INTERVIEW: Emilio Castillo of Tower of Power Talks About Music And His Band



Emilio Castillo is a founding member, bandleader, and saxophone player for the legendary American R&B and soul-based horn section and band Tower of Power. Having formed in 1968 in Oakland, CA, they recently released a  new live album, 50 Years Of Funk & Soul: Live At The Fox Theater, that was recorded in their hometown in 2018 and which celebrates their amazing longevity and enormous influence upon American music. Recently I had the good fortune to chat with the bandleader of this band famous for combining elements of R&B, soul, jazz, funk, and rock like no other band before or since, and our conversation, edited for length and clarity is below.

Americana Highways: Who would you consider your biggest teachers and/or influences to be? 

Emilio Castillo: I have several, but I  would have to say my father was my biggest influence. I really looked up to him and he guided me as a leader and everything that I am as a bandleader today, I got from my dad.

Musically speaking, the first time I took serious music lessons was from a musician named Norman Bates, the bass player for Dave Brubeck.

I was just a kid when he gave me those lessons and I had no idea why I was taking them. I didn’t understand what I was doing, until one day I realized that all music was math and it came together like a game of Tetris. I started communicating by numbers with the members of the band that I was in and that really changed the way I viewed music.

I’m also a sober guy in the recovery community and I have a sponsor whose name is Michael G. and he’s guided me through sobriety for the last thirty-three years.

 Those are the three men I would say right now.

AH: How would you answer this question: “I knew I wanted to be a musician when”?

EC: I knew I wanted to be a musician when the Beatles came out and I got in a little bit of trouble. My dad said go in the bedroom and fill out this notebook with why you’re never going to steal again. And he said, while you’re in the thick of something, it’s going to keep you off the street.

And I came out and I said, Dad, me and my friends want to start a band. The Beatles had just come out on the first day we saw them we wanted to start one. We hadn’t practiced a bit, we just became a band and started to play. And the moment I had a band, it never changed and I still love it to this day.

AH: How would you describe your sound and approach to music?

EC: Well, I approach music from a few different angles, but most certainly from a rhythmic point of view. Ever since I was a teenager, I have always liked to mess with the rhythm of the music. 

I used to make up these weird percolator kind of beats and dictate them to my brother who was the drummer at the time and make him learn them. And then I would make the bass player play a line that fit exactly with the beat and then I would teach the guitar player how to play in and out through those two guys. And then I would then play something on the keyboard that would go in and out through the three of them. 

So it’s kind of like when it comes to music, I try to build a little building and make a fabric that breathes.

AH: How would you describe Tower of Power’s approach to music? 

EC: You know Tower of Power is the only thing I’ve ever done so my approach is their approach. I’ve done it for fifty-three years now and we all have the same mindset, literally. We’re honed in on this concept and we chip away and polish the diamond every day.

AH: What is your favorite thing about playing live?

EC: My favorite thing about playing live is when you have a high-energy audience because that brings the best out in us. When you have the energy coming off the stage, and you are leading that energy, and you have it coming back to the stage, it just takes the music to another level. We call that being in the Oakland zone.

AH: Do you have a favorite song to play live?

EC: I always say “Only So Much Oil In The Ground” because it’s really easy to play. it’s really up-tempo, and the lyric because it talks about the energy crisis. The lyrics become more pertinent every year that we play it. And I love the horn arrangement.

AH: What advice would you give to any up-and-coming musicians?

EC: Well, you know, practice makes perfect. Find a power greater than yourself to put your faith in. Stay away from drugs and alcohol and stay committed. I really think that’s pretty good life advice for anyone because I can tell you, it’s worked for me.

AH: Going back to the band’s early days, did you ever feel that you guys would last this long?

EC: I get asked that question all the time. I had no real vision. When I was a teenager, you know, I was just so into the band and so into playing live that I didn’t even think about it. There was this band that we followed back then called The Spiders and when they got a gig in Sacramento, I thought to myself if I could just get a gig in Sacramento, you know, that to me would have been making it. So, in that sense, I have far exceeded my wildest dreams.

AH: How would you like to be remembered?

EC: I would like to be remembered as a man of principles and musical integrity. That’s about it.

Tower of Power’s 50 Years Of Funk & Soul: Live At The Fox Theater is now available on their website.

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