by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2020 Anil Prasad.
Steve Lukather’s contributions to global rock and pop culture are profound. The guitarist, singer and songwriter is the co-founder and longest-serving member of Toto, the veteran band that’s sold 40 million albums and enjoyed major hit singles with "Africa," "Rosanna" and "Hold the Line." He’s also done session work on more than 1,500 other albums, including recordings by Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Joni Mitchell, Donna Summer, and Roger Waters, just to name a handful. As a solo artist, Lukather is responsible for eight diverse releases, including the forthcoming I Found the Sun Again.
Until COVID-19 hit, Lukather was a constant presence on the road, either with Toto, solo or as a part of Ringo Starr’s All Starr Band, a group he’s been a member of for nine years. But Lukather is planning his musical life beyond the pandemic. He’s got a new band called New Toto: The Dogz of Oz, featuring lead vocalist Joseph Williams. They’re planning upcoming tours, as well as virtual events until the coronavirus situation improves.
Lukather chronicled his story in his best-selling 2018 book The Gospel According to Luke. It’s a wild ride through his colorful life and career, infused with countless anecdotes involving some of the world’s greatest musicians and lots of humor. He’s contemplating a follow-up book, as well as continuing work on a documentary covering his career from all angles.
As with virtually every band that’s lasted as long as Toto, which first formed in 1977 and experienced such major success, the group has experienced significant trials and tribulations. Lukather doesn’t shy away from them in this conversation, resulting from three interviews conducted between June and October 2020. But he’s determined to move past the challenges with positivity and renewed energy.
How has COVID-19 affected you?
Well, none of us could have ever predicted such a thing could happen in our lifetime. Maybe you think “Someday, man, the whole thing is going to fall apart.” But I didn’t think I’d live to see it. I’m the father of four kids who are 35, 33, 12, and nine. What’s going to happen to them? I’ve had the best life imaginable. I can’t piss and moan about anything at all, but I’m very concerned about them.
When COVID-19 hit, everything was going perfectly. I had finished most of my upcoming solo record, which includes Ringo Starr, Slash, David Paich, and Joseph Williams. But right now, none of us can do much. All of our lives are on hold. It was supposed to be a really busy year. Me and my mates are shaking our heads going “What happened? We were going 1,000 miles an hour and we just slammed into a brick wall.”
Who knows what’s going to happen a year from now? But it’ll never be the same again. I can’t afford to go on the road and pay studio wages, because the road’s going to be different. I’ve been hearing rumblings about ticket prices coming down. I don’t think people will want to spend up to $200 for tickets anymore, after taking the financial beating we’ve all experienced. I think people will want cheaper tickets to attend real musical experiences.
Thank God I saved money and don’t live above my means. It’s going to be interesting to see people who live the façade of being very wealthy, when they’re not. They’re going to be outed. They’ll be saying “Well, I don’t really have all this money after all and now I’m in trouble.”
Now, if we look at this situation from a positive standpoint, I’ve never had so much time off since I was in school. So, now I have this time off with my younger children. I also fell in love with a great girl and can spend time with her. And if I don’t watch the news and realize why I have this time off, it’s great. But when I tune into the news and see how horrific it all is, that momentary smile goes away. The novelty at first was great, but it wore off and now I’m going “What the fuck?” I still play my guitar every day, but it’s not like playing hard two hours a night, five nights a week. It’s a different kind of satisfaction.
One of the saddest things about what’s happened is to see that we Americans are currently unwelcome around the world. I’ve spent my whole life around the world making friends and people have always stuck with us. I’ve stuck around almost 45 years and that’s a trip. I’m losing a lot of my friends or they’re retiring from music. But I’m the same punk ass I was when I was 20 years old. I’m just stuck in an old meat suit. The hair is real though, man. The color is not. [laughs]
Toto was riding a wave of renewed success and acclaim in 2019 before that version of the band came to a halt. Describe what happened.
We worked really hard for 10 years to bring Toto back. We had lots of issues with previous managers and lost a lot of money. The original managers also screwed up ownership of the Toto name. Someone has made up a lot of stories about that which aren’t true, and things ended up on a really bad note with the band.
We got the band back together to support Mike Porcaro when he was dying from ALS. That was the real motivator. I loved Mike and we sent money and took care of him. After Mike passed, people went sort of crazy. I haven’t spoken in over a year to Steve Porcaro, one of my oldest best friends, and I don’t know if I ever will. I was accused of things I never did and I was really upset by it. David Paich and I lost an incredibly expensive court battle over a mistake I didn’t make that was blamed on me. People made up their own backstories. It was really complicated.
So, the last configuration of Toto ended on October 20, 2019. The behind-the-scenes stuff wasn’t cool, though we didn’t show it on stage. We played our asses off, but there were even some sidemen that were having issues every night. It was miserable and hard. I felt isolated and blamed for things I didn’t do. I get all the publicity for some reason when anything fucks up. People always want to believe it’s my fault, but they don’t have the facts and assume the worst.
David and I proved our innocence, but there were no retractions as there was someone who wanted to destroy us and our friendships. All I can do is move forward. I wish everybody well. I don’t hate anybody, but I was really hurt. It’s the kind of hurt that saying “I’m sorry” has no effect on. Toto fell apart when we should have been celebrating the greatest financial success of our career. Steve Porcaro, David Paich and Joseph Williams came back. It was as close to the original lineup we could have with the people that were still alive. We were on top of the world.
But instead of polite conversations, we were served with papers, demands and threats. The assumption that we all wipe our asses with $1,000 bills is a lie. People read about how much money is made on a tour, like Madonna making $500 million. Do people really think she got to keep $500 million? Do people know how expensive it is to have dozens of trucks on the road for a tour? People have misguided perceptions. Yeah, I’m fine. I’m not starving, but it hurts when you have to pay lawyers. They’re the only ones that win in these situations.
Where’s the thank you note for keeping Toto on the road when it wasn’t going well? Who kept the wheels on the bus so we could pay our monthly expenses? Then it blew up and we started doing well again, and there was animosity about that. It’s like a 45-year marriage that went terribly wrong. It’s nearly 50 years if you count the time we spent together in high school. It’s all soul crushing. I didn’t want things to end, but we were sued out of it and now we’re buried in legal debt and I don’t want to fight it anymore.
Tell me about the new Toto lineup that continues your legacy with the group.
Mike and Jeff Porcaro have left the planet. Joseph Williams and I are the only ones left standing that aren’t retired and are healthy enough to go on tour. The new band isn’t the Toto of 1978, the late ‘70s, 2000s, or 2019. But Joseph and I still want to play. We just both made solo records for the same label, so it makes more sense for us to tour together. David and I paid a lot of money for our percentage of the name Toto. Why shouldn’t I get some of my investment back?
So, we’ve got a new band. We’re calling it the New Toto: The Dogz of Oz tour. It’s a play on Toto, the dog from The Wizard of Oz. Joseph’s daughter came up with it and it’s hilarious. It’s a wink, wink thing. We were originally going to go with just The Dogs of Oz but the agents and promoters went “No, no, no.” They didn’t want to take the chance. A brand name is a brand name and the difference in financials is staggering. I know some people are saying “Lukather’s an asshole for using the name Toto in any way.” What am I supposed to do? Never play again because people are retired or dead?
As much as I would have liked to start with a new name, it would be stupid to start over at age 63 when I’ve built a career for 45 years. I’m not trying to be a whore. I’m just saying I’ve been in all 15 incarnations of this band. We started our first demos on January 7, 1977 and from that point on, I’ve been playing Toto music. I’m the only guy that’s been there through every tour and album. I’ve never missed anything. We’re not alone in this situation. Look at Journey, Foreigner and Styx. There’s a huge list of rock bands with people who have died or given up playing, but other guys in the band want to keep playing. Some bands don’t have any original members. That’s the life they know. Once you join the circus, you can’t get out.
We have a killer new band with John Pierce on bass, Robert “Sput” Searight on drums from Ghost-Note and Snarky Puppy, and Dominique “Xavier” Taplin on keyboards, who’s also from Ghost-Note and worked with Prince. We also have Warren Ham back on vocals and sax. As much as I loved the old band, man, some of those guys were really expensive old studio guys who won’t go out on the road for less than five figures a week.
Rehearsals are going great. David is with us as musical director for the rehearsals, and you never know when he might show up at a show, even though he’s not medically able to tour. It’s his band. He started it. I can’t wait to go out and play again. I’m feeling inspired.
The last couple of years have seen you comprehensively revisit the Toto catalog with remasters and a box set. Explore the approach you took.
Sony were going to do remasters anyway. I said “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Look, these remasters usually have some clown doing them with the musicians getting no input. I’d like to be in on this.”
During the second half of our career, Toto was known for having really super hi-fi records. I wanted to see how much we could save of the first three albums without taking away from the integrity of the original intention of the mix while Jeff Porcaro was still alive. Those albums capture an era. I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. The music is what it is. Some of it’s a little loose, but now, on the first three albums, you can hear the bottom and top end without any noise. Some of the fades are now longer so we could keep some of the jams. Back in the vinyl days, you had to have a certain maximum amount of time, otherwise things wouldn’t fit on the disc.
David Paich, Joseph Williams, Steve Porcaro, and myself worked with Elliot Scheiner of Steely Dan fame on the project. We spent two weeks remastering everything. The music brought back so many memories. We worked on some of the mixes, particularly on the first three albums, which needed some help. They sound like they’ve been completely remixed. It’s jaw-dropping how much better they sound. We also dusted off the masters from other stuff from Toto IV onwards. Our sonic quality got a lot better, but even so, we went through all of it. I’m just thrilled with the results, especially if you listen to them on vinyl on a really great system. It’s the way it was meant to be.
The catalog is about more than music. It was just wild to go through our whole lives. There was a lot of laughter, some tears, and a lot of remembering crazy shit. We all remember different stuff from the same events. It was an incredible walk down memory lane.
I was able to do everything I set out to do when I made the deal with Sony for this project. I took over managing the band five years ago when the resurgence in popularity happened. I got tired of hearing “No” all the time. I said “What the fuck do you mean no?” [laughs] I also got fed up with going over budget or people fucking up. I just couldn’t believe this stuff always happens to us. It doesn’t happen to me with my solo work. When I handle my own stuff, I go “Give me six months to do it. If I fuck it up, I’ll pay back the money.” Toto went through a few managers who fucked everything up. Once I took over, we started making money again and started doing things differently.
The deluxe box set did really well. We sold out of all of them. They’re gone, never to be made again. They’ll retain value because they’re a collector’s item. Now, the catalog is coming out piecemeal, as well as the Old is New disc. We found some old tracks, finished them and rewrote some. Then we dug in and wrote four new things too, from scratch, and had Vinnie Colaiuta play drums on them. There’s a lot of value in the box set.
It’s sad that music has no value anymore, really. On the day of an album release now, people kind of roll their eyes. Isn’t that sad? It’s like “Who has time for an album anymore?” What do you mean who has time for an album? Nobody has time for music anymore? It is what it is.
In 1986, Toto worked with Miles Davis on “Don’t Stop Me Now” from the Fahrenheit album. What do you recall about that experience?
That was a trip, man. He had recorded “Human Nature” for his album You're Under Arrest. Toto played on the original Michael Jackson version, so there was that connection.
“Don’t Stop Me Now” was really a Sketches of Spain kind of thing. We got up the nerve to play it for Miles and he dug it and decided he was going to play on it. He did it for nothing. We were like “Wow.” Jeff Porcaro gave him a painting in return.
Miles hung with us for a week, man. It was the coolest thing ever. You hear stories that he’s difficult, but it couldn’t have been more opposite with us. He was nice, funny and we had a lot of laughs. He dug Toto.
After the record came out, Miles called me and asked me to join his band. I’m like “What?” I said “Miles, I’m leaving tomorrow for a three-month tour with Toto for the record you played on.” He said “Oh, man.” I also said “Really, Miles, me? You’ve had John McLaughlin and Mike Stern in your band.” He goes “Yeah, but I like that rock and roll shit you do.” I said “Wow man, I don’t even know what to say. I’m speechless. But you could fire me on the first day and then what? Now I got nothing.” I started laughing and continued “I’m deeply honored, but I can’t do that to the guys. It wouldn’t be cool.”
But can you imagine getting a call from Miles? I had to say no. I don’t know if he would have dug me full on. But it was a huge honor to be asked.
Give me a preview of your forthcoming solo album.
It’s called I Found the Sun Again, which is also the name of a song I wrote for it. It’s a positive song. We’ve been dealing with such a negative vibe in the world these days. It’s all “Worry, worry, worry, oh my God, the sky is falling” shit. I think we should be a little more positive. If we live through this nightmare, everybody’s going to be a little bit more appreciative of their lives. At least, I hope so.
The first single “Run to Me” has a sort of ‘60s-meets-Tom Petty feel with Ringo Starr and Joseph Williams playing on it. It’s a happy song for unhappy times. The album’s deeper, with a lot of jamming going on. I wrote songs for it, but there’s a lot of stretching out and all the solos are live. I made the album in eight days, recording a song a day and then overdubbed the lead vocals.
It was made last February before the pandemic. I finished pretty much the whole record in those eight days. Joseph took some of the things home and did some background vocals at his house, which we flew back in. Ringo plays great on it. He’s 80 years-old and still ripping it up. You’ll hear the same tambourine from The Beatles’ Rubber Soul on the record.
I’ve got great cats on it like Greg Bissonnette on drums, Jorgen Carlsson from Gov’t Mule, John Pierce on bass, and David Paich and Jeff Babko on keyboards. It’s like an early-‘70s record made in 2020, but with more hi-fi sounds.
I covered a few things from the early ‘70s to set the tone for what the album is all about—music that’s not over-rehearsed and done in two takes. I left a lot of room to go places. There’s a version of Traffic’s “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” which has Jeff playing one of the greatest piano solos I’ve ever heard of my life. David plays a great Steve Winwood organ solo, too. I played my parts like a saxophone would. It was a kick man. I also did Robin Trower’s “Bridge of Sighs” and totally freaked out on the Hendrix-style shit. The third cover is Joe Walsh’s “Welcome to the Club.” He’s one of my heroes and a friend. I love the lyrics. I didn’t want to do the same old covers everyone does.
It’s an old school record, with no click tracks and no rehearsals. I really wanted to do it this way because so many records are now over-produced. Some of the best bits on our old Toto records are the ones that have something that happened live. There was magic. You can’t program that stuff. It’s about being in a room inspired by what everyone else is playing. It doesn’t sound like records made today that are put together like a puzzle. Sonically, the album has a lot of dynamic range.
I think this will be my last full-length album. I mean, who buys this stuff? I realize this is a bit of a vanity record, but I’m very fortunate to have a lot of people who will check out my vanity record. I made this record for me. It’s the most honest thing I’ve ever done and has my best playing as an adult on it.
Your previous solo album, 2012’s Transition, has a lot of resonance for society today. Talk about what you wanted to communicate with it.
You know, it’s funny. Toto took a lot of shit early on for our lyrics, and rightfully so, because some of them weren’t good, even if the phrasing was. We were 19 years-old at the start. I hadn’t lived life yet. As I’ve grown older, I’ve built up my songwriting muscles. The more you do it, the better you get. At least, that’s the idea.
Lyrically, I really wanted to say something about the world around us and how we treat each other, including the negative things about social media and the things people say online. I wanted to give people something to think about. I’m never going to be Bob Dylan or Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. On the other hand, I can speak from my heart. I’m not going to write political rhetoric. Nobody wants to hear my opinions. I think we should all shut the fuck up, because the polarization is crazy. It’s disturbing to me. I’m an old peace and love hippie guy.
How do you look back at Lukather, your first solo album from 1989?
I was just looking at a vinyl copy of that the other day. I thought “Who is that?” I looked at who worked on it with me and where I was at the time. It was a lot of fun because I got to work with a lot of my friends.
I cut a track called “Twist the Knife” with Eddie Van Halen for it. I think I’m the only guy that’s ever played guitar on stage with Ed, God bless him. And I’m certainly one of the only guys that’s recorded with him outside of Van Halen. I sang background vocals on their records. Ed was a dear friend of mine. The album also has Steve Stevens, Richard Marx and Diane Warren on it. I’m not a musical snob. I can dig Slipknot and The Carpenters. I like real bebop and I like hard rock.
The album came out of the fact that I’ve always written more material than could be put on Toto albums. I wanted to stretch out. I was the first person in Toto to do a solo album. I didn’t want to jump out of the band, but I had an itch to scratch. Early on, I was obsessed with being taken seriously as a hard rock guitar player. I don’t even know why. It was so stupid. I think it’s because the band took so much shit over the decades that I wanted to fight back rather childishly.
Now, I’m proud of it all, but the music is a little all over the place on my solo work. First there could be a real hard track with Ed. Then there’s Jan Hammer and Steve Stevens. Next, all of a sudden, there’s a Toto-sounding ballad. I’m just trying to get off on all of it.
Give me some insight into writing your 2018 book The Gospel According to Luke. I understand it was a complex process.
Oh man, I wrote the book three or four times. It was intense. There’s like 400 pages missing from the other versions. I had to cut it down, which is why it’s a little disjointed. Sometimes it got a little Slaughterhouse-Five in which I’m time tripping. I’ve never written a book before. It must have cracked up my old English teachers, if they remember me at all, to see I have a book in the bookstores, rated five stars and hitting number one on Amazon. After getting kicked out of all their classes, it’s fucking hilarious.
But it was hard for me. Writing a book isn’t easy. I didn’t do it in the way in which you talk into a microphone and someone else does all the work. Paul Rees, the guy who co-wrote the book, worked on the first, original version. He was really helpful in terms of putting things in chronological order and trying to give me some sort of an idea of where it was going. The problem was, it wasn’t funny, and I sounded like a proper Englishman in that version. I said “Look, this has to be more raw, man. It’s got to sound like me. We’ve got to make this funny.”
So, I ended up writing it. Then I wrote it again. And then I did a final version. I went through it word-by-word, so I really did write that book. Paul was great, but he bailed about halfway through. Anybody who thinks all it takes is doing an interview and slapping your name on it is wrong. Some people do it that way, but I take more pride in what I do. I wanted it to be honest and raw.
One thing I found fascinating in your book is the recurring theme of A&R people getting in the way, even when Toto was at its apex of popularity.
Where do you go to A&R school? Right next to manager school, right? [laughs] Most of these guys don’t know anything. It’s not like the old days when somebody would come in and go to Frank Sinatra and say “Frank, I’ve got 20 tunes here. Pick the best 10.”
In the old days, A&R people used to find artists and repertoire. They’d pick material, because many artists didn’t write their own songs. That was what the job was. Now, it’s a useless job. Most of them have no power. They used to be able to sign acts. They could go to the Whisky a Go Go and go “Wow, there’s this band called Van Halen. I’ve got to sign them.” Those days are gone.
The book also talks about Rush pulling the plug on Toto when it opened for them during the Hydra era in 1979. Elaborate on what went down.
That was a true story. We were young and like 20-years old. We were one-minute over during our set and they yanked the plug on us, man. People were digging us a little too much, I think. At the time, people still thought we were a rock band. “Hold the Line” from 1978 was our first hit record. I still think we’re a rock band, even though we’ve put out a lot of ballads.
Anyway, backstage, things got really uncomfortable. Our crew and Rush’s crew were having a fist fight. We just laughed at it. David Paich walked into catering where it was going down and he’s like “Okay, I guess I’m not supposed to be here.” [laughs] Rush was a great band. God bless them, man.
There’s another story from when The Ramones opened for us in 1978. They were a brand new band then and so were we. Somehow we got put together. It was bad casting man. It was like Jimi Hendrix opening for The Monkees. [laughs] The whole audience was throwing shit at The Ramones and then they went and beat the fuck out of each other backstage. I didn’t book that gig. I was just the guitar player.
You’re planning a second book. What will it cover?
It’s going to be called The New Testament. Really, that’s what it’s called. [laughs] The publisher said “We want you to get more into the sessions you’ve done.” I said “That’s fair enough.” Part of me thinks maybe it might be nice for me to stop at one book. One and done, you know? A second book is always going to get compared to the first one and is never going to be as good, right?
I could get to work on it now, but things are closed out there. I’m talking about the people that make the financial deals. People are kind of freaking out and don’t want to part with any money right now, because they don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a game of chicken really. They’re saying “Yeah, we’re going to do this, but we need to find out if there’s going to be a business at all.”
You've also got a documentary in the works. What can you tell me about it?
Nigel Cole, the guy who did Bruce Springsteen’s last documentary, came to me. It’s funded by Sony and they’re really supporting it. It’s all about my life as a session guy and how Toto made it. It’s got a lot of people talking about funny shit they’ve seen me do. Ringo Starr, Slash, Michael Landau, and Jeff Garlin all appear in it. David Paich and Joseph Williams are also interviewed. Then there’s a whole bunch of famous people I made records with. I’m looking forward to getting back to finish it. The director’s in the UK, so it’s complicated.
Reflect on your relationship with Ringo Starr. You’ve been a part of his band for nine years and know him really well.
I’m now the longest-serving member of the band. I told him “You’re going to have to kill me to get rid of me.” [laughs] Ringo’s become a very, very dear friend. One of my best friends, to be honest. If you had told me that when I was a kid, I would never have believed you. But we have a lot in common. We really enjoy each other’s company.
Sure, he’s Ringo from The Beatles. There’s no question there’s an aura about him. But once you really get to know him, he’s the coolest human being you could ever meet. He’s really articulate, well-read and loves music. He’s as passionate about music as he ever was. He sure as hell doesn’t need to do it for the money.
He’s just an unbelievably fantastic human being and I love hanging out with him. I get to hear his stories and about how he makes records. I get to write songs with him. On the last Ringo album, I wrote two songs for it and Paul McCartney played bass. So, it was me, Paul and Ringo. I could never have imagined that in my wildest dreams.
Ringo’s made me a better person. He taught me not to sweat the small shit. He said “What do you worry about that stuff for? Fuck those people. Who cares what they think?” He was excited when I met this wonderful girl I’m with, because I hadn’t had a girlfriend in 10 years. She knocked me off my feet. And until COVID-19 hit, we would go on double dates. He lives like eight minutes away from me. We hang. He’s my bud. We hit it off as human beings. Yes, he’s Ringo. But he’s also just a great cat.
We just lost Eddie Van Halen. Provide some thoughts on your friendship and his passing.
Losing Ed was so crushing to me. We weren’t just guitar buddies, but real friends for 40-plus years. Ed was dealing with treatment for years. He kept the cards close. He didn’t want people to know how sick he was. He didn’t even let me know how really bad it was, because he kept beating this shit. He was a pit bull—one of the strongest humans I knew. We went through so much together, including the good, the bad and the ugly. We were just kids when we became friends all the way to when we had cleaned up our acts and became respectable human beings.
The world lost one of the greatest guitarists that ever hit planet Earth and certainly the best rock and roll guitar player of all time. He was a game changer and Van Halen was one of the greatest rock bands ever, too. I was honored to make some cool music with him. I got to play with Van Halen live. I cherished the friendship. I just loved him as my friend and as one of the most bad-ass motherfuckers of all time.
Ed made everyone feel like he was their friend. He was always so kind and humble. He was a giving soul. He’d give you the shirt off his back if he loved you. He certainly did that for me, metaphorically, many times.
The shame of this COVID-19 shit is that Ed should have had the king’s send off, but in this fucked up world we live in right now, that won’t happen. But Ed’s always going to be in my heart.
I’d like to pick some albums you’ve worked on across your career and have you tell me whatever comes to mind. Let’s start with Greg Lake’s self-titled debut album (1981).
I loved working on that. It was magical for me because I was a big ELP fan. Keith Emerson was also a dear bud, God bless his soul. I also worked on an Asia record with Carl Palmer. ELP, Yes and Genesis were my three favorite bands in high school.
Greg was super cool to me. I really liked him a lot. All of those guys in ELP were world class. Greg was having the time of his life making that album. It was such a trip to be making a record with a childhood hero. That’s happened to me so many times in my life. It’s the greatest honor. Who would have thought, when I was a kid in junior high, that I’d get to make albums and co-write with artists I worshipped growing up?
Char’s U.S.J (1981).
He’s great. One of the most famous guitar players in the history of Japan. I produced that record. It was one of my earliest productions and I got all the LA guys to bail me out and make me look good. Char’s a sweetheart of a guy. At that time, there weren’t that many great Japanese guitar players. Now, there are lots of them. He stood out, had a great feel with a very Jeff Beck-ish kind of vibe. We’ve stayed in touch and I saw him a few years back.
Donna Summer's self-titled album (1982).
What a great singer and such a really sweet woman. God bless her man. Another tragic loss. I just can’t believe these people aren’t here anymore. She was so nice. She was one of those artists who can go out and sing into the phone and it’ll sound like a record. She was just that good. I got to play on a bunch of her records and even wrote a song with her and David Foster. It was great to play solos on some of the 20-minute disco versions of her songs in the ‘70s, too. Good fun.
Joni Mitchell’s Wild Things Run Fast (1982).
What a giant. One of the greatest artists of all time. When I got the call to do that album, I was gobsmacked. I was really excited because I was a big fan of all of her music, from the early stuff to the Larry Carlton and Crusaders era, to the Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorius era when she got into the jazz thing.
I last saw Joni last January at a tribute to her at the TEC Awards at the NAMM Show. It was the first time I had seen her in decades. She looked up at me and said “Wow, look at you, you look so different now.” I said “Yeah, it’s been 35 years.” [laughs] That was a trip of a lifetime to work with Joni.
Richard Simmons’ Reach (1982).
Oh boy. How much money do you want for me not to talk about this, man? Is this blackmail? Is that what this is? [laughs] Okay, that was the only session I’ve ever walked out on. I didn’t even know who the artist was when I came into the studio. Back in the session days, a producer would call you and say “Be at Sunset Sound, noon to 6pm, Monday to Friday.” I’d say “Okay, I’m available, why not?”
Toto already had records on the charts, but I loved being a session musician. So, I didn’t ask who the artist was. I showed up and it’s fucking Richard Simmons. Those are the kinds of sessions a new guy gets, you know what I mean? It’s usually “Give that to the new kid. Let him get his sea legs.”
But I did do some playing on the record. It’s kind of embarrassing. He tried to kiss my guitar tech. It got really ugly. It was one of the weirdest sessions ever. At one point, I walked out and said “I’ll be right back” and never came back. [laughs] That was the last time I ever did a session without knowing who it was for.
Greg Mathieson Project’s Baked Potato Super Live! (1982).
That album captures the first rock sounds to come out of The Baked Potato. I ruined it for all the jazz guys. [laughs] I haven’t heard the album for a long time, but I’d probably wince at the sonic smallness of it. It was a different era. It would be interesting to remix the fuck out of it by today’s standards. But that gig was fun and I remember those days fondly. They were some of the best times of my life.
I learned a lot working with Greg in terms of improvising. I was really young, in my early twenties, just taking over from Larry Carlton. I said “Let’s make this more of a rock gig” and Jeff Porcaro was into that. We had Pops Popwell who brough the funk and the group became a strange sort of fusion of our individual styles. It was both a jazz-rock and jam band. We weren’t playing bebop standards. We were creating loose jams. We wrote half the first set at soundcheck on the first day of the run of shows the album was taken from. We also did some of Greg’s old classics.
The Baked Potato was just a great place to go after sessions, turn it up, blow it out, have a few drinks, chase a few girls, and have a few laughs. It helped us remember why we do this shit. The club was the yin to the yang of the session work, which I loved doing, but you’re kind of on a leash. You’ve got to let the dog out to run around the park now and then to keep your chops up. It really was a great time. People would line up around the block to see us. It became a thing. Sadly, Jeff and Pops are gone. Getting old sucks, man.
Jon Anderson's In the City of Angels (1988).
Jon is one of my favorite people in the world. Just being around Jon was great. He was so sweet to us. I was such a fan. We were hanging out together at David Paich’s house and I was able to fanboy out with him and ask all these dumb questions about how they made Close to the Edge. Even though I’m an old dude now, I’m still a fan.
I remember Jon really liked what we were doing. He liked working with us a lot and said some really nice shit about us in the press, which was jaw-dropping. Again, a great honor to work with one of my all-time heroes. His voice is real. That’s really what he sounds like and he nails it each time. We also got him to sing on Toto’s The Seventh One album. That was a lot of fun, too.
Toto toured with Yes in 2015, but it was without Jon and Chris Squire. That was a weird tour, because we had just lost Mike Porcaro and Yes had lost Chris. We were sensitive to each other. Nobody was hanging out, partying or even having dinner. We just did the shows. I was hoping I’d get a chance to hang out with Steve Howe, but he wasn’t up for it. He was beat up, man. I know how it feels to lose your childhood mates, so I respected the situation.
Roger Waters’ Amused To Death (1992).
Toto was working on the Kingdom of Desire album at Devonshire Sound Studios. Pat Leonard was there producing Roger’s album. James Guthrie was the engineer, and he worked with Toto on the Past to Present record. So, I ran into James and Pat in the hallway one day and I said “If you need an overdub, I’d love to work on Roger’s record. It’s free. I’ll happily come down. My shit’s already here. I’ll roll in and do a few takes, my treat.” And they said yes. They called me in and it was such a great experience. Roger was great to me. It was me and Jeff Beck on guitar. That’s pretty cool.
I talked my way into the session, just like I did for Eric Clapton’s “Forever Man” session in 1985. He didn’t need me. I just said “I’ll do it for free just to fucking meet Eric.” And that’s what I did. I wouldn’t take any money. I’m still a fan of all these people. I’m not some old snobby bastard. I get giddy when I meet people I admire. I was like “I should pay you.” [laughs]
Spinal Tap’s Break Like The Wind (1992).
They had the right producer for the right band. [laughs] It was great to play on and co-produce that album.
It started with attending an event with Jimmy Page getting an award at Guitar Center in Hollywood and doing the handprint shit for the RockWalk hall of fame. I later got to do one, and I was very honored to. Jimmy was before me. So, I’m there with Eddie Van Halen and every famous guitar player in Los Angeles. It was a private event. The special guest of honor was Nigel Tufnel. Christopher Guest was fully dressed up as Nigel.
So, I showed up at the event with Ed and there’s Jimmy graciously greeting everyone. Jimmy points at me with his finger and motions to come over. I’m thinking “Oh, he’s pointing at Ed.” I look at Ed and go “Hey, Jimmy wants to talk to you.” Then Jimmy goes “No, no, no” and points at me and said “Steve Lukather, come here.” So, I’m going up to talk to Jimmy, who just called me by my name. I was very excited about that. It took me aback.
Jimmy said “I just want to say something to you.” I said “Jesus, Jimmy, what?” He goes “I read an article in which you said maybe if you hadn’t been a studio musician, more people would have taken you seriously as a guitar player. Me and John Paul Jones were studio musicians back in the ‘60s. All these guys out here, they don’t know what that means. You should be really proud of that.” I gave him a hug and said “Can I tell people you said that?” He laughed and said “Yes.” He was one of the nicest people ever to me and one of my biggest heroes.
Later that night, I walked up to Nigel. I had just worked with Jeff Beck on a project and heard Chris patterned some of Nigel’s look and persona on Beck. But Chris didn’t break character during the event. I leaned over to him and said “I want you to know Beck cracked up and loved that you based your character on him.” Chris looked at me and said “He wasn’t mad?” And he totally broke character. I said “No, he thought it was great.” Chris goes “Oh God, I was worried he was going to be pissed off I was making fun of him.” I said “No man, he gets the joke, totally, and thought it was great. We were hysterically laughing about together, as a matter of fact.”
So, Chris and I talked a little bit further and I said “If you ever need a record producer, I’m the right guy to do it.” Chris goes “As a matter of fact, we’re going to make a record and It might be fun for you to produce a couple of things. Let’s get together and talk about it.” And that’s what happened. I met with Chris, Harry Shearer and Michael McKean and it turned out to be a fantastic experience. We hit it off and I worked on four tracks on the record. I did the title track which had solos by Slash, Jeff Beck, Brian May, Joe Satriani, and me on it. It was amazing. We went for it. I’m still friends with all the Spinal Tap guys.
Trilok Gurtu’s Kathak (1998).
Trilok is someone everyone knows. I met him through John McLaughlin, who’s a great friend and another hero. That was one of the hardest sessions I’ve ever done and the hardest thing I’ve ever had to read. The piece I did was in 9/8 and it was the head—the melody at the top of the song. It was so difficult and subdivided. It was flop sweat hard. [laughs] I was like “Trilok, Jesus man, are you trying to kill me? Are you sure you’ve got the right guy? This is Allan Holdsworth-level shit.” I got through it, but it was humbling.
The Yardbirds’ Birdland (2003).
Steve Vai called me and said “Would you like to play on a Yardbirds record for my Favored Nations label?” I didn’t think he was serious, but he was. Steve said “Let’s do this, it’ll be great. The guys love you.” I go “The Yardbirds love me?” Jim McCarty was the only original member left, but that was cool enough for me. So, I went up and did a track for them.
The Yardbirds are where it all started. How many great guitar players came out of that band? Beck, Page and Clapton, and then you go even further down the list from there.
Tony Levin’s Resonator (2006).
I remember being at Simon Phillips’ house and he goes “Would you do a quick solo for Tony’s record?” I said “I’d be honored.” Boom. Five minutes later it was done.
Tony is one of the greatest musicians ever and a legendary stylist. His name commands respect. But if you know him, he’s a sweetheart, he’s got a great smile and he’s funny as hell. But what a talent. I’m honored to call him a friend.
Toto’s Falling In Between (2006).
We really worked hard on that one. Unfortunately, there were problems with the label. We always find ourselves in the midst of crazy people. But I thought that was a really great moment for us. I like our stuff when it has a little more of a hard edge to do it. We also wrote most of it together, so that’s always fun.
Toto is one of the world’s biggest successes in terms of streaming numbers. How has that worked out for the band, monetarily?
Toto is about to hit 3 billion streams and a lot of them are for “Africa.” It’s amazing how “Africa” took off organically and surprisingly. We never thought that was going to be our song. It’s the least Toto-sounding song. “Rosanna” is much more the epitome of what the old Toto was about. Everybody got featured. It was a really great track. We worked hard on it from a production and arrangement level. But I never made a dime off it, because I didn’t write it, even though I get performance royalties.
Anyway, I can piss and moan all I want about the streaming situation, but it doesn’t change anything. When I took over management of Toto, I got us one of the better streaming rates of anyone out there. I was able to pull that off.
You negotiated better streaming deals specifically for Toto? It’s not widely known that this is possible.
The record company underestimated our sales. They didn’t do their homework. I don’t take no for an answer. It’s called the art of negotiation. I had to present the situation in a way for them to understand that they didn’t realize what they had. I knew how to play the game. I knew how to hit. I paid a lot of attention to management, promoters and record companies over the years. I ask a lot of questions. I show up for meetings I don’t have to be at. I’m one of those guys that knows how everything works.
Streaming is what it is though. There’s nothing you can do about it. There aren’t many record stores left. Nobody wants to buy a fucking CD because the propaganda says there’s only one good song on every disc. It’s amazing what industry people say and people buy it. I like to hear everything artists are doing on an album, not just a single song with a lyric like “Motherfucker’s got a big ass.” Compare that to what Freddie Mercury wrote for “Bohemian Rhapsody.” There’s a little bit of a difference between those two kinds of talent.
I’m old, let’s be honest. My opinions don’t mean fuck all to anybody. I’ve had the most amazing career. I’m so grateful, honored and happy that I can still work my ass off. I’ve never been out of work my whole life until 2020, and I’m ready when things start again.
I’m having the time of my life being at home with my family and taking a year off. Maybe I needed to take this year off. How many great summers do I have left with my kids and my girl to do whatever I want and not have pressure to be on tour? I’m grateful for my insanely cool life, because I’m such a fucking dork. I’ve had the greatest life ever. Thank you, Lord.
What’s your perspective on spirituality?
My take is a very personal thing. I don’t believe when you die it’s over. That doesn’t make sense. We’re here standing on the planet, so why wouldn’t you want to believe there’s more to it than that? The only thing that makes sense to me is that we get more than one go at it. How random is it than when a human is born they might be a poor African child that dies 30 minutes after birth or become the king of England? Are things really that random? Is there more meaning than that?
I’m very close to God in my own way. I don’t need to go to a church and look at a guy in a funny hat to make me feel like I’m closer to God. If you really believe in spirituality than you know we’re all a part of God—every single one of us. Everything on this planet is connected. People have forgotten that and if we’d remember it, the world would be a better place.
People get turned off to God because of the religious dogma attached to it. I don’t dig fanaticism or extremism of any sort, be it religious or political. Everyone has a right to believe whatever they want. If it makes you feel better to go to church, great. Nothing wrong with that. Some people can be really showy or talk about their religion out loud, but I’m not that guy.
What I do know is when you see your own child being born, that's a miracle. If that’s not a miracle, I don’t know what is. There are miracles every day. But people choose not to see them, because everything is shoved down our throats by the media and the Internet. It’s all negative and we’re always being asked to pick a side. I don’t want to pick a side. I’m independent. I lean left. I’m a fifth-generation showbiz kid, so there’s a certain mindset to that. I don’t begrudge anyone their personal beliefs, but let’s not make it a public issue, okay? I’m not a preacher. I’m not a politician. I’m a musician. End of story.
Special thanks to Brian Moritz.