had a BBC broadcast to record, but I was way too inexperienced for that. Then a couple of hours before the session, the drummer had some accident and couldn’t make it. So my Dad gave me a bunch of charts and said “Rehearse these, you’re coming to the studio this afternoon.” I tried to learn the charts and I was there with all these top London session guys like (trumpeter) Kenny Baker and (trombonist) Don Lusher. It was really scary.

The original 801 were only together for a few gigs, yet have made a lasting impression...

801 did play some extra shows in 1976, but I was busy in the studio with Jack Bruce, so Phil Manzanera got in Paul Thompson. The other thing was Brian Eno. He was getting into production and was always hard to pin down, and without Brian... It was such an eclectic, strange collection of people with such diverse backgrounds and it worked – it was a really cool set-up.

For 801 Live I had five toms and two rototoms and they only had about three spare microphones. I said to the engineer, Rhett Davies, “I need to use seven mics to get my sound.” Phil said, “We can’t afford to do that, we’ve got a tight budget.” Even now I think, “Damn! I wish we’d individually miked those drums!”

Playing live with The Who must have been challenging as Keith Moon’s sometimes chaotic approach was a defining aspect of their sound. What did they say to you?

Pete Townshend said, “Just do what you do.” I think Roger was a little bit more wary of my jazz approach and my weird fills – which feel normal to me – and I think he was finding it a bit difficult to follow at times… he might say, “Keep it real rock’n’roll, OK?” but that was the only thing he would ever say. Entwistle loved it, Pete loved it; we had a great time.

Toto must have been difficult to join and difficult to leave.

They called me about a week after Jeff Porcaro had passed away and asked if I could tour for the next few months. It was difficult emotionally for everybody, but musically it was great. The real difficult thing was that those kids had grown up together and they’d lost a blood brother and so suddenly the all-American West Coast band has a tea bag in it! It became my life for 21 years.

As for leaving, it was not as difficult as you might imagine, because I felt that I had done what I needed to do and I wanted to give my solo career a lot more attention. I also feel like I’ve gone back to more of a jazz field anyway and I could be playing more improvised music for however long I’m around.

I recall Bill Bruford said – tongue-in-cheek, perhaps – that at times he wondered if he was too rocky for jazz and too jazzy for rock. Have you ever felt like that?

Not from a playing point of view – I grew up playing many different styles. To play rock’n’roll is second nature to me, but I need to play more improvised music; I’m not very good at playing the same thing every night. For example, I can play with The Who and enjoy it, but I can’t play with AC/DC and enjoy it. I’ve done both. 

I actually rehearsed with AC/DC in early 1990 for an album. Lovely guys, but it was very apparent that I was absolutely the wrong drummer for them. We had a great time together, but Angus and Malcolm and George said, “It’s not quite our thing.” I said, “Yeah, I can see!” With The Who there’s more improvisation – it’s more explosive.

You’ve played sessions for others, been in a group for over 20 years and been a band leader. Did you get the balance right? 

At the end of the day I love playing different types of music and love being in a learning position as well. Whatever project you get involved with, if it’s interesting and rewarding like that, then you’re in the best situation.

Mike Barnes

Mike Barnes is the author of Captain Beefheart - The Biography (Omnibus Press, 2011) and A New Day Yesterday: UK Progressive Rock & the 1970s (2020). He was a regular contributor to Select magazine and his work regularly appears in Prog, Mojo and Wire. He also plays the drums.