Steve Lukather Interview: Toto Returns Anew with a Little Help from Their Friends
Image attributed to Alex Solca
Guitarist, singer, songwriter, arranger and record producer Steve Lukather (Luke) is the sole continuous founding member of the rock band Toto from it’s founding in 1976 to the present day. He has recorded guitar tracks for more than 1,500 albums representing a broad array of artists and genres. Lukather has won five Grammys and has toured with former Beatles drummer Ringo Starr’s live supergroup, the All-Starr Band.
Toto has released 14 studio albums and has sold over 40 million records worldwide. The band has announced the global release With a Little Help From My Friends on June 25, 2021. The performance captures one special night on November 21, 2020, when Lukather, Joseph Williams and David Paich appeared with the new lineup of Toto for a global event originating from Los Angeles.
"I’ve still got a lot of life left in me, man. I’m not ready to end this yet."
Joining Lukather, Williams and Paich for this next chapter of the band’s incarnation are bassist John Pierce, drummer Robert “Sput” Searight, keyboardist/background vocalist Steve Maggiora, keyboardist Dominique “Xavier” Taplin and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Warren Ham. In the DVD and Blu-ray releases, a documentary is featured alongside the performance, which includes thoughts from all members of the band that appeared that evening.
Lukather recently released the solo album I’ve Found the Sun Again, with guests Williams, Paich and a core band of drummer Greg Bissonette, keyboardist Jeff Babko and bassists Jorgen Carlsson and John Pierce all playing live in the studio. It's comprised of five original songs and covers of Traffic, Joe Walsh and Robin Trower tunes. Lukather also contributed to Williams’ solo album Denizen Tenant, which came out at the same time on February 26, 2021.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Luke, how are you today?
Steve Lukather: Hanging in there, man, you know? Things are going well, I guess. I’m just really excited about the prospects of hitting the road next year.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I know you miss performing live.
Steve Lukather: Oh, my God! It’s like my whole life. I’ve always been on the road 200 and some odd days a year. I miss the circus. We all do.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I wanted to first take a moment and talk about recording engineer and producer Al Schmitt who passed away on April 26.
Steve Lukather: Oh, my God, that was a tragic loss, man. I mean, Al was one of those guys who never aged, so you really never knew how old he was. I’ve been working with Al since 1977 when I was a teenager in the studio before Toto. He was a close dear friend to all of us.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: He worked on Toto IV.
Steve Lukather: He did and won a Grammy for that one. We’ve done countless albums together over the years. He was the baddest cat, man. Everybody looked up to Al. We had some amazing times together, but 91 is a great run. You can’t be mad at that. God bless him, man. I’m getting too many of these calls lately. The wagons are circling. I’m not 20 years old anymore either.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes, and it’s been 39 years sinceToto IV was released.
Steve Lukather: It’s a trip, man. Having this year off has made me really look at that because I’m so busy working, I don’t have time to think abut it. So I’ve had a year and a half to think about my life, my career, my accomplishments, my deficits and regrets. You try to make shit right with people, and you try to move forward. I’ve still got a lot of life left in me, man. I’m not ready to end this yet.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What have you learned about yourself during the pandemic?
Steve Lukather: It’s a very soul searching time, you know. At the same time, it’s like I’ve really grown to appreciate, and I’m so grateful for the life I have and the life I’ve had. It turns out I fucking hate retirement. If this is retirement, I ain’t ready yet. I still feel like I’m 25 years old inside. I just got a full, clean bill of health from the doctor, which is amazing. But I take much better care of myself than I used to.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: In September of 2019 when we last spoke, you said that as of October 20, 2019, Toto ceases to exist in his current form.
Steve Lukather: It’s the truth. That version of Toto died that night in Philly.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What events led to that?
Steve Lukather: Litigation. People not getting along with different visions of where we were going and how we were doing it. There was a lot of bad blood starting to come up, and it was really difficult to be on the road with some of these guys. Changes had to be made if we were going to move forward. Joe and I were going to work together anyway. We both have solo albums out on the same label. We’ve known each other since he was 14, and I was 17. I love him. He’s my best friend. We were working together a lot. We wrote two songs for Ringo, plus we both worked on each other’s albums as did David Paich. David was on every song on my record.
So the three of us are still very much a team, but Dave can’t medically tour anymore. He just can’t get off his medical regime, which is very strict because he’s got a lot of ailments. I’d rather have him around then take him on the road and have something awful happen. But he comes to the rehearsals, and he’s working on new EPs.
There’s still a little love in the room. There’s some not love in the room with some of the other guys. So some changes had to be made, and I’ve got a brand new kickass band that’s ready to go. Toto’s had 15 incarnations. 15. I’ve been in all of them. There are guys in the band that were out for 25 years. Those are the guys who really don’t want to do it anymore. Then there’s guys that just didn’t get along with each other, and one guy was just impossible to deal with. The bass player was difficult to be around.
I’m too old for this being a situation where the sidemen go south, you know what I mean? I want to be around people who want to have a good time and do it for the right reasons. Some of these guys were older studio guys who command a huge salary. Now that I’ve got to give up a huge percentage of the gross to people that aren’t on the road in order for us to work, I had to scale down in order for me and Joe to make any money. So we’re keeping a lot. We’re keeping our music alive, and I’m going to have a lot of fun with this. Give me a month on the road with these guys, and we’ll be devastating.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Tell us about the brand new kickass band. I know that Warren Ham is great.
Steve Lukather: As is our new bass layer John Pierce. But every band should have a Warren Ham because he’s just so brilliant. He just sings incredible, he plays the reeds incredible, the harmonica and keyboards. I got him into Ringo’s band, too.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did you have an idea of who you wanted to join the new band?
Steve Lukather: I knew I had to have world class players. We got Sput from Snarky Puppy, which is arguably one of the baddest young bands out there right now. We got John Pierce on bass from Huey Lewis’ band. He’s a studio guy and my oldest friend since we were born. He was in our high school band. So he has a connection to it all. Then we got this kid, Steve Maggiora, who plays keyboards badass, and he sings a crazy high. He’s really a perfect pitch guy, sweet as heck and plays great. Then from the old band, we’ve got Warren Ham, and we’ve got Xavier Taplin who was with Prince’s band, and he’s been with us for four years. He’s become a key element.
Paich may show up here or there to a gig that’s close to sit in. It’s still his baby. I’m just driving the car right now. I’m managing the band, too. So we’re keeping it in-house, keeping our costs down to be able to go out on the road and play. These guys want to play all the time. We’ll give it another go, and I feel really strong about this. Time off has given me the chance to get a lot of rest, spend time with my family, my girlfriend and be around my own house that I haven’t ever spent this much time in (laughs). I’m doing simple things around the house and gardening.
I practice in the morning. I get up at five in the morning and go to bed at nine. I’m not exactly the wild man I once was. I’m housebound. I’ve got my shot. Things are starting to loosen up a little bit where you can go out to lunch or something and not feel like you’re going to die. These are scary times. God put us in a timeout. It’s time to get it together. I wish people wouldn’t be so fucking crazy and do the right thing.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I watched the video of “Run to Me,” and not only do I love the song but that is a great outside deck!
Steve Lukather: (laughs) The deck. Well, you have to understand, we couldn’t leave our house. We honestly made that video for Ringo’s 80th birthday because we were supposed to be with the All-Starr band. I’ve been one for going on nine years now. But we couldn’t have a party for him, so we were going to send him a personal message or something. So David Paich, Joseph and I write him a kind of “Beetley” type song. He loved it, and he wanted to play on it. So I got him to play on it, and we filmed it at his house with his guy, and then we filmed one in my backyard and my house with me goofing off like making fun of being a rockstar at my age.
I’ve got a great sense of humor about all of this. You have to. In all of the “Africa” madness, I got to be a South Park character, a Family Guy character, just some part of pop culture. It cracks me up. I laugh at all of this stuff. (laughs). What that song became, we could never have predicted that. We sold so many records. All of our albums went crazy selling when that thing went crazy, and Weezer had a big hit with it. We started getting younger kids coming to the shows just to hear that song and realized we were a shit hot rock band, the stuff the press doesn’t write about. They just write about us based on two songs. “Africa” was like the weirdest song we ever cut, and that turned out to be our calling card. I remember saying at the time, “If this song’s a hit, I’ll run naked down Hollywood Boulevard.” Nobody wants to see that (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: So was it a conscious choice not to include “Africa” on the new With a Little Help from My Friends album?
Steve Lukather: On the new album, yeah, because of litigation. We would’ve had to pay a ridiculous licensing fee. It just wasn’t worth it. We had to do this on a shoestring budget, and we had to do it quick. As it was, it was really expensive. We made our money back, but then we got this offer to put it out, and I thought, “What a great way to introduce the new band.” We put the band together in ten days from scratch, and it’s pretty good for putting it together in ten days.
There was no audience there for the studio recording, the lighting was just fixed lighting in a little teeny club. So we just wanted to show off the band like you were watching a dress rehearsal. The first time we ever played the set, we wanted to play Toto songs to prove what it would sound like, and we did. So people get a preview of what to expect except that it’s going to be the worst it’ll ever be, you know what I mean? Once I get this band up, and we can play gigs, and we start really clicking, it’s going to be scary. We’re going to do the Toto hits and the Toto deep cuts and then play stuff off of my solo record and Joe’s solo record, and both have done really well. If people like the music, they come to see you live, so that’s how we work now.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: “Till the End” sounds jazzier and more up tempo, and I really love the sound.
Steve Lukather: It’s fresh. It’s a little different, but we haven’t gotten our sea legs yet. Jazzy is such a vague term. But I guess, it is without trying to be jazzy, perhaps. It does have a little Earth, Wind & Fire thing to it. I can’t even really define our music because it draws from so many influences.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: What’s your favorite song off the new album?
Steve Lukather: I think “You Are the Flower” came out great, but even though I was in there with everybody else, I didn’t think I played that good on it. But it’s fine. Being the bandleader, I’m just worried about all these guys, and I have to stop thinking about myself. But it’s such a great take on it. We just tried to pick some other things we hadn’t done before, paying tribute to Bobby (Kimball) and stuff like that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You chose “Kingdom of Desire.” That album that was released shortly after Jeff (Porcaro) passed away. Was that sort of a nod to him?
Steve Lukather: Yeah. It was a nod to that whole era. It’s a fun song to play.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Your solo album, I Found the Sun Again, is great also. Tell me about you working on Joe’s solo album and vice versa.
Steve Lukather: Thank you. That just happened organically, you now what I mean? We’re best friends. We hang out, we work together, and we write together. He asked me to play on a few things, and I said, “Well, you’ve got to help me with mine because I’m doing mine differently.”
It was a big production for him, and his record is so fucking good. It’s up there with Peter Gabriel’s So in production value in the way he did that. I’m just so proud of him. He got a bunch of the old Toto guys to come back and play on his stuff. Paich played on it, I played on it, and I sang on it. He did the same for me. We were going to tour together anyway, so that’s how the whole thing germinated into an idea. To come back, we’re going to call it a different name, The Dogz of Oz, and then the promoters, agents and Paich are like, we lost the case, but we got a percentage of the name and used that to pay back the legal debt, a lot of legal debt.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You’re speaking, about the lawsuit Susan Porcaro-Goings (Jeff Porcaro’s widow) brought against you and David Paich?
Steve Lukather: I really don’t want to talk about that anymore. I don’t want to start anything. It got really ugly and ruined a lot of friendships. It makes me sad to think about it. I don’t understand the making up lies about us on TMZ shit. I don’t want to start anything, so I don’t want to say anything. That chapter of my life is closed and welded shut.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Absolutely understand. Before we move on, I did want to ask why you included “Bridge of Sighs” on the solo album.
Steve Lukather: I love the song, I love Robin Trowers, and I thought it would be something that’s a lot of fun to play on. It’s such a great song, and I don’t think many people have covered it. I just did it as a homage, and I got a nice note from Robin saying that he dug it. I got this really great note from Joe Walsh for “Welcome to the Club.” I haven’t heard from Steve Winwood (“The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys”) yet, but he’s one of my all-time favorites.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you have a different relationship with Joe than you do with David because you and Joe are lifelong friends?
Steve Lukather: No, and Joe knew Dave before I did because their fathers were friends back in the time when they were little kids. I knew David in high school, so I met him in 1974. We’ve known each other a hell of a long time. He’s one of my favorite human beings on planet earth.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: The extremely talented Leland Sklar was with Toto for a couple of years. You’re in his new book Everybody Loves Me, which contains over 6,000 celebrities and everyday people giving him the finger. What did you think about that as a concept for a book?
Steve Lukather: I’m in the book a bunch of times! We spent a lot of time together over the last 45 years. I love him to death. I really do. I was the one who told him to write it. When he started doing it, I said, “You’ve got to do a book, man!” He finally did it, and it’s really successful.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I can’t not talk about the fact that you went viral in the video where you were taking revenge on a neighbor’s noisy leaf blower by playing insanely loud guitar riffs at seven in the morning. Has that saga continued?
Steve Lukather: (laughs) Well, he cooled down, that’s for sure. We’re fine. My girlfriend’s like, “We have to make peace with these guys.” She talked to the wife, and they were fine. It started out as a new neighbor cutting down all my shrubs, my covering in the backyard. I was on the road and came home to a bald yard. That was 40 years of growth for my privacy and shit. So that got weird. Then he called the police on my then seven-year-old autistic son who got out and got on the roof because that’s what they do sometimes. He called the cops on my kid.
I live in the Hollywood Hills, and the houses are nice but they are closer together. So when the leaf blower started at seven AM in the morning, it was almost like the guy was purposefully egging me on. I said, “I’m going to get my amp and blow this guy up,” then I said, “Nah.” My girlfriend said, “You’ve got to do it!” I said, “I don’t want a hassle. Just, whatever.” She was like, “No, do it! I dare you!” I go, “You dare me?” (laughs) Then I got the amp out, put it up on the trampoline so it wouldn’t shred the dog’s ears, and I cranked it up. I didn’t even know my girlfriend was filming it. She put it up on Instagram, and it went viral around the world. It was crazy and the most press I’ve ever gotten (laughs). It got a lot of looks.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Part of the proceeds of your solo album will go to the Ed Asner Family Center for Autism?
Steve Lukather: Yeah. They are just lovely people. It’s something I really believe in, and in being a part of the community, you meet other parents. We’ve all got a story. No two autistic kids are the same. That makes it more difficult. But it’s cool. I love my little man so much. He’s the best kid ever. He’s talking now, and we’re having a blast. He’s the purest soul I’ve ever been around.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Does he like your music?
Steve Lukather: He doesn’t like loud rock and rock at all. He likes classical music and is enamored with the piano. He listens to what he wants to listen to. He’s got all these video games that he plays on the iPad. There are a lot of repetitive things that happen. But I love him to death, and he’s just weird like me.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: How’s your other son?
Steve Lukather: Trev is doing great. His record’s out soon, and he’s producing two records right now. He’s doing really well. He’s getting married to a wonderful girl. Life is good for him. It’s just a drag because he wants to go on the road.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Toto is excluded yet again from being nominated into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Steve Lukather: I don’t know the criteria. It’s a matter of their personal choice, and they don’t like us (laughs). I’m okay. I’m in the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville, and that means a lot to me. I’ve got plenty of awards like Grammys and stuff. It’s not about winning awards. It’s about the long career, and that’s all I ever wanted. It’s been a fight and uphill, but it’s worth it. I want to go out there and put another 10 years in before I start looking at slowing down.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Do you still have that excitement and drive to perform?
Steve Lukather: Yes. It never left me. I was in my first band when I was nine. It’s a calling. It’s not a job. I have the best job in the world. But there are sucky parts of it that you don’t see. But what can I say? Traveling around the world is difficult.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: So you’ve got the Dogz of Oz Tour next year?
Steve Lukather: 2022, yeah. We’ve got a whole thing that we’ve put together right now, and we’ve got summer in Europe and then back. Before that, I’m going to work with Ringo on a tour and hopefully, we’ll come together and be able to do it all.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Luke, the whole scene is under your leadership?
Steve Lukather: By default. I’m the only guy that’s been here the whole time. I’ve never missed a gig, an album or anything. So by accident, I took the first position. Now that’s what it is, and I don’t care. It’s me and Joe. There’s no ego in this. I want to give everybody billing. Everyone on the stage is a virtuoso. People will be blown away by what they can do.
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