Steve Lukather Interview: Ever Changing Times

By: Matt Baamonde

Photo Courtesy of Steve Lukather

Steve Lukather has been called “the best musician on the planet.” Though most often associated with the Grammy-award-winning band Toto, Lukather’s association with Toto is simply the tip of his massive career iceberg.

Over the past 30 years he has amassed credits on over 1,000 albums in every genre as a session guitarist, arranger, singer and composer, and has worked with a spectrum of artists that ranges from Miles Davis to Chet Atkins. Simply put, Lukather’s discography is mind blowing. Quincy Jones’ favorite guitarist, “Luke” has contributed to so many classic albums and tracks his name should be household fare.

On June 5, 2008, Steve made it official, “The fact is, yes, I have left Toto. There is no more Toto. I just can’t do it anymore and, at 50 years old, I wanted to start over and give it one last try on my own. Honestly, I have just had enough. This is not a break. It is over.”

Toto brought us hits like “Africa” and “Rosanna,” and sold over 30 million records. And, of course, the name itself claimed attention from fans who debated whether it derived from Dorothy’s dog in The Wizard of Oz or the spelling of band member Bobby Kimball’s actual last name, “Toteaux.” The truth of the matter is, it was taken from the Latin term in toto, meaning “all encompassing.”

The musicians that comprised the band were, in fact, all top studio musicians who many in the know referred to as the “House Band to the Music Industry,” with various members playing on virtually every major album that came out of Los Angeles for a ridiculously long period of time. The band’s rise started in the ’70s and the upward career arc of the its brilliant guitarist, Steve Lukather, has risen ever since.

No less a musician’s musician than Eddie Van Halen has referred to Toto as “collectively, the best musicians on the planet.” Formed in 1976, they focused their collective talents on making a name for themselves as a band, as opposed to continually working to make other musicians famous.

With 31 years, 10 world tours, several Grammy awards, numerous hits, and over 30 million in record sales, Toto is now officially defunct. Kaput. Steve’s out on his own, furthering his solo career with a new CD release, Ever Changing Times (Ride Records).

Most impressive is the number of great jazz, soul and R&B legends he has worked with, such as Miles Davis, George Benson, Larry Carlton, Al Jarreau, Chaka Khan, Nancy Wilson, Herb Alpert, Les Paul, Aretha Franklin, and on and on. In 1982 alone, Lukather worked on albums by at least 47 different artists.

During his breaks from Toto, he released four solo albums plus a few side projects. With the band now officially behind him, Steve Lukather seems re-energized and completely focused on his solo career.


Matt Baamonde: What makes Ever Changing Times your, quote, “best album ever?”

Steve Lukather: I think, in the past, I purposely tried so hard to separate stylistically from my old ex-band. And this time, I just let it flow, however it happened. You know, I think maybe the longer you do something the more experience you have. I just had a lot of fun doing it. The songs just kind of flowed out.

My only intention of writing the songs was to write songs that I would listen to and love. That was the goal I set out to do and just have fun making a record, I guess. I mean, “My new record is the best thing ever,” you know, everybody says that shit! I haven’t done a proper solo record with vocals in ten years.

Matt: Who are you featuring on the album, any guests beyond the core session group?

Steve Lukather: My son plays guitar on a couple tracks, on “New World,” and “Tell Me What You Want from Me.” The core session was Abe Laborial Jr. on drums, Leland Sklar on bass, Jeff Babko and Steve Weingart on keyboards. Randy Goodrum played a lot of the keyboard stuff.

Guests included Bernard Fowler, from the Stones, doing some background vocals with Bill Champlin. Steve Porcaro did some orchestrations for me and there was Lenny Castro on percussion. I didn’t bring all my superstar guitar friends on this one. I’ve done that in the past and I just figured, “Why bring em?”

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Matt: What kind of preparation is expected of you? Did you have to learn some songs to play with some of the others or are you doing it cold, doing whatever comes naturally?

Steve Lukather: Oh man, rehearsals are for tours. You never rehearse before you go into the studio because you got great players. We’re not kids, you know what I mean? We wrote the songs on acoustic guitar, acoustic piano and a cassette player and we figured it worked there. We wrote a couple of sketches, sketched out a few rough charts and I just kind of played the song on guitar for the guys and they kind of looked at the charts.

I said, “Whatever you guys hear, man, let’s do it, let’s go for it.” When we have musicians of that caliber, immediately, by take two, that was the take. I mean, you get all that magic stuff.

Some people, when they rehearse, they rehearse the music right out of it! They get kind of like, “Well, we played all our best shit at the rehearsal.” But, I guess when you’re a very young man and you don’t have experience, then you need to rehearse. Between all of us we’re talking about thousands of records that we’ve all played on.

Matt: So, with all the session work you’ve done, how does that affect what you write for your original album? How do you separate that from your own style?

Steve Lukather: Well, I mean, when I’m working for somebody else, back in the day when there was such a thing as a session player, we were paid to interpret other people’s music. I got to work with some amazing artists who played Paul McCartney to Miles Davis, to every style in between.

The way you watch people work, no matter what style of music it is, when they’re great you check out, “Oh, that’s how they’re doing it.” I remember seeing Elton John sit down with a chart he’d never seen before. He’d sit down at the piano, start playing and singing and that was the song. I mean, there are people who are aliens like that. But, everybody has a different way they feel comfortable working.

So, there’s no right or wrong way, just whatever works for a particular artist. And as session musicians, our job was to interpret the music and make them happy. And a lot of times you create alternative hooks that they wouldn’t have thought of and parts that you’ll create on the spot real fast and have it down. It’s almost like you didn’t have time to think.

On my own music, I try to keep that same vibe, and the pressures of it. But, as I am in charge of my own destiny, I’ll know when it’s the right take and I’ll know what magic to keep. I’m not looking for perfection. I’m looking for a great vibe.


Matt: Tell us about your affiliation and affinity toward MusicMan guitars and your MusicMan Luke Signature Guitar.

Steve Lukather: It’s really interesting, because I have a really big collection of guitars and I’ve got the Holy Grail, a ’59 sunburst Les Paul, that’s worth a million dollars. I’ve got a lot of interesting pieces. I sold off a lot of my favorite stuff. But, I’ve got my prized pieces.

For a time in the ’70s and ’80s, I was using Valley Arts guitars, Stratocaster type, and the guy who was making the guitars over there was Dudley Gimple. Dudley went over to MusicMan in the late ’80s and Sterling Ball, who owned the company, was my best friend. At the time, he was building a guitar for Eddie Van Halen and I came over and saw the prototype. I was checking out the instrument and Sterling said, “Hey man, I would love to make you a guitar.”

It’s almost like the same guys have been building my guitars for damn near 30 years. They’re making quality instruments, it’s a family-owned business and it’s an American company. Every one you pick off the wall is the exact same one that I use.

I’ve got EMG pickups and I’ve been using EMG pickups since ’78. I just love ‘em and I’ve tried ‘em all! There are great pickups out there; I mean it’s just all a matter of taste. I just love these pickups and the guitar and the quality and the workmanship. And the way they treat the artists. There’s only a handful of endorsees, me, Steve Morse, John Petrucci.

I can’t think of anybody else. Most Fenders, you know, they make ‘em in China and Korea by the millions and they have a hundred thousand overseas. MusicMan has quality control. The guys all play, they know a great instrument. I just love being a part of something like that. And, they treat me incredibly well.

Matt: Did you use “Luke” for a lot of your session work?

Steve Lukather: Yes! Sure, when I was doing all that stuff. But, I used to have all my old gear too back in the ’70s and ’80s. It varied, depending on the tune and on what instruments I just got and want to try out.

On my new record, Ever Changing Times, all I use is the MusicMan. I used a lot of vintage amps and different stuff like that to vary the sounds. I used Gibson amps, and Rhodes, Magnatone and Marshalls. We were able to plug all the amps in to try all the different combinations. I just plug the guitar straight into an amp and then I hit the effects during the mix, unless it’s like a wah-wah or something. I tend to shy away from that one, because it’s not real natural. I just kind of experiment with the whole thing.

People use these fucking massive racks and shit like that. I hate that sound! I don’t understand why. I had one before, but I didn’t start it. That was a product of the mid-’80s when that sound became popular on hit records and all the producers wanted that sound. Yeah, I played on a bunch of hit records with that sound so people said, “Oh, that’s Lukather’s sound.” I hated the affiliation. You know, it was fine for 1986. But, not now, on live sound.

Matt: How does your setup change on stage?

Steve Lukather: Well, on stage I have a little bit more sophisticated system with more options. Bob Bradshaw makes a great system. I use it sparingly. Bob makes a switching system and the computer would decide what to put in it and what to push on. Know what I mean? Bob was also unfairly ranked because of that. He just built the system that people use. If they use it, then it’s on them, not Bob. I try to recreate the sound that I got on the record, for most tunes.

Obviously, I can’t bring a hundred vintage amps on the road with me. I have a real strict dry sound in the middle, Vintage 30s left and right, effects, and standard drive, volume control. It depends on the size of the building. I like to hear things a certain way.

Matt: How far in advance do you strategize or plan what you’re doing – career wise? Did you have a plan for your next album before you’ve finished the most recent – what about other long term goals?

Steve Lukather: No, no no. I will be on the road, I just think for the long run. I mean, I did the album. The album is like paint. You sit back and try different colors and you finally say, “Yeah, that’s cool.” Then, you put a band together and you go on the road for two years.

I’m just going to be focusing on doing rock, new records. I’m not going into the fusion world again. I went through a few years of that and did a live record with Larry Carlton and won a Grammy. That was a lot of fun. But, I’m trying to separate myself from stuff that no longer exists.

Matt: Would you say that being friends with the Porcaro brothers, which got you into the session work that you’re known for, was your breaking point into the industry?

Steve Lukather: Well, yeah, certainly. We all went to high school together. I met these guys and Jeff Porcaro was already a session musician. I got really interested in what that whole scene was all about. They were already making deals, so that was interesting for a kid. That was very, very important for me.

Matt: I read your chapter in Robert Wolff’s book How to Make It in the New Music Business Softcover and it’s loaded with great advice and information. Do you think success is purely based on talent?

Steve Lukather: [Laughs] No. Today we have a whole different level of musicianship running the industry. The problem with the music business is that it’s not run by musicians. It’s run by accountants and lawyers and people that think they know about music. But, they couldn’t play it.

So, therefore, it’s hard to take somebody’s opinion when they don’t know what they’re talking about. You know, the president of a hospital is usually the most experienced, best doctor, right? In the music industry it’s like, run by hacks that don’t know what they’re doing for the most part. That’s why it kind of fell apart.

If the music industry was based on real talent, what you hear on the radio and what would be popular would be incredibly different. It’s based on image, man. They’d rather sell a face than a talent and that’s really bad. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, it wasn’t like that, although, obviously, there’s always been pop stars and teen idols.

32 years I’ve been doing this. It’s a younger generation of people getting into the music industry. My son is a really great guitar player and he’s in the middle of making a record. It’s hard, because they offer really shitty record deals. They want to own everything and they don’t want to pay any money. They want you do to everything for them and hand it to them.

Better to promote yourself on the Internet and keep everything and try to get some live shows and sell your shit there. You can actually make more money and build a stronger real fan base than sell your soul to the devil and be a pop star. Like I said, I’m baffled by pop culture. If I had to start all over right now, I’d be shitting myself. We’re in a different world.

Matt: What kind of skill set does a guitarist have to have to be successful?

Steve Lukather: Well, it depends on what you want to do, you know? If you want to be a session guy, prepare yourself because there’s not much work. If you want to be a reading guy you better have your reading chops together, you got to be able to play all styles and on the spot. And if you want to be a rock guy, either be a solo artist or put a really good little band together and start playing around. Try to get signed or evolve.

Obviously, there’s MySpace. My son has 1,700,000 plays and he’s not signed yet! He’s gotten some shitty offers and the music is great. It’s a commercial hook and he looks like a fuckin’ rock star. When Miss November comes over to the house, it’s really Miss November. He’s a lucky bastard, there’s nothing wrong that. I went through that phase when I was young. Now it’s his turn. A lot of sons of my friends, my peers, have kids who all grew up together. I mean look at Wolfgang Van Halen. He just stepped right into the game.

My son works with me. But, he wants to do his own thing. He doesn’t want to be my sidekick. I see us working together a lot more in the future. But, he has to walk his own path. I want to help him. But, at the same time, he’s got to make his own way. He doesn’t walk around going, “Hey, you know who my dad is?”

You got to be humble. You can’t take “No” for an answer, and you got to work your ass off. It really is 90% luck, 10% talent. But, that 10% of talent better be good. I think people, geographically, are in difficult places and may never get the shot, in Alaska, or something, you know?

But, with the MySpace and Youtube and the Internet you’re discovering all these people. Word of mouth, viral marketing, that’s what it’s all about. Man, I’m learning about all this myself. I’m old school. You know, tour, go on promo tour, make a record, do a promo tour, go on tour for a year, go back and make a record, and do the whole thing. Now, there is a whole new way to go about doing things.

I’ll tell you, there’s no fuckin’ record stores! I live in fuckin’ Hollywood, man, and there’s like two record stores! Everything is online.

It’s scary. But, at the same time, it’s better if you’re a conservationist and you’re not cutting down so many trees and not cutting plastic and wasting. But there is something about holding a product in your hands. I miss old vinyl albums.


Matt: A lot of people today don’t seem to really be sitting down and solely listening to music. It seems we are in the age of multitasking in which everyone is either driving their car or working while listening.

Steve Lukather: Yeah, or they just put their iPod on shuffle and whatever happens to come up, comes up. Back in the day, man, your entire album had to be good! It was not just one song. But, then I don’t blame them. These days, you can cut ten new tracks and go on the road again.

Matt: When you were doing your session work, you seemed to be on every genre and style coming out of L.A., you weren’t afraid to do bubblegum pop and disco records?

Steve Lukather: No, I mean, what the fuck, man? Back in the day you didn’t even know who the artist was. Contracts were contracts, show up 12-6, Monday through Friday. When you get there, oh, wow, really cool artist and the music is really great! Sometimes you show up and the music is pure cheese.

But at the same time I’ve been with the finest musicians in the world, great producers, great engineers, so I was always learning something. I played the solo on “Lets Get Physical,” [Laughs] silly song. But, hey, you know what I mean? I showed up and did the best I could. When I started that job there were great producers and that song was a double-platinum single.

Some of the stuff that I thought was really cool would be hidden, never see the light of day. Some of the shit I worked on, or some of the stuff I thought was kind of lame, was a number 1 record without any work.

Matt: Obviously, you don’t get enough credit for Michael Jackson’s Michael Jackson 25th Anniversary of Thriller (CD+DVD) album.

Steve Lukather: You know, it’s funny, I played everything on “Beat It” except the guitar solo, but no one ever mentions my name. Eddie just did a take and on the fly. But, he was Eddie, you know?

Matt: Did you have any idea how big it would be when you made that album?

Steve Lukather: Michael had sold about 8, 10 million records, which was very strong even back then. He was on a roll and once he was producing they got a lot of money behind it, and there were all these incredible musicians and songwriters and people hanging around. There was a certain vibe in the air.

Matt: How did you find your own voice after doing all that session work?

Steve Lukather: Well, I don’t know what that is. As far as I know, I ripped off everything from everybody and threw it into a blender and what came out is my style. I think that’s what style is.

Matt: I loved your quote: “I never wanted to be a rock star or some guitar guy that people put on a pedestal. All I ever wanted to be – and still want to be – is a working musician. I’ll play on anybody’s record. Call me up, pay me, I’m there.” I think you’ve achieved the pedestal part and it might be one of the highest pedestals ever.

Steve Lukather: [Laughs] don’t know about that. I think I said that 20 years ago. But, that is all I ever did want to do. I’ve achieved that. I make a living playing the guitar. I realize how lucky I am, because not a lot of people can say that.

I’ve never been out. I’ve never had a dry spot. I’ve never had a slump, where there was no work and I was sitting around the house. I’m booked all the way through the end of the summer, after this summer and I haven’t even tried.

All I want to do is go and play my music.


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