EXCLUSIVE: The past twelve months have brought testing times for Steve Lukather. As well as well-publicised legal troubles within Toto, he’s also lost dear friend Eddie Van Halen, something he says he’s still reeling from; “the world lost a guitar hero; I lost my friend”, he reveals, candidly. Despite this however, the guitarist and singer is in upbeat form, as attested on his radiant new solo release ‘I Found the Sun Again’. “I’ve had a wild ride, man. I can’t be mad at nothing”, he declares, in positively defiant form. Chatting the solo album, Toto’s final days and future, his friendship with EVH and more, we sat down for an extended audience with the one they call Luke. The seventh one; Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Steve, how are you doing?
I’m doing good. I get up at five o’clock; I love the mornings! Sitting around the house for a year, I just feel better when I get up. I’ve practiced and everything!
You’re a regular at NAMM Show in Anaheim which was due to be taking place as we speak; are you missing that?
Well, yes and no. I mean, the NAMM Show is harder for me. There’s just so many people in your face all the time. But the NAMM show has been a tradition for what, forty five years for me. I’ve been going there representing the instruments and the companies that I work with, and it’s fun usually. Boy, back in the old days we used to party. Oh my god, me and and Eddie Van Halen used to terrorise the fuckin’ Namm Show!
Eonmusic has been regularly covering the NAMM show for the past five years, but it must have been a real blast back then.
Back in the old days before it became a real public thing, it was really fun. It was really supposed to be for musical manufacturers to buy the gear, like, Guitar Centre comes out; “I’ll take five hundred guitars” or whatever. There’d be jam sessions, there’d be all this great stuff, hanging out. Everywhere was a bar, so there was always trouble there! It was crazier times. In the last few years, it’s much more of a business sort of thing. I do interviews and panels and stuff like that, so everything’s different.
What have you been missing, during this past twelve months of the pandemic?
I miss playing live. I miss leaving my house, going to a restaurant, you know what I mean? Human contact! I talk to most people like this [on Zoom], or on Facetime or something like that. I only see a handful of people.
Before we get to the new album, I wanted to ask how Toto’s ‘Forty Trips Around the Sun’ tour was for you?
Well, it was bittersweet because we knew it was coming to an end, and there was some legal [issues]. It was hard. There was some people that didn’t get along, and it started out great, and ended poorly; lawsuits and crazy shit. So we put it to bed and then we brought it back to life again! Joseph [Williams] and I said, then [David] Paich, we’re like “well, we’ve paid for the name, let’s fuckin’ use the name!”, and I put together another band with some different guys. We did a livestream, put together a band in ten days, and proved that we could play some Toto stuff, and it turned out okay. So, Joe and I had always planned on working together anyway, because we were the only two guys that really wanted to keep working. David can’t, medically, because he’s not well; he can’t travel at all. Steve [Porcaro] hates the road, and didn’t like the direction we were going in anyway, and didn’t want to be on the road all the time. It was unpleasant. It was a sad ending to something that was at one time, beautiful. Like a marriage gone wrong, I guess. Sad, but I don’t have any bad feelings, but it’s a bad experience.
Before the latest incarnation of the band gets going though, there are brand new solo albums from both you, and Joseph Williams, released simultaneously!
Out of the dust, Joseph and I decided to do solo records. He was already working on his, and I said; “well, I’m going to do something. I’ve got to do something that’s different”, and I wanted to do a live, something old school, like the way we used to make records; “okay, we’re going to do this one track, let’s run it with the mistakes and cut!”, and that’s what we did. I picked a couple of cover songs to set the mood for the album. I wanted to make like an early seventies record, where everything was live; solos, everything. We’d run the track, work out the bugs, talk about who’s going to do what solo; “I’ll point to you”, no click tracks, no rehearsals, no Pro Tools bullshit; that’s like making an old jazz record, but a rock version of that, in the context of that. Kind of like a jam band record, with songs.
That sounds like it was a fun way to approach the recording.
That’s what we did! We went in and at the end of the take, it would sound like the record but with no vocals, and then the same day, after we got the take, I would do a few overdubs - double a guitar riff or put acoustic guitar or something on, and maybe a keyboard part - and then I did lead vocals and the song was done, ready to mix. Next one. I did it in eight days, and then we mixed it.
The album is called ‘I’ve Found the Sun Again’, so let’s talk about the breezy title track.
We’ve got a video for that. We make these videos for like, no money in our house. It’s just for fun, instead of a lyric video or just pictures flying by or whatever. The last one [‘Run to Me’] was like that, and it was kind of cool. This is more like a psychedelic thing. It’s like my Pink Floyd ballad, really. It’s like me and Jeff Beck go with Joe Williams. My new girlfriend inspired the song because she brought the sun back into my life. I’d been single and sitting on the couch working for ten years, and I didn’t have any love in my life. I thought maybe it would never happen again, and this wonderful woman found me and saved my life.
The album opens with the punchy, driving ‘Along For The Ride’.
I wanted something to go [makes punching sound]! I didn’t want people to think that I’d lost my rock and roll sense.
‘Serpent Soul’, meanwhile, has a funky element.
It’s my tribute to Little Feat. We wanted to just write something swampy, I mean, when was the last time you heard a groove like that? Nobody plays this shit. It’s all live, all the fade outs have great jams in them. I love these long fades, because everybody’s playing some great shit. You know, I made the record for me; I didn’t write it trying to write a hit single that would sell a million records. I wanted to see if I could do it. Musicians like us should be able to do this. Nobody makes records live; it’s all click tracks, and put it on the grid, and Pro Tools, and autotune, and fix it, move it, cut, paste! You’ve just got to fuckin’ play!
The closing track ‘Bridge of Sighs’ is a great example of that; it could only have been recorded by a live band.
Yeah, it was totally live. All I did was overdub a lead vocal, that’s it. Most of the record is like that. Joseph Williams did do a few backgrounds on a few things. He took it home and layered a few backgrounds on it, but other than that, it was all just the record. The whole thing was done in sixteen days, top to bottom.
Joseph is involved in your album, and you’re on his as well, aren’t you?
Yeah, absolutely. We both knew that was going to happen, and that was the idea. The old Toto was done in October of 2019, so we worked together, and he was already working on his record, and I didn’t know what I was going to do, and I said; “well, I want to do something completely different than I’ve ever done. I want to do more of a live record, really play, make myself ‘play’!”
What sort of gear have you used on the recording of the album?
Well I used the one guitar. This is the guitar [shows the Ernie Ball Music Man Steve Lukather Luke III], Music Man, with new pickups and shit. Amp wise, I used the Bogner Helios, and I had a couple of stomp boxes on the floor, nothing tricky; a really cool distortion box - a Rodenberg Distortion unit - a wah wah pedal, a volume pedal, a couple of little delay units. Very subtle shit. I just used my live rig, basically. I wanted to approach it as if, like I said, it was an old jazz record where the guys just show up and play. I mean, look at the old Beatles records; those guys played together, and that’s what it sounded like when they played together. We did all the old Toto shit [like that]. We hated being told; “oh, you guys are all slick studio musicians”; well, that’s what we sound like when we sat in a room and played. I’m sorry if that bothers you, but we were trained musicians - we try to be good!
That’s funny, because you mentioned making mistakes at the start of the interview, and my first thought was; “Steve Lukather does not make mistakes!”
I do, and really bad ones too! The thing is about mistakes; everybody makes them. If you listen to old jazz records, you’ll hear Miles Davis squeak on things, you’ll hear [John] Coltrane squeak on sax, but it was in the heat of the moment. I wanted to keep some of those rough edges on my record, so I did. There’s a couple of things I normally would have fixed; they’re a little sharp, or; “that’s a little rough”, but I left it because it’s real. I’m rough! Look at me! I’m fuckin’ sixty-three years old! The hair’s real, but it’s grey! I’m doing not bad for sixty-three.
As far as live solos go, one of your most iconic is the incredible ‘Hold the Line’ solo.
I was nineteen when I did that. Man, I had all these guys staring at me through the glass, and I was nervous as fuck. It was just on the fly, except for the harmony part at the end which was definitely an ode to Queen and Boston and all that. Paich, he goes; “I want that Queen shit, man; do the harmonies and stuff”, and I go; “but I got to put this first”, and he goes; “well I love the solo, but it’s just I want the end to have one of those big guitar harmony things”. I did the solo in one take, but I fucked something up at the end, and he goes; “well, we want you to do this big bit here at the end anyway”, so we composed the very last lick. But it was based on a mistake, speaking of mistakes! On the very last lick I fucked up something, so I said; “fuck!”, and they said; “no, it’s good, it’s a great solo except for the last lick, but we want to do the thing with the harmony thing, so come up with a lick”, so I said; “give me a minute”, so I worked something out with Paich, and then we started adding all the harmonies and doubling and tripling and shit like that so it had this huge fucking ending.
Were you using really light gauge strings, because you seem to bend some of those notes up two whole steps in places.
Nines. I like the wide bends; the minor third bends and shit like that. Like I said, it was a hundred years ago, for me. I’ve heard it, obviously, but I don’t dwell on it. It reminds me of a real happy time in my life. It was our first hit record, and I was just living in my pad, and I was just becoming a session guy, a real session guy, it was our first album, and my whole career was taking off. It was a wonderful time in our lives, so me, I look at it like that as opposed to a technical side of it.
I wanted to go back a little, and talk about the song ‘Don’t Chain My Heart’.
Well, we just came up with this tune, man. We were jamming, and it was basically cut live. All those rhythm tracks were live. All that playing, that solo lick, the bluesy shit, that was all done live on the tracking day.
From a production standpoint, I love how minimal it is until those big power chords come in like a punch in the face on the pre-chorus; were there loads of layers there?
No, not at all, actually. I had my Bradshaw rig at the time, and I think that was the VHT power amp and Custom Audio Electronics +3 preamp, which was a great sound. It was just of the era, one of the sounds. I’m always trying to find something new. But you know what, I don’t think I layered that at all as a matter of fact. I may have doubled it. I probably did double it, as far as the power chords go. It might be fun to rip that one out and play it live.
The track is taken from the 1992 ‘Kingdom of Desire’ album, which was sadly the last to feature Jeff Porcaro before his passing.
It was a terrible time. It was thirty years ago, can you believe that? We recorded that in 1991, but it came out in ‘92. Jeff passed away right after we finished it. He was there right up to the final mixes, and then we were getting ready to rehearse the tour and that’s when he died. That’s when we were all like; “what the fuck are we going to do?” Then we decided to carry on with Simon [Phillips]. Part of me never really got past that, I mean, it’s still a shock to me. And then Mike too?! [bassist Mike Porcaro, brother of Jeff, passed away in 2015] What are the odds of that?! It’s crazy. Our band has taken so much shit, and also been through so much shit that I think at this point, after almost forty-five years they should give us a pass and be nice to us now [laughing]! They’ve been giving us shit for forty-five years almost, man. Are we really still the worst band in the world, really?!
I couldn’t chat to you without mentioning your contribution to Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’; were you bummed out that you never got to record the solo on that?
No, the solo was already done. The lead vocal and the solo was done because there was another [earlier] version of ‘Beat It’, and when Ed [Eddie Van Halen] and whoever his engineer was at the time cut the tape, the two inch tape, they cut the SMPTE code. Well, if you do that, then they don’t lock up again [in sync], so they had a master reel with the lead vocal, Eddie’s solo, with Michael Jackson playing two and four [beats] on a drum case, and bleed through from Michael’s lead vocal on the headphones.
That sounds like a nightmare, from a production point of view!
Jeff Porcaro had to put a click track together. Quincy [Jones, producer] called us, me and Jeff, and said; “you’ve got to put this record back together! Ed cut the tape and I don’t want to lose my master lead vocal comp and first generation that I spent a gazillion years putting fifty tracks of Michael Jackson vocals together, and Eddie’s first generation solo”. So we had to make a record around that, to them. So Jeff Porcaro went out and made a click track with his drumsticks. He played the drum part, then I played the guitar riffs and the bass on there too. The first time I put it through, I quadrupled it with Marshalls and all this, and Quincy goes; “it’s great, but it’s too much. It’s too heavy! I’ve got to be able to get this on R&B radio and pop radio. Use your little amp and turn it down a little”! I figured because Eddie’s on it, let’s go for it, you know?
How close were you to Eddie Van Halen?
Ed was one of my closest buds. I’m still fucked up over this loss [Edward’s passing on 6th October 2020]. We were friends for over forty years. We weren’t just guitar player buddies, I mean, we went through a lot of life together; marriages, divorce, kids, the whole thing, addictions. We went through all of it together, and I fuckin’ loved that guy. It broke my heart. I mean, yeah we knew he was sick, but he had also beat it a hundred times; strong mother fucker! It’s only when it finally lets loose and spreads all over your body you have no control over it, and it happens real fast. He was fighting, fighting, fighting, and finally it just took him over, man. It fucked me up a little bit. A great loss.
On a more upbeat note, what a legacy of music he left behind, I mean, Van Halen and Toto are arguably among the biggest rock bands to ever come out of the USA.
We were all friends. Ed and Al [Alex Van Halen] were always coming out to our shows, and I sang backgrounds on a couple of their records, and I got to play guitar with them a couple of times live. Ed came up and jammed with us, and he worked on my solo records and stuff. From that aspect, you know, we were very different bands, but we came out around the same time. But they were one of the greatest rock bands of all time, and always will be, and nobody has to say how great Ed is; I mean, he changed the whole game. But the world lost a guitar hero; I lost my friend, so it hit me a little harder than it would hit anybody else. I’m not family, but me and him were really close, that’s all I can say, and it broke my heart. I kept the last text; “I love you”. I love you too, man.
It sounds like Eddie’s loss has left a huge mark on you.
He’s not the only friend I’ve lost. I’ve lost about eighty people in the last three years, some of my very best friends, and that’s the ones that really hurt. I lost my friend Miguel Ferrer, the actor, one of the very best; cancer. Fucking cancer! I feel bad for the family. Alex and I still talk. I was working with Sammy [Hagar] at the time, that was the irony; I was on his TV show. And Michael [Anthony]’s still a friend of mine. I’m like Switzerland; I don’t [get involved]. They have band problems; I have my own band problems! I try to be friends with everybody.
That’s interesting to hear that you sang backing vocals on some Van Halen recordings; do you remember what they were?
I was on the F.U.C.K. [For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge’, 1991] record, it was on the one after that [‘Balance’, 1995’]. I was just hanging around. I’d go pick up my kids, when they were in school still. I’d pick them up from school and just drive up the canyon and go; “let’s see if Ed’s home!” I knew the code [keypad security code], and I’d just drive up to the studio where I knew they were working and just walk in with the kids. The kids would play with Wolf [Wolfgang Van Halen], or they’d just be running around the studio, and I’d be hanging out with Ed and the guys. And they’d say; “hey man, we need a third voice; Lukather, get in there!” And I’d go; “okay, I’ll do it!”, and we’d double it, and then I left. It was just because I was there, you know?
Bringing things back to Toto, and apparently there’s a documentary film about the band in the works.
No. There’s never going to be a film on Toto. Too much bad blood in certain areas and litigation and legal. I’m doing a documentary - I am - we’re working on one now. I mean, we were working on it last year, but fucking COVID kicked in and my director’s stuck in the UK and can’t get over here. Sony was backing it, and I had Slash, and Ringo [Starr], and all kinds of crazy people in it. We were just starting to get into it and it was really getting interesting, and then we had to stop. So, until people can travel again and we can actually be together in the same room, it’s on hold. That’s going to be the closest thing you’re ever going to get to it because people are dead, or people are not speaking. I mean the people that are [speaking]; Joseph and David Paich and everybody are in mine. I don’t think there’s going to be many others, because people aren’t well.
Do you speak to any other former members?
I’m still talking, Bobby [Kimball] and I are cool. He’s got dementia. He’s not doing well. He’s mentally not right. He’s ten years older than me, so he’s like seventy-three years old. Man, he lived hard. His mind is just; when you talk to him, he’s normal for a second, then he starts talking about his childhood or something.
You must be glad, in that case, that you did get to revive the version of Toto with Bobby in the band for a while in the 2000s.
The thing is, Bobby, when he was singing great, he was great, but when it was bad, it was really bad. Like; he couldn’t hear, he couldn’t find the pitch, and he was singing out of tune. It would just be like; “oh god, man, this is bad”. And he didn’t realise it, and it just got weird, and it all fell apart again. I mean, this band, I’ve kept this thing together when it had no wheels on it. That’s why I can’t give up on it. That’s why I’ve put a new Toto together; The Dogs of Oz - the new; out of the flames and fire and ashes comes the new version. We did a quick livestream and proved it. We’ve got Sput [Robert Searight] from Snarky Puppy playing drums, and John Pierce [bass] from Huey Lewis’s band - my oldest friend in the world - and some other guys, and then we have X [Dominique ’Xavier’ Taplin, keyboards] and Warren [Ham, various instruments] left over from the other band, and we’ve got a new Toto.
What are the plans, going forward for the new incarnation of Toto?
We’re going to go out and play! We have a tour booked, at least the first leg of a tour booked, starting at the end of summer . I’m hoping we go and do it. I’m hoping that this new regime change, new vaccines and people start being nice to each other again, it would be really a good idea for our whole world.
It’s great to hear you sounding so positive about the future, and about touring.
I’m trying to be. I mean, I’m happy at home, I’m not happy with what’s happening outside of my home; a million people in Los Angeles have COVID. A million people are walking around a city of twelve million! That’s a lot of people who are sick. I’m not leaving my house. I’ve hardly left my house since March . I’m lucky I can afford to stay at home and not worry about that, but at the same time, it does make you a little crazy. It’s a good thing I fell in love with a beautiful woman who’s taking care. It’s new love, so us living together for a year has been great. I get to see my kids and blah blah blah, but the world is not great. The world is fucked up! What can I say?!
We got to see you hanging out at your home in the video for ‘Run to Me’.
That song was written for Ringo’s [Ringo Starr] 80th birthday, which was in July. Joseph and I made that track really fast. Joe, David Paich and me wrote the song and sent it to Ringo, and he goes; “I want to play drums on it!”, and I go; “great!” So he ended up playing drums on it after we’d made the track. And I said; “can I put this on my record, man?!”, and he goes; “yeah, yeah!” So we got a video out of it, and the video was really meant as a birthday present to him, and it ended a thing, and it went down really well. A lot of people think my whole record’s like that, and that song is the only ‘pop’ song on the whole record. It’s a three and a half minute pop song, and it was really Beatles-ey, and it was really meant to be like Beatles, ELO, Tom Petty, that kind of thing, and he played on it and made it legit. I just made fun of myself [in the video], being a rock star in my backyard. It was made with an iPhone for zero money, and then it gets half a million hits or whatever, which is good for an old guy!
Finally, you’ve worked some of the greatest musicians of all time; is there anyone that you’d like to work with that you haven’t?
There’s a few people. Steve Winwood; I’ve covered one of his songs. Phil Collins, Peter Gabrial. Steely Dan; even though I’ve worked individually with them, I’ve never got to play on a Steely Dan record. They’re right up there; they were one of the most important groups in my life, like The Beatles in the ‘70s for me. When I got into Steely Dan, Jeff Porcaro was in Steely Dan, when I was in high school with Steve Porcaro’s band. The thing is, I’ve got a chance to work with so many people that were my heroes, and still are, but now sometimes they’re friends. I’ve had a wild ride, man. I can’t be mad at nothing, I’ve had an incredible ride.
Steve Lukather's 'I Found the Sun Again' is released on Fri 26th February 2021, via The Players Club / Mascot Label Group.
Stay tuned for eonmusic's chat with Joseph Williams, publishing in late Feb 2021!
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