Tower of Power has been an institution in the soul-funk genre for 52 years. Still making new music, they are set to release their 27th album, Step Up, the follow up to their 50th anniversary album, Soul Side of Town.
Bleu Bop got the chance to ask founder, Emilio Castillo, about the new album, influences, and some other fun topics.
Bleu Bop: You celebrated your 50th anniversary in 2018 with the critically acclaimed release, Soul Side of Town. You’re set to release a brand new album, Step Up. At a time when most bands from the 60s would be putting out a greatest hits album, what gives you the drive to make new music? Is there pressure to conform to current trends - neo-soul, modern jazz, lo-fi?
Emilio Castillo: Making new music is what keeps us relevant, to our fans, the world at large, and ourselves. Bands that don’t continue to create and hone their talents become stale and unhealthy. We’ve always made new music through good times and bad. It validates us. We, as a band, feel no pressure to conform to genres, trends, fads, and the like. No matter what we do we always sound like Tower of Power and we’ve realized for some time that it’s a blessing.
BB: Step Up came out of the same sessions as Soul Side of Town. How would you say this album differs from the last? What can fans expect?
EC: Step Up is a bit more creative rhythmically and lyrically. It was our intention all along to push the bar in every way possible. We’re extremely proud of both recordings.
BB: TOP has had to replace many members over the years, can you describe the selection process in deciding who to invite into the TOP family? What kind of skills are you looking for in a band member?
EC: When looking for new members to come into the band we reach out to people we trust and leave no stone unturned. Usually, these days, people are calling us; since it looks good on the resume to have played with TOP. Obviously they have to be great players and know our style of music, but the most important thing to us is that they are principled people with no glaring character defects because we spend a lot of time together and want our reputation to remain unstained.
No matter what we do we always sound like Tower of Power and we’ve realized for some time that it’s a blessing.
BB: The title track “Step Up,” is an instant get up on your feet dance groove. What is your process when composing/arranging a new track? Would you say it’s more collaborative or on an individual basis?
EC: When putting together a new track, I’m working with the rhythm section and initially I convey to them my vision for the song, if it’s one of the other guy's songs then he explains his particular vision for it. Then, as a group, we all start chipping in ideas. When you have musicians of this caliber it would be foolish not to. Once the track is recorded I send it to Dave Eskridge, our horn arranger, with any specific ideas I have about horn lines. At that point, I’ve already gotten the vocals and background parts so that he can write his arrangement around them while looking for unique rhythmic accents to catch with the horns. So it’s definitely a collaborative effort!
BB: TOP is notorious in particular for a unique one-of-a-kind sound to the horn section. Phrasing is short and quick, with rapid fire attacks and intricately placed stabs. Could you explain how this style emerged throughout the development of the band? What role models did you look up to growing up?
EC: Since I was a kid, learning how to make music with a band, I was always fascinated with rhythm. I used to make up weird beats and teach them to my brother Jack, who played drums for us back then, and then I would make up unique horn parts to fit those rhythms. When I met Dave Garibaldi we saw eye to eye about that and pushed the envelope even further. I was not, what I would call - ‘a very legitimate’ sort of sax player at the time, so I had the bad habit of cutting my notes short and telling the other guys in the horn section to do the same. Turned out it wasn't such a bad habit after all because it formulated our sound and set us apart. My role models back then were the James Brown band, Dyke and The Blazers, and Sly and the Family Stone.
I had the bad habit of cutting my notes short and telling the other guys in the horn section to do the same. Turned out it wasn't such a bad habit after all because it formulated our sound and set us apart.
BB: Is there any artist you always wanted to play with but never got a chance to? What about any current artists?
EC: I've always had a dream of redoing our song "Only So Much Oil" with Sting. He once told me he thought that was a great tune! Jacob Collier is a great new artist and we just did a recording with him where he wrote a sort of tribute song to TOP. The whole band played on it! That was really special. There are lots of really excellent new young artists and we'd love to make music with them.
BB: Have you heard the Tower of Power ensemble at Berklee College of Music? How would you say they stack up?
EC: I've heard the Tower of Power ensemble at Berklee School of Music many times and they're usually stellar. It's very flattering.
BB: You have an upcoming tour to support the album, what’s it like to be on tour at this time of your lives? Still pumping out new music, what kind of mix of old and new tunes do you plan to perform? Which song gets the biggest rise out of the audience?
EC: People tell me all the time "I don't know how you do it?!" - talking about traveling so much, but I always tell them "It's what I've always done!" I think touring and playing with the band all the time keeps me young!!! We're playing TOP classics and some obscure choices from our past as well as some new material. One of the biggest songs, as far as the audiences’ response goes, our tune "Diggin' On James Brown" is huge.
I think touring and playing with the band all the time keeps me young!
BB: Emilio, you and Stephen both mention in your bios that you would like the opportunity to score or write a tune for film, is there anything in the works?
EC: We've had a few songs in movies and also in TV series but no soundtracks or film scores yet.
BB: Before the last album release, in 2018, it had been nine years since the previous studio album of 2009, were there side projects at the time?
EC: We did a project called "East Bay Archives". It was an old recording of the band playing in the '70s at a club in Boston. It actually came out really nice. Several of the other guys did solo projects as well. We worked on the new recordings over a six-year period so it was a huge undertaking.
BB: Can you give any advice to fledgling musicians trying to make a name for themselves in the industry?
EC: Giving advice about "making a name in the industry" is not really my forte. I just tell 'em that if you're passionate about making music just stick with it. Pursue your dream and see what God has in store for you.
BB: What and who is the future of soul-funk? Any new artists that seem promising?
EC: I dig Ivan Neville's band Dumpstahfunk! They have their own sound and it's a unique New Orleans Funk Rock type of thing.
BB: Lastly, we always end with asking, what is your favorite jazz album of all time?
EC: I'm no jazz buff, but I love "Pass the Plate" by The Crusaders.
Step up will be released on March 20, 2020. Follow Tower of Power on their social pages for up to date news and events: