Steve Lukather took time out in between touring with Ringo Starr and Toto to chat with us about his time on the road and what he has planned.
Steve Lukather is known to many as the guitarist from the world-renowned band, Toto. However, he is a man of many hats having just completed the latest tour with Ringo Starr and his All Starr Band as well as being one of the most prolific session musicians to have ever lived.
Toto are about to embark on the final leg of their 40 Trips Around the Sun Tour and Lukather had a very frank and honest chat with Loud Hailer about what he feels lies in store for Toto, the trials and tribulations of being part of a band for so long, his time as a session musician and what it’s like to regularly be on the road 200 plus days a year.
LH: How are you doing?
Steve: Hello and good morning from wherever the hell I am. I don’t know where I am. I think Omaha, Nebraska. Off to Santa Fe today. I wake up in a different hotel every day and sometimes I really honest to God, don’t know where I am. It was really weird.
LH: I travel a lot for work and the other week for the first time ever I woke up somewhere and I did that thing where I woke up and didn’t know where I was – no drink involved.
Steve: Sometimes we get in at midnight and I get taken to my house and I throw myself in bed. I woke up the next morning, I go, where the f*** am I? I’m in my own house? You know, I’ve been doing like 230 days a year on the road between Toto and Ringo.
LH: So you just finished touring with Ringo Starr and then you are out with Toto for the final leg of the 40 Trips Around the Sun Tour.
Steve: I’m finished up with Ringo for now. We filmed the 30th anniversary show September 1st with Ringo. I’m off now. Then Toto starts September 20th in LA. We got a month up until October 20th. Then Toto goes away and I’m going to do something else for, you know, I gotta get away. It’s crazy right now.
LH: That’s a pretty heavy schedule still. You’re still pushing it hard on the old touring front.
Steve: Well, here’s the thing. We’ve taken this 40th anniversary cycle to 43 years. It’s just been getting bigger and bigger and better and better.
LH: Music’s an amazing thing though, isn’t it? You must get on stage and play with those guys whether you’re with Ringo or not and a lot of everything else must go away. I watched an interview with John Mayer and he was talking about back in the days when people thought there was a lot of bad behavior going on with him. He did those interviews and stuff, and he said, the thing was, however badly I was behaving, I could get on the stage every night and there were like 20,000 people in the audience who loved me and it didn’t matter.
Steve: Well, I understand that. I know John and he’s great. He got himself into trouble in his own way and our thing is a different thing. I know when we get on stage and whenever I’m on stage for the two hours, that’s my happy place, man. All the shit melts away and you have this connection. We were playing in front of 35,000/50,000 people in Europe all summer. Headlining festivals, killing it. You can see the photos online and we were roasting it. We did festivals down in Australia in front of 20,000 people,15 to 25 years old, and we just scared them to death cause they’d never seen real musicians play before. Everybody was lip-syncing and faking it. Rappers going “Yeah, motherf***er.” All of a sudden these old f***ing guys come out absolutely devastated them. Old school, rock and roll. I mean maybe the kids the only knew “Africa,” “Rosanna” or whatever. Then they see a whole f***ing show and it’s what the f*** was that? To little, young kids, they’ve never seen an old time rock and roll. We’re gasket playing, blowing, improvising. We’re having fun up there and there’s no f***ing hard drive. It’s like come out and see these extinct animals before their death!
LH: I think about how it must feel when you’re touring so much. It must be difficult when you’re on tour, going out and having that high on the stage for those two hours and then going back to a quiet hotel room afterward. I’ve read a few musician’s autobiographies where they talk about that. How do you deal with it?
Steve: You know what there’s no real truth, it’s kind of sad, bro. I haven’t had a drink or anything in 10 years. You know what I mean? But always go, “What the f*** is up with these rock and roll guys? They get all f***ed up.” Especially rock and roll guys. “They get all f***ed up on drugs and alcohol. Why the f***? They have money, they have fame, blah, blah, blah.” What people do not understand is A – I’m away from my children 230 days a year, it was last year, and I got little ones. I got two grown and two little ones. My little ones are like I’m a facetime TV show. I’m in an empty hotel room all day, most of the time. It’s a very nice prison, but it’s a prison of my own making because I don’t really feel like seeing anybody. Then you go out on stage, the house lights go down. You get this applause. You go out and play your ass off. Everybody’s like, “Hey.” Then you walk away and you close the door behind you in a hotel room and it all goes away. The highest of highs to the lowest of lows. Loneliness like you’ve never known before. “Daddy, come home. I love you.” And I go, “I can’t baby. I gotta work” you know?
I got to carry a lot of people every month because I have a lot of family that needs help. I got a lot of things I gotta deal with. I get let out of the cage for four hours a day. An hour before the show, two hours and an hour after. Then it’s the holy shit, Groundhog day, I do it and I wake up in another city. Now it’s the greatest job in the world, it is without question, the greatest job in the world. But there are some severe dues that come with it that people don’t see or know about. They just see the glitzy bullshit about it, you know? They don’t realize the loneliness that comes with it. Then people act weird to you and stuff like that. It’s very strange.
No, I don’t dwell on it. The only time I’m really happy is out on stage connecting with that audience or I’m at home playing with my little kids. I don’t really have much of a life out of that. I’m all broken up from f***ing tour bus accidents and just older age and f***ing aches and pains. But when I play on stage, I still feel like I’m f***ing 20 years old.
LH: It’s too easy these days, even with journalists. People take pops at people these days — I guess again with John Mayer and people like that. He was a young guy and he sleeping around with lots of different women. Well, what guy wouldn’t do the same thing in that position, right?
Steve: What do you mean? F***ing lots of chicks?
LH: Well, yeah, there’s that….
Steve: I sort of went through that in my younger years, but you know, I don’t do that anymore. Listen, I’ve partied like harder than anybody until it f***ed me up. I spent a lot of time with some very beautiful women who were very kind to me. I’m going to leave it like that. I was also married twice to some great women. That went South because this is my life.
This was like a calling when I was f***ing single digit kid. I got a guitar and to meet the Beatles and I never looked back. Here I am on the road with Ringo for seven years. That’s like the happiest place on earth. This tour, there’s no drama. Everybody is so cool. I get to work with him and we’re great friends and the band’s great, people are great. With the travel and the way he takes care of us is first, first, first class. Until I go back to Toto it’s great, we’re doing really well, but it’s a different level. It’s like there’s 50 years of shit that follows us.
LH: Yeah, you’ve got history.
Steve: We’ve known each other since we were 15 through the good, bad, and the ugly. The ride gets hard sometimes because nobody hurts you like somebody who’s known you their whole life. You know what I mean? As much as much love as there is, there’s a lot of history and some have the history ain’t great. We all love and forgive each other and all the shit, but there’s more tension because there’s more at stake and we all have problems at home or whatever the f***’s going on. Here’s what it is. We walk on stage and all that shit goes away. We’re just a bunch of kings looking. So like, Oh, we’re going to f***ing kick some ass tonight. And we do. We get them every f***ing night, no matter what kind of shit is going on behind the scenes. That’s how it rolls. I mean, we’re professional guys that know when to talk our shit and then knowing shut up and play. That’s what it’s all about. Cause it’s like I said, it’s the greatest job in the world. It’s connected, especially having sold-out shows and like all this stuff that’s going on with us. 12 million streams a f***ing a month. Of course, I wish that monetized like the old school records. The fact of the matter is, people are listening and they’ll come to the show. So you have to look at life a different way than in 1985. You gotta go, okay, we’re really successful. It’s on a different level. The way we pay the bills, we have to go on the road. So that means there’s a sacrifice of being away from home. How many people who have regular jobs could say, Oh yeah, I’m going to leave. I’ve been away from my kids for 2000 days in the last nine years. 2000, bro! Think about that for a minute. I got two grown kids. My baby girl is going into middle school. I’m going, what the f***?! I’m going to see them tomorrow night. I get to fly in tomorrow night and I’ll be in my own bed tomorrow night and I’ll wake up and take my kids to school like everybody else does. I’m like regular f***ing dad. I’m way into it. I’m up at six in the morning like “Come on guys! Let’s f***ing get the f*** outta here.” We’re making up poop songs with my daughter on the way to school. I mean, I have a really close relationship. It’s bizarre. My father was in the movie business and the television business and a lot of times, and this is in the 60s and shit like that, my father would go on the road for six months and no phone calls because they were like $100 a minute. I mean I’d get two minutes a month to say, “Hey dad, I love you,” “You being good to your mom?” “Yeah,” “You doing your homework? Great. Let me talk to your sister.” That was like 300 bucks for him for f***ing five minutes because he’d be in some weird country somewhere. And I never loved my father any less. When he came home it was a big f***ing deal. That’s the only way I can, in my mind, make sense of it with my own children. They still love me. They don’t know any other way. It’s always been that way their whole life so it’s not weird for them.
LH: You’ve got to work, I mean, like you say, that’s the music industry these days. You don’t make money unless you’re on tour.
Steve: Ask anybody. I don’t care who the ask. Ask The Rolling Stones how many records they sold last year yet they’re selling out stadiums. So you know what I mean?
LH: And they still have to tour because of the way the music industry is these days.
Steve: Yeah. And they’re still great. I mean, here’s the real truth guys. When I say guys, the world. When all these classic rock bands die, when they’re all gone, there’s nobody coming up behind us. And I consider Coldplay and Radiohead classic rock at this time because they’re like 25 years old now. We’re going to be 44. Now when we all f***ing go, how many life careers are being made now by young artists where you go “Oh these guys are going to be around for 50 years?” None!
LH: It’s a different world, it really is.
Steve: Yeah. Now, if you’ve got one hit record on f***ing Spotify, t’s not going to sustain a 45-year career, pal. I don’t care who the f*** you are. That’s why people keep coming. That’s why classic rock still sells. People going to see real guys play. They want to hear the songs. They even bring their kids going you’d better see these f***ing guys because when they go, there’s nobody gonna play like these guys again. There are sub-genres. There’s some great jam band stuff. There’s some great players, but nobody has hit records to sustain that kind of thing. You’ve got to really build from the grassroots which is, wait for it, playing live.
LH: Yeah. And playing well live, right?
Steve: Yeah, playing well live. But I mean, you know, I can’t remember the last time I heard something on the radio or be considered “top 40” that knocks me off my chair and I say “I got to go get this right now.” There’s no dropping the needle on the new Stevie Wonder album or the New Steely Dan record. This is f***ing mind-boggling. Where’s the next Beatles? That ain’t never going to happen again. I got to have a little piece of that history by not only playing with Ringo but working with Paul and George when that was happening. I would do records with these guys or played live with them. F***ing George Harrison played live with the Jeff Porcaro Tribute with us in 1992.
LH: That must have been unbelievable.
Steve: Then we were friends and stuff. You know, those are my childhood heroes. I get to work with most of my childhood heroes and I still can’t believe it happened, you know?
LH: I got the audiobook of your autobiography, and you did a great job on that by the way. The number of times walking in and back from work or when I’ve been at airports when that made me laugh out loud in the middle of a crowd of people.
Steve: Well, I’m glad, here’s the good news. I don’t know if it’s, good news, they signed me on for a second book, which is going to be called the New Testament.
LH: Oh, excellent. That’s good news.
Steve: And this one, this one’s going to tell a whole lot of other different kinds of stories, and I’ll talk about my session career in more detail, and I’m going to be doing a documentary too about my life and all this shit.
LH: Coming back to that with a book, that was one of the things that jumped out at me, was when you talk about The Ed Sullivan Show and The Beatles. Can you imagine, thinking back to that kid, telling him one day you’re going to play with Paul McCartney in the studio, George Harrison’s going to get up and you’re going tour with Ringo Starr’s band?
Steve: Yeah. I mean if you had told me that when I was 10 years old, I would’ve said, right, and I’ll be the first man on Venus too. You know?
LH: Or you’re going to kick a sex doll in George Martin’s face – that was one of my favorite stories!
Steve: I know these stories are ridiculous, but they really happened, they really did!
LH: Oh, I love that story.
Steve: You should have seen it through my eyes. I walked in the front door of Cherokee Studios and they had a blow-up doll stuck to this ceiling with a “Welcome Luke” sticker on it and then George Martin was working in studio one and I just keep the door open and I kicked it in his face. This was right out of a movie. I couldn’t do it again. You can’t rehearse that. I was able to talk to George Martin about that years after when I worked with McCartney in London. He laughed. He goes, “I remember that.” I was on my knees going, “Please Mr. Martin!” It was funny. It’s cool, it’s fine. You know? I mean, I didn’t hurt him. He was just like, “What the f*** was that?!”
LH: Yeah, it’s a good introduction.
Steve: This shit could only happen to me. You know what I mean? I’m sure even God had a huge laugh at that one. He’s probably had a lot of laughs my expense, I’ll tell you that much.
LH: As I was reading the book I wondered, out of all of those guys, who is the funniest one you worked with, would you say?
Steve: Oh my God. Well Ringo, I mean he’s one of the funniest guys I’ve ever been around. I mean he’s Hard Day’s Night funny, man. He’s hasn’t lost a f***ing step, man. He’s going to be 79 years old and he looks 50 and he acts like he’s still on the Ed Sullivan Show. He’s still on Hard Day’s Night. When you’re talking about growing older gracefully and with soul and the way he lives, the way he thinks, man, it’s infectious. You just want to be around him. And I’m honored to say that after these seven years, I mean, we live near each other, I love this man. If his name was Bob Smith he’d be my f***ing best friend.
There’s a lot of really funny people that I’ve been around. Some people that were unobviously funny. It’s too many to name. I mean the whole thing is, I mean, I’m supposed to be a “funny guy,” but I have a little more warped sense of humor than most. There was one time, I’ll tell you a story that is not in the book. When I first did the first Ringo tour in 2012, these guys had already gotten the feel for my demented sense of humor, my views of life. It’s a little bit more scatological and nasty per se, you know? But everybody would go, you’re a sick f***, man but you’re funny! Anyway, so my amp f***ed up on stage and it was right before one of the tunes I was supposed to do in the All Starr Band. The guitar blew out, something f***ed up. Electricity’s not your friend and all that shit. It’s live in front of a full audience. And I go and I turn around to Ringo. I go, “Maybe we should move on to the next song.” He goes, “Nope, I’m not playing without my guitar player.” I went, “Okay.” I walked up to the mic and the whole organization knew me real well at that point. I went up to the mic and said “Maybe I should tell a joke.” And collectively every member of the band, every member of the f***ing crew and said “NOOOOO!” It was one of the funniest things that ever happened to me. I was howling, I was almost crying on stage. I’m going, “Really guys? It’s like that?” It’s like they heard my sick ass shit and they go “NOOOOOO!”
LH: Don’t say it in public!
Steve: Don’t give him a microphone unless he’s singing!
LH: We caught the All Starr show when you performed at the Chicago Theatre, and it looked like you guys were having the time of your life on stage.
Steve: That’s the truth, we are having the time of our lives. I really love everybody and we all play each other’s songs. But that leads me back to Toto. I’ve gotta say something. No matter what little personal bullshit we’re going through, when we go on stage, man, I think a lot of people are surprised, A – that we can really play that well and sing and that sounds like that, and it’s not on hard drive. And B – We look like little kids having fun. We’re not trying to be cool staring at the ground, like going looking like f*** that, I’d rather be anywhere else but here, cause I’m trying to keep my hipster image up. This is a bunch of guys who grew up playing in a garage in North Hollywood that happened to do well and after almost 44 years, we go on stage and feed off that. We smile at each other and when somebody does some great, we hug each other and if somebody f***s up, we laugh. There’s no like, there’s no motherf***you on stage. We truly enjoy making this music. People go, “Oh, they’re just doing it for the money.” Yeah, we get paid, that’s beside the point. When we get on stage, when I’m not thinking about money or problems or anything, we’re thinking about this music, we’re connecting with the audience, we’re playing to the very highest degree.
I still practice the guitar. People go, “What do you have to do that for?” I go, “I need to practice. I want to for my own good.” I’m not the best guitar player in the world by a million years, but I still care about trying to keep myself going. I hate all this who’s better than who? Or the top 100 guitar players. Who’s the f***ing opinion is that?! It’s almost like taking a political poll. This many percentage of people like this and this many don’t. Who’d you f***ing ask?
LH: And what’s better anyway, right?
Steve: Well, ask any man married who’s the best looking wife in the world? Well, you’d better say your wife. You know what I mean?
LH: Yeah. I get it. With guitarists, there’s a million people online now who can play 10,000 miles an hour. That’s not what’s important really. I think what’s important on the guitar and you can’t count many guitarists who this applies to these days – but I would count you as one of them – is knowing who a guitarist is the moment they start playing.
Steve: There’s a signature. When the guys from my generation came up, we all developed our own styles because we learned how to do it differently. Now, the kids start out looking at the internet, like “How do I play like so and so shred guitar player?” So they learn all the tricks first and they forget how do you play rhythm guitar? How do you do this? How do you write a song? So people have amazing chops. But if everybody does the same magic trick and everybody knows how it’s done, then it’s not a magic trick anyway. Eddie Van Halen is one of my best friends. We’ve known each other for 40 some odd years and he’s like, “I didn’t mean to start this.” He goes, “I just did this because it was a thing I found. And yet he could write great songs or play amazing, rhythm guitar. And then he had that on top of it. Yeah. Now that’s a different animal than somebody who just wakes up shredding but doesn’t know how to play any chords.
LH: Yes, that’s it. There are players now who are just unique like that of course, like there’s the Vai’s and the Satriani’s of the world.
Steve: Those guys are my friends and they’re absolutely brilliant. But we have two of the best there. There’s 10,000 clones of that.
LH: Yeah, exactly.
Steve: On the other hand, you go to one arena and Dave Gilmore walks out, plays one note and slays the whole f***ing place.
Steve: Dave’s a friend of mine, I’m honored to say, and one of my absolute heroes. Same with Joe Walsh and people like that, that are not ‘chops’ guys. Keith Richards can’t play lead guitar, I shouldn’t say can’t play lead guitar, but nobody goes to see Keith solo. When he plays the opening chords to “Brown Sugar,” “Start Me Up” or “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” who gives a f***? The guy’s written some of the greatest riffs of all time that are timeless and will remain so. That make a f***ing stadium go to their knees. If you play all that crazy fast shit in an arena or stadium, it just sounds like [mumble]. That guy looks like he’s great but I can’t hear the articulation. But if you’re playing in a club and you can see it up close, it’s astounding, it’s incredible. Alan Holdsworth, people like that who died with no money in the bank and it’s like John Coltrane shit, but it doesn’t hit the masters cause it’s kind of over their heads or harmonically or whatever. Those of us that know, revere the cat.
LH: I would gravitate to players like that. Your last solo album, Transition, that to me was such a diverse album.
Steve: Well thank you. I didn’t even know that you would even know what that was. Thank you.
LH: You cover so much ground in the album. Right? I love the title track where it’s like a jazz fusion track.
Steve: Well, I mean look man, I got a big palette. I like all kinds of music. I can listen to Steve Vai or Slipknot or Miles Davis or the f***ing Carpenters and go, I love all that shit. I’m not a musical snob, man. That’s the problem. So many f***ing critics and shit that are musicals snobs. I love Burt Bacharach. I love Corey from Slipknot. I watch that shit and I go, “These guy’s are the greatest” and I love their whole thing, you know, but they’re great players too. I did a charity thing with Corey one time so I call him out a lot cause I really like this guy. What a great guy. I realize their commitment to what they do and the intensity of it and their live show is staggering. But then, you know, I could listen to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. I got a chance to work with Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, and then work with three of the four Beatles. I can listen to the radio and go “I love this old Motown shit.” I love to listen to Al Green. You know, I can listen to these pop songs with my kid. I like some of this stuff of today. My 12-year-old daughter was born to the Coldplay song “Clocks.” They’ll always have a special place in my heart because of that. And I’m not afraid to say I like Coldplay. F*** anybody. They’re a great band. All these people go “They’re not cool.” F*** that. I’ve been uncool for 43 years, but I still have a career. Somebody’s coming up. Somebody’s listening to our shit and showing up. I’ve been called a guilty pleasure or whatever you want to f***ing call it. I don’t care. Not at this point. I mean, yeah, we got smacked around the first album. I was like, what the f***? That hurts. Why did you do that? But now it’s like almost laughable.
LH: Critics can say whatever they want but if you are still pitching up to shows and those places are full and people are in there loving what you do….
Steve: Hey, I’m going to put it in simple terms. Would you rather have your tax returns look like a music critic or mine?
LH: Yeah, I know which one I’d pick.
Steve: I rest my case right there.
LH: I wanted to talk to you about about session playing and things like that. What I loved about the book was just understanding how much you guys were actually involved in writing some of that music.
Steve: That’s what I’m saying. People don’t do their homework. They just go, “I hate that song, Africa. These guys are studio guys,” throwing the studio guy thing away, like that doesn’t mean anything. In my book, I mentioned I met Jimmy Page. He took me aside. He goes, man, you seem to be really proud of being a studio musician. Me and John Paul Jones were studio musicians. He goes, these other guys don’t even know what that is. And they don’t know what that is, they just see us reading dots in a chair. Most of the time you just got a sketch with a couple of chords on it. They count off the song, no rehearsal, no demos, no nothing. Better play something. We had to be instant arrangers on the spot. We get no love for that. We played, we rearranged and rewrote every f***ing session we were on and nobody knows that.
LH: I read a great book about the Wrecking Crew about the same thing. That’s where I think it gets lost.
Steve: Yeah, my heroes. Let me give you a perfect example. Louis Sheldon, one of the great unsung guitar player heroes that we all revere. When he played on The Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville,” that iconic opening guitar riff. The only thing that it said on his chart was “G.” And he plays that. So that’s what we all did on every f***ing record we did. I mean, yeah, we can read music, but I mean that was just a sketch. The guys that could read every f***ing note do television and film. And I mean, I could read music, but I that’s a whole other level of reading, man. I can’t do that straight away…. not on the fly You know, that’s scary. That’s a whole other muscle of your brain. But a lot of those guys can’t do what we did, which is like fill in the blanks that aren’t there. There’s nothing there, play something. And it better be good. They don’t like it, they’ll go play something else. You gotta be able to move like that. If we don’t, we took the shit for that?
LH: That’s one of the things I don’t understand because you’ve got to be a musician of the highest caliber to be able to do that.
Steve: The other thing is, I’d be on sessions with guys who are f***ing brilliant. I mean legendary cats, I’m not gonna say anything. But put them in that scenario with nothing on the paper and the red light goes on. They count off the song and they just froze up. And it was like, wow, man. Because the pressure is really deep too, and now you’ve gotta be able to take that pressure. Everybody can play great in their living room or up on stage. You can be forgivably loose, but when you’ve got a red light on and the microscope’s on you and you got to make it happen quick, fast, and be able to land on your feet, that’s a whole other muscle.
LH: That’s what I can’t imagine.
The final leg of Toto’s 40 Trips Around the Sun World Tour kicks off in Los Angeles on September 20 so be sure to check out the rest of the dates and get yourself along to this one.