Steve Lukather is feeling good. He answers the phone for our interview with a jovial “Hellllooooo, Darling” and is ready and raring to talk: “Ask me anything. Nothing is taboo.” Actually, what he is really anxious to talk about is his new upcoming solo album Transition, which debuts next week on January 22.
Lukather is very much a man not afraid to speak his mind. When I spoke with him just a few days prior to the world supposedly ending, he didn’t appear worried in the least that we may all blow up right when he is feeling the best he has in years: “I don’t really believe that’s going to happen, you know. Does the world end after December 31st? No, it starts over again. I mean, if you listen to the Tv now, every other channel is doomsday this, doomsday that. But I don’t see any mass panic at this point. I’m hoping nothing happens, believe me. I can’t wait for December 22nd. Let’s get past this bullshit, like Y2K. We’ll see what happens to New Zealand on the morning of the 21st and then we’ll know.”
Lukather is also a man with a lot of musical history. He has played on over a thousand recordings (Boz Scaggs, Elton John, Peter Frampton, Michael Jackson and most recently Don Felder’s latest CD, to just scratch the surface of his portfolio), helped form the band Toto with his school friends David Paich and Steve and Jeff Porcaro, has won five Grammys, played on the most recent G3 and Ringo Starr All-Starr tours and is currently writing his autobiography with high school buddy, and former RIP Magazine editor, Lonn Friend. “I’ve known Lonn since we were fourteen/fifteen years old at Grant High School. He was one of the guys that we hung with and where Toto sort of started, at that school. A lot of great musicians came out of that school, outside of us Toto guys. All of our friends did really well.”
Is that why you picked Lonn to help you write your book?
Well, I needed his input and wisdom on this. You know, I know what my story is but it’s just how to tell it, you know, without it being, “When I was seven I got my first guitar” and you’re already nodding out after the second paragraph. I want to keep it interesting. And I didn’t want to write the sex and drugs tell-all cause that’s just a boring cliché story. I have so much more to tell and all the records that I’ve done. I mean, I’ve had an extraordinary career. I’m not just some guy that was in a band and is going to write a book, you know. I’ve been on thousands of records for some of the biggest stars ever. I’ve been doing this for thirty-six years now. And that’s even hard to take when I say it out loud, cause I don’t feel like some older guy. I feel like a kid. I’m healthier than I’ve ever been, focused and ready for anything at this point.
Lonn told me that you guys used to cut up in Geometry class.
Well, you know, here’s the thing: back then being a musician wasn’t like maybe as cool as it is now. We used to hang out in this little part of the Senior lawn even though we weren’t Seniors and stayed to ourselves and the jocks kind of ruled the school. I was pretty terribly insecure, you know. I just wanted to stay to myself and play music and had the dream of becoming a successful musician. We all did, you know. We all played in our bands and we all were studying music. We were pretty focused for young guys. We’d all been playing for a long time, even before high school, so when we all got together and met, we were sort of ready to meet each other and went, wow, a like-minded guy. And we found there was a handful of us, maybe eight or nine guys, and we hung out every day. It was all about the music … But, yeah, he remembers this more than I do (laughs) I’ve done a lot of things.
You used to play at lunch time back then?
They used to have people who had bands at school and could play at lunch or do high school dances and stuff and we used to do all that. That’s kind of like where it all first started, you know.
Do you remember your first gig?
I got paid for my first gig when I was nine. I played in a band with some older guys. We played a birthday party and made two bucks, as my first professional gig. It was 1965, maybe, 1966. A couple of years after The Beatles hit. And here I am in a band with Ringo now, how bizarre is that.
Do you remember what you did with that $2.00?
Back then, that was like a lot of money for a nine year old kid. I probably spent it on candy and bullshit, as one would. You know, it was all very innocent and stuff, but that was the first time the applause kind of hit. The girls were screaming like they did on Tv and it was like, wow. It wasn’t a sexual awakening cause I was too young but it was like, wow, I love this feeling of playing music through an amplifier and people react to it. I could play pretty good for a kid, you know. And now everybody has a band, everybody makes a record. It’s almost like cliché. Back then it was a little weird to have a young guy that could play. It all started there and I never looked back and here I am, four days before the apocalypse.
But that shows a lot about you and how great of a musician you are.
I still get up and practice every morning. You never stop. I have a few lost years in there where I fell off the track. But I’m back on it and for the last several years I’m really super healthy and I’m focused and appreciate my career more than ever and I’m working really hard at it and I’ve got voice teachers. I get up and practice guitar for a couple of hours a day. I work out, I eat organic, meditation. I’m trying to just get real. I’m a fifty-five year old guy who’s been doing this since I was a little kid.
Not all kids grow up to be a multiple Grammy winner.
I’ve been nominated like 12 or 13 times and won five myself and the band’s won nine or something like that, tech awards or whatnot. But yeah, man, I don’t really think about that stuff much but it’s kind of neat to have that in my history. I’m honored, really. And in the Musicians Hall Of Fame in Nashville for all the studio players. That was kind of neat. I’ll never be in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. We pissed off Jann Wenner. We’re the only band in history to turn down the cover of Rolling Stone. It’s such a dick-filled concept, you know. I mean, art is objective. If it’s a sports thing, this is your stats. If I get 150 touchdowns or goals or something, you’re in. You can be an asshole and you’re still in. Art and music, poetry, literature, how do you say what’s greatness or not?
This person is very talented and technically great but it doesn’t move me. But it’s still worthy of “Look at this old guy who sold forty million records or thirty-five million records.” At what point do you get in? I mean, Deep Purple is not in the Hall Of Fame. What’s the first song that every fucking kid learns how to play? “Smoke On The Water.” So what is all this shit? At a certain point, there’s an award for taking this shit, you know what I mean. There’re too many awards for seemingly weird stuff. Now people are up for Grammys that don’t even know how to sing. They’re all auto-tuned, pro-tooled. It’s like, come on, man, unplug that shit and let’s see what you got and then we’ll see if you’re in. I don’t want to sound like some crusty old bastard but come on, they change the rules in the middle of the game.
When it’s real it translates. That’s all I can say. I can give respect to anybody that gets up there and knows how to play in any style of music. You can tell when somebody has put the hours in and the years and the time into working on their art and their abilities. What can I say, I’m a fan of greatness. Someday I might be one.
Now you’re selling yourself short
Well, you know, there are so many great players out there that it’s really scary. Now I’m considered old-school and I’m happy to be that, to be honest with you. I’m happy to be an old-school guy. It’s fine. I’ve had a long career and I think I’ve paid enough dues now to enjoy the rest of my life and the rest of my career and I’ve tried to up my game. A lot of guys just phone in a record. They just do it so they can get back out on the road and play the hits and make some money. I’m still scratching the creative itch to try and bring my game up every time and try to write really interesting stuff and not just power chords and bang something out that’s reminiscent of something I’ve already done in the past or whatnot. Push the limits, you know. Try to get better, refine. It’s more refining rather than trying to become technically proficient. I want to refine my thing and get better at it, with more soul and more heart and more experience.
Where do you get most of your ideas from?
I steal them (laughs) No, I’m just kidding. You know what? I collaborate with people cause it makes me finish things. And I collaborate with great people. On my new album it’s CJ Vanston, who is my creative foil and keyboardist and co-writer and co-producer. He’s a great talent and we’ve just clicked. When I have somebody push me that is when I get the best stuff out of me, cause I’m so hard on myself, I’d throw everything away. I’d still be working on a record I did twenty years ago if I let it go like that.
Transition has only nine songs and that’s unusual to have just nine songs.
Well, here’s my feeling about all this. First off, the last record did really well and the joke was like, well, we got to stay with the formula of nine songs. You know, lucky nine. Nine is a lucky number for me. I don’t believe you have to have eighty minutes worth of music on a record just cause you can. When I was growing up an album was eighteen minutes a side so that’s thirty-six minutes. I could have put more stuff on and filled it out but I thought this was an artistic statement and I felt that that was enough. I don’t think people really want to sit down and listen to seventy minutes of music on a record anymore. Maybe a handful but I’d rather have somebody go, “Wow, that was great, I’d like to hear that again,” rather than, “Is this going to fucking end anytime soon or what?” It’s like people don’t have the three hour concerts. I don’t care who you are. After a while, it’s like, ok, it’s great but enough.
The album starts off and you’re pretty vivid and outspoken with “Judgment Day” and “Creep Motel” and then it ends with this beautiful instrumental “Smile.”
Yeah, well, that was kind of dedicated to my mom. She passed away a couple of years ago. It’s kind of like how I’ve felt in the last five years of my life. I went through a period of time where I was laughing and being loud and obnoxious and drinking too much and being an idiot. And I go back and cry because there was an emptiness inside of me that I was trying to fill. The opening line of “Smile” is, “Smile when your heart is breaking.” That’s the lyric that was written. I didn’t sing it but I played it but it was one take, an afterthought. I was like, let’s just do a take of this with me and Steve Weingart, my live keyboard player who also worked on the album, and we just did a pass at that and that’s the performance. It had a lot of heart so I kept it on the record. I play it a little bit live as a second encore thing to wind down the night. I just kind of let myself go, closed my eyes and played it and what you heard, that’s the record.
Do you have a favorite song on the new record other than that one?
No, I have to look at the album as a whole. It’s all nine pieces put into one thought. That’s the best version of me in 2012. It kind of has a lot of different emotions in it and it first starts off angry and a little resentment of like the past and then the breakup of my marriage; I was just talking about loss. People you go through life with and have these wonderful experiences and then you lose them, you know. I’m not alone in this concept. People get sick and die. It sounds more morbid but it’s just the way of the world. As a baby is born someone leaves the planet. That’s just the way it is. And as you get a little older and have these experiences and life being the way it is, you write about how you feel. And then it wakes up and I’m going, wait a minute, I want to have a great time for whatever time is left. I want to be healthy and focused and happy and enjoy every minute, cause when you’re young you’re running as fast as you can. You can’t even stop and smell the roses, to be a cliché, and all of a sudden you go, where did all the time go? I need to slow down and appreciate all this for a minute, cause it was like a twenty-five year party. Yee haw. It was amazing but it just ripped by. So my point now is to slow down and dig it and be happy. Like I said, I never felt better in my life. And I’m working towards keeping and staying that course.
How did you get this album done? Because you were on the G3 tour, you were with Ringo …
And I did Toto and I did a solo tour with the classic rock thing. I started the album last December  and I’d go on the road, writing lyrics and working on it even when I wasn’t recording, and I’d come home and work on it for a few weeks in between tours and I was able to refine things and redo things, get people to play on it that I wanted to play on it, and live with it. So it was really kind of a luxury rather than a, “Ok, we got a month, work on it now.” And for that I was thankful to have that time. I made great use of my time. Nobody can say that I was sitting around scratching my balls watching Tv, you know. I got to live with things and it’s so rare to have that opportunity. Usually your schedule is so insane that you got to keep moving.
What was it like being on the G3 tour with Steve Vai and Joe Satriani?
Those guys are amazing. I was so honored to be asked. The thing is, I’ve been friends with these guys for a long, long time, decades and stuff, and I was a little apprehensive. I was like, “I don’t know if I’m a G3 guy, you know.” And Joe and Steve, they’re like, “Come on, man, you’ve got to do this with us.” I’ve played with them before and we’ve worked together and jammed together and done all sorts of things together. Steve and I won a Grammy for the Larry Carlton record we did together. And I have the utmost, deepest respect for their genius and musicianship. Most of the obvious guys have already done the 3 spot and I think I was a wild card and they brought me along to Mexico, which I did with John Petrucci, and then I did Australia and New Zealand with Steve Vai and Joe and brought my band.
I was a little nervous, going, I don’t know if the audience is going to dig me or not; if they thought I was going to go out and play “Africa” or something. And I didn’t. I played my solo stuff and I brought a little different thing to it and it went down really well and got good reviews and the guys all dug me and it was really fun. Cause you could see the three different styles, which are so vastly different, when you see it in a row. And then at the end we come out like a bunch of fifteen year old kids and play classic rock songs and playing too much and just having fun and the crowd dug it. It was really fun. It was not a contest cause if it was I would have lost but that’s not what the point of it was. I mean, it’s Joe’s baby and to be asked to be a part of that and be part of the legacy, not a lot of guys get to do that AND Ringo AND have their own band. I am very, very honored to have done all these things this past year.
Doing a thing like G3, which is focused on guitar musicianship, is it still so vital and important to still have this in the music world?
People admire virtuosity, especially when they see guys like Joe and Steve or John Petrucci – he’s kind of at the top of the game – yeah, there is an audience for that. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of girls at the gigs (laughs) and if you’re trying to get laid that’s not the tour to be on. But if you’re trying to dig some great music, it’s a fantastic tour to be on.
On the other end, you have Ringo’s All-Starr Band, where everyone is playing together and everyone is having fun and it’s really light and all about having a good time.
It’s a lot of fun and I think we had a really good version of it. Everybody worked really hard on everybody else’s material. We had a blast and I love all the guys and as friends we all really bonded and Ringo is the greatest boss in the whole world. I love him to death and I am deeply honored to be a part of the legacy of that and all the legendary musicians that have been in and out of that band.
What is he like as a bandleader?
He’s the sweetest, nicest, wisest, most gracious host. It’s like he loves everybody’s stuff and he’s just having the time of his life. I’m honored to call him my friend too. We hit it off really, really well and I cherish our friendship. He’s a great bandleader. He lets everybody do their thing and it really feels like a band. And it’s really hard to throw a bunch of guys together that don’t really know each other that well; or we know each other but certainly never worked in this configuration and Ringo Starr is your boss. You’re like, ok, this is going to be different versions of the songs you’re known for but it’s cool and we just loved it. And now we’re doing it again. I hope I get to do it for as long as he’ll keep asking me. If nothing else, I’ve made a great friend for life, I’ve made great friends for life.
What are you like as a leader in the studio?
I’m a tyrant (laughs). No, I let things happen. You hire these incredible musicians and they just bring their best to you and it makes me smile and laugh out loud. I go, my God, I would have never thought to play that, just fucking brilliant, thank you. You get around people that are that good, all the people I get to work with, and it’s humbling to just see how greatness flows.
What do you have planned for 2013?
I start rehearsing my solo band in January for my March and April tour in Europe. Then in February, I do New Zealand, Japan and Australia with Ringo. Then May starts Toto’s 35th anniversary tour through September. I also have a few solo dates in the US around there. Then in November I think I go out with Ringo again and that leads me to Christmas and next year I start my solo tour and in the summer of 2014, Toto starts their 35th to-be-continued tour and more stuff for me and that’ll lead me to 2015. And I hope there is still a world to live in and groove and keep doing what we’re doing. I’m very lucky to have a full dance card.