Interview: Steve Lukather Recounts 35 Years of Toto History
Thirty-five years ago this month, Toto released its debut album, turning a group of high school friends and sought-after session musicians into one of the biggest rock bands on the planet. They’ve been through an incredible number of ups and downs since then, from the high of winning multiple Grammy Awards for 1982’s ‘Toto IV’ to the awful low of drummer Jeff Porcaro’s sudden death 10 years later.
It looked like they were done for good after guitarist Steve Lukather walked away in 2008, but they returned to the road in 2010, and the band’s current lineup — which includes original members David Paich, Steve Porcaro, and Lukather, as well as the return of former vocalist Joseph Williams — has come off its latest tour with plans to release a new DVD (and potentially a new studio album). With a major milestone on the calendar and new music on the horizon, Lukather sat down for a wide-ranging chat with UCR, opening up about Toto’s often turbulent history and musing about what the future might hold for what he repeatedly referred to as his “band of brothers.”
If the date listed at Wikipedia is right, then Toto’s debut album came out 35 years ago on the day after we’re having this conversation.
Really? No s—? Wow. I had no idea. That’ll make for a fun tweet.
Do you remember the anticipation you felt on this day 35 years ago?
Well, we took eight months making the record. I think the demos with [keyboard player] Dave [Paich] and [drummer] Jeff [Porcaro], when they started writing stuff, that was early 1977. They started grabbing me and some other guys to come down to the studio and add some parts, before it was ever officially a “band.” There were three or four songs we did then that later ended up on the ‘Toto XX’ record — ‘Love Is a Man’s World,’ ‘Miss Sun,’ and a version of ‘All Us Boys’ that I think is better than the one that ended up on ‘Hydra,’ to be honest with you. I don’t think that’s ever seen the light of day. That was the first thing I ever played on for the guys.
They already knew they wanted [keyboard player] Steve Porcaro, they added me and [bassist] David Hungate, and then [vocalist] Bobby Kimball was the last to come in.
What’s funny about Kimball coming in is that even though the rest of you sang, you still felt the need to bring in a lead singer.
Well, Dave sings, he wanted me to sing some stuff, but he was also looking for that high tenor that was in vogue at the time. Dave and Jeff found Bobby through a mutual friend, and he came in and cut ‘You Are the Flower’ — that was his audition, so to speak. That came out great, and that demo ended up in a little more produced version on the album. I think it was the last thing he ever wrote for us, too — by himself, I mean. He did the lyrics on some other stuff, but never music.
Before hiring Bobby, you tried to get Michael McDonald in the band.
Yeah, he was asked first, but four days prior, he had joined the Doobie Brothers. It would have been a different band, but he’s still a dear friend. Jeff saw him and his band playing in a bowling alley, and he recommended Michael for Steely Dan, so they remained close — matter of fact, Michael sang on some stuff for Steve Porcaro. There are some demos of him singing some Edgar Winter songs. It’s all very incestuous, you see.
So, back to the days leading up to the first Toto record coming out.
We worked really hard on this record, you know? When it finally was done, we had this piece of work — I mean, we went in the studio before we’d even played live. After those demos I was telling you about, Steve, Jeff and I went out with Boz Scaggs for his summer tour in ‘77, and it was in that time period that Columbia heard Dave and Jeff had a band, and they made a great deal for us. We went away for eight or nine months to make the record, on and off.
Most of us had been in high school together, and here we are having a record released, and after you’ve done the work, the question becomes whether or not anyone’s going to like it. “Whoa, we’ve gotta put this out. Is it gonna be a hit?” And then I got the phone call: “It’s on the radio, man!” It really just kind of firestormed like that — the next thing you know, it went crazy all over the world. The first place it went to Number One was Holland, I think.
You mentioned that question of whether or not people are going to like something once you put it out. How quickly did you realize you were at war with the critics?
In 1977, when we were touring with Boz, the punk thing had just started in London. And we’d all come from this background of serious musicianship — prog rock, you know, studio musicians, we all studied music. When I was growing up, image was okay, but you had to be a great singer, songwriter, and musician first. Obviously now, the rules have changed. But that whole thing with critics — we were baffled by it. We made the record we made, the punk revolution hit, and they grabbed us for some reason to hold us up as the antithesis of that.
One writer for the Los Angeles Times purposely compared us to the Clash, which is like comparing Aretha to Miley Cyrus, you know? I like the Clash, too — nothing against them. They were better musicians than the Sex Pistols, and I’ve got nothing against them either. But why would you compare us to them? It’s ridiculous. They’d cut out our hair and put it on the wrong heads, purposely trying to make us look stupid.
I also argued about the band name. Our high school band was called Still Life, and I really thought that would have been a better name. Toto is what it is now, and there certainly have been dumber band names, but at the time, I was going, “Guys, we’re setting ourselves up here.” Dave and Jeff were adamant about the name, but it wasn’t very cool in 1978, you know? That just made it easy for them to pick on us.
In the meantime, we sold three million records, and at least one of us played on every single record that came out of L.A. for the next 20 years. At the time, it did hurt our feelings; we were like, “What the f—? We’re not that bad.” History has been a little kinder to us. I think the trendy critics just stopped picking on us; they’re on to Nickelback now. Maybe it’s just because we’ve hung around for so long — they tried to kill us, and we wouldn’t die. We tried to kill us, and we wouldn’t die.
So when it comes time to start working on the second album, ‘Hydra,’ do those hurt feelings feed into the songwriting or recording at all? You guys have chips on your shoulders, it’s you against the establishment…
What pissed them off the most about the first album, I think, was that we could have songs as different as ‘Hold the Line’ and ‘Georgy Porgy’ on the same record. We had a lot of influences to pull from. At the time, Paich was the primary writer, although he was encouraging the rest of us to contribute, and we’d been on the road, where the rock stuff had been going across well. We wanted to be known more as a rock band, and Dave had been writing stuff that had a little bit more of a prog edge to it — ‘Hydra,’ ‘St. George,’ and all that stuff.
You get successful with something, it’s always the whole thing where you don’t want to repeat it. So we tried something a little different with ‘Hydra,’ and it sold well, although it might have been a little bit rushed for us. And here’s some irony for you — Rolling Stone beat up on the first album, and then when they reviewed ‘Hydra,’ the opening line of the review is something like, “It doesn’t have the magic of the first album.” We’re immediately pissing ourselves on the floor with laughter. Who are these cats? Do they think we have amnesia? We were just following our muses, man. We were following our own rules and we didn’t want to listen to anybody.
‘Hydra’ didn’t sell quite as well as the first album, but — like, say, Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller.’ You follow that up and you only sell 12 million copies, is that really a failure? We went platinum. It wasn’t triple platinum, but at that time, you could ship three million records and it would look like you sold that many, even if most of them were returned. The whole sales game was on them.
I like the Michael Jackson comparison, because it illustrates how differently artists approach that level of success. He seemed hellbent on making each record bigger than the last one.
You can’t even anticipate something like that. You do your best, you put it out, you hope it’s a hit, and you try to get the machine behind it. But, I mean, by the time we got to ‘Toto IV,’ it was like, “You guys better have a hit record or you’re toast.”
But before we get to ‘Toto IV,’ we have the third album, 1981’s ‘Turn Back.’
That was our f— you record. We didn’t want to listen to anybody; we wanted to be a rock and roll band. The label kept putting out the ballads, you know? They put out ‘99’ instead of ‘White Sister,’ and we gradually lost our credibility at rock radio because they kept focusing on the softer stuff. When ‘Hydra’ came out, they said, “‘99’ sounds like a hit,” and I was like, “No, no, no!” It was just a wild card song that Dave wrote. But they put that out, and it was a hit, and we were thought of as a pop band.
We were angry about that, so we decided to get Geoff Workman, who’d worked with Roy Thomas Baker, and make an arena rock record. Geoff, God bless his soul — he’s dead now — he had a concept of the way he’d EQ everything. He took all the 1K out of everything — the guitar, bass, and drums were all basically room sound. He co-produced with us, and he brought a completely different thing, which is what happens when you hire a producer; they put their own spin on things. He’d tell us not to do things certain ways — tell us we had to do it his way. We left somebody at the reins, and that’s what came out. There’s some cool stuff on there, too — it’s been a bit overlooked, but there are some fan favorites on there, some of which we still play live.
But with ‘Turn Back,’ we wanted to prove we were an arena rock band. It’s probably the weirdest record we’ve done, certainly sonically, but we were really proud of it when it came out. It didn’t really catch on — over the years, it’s sold, and now it’s kind of a cult favorite with fans, but at the time it was kind of a stiff. And then we panicked — we never even went on the road for that one. The record company was like, “Okay, guys. We let you do what you want to do. Are you gonna give us a hit record? Because if you don’t, we’re gonna drop you.”
Which brings us to ‘Toto IV.’
We just said, “You know what? We’re gonna do what we do well.” We were p—ed off that we’d been slagged, that we hadn’t been as successful as we had been with the debut. Everyone had grown as writers and performers, and we were all writing more — I certainly was. We just decided to kill that one, and we did. We were really proud of it. I remember listening back to it and thinking, “I think we have something here, guys.”
The record company was excited, too; they thought ‘Rosanna’ was a big hit, and it turned out it was. The rollercoaster ride started from there, and it was crazy — we ended up having four or five Top 10 singles off that one record.
We brought in some great engineers. Al Schmitt cut the tracks, and Greg Ladanyi, God bless him, came in and mixed the f— out of it. I’d been working with all the Sound Factory guys, their section guys, and I got turned on to Ladanyi through Jackson Browne and Danny Kortchmar when we were working on Don Henley’s first solo album. Ladanyi worked on this record for Peter Cetera, ‘Livin’ in the Limelight,’ which is the only real rock and roll thing I think he’d ever done like that. I ended up playing on that, and it turned into this kind of FM cult thing. I loved the sounds he got, and I dragged him into our thing.
Sonically, ‘Toto IV’ was such a huge record — we were working with these multiple 24-track machines, which were a real pain to sync up back then. You needed guys in white lab coats. But the technology was getting better, and we’d have up to 10 or 12 slave tapes per song that we’d have to mix down to 24-track. We had the full London strings — we just went, “F— this, we’re gonna go for it with the biggest, most obnoxiously overproduced record of all time.” And it turns out that’s what we do best. Greg really made it sound huge, everybody brought their best songs — I was proud and honored to have a few of my own on there — and it turned out great. I’m still proud of that album. We had no idea it was going to turn into what it did; we were just trying not to get kicked off the label.
You mentioned working with Peter Cetera, who was in a similar situation at the time, at least in terms of struggling to be taken seriously as a rock artist in spite of his success with ballads. But both of you continued to write and record ballads anyway — take, for example, ‘I Won’t Hold You Back’ from ‘Toto IV,’ which you had to know was going to be a single.
Well, but it wasn’t the first single. That was the formula at the time — two harder-edged things and then the ballad. ‘I Won’t Hold You Back’ turned into this epic piece that I was really proud of, so, I mean, if you’re going to write a ballad, write one like that. I didn’t think it was going to be this huge hit, but it was. But then, I also never thought ‘Africa’ was going to be a hit — I didn’t think it made any sense at all. It’s a great record, but to this day, I don’t know what the lyrics mean, and it was such an oddball piece of music. Now it’s like herpes — there’s an outbreak every year. It was just Number One in New Zealand, it was on ‘Family Guy,’ there’s ‘South Park’ — which I love. After all these years, I get the humor. I embrace it. Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake did that bit with the song — I get the joke. And every one of those smarmy-ass critics who hate our guts? Get ‘em drunk and they’ll be up in the bar, singing ‘Africa’ or ‘Hold the Line.’
One thing about ‘Africa’ that highlights a cool and somewhat underappreciated aspect of the band is that your albums made room for songs that diverged pretty wildly from the typical boy/girl love song lyrics.
It was world music before there was such a thing! We had all these African instruments, and loops — nobody was doing it at the time, and nobody ever gives us love for it, either. When we mixed ‘Africa,’ there were four of us with our hands on the console. The mix was a performance unto itself! I miss that stuff. Its presence is sorely missed in today’s music. I have such incredibly fond memories of that era — the creativity was just flowing.
So ‘Toto IV’ takes off, and you’re at the top of the world — and then all of a sudden, you have to replace your bass player and your singer.
Well, okay, here. First off, right after the last basic track on ‘Toto IV’ was cut, Hungate picked up his bass, threw it across the room, and said “I quit.” I remember sitting in the room — it was me, Jeff, Dave, and Hungate. As it turns out, he’d bought a house in Nashville and made plans to move there. He never wanted to be a rock star — he’s a brilliant musician and a cool guy, but he and Kimball were like 10 years older than us. He didn’t like the road; studio work was really where he was at. And he’d just gotten married, and he didn’t want to raise his family in L.A. He could have come and told us that, but he picked a fight that was not there. We were just like, “What?” He walked out of the room and left us looking at each other.
We were stunned. He finished the basic tracks and walked, and he had nothing to do with the rest of the record. Mike Porcaro, who took over on bass, was obviously already in the wings; we didn’t even think twice about it. Jeff just said, “Well, let’s call my brother and get on with it.” Mike probably should have been the bass player from the beginning, but because Hungate was part of the crew that made ‘Silk Degrees,’ he developed a strong rapport with Dave and Jeff — he’s a brilliant musician who brought a lot to the sound, and we’re still friendly. He seems to be happy. We played together at the Musician’s Hall of Fame Awards in 2009.
And then you had to replace Bobby Kimball.
He kind of imploded. We were all partying, you know what I mean? He developed a little bit more of a love for the bad s— than the rest of us, but we were all in the game together, I’m not gonna lie. It’s a little different for singers, though, because it affects the thing they need to do their job. I mean, if I sandpapered my fingers off and showed up to the gig unable to play, they would have chucked me a long time ago, you know what I mean? We’ve all done stupid things, but for us at that moment, it was just crushing, because we wouldn’t know where to find him — he’d disappear, and then he’d show up unable to sing.
It couldn’t have come at a worse time, because, yeah, we were on top of the world. We thought we were going to survive the Hungate loss, but when you have a singer with a voice people recognize, and then you have to go back to the drawing board at the height of your career…that was a really f—ed-up thing to do to us.
So you’re coming off the biggest record of your career, and you have to retrench in a major way. Was the label panicked as you went into 1984’s ‘Isolation’ LP?
We were panicked. I mean, what do we do now? First off, when you have a record that huge, good luck following it up anyway. It’s like, be careful what you wish for, because it might come true. It was a very, very hard time. We didn’t want to change — we didn’t want that. But the group made its decision, and then it became a matter of who. Who the f— are we gonna get? Because it isn’t as simple as just finding a singer; we had to get a guy who was compatible with us and understood the dynamics of the band. We looked at a lot of different people, some of whom became famous later — we looked at Richard Page, and he was invited to join, but he had Mr. Mister.
We looked at Eric Martin of Mr. Big, and Dave and I really liked him, but Jeff was hot on Fergie Frederiksen. We didn’t all agree at first, but Jeff was a very powerful personality — he was the big brother I never had, and as a musician and a person, I’d defer to him. So we brought Fergie in, and he had a great voice, even though it was hard to get things down in the studio. But we worked on it, and the next record had some great stuff on it, but with the exception of the stuff that Dave and I sang, let’s be honest — it sounded like a completely different band.
We went on tour and the record didn’t do that great. I mean, it sold a million records or whatever, but coming off of what we had, it was a disappointment. And Fergie struggled on the road a little bit. In all fairness, you write these songs for these really high voices, and it’s a tough job — I wouldn’t want it. He’s a nice guy, and we’re still friendly, but after we tried it, we realized things weren’t going to work. Here you are, trying to fit into a situation with a bunch of guys who have known each other since they were kids…it’s a really tough position to be in. It was tough for Bobby, too.
So ‘Isolation’ comes and goes, and you decide to make another change leading into the next album, 1986’s ‘Fahrenheit.’
Yeah, here we are, back at the drawing board again. I mean, ‘Stranger in Town,’ from ‘Isolation,’ was kind of a hit…
Cool video, too.
Yeah, and we won an MTV Award for that, which I thought was funny, but I always hated videos. I mean, we’re not actors. What the f— is this s—? I’ll go to my grave saying MTV ruined music. Like, can you imagine a bad video for ‘Stairway to Heaven’ or something? ‘A Day in the Life’ by the Beatles? Some s— f—in’ video will ruin the song. You’re supposed to hear it, and get something out of it the way I did when I was a kid. You’d spend a million dollars on a video that nobody would ever see, and that money would get taken out of your royalties — it was just debilitating for an artist. I have no love there for that entity. I understand what it is, big cultural entity, blah blah blah. But I think that and computers have ruined music. That’s just me.
No, it isn’t just you. But anyway, you’re back at the drawing board. Is the label getting ticked off at this point with the turnover at the lead singer position?
They understood what was going on. And anyway, they kept changing label presidents, which didn’t make things any easier on us. So at that time — I mean, really, it’s about the songs. We knew if we had the songs, the album would sell, and it just became a matter of who to get. It was sad for Fergie to go, but he knew it was time. Once again, I wanted to get Eric Martin, and then Joseph Williams — who I’ve known since we were kids — came into the mix. He showed up with some really great demos, and he was a much better fit; I’d known him since I was 14, and I was in a band with his brother. He played keyboards, he wrote, he sang, he looked cool — this skinny little rock star guy — and he meshed well with our personalities, too.
We knew he was really the guy, so we brought him in, and he was a really good fit. Ironically, when ‘Fahrenheit’ came out, they ended up releasing my song, ‘I’ll Be Over You,’ as the single. It was a big hit, but it was weird to go get a new singer and then put out something with me on it. So we tried to follow it up with Joe’s songs, and some of them charted well, but we didn’t really get another hit from that album. We went on the road and killed it — Joseph was amazing live. We went to Europe, selling out arenas, and the vocals were on fire. He had a great stage presence, too.
This gets at the crux of what became Toto’s problem in the ‘80s. I was 12 when ‘I’ll Be Over You’ came out, and I remember it being a hit, but I didn’t know it was a Toto song right away. Your music incorporates a lot of different elements, and once you started switching out singers, there was no real Toto “sound,” which I think made it more of a struggle for you at radio.
Well, and Dave sang our biggest hit — there’s another voice, too. Not to make the comparison in any meaningful way, but we tried to pattern ourselves after the Beatles, where everybody sang; we didn’t want to have to be a band where there was just one singer. We just thought that was a plus, but image-wise, it ended up being a deficit. But we still had a great tour behind ‘Fahrenheit,’ sold a few million records, and the band stayed intact! So we thought, “Okay, we got it!” And then ‘The Seventh One’ came out, which we really worked hard on, and I’m really proud of. We worked on that with George Massenburg and Billy Payne, who co-produced it; they came in and pitched us, and Jeff thought we should go for it, because it would take a little bit of the pressure off. They’re good guys, we knew them well, and it was a really positive experience; we wrote some great stuff.
‘Pamela’ was like the heir apparent to ‘Rosanna,’ and that came out, and ‘Pamela’ was up to about Number 12 when the president of Columbia split. There were about three weeks when nobody was in charge of the company, and we lost momentum — we were that close to a Top 10 record again. And it was huge everywhere else. ‘Stop Loving You’ went to Number 1 all over the world, except for the United States, ‘Pamela’ was a Top 15 record, and the album sold like four million copies worldwide. We went on the road, and then Joe lost his voice the first night of the tour and never recovered.
It got real bad. The vibe got real bad, and that one really hurt. By the end of the tour, Jeff was like, “I can’t work with this cat anymore.” Joe and I stayed close — he’s still one of my closest friends, and I’m glad he’s back in the band now — but he left, and then it was like [lets out screaming noise]. Our band has taken more punches than any I can think of, and we’re still here. We really had to crawl back for awhile at that point and figure out what to do.
Which leads us to the 1990 greatest hits compilation, ‘Past to Present.’
We thought it was about time for a greatest hits record, and we had enough songs for a legitimate one. I think if we’d had stronger management to come in and take us by the balls, we wouldn’t have been so quick to fire people — we would have taken time off to get so-and-so healthy. In hindsight, we might have done that; we might have sorted it out. Shoulda-woulda-coulda, but at the time, once Jeff made up his mind about Joe, it was hard to change. He was a strong personality — it was a democratic process, but he could be very persuasive. He would have been a great lobbyist.
We tried getting Kimball back in the band and giving him another shot. We had this song called ‘Goin’ Home,’ and we got him back in the studio for that, which was a struggle, but it was Bobby, so we thought, “Why not?” After all the bad blood that went down between us, we thought we’d give the cat a shot. He struggled through that vocal and we played it for the label president, who hated it.
The record company suggested this South African singer, Jean-Michel Byron, for some new songs on the greatest hits record, and I was like, “Are you kidding me?” Jeff loved the idea, because he thought the only way we could shake things up was by doing something completely outrageous and different. We were sort of talked into that one, but we thought it would only be a few tracks, and even if it didn’t work, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal.
Byron came over and he was so completely different — the personalities didn’t work at all, especially between me and him. This is a guy who had never heard of Hendrix or Led Zeppelin, and he’s reading ‘The George Michael Story.’ On top of everything he was just weird for the sake of being weird, but we all went off to the Bearsville studio in New York and wrote and cut four songs together. The one tune that Jeff really dug was ‘Love Has the Power,’ which was Byron’s song, and that’s what really sold him, because he liked the funkier stuff anyway.
‘Past to Present’ came out and did really well around the world, and we went on tour, kind of buying into the idea that Byron’s image would help us make a change — that maybe we needed an image. We were so shaken up by that point, we just didn’t know. We’d lost confidence; we didn’t know where we were going or what we were doing, and we were led down a path. We never saw him perform before the tour — in the studio, he’d just sit on a chair. I didn’t think he had a rock voice, and he didn’t; he couldn’t do justice to Bobby’s stuff, or to Joe’s stuff. He could get to Joe’s stuff a little bit, but the real rock thing just wasn’t there, so we concentrated on other stuff and brought in some background singers to build things out.
So we go on the road and the very first night — it was in Brussels, I’ll never forget this — Byron comes out and starts dancing around. I’m looking at Jeff with bulging eyes. In rehearsal, Byron was just sitting there, but now he’s out doing this Michael Jackson on crack s—, with a golf glove on one hand, and my jaw was on the floor. There’s people in the front row, flipping him off — “Get off the stage!” We’re mortified. We tell the guy, “Look, you can’t do this,” but it had all gone to his head; he accused us of not understanding his vision. I said, “No, I understand your f—in’ vision, it’s just the wrong one.” We just did not get on at all. We knew right away it wasn’t going to work.
I really was still reeling from the departure of Steve Porcaro, who left after ‘The Seventh One.’ He was such an integral part of our sound — the little touches he brought to songs really gave them that Toto thing. He’s one of my oldest childhood friends, and when he left, that really hurt me.
He was your secret weapon on those early records.
Yeah, and let me tell you, being in a band with three brothers is a special thing. When those guys would get into it and start fighting with each other, me and Dave would just get out — “Okay! Let us know how this turns out.” There was a lot of butting of the heads, because Steve was really into the tech thing; he was cutting-edge in high school. The people at Yahama and Korg would come to him for research and development, and he’s still that guy.
But at this point, I’m starting to see how radically the band is changing. Byron’s gone — now what? We’re not going to get another f—in’ singer. Halfway through the Byron tour, I was singing most of the set; we just kept cutting his stuff, until he was basically a background singer. We did a live VHS release from that tour, and he’s pretty much edited out of it. It left that bad of a taste in our mouths, you know? I haven’t seen the guy in 24 years or whatever. What can I say? It didn’t work.
This brings us to 1992’s ‘Kingdom of Desire.’
We wanted to get back to being a rock band again. Can we do that, please? The guys decided Dave and I should just sing, because I’d been handling the vocals for a lot of that last tour. That’s what happened, and ‘Kingdom of Desire’ is one of my favorite records. We all got together in a room and jammed — we all wrote the songs together. Lyrics, everything. I didn’t really want to be the lead singer in the band; I’ll tell you that right now. But for the album, it worked — we were really proud of that album. We felt like it showed people a different side.
And then, when the album is all done, Jeff calls me on the phone and says, “Come down to the house this weekend. I’m having a barbecue, fixing up the yard — we’ll figure out the set list for the tour. It’ll be great.” We were already selling out everywhere. And…that night, he died. Nobody saw it coming. He had a bad heart and nobody knew it — he was always complaining about his arms and s—, and he thought it was muscular. He had two uncles die of heart problems at the age of 40, and he never looked into his lineage. Him dying…that was one of the most devastating things that’s ever happened to me in my life.
Jeff made everybody sound better. That’s what he did! He was the coolest guy I ever met in my life, and I miss him every f—ing day. Losing him threw us right the f— off the horse. We had the tour booked, 40 people on the payroll, shows sold out. What are we gonna do? Even thinking about it right now, I feel like someone’s gotta be kidding me. We were in stun mode.
This also opens a really odd chapter in your career, where Columbia Records’ U.S. division doesn’t want anything to do with you, but the overseas portion of the company still loves you, so you’re stuck in label limbo here in the States.
Columbia’s president was a guy named Don Ienner, and he came in and buried us. He told the staff to bury us. We wanted to get off the label, and he initially said yes, but then Tommy Mottola, who was the chairman and the CEO, overruled him. “These guys are a moneymaking band for us! Why are you doing this?” Ienner hated us for some reason, and he just buried us. For 10 years, we couldn’t get off the label. We made these guys hundreds of millions of dollars, and they treated us like s—! We’re in a lawsuit with them right now! The way they acted was really f—ed up and malicious, and we don’t know why. And we had a great record deal, too, so they had to pay us a lot of money for each album. We were like, “Why are you guys doing this? You’re idiots.”
So into this situation enters Simon Phillips, who took over the drums when Jeff passed away.
We didn’t know what to do. Should we do this? Should we even carry on? We went to Jeff’s parents and asked them what they thought. Dave was of the opinion that it would never be Toto without him — that it would be like Led Zeppelin without Bonham. We were like, “Yeah, but there are a lot of people depending on us for their lives.” You’re talking about a four-month tour — that’s a big deal to the crew members, and we didn’t have the bread to pay everyone out of pocket for that. It was a big responsibility, and we were put in a weird position. It’s almost like Jeff knew, given some of the lyrics he wrote, and the cover he painted, for ‘Kingdom of Desire’ — and he left us right at a moment when we didn’t really have a choice. We couldn’t pack it in.
So we said, “If we do this, who do we get?” We didn’t want someone who would try and play like Jeff, because that would just be insulting — nobody plays like he did. It got down to getting someone great, but different. I had worked with Simon on some stuff with Jeff Beck back in the day, and Dave had just seen him play with the Who, so we looked at each other and said, “Simon Phillips.” So I called him, and as it turned out, he was moving to L.A. that day. How weird is that? He came out and played with us, and it was a tough day for all of us — Mike especially — but it worked, and we decided to go ahead and do the tour, help ourselves to heal, and put our heads to the ground.
That was a crazy tour. Just nuts. It was a really successful tour, ironically; we sold out a lot of places multiple nights, and there was a lot of love in the room for Jeff. I’m not sure if it healed us — it certainly brought us closer together, but it was also very stressful, and there were a lot of emotional times as well.
I had a dream where Jeff came to me. It was one of those weird, very real dreams — I was standing at soundcheck in this beautiful theater. Simon was doing his drum check, and out of the darkness came Jeff, looking absolutely f—ing beautiful. Just glowing, with this big smile on his face. I ran up to him, yelling his name, and he didn’t say anything to me, but he looked at me and he looked at the stage, and he smiled like, “Thumbs up. Good choice.”
We decided at the end of the tour, “You know what? If we don’t ever play together again, it isn’t going to bring Jeff back.” ‘Kingdom of Desire’ did all right for us on a worldwide basis — not in the U.S., but everywhere else. So we decided to carry on with the four-piece.
And that’s the same core lineup you used for the next record, 1995’s ‘Tambu.’
We hired Elliot Scheiner, who was one of Jeff’s favorite people from back in his Steely Dan days, and we did ‘Tambu.’ I have to give a lot of props to Elliot on that one — he’s just a brilliant producer. Dave and I got together and wrote most of that record, and we bonded on a different level at that point.
I have to ask you about your experience as the full-time singer at this point in the band’s history, because I love your voice, and I think that’s partly because I can sing your songs. Some of the other ones…
Yeah, that’s a problem, going on the road and trying to sing some of that stuff. There’s no way I was ever going to be able to do that, and when I took the gig, I said, “You’ve got to understand, we’re going to have to hire some ringers to do this.” ‘Stop Loving You’ — there’s no way I was going to be able to sing it, but we had to do that, because it was a Number One song. None of that s— helped our image, but I think that one of the things that helped us survive all this is that we didn’t have an image. The image was the music.
Things like that, having to make choices like that…I mean, we just kept getting knocked off the horse while we were running full steam. I think any other band would have folded after taking that many punches, but we kept going, and so did the music — and in some places, it’s going stronger than ever.
Internationally, Sony still cared about you, but those execs were off in other countries while you recorded. And thanks to your contract, you were still able to afford solid budgets — it must have been like having a blank check to create whatever you wanted without much label interference.
No one ever really told us what to do — we had creative control written into our contract, and we were one of the few acts who ever managed to get that. But we were always in the black for them, and that’s the thing — we made hundreds of millions of dollars for those guys, and they treated us like dogs—. I’ve never gotten that. If somebody made me that much money, I’d be like, “Come on over for a barbecue! I’m buying you a car!” But not us — we’re like the musical glory hole for these a–holes.
With ‘Tambu,’ we were just making music we liked. At that point, writing a so-called hit song — who has a million bucks to get themselves on the radio? Overseas, we got a few bites. ‘I Will Remember’ was a hit song. I mean, we were incredibly frustrated about it, don’t get me wrong.
We’re coming up on ‘Toto XX,’ a collection of previously unreleased cuts that came out in 1998. On the tour for that release, you performed with Bobby Kimball and Joseph Williams. Once the promotional cycle for ‘Tambu’ ended, did you feel like you didn’t want to be the lead singer anymore, and you needed to get someone else back in?
It was a lot of pressure on me. I don’t think I was a strong enough singer to carry it for two and a half hours, even though we had some great singers who came through and helped. We were coming up on our 20th anniversary, and we didn’t have anything for a new album, but we’d always had tracks that didn’t make the records. So we thought, “Where do we go from here? What do we do?” And so we started putting together all these extra tracks for the ‘Toto XX’ record, and it ended up being an interesting collection of songs. When we went to promote it, we brought Joseph and Bobby back to do some promo shows.
Joseph had gotten his s— together, and we’d remained good friends. They came back, and Bobby seemed to be in good form, so we thought we’d bring him back — make a whole deal out of it. And at first, it seemed to be okay.
Now we’re talking about the period leading up to 1999’s ‘Mindfields,’ which marked Bobby Kimball’s return to the band. Things clicked right away? The vibes were good?
Well, we had some problems here and there. Bobby was never really great in the studio; he was painful sometimes. But Elliot came back, we kept the team together, and we brought back that classic sound — and there’s some good stuff on that record. It did well, too. Once again, we were shunned in the States, but overseas, we were selling out 17,000-seat arenas, and the band sounded great, so we decided to carry on that way. It seemed to be working, you know? Bobby was struggling a little in concert, but in all fairness to him, it’s hard to be an older guy and have to tackle some of those songs. We started dropping keys on a couple of things, but everybody does that. There were some great nights, and some not-so-great nights, and I can say the same thing about myself.
‘Mindfields’ may have had a few too many songs, but there were some good things on there, and we were coming back into our own thing again. Simon was starting to feel like he was really part of it, and he was adding interesting stuff, and with Bobby’s voice mixed into all that stuff — it was pretty good. I think we’d just reached the point where we were “supposed” to make a long record — we were hearing that from a bunch of different people. I’ve come back to the point where if you’ve got more than like 40 minutes…if you’ve got 70-something minutes on a record, I don’t care who the f— you are, I don’t need to hear it, you know? Bruce Springsteen is great, but I don’t want to see anybody for three and a half hours.
Toto’s next studio album, ‘Through the Looking Glass,’ consisted of covers of classic tracks by artists like Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello, and Steely Dan.
I’ll tell you how that happened. We were all off doing our own stuff, and I was always on the road doing one thing or another, and we reached the point where we were looking at our 25th anniversary, but we didn’t have any product. Our manager called us and said “You guys have to do something so you can capitalize on this,” but we knew we didn’t have enough time to spend another eight or nine months on a record, or we’d be looking at our 27th anniversary instead.
So I think Dave or somebody suggested doing some covers — doing something real quick, a tribute to the music that influenced us, and going out on the road to have some laughs. Simon’s studio is in his house, so we just set up in his living room — he engineered — and we put together ‘Through the Looking Glass.’ All bands do cover records anyway. We got a great deal from EMI to do a one-off thing, which we thought would be a great change of pace, but once again a label refused to release us in the f—ing States, so we had to go through that whole thing again. I don’t know what it is about us.
But it was just a fun record. Some people dug it, and some people went after us.
By covering critical favorites like Elvis Costello, you were basically daring your critics to re-air all those old grudges.
The Elvis thing was a piss-take, because we knew he hated us. We thought it would be fun — he writes great songs. But yeah, we did it on purpose. Willfully baiting them. F— you guys! We’ll do whatever the f— we wanna do. But still, it was an interim record, and a lot of that stuff was very tongue-in-cheek, and I don’t think a lot of people got the sarcasm.
Which brings us to the band’s most recent studio set — and one of your strongest, if not your best — 2006’s ‘Falling in Between.’
We took things back to the original concept for that one. We were given a really nice deal by this Italian label, and we thought we’d go in and really go for it. Put a little bit of a harder edge to it, and write the songs by showing up to Simon’s studio together with nothing, and writing pieces of music. Sometimes we’d arrange it in Pro Tools, learn it that way, then play it live again, and go from there.
We had no rules. We didn’t think about anything — we just made the record we wanted to make, and that’s what came out. We’re very proud of that record. We worked really hard to make it happen, and that’s the best it was. Then we went out on the road, and Bobby started losing his voice. Dave decided he didn’t want to tour anymore. Mike was diagnosed with ALS — his hands had started to go, we thought it was muscular, or a slipped disc or something. Nobody wanted to really address what was going on, until he really couldn’t play anymore.
That really dealt us a hard blow. These are my childhood brothers…it chokes me up just thinking about it right now, because Mike is suffering. To carry on again, brother Lee Sklar came out, Greg Phillinganes came out because Dave didn’t want to tour, and as I looked around, I was surrounded by friends, but it wasn’t the band of brothers that I grew up with. This was me making money on the road.
Bobby wasn’t performing well, and I started drinking heavily — not good. That just was really, really a hard period for me. I was very self-destructive at that point, and not really getting along with anyone. Things were starting to suffer — the tour was well-attended, but people were complaining about Bobby singing badly, and I was just going through the motions. Slowly killing myself.
I said, “If I’m going to be a Toto cover band, you’ll have to pay me twice as much.” That’s exactly what I told them, and they told me to go f— myself, so I quit. I walked. I called Paich on the phone, and he said, “What took you so long?” That’s when I knew I’d made the right decision. I mean, I love Simon, I love Lee, I love Greg; it had nothing to do with them. I just wasn’t doing what was right for me. I was boozing myself — I’ve been sober now for four years now or more, and I quit smoking — but my marriage was going to hell, my mother died; everything was falling apart on me. I went into a very dark place. I didn’t look well, I wasn’t playing well or performing well — I hated my life, and I hated what I was doing. I had to make a change for my life.
I humiliated myself with my behavior, and I had to live through the agony of reading all these things on the internet about, you know, “You suck, what the f— were you doing at that show,” that kind of thing. Some of it was deserved, and some of it was really cruel. I almost quit playing — I almost quit doing everything. I wanted to run away to an island. I had two little babies, from a marriage that has now failed — I was a mess. What am I doing? My brothers are sick, I’m getting older, do I have a career? I suck. My self-hatred was at its height until I threw away the booze, threw away the cigarettes, and went to therapy to repair my life.
There were a few years where I immersed myself in work outside of Toto. I did a record with Larry Carlton that won a Grammy — that was fun, that was pushing me. I started really looking at it, and then one day Dave called and said, “We’ve gotta do something — Mikey’s doing bad and his family needs some bread.” So I said, “Look, I’ll do this again. But Joseph’s gotta come back and Steve Porcaro’s gotta come back, and then you’ve got me.” It was all for the right reasons, and it was happy — it was like, “Hey, my buddies are back!”
Joseph came back, and he was f—ing great. And Steve came back, and that sound that had been missing all that time returned. And we did this tour in 2010, and people went absolutely crazy. Joseph killed it, we had fun, and we gave Mikey a chunk of money. We all had other obligations after that, but then we started looking at going out in the summer in 2011, and Dave said, “I can do that.” He just didn’t want to be out on the road for nine months at a time anymore, you know? So we did that and got an even bigger response! Me and my boys again.
So then this year, Joseph comes back and he’s lost 91 pounds — just completely transformed himself — and we started taking it a little more seriously. We did a live DVD which will be out in the spring, and now there’s talk of us doing a new album. I’m back with the cats I grew up with. We’re having fun and making money, so what the f—, right?
We’ve taken so many punches — from the critics, from ourselves. Death, illness, losing band members, anything that can go wrong, but something brings us back to this, and I’ve gotta think there’s some kind of destiny involved in it. We’re not trying to change the world, we’re not the biggest band in the world, but something about us connects — and now we’re seeing a second generation of fans in the audience at our shows. Where are these twentysomething kids who know every one of these songs coming from?
Everything seems to be falling into place. I’m rolling with the punches, and I’m glad to be back in a band situation where it’s me and some other guys. I’ve had an extraordinary career — I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager, and now I’m on the back nine; I’ll be 56 next week. And I can look back with a lot of pride on the music we’ve made. Not all of it was great, but we tried, and we took our punches — so anyone who says Toto hasn’t paid its dues can kiss my ass. You can end it just like that!