Steve Lukather - guitarist, Toto
On the phone with Philip Anderson - 2000
 
Toto - possibly rock's most misunderstood band. Rock? Jazz? Adult contemporary? Progressive? Regardless of the titles, Toto has churned out hit after hit and through it all has still kept it together. Somehow, a band from LA, featuring extraordinary musicians who barely have time to keep their own solo careers from bumping into each other, were able to make some of rock music's most lasting tunes. No matter what the main sound of the song structures may have been though, there was always a tiny bit of "bad boy" element thrown in from guitarist Steve Lukather who brought the definitive blazing guitar into the fold.
 
Toto has not toured in the United States in 15 years, Europe has kept them plenty busy for live performances, and are back on the road, testing the waters. They do have a new album out called Mindfields [on Legacy] that is classic Toto sound. We recently had an opportunity to speak with guitar legend Steve Lukather and get some thoughts on the band and music in general.
 
K2K: Before we get started, I wanted to let you know that you were a guitar hero of mine ever since I saw you at a Day On The Green [in Oakland, CA].
SL: Oh my God! I remember that. That was a great era. Live rock, stadium rock. It was happening. Everybody was on mushrooms and beer.
 
K2K: What year was that that you played there?
SL: 1980.
 
K2K: Was it that long ago?
SL: Time flies when you're having fun, eh Bro? (laughs) It was early 80s anyway.
 
K2K: Watching you play was incredible. Didn't you play with Ozzy?
SL: Thank you. No, I jammed with him once.
 
K2K: I mean on that show.
SL: I think it was Journey and the Tubes.
 
K2K: In any case, I remember that we were expecting more of that 'sweet' Toto sound and then you just came out and let it rip.
SL: That's the big misnomer about us. Maybe our records are a bit more sedate than our live shows. It's always been that way. We have a tendency when we're in the studio recording, if somebody plays some hot-dog shit, we kind of laugh at each other and say, "Aah, put your ego back in your guitar case, pal." "Save it for the live show."
 
K2K: I was going to ask you about that later, but since we're on this - What do you consider Toto?
SL: The most misunderstood band in the history of rock music. People think that we're a bunch of studio hacks who started a band just to make some cash. In fact, we were a high school band who started out playing music because we loved it and had a passion for it, and still do. Yes, we've played on thousands of records with all different kinds of people. We weren't pretty boys, poster boys or nothing like that. We rubbed a lot of people the wrong way because we got successful really quickly and we were good at what we do. People thought we weren't the real thing. That's been the key to our criticism. You either love us or you hate us. There's very little in the middle. I'm not embittered at all about it. At least someone has a feeling one way or the other about it. I'd rather have that than some anemic response like, "Yeah, it's OK, I guess."
 
K2K: I had never really read anything about you being studio "hacks". Like Garbage is studio people.
SL: I'm a big fan of that band. You can tell that there's a lot of sequencers going on. We went and saw the show, my fiancee and I. I love the record, the record's great. We went and saw the show, it was the record. Like a lot of bands these days. You don't pay attention to that man behind the curtain with all the computers. Great record. But they don't get any shit for that.
 
K2K: I had never seen you as studio hacks so much as happening to be good studio musicians.
SL: I'm just being sarcastic. (laughs) We ARE a bunch of studio hacks! What are you talking about?! (laughing)
 
K2K: When did Toto first form?
SL: As the name Toto?
 
K2K: Well, you said that you started as a high school band. Who was in that?
SL: I would say Mike Porcarro, Jeff Porcarro, Steve Porcarro, me and then David Paice came in because he went to a different school. And there was another guitar player, Mike Landau is a studio player, he was a second guitar player at one point. We had another bass player, John Pierce, who's gone on to be a great studio musician. Carlos Vega, who passed away recently, he was a drummer at one point when Jeff wasn't around. Jeff joined Steely Dan when we were still in high school. We got to learn all the Steely Dan records before they ever came out, and told people that we wrote the songs, just for a laugh.
 
K2K: So the original band could have been called Porcarro.
SL: Well, actually, yeah, kind of. That's where we rehearsed. We lived at their house. Their dad was a studio musician. He had this really cool studio in the garage. We'd go in there and shred all day and never piss off the neighbors.
 
K2K: Since we're talking about your high school, how old are you?
SL: I'm 42.
 
K2K: You've been playing for quite a while.
SL: Since I was seven.
 
K2K: How long has the band Toto been around?
SL: We made our first record in 1977, so 24 years. Longer than that if you count high school. The original name was Still Life. I think we should have kept that name. I think Toto is a suck-ass name.
 
K2K: How did you get the name Toto? Is it the obvious?
SL: It's obvious and it's not obvious. It's one of these things that started off as a joke and the next thing you know, it's the name of our band and it's a little too late to go back and change that. In that era, you couldn't have weird names. It had to be "THE" something or a single name. You couldn't call yourself the Butthole Surfers or the Assholes or the Cunning Stunts. When we were going around the idea of coming up with a name for the band, we had all the wackiest things that you normally come up with when you just come out of high school and smoked a lot of pot.
 
K2K: Do you remember any of the old names?
SL: We had the Ripe Jack. Ripe Jack is a euphemism for a hard-on. Stuff like that. Our manager was going, "No! You cannot do this." I was wearing ripped-up jeans with my hair sticking straight up out of my head when I was 16 years old. I was completely politically incorrect. I showed up to a photo session once, the next thing I know, they dolled me up and stuck me in some silk shirt. This is when you had to wear a tuxedo to the Grammys. It was a different era. We were such punks, really, that happened to be able to read music and stuff like that. They created this clean-cut image for us.
 
K2K: Who made the band so squeaky clean and polished?
SL: Well, the way we play is how we play. We go in and record one take and that's what it sounds like. The image portrayed of us isn't me. It wasn't just the musical aspect of it. We were just stoner guys from high school who played really good.
 
K2K: No one told you how to play or sound?
SL: That's how we play. That's what it sounds like when the five of us play in a room. They roll the tape and people go, "Whoa, that's squeaky clean and perfect and slick." I'm sorry if we played in tune and in time. It's what we did. It wasn't studio trickery. It was way before computers and all this crap. It's what we sounded like. Sure we did some layering and overdubs, but if people don't like the band, then whatever. I have no embittered feelings about it, it's just that that's been the cliched feelings about our band since day one.
 
K2K: After seeing you guys live, I go through a lot of music styles - jazz, classical, rock, etc.
SL: There should be more people like you, with an open mind. These days it's like, "I'm into metal." "What kind of metal?"
 
K2K: Well, yeah. It's like Metallica gets labeled as "sell-out" hitmakers.
SL: Right. What a joke that whole concept is. What? Once you made a hit record, then you're no good anymore? It's like, what's the point of that? That's why bands have a two-year lifespan.
 
K2K: Where do you think that that mentality came from?
SL: Musical snobbery. Really. That's what it is. It's media crap. That's not necessarily how all the kids think or act. They feed them to believe. It's like on MTV, they tell you to wear those clothes. They sell you McDonald's, "Here, eat this hamburger."
 
K2K: But you have bands like Green Day who get labeled "sell-outs" too. They do what they do well though.
SL: Right on. I think that guy Billy is a great singer and writer.
 
K2K: So, back to the beginning, I used to watch Toto and you playing and think, "Damn! This guy shreds!" But then I'm thinking that the songs are kind of, "nice".
SL: Yeah, well they're pop kind of rock songs.
 
K2K: I just used to wonder when you would ever do something like a metal side project band?
SL: You know, live I play a whole lot different than I do on the record. On the record, David says, "Don't go playing all that stupid flash shit. That doesn't go with the song." So it's like, whatever.
 
K2K: So, you're a repressed metalhead?
SL: Yeah! That's where I came from. That's what I brought to the band. I was like, "Turn that shit up." All the other guys are more jazz players.
 
K2K: What do you for release for that?
SL: I do all kinds of wacky shit. In a purer sense, I'm way too old to be a metalhead. I still appreciate it. I designed an amplifier with Paul Rivera that I got a patent on the subwoofer system for all these guys who like to tune down to B and A and all this stuff and like to be creative. All these bands are starting to use my shit and they don't even know that it's my stuff. I didn't put my name on it. My name's on the back of the panel, really small. It's not like some of these guys want to play on an amp that I designed, but they're doing it. I came up with this thing that's really cool. I did it with Paul Revere, the amp maker. It's a subwoofer system called the Bonehead. It recreates subsonic frequencies for guitar. A 12-inch speaker won't recreate it. If you tune way down, the speakers will just fold. You won't get the bottom that you're looking for. This let's you recreate it. It'll blow the windows right out of your fucking house.
 
K2K: Where can one pick one up or check it out?
SL: Call Paul Rivera or go to the music store and ask for it. Or go to www.rivera.com, I believe.
 
K2K: How much are they?
SL: The expense? We have a small system that you could take a Fender Princeton [amp] and make it sound like a 4x12 Marshall for under $1,000. Check it out. It's pretty cool.
 
K2K: So, musically, have you always been happy with the direction that the music has gone [in Toto] or would you like to have done anything different?
SL: We have a certain way that we play together when we play and that's what it sounds like. Some of the stuff is a little "poppy" for me, but that's cool. I like pop music. I like some of the more progressive aspects of the band. Songs like "Better World" from the new album. That one's more experimental. A radio station is a radio station. You got everyone yelling at you, "We never hear you. Get something that you can play on the radio." That's like trying to suck your own c***, you know. It's like, if you could do it, you would never tell anyone about it.
 
K2K: Oh yeah. I had this conversation a while back with Warren Fitzgerald [of The Vandals, Oingo Boingo]. He was saying that if you could, you would make too much of a mess.
SL: Well, there's the big thing. The whole concept of that has sent scholars to suicide: If you could suck your own, are you giving it or getting it? - and which do you like more?
 
K2K: Well, that's just like wondering, if you masturbate, does that make you gay? Same sex?
SL: Well, no. Being gay would require having another human being in the room. How could you be homosexual if you're by yourself? That would be (ponders) homo... same sex... no, that would be different prefix, I think. Auto-felatio. That's when you can do it yourself.
 
K2K: OK, if you switch fists, does that mean that you're cheating?
SL: No. It just feels like someone else is doing it.
 
K2K: So, back to the band, musically how would you describe yourselves?
SL: Misunderstood. Able to play many different styles which confuses people. We've actually experimented with doing other things. With us, we could go off on in the jazz world, we can off in the fusion world, we can play a real pop song, we can play a real funk song, we can play a heavier song, we can play blues. We have three different singers on the record. I sing, David sings and Bobby sings.
 
K2K: I like the direction of the new album [Mindfields].
SL: Yeah, it's when we got back together with Bobby. It's still in it's developmental stage of what we're going to do - or if we're ever going to do another album. We just were doing an album and a tour overseas and killed them. There was, like, 17,000 or 10,000 people a night. We couldn't believe the response. There's a negative stigma in some people's minds, particularly in the media, that when we play, we're only good for about 1,000 to 2,000 people per night, which is a fine, respectable amount of people to show up to your shows. We bring this big, huge production on the road, a Pink Floyd styled production overseas while over here we just set up onstage and play our music.
 
K2K: Doesn't that suck though?
SL: It's either that or we don't play at all here. We haven't played the states in 15 years. We were just going through to see if there's an audience out there. I don't want to go out and lose money. I can stay home and make money. I could make a killing.
 
K2K: I didn't realize that it had been so long since you've played in the States.
SL: Oh yeah. Well, we'd do maybe a gig somewhere, like in L.A. for a laugh, but we haven't done a proper tour. If we couldn't do it the way that we wanted to do it and we weren't doing the business and there was a lot of negativity and people didn't show up, then we just said fuck it and we just won't play. We just said, "Fuck it. Let's go out and see what it feels like." We have different kind of gigs offered to us at a price that makes sense for us to do it.
 
K2K: I always expected that you guys were still a top selling act who would be playing amphitheaters and stuff.
SL: You know, you would think so but that's not the case. If we cultivate the audience. You have to be realistic about shit. My kids, what do they listen to? I mean, they like my band because it's me, their dad. They're like, "Dad, you guys are good. I like your stuff." But the kids, their friends don't know who the fuck we are. Their parents do.
 
K2K: Isn't it weird that kids don't know who Zeppelin is anymore?
SL: They don't know who the Beatles are anymore, man. You know what I'm saying? You gotta listen to them, how great those records were with no technology. We have all this technology now and nobody's using it creatively, not to the extent of making new sounds from nothing. There were no synthesizers, there were no computers, there was nothing. It was like, "Let's cut up the tape and see what happens." They had four tracks to deal with. Sgt. Pepper was made on four tracks. Two of them wound up, hope they sync together. It's like, "One, two, three, FOUR, let's hope it's in sync." I've worked with George Martin, McCartney and George Harrison and they told me all the stories. The real stories by the real guys. Nowadays, you can actually take any person who can't sing and can't hardly play, put them into ProTools and they sound great. Get them live and it's like, "Jesus! Who the fuck played on that record?!" Because I go to shows. I take my kids. I like to go out and see what's happening. My fiance's really young, so she's still into all the mainstream shit. I'm really well versed on what's happening now. I'm not some guy sitting in my room going, "No one's gonna write a song like 'Stairway To Heaven' again."
 
K2K: Then again, why should they?
SL: They shouldn't. That was then and this is now. It's a lot easier now to become a rock star. Not a musician, but a rock star you can become. When I grew up, it was like, rock music. "I'm a rock musician" and that covered the whole section. You could be into Black Sabbath, Yes and the Beatles all at the same time. You could listen to Arethra Franklin and Hendrix. FM radio, when I was a kid, I'm going to date myself here, black light rooms, bad Mexican marijuana, Pink Floyd and the new [Jethro] Tull album out and you knew it was Tull because nobody else sounded like him. When the new Zeppelin album came out, you didn't even have to know, "That must be the new Zeppelin album. It's fuckin' cool." You could always see music live. You go away for weeks all fired up, "We're going to see Humble Pie. We're going to see James Gang. We're going to see Mountain." Now it's like everyone is so 'in your face' that it's like, "God! Enough already!"
 
(We get on to the subject of what we grew up around during our high school tenures and about the original Glam Rock phase of the early to mid 1970s and beyond.)
 
SL: Fashion statements in rock, let's look at the last two decades. It's ridiculous. Now, the 80s with the big hair, right? You look back and there's pictures of me where I'm trying to look like that that are just so fuckin' funny that I have to keep them because they're very humbling. Then the next decade, everyone shaves their head completely bald. Now, the really scary part about that is that there are all these years that you're supposed to enjoy your hair before it's supposed to start falling out, if you have that tendency, you're hair's going to grow back and you're going to have male-pattern baldness. You'll be like, "Fuck! I shaved off my head bald and now it won't grow back." Then you realize that you look like a stupid cue ball. A 20-year-old kid with a shaved head. Bald. I mean completely fucking bald. It just looks funny. It looks like you've got cancer or some shit like that. Usually, if you're going to start losing your hair, you're going to start around 18. I cut my hair short, but it's not shaved bald. I'm afraid there'll be like "666" written on my head or some shit like that.
 
K2K: Oh you had that fear too?
SL: (snickering) Yes I did.
 
K2K: OK, back to your band again. (Steve laughs) I think the biggest problem for Toto is that people thought you broke up and just went away.
SL: Yeah, we sort of did, but didn't. We never officially did anything. We all worked for so many other people in so many other situations. The fact that when we do work, we go overseas to work because of a huge response and visibility and people don't think we're uncool. You know. After about 20 years of getting your ass whooped by the press and you just go, "I don't need this shit in my life. Why?" The media.
 
K2K: I don't know why the media would've beat you up so bad.
SL: You know, I have no idea myself. It's at the point where it's almost humorous to me. Some of the reviews that we've gotten goes beyond not liking the music, they get personal. There was one that said our parents should have been sterilized so that we could never be born to play the music that we play. You get mom and dad involved and that's hitting below the belt. It's like, don't dis my mom, alright. If I was a reviewer, the bad reviews are much more fun to write. If you read a review and it says "oh this band is great", you skip right over it to the next article. "OK, I've read it." But if it's scathing, you're going to go, "Oh! Ohhh!" When I read them about other bands, it's like, "OH!". The greatest one that I ever saw was in Musician magazine. They did a review of that band GTR with Steve Hackett and Steve Howe. The review said, "GTR" and the review was "SHT". That was it. I howled! That was the worst one that I've ever seen.
 
K2K: I wouldn't go that far, but I was never personally a fan of GTR, or Asia for that matter.
SL: John Wetton, I did a record for him. I ghosted on an Asia record when Howe quit. Yeah, I get hired to do all kinds of stuff. I go play for people. I don't go out and buy all of Olivia Newton-John's records, but back in the 80s I played on a couple of them as a session player. You take each experience for what it's worth. I learn every other time I play with people, no matter how cheesy they may be.
 
K2K: Since we mentioned Ozzy earlier, who else have you played with?
SL: I just jammed with Ozzy and Zakk Wylde one time. I was never a member of the band or anything. I'm an honorary member of Van Halen. Eddie's one of my very best friends. I've played with him. I've played on over a thousand albums, just me, with every style of music and every great artist that you could fucking think of who's made a record in the last 20 years, I've worked with. It wasn't just self-contained bands. And even some self-contained bands I've ghosted on. Cheap Trick's "Dream Police" record. Yeah. I didn't play the whole thing. Rick's a great guitar player. It's not that he couldn't play. They just wanted a different player. They wanted something different. So they called me and I played. We worked together on Alice Cooper's record. I love those guys. I think they're one of the great rock bands of the last 20 years.
 
K2K: Are you the "Mr. Fix-It" of the rock world to lay down tracks?
SL: Not all the time. I don't do that many session now. I'm tired of it. But, at the time, yeah.
 
(We got to talking about Pink Floyd's Roger Waters and David Gilmour)
 
SL: I got called to play on a Pink Floyd record, "The Wall". They wanted me to do some gut-string thing, real legit classical. Dave and I are friends. I love Dave. I'm a huge Dave fan. [Roger Water's] "Amused To Death" record, so I got to work with both of those guys. I wasn't the right guy [for the Wall] so I told them to call Lee Ritenour to play it. So they called Lee to play the real legit baroque classical guitar part.
 
K2K: David doesn't play classical that well?
SL: They wanted a real, legit, schooled classical part. Dave has his own style. Dave is brilliant and is one of my absolute heroes and one of the nicest guys on the planet. They wanted to hire a studio guy. I figured that I could bullshit my way through it, but they wanted a real deal. Lee is a schooled classical guitar guy.
 
K2K: You played with Roger Waters too? I have a question, do you think that he will ever rejoin Pink Floyd for anything?
SL: I don't think so. Too much bad blood. And why? That's not where Dave's coming from. As a matter of fact, the last time that they played in town, they did some Dark Side Of The Moon stuff and Dave said, "I'd like to thank Roger Waters for his great lyrics." I think the hate is coming from Roger's point.
 
K2K: It's like what Dave said the last time around, "It's just pop music."
SL: Yeah, we're not curing cancer here, guys. And that's another problem. Everyone takes this shit as "the end all". It's just people playing music. If you don't like it, buy another record.
 
K2K: I find that so many fans take things more seriously about bands than the bands do.
SL: That is absolutely the truth.
 
K2K: Are you still playing the old songs like "Hold The Line"?
SL: Sure man, we play all the old stuff. We're talking about a three-hour show.
 
K2K: How big was "Hold The Line" for you, being your first hit? Sales wise.
SL: Sales? I don't know. About 4 million. We done 30 million records over the last 20 years. Real quietly. People think that we just had two hits and it was over. In fact, on a worldwide basis, we still sell about a million records per year just from the catalogue.
 
K2K: What's your favorite song?
SL: I don't know. I don't listen to myself after the records until I play them live.
 
K2K: What about in your own personal career with everything that you've played on? Proudest moment.
SL: I can't give you a real answer on that. You're talking about more songs than I could count on a calculator right now. As a total, we've [Toto] recorded over 150 songs. I'd have to really sit down and think about that. My favorite songs are songs that other people wrote.
 
K2K: You played with Niacin [Billy Sheehan's new band]?
SL: Yeah I did. I just came in because Billy asked me to play something. I like it. Half of it is instrumental stuff and then Glen Hughes and I came in to play on the blues rock kind of song. I did it in a couple of takes.
 
K2K: To stop the rumor-mill from churning on, how did Jeff Porcaro pass away?
SL: He had a bad heart. It was a hardening of the arteries at 38 years old. He ate bad food, he smoked while he played the drums and both of his uncles died at 40. He didn't realize that it was coming. His arms ached because in the muscles was a constriction of his arteries. He was out in the backyard, probably gardening. He had some shit in his hands and probably a cigarette in his mouth. He went in to take a hot shower, had a reaction and died in front of his whole family. It was one of the most unfortunate and horrible things that have ever happened to me.
 
K2K: As a last question, what is the wildest or most memorable place you've ever played?
SL: Rock In The Ring in Germany. 100,000 people and we were the headliners. We ripped. It was 1991.
 
K2K: Any quick stories?
SL: I'm sitting here with my daughter, so probably not. Let's just say that I didn't miss much. You can leave it at that. Whatever you can imagine, imagine it ten-fold and you'll probably be close. Hey man, I had to take the trip. I was on the journey and had to see it all.
 
K2K: When are you going to be coming around?
SL: Maybe, later in the year. I'm going to Japan to play with Edgar Winter in this blues jam, all star band. We just rehearsed a couple of days ago and ripped.
 
K2K: So you're just playing it by ear for right now?
SL: Yeah, we're having fun doing what we're doing, testing the waters in the United States. We have the record out and we'll see how it goes.
 
K2K: Any airplay yet?
SL: It's just going to radio in the next three weeks.
 
K2K: Mindfields is the new one. Is there a record called Livefields?
SL: Yeah, that's a live one. It's not out here yet. That's a live album of the European tour from last year. We didn't want to release them on top of each other. We'll release it by summer I think. It's got all the old wacky shit on it.
 
And with that, it was time to go. Hopefully Toto will break on radio with the new album and will be doing the big tour. For pictures of their European shows, go to www.toto99.com. There you can see all the cool stage setups.
 
Written by Philip Anderson

Philip Anderson is a musician, in addition to being a writer/photographer. He has performed as a guitarist/vocalist, as well as songwriter, in several bands over the past 20 years. As a writer and photographer, he has been published by several magazines and in several books, and had his works appear on television.

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