By Roy Rahl
The ingredients for a great interview are really very basic: Find a legendary musician who has worked with everyone and has done just about everything, give him some coffee, turn on the recorder and keep out of the way.
Steve Lukather is precisely that legendary musician and luckily my timing was just right. After some coffee he was happy to sit down and discuss just about anything – and he did just that! If there is anyone in rock n’ roll whose knowledge of the industry and stories are worth hearing, it’s Steve Lukather. He has performed with seemingly every major artist of the past forty years. This includes everyone from Alice Cooper to Cheap Trick to Quincy Jones to Ringo to Michael Jackson. That’s only naming a few of the major artists he spoke about in this interview, not to mention Toto! I thoroughly enjoyed what he referred to as “old guy talking”.
Toto has just released their first album of new material since 2006. Toto XIV is classic Toto combining their uniquely recognizable sound with an updated approach. Lukather goes into detail about what it’s like to sit down with a group of old high school buddies who have not written material in this configuration for decades. He talks about the decisions Toto confronted in order to resurrect a classic band without sounding stale or coming off like their in it for the quick buck.
But for all that Toto is, it is not all that Lukather has to offer. It seems he is always on tour with somebody. The man is in high demand and for good reason. It was great to sit down and talk with him about just about anything that came to mind, and there was a lot to talk about!
Note: This interview took place on Saturday, March 14. The following day Lukather’s long time friend and fellow Toto founder Mike Porcaro passed away after fighting an extended battle with ALS.
Roy: Man, you’re always touring!
Steve: Yeah man! I’ve been on the road with Larry Carlton in Japan and Asia. We did a DVD. I came home for four days and I’ve been on the road with Ringo until Sunday and I get a little time off and then I’m doing preps for Toto and then we start. We’ll be out until mid-September and then Ringo again in October. And then 2016 all Toto all the rest of the world and back to the USA. We’re going everywhere. This year is Europe and the United States. And next year will be Asia, Australia, the United States, Europe and maybe South America, Mexico; that sorta thing. It’s gonna go for a while because things are going really, really well for us, you know. It’s very strange, wonderfully strange that everything has turned around for us in such a positive way.
But you know it’s very bittersweet because Mike Porcaro is really not doing well.
Roy: I’m so sorry to hear that.
Steve: ALS is a brutal way to go out, man. That’s all I can tell you. It’s cruel and awful. I was with him yesterday and it was really hard.
Roy: I’m really sorry to hear that.
Steve: Yeah. When I think of all the assholes that are still walking around on planet Earth and I think about a good man like him going down, it’s so heart breaking. Makes you wonder, like, what the fuck’s it all about, Alfie?
Roy: Exactly. It’s always the assholes that survive.
Steve: Yeah well, they’re afraid of death, that’s why. They know it’s waiting. Eventually you pay the piper one way or the other. I’d like to get a home movie of Dick Cheney entering the gates of Hell. That’d be fun for me.
Roy: I think the Devil would be afraid of him.
Steve: And I know a few other people the Devil would be afraid of, believe me. This is a very strange business I’m in, you know. One minute somebody can be your friend and the next minute they turn into Satan. It’s very strange. Greed. Money. Power. It’s a very addictive drug.
Roy: I can imagine. You’ve got enough history with the industry. Compare now to when you were getting started.
Steve: Well, forty years in I’ve seen a lot. It’s weird to even say. Right out of high school I started working. Started making records for real when I was about eighteen, almost nineteen. Before that I was doing demos and sort of like being in the minor leagues, and then being brought up to the majors.
But it’s a different world now. We seemed to have gone backwards in a lot of ways. The technology moves forward but the intelligence level regresses. I don’t know; I don’t want to sound arrogant or anything like that. But, you know, the Internet is a wonderful place and it’s also a gigantic nest of misinformation that the people swear is the truth. It’s hard to argue with people. I just don’t. I keep my opinions to myself. I’ve earned the right to have one just like everybody else.
Hey, I sound an old guy saying “it was better back in the old days” [Laughs]. I’m not afraid of new things. I’ve done a lot of interesting new things. This year even, you know.
Roy: When the technology gets easier you have to think less.
Steve; Well you know they stopped teaching kids cursive. Now the new one is “well, we don’t really have to teach you math. Take out a calculator”. So what you’re doing is ... the idiocracy of the movies is becoming reality.
Roy: You become tech reliant.
Steve: Well sure man! It’s really easy to control stupid people. I don’t mean stupid, I mean uneducated. You just say “I don’t know what to do” and they tell you what to do and you go “okay, that must be a fact” rather than thinking it through or weighing the pros and cons before making a decision.
And it’s the same thing with music. You make it really easy to make music and they think that anybody can do it; and I think it’s suffered. You’re dealing with the Grammy Awards and people are getting best vocal of the year and they didn’t sing like that. That’s really weird, isn’t it?
Roy: Autotune wins the Grammys then.
Steve: Well, it just doesn’t seem right to me, you know? I’m not opposed to technology. I think technology’s awesome. Non-destructive editing, unlimited tracks, instant recall for mixes. It’s some great shit. And yeah man, if you use a little touch of something once in a while, it’s cool. You have an incredible performance but one fuckin’ note is just a little out of time, man, it’s fine!
But now piecemealing something together half a syllable by half a syllable and passing it off as a performance is bullshit, man, that’s all. I mean look at Steely Dan. They used to comp guitar solos. I comp guitar solos. I comp vocals. Sure. But they’re performances.
Roy: And it’s the imperfections that kind of make it cool, you know?
Steve: Well here’s the thing, nobody sings out of tune anymore. Even the slightest little inflection ... look at all of the old sixties records. Those aren’t perfect records; but they fuckin’ felt great, you know! There was an out of tune guitar lick. There was a tambourine on top of the beat. There was a little looseness in the horns and strings and stuff. But there was an overall vibe, man!
But now it’s like, there’s no old people! A ninety year old woman, she’s had plastic surgery, dyed hair, fat sucked out, tits brought up. She’s a ninety year old woman trying to look like she’s twenty-five. I mean, it’s kinda weird. There’s no old people anymore! [Laughs]
Roy: [Laughs] I don’t know. I look at myself in the mirror. There’s plenty of old people.
Steve: [Laughs] Listen, I’m guilty of painting my hair too. But I’ve been doing it since I was twenty-five. My mom was gray when she was nineteen. So I’ve been doing it my whole life, and eventually, now that I’m fifty-seven I’ve got to start letting some of that gray shit come in otherwise I’m gonna look like one of those old guys with a bad black wig, you know!
I go kickin’ it with Ringo and he’s seventy-four and he looks like he’s forty. But he didn’t have any surgery, he’s just living life well. So I dye my hair a little bit. So what? That’s no big deal. But when you start altering your skin and adding body parts, and putting cheekbones in, and fake tits. They’re going to dig up coffins a hundred years from now and find all these weird things in the casket. Like, “what the fuck is that?”, you know, it’s very strange! Plastic body parts and breast implants. If I came from another planet I would say “what the fuck is this all about?”
Roy: [Laughs] What are these two silicone things doing in this casket?
Steve: Yeah, they’re going to find a whole lot of those!
Anyway, let’s talk about music. I’m just ranting because I’m on my third cup of coffee this morning.
Roy: Yeah, I don’t drink coffee during the week. I only drink it on the weekends. I’m kinda amped myself so we’re in the same boat.
Steve: I’ve given everything else up. Let me have a cup of coffee for God sake! [Laughs]
Roy: There you go. You gotta live somehow! It just seems like these days there’s no more musicians, there’s just performers.
Steve: Well, there are. Actually there are a couple of really killer young musicians. But where is the new Jimi Hendrix? Eddie Van Halen? Where’s the guy that’s the game changer? We live in a world of retro. Retro’s great. But when I was a kid, it sounds snobbish or weird or old guy talking, but when I grew up the first thing I remember is the Beatles. And then everything that came after that came in real time for me. Like I actually went out and bought the new Jimi Hendrix album, or the new Yes album, or a new Floyd album or something like that. Everything was not retro; it was in real time. The first Led Zeppelin record came out, I bought it. So all this music was coming at you and everybody was trying to outdo everybody, and sound different and really separate themselves. You could immediately tell the difference between one band and the next.
You turn on rock radio now. I listen to the radio and I go “Dude, I don’t know. It sounds like everyone has the same producer, the same amp, and the same drummer”. And everything’s so buffed out if it was a chair you’d slide right on the floor. There’s not a rough edge to be found. And they used to say we were slick?
Roy: I was a total Yes fanatic. I grew up in the seventies too and you couldn’t wait for the album to come out. You did everything you could to get that album.
Steve: Aw yeah, man! You coveted that album. And like concert tickets; you could actually get a good ticket if you lined up. You could go to your parents and say “Hey Mom, could I have six bucks to go to the concert? Well, yeah, I’ll wash the house. That’s how much I want to see Yes do Close To The Edge.”
There weren’t eight million bands. And now everybody hands you a CD that looks really professional. I‘m like, “man, you know I don’t have time to see my kids let alone listen to five million CD’s that people give me”. But occasionally I’ll grab one and I’ll listen to it in the car and it looks really professional and it’ll go on and I’m like “Aw man, really?” A guy doing Satriani covers or something. There’s only one Joe Satriani. We all learn from him and we all love him. There’s one Steve Vai. There’s one Eddie Van Halen. There’s one Guthrie Govan. There’s one Michael Landau, and one Jeff beck.
We all love and steal from the people we dig. But there are a lot of Internet players that all sound the same. They log on and they learn the tricks first. Where’s the rhythm guitar class? The play with a drummer class? Let’s play in time and in tune and in the pocket. Start there.
Roy: None of this “how many notes can I squeeze into four measures”.
Steve: Well that’s what I mean. There’s a lot of incredible bedroom players. But you put them up with a band or ask them to change something ... my favorite is “okay, now play that in B flat. Don’t tune down, just play it in B flat”. It’s like there’s no worn marks in the flats and sharps, you know?
You just want to be sitting in your house shredding? Awesome. That’s awesome. But it’s really misleading to tell some kid he can have a career if he can do that.
Roy: I always tell guitarists if you can express in four notes what it takes someone else to express in fifty notes you’re the better musician.
Steve: As guitar players we’re all guilty. Everybody loves to have a little flash in the game. It’s great fun, especially if it’s done really well. You know what I mean? I mean, I like chocolate cake too, but not at every meal.
That’s really what it is. I mean, go in there and learn all that shit. That’s great. But there should be groove classes. That’s something everybody has inside of them anyway. Some people are not natural musicians. They can learn the tricks. But the ability to feel good when you play these things, that’s what differentiates the pro and the amateur. And there’s nothing wrong with being an amateur. It’s fun to play the guitar! But not everybody’s gonna have a career doing it.
It’s even harder now. We’re living in a world where record companies - what’s left of them - it’s one-hit wonder day. One-hit wonders do not build a career, which means after the classic rockers die there’s nothing behind us. I guess you would have to go Radiohead or Coldplay because they’re twenty years old. But who’s behind them?
Roy: Now Toto hasn’t produced a new album since ’06. Did you have any jitters about getting together and writing again?
Steve: This combination of people hasn’t made a record since 1986, so it really goes back. Steve Porcaro, Joseph Williams, myself, and David Paich. We haven’t made a record since The Seventh One came out, which was 1987 I believe. But we’ve all stayed very close friends.
The reason we got back together was to help our brother Mike who’s suffering from ALS in a most brutal way. Our original intention in 2010 was to get back together and do a tour, and “here’s your bread, man. This should help”. And then we had a good time doing it and it all fell together so well. Joseph was singing so great and my old high school buddies were all back together again and we said “Yeah, let’s do 2011”. We all make a living, we help Mike, everybody wins, you know. The fans were going crazy and we were doing great business so we thought “This should be fun. Why not?”
When we got to the thirty-fifth anniversary we wanted to do a DVD and then we found out that an ex-manager of ours had signed some stupid little deal behind our backs that if we were to put anything out then we owe somebody a studio album and it went weird there for a minute. “What? That’s an awful lot of work, you know. We haven’t done that for a while.” We got into a little bit of litigation and then it was like “Alright look guys, if you make a record everybody wins. If you don’t you throw money away and then you can never put anything out. Come on, fulfill this and you’re a free agent”. So we said okay if we’re gonna do this there’s two ways to go. You throw out your blues record or whatever. You just fulfill your contractual obligation and disappoint all the people who dig your music. Or, we dig our heels in and make the best record we can possibly make to dispel the rumor that old people don’t have fresh ideas and that the album is dead.
I think this record we made is supposed to be listened to from top to bottom. Maybe it’s old school. I don’t believe that everyone has a short attention span; certainly not the people who like our music. So we tried to do the best we could. Now there’s always gonna be somebody saying “Where’s this guy, where’s that guy, Jeff’s not with us anymore ... blah, blah ... Mike can’t play and the other guy couldn’t sing.”
So we get to a point where it was like okay, what are we going to do with this? So we got this team back together and started making some new music and it just started to feel good. We started having some fun doing it and it turned into this huge production that we spent, on and off, ten months doing. It’s something that we can be very proud of. We didn't try to trend set or have rappers come in or duets with young artists. We just said fuck all that, man. If anybody likes our music they want to hear what we do best and that’s what we give them. The hit single; what the hell is that? If I knew what that was I’d be calling you from my space station.
Roy: What I like about the album is that it’s instantly recognizable as Toto but it’s not stale.
Steve: Well Thanks! That’s what we were going for.
Roy: Like “Running Out Of Time”. Great album opener! Tell me about how you wrote that. I love that song.
Steve: Thanks! Well, we were just sitting around going “okay, we got to get started now”, and there were a couple of germs of ideas. Joseph had the beginning of “Burn”. There were some songs lying around. I found “Chinatown”. It was an old song written before Toto, you know. It was unfinished. We tried to cut it once a long time ago but we never really finished it. I thought that was cool. I said, “But guys, we gotta rock. We gotta come out strong. We can’t just be all blue-eyed soul here, you know.” So I came up with the initial riff, the opening riff. I thought it was kind of a Zeppeliny kind of fun little thing and then we just wrote the whole thing on the spot at David’s house.
You know there’s no such thing as demos anymore. We took this idea and took it over to CJ Vanston, who is our co-producer who I brought in. I knew we needed somebody there to be a middleman between all of us. He’s a great engineer, producer, songwriter, musician. It was just great to have him there. And we just put this together and played it for everybody to like it and we re-recorded it and perfected all the little parts. We started adding everybody one at a time because everybody was all over the place. It was put together like that. Some of these little germy demo ideas became the actual masters. That’s how a lot of these songs were born.
Roy: Are you guys transferring ideas over the Internet or are you all sitting in a room doing it?
Steve: Sometimes. I prefer being in the same room. For example, there’s a song called “Unknown Soldier” on the record. Dave had the original idea. It’s something that we wanted to dedicate to Jeff and just our take on the idiocy of what we keep doing to the world over and over and over again with the same results. But we wrote that with an acoustic guitar and a grand piano in my living room. And it was recorded on my iPhone! [Laughs] And then we said “Okay, we’re gonna cut this now!”
So, we can use the old school technology like that or we could do it like ... somebody has something, an idea that they have on Logic or Protools. Transfer that and go “I really like that. There’s a great sound there. Let’s keep that part and start adding to it.” So that’s what we did.
During the whole process of the record we never actually tore anything down. Once we started working on stuff we made commitments on the spot. Some of the tracks have 150 tracks on it. But they’re not all playing at the same time. Things come and go. Little tricks come. Little effects things. And you can automate all that stuff. Once you do something you get these happy accidents and you can always keep them. That’s what’s cool about the technology.
I’m not the hands on guy. I speak the language. But as it is, you put five bulls and one cow in a room and this is what gives. There’s gonna be a little tension now and then.
Roy: But that’s what really irons things out, isn’t it?
Steve: Yeah, well the thing is everybody’s very prolific and we hadn’t made a record in a long time. So everybody was really hungry once the creative process started. We started getting excited going about it. “Wow, that’s actually really good!” And then we started the healthy competition of who’s got the best stuff. That mixed in with a little creative tension and trying to personal best yourself.
You know, you’re playing in front of guys who have heard you play for forty years. It’s hard to impress them. And I don’t mean dazzle them with chops; it’s dazzle them with new fresh ideas. I think that was never the idea of what we were trying to do. Stay accessible and not turn it into a “play this for your musician friends only” record.
Roy: Who gets the final say? It is the engineer? [Laughs]
Steve: [Laughs] Well, it’s a democratic process really. I think everybody got their licks in. I mean we argued sometimes. Let’s face it, you’re not going to always agree. But, you know, in the end we all signed off with thumbs up. There is always something you can go “I wish I could do that again” or “I wish we had that one little mix” or “we missed that, oh God I hope nobody really pays attention to that one little fucked up something that got left on by accident”. I’m not gonna tell you where they are, but there’s mistakes on the record. [Laughs] On every record I’ve ever done there’s mistakes on them.
Roy: You’re touring constantly. Do you consider yourself more of an on-stage guitarist or a studio songwriter?
Steve: 186 days on the road last year. It’ll be 200 plus this year. The last era of the session guy ...I did that twenty-five years ago. It was great! That era of time was some of the greatest times of my life. From the time I was a late teenager into 1990 ... all the records that we did, everything that was coming out from us, it was a really great time. But there was nobody to follow after. Everybody started making records in their house. Budgets got cut and the studio man went away. There’s a few guys working but most of them now have studios in their house and they’re their own engineers. They share files. They’re taking the vibe out of, like “Who am I playing with today? What music am I playing today? What are we going to do today? Oh wow, I get to play with so-and-so!” No rehearsal, no demos, no nothing. Just show up and play!
It’s not just about reading the notes. It’s about being able to interpret and come up with parts. There was a challenge to it. There’s a real art to it. It’s gone. Some aspects of music are better now and some of it is not better, in my opinion. It’s subjective. I mean I don’t know everything. It’s an opinion of having lived through a lot of it. I miss the days of showing up and not knowing what to expect. And within that, great stuff came out of that. It was really a fun, amazing time of my life.
Eventually I’m going to write a book about my life in the studios and stuff like that. I think the sex, drugs tell all has been told enough in one lifetime. There’s no need to add a pile of shit to that! Plus I have a lot more to say than that and it’s irrelevant to me now because it was definitely a long time ago. And I want to talk about music. There were a lot of great things that happened in the studio. A lot of magical things with some legendary people I got to work with. Their process and how they do it.
Roy: It seems like every superstar performer has at some time worked with you. Is there some sort of super secret initiation ritual where in order for them to be successful they have to work with you?
Steve: [Laughs] No. Granted I’m geographically placed well; there’s no question about that and the fact I met the Porcaro brothers in high school. Jeff was already in Steely Dan so I was able to meet some of the LA studio players and stuff. But you get lucky to get in the door. To maintain a career for over forty years requires a little more than luck.
Steve: You can get in the door; the question is do you get asked back? Can you handle the pressure? Do you have the right personality for it? Do you know how to be cool and be funny or do you know how to be a pro and adapt? Quincy Jones is looking at this and says “I don’t like that part. What else you got?” Do you have a trick bag full of ideas you can lay out right away without falling apart? Do you get scared of the red light? Is your time good? How many different styles of music can you play? You don’t have to sight read classical music but can you get through a road map? Can you come up with new parts and can you change your sound? Do you have the right attitude for it?
It’s not just about the chops. It’s the whole thing, you know, and I just for some reason have the right personality and the ability to morph into whatever needed to happen without falling apart under pressure.
Roy: I’m curious. Tell me how Alice Cooper got you to work with him. How does that typically come together?
Steve: David Foster is a friend of mine and he comes from a more pop, classical jazzy upbringing. He was starting to produce rock records and he says “I need your help on this. You’re the guy.” I said, “Fuck, I love Alice. I grew up with Alice.” Next thing you know I’m writing songs with him. With Alice, Bernie Taupin, myself and Foster. So I got the call to do that. I fell right into that. That was my meat and potatoes. I love Alice. He’s a great cat to work with. We had a ball. I’ve done a few records with him.
And then that night I could be working with Aretha Franklin. Sitting there playing rhythm guitar with the funk, you know. Playing with Aretha sitting in the room. There’s not a lot of guys who can do that in the same day!
Roy: That’s an amazing cast of people you just threw out there!
Steve: That actually happened. That was not weird to me, to work with Quincy Jones in the daytime and then go play on a Cheap Trick record at night.
Roy: But you know that’s unusual for just about everybody else!
Steve: Well, yeah. But that’s why I work. I mean, there’s a lot of better guitar players than me, man. Millions of them. But there’s not a lot of guys who could do what I did. There’s a handful of us that could do it. That didn’t seem weird.
My brother and counterpart since I was twelve years old, Michael Landau, one of the greatest guitar players of all time, we grew up together and that was the kind of shit for us that didn’t seem weird at all. We listened to all kinds of music. We wanted to do this studio thing. We also wanted to have our own identity as players. We’re different players and we’re different people but we were able to do that stuff.
But who’s the young, young studio guy coming up? I don’t know who that person is. I don’t know if there is anybody! I try to keep my eyes out for new guys. There’s some really fine players out there. But a lot of those guys are very specialized and they do that thing; it’s not across the board versatility.
Now it’s about the quick payoff. Before, record companies would have taken your money but at least they invested in your career for a long term investment. Sign you for four albums and hopefully it keeps getting more and more so hopefully you get a platinum record by the time your fourth album comes out. You’re on the road; you’re developing an audience. Now it’s about instant gratification.
Roy: Tell me about Fee Waybill. I love the Tubes and you got to work with them. That had to have been kind of crazy.
Steve: Fee and I go back to 1980. Foster once again. I used to do all of David’s stuff back in the day, especially the rock stuff. He leaned on me for that because that was not one of his stronger points. He had an ear for it and he dug it. He just needed somebody to execute it with a little more reality. That was the thing. When we came in it was jazz guys playing rock and then all of sudden our little group of studio guys came in and we were a little more rock guys that could read and interpret lots of different kinds of music. But we were coming from more of a rock place than a jazz place.
So, working with Fee, after we did the Alice records it was like “Well, it’s time to do the Tubes.” He said “Look, we got to write this stuff. So come on down.” So we went down to Goodnight LA and I met Fee. The first song we ever did was “Talk To You Later”, which was written and recorded in the studio in about an hour.
Roy: Fantastic song!
Steve: I played all the guitars and the bass part because the bass player didn’t want to play on a song he didn’t write and he was really pissed off at me for even being there. [Laughs] Which was a drag for me because I loved those guys. I was a fan in school. I didn’t ask to step on anybody’s toes. I was hired to come in and do this. I have a great deal of respect for Roger [Steen] and [Bill] Spooner and all the guys that play in the band. At this point we laugh about it now.
Fee and I stayed really great friends through the years and we’ve written a million songs together. He’s one of my favorite cats in the world. Very quirky lyricist, great melodies, and just a great cat, man. We retained that friendship.
Roy: Now I can’t speak with you without bringing up Michael Jackson and Thriller. That’s one of the classic albums of all time. There has to be some stories behind that!
Steve: Well, I was doing Quincy’s records. I did The Dude record; that was the first one I did with him. I was loving working with Quincy - once again, Foster brought me into that - and then he hired me for everything for about four or five years. We spent a lot of time together. The Dude was a Grammy nominated record which was really fun. I got to work with Stevie Wonder and all these really cool people who were heroes of mine. And Q was great.
So I was just a kid. I was in my early twenties and I’m playing with Quincy. He says “Michael’s got a record coming up.” He’s coming off of Off The Wall so I knew this was going to be a big one. When you start getting the calls to play on that level record that’s when you knew you made the A list. I was like doing all these records that were hits on the radio and I started getting all the calls. I gotta really give thanks and kudos to meeting the Porcaro brothers and, of course, Boz Scaggs giving me my first big break on the road when I was nineteen.
Roy: I can’t imagine being in my twenties and getting a call saying “we need you on Thriller”. I would be a bundle of nerves.
Steve: The funny part was Michael calling me on the phone and me hanging up on him.
He called me at eight o’clock in the morning in 1982. He was like “Hi, this is Michael”, and I was like “Fuck off!” So I hung up. Three times this happens. At one point I got mad at him and said “will you stop fucking calling me! If you’re really Michael Jackson why the fuck would you be calling me at eight o’clock in the morning ... blah, blah, blah ...” Giving him all sorts of shit and I just hung up on him.
About two hours later I get a call from Quincy’s office going “Uh ... that was Michael. You should probably call him back.” So of course I did a sheepish call. He picks up the phone, “Hello”. I’m like “Hey man, it’s Lukather. I’m really sorry.” He goes “Ha ha, it happens all the time.”
You don’t expect Michael Jackson on the phone. He was cool, man. He was a real pro. I enjoyed the experience.
Roy: Well man, I really appreciate you sitting down with me. I was great speaking with you.
Steve: Well, hey man, thanks a lot. You too. I’ll talk to you soon.