Interview: Emilio Castillo talks new Tower of Power platter
Tower of Power

Tower of Power have been mixing rock and soul with hot, hyperactive horns for a half-century now, having signed with impresario Bill Graham’s San Francisco Records imprint for their 1970 debut, East Bay Grease.

Since then, founder Emilio Castillo and the Oakland-based ToP have cut a whopping twenty-five albums, racked a string of jazzy hits (“Soul Vaccination,” “You’re Still a Young Man,” “So Very Hard to Go,” “Down to the Nightclub”), and guested on sessions and live performances with bigwigs like Rod Stewart, Sammy Hagar, Elton John, Peter Frampton, Toto, and Huey Lewis & The News. Tower of Power also pointed the way for other up-and-coming brass-rock groups, including Chicago, Earth, Wind & Fire, Average White Band, and Blood, Sweat & Tears.

Unlike those ensembles, however, ToP never tempered their tunes or watered down their wow factor to accommodate changing tastes and trends. While other acts streamlined their sound with synthesizers and drum machines to maximize radio accessibility in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, Castillo and company kept right on grooving with Ain’t Nothin’ Stoppin’ Us Now (1977), We Came to Play! (1978), Back on the Streets (1979), and Power (1987).

Fifty years on, the Tower of Power boys (including long-timers Stephen “Doc” Kupka, David Garibaldi, and Francis Rocco Prestia) are still getting down ‘n’ dirty. The tracks on their brand-new full-length effort Soul Side of Town are so funky—so gloriously greasy—that listeners may require oven mitts and cooking spray to safeguard their stereos.

And prescription antibiotics to recover.

AXS spoke with tenor saxophonist Castillo about Soul Side of Town, ToP’s rich musical history, and the group’s sizzling summer concert schedule.  

AXS: Congratulations on fifty years with Tower of Power!

Emilio Castillo: Thanks! It’s pretty exciting, you know. We just got back from a three-week tour of Europe. We ended by doing the TV show Later With Jools Holland, and that went really great. People everywhere are coming up congratulating us on fifty years. Some of us can’t believe it. I can’t believe it either!

AXS: Tower of Power is Oakland-based, yet you grew up in Detroit. When did you move west and get your start in music?

EC: I lived in Detroit until I was eleven, then I moved to the Bay area. I got into some trouble, and my dad told me I had to find something to do to keep me out of trouble. The Beatles had just come out. We were fourteen. My dad told us to get in the car. He took us to the music store and told us to get anything we wanted. My dad was a bartender. He used to work in these venues they called show bars, where they’d have these show bands. Bands with names like The Big Beats and The Swinging Lads. Stuff like that. They were horn bands, and then played songs like “Nocturne” and “Night Train” and “Just a Gigolo.” We’d see them while they were in there rehearsing, and we thought it was the coolest thing ever. I thought the sax player was the coolest guy. My brother liked the drummers, so he became a drummer. But we did it backwards. Most guys practice for years and years and then start a band; we started our band and then learned how to play along the way! I remember the first day we were rehearsing. My friend was the guitar player. He knew how to play the intro lick to Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman.” He didn’t know the chords, just the intro! I was squeaking on sax, and my brother was banging on the snare drum, and my mother heard us and said we were gonna be huge stars! So we went on from there.

AXS: San Francisco was the hot spot for new groups in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. You had Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead gaining ground. You guys were an hour away, in Oakland—but were you aware that the Bay Area was the place to be?

EC: By the time I was sixteen or seventeen years old it was a known fact that the Bay area was a music mecca. By then the Fillmore West was happening. The original Fillmore had closed. Bill Graham had opened Winterland and the Fillmore West. And everyone was trying to get into the Fillmore West because that was the place to play. All the big bands played there. Also, he’d just started two new record companies, so all these bands were trying to get signed by him. So we were aware of the fact that it was the scene. It was probably the scene for the whole world, not just the United States. Every eye was focused musically on the Bay. So we did some shows at the Fillmore, and we were one of the lucky groups that got signed.    

AXS: The new album, Soul Side of Town, is your first is almost a decade. Tell us how the project came about. What made now the right time?

EC: It was a long project. I started it in 2012. But we’re a working band. We’re not independently rich or anything, so we’re only able to go in the studio here and there. So for about three years that’s what we did. If I had some time off work, I’d get the guys in for four or five days. We recorded in a place up in Sacramento. I got eighteen tracks done. Then it got harder. I’d have ten days off and they wouldn’t have an opening at the studio. But [producer] Joe Vannelli [brother of Gino Vannelli] said he’d give us a couple free days at his studio. So I took him up on the offer and went down there, and he was so meticulous! And I like meticulous! We were sitting at the airport, and I said, “I’m trying to make the best record of my career. The only way I can do that is to record way more tracks than I need, like twenty-five songs.” We’d already recorded a bunch of songs, and they were good. So I asked if he’d consider helping me finish it up. So it wound up being twenty-eight tracks. The best decision on my part—probably the smartest move I ever made in my life—was working with Joe. It’s been a total dream.

AXS: So you recorded enough tracks so you could cherry-pick the best ones for the record?

EC: What happened was that they all turned out so good! And when we signed the deal with Mack Avenue Records, we brought them the songs. They said, “We like them all! We want to put them all out!” So the plan was to put out two records at once. Along the way that changed, and they decided to do just the one. They’re saving the other one for later. So we had them all mixed, mastered, sequenced and ready to go! So Soul Side comes out on June 1, and the second will follow later in the year.

AXS: What’s the process for recording in the studio with so many guys in the group? Do you record live, or build thing up with basic tracks first?

EC: First I rehearse the rhythm section. I take them in the studio and give them a demo and explain to them my vision of the songs. What I hear, what I want as far as feel and other specific things. Then we start to work it out. The musicianship in the band is off the chain. These guys are world-class players. And it’s a band. It’s not the Emilio show! So all these guys have ideas, but I’m the filter. I’ll suggest we try this-or-that, or I’ll say this-or-that won’t work. But the buck stops here. I’m the guy who has to make the final decision. But we all do it together. Then we shape that track and get it to where it’s ready to record. Joe and I will talk with the guys about what’s not working, or what should be moved. It’s a chipping-away process.

AXS: Singer Marcus Scott is a great ToP addition. He’s got that high, soul voice on “Hangin’ With My Baby” and a couple others. How’d he become involved?

EC: Ray Greene was our singer. We loved him and he loved us. We were killing it, and everything was great! We’d already recorded many songs with him doing the final vocal. But then Carlos Santana decided he like Ray, too, and offered twice the money and half the work! So what can you do? He’s got daughters and a wife, so we didn’t blame him. But that left me with two months to find another singer. And God really blessed me there, when Marcus came in. The project was huge—twenty-eight songs—so I needed to get it reeled in and mixed. So we decided to keep some songs with Ray and some with Marcus. So it’s half-and-half! It worked out wonderfully.

AXS: Along with Soul Side, you’ve got a couple Tower of Power re-releases on the calendar to help celebrate the group’s anniversary. Did they need to be tweaked or touched-up at all?

EC: They didn’t really need to be. These are things we’d already released them on our own label. To be frank, we were tired of handling all that. So when we signed a deal, we asked them to license it and take care of it for us, and they were happy to do it! So they have those projects. They’re all great. East Bay Archives was recorded in ’73. It was just a cassette, but it was a very good recording! We took it in the studio and put some high-end mastering process on it. Oakland’s Own was a record we did in 2008, so nothing needed to be tweaked on it.

AXS: The next tour starts in a couple weeks, yes?

EC: It’s not like we say, “We’re starting our tour now,” because we tour all the time. We go in and out all the time. We’ve been in and out all year. They call it a 50th anniversary tour because we’re touring and celebrating all year long! 

AXS: The centerpiece of the next leg is the pair of hometown gigs in Oakland on June 1 & 2. You’re planning on filming and recording those, right?

EC: We’re planning it as kind of a documentary of the show. But we’re having all the best members at the shows with us, and we’ll be interviewing everyone for the film. So it’s a big party with a hand-picked selection of guests!