Steve Lukather Talks New Toto Album: ‘I Think This Is Gonna Surprise People’
The members of Toto have had more than their share of ups and downs together over the years, but with a fresh round of tour dates and a new album on the horizon, things are looking up again.
The band recently released ’35th Anniversary Tour: Live from Poland,’ an audiovisual document of an evening from their 2013 world tour — a run of dates that found original members Steve Lukather, David Paich, and Steve Porcaro performing alongside longtime drummer Simon Phillips and vocalist Joseph Williams, who returned to the lineup in 2010 after more than 20 years away. They’ll be back on the road later this summer as part of a package tour with Michael McDonald, and they’re currently wrapping up sessions for their first new album since 2006’s ‘Falling in Between.’
Although the new LP won’t be out until next year, Lukather took a moment to speak with Ultimate Classic Rock about how it came together, what fans can expect to hear when it arrives, and much, much more.
One of the things that we talked about when I talked to you last year was the restoration of that band of brothers vibe from the early days, and it’s definitely in evidence with ’35th Anniversary Tour: Live from Poland.’
Whenever you do a live DVD or something like that, it’s like you’re capturing one night. You get one shot at it, and it’s very nerve-wracking. We kept it pretty raw — I mean, there’s warts in there. Everybody has a tendency to buff everything out, and we had to do that last time. This time, we didn’t. I made a real big point of it. It’s not perfect — it’s a snapshot of that night, and for some reason, it’s connected with people. Now they’re calling me telling me it’s No. 1 all over the world, No. 1 in the U.S. I go, “Well, that’s impossible.” They said, “Nope, here’s the charts.” I’m going, “This is f—ing unbelievable” — a bunch of old guys like us all of a sudden have a resurgence without any hype.
It’s a pretty good feeling to have after all these years of taking our punches to all of a sudden having this second look at us, you know, without all the old luggage that was attached to us by the old school rock journalist regime. We live in a different world right here. Facebook fans, I mean, people that really do like you, tell you what they think, and their criticisms mean a lot more than somebody that’s some 80-year old guy with a Sex Pistols T-shirt on saying how much we suck, you know?
I admit, when I saw the news about the ’35th Anniversary Tour Live’ set, my first thought was, “Another live release? Really?”
Well, everybody does a tour and puts a DVD out. And most of them, it’s the same hit songs that you’ve heard recorded a million times. We were very aware of that, which is why we tried to keep the whole show. Granted, there are certain songs that people gotta hear live, and even the DVD company was going, “You gotta have these songs on it.” I go, “Well how many records or DVDs can have these same f—ing songs on them?” But we’ve tried to doll it up with all the deep cuts and the other stuff. And Joseph’s take on the old songs gives them a different sound. He’s really functioning great, an incredible singer right now, so it’s great to have that in the band again.
I think that’s the intriguing thing about this release — getting the chance to hear Joseph Williams, at full power, tackling stuff you haven’t had a chance to hear him perform.
And that was one of the reasons we didn’t want to tour just one time after getting the band back together in 2010. Joe didn’t go on the road for 20 years and burn his voice out — he was doing TV and film stuff, so he wasn’t on the road screaming every night, and his voice is still there.
He didn’t go out and try and be Mister Toto and shred his voice, you know, and consequently, when he came back, he was on fire — he started studying with this vocal teacher that was just insanely good and really kept making him stronger and stronger, and then he lost a lot of weight, and he’s out there fronting the band and you know, when you see the DVD, he looks like a skinny little rock ‘n’ roller now. He’s up there running around having that whole other energy on the stage — a sparring partner, if you will, for me. And a long time, 40-plus year friendship.
I’m looking at Steve Porcaro, David Paich, me and Joseph Williams have known each other for like 42 years, and that was the reason why we got back together — to help [bassist] Mike Porcaro, you know, battling the ALS, and he’s not winning the battle. It’s a tough one, to watch a brother down like that, slowly fading away. It’s cruel. So we’re helping the family, we’re helping ourselves, we’re keeping the music alive and then all of a sudden we get this No. 1 DVD all over the world. It’s crazy and we’re getting the U.S., the U.K., and Canada. We haven’t been charting there in 30 f—ing years. We’re going, “Is this April Fools’?” It’s a little late, but I’ll take it, man. I’m looking at life in a different way now, you know? I’m all of a sudden on the back nine, so I really want to make this count. I’m feeling better about my life. Go to bed early, get up early; I’m not trying to be the baddest, fastest gun in the West and all that bulls— that you do when you’re young. I’m 56 years old, going, “Real thankful for the gig,” you know? I’m surrounded by brothers that really know me and love me in spite of all my faults, and I them.
That was the feeling that came through clearly when we talked last year, and it adds a really pleasing component to this chapter of the band’s history.
I think so. I mean, I think in many ways, the DVD is the end of one chapter and the start of another. Simon Phillips has left to go off and do the solo stuff — it’s all love, so it didn’t end badly or anything like that — and now we have Keith Carlock sitting in that chair, and we have a new album that we’re almost done with. The album will be out in March. It’s new management, new agents, new lease on life — this all of a sudden success has come out of left field for us, and particularly here on our home turf, you know? A lot of people are calling our office going, “What the f—?” But not as much as we are. We’re jumping up and down. We’re like a bunch of little kids again. It’d really actually be amusing to be a fly on the wall — a bunch of old guys going, “This is impossible.” We didn’t pay anybody off. We didn’t over-hype anything, you know. If anything, it’s like, “Oh gosh, I hope people like this.”
Do you feel like there’s anything from the Toto catalog that’s off limits at this point? Anything you feel like isn’t suited to this lineup, or just don’t want to perform?
We haven’t run into anything yet. I mean, every time we go on the road we like to do different deep cuts, and we will next year when we go back out — but we’ll also have new material, and we’ll have the hits that are sort of mandatory. Now, if we didn’t do ‘Africa,’ people would tear the place apart.
When we talked last year, it sounded like the idea of a new album is something that came together somewhat gradually. Is that right?
Oh, we never thought in a million years that it would happen. That was really born out of litigation. We’d done a couple of DVDs. One burned up in a fire, which is really obviously not meant to happen. That was in 2010; the director got into a car accident, and the tapes were exposed and we couldn’t use them, so that was out. The next one, there was an argument over who owned it. We were working with a label, and then due to some bad management, there was a line in the contract that was ambiguous and somebody was suing us saying that they owned it and we owed them a record and blah blah blah, and so we went on for about six, seven months fighting this thing. We ended up saying, “This whole thing is tainted. We have to dump this DVD, and we’re gonna do a record for this guy, and that’s what we’re doing,” and it turns out that it was the right thing to do.
You know, sometimes you can just fight the fight. We’re in another litigation thing with Sony over royalties, and those guys already made the lion’s share share of bread anyway. We made them hundreds of millions of dollars. We really did, and they’re f—ing us, and to fight this, the lawyers are expensive, but now we’re in so deep we can’t stop. You know, I have a few friends that are lawyers, but I’ll tell you what, man — for the most part, they’re evil people.
But I never really thought it was going to happen. It had been 10 years since we actually started writing for a record. Now, we’re eight tracks into it and we’re having a blast.
Given all the times you’ve been at odds with Sony over the years, it’s interesting that this new record came out of yet another battle with a record company.
I could get into all that, but I can’t. [Laughs] We decided, “Okay, if we’re gonna do this, let’s do it with a smile on our face.” Are we going to turn in a f—ing kazoo record? Which we did contemplate in a fit of anger, but you put that childish s— behind you.
What’s good for business? What would be good for us? What’s the best way to deal with this where we all can win? And the idea was like, “Hey, we’re all still all right. It’s still viable.” We threw everything on the table and we started the creative juices flowing. We started writing together again, and we found ourselves with some stuff we were really proud of.
I think this is gonna surprise people, because it’s not a bunch of old guys phoning it in. We’re actually really digging deep, and it’s a complete huge, massive production. If you like what we do, you’re gonna love this record. I mean, we’re not going EDM or having rappers come in or doing duets of our old songs. It’s just fresh new music doing what we do. We’re not trying to be anything that we’re not, we’re just trying to be the best version of it and it’s powerful, it’s big. Huge vocals, massive harmonies, s— you just don’t hear anymore. Nobody does five-part harmonies anymore — not in rock ‘n’ roll.
I wanted to ask you where you thought this new stuff fit into the Toto catalog, but I think that gives a pretty good indication of where the band is coming from these days.
I think it will be, first off, people will be, “Wow! That’s better than I thought it was gonna be.” I’d like that reaction. Everybody shines in these songs. I purposely am not singing a ballad on this record, and none of the titles are girls’ names. But it’s Toto in 2014, man. Keith Carlock brings a different groove. The way he plays, it’s more old school. Lenny Castro is playing percussion, which hearkens back to an older sound, but there’s still the modern aspect. There’s the large guitars, a lot of big keyboards, a lot of big vocals. Joseph is just killing it, and everybody sings, including Steve Porcaro. It’s hookier than s—. Deep f—ing hooks, and a lot of fun playing.
If there’s anything prog about it, it would be early-’70s prog a la Yes or Genesis. So, it feels good. Little thematic things reoccurring. There’s one big huge piece called ‘Great Expectations’ written by me, David Paich and Joe, and it’s kind of an extravaganza, you know? Probably the end of the record. I’m having fun with this.
For a band like Toto, to a certain extent, every replacement player is always looked at as a “new guy” no matter how long he’s with the group, but Simon Phillips played drums for Toto for a really long time. How hard was it to replace him going into the new album?
Well, I had worked with Keith before. And there was only a couple guys we looked at. We looked at Keith and we looked at Shannon Forrest, who is actually gonna come play with us for a minute anyway, because Keith is finishing his tenure with Steely Dan. But that’s just for this summer tour.
When that’s done, Keith will be joining us, and David Hungate is coming back, our original bass player. He hasn’t played with us in more than 30 years, you know? Which will be fun! More original cats. Dig it. David’s gonna retire after this ’cause he’s a little older than us. He said, “I started with you guys and I can end with you guys, this is perfect for me and we’ll have a lot of laughs.” And then, next year, Keith comes back, and Keith’s all over the new record.
We have different bass players on the new record. Matter of fact, I’m playing bass on ‘Great Expectations’ tomorrow. It’s so weird that I’m probably the best guy suited to do it. But we’ve had Tal Wilkenfeld, Lee Sklar…it’s kind of a tribute to Mike Porcaro in a very subtle way…great bass players on that.
I didn’t realize that this was going to be David Hungate’s farewell.
Well, it’s his choice. I may try and talk him into staying; we’ll see how it goes. He’s a sweet man. He still plays great. I just don’t know if he wants to go on the road for two years. Whereas I wake up at 6:00 in the morning, and I come out playing. I’m like, “Let’s f—in’ do this.” I have more energy now than I did 20 years ago. It goes to show you, living healthy really is the right way to live, because I tried it the other way, I really did. I worked real hard at it. [Laughs] If I could take back all the wasted time, all the money. Oh my God. Like a t-shirt I saw a while ago that says, “Regrets, I have a few.”
You gave up everything, didn’t you? Drinking, cigarettes…
I quit drinking and smoking the same day.
You must have been a lot of fun to be around.
You wanna know the really scary thing? Well, not scary, the thing that was just really weird? I expected to be like, “Okay, I’m gonna have a couple of rough days here. I’m gonna get through this…” And I just stopped. I said, “This is it. This is my last hangover. This is my last hacking cough. I’m done with this. I got little teeny babies here. I don’t wanna die. I don’t wanna f—ing ruin my life.”
I put the cigarettes out and threw them all away. Got all the booze out of the house, and my wife at the time was like, “You’re never gonna stop this s—. You know that. Not by yourself.” I said, “You’re wrong. Watch me.” And in the midst of all that, you know, the marriage broke up, and I sobered up. I had one night of sweats, and that was it. I have never craved a cigarette or a drink again to this day. Not even a little bit, which is odd. It was like guardian angels, the good Lord, or whatever just turned the switch off, but I am so lucky, because so many people I know struggle and need to go to meetings every day and all this other s—, but I was really done, man.
I was like, “You know what, f— this s—. It ain’t workin’ for me. It’s not fun. I’m not playing good. My life sucks. I look bloated and puffy and red and I’m just miserable, depressed. What happens if I don’t do this?” And the month turned into six months, turned into a year, turned into two years, into three, and I just kept getting stronger and better from working out, eating right, sleeping, practicing, going to the shrink, getting my anxiety out, my resentments — and I’ve never felt better. I’m not trying to be the fastest gun in the West. There’s so many better guitar players, it’s scary. I am what I am, and I’m gonna enjoy it and try not to believe that every rotten thing I read on YouTube or Facebook is real.
I’m fine, man. I have a great life and a wonderful career — or some people believe I do. Some people don’t. I’ve got the years now. Sometimes I drop the ball, but at least I’m trying, you know? If I step on my d— or I play a little bit too much or I miss a lick or something like that, okay, I’ve heard classical musicians play out of tune, you know what I mean? It happens, it’s real. It’s not over.