Steve Lukather Interview: Ever Changing Times...
Steve Lukather is a man who needs no introduction to most guitarists the world over - and it's safe to say that pretty much anyone who's listened to popular music over the past 30 years will have heard his work: from Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and Madonna through to Roger Waters, Don Henley and Boz Scaggs - not forgetting his multi platinum band Toto - Steve Lukather is one of the most recorded and acclaimed guitarists in history.
In total, Steve's played on well over 3000 international albums - including the largest selling album of all time Michael Jacksons 'Thriller'. He is also one of the very few guitarists to have successfully straddled the rock, blues, funk and fusion genres - he is simply one of the most respected players out there. Ask almost any pro guitarist - particularly rock, and even more especially session pro's - to name some guitarists who they admire and it's a good bet that Steve will be mentioned. He is, and will always remain, the 'Ultimate LA Session Guitarist'
Steve grew up in the heartland of Hollywood to a family steeped in show business - indeed his grandfather was drinking buddies with John 'The Duke' Wayne! - but rather than follow his families footsteps and work in the TV and Film industry, Steve instead chose to enter a rather different branch of the entertainment world.
In the early 1970's Steve attended a rather special High School, as he explains: "At the time nobody realised it, but my High School had a load of kinda legends: the Porcaro bothers - when I was there Jeff Porcaro was already with Steely Dan - and Mike was there when I was... Mike Landau, Bruce Gowdry, Tim Pierce, Carlos Vega - yeah, you could say our High School was pretty wild! Our music teachers... well, one teacher thought we were all like aliens and didn't like us at all - but one kinda loved us! But, you know, we all just kind of found each other: most of us grew up together in the valley of Los Angeles, and yeah - it was a really cool place to grow up!"
Steve made his mark quickly, playing with Boz Skaggs whilst still in his teens and quickly became one of the most sought after studio guitarist in America. In 1977 Steve and his High School buddies formed Toto - and from then on his place in musical history was assured.
Often reviled by the mainstream critics as a soulless example of studio slickness and corporate rock, Toto have nevertheless achieved amazing success - 1982's 'Toto IV' sold millions of copies, spawned worldwide hit singles and won six Grammy Awards - and have survived a myriad of personnel changes over the years, to emerge over 30 years later with one of rocks biggest and most longstanding fan bases: one that remains truly international to this day. They also, along the way, created some of melodic rock's greatest and most enduring songs - material that has stood the test of time rather better than some other bands they were always associated with by critics looking for an easy peg to hang the band on.
A contributing factor to this would have been their unparalleled musical proficiency: indeed in addition to Toto, Steve - and the rest of the band (especially the mighty Porcaro Brothers) also lived, worked, and reigned supreme through the golden age of the LA studio session world. Steve would regularly play three or four sessions a day - often all with household names! - in a pre pro tools era when all the studio dudes really had to be able to play!
The last couple of years have seen a genuine renaissance for Toto, with the best selling and critically praised 'Falling In Between'' and an amazing 2 1/2 years on the road playing sold out concerts around the globe.
Now, in early 2008 Steve is gearing up for his fourth vocal solo release 'Ever Changing Times' so we caught up with Steve to get the low down not only on the new album, but also on what the future might hold for Toto...
Tales of Toto
So, Steve - just what have you been up to in 2007?!
Ha, ha... What did I get up to?! Loads Man...well, I started 2007 laying down the basic tracks for my new record 'Ever Changing Times', and then I went on the road with Toto on and off throughout the year. And, when I was off I'd go back to working on the record..and then Id' go back out with Toto...come back and work on the record!
I finished the album in about July, and spent most of the rest of the year..back on the road with Toto! I had a baby on September 19th..and then went back on the road! It's been like a 2 and a half year tour man - but it's finally gonna be done first week in April.
The last couple of years have seen Toto back on top... and the tour seems never ending!
Well...that's kinda ironic because the end is in sight! Yeah, then we're going to put it up on the shelf - after 30 years I kinda need a break... Then I'm going to go out and tour my solo stuff and keep my head out of trouble for a while. I mean, in Toto I'm the only guy that's been there right from the very first rehearsal till now: some of the others have a different view on how we want things to go - and I think we all need a break. I'm not saying that we'll never do it again, but I don't see it in the foreseeable future.
Really? That's going to disappoint a load of people out there...'Falling In Between' seems to have been about the most successful album since the 80's...
Yeah, it's been great - an incredible run: I mean we wouldn't still be out there doing it after 2 and a half years if it hadn't been that big. But.. my brother Mike Porcaro, he's down, he's got some physical problems - we don't know what the hell's going on with him really...but it's real serious. So, in a way it's sort of been a bitter sweet joy by going out with Leland Sklar, Abe Laboriel and the rest - but it's so disheartening to look around you and see you keep losing guys, you know?
And so I'm just trying to...it's been a great run man, and now we 're just going to have to put in up on the shelf for a while and see what happens.
I imagine you approached the solo album a little differently to the normal Toto stuff?
Well, first of all I wrote all the music: so it's always gonna be different as it's not a group thing, in the end it's all pretty much down to me. My songwriting partner, Randy Goodrum - who I've worked with on different stuff a long time, and also executive produced the album - well, he brought the record deal to me. He said "It's time for you to do a real rock'n'roll record: songs, vocals - c'mon: let's go do it!" It was like "You've been needing to do it for over 10 years!"
'Ever Changing TIMES' IS DEFINATELY A REAL ROCKER...
Well, you know I went to 'Fusion World' for a while and did some records with my great friend Larry Carlton, and did really well: we won a Grammy and everything. I did a lot of jam band type of stuff that was a lot of fun, and just groovin' y'know? Spent a lot of time just playing guitar and pushing my self musically - but after a while I realised I just wanted to get back to playing some more structured music and concentrate on writing some real good songs - well, what I think are really good songs, anyway: if I like it hopefully someone else will!
Well, even though most of the reviews have yet to hit the street I think you can safely assume that you've succeeded!
I hope so! But, y'know, I just wanted to have some fun with it as well - have no real set structure: just write a good song and see where it naturally goes. And somehow it managed - even though it's stylistically very diverse - to be 'me': it's still me and somehow when you put it all together it does sound homogeneous. It shows pretty much all the sides of who I am - without going to 'Fusion World'! This time I purposely didn't do anything like that.
You kept it 'rock'...
Well, song orientated you know? Sort of pieces that are structured, despite the fact that I pushed it a bit. I mean I used some strange song forms - just when you think a song might go to the chorus again it might it might go off somewhere else, and there'd be no problem with that. Because, on this record, I wasn't trying to write the proverbial 'hit single' - y'know I've been there! I had my hands untied there, and I wanted to write stuff that rocked a little bit - had some good lyrics, interesting production...
Obviously, I hired some GREAT players - and what was a kick for me was my son and I wrote some songs together: I even had my daughter sing background on one of the tunes - tunes - so it was a real family affair as well!
Which songs did you write with Trevor?
'Tell Me What You Want From Me' and 'New World'...
How did that work? Where you just hanging around the house, grabbed the guitar's out and started jamming?!
Nah... i just told him "Write me a fucking Baddass riff and I'll write something around it - let's go and do something together first time - c'mon...!"
So he came up with that real heavy riff for 'Tell me What You Want From Me' - and I thought that was brilliant, so I said "Ok, that works - I'll write the verse, and we can write the bridge together!" Which is why it kinda sounds like Pink Floyd meets Zeppelin... well, a modern Zeppelin!...meets the Beatles! Y'know, I shamelessly sort of nod my head to - knock my hat off to - all my favourite bands and influences...Van Halen as well... it all really helped to really inspire me to write some of this music, y'know?
I tell you, it gave a real kick for me to get in the studio and on one side you've got Abraham Laboriel Jnr and my son Trevor - who're like the young 20 year old guys, and then you've got me and Lee Sklar on the other side who're like the older, more experienced Cats - and then you've got Jeff Babko playing keyboards who's early 30's playing keyboards in the middle - so it's like a multi generational hang, y'know?
Did you do most of the recording at YOUR home studio?
I don't have a home studio...I have a 'home'! Well, I have two 'homes'... but, no, I have recording studio called the 'Steakhouse' which has the old EMI Neve desk from London that'd been used on 'Dark Side Of The Moon' - I mean that's one of those huge things - a million dollar console, man - all those great tubes...
My co-producer and engineer Steve MacMillan insisted that we use all valve gear - real old school, weird old amps and stuff. I didn't use any of that digital rack stuff and all the effects were added in the mixing: it was a really just a different approach for me because it was real organic sounding. And, we played live in the room, y'know? I mean after that I spent a lot of time on my guitar parts and the vocals, obviously - but when we cut the basic tracks there were at least 3 or 4 people in the room playing live at the same time. And we didn't rehearse previous to doing it, so everyone came in and dug the tune once and came up with their own parts straight off: I mean, the songs were all written in a teeny hotel room with acoustic guitars, a shitty little synth piano and a tape recorder - I didn't want to get all 'hi-tech' with the demo's...making great demo's is very dangerous.
I know what you mean - you can lose a lot of that initial energy that you get with a new song, and end up slavishly copying the demos when you come to record the 'main event'!
Yeah! You lose all the spontaneity and all the magical things that happen when you cut something with someone who doesn't really know the song - and all the cool interplay that happens when someone plays a riff and someone else plays something off of it for the first time: I wanted to get all that shit on tape.
It's great to rehearse for playing live - but I hate rehearsing for the studio. There's no point anyway really - we all read music: I mean, I didn't write every little dot - but I wrote out what was necessary, and Jeff Babko helped me out a lot with that. Even so, I didn't want to write out too much 'cos I didn't want to have to sit there and say "Well, here's the riff it goes like ..."
I mean these guys can read music so this shit's done straight away; so all we needed to was just rehearse all the sections, and I'd just say "This is from the top, and this is what the chart looks like, this is what it should kinda sound like" - and I'd play them the shitty little tape cassette demo.
So, they'd kinda get an idea of where the things' re going - maybe we'd shake the form up a little as well - and then I let the guys play around with their own parts and get their own ideas in, and then we were all OK: it was all done in like one or two takes.
Did you find the making of this album a comparatively relaxing process compared to a lot that you've worked on it the past?
Yeah, man - it was so much fun! When you can see all the players, and everyone involved it makes a real difference. People nowadays just sending over computer files...it's just not the same.
I remember back in the great session days and everyone was playing together - everyday you'd be playing with another great rhythm section. Just amazing all round players, y'know - all different kinds of music: but those days are gone, man - it don't exist anymore...
It's all just very fucking sterile now - we've had so much shit for Toto just being such a slick sterile band - at least we sat in the fucking room and played it, man!
Everybody now ...I mean you go to a famous recording studio nowadays - some place with a lot of famous rock bands and famous artists recording there and it's always the Pro Tools guys: they'll be the only people working that hard! It really sucks from where I'm coming from...
Speaking of sessions, have you done much recently?
Oh, y'know, nothing really...just ya'know someone'll call and say "Will you do a solo on this?" And,, if I have the time - and they have the money! - I'll do it! Ha,ha...
I'm not really a session guy anymore man - I mean in the true sense of the word. Yes, I'll play on someone's record if I like it and they're a friend of mine. A lot of times you get the barter system these days, like "Can you do something on my record?"..."OK, if you do something on mine". I mean, now it's like we're back to that real old school way of doing things - particularly as a lot of us don't have those Million Dollar budgets anymore.
A New Lease Of Life
You playing sounds very fired up on the new record...
Yeah, Man - I'm just really excited it all: not just the guitar playing and stuff, but I'm really up on the next chapter of my musical career...
I mean I've done lots of jam band stuff - and of course all of that with Larry a few years ago, but I haven't done anything on my own - a proper solo album and tour playing all the songs from my vocal solo records. I want to get out there and play some classic Toto that we never really played live - songs that I wrote and I sung. Y'know I'm not going to go out there and do 'Hold The Line', 'Africa' and all that shit - I'll never do that. But theres a few classic tunes that I sang on and I wrote that I figure I have a right to go out and do. I'm also going to do some surprising stuff that I played on from other peoples records.
So I'm starting this in June, and we'll be out on the road till we drop - maybe a year or so!
You'll be hitting Europe a lot I presume!
Of course man, I'm gonna be living over there!
And the UK?
Absolutely - you kidding?!
Are there any new guitarists out there that have grabbed your attention?
Ahhh..I dunno - I still love all the 'old' guys mainly...but newer players? Ermmm, the guy from Mars Volta's pretty good, and I really love the guys in Radiohead - for the actual sounds that they make: it's nothing flash or anything, but sonically it's very interesting - very cool. It's very inventive, and y'know they're doing something new with the instrument and I love that. It's like the Edge on Acid you know what I mean?!! I'm a big fan of the band.
But new guitar stars... are there any?! Ha, ha, ha...I don't know man. I mean, you can look on Youtube and there's like a foetus that can play as fast as anyone in the world! Ha, ha, ha...
It's like there are some loads of people who think that being flash is all that you need: but flash without substance is like a dick without balls!
On the new album what amps and gear were you using?
On the album I used all vintage amps - old Vox AC30's, I used a Gibson amp - I don't remember the model, I had a whole load of shit sent over... I used an old Supro amp - valves everywhere!...an old Magnotone with a weird tremolo...old Marsalls - y'know all that kinda stuff.
I just plugged straight in with my MusicMan guitar - got MacMillan to add in later any compression or effects. Used some fucked up old stomp boxes in there - y'know, anything to get the job done. I used a totally different approach - I didn't want to go anywhere near that squishy washed out sound from the 80's...
I mean I always get it about all that - but it wasn't my fault man! I resent that sound - I HATE that sound!
Ever Changing Times
Lets discuss the album specifically: the title track's a bit of an epic!
Yeah...I guess it turned out that way! Y'know that track was inspired when Randy and I were driving on the way to the hotel and I said "Think Peter Gabriel" - and he came up with that intro vibe, and we kinda played off that.
It's definitely got some progressive rock elements to it...
Yeah - I love progressive music. I like all progressive music from the 70's, and I love modern progressive stuff too - John Petrucci's an old pal of mine and I think he's great y'know? Another of the Musicman guys and he's great cat - fantastic musician!
Talking about your Musicman - the song 'Letting Go' has an amazing supercharged 'hot rodded' strat type sound to it: is that your 'Luke' guitar or is it an actual strat?
Nah - that just the Musicman: we also used some old Tube Limiters that we piggy backed together through an old Marshall - which was my sons - and it gives you that real 'spank' sound.
Its a real highpoint for me that one: a real sense of groove in the timing and the phrasing...
Thanks a lot man: I tried to make all the solos have different flavours.
'Tell Me What You Want' (which Trevor wrote) indeed has a bad ass riff...
It starts out as my tribute to Gilmour and then goes heavy. You know, for this record I had a real specific approach to not write everything in the same old way. I mean, people are so used to songs that all have that standard form: Intro, verse, B Section, Chorus, Re-Intro, verse, B section, Chorus, Bridge, Solo, Outro Chorus etc.
You know what I mean? That's like virtually every rock and pop song that's been written in the last 50 fucking years! Whereas here, if I wanted to have a hook to refer to and come back to again, well that's cool - but at other times places I might want to take into a whole different section so its not the same old predictable stuff that everyone's used to. So, I was kinda trying to do that a lot - people would go "You can't do that!" I'd be like "What d'ya mean I can't do that? I'm not trying to get a Top 40 hit here - I'm trying to make an artistic statement and not be so fucking predictable.
Stab In The Back' is your great tribute to Steely Dan...
Yeah, and I dedicated the song to Walter and Donald on the record too. It's totally inspired by them man: they're one of my favourite bands of all time. I've had the honour of working with them separately, but never as Steely Dan. I've loved them from way back - Jeff Porcaro was the drummer with when I was still back in High School, so we've been sort of connected with them since the beginning. It's almost like in Toto we kinda patterned ourselves after them: they were like our heroes. And, like I've said that music still holds up today.
It's been like running joke for years that I've always wanted to play a solo on a Steely Dan record - it's one of the last things I've always wanted to do that I've never done. I've teased Walter for years - when they did there last record I was like "Hey, my phone didn't ring - What happened?!" We were laughing together and I was like "C'mon man - you've gotta let me play on a Steely record - Hey, I'll pay you!" He turns around to me and says "Yeah? How much?"!
So, I'm like the fucking guys won't let me play on a record - I'll write my own Steely Dan song! So, I hope they'll have a laugh and enjoy it cos it's meant with love and respect."
'Icebound' - again here's another obvious tip of the hat to the late 70's proggier side of Toto's work...
Well, again I sang on, wrote and co-produced most of that material so I guess it's gonna sound similar because I was all a part of it.
Who does the Keyboard solo on that track - amazing sound there - for a while there some of us thought that was an amazing guitarist with a crazy FX treated strat...
That's Steve Weingart - he's gonna be coming on the road with me this time so we all fired up about that.
Two of the tracks - 'Jammin' With Jesus' and 'How Many Zeros' seem to be coming from a similar place...
Well, definitely from a Background vocals standpoint: we did the vocals at the same sessions with the same guys - Bernard Fowler (who sang with the Stones) and Bill Champlin (from Chicago) and me and my son - and a girl by the name of Charlotte Gibson: and its like a gospel rock kinda shit, y'know?
'Jammin With Jesus' was written by a guy named John Sloman, and I originally cut this song a long time ago with someone else, but it never came out. I always thought it's a great song. Pino Palladino turned me onto this guy, and I just thought it would be great to do this song but in a different way. That was great - it was all done in like one take: Abe Laboriel Jr, Lee Sklar with me out of the room - and no one even knew the song! It was like I'd be holding up my hands indicating "Next section!" Y'know - "Stop! Don't play...now back in!" And that all came together after that.
Finally, 'The Truth' - a nod to Jeff Beck here?
Absolutely, man...Beck's my favourite. To me I think he's the greatest guitar player: I've had the honour of working with him, and we used to be really great friends but sort of lost touch. But, whenever you write an instrumental song like that you really can't help but be influenced by Jeff, y'know? I didn't like consciously try to sound like Jeff, but in the way I played the melody is kinda his approach: all with my fingers - there's no pick on that - and I turned the tone control down a but so it has that kind of weird dark tone...
But, it is what it is - sort of like an end credits soundtrack piece of music, and I did it all with Steve Porcaro and myself.
There are some fabulous strings - did you get in an orchestra for that?
No, not at all: thats all Steve Porcaro man! He does loads of Film and TV stuff now: he orchestrated that for me and I just played the guitar over it...you know it's definitely one of those epic end of the record kinda pieces and I think we achieved what we set out for.