Something Else! Interview: Steve Lukather, of Toto

Photo by Ash Newell

Steve Lukather was gearing up for a summer tour in Europe when he got the news: Rare recognition had arrived for him, not just as a co-founder of the often-overlooked band Toto but — and this is rarer still — as a sideman.

Lukather was recently honored by Gibson.com, the legendary guitar-maker’s official Web site, as one of the Top 10 session players of all time — a diverse list that included Steve Cropper, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Chet Atkins, among others. So, we asked him to dig into his role in a staggering number of hit projects — from Boz Scaggs and Olivia Newton-John to Larry Carlton and Michael Jackson. But you don’t talk to Lukather without talking about Toto. So, we also found out more during the latest SER Sitdown on the complicated history of the band’s lead singers, and what the future holds for Toto after the departure of two Porcaro brothers. Oh, and why Lukather still keeps a copy of Meet the Beatles in heavy rotation, even today. …

Nick DeRiso: Let’s start with Meet the Beatles, and the impact that George Harrison’s playing had on you as a musician.
Steve Lukather: That was the on-ramp for my whole life. When I heard that, something reached into depths of my soul and touched me like nothing since my first breath. I wore the record out, just played it over and over and over. I kept listening to ‘I Saw Her Standing There.’ I thought, ‘I don’t know how they make that sound — but I want to make it.’ I got a guitar and Meet The Beatles when I was seven years old. That was a life-changing event. I never knew in a million years I would become friends with George or work with (fellow Fab) Paul (McCartney); that was a dream. It was like music from the heavens — and it still is. I have Meet the Beatles in my car right now.

DeRiso: It seemed like your solo records, when Toto was still a going concern, incorporated a lot more fusion and experimentation. More recent efforts like All’s Well That Ends Well, meanwhile, are bringing in more of the Toto sound. Are you consciously moving back to that? Well, without the big hair, of course.
Lukather: As I get older, sometimes you see some brutal You Tubes. Some of that stuff just doesn’t play well. Back in the 1980s, when the whole shredding thing hit, everybody was doing it. I was keeping up with the Joneses. It was all about the clothes and the hair. It just doesn’t play real well anymore. People wanted to hear that; they were screaming for it — but people don’t see that part of it now. Some things are just of the moment, and those moments are gone. They are out of context now. Look at the hair, look at the clothes. At the time, that was considered cutting edge. Even record companies had stylists. We were all guilty of it. It was the era. Of course, all of these years later, I am nowhere near the same person. I look back at that 25-year-old version of myself and think: ‘Who was that guy?’

[ONE TRACK MIND: Toto's Steve Lukather discusses key songs from his career, including "I Won't Hold You Back," "99" and "I'll Be Over You," and the time that Miles Davis tried to lure him away.]

DeRiso: For all of your mainstream success, Toto also had experimental efforts like 1979’s Hydra and 1981’s Turn Back. You never get enough credit for the chances you took.
Lukather: We didn’t get credit for anything. (Laughs, ruefully.) We were playing funky shuffles — Jeff Porcaro really owned that. We were doing world music, with “Africa.” Nobody ever gave us any credit. We were using strings and horns, doubling the bass. Mixing R&B with harder-edged stuff, I’m not saying we invented any of that. But we always make the worst-band ever lists, and nobody was doing that at the time. We were hated very much by the mainstream, and there are still a few people hanging on to that grudge. But a new generation of people is finding us. Kids are discovering all of this music. We are seeing a resurgence of record sales, and we’re selling out arenas again. It’s amazing that all of it has come full circle — if you hang on long enough.

DeRiso: You played guitar on a thousand hit singles — from Seals and Crofts to Boz Scaggs to Hall and Oates, even Olivia Newton John’s “Physical.” That led to your recent recognition as one of the Top 10 sidemen of all time. What’s it like, showing up and having to quickly fit into a small musical space like that?
Lukather: There are a million guys better than me, but being able to play those parts — to come up with something on the spot — is what made it special. It was a challenge, but at the same time, when you are in the midst of it, it flowed. It was very second nature. We didn’t put any rules on it. If it sounded good, we recorded it. These days, when they play those tunes, they do the riff that I came up with, and there’s no writer’s credit for it, but that was the job.

DeRiso: Bobby Kimball left as the group was putting together the follow up to the multi-Grammy award-winning Toto IV. That started a merry-go-round of singers.
Lukather: The fact of the matter was that Bobby left because he couldn’t sing and he wouldn’t show up. He ended up dragging us through the mud at the height of our career. There were a hundred chances. Look, we were all doing drugs — but we showed up. If you are a singer and you can’t sing? What are we supposed to do? Besides, from the first record on, we all sang. Bobby wrote, but wrote very little. I felt terrible that the guy was let go. We finally said, ‘We have to make a change.’ (Replacement singer) Fergie (Frederiksen, who would only handle lead vocals on 1984’s Isolation) worked for a minute and then it didn’t. Joe (Williams, who came and went in time for 1986’s Fahrenheit) really fit into our personality, because we grew up with him. Then Joe blew his voice out too. It was a very demanding chair. I don’t begrudge it for anybody. The human voice is not like playing the guitar. You’re pushing your voice. Don’t take care of it and, boom, it goes. So I started singing more and more. The thought of getting singer No. 5 was ridiculous.

DeRiso: A pairing with fellow guitarist Larry Carlton in 1998 garnered another Grammy. What made that collaboration so fruitful?
Lukather: Larry called me. I have known Larry since I was 17 years old. He asked me if I wanted to do the tour. We played on some of the same records, but we hadn’t really played live together. He has always been a hero and friend. We showed up in Japan with no rehearsal, and the first night was so fun. We are so different as players — and we kept going. I said, ‘We’ve got to record this.’ We ended up winning a Grammy. I love and respect Larry as one of the greatest ever.

DeRiso: Toto clearly had a huge impact in Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” Was there a sense of the historic nature of that album from the outset?
Lukather: It was the record to be on. As a studio musicians, you work to get that call. McCartney was involved; you knew it was going to be huge. I was working a lot of with (producer) Quincy (Jones) at the time. I was like 22 years old, and he was taking us all along for the ride. Quincy was always great at casting people. We knew something special was happening.

DeRiso: More recently, you have worked with your son Trevor, a talented guitarist and writer in his own right. What’s that like?
Lukather: First off, he’s like my best friend. We hang every day. I think he was like my father in a past life. He’s an old soul in a young body. He’s funny and a really good player. I’ve got to say I’m really proud of how he turned out as a human being. We work together and I am hard on him. But he plays in a very unique way, with a wicked vibrato. He has this incredible command of chords, and a voicing that’s his own thing. He’s got great timing. That’s pretty cool.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: We discuss a few lesser-known favorites from Toto's 'Hydra,' 'IV,' 'Isolation,' 'Kingdom of Desire' and 'Falling in Between' albums.]

DeRiso: Toto reformed last year, but without drummer Jeff — who has passed — and bassist Mike Porcaro, who is suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease. How is he doing?
Lukather: Mike’s not doing well. It’s really hard to watch. I love him so much. He can talk, that’s about it. ALS is a brutal f–ing, cruel disease — because you feel things, you think like you did when you are 15, sharp as a tack, but your body slowly atrophies. I am without words.

DeRiso: The most recent tour with Toto was a benefit for Mike. Are there other plans to play again?
Lukather: I quit because I couldn’t keep going out there by myself with my high school band. It was like we were faking it. All my buddies were gone. I wasn’t getting along with the other members. Look, I expect to get called out on my s–, too: I boozed. I couldn’t stand what I was doing, so I left before it killed me. We brought Joe back, who is singing better than ever. But when we lost Jeff, that was devastating. I can’t tell you what that meant. It was like losing the heart and soul of the band. It took some time. I had to come back from the ashes. Everybody came back, sober, very together, and the response we got to that and how much help we were able to give Mike financially, it was fun again. We played the records the way they were meant to be played again. We had been fooling around with the arrangements, just out of boredom. Ticket sales were overwhelming. I said, OK, I could do this every once in a while. Look, we’re never going to make another record again. But we can still do something fun for the fans every once in a while.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.