One-on-One With Steve Lukather

By on May 19, 2013

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I caught up with legendary guitarist Steve Lukather a few days go, on the cusp of his European tour with Toto. As per his wishes, I called him at his home in Los Angeles at 7:30 in the morning his time – God-awful hours for a musician to be keeping. Yet “Luke” (as his friends refer to him) sounds lively and refreshed. He says he’s been up since 6am, playing with his kids and making the most of his time before embarking on a summer’s worth of dates that will see him spanning most of the western hemisphere. I’ve had the chance in the past to spend some time with Luke in person, but this is the first time we’ve spoken formally about his career. Below is a close transcript of our 40-minute long chat. We start off talking about his new album, but the conversation soon takes on a life of its own as Luke’s propensity for riffing extends into the spoken word. He puts it out there straight, talking about everything from the dismal state of mainstream music to playing with some of the biggest stars in rock history.

Chris: You’ve really written some vivid and subversive lyrics for your new solo record, Transition.

Luke: Music came easy to me early on, but lyrics are something you have to live, you know? Hence some of the critique about the early Toto records, the lyrics being a bit juvenile. We didn’t have much to write about! We were 19 years old! Someone told me that Bob Dylan gets up in the morning and just writes down whatever’s on his mind, no matter what it is. Even if it’s fragmented bullshit or whatever. He just files it all away. If something inspires an idea, boom! You have a song. I’ve learned to do it that way. Otherwise, you have a tendency to miss a lot of great ideas when you’re thinking of content or rhyming scheme rather than form.

Chris: It’s funny you mention Dylan because two songs on Transition, “Judgement Day” and “Creep Motel,” are very Dylanesque in their accusatory tone. They remind me of “Ballad of a Thin Man” in that regard, when Dylan bears down on this “Mr. Jones” character. Like Dylan, you don’t seem afraid to point the finger or take someone to task in a song lyric.

Luke: Those songs are almost a composite of different people. So many people are full of shit these days, and I feel like calling them out on it.

Chris: A lot of writers don’t have the guts to do that. They’re beholden to so many other people and situations that they feel like they have to reel everything in or mask the truth.

Luke: Well I’m getting older and I don’t give a shit what anybody thinks. I’m not running the rat race to become the fastest gun in the west as a player, or as a human being. I’m more relaxed in my own skin. Since I’ve cleaned up mind, body, and soul, I’ve become a lot freer about what I say. I’m 36 years into this madness, you know? I’m busier than I’ve ever been, and I’m seeing life through different eyes. I’ve been around some people who’ve inspired me, and I’ve had to cut away some people who were negative.

Chris: I want to address this dual role you play as a musician now. You are of course known as a virtuoso guitarist, but it’s obvious from your work in Toto and on your solo albums that you’re also a singer songwriter. That sets you apart from your contemporaries such as Joe Satriani and Steve Vai in this regard, who focus solely on their instrument.

Luke: Well I never really thought of that before. Maybe it’s ‘cause no one wanted to sing when we were kids, and I went, ‘fuck it, I’ll sing if no one else will.’ I don’t consider myself a great singer at all, because I’ve worked with great singers. I know a great singer. But I sing well enough to get my own shit across, you know what I mean? In the same breath, I don’t consider myself a gun slinger. I can play, but when I did G3 I was scared shitless. I keep going to Joe, ‘Are you sure you want me to do this?’ He kept saying ‘Yes, yes! Just be yourself!’ So I said fuck it. But you know, there’s nothing more brutal than a bunch of metalhead shredders. They turn on you. It can get ugly, man. (Laughs.) I was scared to death they thought I was going to play “Africa” or something and they were gonna fucking go psycho on me. (More laughter ensues between us.)

Luke with Satriani and Vai, 2012.

Luke with Satriani and Vai, 2012.

Chris: Well it seemed to me from watching footage of G3 that your counterparts seemed relieved to have a guy on stage who could sing. Because singing is a great way to connect with an audience, obviously.

Luke: Let me tell you something. We were all playing so loud on stage that it was hard to hear. We get rip-roaring, and I’m like ‘singing by brail,’ saying to myself ‘I hope I’m close!’

Chris: Well I guess when you play your own shows you vamp your own guitar volume when you sing.

Luke: As a guitar player who’s usually the main offender, I’m very aware of this. It’s like the old heavy metal cliché: ‘Dynamics? I’m playing as loud as I can!’ (Much laughter ensues.) ‘What’s the matter, man? Don’t like my outfit?’ That kind of stuff.

Chris: Another thing that sets you apart from your contemporaries is the variety of styles on your solo albums. You have jazz fusion and progressive rock on there, but also pop/rock ballads.

Luke: Well, people have said, ‘why don’t you do a guitar instrumental album?,’ and I always say that guys like Joe, Steve (Vai), and Jeff (Beck) own that shit, man. I figure I’d play to my strong suit. I play enough guitar on these albums to, you know, get that out. I’m not trying to keep on top of…you know, ‘am I on top of the reader’s poll list in Guitar Player Magazine?’ I never make those lists anyway! (Laughs.)

Chris: But the reality is you’ve played some classic, enduring guitar parts on some huge hits. “Rosanna,” “Hold the Line,” Henley’s “Dirty Laundry,” stuff on the Thriller album, Chicago hits, Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.,” etc.

Luke: I’ve played some things…but you know when we did them they were so quick, like one or two takes and that was it. Then it comes out and people hear it. I got lucky a few times, what can I say?

Chris: Well, if you look on youtube there are probably 100 guitar tutorials on the “Rosanna” solo alone.

Luke: Really? Well the end solo was a one-take jam. Jeff laid down this groove and we all went for it. We never rehearsed anyway. We hated rehearsing. Man, we’ve known each other for forty years. We have Vulcan mind-meld thoughts.

Chris: You were what, 19, when you started with Toto?

Luke: Well I was 15 we all first met in high school, but ya 19 when Toto started.

Toto, 1984 (Luke second from right).

Toto, 1984 (Luke second from right).

Chris: When you were in full swing with these guys during the early ‘80s, doing all those sessions, it must have been cool that you all had Toto as well as all the session work together.

Luke: Ya, we’d be at a session saying to each other, ‘see you later at the gig!’ Especially Jeff Porcaro and me. We were really close, man. He was one of the most important people in my life, like my big brother I never had and all that. We played on a ton of records together.

Chris: Related to this topic, I want to ask you specifically about soloing. It seems we’re lamenting the demise of the guitar solo in mainstream music now.

Luke: I think it’s gonna come back, man, like all things. People are burned out on machine-made, buffed out, auto-tuned, time-corrected music. It’s like McDonald’s music. McNugget music. McMusic. I mean, just ‘cause you can make everything perfect doesn’t mean you should. It’s like chicks and plastic surgery. Does that ever turn out well? It might look good from a distance, or in a photograph. But up close, you see it for what it is. It’s awful. And it’s the same thing with McMusic, you know. I mean…people used to think the Toto guys were slick and soulless and that we played with no heart. We just sat in the room and played, man. That’s what we sounded like! We sound like the Rolling Stones next to the fucking shit you hear on the radio now. Most of the people that are allowed to make records these days…they can’t play. You see ‘em on late night TV struggling to grip the bar chord. I’m like, ‘what the fuck are those guys doing on TV? They’ve worked more on their hairdo than they did their chops. It’s like, ‘dude, you don’t belong….you don’t deserve this opportunity. And no one will know who you are two days from now. That’s it, man. I hope you enjoyed your five minutes ‘cause that’s all you’re gonna get.’

Chris: Yes, it seems like some of them don’t have any strong suit at all.

Luke: Well they don’t have any songs. If I hear that Am-F-C-G chord progression again I may have to jump out of a car. It’s like, ‘Does the dog always have to shit on this part of the lawn?’ It’s a lazy man’s way of coming up with a song. And regarding production, everything’s huge. There are no dynamics to the records. All these big chunking chords…when (legendary rock producer) Bob Clearmountain did it 25 years ago, it was great. Now it’s old.

Chris: Sort of like that Nickelback thing?

Luke: Ha-ha…Nickelback are the new Toto when it comes to getting beat up by everybody. I hear the guy’s a real prick too, so I don’t feel so bad. (Laughs.)

Chris: You can’t compare them to Toto, though. (I’m laughing as well.)

Luke: Well, as far as how much the critics hate ‘em. That’s what I meant. Henley told me in 1980, ‘If you hang in there long enough, they’ll stop fucking with you and start liking you.’ I mean we get the occasional dig from some asshole at Rolling Stone, like anyone cares about them anymore. But most of this shit has turned around. I mean, Ringo says to me (does Liverpool accent),‘I love Toto.’ Man, that’s good enough for me.

Chris: Ya, man…playing with Ringo must be crazy.

Luke: It is, man. I get texts from the guy. He calls me. I still gotta pinch myself. I play music because of The Beatles. I’ve worked with three of the four. But Ringo’s truly a pal, you know? He’s become a mentor. He texted me a while back while I happened to be in Hamburg on tour. That was wild. He refers to me as his ‘last best friend.’ He’s everything I wanna be when I grow up. He’s just as witty as he was in Hard Day’s Night. He’s really sweet. He’s got a heart of gold. He can be intense too, though. He’s been through some shit.

Chris: I obviously don’t know Ringo at all, but yes it does seem like he could have that intense side if you rubbed him the wrong way or whatever.

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Luke: He won’t take any shit from anyone, but he likes me. He thinks I’m hilarious, so….you know. (Laughs.) If someone had to tell me when I was 7-8 years old, holding my first guitar, that many years later I’d be playing with Ringo Starr, I’d never have believed it.

Chris: You’ve told me before about your interactions with the three Beatles (outside Lennon). It seems that in each case they were drawn to you as opposed to you doing anything in particular to get their attention. Why do you think that’s the case?

Luke: I met Harrison in a nightclub in ’92. I told him he changed my life. I was surprised that he knew my work. But we do have a lot of mutual friends – Jim Keltner and the studio guys, etc. And he knew me from playing with Paul and all that. I invited him to come play with me at a fundraiser, and he showed up! I have pictures of that. It was really cool, man. We became good friends around that time, and he turned me on to Transcendental Meditation and very positive spiritual stuff that I still use daily.

Chris: I remember seeing McCartney’s movie Give My Regards to Broad Street, and you’re in the space-age scene for the song, “Silly Love Songs” with the silver suits and all that. This was the first time I’d seen you play. I later found out who you were and all that. I remember thinking, ‘wow, that guy’s lucky to be singing harmony with McCartney!’

Luke (on left) with Paul, Linda, and Jeff Porcaro on set of "Silly Love Songs."

Luke (on left) with Paul, Linda, and Jeff Porcaro on set of “Silly Love Songs.”

Luke: Well the original Mellotron (keyboard) was there that McCartney used on “Strawberry Fields.” I sat at it, leaned over to Linda and asked, ‘dare I?’ and she said, ‘go for it!’ I played the intro right there! And the whole place stopped. People were all like, ‘don’t play Beatles songs around Paul,’ but then we suddenly started jamming Beatles’ hits like “Please Please Me” and stuff.” The place went completely crazy. While I was over in England I hung out with David Gilmour as well. Gilmour ended up in my hotel room one night, bullshitting me about all this gear he owned…just taking the piss, you know? I was just picking his brain about some of the Floyd records and stuff. I found out later that he lied to me about everything, ha!! I had met him through Jeff Beck. I actually produced a record for Jeff Beck that never came out.

Chris: Really?

Luke: In 1997, ya, right before he went techno.

Chris: And it’s still in the can?

Luke: Yep.

Chris: Do you think it will ever come out?

Luke: No.

Chris: You and Beck did some touring in Japan in the ‘80s, didn’t you? I’ve seen some footage on YouTube….

Luke: Oh God that’s so unfortunate ‘cause the sound they took from my feed was just the effects side. They didn’t have the dry side, so it was the worst sound ever. And of course I get the shit beat out of me on YouTube by the fucking youtube assholes…

Chris: But you can’t gauge anything there….

Luke: That’s who ‘Creep Motel’ is about, those assholes. Listen, man, that was the night I got Tinnitus (condition characterized by a chronic ringing in the ears). It was so loud on stage I tried to jump over the monitors to get away from it. My ears have never stopped ringing since 1986. It was the loudest fucking thing I’d ever been on. I’ve had to start using in-ears. Satriani told me I’d eventually get used to them, and I did. I’ve got a 20db pads. I’ve had to learn to live with it.

Chris: Have studio headphones contributed to it?

Luke: Yes. I used wear headphones 12 hours a day. It has to do damage. But that show (with Beck) made it (the Tinnitus) stay. With in-ears I don’t get that sonic hangover anymore.

Chris: Well, I should let you go. I know you’re there with your kids now, trying to get in every last second before you head out on tour again. When does the Toto tour start?

Luke: We start in Belgium at the end of the month. We do some European dates and then head back to the US for some dates. I’m also doing solo dates with Peter Frampton before heading back to Europe, and then I’m out with Ringo again to Latin America.

Chris: What a crazy itinerary. Well, safe travels, man, and I hope to get to see another show at some point. It’s been a true pleasure chatting.

Luke: Anytime I’m playing anywhere near you, just hit me up man. I will sort you out with passes and all that. Give my best to Michelle and your brother and everyone, and we’ll talk to you soon. Stay in touch!

Chris: Thanks a million, man. Talk soon!

Luke: See ya!

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2 Comments

  1. Chad Murphy

    May 20, 2013 at 11:18 am

    I’m willing to bet that Lukather doesn’t often give such an informal interview with someone who calls him at 7:30 in the morning! Maybe that’s the time you have to call someone to get them to somehow let their guard down and tell you all their secrets hah.
    Nice to see that he’s normal on the underside of his virtuosity.
    With our shared tendency to be guitar geeks, I was anticipating (maybe even longing for) some banter on the subject of guitar gear, practice regimen, etc. Perhaps in part 2!
    Chrissy, don’t lose that number.

    • Chris LeDrew

      May 20, 2013 at 1:39 pm

      Thanks for reading, Chad! You’ve made me think of a great idea, which is a sub-column on technical and instrument-related questions. I really should pursue that!

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