Toto’s Steve Lukather Talks Summer Tour With Yes, Session Work and More: Exclusive Interview
“Our most successful records were the ones when we were scared to death that we were going to get dropped from the label. This time, we said no rules,” Lukather told Ultimate Classic Rock earlier this year. “We’re not trying to write the hit single and we’re not trying to do anything with it. We’re just going to make music that we like, harkening back to our love of early ‘70s prog rock like Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd, [Jethro] Tull, you know, those kind of influences. Steely Dan, Beatles — the stuff that we grew up loving — and then the best version of what we did.”
The album has been well-received by both fans and critics alike and the band very quickly took the new music out on the road, touring extensively overseas with a setlist that mixed tracks from the new album with fan favorites and deeper album cuts. We spoke with Lukather on the eve of the band’s current co-headlining tour with Yes and he made it clear that they were ready to bring their A-game to the States and he gave us a preview of what the fans can expect from the shows.
“We’re doing 90 minutes each. We had done 90 minute sets overseas, we had done two hours, two hours plus, depending,” he says. “We’re going to have a couple of wild card songs that will be different every night and obviously a couple of the new songs and the biggest hits that we have, of course we’ve gotta play.”
“We’re going to pepper it with a few classic album cuts which will depend on where we are and what our mood is, depending on what’s going on,” Lukather continues. “We’ll have to feel it out! We know some people are coming to see us, some people are coming to see Yes and we’re trying to cross-pollinate both [sides] and win over their fans all of that sort of stuff. Hopefully they’ll give us a fair look and we’re going to have a great time and come at this with a great attitude. We’re ready -- we’ve got 41 shows under our belts, so we’re coming out swinging.”
The band brought management duties in house and played their first extensive set of U.S. dates in a long time in the summer of 2014 when they went out on tour with an “old friend,” five-time Grammy winner Michael McDonald. As Lukather shares, “It was very successful, so it got us back in the game again. The Live in Poland DVD went No. 1 in the U.S. and all over the world and now it’s all over the TV. You know, things we were told that couldn’t happen, that we made happen. We got a second look, you know?"
"People are going, “Wow, I forgot about these guys -- they’re actually pretty good!” Europe and the rest of the world has always been keen on us, but you know, we’re trying to break through that invisible wall through here,” Lukather explains. “And then this opportunity came up with one of our favorite all-time bands, Yes, and [they’re] also some old friends of ours. That was really like, “Wow, that’s exactly the right thing for us.” We didn’t want to go out with anybody obvious. We thought 1+1 is 3 instead of something obvious where a lot of people would buy both band’s records anyway.”
Lukather is quick to point out that the Yes pairing, while it might seem a little bit left of center to some, actually makes a lot of sense when you know the shared history between the two camps.
“You know, this one, we’ve been friends with Yes -- there’s a greater connection there than people realize,” he says. “We’ve worked together in various configurations. And then both of us have suffered a tragic loss at the same time -- we lost Mike Porcaro and they lost Chris Squire, sadly. He was a hero of mine, you know. I used to line up when I was a kid to get tickets to see the Close to the Edge tour at the Forum in L.A., you know what I mean? Steve Howe is one of my all-time guitar heroes, and we’ve worked together in various configurations. Geoff Downes, I worked on Asia records and Steve Porcaro was in a band with Chris Squire briefly, with Billy Sherwood, who is filling in for Chris and you know, we’re all friends.”
“[Former Yes vocalist] Jon Anderson worked on our records, we’ve worked on his records. It’s not as weird as the casual person might think. And also, musically speaking, we’re hoping that the Yes fans going, ‘‘Africa,’ I don’t like that song,’ when they see us play, they might go, ‘Whoa, man, this is a lot different than we thought.’ Even though we are going to play ‘Africa’ and all of our hits. There’s a lot more to our band than just that.”
During last summer’s tour, McDonald and Toto had the opportunity to jam on stage nearly every night. When it comes to the current run, Lukather’s not sure exactly what will go down.
“At this point they’re going through an immediate tragedy with the loss of Chris and we haven’t had any time to think about that,” he says. “But you know, as time and things develop, I mean, Michael and us, we go back way before Toto. I mean, Mike McDonald was in Steely Dan with Jeff Porcaro when we were still in high school! Mike was actually going to be the original singer in our band, but he had just joined the Doobie Brothers the week before and cut ‘Takin’ It To The Streets.’
“It would have been a different sounding band, no question, but we have a longer, deeper connection with Michael and we played on each other’s records and stuff, so we had that going,” Lukather says. “With Yes, I know that Steve Porcaro worked on some stuff, but for the most part, we haven’t recorded with them or anything like that. I mean, I’ve worked on records -- Chris Squire and us did a Greg Lake record in the early ‘80s, which was pretty wild and fun. It’s so weird, because we really thought he was going to get better and then this happened. It goes to show you how fragile life really is and that’s why we’re going to go celebrate the music in the most positive way. Because we’ve lost two members of our band, Jeff Porcaro and Mike Porcaro, you know, those are key guys.
“We’re going to be very sensitive to how they feel and they’re going to know that we understand how they feel and come at this with a great deal of respect and friendship. At least that’s what we’re hoping for.”
That respect and friendship was evident during Toto's set at Chicago's FirstMerit Bank Pavilion on Aug. 16, where keyboardist/vocalist David Paich noted that it was a thrill for the band to tour with "our great friends and heroes," while dedicating "Great Expectations" from the new album to Squire. Earlier in the show, Lukather had offered his own tribute, talking about the "key soul brothers" that both bands had lost, musing that he liked to imagine that they're both "having a drink together up there and saying, 'Have a great show.'"
And if they were watching, their smiles were likely just as big as the ones on stage. As promised, Toto's set did not disappoint. It was the 90-minute version of a "power hour," packed to the brim with a perfect mix of material from the new album, the promised deeper cuts (it's always a thrill to hear the title cut from Hydra) and ample reminders of just how many hit songs exist from the Toto catalog.
Maybe bands that are approaching their 40th anniversary aren't supposed to sound this good, but thankfully, nobody passed that message to the Toto guys. It's evident that they're having a lot of fun and nobody in the current lineup is taking any of it for granted.
"I’ll tell you something, man. We won’t die," Lukather says. "We tried to kill ourselves and something keeps drawing us back into it. Now it’s like we’ve got another shot at this in a big way and nobody gets a shot like this at our age."
During our conversation, we took the opportunity to ask Lukather about some of the classic rock-related highlights from his lengthy career of session work outside of Toto and he was happy to share some of his favorite memories.
[Laughs] I talked my way onto that session. I’d always wanted to meet Eric and he was a big influence on me and I knew all of the producers and everybody. They had called Jeff Porcaro and somebody else, so I called up the contractor and I said, “Okay, I want to be on the sessions! They don’t have to pay me and I don’t want any money, I just want to play rhythm guitar with Eric Clapton. I just want to hang out.” Eric kind of cracked up and said, “Yeah sure, have him come along, it’s fine.”
It’s actually the only session I’ve ever been really nervous on, [prior] to meeting Eric Clapton. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent picking the needle up and down off of Cream records, trying to learn those solos when I was a kid. He was very gracious and very kind to me and we had a good time. I didn’t really contribute any earth-shattering parts to those songs, but it was a great experience to hang around and be around one of my all-time heroes.
Randy Newman - Trouble in Paradise (1983) and Land of Dreams (1988)
We worked on the Trouble in Paradise record, you know, “I Love L.A.” and all of that, that’s all of us on there, screaming “We love it!” and I did the solo. We were in the video and everything. I love Randy Newman! What a character, man. He’s a genius guy. Incredibly schooled musician who really has a quirky little thing, incredibly sarcastic wit and it was a great honor to play with a legendary guy like that. He was great to us.
Both of those records were so much fun to be a part of, because he would sing and play live. Those were basically live records. We would do some overdubs after we got the basic tracks, but him playing and singing and conducting and everything like that, it was all very real. When you get to be around real artists like that, like when we worked with Aretha Franklin, who’s singing the lead vocal in the middle of the room and that was the take -- it’s a different buzz in the room than if you’re just slamming through something where you know, “Okay, this is the basic track and I can fix anything I want.” There’s a different energy in the room.
Alice Cooper - From the Inside (1978)
Yeah, I think I was like 20 years old when I did the From the Inside album, which David Foster produced. He brought me in to be his rock and roll help at the time, because you know, Dave’s not a rock and roller at all. He’s a good producer and he certainly has the pop sense, but he needed me for the other stuff and Alice was really, really generous to give me the opportunity. I got to play with Dick Wagner, who I adored, God bless his soul, and you know, Davey Johnstone [from Elton John’s band] and people like that.
I got to write a couple of songs with Bernie Taupin, Alice, Foster and myself -- and work with Rick Nielsen on that, which led me into [playing] a little bit on the Dream Police record, which nobody really knows about. [Lukather clears his throat]. It led me into a lot of different things. I’m a lifelong Alice Cooper fan. I remember graduating junior high school, listening to “School’s Out.” [Laughs] So it’s kind of a trip -- when I started out as a young session player, I found myself in the room with Elton John and people whose records I devoured, you know, that I learned and just adored. To be in the room with your heroes -- and all nice people [was great]. Really, the only a--holes I’ve ever had to deal with were the people that were really not very good, because they were very, very insecure.
Cheap Trick - Dream Police (1979)
I played all of the guitars on the song “Voices.” Rick didn’t need me. I guess they just wanted a different flavor. I mean, I love Rick -- he’s a great guitar player, a great songwriter and a great guy. I think I was just brought in for yuks, you know? I don’t know whose idea it was, but we hit it off really well when we worked on the Alice Cooper record together and he was very gracious. He gave me a solid gold pick and a platinum record and said, “Sorry I didn’t put your name on the record, but you know...” [Laughs] I said, “It’s cool, man -- I’ve done a couple of things on weird records that I’m not supposed to talk about.”
Joe was another guy that we lost. You know, geez -- there’s so many of them these days. I’ve been going to way too many funerals and memorials and stuff. I’ve always loved Joe. I was in a band in high school that had a singer that kind of patterned himself off of Joe and we had a big Mad Dogs & Englishmen band. Jeff Porcaro and David Paich had a Mad Dogs & Englishmen band, so you know, the Cocker/Leon Russell thing was not lost on us at all.
We looooved that stuff and you know, getting a chance to work with Joe on a lot of different records over the years, boy, you know, he’s a guy that he was so unique and such a lovely man. It was a great honor to work with him. He was very soft-spoken and he would become that guy when he got in front of a microphone, the whole game changed. Otherwise, he was very, very soft-spoken, at least around me. He was very kind. I didn’t get to be really super-close to him or nothing like that.
The guy who produced our new record, C.J. Vanston, was very close with Joe. He toured with him and produced records and played with him and stuff like that. These connections, you talk about the Kevin Bacon [thing], how about the one degree of separation in music with Toto! We’re like everywhere -- we’re connected to every band at some point or another.
He came out and played with us at the Jeff Porcaro tribute in 1992 and we got to hang out a bunch. He invited me out to dinner and we had a jam with Jeff Lynne, Bob Dylan, Jim Keltner and him that was pretty trippy. I’m sitting at a dinner table looking around going, “If my junior high school friends could see me now! George took a shine to me and he was a lovely guy -- he would come by the house, his son Dhani, he called me up once and said, “Dhani loves Slash -- is Slash okay, can I come by and meet him?”
So I arranged that, because Slash is a dear buddy of mine and that was funny, to see that from the other way around. Of course, his wife Olivia is a friend now too, because I’m friends with Ringo [Starr] and his family. Just lovely, lovely people. I can’t say enough nice stuff. You know, when you’re around greatness like that, you expect a certain thing and it couldn’t be nicer -- when I worked with Paul [McCartney] and Linda, they were so wonderful, during Thriller and then we got to do something after that and now Ringo and I have become really close friends -- I was just with him yesterday. I mean, I adore this man -- he’s like everything I want to be.
He’s 75 years old, looks 40 and he’s as funny as he was in A Hard Day’s Night and he plays his ass off. I don’t give a shit what anybody says -- I’ve played with the man. I’ve played with the best drummers in the world -- I kind of know what a good drummer is. Ringo Starr started it all. Those Beatles records? That was real -- there was no click track, that was Ringo. Was he super flashy? No. Was he in the pocket? Every time. I look at him like a big brother. But you know, those guys inspired me to play in the first place and sometimes I have to go back to that little kid in me and go, “Wow, this is really, really cool to be a part of this. And he treats us like kings and I love him to death -- I would jump from a car for him.
Joni Mitchell - Dog Eat Dog (1985)
She was great. I’m just so sad to hear that she’s not well. You know, we’re losing our heroes. It’s funny, I hadn’t seen her in a long time and I was walking through Beverly Glen Center and I saw her sitting there having coffee by herself and I said, “Hey Joni, it’s me -- Luke,” and she goes, “Oh my God, I haven’t seen you in years.” At one point, right after we did that record, she asked me, Vinnie Colaiuta and Larry Klein to go on the road, but I couldn’t because of Toto.
I had a great time making that record, you know, because I grew up listening to her records, listening to Larry Carlton play on her records, you know, that was a big inspiration for me. She’s one of those artists that just morphed and just became greater and greater. She’s a full-on artist and she’s so nice -- a lovely person. I didn’t get super-close, but I spent enough time with her to know that, to be around genius like that and for her to be so kind as well, [was really great]. it was a great experience.
Miles asked me to join his band after we coaxed him into playing on our Fahrenheit record. He was in the studio cutting “Human Nature” -- he did a pop record back in the ‘80s where he did the Miles Davis version of pop songs and Steve Porcaro was working with him on the “Human Nature” song and we had this song that we had written for him and he kind of laughed and took a little shine to us and we spent a week together at Jeff Porcaro’s studio and then over at David Paich’s house with his studio.
He listened to the record and called me on the phone and he goes [Lukather imitates Davis’s voice], “Hey man, come to New York tomorrow.” I’m like, “I can’t. Miles, I’m leaving on tour.” He’s like, “I want you to join my band.” I go, “COME ON. You’ve got to be kidding me!” I go, “I can’t -- I’m deeply honored. Are you sure? Me?” He goes, “Yeah, I love that rock and roll s--- you do!” I’m cracking up, I’m going, “Wow, really?” I said, “I can’t leave my guys -- we leave tomorrow to start a three-month tour. I wouldn’t do that to you!” He goes, “Okay man, well.” You know, he was cool about it, but I did get the call. I said, “You should call either Robben Ford or Mike Landau or somebody like that,” and I guess he called Robben. I missed out on that one.
I’ve always been a fan of Chicago. Terry Kath is one of my favorite guitar players, man. Genius. Doesn’t get enough love in the history, man. He was really a trailblazer, way ahead of his time. As a matter of fact, I did a short little interview for Terry Kath’s daughter who’s doing a documentary. Jeff Lynne’s girlfriend is Terry Kath’s widow -- lovely people and Jeff Lynne’s one of my heroes, what a nice man he is. When I heard they were doing something, I thought that was really cool. Because I was very influenced by Terry Kath.
He took the blues-rock thing and he was the first guy, he and Peter Frampton were the first two guys to add some extra notes in there besides just the bluesy stuff, which I was drawn to. Much like when I heard Larry Carlton playing on the Steely Dan records, I mean, it was a jazz guy playing with a rock sound -- that really connected with me. So those guys were the early trailblazers of all of that stuff and Terry had some wicked chops and he could sing. I got the chance to work with those guys and the horn players played on our records and we worked on theirs -- we’ve been friends for a long time. There was talk of us doing a tour together at some point -- who knows, maybe that will happen down the line. You never know. Good guys. All great guys.
Paul McCartney - Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984)
It was a great experience to work with Paul and hang with him and George Martin and Geoff Emerick and all of the rest of it. That was magical. We didn’t know we had to wear the wig and the makeup until we got there. There was no warning about that. [Laughs] But then again, Paul and Linda did it, so we didn’t bitch about it. He took a shine to Jeff Porcaro and I on the Thriller sessions and he and Linda invited us over to work on this project. We were there for a couple of weeks just filming one song. But all of the gear was set up live, like the Mellotron, I started playing “Strawberry Fields Forever” on it, he turned around and he started laughing.
Somebody told us, “Don’t say anything about the Beatles in front of Paul,” and I’m like, “What? How can you not say anything about the Beatles in front of Paul, for God’s sake.” I kind of broke the invisible barrier, because I went to Linda, I was standing next to her --- who was a fantastic woman, God, I don’t understand why anybody could ever say anything negative about her, because she was just a great woman, who was like, “Look, I don’t want to be in the band -- he wants me in the band!” She was so funny and so cool. I was standing on the riser with her and we were just working on the song that we were doing and we had gotten to know each other a little bit and she was really cool, so I said, “Yeah, they told us not to say anything about the Beatles in front of Paul, which is really sort of weird, because it’s the reason why we all play.” She goes, “Who told you that?” I said, “Well, you know, the director, they said, “Whatever you do, don’t say anything about it, don’t ask him about the Beatles,” and she goes, “Rubbish!”
So I said, “Well, there’s the Mellotron, I’m going to play something” and I’m going, “Oh please, God, don’t let me f--- this up.” I played the opening Mellotron part on “Strawberry Fields” and Paul looked right up and went, “Hey, right, good on ya!” I said, “Well, sorry, I couldn’t help myself” and everyone was laughing. He goes, “No, no” and then he starts telling a story about when they were cutting the track and then I had a guitar and it was plugged in and I started playing the intro to “Please Please Me,” Jeff jumped in, Paul started singing it and we played the song and at the end of it, the whole place erupted in applause, with all of the techs and people working. Then it was on -- we’d go out and have lunch and George Martin would be there, Geoff Emerick, the engineer and I’d go, “How’d you get the drum sound on this,” and they loved talking about it. it was totally cool! So it was an incredible time for us.
Paul was so great. He invited us to the premiere and we all sat next to him and then we lost touch. Then I got to meet George, who around 1992, right after Jeff passed, he came and played live with us at the Jeff Porcaro Tribute. He came out and played “With a Little Help From My Friends” and then three and a half years ago, I got the call to do Ringo and I went and did that and this has been the longest All-Starr Band kept together and we’ve become really good friends. He lives near me, we hang and I adore the man. I got to do the 50th anniversary TV show with Paul and Ringo.
I’m sitting there looking up, right before we go onstage after rehearsing and all of that stuff and there’s Paul and Ringo and they played clips from A Hard Day’s Night and it really kind of hit me, my God, every relative, every neighbor, everybody I could get to take me to see this movie multiple times as a child, I’m standing there and I’m going, “I’m getting ready to celebrate 50 years ago.” This hit me hard. I’m standing there with the guys walking on the stage and there was a total moment, “My God, I’ve actually pulled off the dream. Here I am.” How did that work out?
If you’d have told me when I was a kid, “Oh yeah, in 50 years, you’ll be hanging with these guys celebrating and things,” you might as well have told me I was going to be the first man on Venus. But you know, my little dream worked out and it’s not lost on me. Believe me, I’m very appreciative and kind of like, “Wow, did that really happen?” I’m still very humbled by it all.
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