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Tom Coster: From the Street

Return to 'Europa' – Part 1

Andrián Pertout speaks to keyboardist/composer Tom Coster about his beginnings, his collaboration with Carlos Santana and his sessions with Boz Scaggs, Zucherro and Joe Satriani.

Due to the artistic foresight of both his parents, Tom Coster was encouraged early in his life to explore the world of music, and so via the piano and the accordion began an eminent career that so far spans three decades.  In the late 60s, he played in the Air Force, later joining jazz/rock group ‘Loading Zone’, but it would be his association with Gabor Szabo in 1971 that would lead to his six-year stint with legendary guitarist Carlos Santana.  He was consequently featured on six classic Santana albums, as well as three Devadip Carlos Santana solo releases, including ‘Caravanserai’, ‘Welcome’, ‘Lotus’, ‘Borboletta’, ‘Amigos’ and ‘Moonflower’, with outstanding songwriting collaborations on tracks such as ‘Europa’, ‘Flor D’Luna’ (Moonflower) and ‘Dance Sister Dance’.  Tom Coster played at the 1978 Montreux Jazz Festival with Billy Cobham, and then followed on with a solo carer, his second offering of ‘Ivory Expeditions’ marking the debut with his son, Tom Coster junior.  He went on to rejoin Santana in the mid eighties to release ‘Freedom’, as well as the 20-year anthology titled ‘Viva Santana’.  Through the years, as well as recording and performing with Vital Information, he has participated in studio sessions with the likes of Boz Scaggs, Zucherro & Bobby Holiday and Joe Satriani.

Tell me about your beginnings as a keyboardist (or should I say accordionist).  What was the musical experience of the sixties essentially about?

TC: "Well, my parents were born in Malta, and my father was very much gifted in music, he played piano, mandolin, saxophone and guitar.  But he had to stop playing at a young age because he had a pretty severe heart condition, and eventually passed away, when I was about nineteen.  And I was lucky to have him up until then, because he was a big support system for me.  I mean, without my father and my mother supporting me, I wouldn’t have been involved in music, because they really kept me focused, and made me realize, if you can imagine, in those days, the importance of music.  So here’s a family that just wanted their children to be involved in music.  And they actually started me on piano, but I didn’t particularly care for the teachers, or the type of music.  For some reason, as a youngster, I gravitated towards boogie-woogie and things that were a little bit more exiting musically.  I found classical music, when I was four years old, to be just a little bit boring.  I liked more active type music I guess, and so I always had a difficult time with my teachers.

“And then one day my mother and father were visiting a family, another Maltese family.  They had an accordion, and while they were talking, I asked if I could play the accordion.  I fell in love with it, and I think the thing that I loved so much about it was the different sounds it made, the different timbres were really intriguing to me.  And when I began to study the accordion, I approached it very differently than most accordion students.  I had to learn the light classics and all the standard accordion tunes, but I also took it into a jazz area, and became sort of like the black sheep of the accordion class.  And I was real tiny, I was maybe eight or nine years old, the accordion was real big on me, and they marvelled at what I was coming up with.  I played the accordion in a very unique and different way, and my teacher knew that I was somebody special.  I had very, very good technique and my lessons were usually very, very good, but I always took it into this other abstract direction, and my teacher kind of felt, ‘Oh, I think we’ve got somebody here that might amount to something.’  You know how teachers can sense when they have an exceptional student.  And so really the accordion was my main instrument, until I got into the airforce band, and then from there I kind of taught myself piano.“

How do you reflect today on the period in the seventies, and your eminent collaboration with Carlos Santana?

TC: "Well, what I loved so much about the seventies Andrián, is that in those days bands didn’t come about because they looked a certain way, or they were marketed like, ‘We wanna market you like that, because you’re gonna sell here, and we wanna market you here.’  It wasn’t about that, it was about raw creative energy, and raw music, and the bands were successful because of their uniqueness, not because they were being marketed in a certain way.  And in those days, when you did get a record contract, you had pretty much creative musical freedom, so what you heard was what the band was about, not what the lawyers, the attorneys, or the people involved in the music industry wanted us to be, it was what we were in a raw form.  So that to me is probably an era that I may never see in my lifetime again, the fact that you could have that creative freedom.

“And then of course, before I got into Santana, somewhere in my mind I always felt that I was going to play in the band.  I can’t even tell you why, it was like some spiritual thing, and suddenly I got called to do it.  And the reason I got the gig is firstly because I had become one of the premier players in the Bay area, so my name was out, but also because I had taken this gig with this Hungarian guitarist named Gabor Szabo, and Gabor had written a tune for Carlos that Santana used on the Abraxas album called ‘Gypsy Queen’.  And I ended up playing with Gabor, and whenever we would come to the Bay area, Carlos would always be the first one in the club.  I would always come early to the gig, I had my Hammond, Fender Rhodes and Clavinet, and Carlos would be sitting right there in the audience.  And there would be no one else in the club, except for the people who ran the club, Carlos and myself, and we’d start talking.  And so he came in every night and heard me playing, and it’s interesting because Carlos used to have a little tiny tape recorder, and this was before all this new technology, it was a mono Sony tape recorder, in fact he gave it to me as a gift right after I joined the band, but he would keep it in his pocket and record our sets.  And then I would hear him talking about me to his friends, ‘Man, that organ player is incredible!’  Blah, blah…  He gave me the tape later, and I heard him talking about me, but by then I had already gotten the gig.

“But Carlos, Mingo Lewis and Mike Shrieve wanted to go into more of a jazz flavour, and Gregg Rollie just wasn’t that kind of a keyboard player, so they were interested in having two keyboard players.  So I eventually got the gig along with Richard Kermode, and I thought it was a wonderful, wonderful moulding of two musicians, because Richard and I had different things to offer the band, but we worked together beautifully, and complemented each other beautifully, and also got along well.  So the colours that we brought into the band as keyboard players were pretty special, very, very special.  And that was at the time when keyboard technology was a newborn infant, and I was very fortunate to be on the ground floor of that.  And just being there at the right time, at the right place, I became a part of that keyboard history.  You know, playing the first Minimoog along with Jan Hammer, George Duke, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, and being a part of multi-keyboard playing with Joe Zawinul, and at the advent of keyboard mixers, special amps and speakers for keyboards.  I mean, we were the first to help invent all that stuff and bring it into reality, so it was really a very, very exciting time, but I had no idea at the time what it was going to manifest into, and now when I look back, I think it’s pretty amazing to have been a part of that history.”

Tell me about the rehearsals at your place.

TC: "Well, we didn’t have a lot of them, but Carlos and I actually did a fair amount of writing in our homes, just the two of us.  I would go over to his house, or he would come over to mine and do preliminary writing for the albums or preliminary sketches of how we wanted the albums to be like.  Carlos was usually the instigator, he always had a pretty amazing vision of what he wanted the next album to be like.  He had a pretty global understanding of where he wanted the music to go and it was a matter of just writing it and making his vision become a reality.  And he was always pretty focused in what he wanted, and so we did a lot of individual writing and then on occasions, if we wanted to change the pace in the band, we’d come over to the house.  I would make sure, as I mentioned to you last night, that I had all the instruments available for them.  It’s just a different environment, and sometimes that instils a different type of creative awareness, because environment can be very powerful.  When you’re in a dark dingy room or you’re in an uninspiring environment, that can sometimes suppress your creativity as opposed to an inspiring environment.”

‘Europa’, which was co-written with Carlos Santana just happens to be one of many examples of your fine compositional output.  Do you generally write music using a technical basis or is it more of a purely inspirational experience?

TC: "I think the key to successful writing in a band is to understand what the band’s environment is, like I could have written a lot of different types of tunes for Santana, but I felt that it was my job as a keyboard player, being more the orchestra of the band, to try to write material that was conducive to the sound of the band.  And I think the ultimate goal is not to change the direction of the band, but to try to enhance and support it.  And probably the most challenging thing for me was to realize the success of the band, and continue to write tunes to keep the band successful, which was pretty difficult.  It was difficult because as a band you want to grow, you want to educate the audience to new sounds and new tunes, but unfortunately it’s been proven time and time again through history that musicians will move faster than the audience will.  The audience always wants to stay at that one place.  And you can tell from the ‘Welcome’ album, and albums that followed, that we wanted to be more progressive, but unfortunately that wasn’t necessarily what our audience wanted.  And we found that we were starting to lose some of our following, because the music was becoming a little too progressive, and it wasn’t that street sound and Latin type music that had made the band popular.  So that was probably the biggest challenge, to try to keep it in that format.  But it wasn’t anything technical, it was mainly just trying to write for the environment, wherever that would take you, things that would feature Carlos’ guitar sound, the Latin percussion, and things like that.”

Through the years your name has also adorned the CD sleeves of the likes of Boz Scaggs, Zucherro & Bobby Holiday and Joe Satriani.  Do you discover other aspects of your art when you perform on other people’s records?

TC: "That’s a good question.  When you get to my level, I don’t know if level is the right word, but I think that then you develop a sound.  And generally when people call me, they call me because they want that sound on the record.  So even though I may not be playing everything exactly the way that I would want to, because obviously you’re trying to fit a musical environment that’s being created by someone else, but yet your playing, your feeling and emotion is you.  So maybe fifty percent of it is the way you interpret it, but you’re really here again to do what it is that the artist you’re working for needs from you.  Now, in the case of Alex, I had a wonderful opportunity to work on your brother’s record, and he wanted me to play for a very different reason.  He wanted the Tom Coster sound, and Tom Coster to play on this particular tune.  And it seems like he even wrote it with me in mind, so that’s a whole other thing, when somebody says, ‘I love what you represent, would you put that on my record.’  So here we’re talking about two very, very different situations.  We’re talking about somebody like your brother Alex, who was a big fan of Santana’s and hopefully me, and wrote a tune to feature me to some degree, whereas with Boz Scaggs, he wanted my accordion playing on his record, but it was really more of a background effect because he’s a vocalist, and he’s the person that is the star or focus you might say.  So I get hired for many things, like on the Satriani record, he just wanted a classic B-3, same organ type thing that I used to do with Carlos.  So here again, that’s a background thing.  I don’t know if you’ve heard of ‘Third Eye Blind’, they’re like a big platinum pop band, and they got me to play on their record.  And they don’t put the side people’s names on their records, they refuse to, which is OK with me, but they wanted some very obscure piano playing on their stuff, where you mute the strings on the grand piano, and play real obscure things, not necessarily musical.  And I get hired for that too, and most people don’t even know I’m on the record, and that’s OK, because you know, they hire you and they pay you, and what they do after that, you have no control over, it’s just the way it is.”

What do you have to say about the future of Tom Coster and Tom Coster junior?

TC: "Well, it’s hard to say anything about my son.  You know, I have a deep, deep love for my children that goes beyond words.  And I’m getting pretty old Andrián, I’ll be fifty-eight this year, and because the world is more difficult, at least it is in America, the music scene is so different than it was when I was their age, I just wish my son happiness, and I hope he achieves what is in his heart to achieve.  But most importantly, as his father, I would just like him to have peace in his heart and be happy, in whatever his does, I think that’s the ultimate goal.  What happened to me happens to about two percent of the world, if not less, so it’s hard I think for any of my children to do, and nor do I expect them to do what I was able to do.  Not that they don’t have the talent, it’s just that it’s a different time, you know, and my son is in certain areas much more talented than I am, so he has everything it takes to be successful, but what’s holding him back from really busting through and being a major force in the industry is just that there seems to be an awful lot of competition right now.  But he is getting there, it’s just a matter of time.

“And my daughter of course, she’s not in the music business, she wishes she could be but she isn’t, and she’s probably the happiest, because she doesn’t have that torment of, ‘Am I gonna be like my dad?’  And she’s gonna be getting married on July seventeenth, which is very, very exciting to us.  She has a wonderful man, he’s a professional bass tournament fisherman, and my passion is fishing, and that’s how they met, through my passion of fishing and my children’s love to fish.  Whenever we would finish our Santana tours, I would take them on these camping and fishing trips, so they grew to love fishing as I love it.  And you know, I guess happiness for my kids is the ultimate dream of both myself and my wife, and in my musical adventure and journey in life I’ve actually been blessed to have the same wonderful wife for thirty-five years, which is pretty unheard of in this industry.  And she has been tremendously supportive, and I couldn’t have done it without her really, she’s been there at our most humblest moments, when we didn’t have much, and to where we are today thanks to Carlos, giving me the opportunity to be known to the world.  We’ve had a great life, we truly have, we’ve been very blessed.”

“From the Street”, “The Forbidden Zone”, “Let’s Set the Record Straight” and “Gotcha” out on JVC Records.  Vital Information’s latest release “Where We Come From” out on Intuition Records.  For further information on the Tom Coster and Vital Information CD catalogue contact Simon Higgins at Vorticity Music.  Tel: (03) 9482 4603.  Mobile: (0412) 675 106.  Fax: (03) 9482 1623.  Email: m2@netspace.net.au  The Vital Information Home Page.


The second part of this interview was published in Mixdown Monthly issue #64, August 1999.  In this article he discussed
the Hammond B-3, his solo career, and his association with fusion band Vital Information.

'Mixdown' Monthly ~ Issue #63, July 7, 1999


All rights reserved. All text, graphics and sound files on this page are copyrighted.
Unauthorized reproduction and copying of this page is prohibited by law. Copyright © 1999 by Andrián Pertout.

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Tom Coster

Return to 'Europa' – Part 2

Andrián Pertout speaks to keyboardist/composer Tom Coster about the Hammond B-3, his solo career, and his association with fusion band Vital Information.

In the late sixties, in the auspicious setting of a strip club in the San Francisco Bay area, Tom Coster began to play the Hammond B-3 organ.  Invented by Laurens Hammond in Chicago in the late 1930s, the standard B-3 features two 61-key manuals and built-in percussion, chorus and vibrato effects, with two sets of nine drawbars per manual to add or subtract harmonics.  The two sets of rotating horns and bass woofer of the Leslie external tone cabinet being an integral part of the sound.  Although Tom is also an accomplished accordionist of some reputation, it was this instrument that introduced his talent to the world, and notably through the artistry of Gabor Szabo, Carlos Santana, Billy Cobham and later, fusion band Vital Information.  Melbourne’s Continental Café sets the scene for the June 1999 ‘Vital Information’ performance and keyboardist Tom Coster’s incredibly emotive accordion rendition of the Santana/Coster penned ‘Europa’.  Frank Gambale’s guitar mastery sketches the luminous background with serene chordal passages, while bassist Jeff Andrews and drummer Steve Smith delicately decorate the pulse, and in spite of Tom sporting a Hammond impersonator on the night, his amazing organ technique developed over a thirty year period certainly detracts from any negativity.

How did you learn to play the Hammond?

TC: "When I got out of the airforce there was a big need for Hammond players, and I knew about the Hammond, but I didn’t know how to play it.  And I got started totally by accident.  I was playing at a strip club, for strippers you know, in the sixties.  And in those days, in the San Francisco Bay area, they had after hours clubs, which were really fun, because all the great musicians who were in town would all congregate after hours.  And that started at about two-thirty in the morning, when all the bars would close, and we’d then play until like six or seven in the morning.  They had a Hammond B-3, in-house, and the regular organ player got sick one day, and the guy asked me to play it, and I said, ‘Wow, I don’t know anything about it.’  I didn’t even know how to turn it on, because it had two switches to turn it on.  So I had to get somebody to help me turn it on and set it up for me.  And I became immediately infatuated by it, and eventually it was that instrument that gave me the notoriety towards people like Janis Joplin and Carlos Santana.  And people like that were noticing me, and wanted me in their band, so it was really kind of incredible how I just fell into playing the instrument, and that was really my key to the door of success in that era.”

What were the extras incorporated into the Hammond B-3 cutomized by Bill Beer of ‘Keyboard Products’ in LA that you were using in those days?  What did the additional rocker switches do and what was the overdrive feature of the percussive effect?

TC: "What happened is that when I got the organ, you know, I’d never seen one before, I could tell that it was a custom Hammond, because a lot of it was the same as the Hammond, but then it had this tray with these rocker switches down below.  I started fiddling around with them, and I realized, ‘Oh my goodness, this gives it distortion,’ so it really altered the sound, and this was before synthesizers.  And when I joined the band it was a gothic band, it was huge, and we would play these huge arenas every night, and because Richard and I were multi-keyboard players, it was sort of undecided what he and I were going to play, like we did a lot of switching around.  He would play organ, I’d play Rhodes, he’d play Rhodes, I’d play organ and clavinet or strings, whatever, but as we continued to work together it became more evident that my organ playing was a little bit more what Carlos wanted.  And I found that whenever Carlos would play a solo, and when I played a solo after him, or when we traded, I didn’t particularly think the Hammond cut and was able to keep up with his guitar.  So I started fiddling around with these rockers, and it added enough distortion on the organ.  They are little rocker switches, and just like an on/off switch, but there’s one for every drawbar.  You see, there’s nine drawbars, so there’s nine switches.  And I found that every time I did a solo, if I pressed on those switches, my sound would elevate, and it would be then more parallel to his guitar sound.  So it became sort of a famous organ sound, but when I would play regular Hammond with the band, I would defeat them, and then when I soloed, I would just activate them.  And it was a sound that was able to compete with his guitar, and became sort of a traditional sound for me in the band, yeah.”

How did you record the instrument in the studio?  Did you use the dual Leslie 122s and Fender Twin Reverb set-up inspired by Larry Young both in the studio and in a live situation?

TC: "It was inspired by Larry Young, and in the studio we tended more towards the Leslie sound, and live of course, the reason we ended up using Leslies along with the amp was just to get the organ to project more.  But the only time we ever really used the organ through twin reverbs was when we used this keyboard called the Yamaha YC45D, which we first saw with the Miles Davis band.  And it just so happened that I had been playing one even before I got into Santana, so I was pretty aware of that instrument.  But normally in the studio it was primarily the Leslies.”

What is the organ technique behind the characteristic shimmering effect produced on tracks such as ‘One With the Sun’ on ‘Borboletta’ and ‘Love, Devotion and Surrender’ on ‘Welcome’?

TC: "Well, a lot of it is pulling the drawbars, as you’re playing you literally pull the drawbars and turn the Leslie on and off.  And what it does is it takes the sound and makes it sound like it’s shooting around.  We did some amp things where you actually use the same technique, but you use like a twin reverb for example with vibrato and you do that same shimmering effect, but as you pull these drawbars out and get the Leslie to swirl the sound, you increase and decrease the volume using the expression pedal, so that it sounds like the sounds are alive and they’re shimmering around.  And in a lot of cases I used a lot of reverb, to cause the sounds to even come more alive.  Yeah, it’s a pretty nice technique, it’s something that’s really only conducive with the Hammond really.”

With ‘TC’ and ‘Ivory Expeditions’ you then launched a solo career, which was duly followed by various releases with JVC Records.  What is the philosophy behind Tom Coster the solo artist?

TC: "Well, the first two records I did, which by the way were just re-released on Fantasy as a double CD package, they’re probably two of my best records, and the only reason I say that is because those were the things that were sort of bundled up in me for many years of my life.  That’s what came out when I was given an opportunity, and those two records are probably more representative than anything I’ve ever done, and what I’m about as a player you might say.  But then of course as I continued on with my career, after Fantasy I got on another label called ‘Headfirst’.  They wanted me to do more what we call in America ‘radio friendly’ music, more easy listening, and so I did two records for them that actually became very popular.  They were actually Top 5, Contemporary Jazz Billboard chart albums, but I really did them with a sort of a formula in mind, and they weren’t really representative of what I am as a player.  I wanted to please them, but at the same time I knew that there was more to me than what those records represented.  So when I got on JVC, which was the third label I’d been with, they had me do the first album, which was pretty radio friendly, but after that they realized that this isn’t what Tom Coster is all about, so they allowed me to do three fusion records, which were voted in America as three of the best fusion records of that particular era.  And I felt a lot of peace in my heart because at that point in time they really represented my ability as a player, and as a writer and fusion artist.  So I feel pretty complete, and that I have a pretty good representation of my talent out there, which is really important.  Probably the only thing that’s not out there, which will be, is my ability to play sensitive and beautiful melodies like ‘Europa’ on the accordion, which is a big part of my heritage as well.  And you know, hopefully I’ll do an album that will represent that side of me as well, and I’m pretty excited about that.”

How would you describe your approach to keyboard style and technique in your current work with Vital Information?

TC: "The thing that I love so much about Vital Information is that I’m very close to Steve, he’s probably without a doubt my best friend, our families are close, and we are very close as people.  And I love his playing, and when we play together it’s like one person playing.  I mean, we’ve learnt so much about each other’s playing over the years.  And the thing I love so much about the band is that I really get to play my heart out, and the limitations in the band are really my own limitations.  And that’s a situation that I’ve never really been in before, so I really love the idea of going to the gig every night, when we’re on tour.  And every time I play, I can approach the music in a different way, and that’s exciting to me.  It’s not like I’m playing the tune in the same way, night after night, because there’s a new challenge each and every night.  And that type of spirit is what I really want to do with the rest of my life, yeah.”

‘Once in a Lifetime’ on ‘Where We Come From’ utilizes effects such as the Maestro Ring Modulator and wah-wah pedal on the Fender Rhodes electric piano.  Were these also evident in your Santana recordings?

TC: "With the Santana recordings I never really had this particular Rhodes, this is a Dynamo Rhodes, by Chuck Monte, and it has some very, very special modifications that weren’t even around in the Santana days.  Most of the distortion type sounds that I got through the electric piano with Carlos were just through overdriving an amplifier.  But with this, you don’t have to overdrive the amplifier, you can get all that through the ring modulator.  The custom Rhodes that I have has what they call tri tremolos, so you have three outputs, not just the stereo ones, but three outputs, which give you this sort of 3D imaging.  And what we did is we put the clean sounds on each side with this tremolo kind of beating, which is totally adjustable, you can make it beat faster or slower.  So we had the faders hard panned, left and right for the clean sound, and then the distorted sound right in the middle.  I actually took three direct boxes and ran three faders, and then you could mix them to your discretion.  And then I used this old wah-wah pedal made by Mu-tron, which is not only a wah-wah pedal but a volume pedal too, like you can hit both switches.  And what I found out totally by accident is that if I had it on the volume and the wah simultaneously, I could bring in the effects as I was stepping on the pedal.  So as I’m playing I could get the distorted sound, and then by changing the level I could get the clean sound.  And that was pretty interesting, and it happened totally by accident really.  But the configuration of the instrument is much different than in the Santana albums, that was all pretty much raw, just playing, just overdriving the electronics."

“From the Street”, “The Forbidden Zone”, “Let’s Set the Record Straight” and “Gotcha” out on JVC Records.  Vital Information’s latest release “Where We Come From” out on Intuition Records.  For further information on the Tom Coster and Vital Information CD catalogue contact Simon Higgins at Vorticity Music.  Tel: (03) 9482 4603.  Mobile: (0412) 675 106.  Fax: (03) 9482 1623.  Email: m2@netspace.net.au  The Vital Information Home Page.


The first part of this interview was published in Mixdown Monthly issue #63, June 1999.  In this article he discussed his beginnings, his collaboration with Carlos Santana and his sessions with Boz Scaggs, Zucherro and Joe Satriani.

'Mixdown' Monthly ~ Issue #64, August 4, 1999


All rights reserved. All text, graphics and sound files on this page are copyrighted.
Unauthorized reproduction and copying of this page is prohibited by law. Copyright © 1999 by Andrián Pertout.

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