How soul band Tower of Power conquered their demons: “We made every mistake you could make”

Music lovers new to Tower of Power might be tempted to say the world’s premier exponents of horn-driven funk and soul have staged a mighty comeback. But ‘comeback’ implies that an artist went away in the first place…

The originally Oakland-based crew founded by alto saxophonist Emilio Castillo and baritone sax meister Stephen ‘Doc’ Kupka have in fact, been steadily gigging and recording for 50 years and counting.

Live audiences are treated to a mix that blends the group’s two trumpets, three saxes, full rhythm section, bubbling Hammond organ, and six vocalists with clarity akin to an audiophile-grade studio recording.

Castillo and Kupka award Audix microphones a sizable share of the credit here, deploying everything from the D6, D2, and D4 on drums to OM-series handhelds on vocals to yet another D6 paired with i5 instrument mics on the organ’s Leslie speaker. Castillo, drummer David Garibaldi, keyboardist Roger Smith and monitor engineer Nathan Bauld trace the band’s tenure and their penchant for Audix mics.

Tell us about your music beginnings…

Emilio Castillo: At 14, I started learning to play rock music and not long after, had a tight little teenage band. One night I saw this band called The Spiders. They were so completely soulful it just blew my mind. I wanted to be like them.

My brother knew this guy Mic Gillette, who had grown up in Fremont in the East Bay. We got together and started patterning us after The Spiders. Their horns and vocals were tight, and they did some obscure soul music rather than all the songs every other band was covering. Most importantly, they were exciting to watch live.

At the same time, Sly Stone was a popular disc jockey on KSOL. My father took me to see him. He said, “Go see his band Sly and the Family Stone.” I was like, “Oh, Sly Stone the DJ?” 

My dad made arrangements for us to be there even though we were underage. We sat by the stage, right by the Hammond B-3 organ. The band started to play but there was nobody at the B-3. Larry Graham sang Losing You by The Temptations and Georgia.

Then, Sly walked through the dance floor wearing a Sherlock Holmes outfit! He walked up onstage and sat at the organ. They went into Can’t Turn You Loose by Otis Redding, so fast it was like light speed. It was at that moment that I understood what I wanted to do.

We were originally called The Motowns.

How did the band get its name?

EC: We were originally called The Motowns. My brother and I grew up in Detroit and my mom really loved our band. She suggested that name.

Then, the whole hippie thing started, and people were growing their hair long. Doc was the first hippie we’d ever met in a musical context. He came into the band, and we started to write songs together. We had been playing a lot of clubs, but wanted to play the Fillmore and knew we’d never get in there looking like slick ’60s soul guys and being named The Motowns.

We were in a studio called Bay Town Records working on a song for Van Amburg, a legendary Bay Area news anchor on KGO. In the office, there was this list of prospective band names – all that weird ’70s stuff like Lothar and the Hand People and Strawberry Alarm Clock. 

I’m going, “This ain’t us.” Then I saw Tower of Power. I went down and said to the guys, “We’re Tower of Power.” Everyone was like, “That’s us!”

David, your drumming is famous for its groove and syncopation and a pillar of the Tower sound. Tell us about where it comes from.

David Garibaldi: When I joined the band, it was an instant lock. Everything that inspired me, everything I had learned, it all just sort of came out in Tower of Power. Emilio loves percussion, and he was an advocate for me bringing my ideas into the band. 

So, all the soul music I was into –The Meters, and drummers like Clyde Stubblefield and Bernard Purdie – I put it all into this big bag and made things up as I went along. I think I still am!

We had problems during our first 20 years related to drugs and alcohol. We made every mistake you could make.

You’ve been recording gigging for over 50 years. What’s the secret to your staying power?

DG: Consistency. This is the hardest working bunch you could ever want to find. When I first joined, we rehearsed every day. We would start rehearsing again the very next day after finishing a tour.

EC: We had problems during our first 20 years related to drugs and alcohol. We made every mistake you could make. At the end of the ’80s, I was brought to my knees and sobered up. Then Doc got sober. I tell people I believe God had a plan for this band, and it wasn’t for us to implode. It was to affect people in a positive way.

DG: I came back into the band after working on Doc’s first solo recording [Kick It Up a Step] in 1998. I was hesitant because of what had happened over the years. But working on Doc’s record, I noticed that Doc was clean and sober and so was Rocco.

Next thing I know, I go see the band at the Fillmore and of course they sounded fantastic. Herman Matthews was playing drums, but he was getting ready to leave, so they asked me if I was interested in coming back. It was like when we first started, the difference being that we prayed together instead of getting loaded. That has made all the difference in the world.

It was like when we first started, the difference being that we prayed together instead of getting loaded.

Which Audix mics does the band use, and on which sources?

DG: Just about everyone in the band uses Audix on something. My first set was a drum miking kit consisting of a D6 and I believe D2s and D4s on toms. I love them because they have a very low-profile way of attaching to the drums. 

They don’t get in the way, and the way my drums sound is phenomenal. I’m not an engineer, but I can say subjective things to the monitor and front-of-house guys like “more thud” and they can always dial it in. Our sound has been more consistent than ever since we’ve used Audix.

EC: Doc’s baritone sax mic is an Audix D4. On background vocals, Adolfo Acosta and Mike Bogart [trumpeters], and Roger Smith [keyboardist] each have an OM6. There are several on the drums as David described. For me, I’m playing alto into an Audix SCX-25A Unlike Dave, on that mic.

Nathan Bauld: As the monitor engineer, I have to say the D6 crushes every other kick mic. Take the frequency response — it has a built-in kick drum EQ. It’s fantastic that a capsule performs this way. You don’t need to add EQ, which can offset the phase and smear the transients. 

By getting the right frequencies up front, you preserve the impact. It’s also a better mic than most because of its compact size.

Roger Smith: On the Leslie [rotary speaker] for my Hammond organ, I use the D6 on the bass rotor and two i5 mics on the treble horn. The D6 is phenomenal at bringing out the rich bass of the Leslie, and with the i5s I can hear the details of the organ in the monitors without the mics picking up sources that may be louder onstage. 

At home in my studio, I also use a pair of SCX25A as drum overheads and on a variety of acoustic sources. They are so versatile, and what you put in front of them is what you get out. Live, I also use an OM5 for my backing vocals.

DG: Our front-of-house guy Andrew Gilchrist has worked with Maceo Parker and Dumpstaphunk and a bunch of New Orleans bands. Whatever it is the Audix mics deliver, he gets that times 10 with us. That classic R&B sound with the nice bass but a lot of clarity on top. People who come to see us comment that they can distinctly hear every instrument in the mix with a lot of separation.

EC: Of course, onstage, we don’t hear the front-of-house. We hear our monitors. After Andrew had been mixing FOH for a while, I started receiving comments about the quality of his mixes, and they were nothing but compliments.

Giving each instrument its own space is challenging in a band the size of Tower of Power, with all the open mics going at once, yet you pull it off. How?

DG: We’ve always had great people doing it. The difference now is that with Audix, our sound is consistent and stable.

EC: In addition to all those instruments, we have six people who sing. Our lead singer plays keyboards and trumpet. With mixes, people think that the more you put in, the bigger it sounds. In fact, everything gets more crowded and can sound boxier. Audix mics help us to avoid all that and achieve a high-quality mix with clarity.

Audix mics help us achieve a high-quality mix with clarity.