Steve Lukather of Toto – Still Holding the Line 35 Years In
Updated: May 22
Steve Lukather of Toto
Still Holding the Line 35 Years In
by Jay S. Jacobs
There is nothing novel about a veteran band reuniting for one last bask in their past glories. However, in their 35th anniversary tour, 70s and 80s hitmakers Toto are getting back together for all the right reasons.
Original bassist Mike Porcaro was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease in 2007. Medical expenses piled up quickly. Therefore, to help an old friend, original band members Steve Lukather, David Paich and Steve Porcaro got back together with longtime Toto singer Joe Williams (though he was high school friends with the original members, he did not join the band until 1985). The hole left in the rhythm section by the ailing Mike Porcaro and late drummer Jeff Porcaro (who died of a heart attack in 1992) was filled by respected session players Nathan East and Simon Phillips.
It makes a certain amount of sense that the band would be filled out with session musicians, because Toto was always made up of some of the hottest session guys on the music scene. For many years you could not name a significant album coming out of LA that members of Toto did not play on. The guys were first noticed as Boz Scaggs' backing band on the multi-platinum album Silk Degrees. Other classic albums band members added their licks to include Michael Jackson's Thriller and Steely Dan's Katy Lied.
The guys got together as Toto in 1977, becoming an immediate success with their self-titled debut album and hit single "Hold the Line." They released a couple more albums in the next couple of years and had a few more hits, including "99" and "I'll Supply the Love." However, in 1982 with the album Toto IV, things exploded. Toto singles "Rosanna" and "Africa" were amongst the biggest songs of the year, while other singles like "Make Believe" and "I Won't Hold You Back" also climbed the charts. The band never quite hit the heights of IV again, though they had several other hits in coming years, despite many changes to the group's lineup.
Lukather, the only member of Toto who has played throughout all of the band's active years, has also become a prolific solo artist. His most recent solo disk Transition came out earlier this year.
We were able to catch up with Steve Lukather during a brief stop home in Los Angeles between a European solo tour promoting his Transition album and the beginnings of the European 35th Anniversary Toto shows. "I'm just looking at a pile of charts of old songs that Toto has to play in our next tour that we haven't played in 100 years," Lukather told me when he picked up the phone. "It pays to learn how to read music, man." He laughed. "I don't care what anybody tells you, man. It's like learning how to speak Swedish or Spanish. That's all it is. It's a tool. It's a tool, just like me!" He broke up again, giving a good-natured "Ooohh!" I could tell early on that this interview was going to be a wild ride, and Luke didn't disappoint, giving me a fascinating and funny (and occasionally just slightly dirty) guided tour of his career and his band.
I'm really looking forward to the new tour and also enjoying the new solo album.
Thank you very much, man. I just got back from Europe a couple of days ago. Had a really successful tour. I just keep jumping from ship to ship, man. It keeps my life rather interesting. Hectic, but you know. It's what I do. I'm lucky to be doing it. Especially at 185 years old.
How crazy is it to think that Toto is 35 years old now?
How crazy is it that I'm 55 years old? (laughs) You know what, man? It went by really quickly. I have to say that it's terrifying, actually. I want it to slow down a little bit. I'm probably enjoying it and appreciating it more now that I'm clean – mind, body and soul – for the last many years. I'm just taking a good look around, you know? When you're in the midst of the madness, sometimes you don't even realize how fast it's going and what's really going on. Now I'm really taking a little more stock of it and am certainly very appreciative of all of the opportunities. I'm doing all this crazy stuff now, and it's all very positive, so... Thirty-five years went by really scary fast. That's what happened.
Lots of bands reunite for selfish reasons, but Toto is doing it for one of the worthiest reasons I've heard. How did the decision to get back together for the anniversary tour come together?
Well, here's the thing. Mike Porcaro has got ALS [Lou Gehrig's Disease]. If you know anything about this disease at all, it's one of God's more cruel creations. Really, it makes cancer a walk through the park in many ways. Imagine being entombed in your own body. That's worse than prison. Mike's a brother, man. The thing is the real core guys of this band have known each other for 40 years. We were kids in school together. Joseph [Williams] and his brother Mark went to school with us before Toto. Me and Mike Landau had bands in school, along with the Porcaro Brothers [Steve, Jeff and Mike]. We've all been friends. I pulled the plug on this thing early, when it became me and a bunch of really incredible side men. Who were friends, but the band became something else. I wasn't getting on with someone in the band and the guys who came on to take the places of the original members are still my friends. Needless to say, the guys I started out with have always been friends. Even in the darker times.
So back in 2007, when I bailed, Mike was really having a tough time of it. Obviously, as the bass player and not primary songwriter, money was needed to help keep his family going. With kids in school and medical bills. When a brother is down, you get together. So [David] Paich and I talked on the phone and I said yeah, man, I'm up for doing it. This was 2010. I'm up for doing it, but we have to have Steve Porcaro come back. And we have to have Joe sing.
I want to look around the stage and see my high school bros. Joe can sing better now than he ever did. Everybody's gone through their trials and tribulations with the raging years and all that stuff, but we're all older guys now. When we were young, we were all crazy. We did all the stupid rock and roll shit you can do. Some of us grew out of it. Some of us didn't. Whatever. Most of us did. The lifelong friendships that never waned are still stronger than ever.
So, we got back together and did this little tour. It was a huge success. Nathan East stepped in to play bass with us. He's incredible. World class. Everybody knows him. Simon Phillips on drums, taking over for Jeff [Porcaro, who died in 1992]. So, where there is a hole in the original rhythm section, it certainly was filled by some incredibly worthy musicians and also very old friends. And we've got a couple of great background singers, Amy Keys and Mabvuto Carpenter, to make it real, so we can pull off all the five-part harmonies and stuff. Because a lot of people are out there faking it, you know?
Starting in May, you have lots of tour dates set up for Europe. Will there be an American tour coming up too?
Yes, and a whole bunch of US dates too. They are just being put together. We have new management, James Blades over at Doc McGhee's office. We have new agents: WME/William Morris. It's a whole new world. All of the sudden, we did this one tour. It was so successful; we had such a good time. The fans loved it. We all have outside careers. Steve Porcaro is scoring Justified, a big TV show. I have my solo stuff. I was with Ringo (Starr's All-Starr Band). Everybody does their own thing. Simon is out on a jazz tour, doing all kinds of crazy stuff. Nathan obviously is very busy.
Dave is sort of semi-retired. He just drives his gold golf cart out to pick up those "Africa" royalties. I think that song is like a scathing case of herpes, it comes around every once in a while, and pays off big for him. We tease him about it all the time. We love the song. We love being a part of the pop culture. All that Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake stuff. Family Guy. Being a South Park character. I mean, it's great to be a part of pop culture. Nobody laughs at us harder than we laugh at ourselves, bro. Trust me when I tell you. People have this unrealistic assumption that because we're studio guys, we're all just super serious. We take ourselves so seriously. God, it's quite the opposite.
Even before your debut album, the band members made a splash as Boz Scagg's band in Silk Degrees.
Yeah, that was David Paich and Jeff Porcaro that put the Silk Degrees thing together. Me and Steve Porcaro were still in high school. Steve went out with Gary ["Dream Weaver"] Wright and right after that we all jumped on Boz's band. We were still teenagers. Through that, before the end of that tour we had a record deal, and we started the first Toto album in '77.
Lots of the members of the band made livings before and after as session musicians. How do you think that experience has made the band tighter as a group?
Well, our ability as musicians. We took ourselves really seriously when we were kids. We studied and all that. You know, before the punk thing came along and made it allegedly uncool to be a well-trained musician, which I've always thought was a bagful of shit, myself. The thing about our band was that we were never in style, so we could never be out of style. We're just sort of there. We never knew when we wrote these songs that they would last for 35 years. (laughs)
We get to do so many different things. I've gotten to play with most of my childhood heroes. That's a trip in itself. Becoming friends with the people you've always admired and inspired you to be a musician. Have a chance to work with them and create with them. It's an incredible honor. Being a studio musician is some of the most fond years of my life. It was a long time ago, but in the heyday of it, man, we were doing everything that came out of LA.
Well, I was going to come to this later, but you've played on so many legendary recordings. You played on [Michael Jackson's] Thriller. You worked with Barbra Streisand and....
Barbra Streisand. (laughs) Why does that one always come up? Not Roger Waters. Not Miles Davis. Not Alice Cooper.
What were some of your favorite session gigs?
I loved working with Elton [John]. Joni Mitchell. Working with Roger Waters was a thrill because I was an old [Pink] Floyd fan. Dave [Gilmour] is one of my favorite guitarists. We're friends. So many, man. I'm writing a book about my life right now, actually. My life in the studios. I've just gotten started. It's going to be one hell of a process to try to get all that into a few hundred pages.
I know you're proud of your work with the band, but in 1989 when you released your first solo album Lukather, what was that like to finally get your own music out there?
It was great for me because I waited. I sat back and learned for a while. I didn't touch it for about ten years. I wanted to earn my [stripes]. Then it became like the guys didn't want to work so much, and I had felt that I had enough experience in the studio that I wanted to give it a go on my own. (laughs) But, of course, I pulled in all the favors from all my really cool, famous friends, who helped me out for my first solo album, so I hesitate to even call it a solo album, because I had a lot of help. But, you know, it was my first... I put my feet in the water. I haven't listened to that record in a long time. Probably sounds very 80s, production wise. I started 25 years ago, the first time I did a solo project.
The band Toto actively is not a recording band at this point, although there are rumors we may do something. But there's been litigation and stuff for a long time. You know, ex-managers, ex-record companies. It's just amazing. You're not really successful unless you've got at least three lawsuits going at the same time. It's so fucking stupid, man. It's like slamming your cock in the door. Why do we do this? Why do I have to do that? It's painful and awful. But sometimes you have to do this.
We're finally, after a few years, kind of getting through that. We may do something for all the right reasons. To help Mike. Also, to get some new music out, in to play. But it's great being a classic rock band because you can go out and play. People will come. We're not a one-hit wonder. We've had more hits than people actually give us credit for. I sang a lot of the songs. Dave sang songs. Joseph sang a couple of hits. We've had other singers and stuff like that. In a few different genres, even. We get out there and play and people go, "Oh, God, I forgot that was you guys."
The band's sound changed a lot over the years, from the most straight-ahead AOR of the debut to a more melodic softer sound on some later singles like "I Won't Hold You Back."
Well, that was the record company. If you look through the albums themselves, there's a lot of harder-edged stuff on it. But the record company, once they got a hold of "Oh, you're a soft-rock band," they ran with it. And they ran our rock credibility into the ground, which kind of sucked. But it is what it is.
I still remember I really loved your single right after IV, "Stranger in Town," and it just didn't get near the play.
These days the rules have changed. To us, radio is meaningless. Major labels are meaningless. You have to do things on your own. You play to your audience. We have a bigger audience than we ever thought. We're still doing arenas and headlining huge festivals around the world and selling them out. Here in the US, we're putting our feet in the water. We're going to go out and play some gigs with Mike McDonald. There's talk of some other people that are not confirmed yet. We're going to do some of our own shows.
The Grammy Museum is doing a thing on us because they've put together some ridiculous credit list of collectively all of us. I think we've played with on like 6,000 albums and like 225 Grammy nominated records. A half a billion records sold. So, we get a little more credit than... I mean, I didn't do this. This is our new managers and agents and stuff going, "We've got to make a big deal out of you guys. People don't know what you've done." People are always like, "Oh, yeah, that 'Africa' band. I hate those guys." There's a lot more to our band than meets the eye.
By the way, I love "Africa." I think it's a great song.
Yeah, me too. But there's always the one going, "Is this a hit song? Really?"
That whole IV album was probably the band's apex as far as popularity. It exploded so crazily. You couldn't go anywhere without hearing "Africa," "Rosanna," "I Won't Hold You Back," or "Make Believe," which was an amazing song. What was it like to be in the middle of that whirl of being a huge rock star?
I don't think we were ever a huge rock star. (laughs) It's weird, now I get noticed a little bit more than I ever did, because I just think I'm out there a lot for a long time. In Europe. In the magazines. People do stuff like this. So, I'm not really sure. I don't know. I never think in terms of that. I'm around people who are real rock stars. Bona fide, you know? There are friends of mine that just happen to be famous actors and whatnot as well. Fame is something that really scares the shit out of me. I wouldn't want to be that famous. I'll take the money. (laughs)
MTV really embraced "Rosanna" and "Africa."
Yeah, we were one of the first bands on MTV. They liked us, and then all of the sudden after we won all the Grammys everybody turned on us. We were the only band that ever turned down the cover of Rolling Stone, because we knew they were going to do a hatchet job on us. Looking back on it, maybe not the best career move. At the same time, if you go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, our band name is not even in the [place]. It's like we never existed. Yet they put... you know, whatever. I'm not going to get into a fucking thing.
That was like, we were young and cocky, and we did some stupid shit, you know? Like every young [band]. Of course, it's the most punk rock thing you could ever do in the world. Turn down the corporation, which is now the massive corporation, or used to be a massive corporation, Rolling Stone with their private jet. They're talking about the angst of youth and being a punk and they bought the fucking George W. Bush Kool Aid. They are everything they hated when they started out. So, who is the fool?
I am just a guitar player and happy to be doing this after 36 years in as a studio player and 35 years as Toto. I can't believe that we are still going strong. I get to do all these things. I'm in Ringo's All-Starr Band. I do solo records. I've got Toto. I get offered to do all these crazy cool things with all these great musicians. It's a great honor. I don't take it lightly. I'm not mad. I'm not bitter. I don't give a fuck about this or that. I'm just happy to be working. People show up. Multi-generations of people show up. Pretty cool.
I was reading online today, and you never know when you read this stuff online, but it was saying you actually started out as a drummer and keyboardist.
No, no. That isn't true. You can't believe anything you read in the media or on the internet. It pisses me off because I can't even change my own Wikipedia. That's how sick the world has gotten. I never said that. It never happened. That's the wrong stuff. They're like, "Well, sorry, it was in an article in a magazine, so it must be true." So, I could tell you I have a 15-inch cock. If someone wrote that in a newspaper, that would be in my Wikipedia.
Well, how did you first get into playing the guitar?
The Beatles, man. I saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, like everybody my age who started playing music. That changed my life forever. George Harrison was my first guitar hero. Later a friend, God rest his soul. I worked with Paul. Ringo's my pal. I'm standing in Hamburg three weeks ago and I get a text from Ringo. In Hamburg. [The Beatles famously lived there and played early gigs from 1960-1962.] How surreal is that?
And he's not done. He's everything that I want to be as far as how to grow old gracefully. Classy, together, healthy, sense of humor, vital, funny and youthful. He's like 72 years old, he looks 40, if that. He's everything. He's the coolest guy in the world. And he's one of The Beatles. This guy has changed the world. How many people can say that they actually changed the world? Most musicians are just... a good musician is a good musician. You go, "great." You know? But very few people really changed the face of the planet.
Who were some of the artists that inspired you to become a musician?
Well, you start there, 1964. I got a guitar and Meet the Beatles and I saw that. I said that's what I'm going to do, and my parents thought I was crazy. On the other side of that, it was an unrealistic dream. I might as well have said I want to be the first man on Mars. My dad patted me on the head and said, "Yeah, that's great kid. You've got a one in a billion chance of making it in this business." My dad was in show biz, behind the camera, in movies and television. So, he knew. He wasn't a performer, but he knew the dark side of show biz. And the odds.
Before I was even thinking about it, I was a single-digit kid, I was only playing band, I was nine years old my first band. And loving it. I was making money. On the weekends, playing parties and stuff like that. Making 20 bucks a weekend, which in 1967 was pretty good money. He said, "You've got a billion in one chance of making it." I said well I'll be that guy. He laughed and said, "Cool. Go for it."
Over the years, how have decided what music you wanted to keep for solo work as compared to band music?
I never did that ever in my life. I write per project. I don't write songs every day. Sometimes I go through spurts where I don't write for six-eight months. I'm playing. I practice. I play my instrument every day. Or I'm touring. I keep a journal. Write little lyrical ideas. I'm more like what's going on in the world. I tend to write what my feelings are. Then, when it's time to write a record, I go in and go okay, it's time to write some music now.
It's always been there for me. It's always come. It's never been a dry spot, per se. But it's a separate mindset. When I'm in touring mode, that's a different kind of creativity that is used. A different brain muscle if you will. When it is time to record, that's a different side of the brain. Sort of like painting on a huge canvas and driving a Formula One. That's the difference.
The music business has changed so much and become rather broken since the band's heyday, with piracy and all. How is it different recording independently than on a major?
I love indies. There's the irony, I'm an independent and I'm on an independent label now. I love it. Never been treated better. Never been paid on time more. Never been promoted better. I've got more visibility on myself now than I did at the height of Toto IV, as far as people being interested in talking with me. But it's a different world. I have to be on Facebook and Twitter, which I'm actively on. That really is me, I didn't hire a guy to do that. I think it's bullshit to lie to people like that. If the record company goes on there, I say this is the record company, not me. I make a differentiation between who is who. I didn't post that. That was them. People can tell by the way I write and misspell things that it's actually me. (laughs) I type really fast, and I never spell check, because I've got a million things going at once. It's not that I'm an idiot.
Is it fun doing lead vocals on your solo work?
Yeah. I've been working hard at it. Now that I don't drink and smoke all that stuff and I have a really great new voice teacher, Gary Catona, it's coming a lot better. I really take my work seriously. A lot of guys get to a certain age and they just go, "Hey, you know what? I'm cool, let's go out and play the hits and get paid. Who gives a fuck?" I really give a fuck. I get up in the morning. I play the guitar every day. I take my kids to school and do normal dad stuff, because I've got two generations of kids. My oldest just got engaged and my youngest just said, "Hi, dad" for the first time. I have four kids, two generations. So, yeah, my life is surreal. But it's cool. Never dull! But I make time for the music, man. The music is what facilitates everybody's lives. No one ever bugs me about that. It's part of who I am. I'd like to think I'm getting better at it.
"Judgement Day" feels like it could be a hit in a different musical world.
Well, you know, come on. I'm 55 years old. Maybe if you do a blindfold test on people. We live in the most obscene image-conscious world ever. Kids instead of wanting a car on their sixteenth birthday, they want a tit job or something. People want to be famous for nothing. I don't understand the value system, Maybe I'm showing my age at this point. (laughs) But we worked really hard to become successful. We thought you had to be really good. We concentrated [on it].
We weren't all dicking around with video games and all that crap. When we were young, it didn't exist. I tried Pong in the '70s and it made me nauseous. I never tried video games again. I put my time and effort towards playing my instrument. Learning things. Listening to music and playing every shitty gig I could, just to learn. Studying. Orchestration. Guitar. Piano. Whatever I could get my hands on. It was an obsession. It still is.
You worked with Fee Waybill on "Creep Motel." What is he like to write with?
Yeah. The first song we wrote was "Talk to Ya Later" for the Tubes in 1980. We've been lifelong friends. I think the world of him. He has a jaded, more demented point of view, lyrically speaking. I actually come up with the music and then we throw the lyrics... he gives me a few drafts of lyrics and I fuck with those. It just works. You have a handful of people that you love working with that you always get some really great stuff out of and always finish things. That's why I like to co-write because I finish things.
Why did you decide on the instrumental cover of "Smile"?
I always loved the song. It's a beautiful melody. It's timeless. My mom loved a beautiful melody. When she passed away, I wanted to do something for her. A lot of people have covered it. You can't miss with that. It's an incredibly sad song for a song called "Smile."
Yes, it was written by Charlie Chaplin, who was known as a comedian.
Yeah, well you know, tears of a clown and all that. Being a clown myself, I can kind of relate to it. It was just something we started doing live and people said, "You should record that." That was just me and Steve Weingart live in the studio. That's one take. CJ [Vanston], my co-producer, did a little keyboard post-production, but my playing and the initial performance was all live.