Steve Lukather: Transitioning Back to Life

By Jeb Wright, Feb. 2013

Steve Lukather is the guitarist for Toto. He is a world renowned musician who has played on literally hundreds, possibly even thousands of sessions with some of the most respected names in rock and roll. While Luke made a name for himself with Toto and the hit songs “Africa,” “Rosanna” and “Hold the Line,” he also has played on albums by Eric Clapton, Elton John, Don Henley of the Eagles, Alice Cooper and dozens of others.

The talented guitarist is back with a new solo album titled Transition that may shock fans expecting to hear Lukather either dazzle them with his brilliance, or baffle them with his bullshit. Actually, Luke is done with bullshit, at least for now…at least for the last four years when he quit drinking.

Luke went through a dark period, both professionally and personally and he had to do something he had avoided for over fifty years…he had to grow up…at least a little…actually a lot.

In the interview below Steve discusses his darkest days that included divorce, death of a loved one, a dying friend and Internet bullying. He talks openly about what happened four years ago that made him take stock of his life and change. These changes are reflected in the music on Transition. Gone are the guitar heroics, replaced by subtleties, melodies and musical nuances. The result is an album of songs written by Steve that both share his innate tastefully, heartfelt playing along with nods to his influences, which he proudly wears on his sleeve.


Jeb: Let’s talk about the new album, Transition. This is really a different approach for you.

Steve: That is really sweet of you to say. It’s getting a good response. You hope for the best and this is a little bit better than I had hoped for. As an aging old Queen, I am feeling pretty good about things. People seem to be reacting to the work that we put into the record.

Jeb: This album is a very personal album. 

Steve: Of course it is, as I can’t bullshit myself, or anybody else, anymore. I’m 55 years old. I’m not trying to fool everyone like I was when I was 20. I’m not trying to bullshit my way through this. I’m not trying to run as fast as I can. I am not being loud, obnoxious and showy and trying to make my mark like I did back then. It is actually quite the opposite.

I had my fun and it was fun. When it wasn’t fun anymore, I stopped. I have a lost decade. It is pretty scary how things can get away from you. Anymore, a year can go by really fast. The 2000’s had some good stuff and some not so good stuff.

Jeb: How much did the new Steve inspire these songs?

Steve: All of it. CJ Vanston is really brilliant and we have a great partnership, both musically and production-wise. We just sat down and we started writing. The lyrics were very personal, as I wrote most of them myself. They are very much from the heart and are about things that have happened to me.

I am being more honest and I was able to spend the time to do it right. I wrote this over the course of five tours. It is not a guitar player type of record.

Jeb: I thought I knew what to expect from you but this is not what one would expect from you.

Steve: I take vocal lessons twice a week from Gary Catona, who is like the vocal coach to the stars. I quit smoking and drinking and started eating organic, as well. I am into my fourth year of all of this. I am a much more focused person and I am really aware of what I am doing.

I am trying to erase some of the more spotty aspects of my life. I want to prove to everybody who thinks I kind of went crazy that I am more refocused.

Jeb: I love the song “Creep Motel.” 

Steve: Fee Waybill came up with the title of the song and we worked on the lyrics and then I made it a little harsher.

It is all about the Internet haters. I used to be so gutted by it. People would look up old drunken jams where maybe my guitar was out of tune and they would beat me to death with it. These people have this unrealistic expectation of perfection. That is why we see people having plastic surgery at 21 years old. This Orwellian thing is beyond Orwell. I think he would say, “Fuck, I didn’t it would be this bad.”

Everyone is carrying a device and they can Photoshop you and they can overdub your shreds—which I think is hilarious, by the way.

You’ve got to take your punches. The truth is that there are things on there that I am ashamed of and I’ve tried to get off there. At the same time, nobody is perfect and everyone is going to have a dodgy performance. But people are going, “Look at the video at one minute and fifty nine seconds. He played the wrong note.”

These people don’t have a life. They sit in a little room—the Creep Motel—by themselves, in the dark and just pick apart what other people do. They don’t put themselves out there as they use a fake name. They can be the same people who come up and shake your hand and tell you how great you are. The same people then go back and post how fat you are, or how terrible you play, or how your hair looks. It is not really fair. If you can know who I am why can’t I know who you are? It is not a level playing field.

It is like those people who have such self hatred they have to cut themselves with a razorblade. It is nobodies business what people think of me. I have had to learn that. I am so sensitive than when I get beat up I go, “Ow that hurts.” When you’re in the public eye then what else can you do?

Jeb: You seem like a cool cat. I would never describe you as sensitive.

Steve: It is truer than any of the other bullshit that is put upon me. Smile while your heart is breaking. It is like the tears of a clown and all of that shit…that was me. I was so empty inside and there was so much bad shit happening in my life that I tried to drown it with booze. I was trying to get away from people. Unfortunately, after 36 years on the road you tend to trip a little bit. I am like a lot of my peers who got out there a little bit too far and had to reel ourselves back in without a secret meeting or anything. They are now just like me; straight up sober and everything.

Some of my best guitar buddies in the world that I’ve had some outrageous times with are now tea-totaling fools like me. It is all for the better. I had some fun, but I don’t miss it, or care about it. Smoking and drinking now kind of grosses me out, it’s kind of weird. I went completely the other way. I have a lot more time to do more positive stuff. I practice more and I get up early and play with my kids. I’m a better parent and a better friend. I stay to myself. I don’t really go out much. Believe it or not, I am actually kind of shy. I don’t have that booze bravado. I used that to cover up some deep insecurity.

Jeb: Who is the song “Judgment Day” about?

Steve: It is actually about somebody who I used to be friends with. They made up a bunch of shit about me and posted it on the Internet. He, then, found out that the things he accused me of were not really me, but he never posted a retraction.

Everyone is so quick to judge everyone and to pick people apart. They prey upon their little weaknesses for all to laugh and scowl at. It is Internet bullying. When it is someone who you know then you’re like, “Why didn’t you call me on the telephone and call me out? Instead you put it out there for hundreds, or thousands, of people who don’t know either one of us and believe this as truth.”

Internet bullying is real. Kids have killed themselves over this stuff. My older kids never lived through this Face Book shit when they were little. My two little ones will grow up in a world where this will be a big part of their life. You’ve got to keep a keener eye on your kids and even on yourself.

I use the Internet for a positive way for business, but I don’t put out too much personal information out there.

Jeb: You added the guitar effects later in the recording process. You changed how you play on this record. 

Steve: I pulled back. My desire to try to win the race cannot be won. I have gone back to my strong points, which are note choice and interesting phrasing. I am playing from my heart. There are a few flashy places where I play really fast, but that is what we do.

I try to be more responsible with my playing. I am less showy. I just plugged my guitar into an amp and any effects were all done after the signal. I backed off the gain a bit. I started playing without thinking about the competition.

Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, who I hang with, and all of these young kids who are coming up, do that better than me. I play to my strengths.

I am more thoughtful about what I play instead of just flying off the handle and playing to impress my guitar friends. There are people who do that better now. I am playing more melodic and I think that is what people dug about what I did when I started out. I am not just trying to be the fastest gun in the West.

I have a tendency to play how I feel. If I felt angry and frustrated then that is the way I played. Add a few cocktails to that and I play almost robotically. I wasn’t even making musical statements. I was just wanking off. It kind of makes me wince. I can take a look at my face and know that I wasn’t even in the room. I would like to laugh at it, and maybe I will in ten years, but not now. I kind of lost my way and that is the truth.

Given all of the opportunities that I’ve been blessed with, I let my personal life carry over to my professional life and some of the live performances were less than stellar and I am kind of ashamed of that. When I tried to be that guy I kind of lost who I was.

Jeb: As you came up with Toto people were impressed with your extreme taste in your lead playing.

Steve: I have gone back to that. It is a really nice feeling to be able to have this opportunity with this new album. A lot of people get to my age and they quickly put out an album and then go out and play the hits and make money. I really needed to prove to myself that I had new music in me that was not repetitive.

I don’t have hit songs per say, but I have an audience that likes to come and see me play. I can play to 750, or 1500, people, solo, in Europe. I can make a good living and have fun and play whatever I want without having to be that “Rosanna,” “Africa” and “Hold the Line” guy.

When I go back to being that guy in the summer, with my bros, then, I am having a blast. I am looking around the stage and seeing my old high school friends again. I was really unhappy before I quit in 2007 and then we regrouped in 2010 to help my buddy Mike Porcaro, who is losing his battle with ALS.

Jeb: That is such a sad story.

Steve: It makes prison look like Club Med. You’re entombed in your own body and you can’t move. You can think like a fucking fifteen year old and you can feel. There is no happy ending to this. The ending is the ending and we all now what that is.

He only sees a handful of people and I don’t see him that much. If he gets a cold it can kill him because he can’t cough. You lose all muscle control and you become all liquefied. You think in your head for your hand to move, but it doesn’t move. It is worse than being paralyzed because you can still feel. If you have an itch on your foot, then you can’t scratch it, and then, all of the indignities that go with it.

His wife is a saint. His mom and dad have two kids down. They went from the golden family to what the fuck happened.

You really realize your own mortality. You realize that all of these Internet creeps are so meaningless. My kids crawl in bed with me in the morning and give me kisses—it doesn’t get any better than that. Then, I get up in the morning and do this for a living. I am very lucky. I think I appreciate my career more than I ever have in my whole life, other than when I was starting out and I figured out that I was going to pull this off.

I can stand up in the morning and look at myself in the mirror and really be grateful for what I have. There are a million guys better than me, but I have this opportunity and I am not going to waste it. I am going to right the wrongs and I’m going to push forward.

This album, and the last couple of albums, is to show people that I am back and doing what I should be doing. If people don’t like me, then they are never going to like me. For the people that dug me and thought, “What the fuck happened to this cat?” I was trying too hard and I was too angry and hating myself and it came out in my playing and I was ashamed of myself.

Over the last three albums I have found my soloist style. CJ would tell me to focus on my strengths. I want to be an all around artist and not just be a guitar player making a solo record. I am a songwriter that plays guitar. I want to focus on that and try to appeal to a wider audience.

Jeb: With this album you have added the emotional aspect and not just a technical aspect. 

Steve: That is what I did with the song “Smile.” I closed my eyes and just played. I left it, warts and all. I recorded it live in the room and then CJ took it and added the keyboard to it. It was just a heartfelt little moment that I had in the studio. I could have made it flashier and made it more perfect, but then it wouldn’t have had any heart in it.

Jeb: How else did you change your style on this album?

Steve: A lot of times I go to a bridge and instead of playing a solo, the guitar would just take over where the vocals left off. The solos are just me rolling tape and seeing what I got. I will do a few takes and I either like it or I don’t. Sometimes CJ says, “Get the fuck out of here. Come back tomorrow and we will see what you’ve got.” Most of the solos I tried to focus, but I really am critical of myself and that is why I have a co-producer. I would never finish anything if it was up to me. Somebody has to say, “Enough. Stop. It’s fine.” I couldn’t do it without CJ.

I also avoided power chords on this album. Instead of fifths I tried to add harmony. It still rocks due to the rhythm section, but I didn’t want to pound out huge riffs in the songs. It leaves a lot more air in the songs. If you listen to the record with headphones then you will find all kinds of cool ambient noises going on like something Pink Floyd, or Yes would do. I am going back to my mid-70’s prog rock sort of thing. I wear my influences on my sleeve—I don’t try to hide it. Actually, it makes me smile when I do that.

Jeb: What happened four years ago that made you want to change?

Steve: I woke with one hangover too many. I said, “Maybe it is me.” I wondered what would happen if I took all of the bullshit out of the equation and saw what was really going on. I had to make some hard choices. I just stopped. I put down the cigarettes and the booze on the same day after 35 years; I was done. I just turned a switch off in my brain.

I didn’t go to rehab and I’m not an AA guy. A lot of my friends are in the program but I don’t go to meetings and get my chip and I’ll take a sleeping pill on a flight and I’ll take a pain pill if they yank my tooth out. There are aspects of AA that I don’t like that much; I don’t like the cultish aspect of it that much, but I really think it helps a lot of people out.

I am the kind of guy that when I go hiking in the hills I go the opposite way than everyone else goes. I go up the hill harder. I go counterclockwise. Somebody pointed out to me that I always go the wrong way than everyone else and I thought that was a great metaphor for my life. I really woke up one day and said, “I am going to take a couple of months off this shit and clean up my mind, body and spirit and see what happens.”

After that, I went through some serious life changes; I lost my mom and my marriage went. My youngest son was born as we were breaking up. We are now friends and it’s all good.

One month turned into six months and I felt great. I lost 30 pounds and I started going to a shrink and trying to figure out the deep seated reasons I was like this. There is always some deep rooted shit. “I live such a charmed life so why am I miserable” sort of thing.

People say that you can’t play the blues unless you’re a poor black guitar player from the south, but when my heart was broken I could play the blues. I am not saying I am a blues player per say, but I was able to put the heart back in my playing. It was a serous bump in the road for several years and then it started eating away at me and I wondered what I was doing and how I lost it. I broke it all down. I got rid of all my gear and I went back to where it all started. My vibe changed and I got healthy and my attitude changed. I just started all over again from the bottom up. I started approaching music differently and I started approaching life differently.

When I did that, all of these opportunities started coming my way, like playing with Ringo [Starr]. Joe [Satriani] asked me if I wanted to play on a G3 tour. He really wanted me to come and he and Steve [Vai] and I have been bros for 25 years. I was afraid I was going to get the shit beat out of me and that all of their fans would hate on me and stuff. I went to Australia and a lot of these kids thought I was going to play fucking “Africa” or something.

The first couple of shows I was so fucking nervous that if you had shoved a piece of coal up my ass, then after the show there would have been a diamond. I didn’t know how I was going to be taken. Steve and Joe were so nice to me. I was so honored to have my name on that roster. All of the obvious guys have done it and I was kind of the wildcard. It really helped me to get some of my confidence back. I’m not as good as those guys and I don’t pretend to be. It was a great opportunity for people to see a different side of things. They really saw three different takes on how to play a guitar. It was one of those bucket list types of things.

All of the guys in the band are monster musicians. We were all hanging out like it was some awesome fraternity. I went from that to Ringo.

Jeb: What is the plan now? 

Steve: I am rehearsing my solo band for our solo tour. I played with Toto at the NAMM show. I am heading out with Ringo on February 4th to New Zealand, Japan and Australia. I come back and have one day to rehearse and I am off with my band. Then, after that, I come back, have two weeks off and head out for the summer with Toto. Ringo is back out in November and then I go back out with my band until Toto goes back out. I am booked almost through 2015. I am busier than a three legged cat trying to bury a turd in an ice rink. Think about that visual for a minute. I couldn’t be happier.

It is tough being a Skype dad for my little ones. I have seven dependents and am in the fifty percent tax bracket, so I’ve got to keep working. At the same time, what I am supposed to fucking do? Sit around the house? I get to do all of this cool shit and that makes it so I don’t even think about partying.

Jeb: You sound very happy. You sound comfortable in your own skin.

Steve: I am, but I couldn’t be without allowing it to scab up and heal. I was raw. I really have worked towards that. Even my ex’s love me. I am not a bad guy. I didn’t hit anybody; it just fell apart. My ex had a problem too and she got her self together. We are on an even level and we are better friends than we were lovers. My life story is so out there that it makes it hard to meet girls. They don’t want to jump on this fucking train.

I am going to make the backside of my life the best that it can possibly be. I’ve tried to go back and make amends with anybody that I fucked around or said some stupid shit about. Sometimes you look back at these interviews and you go, “What the fuck did I say that for? What a dick. I wish I could take it back.” You’ve got to keep shit in the rearview mirror sometimes, or life will eat you up.

Jeb: You did three sessions that I want to know what they were like. You worked with Elton John.

Steve: I was just twenty one the first time that we met. He wanted me to quit Toto and join his band. It was during the Hydra record and I just couldn’t do it.

I got the call to go to France and play on his album. I remember Elton sitting on a piano bench and playing “Levon” for me; just me and him. We were good friends up through the mid ‘80’s and then he got sober and went back to England. We did three or four records.

I look back at his old records like Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and they were just brilliant. The first four or five Elton John records were really part of the soundtrack of my life. He is such a brilliant artist. It was a great honor to be a part of that. He is very generous.

I am really looking forward to seeing him next weekend. When I saw him last in Vegas he just looked at me and started laughing and gave me a big hug. It was really nice. It is weird to be friends with your childhood heroes. Ringo is sending me text messages telling me that we are going to hang. Ringo is my pal.

Jeb: I must be amazing being friends with all of these great musicians.

Steve: The other night I went out and it was me, Lee Ritenour, Jay Graden, Joe Bonamassa, Tal Wilkenfeld and Ray Parker Jr. There is a couple of different generations of shit going on there. I said, “I’ll drive” as I don’t drink.

Joe is a great friend of mine who is an amazing artist. He is coming over today because I am putting my ’59 burst back to pristine condition. I am putting all of the original parts back on and he is my vintage go to guy. He knows the serial number of the screws and shit like that. I get a kick out of his enthusiasm and how much he knows about that stuff.

We were all hanging out talking about what is missing these days. We used to walk into a room not knowing what we were going to do, or what was going to happen. We would sit down next to each other and we’d come up with this shit, on the spot. We would work together efficiently and soulfully and we would give each other space. We learned from each other. That is not there anymore. Everybody says, “Send me a file and I’ll put my shit on there.”

People have virtual friends and it is like we are getting virtual music. You’re not in the room staring at each other. It is kind of like jerking off as opposed to having sex. You can look at the photo, but it is not in the room. I want to taste it and smell it.

An invisible wall has come into music. People used to say that Toto was soulless and slick, but when we played in the room that is what it sounded like. You want to talk about generic sounding music then listen to rock radio. It is the same production on every song. Back when we were kids you could tell the difference between Yes, Genesis and Jethro Tull. You didn’t have to ask, “Who’s that?” There was a lot of pride in that and we used to experiment.

Music has become like McDonalds. I don’t even really know what a McNugget is, but I know it tastes the same anywhere in the world.

There is a part of the music world that is ready to fight back. People say my new album sounds fresh and that is because I tried to do something fresh and I didn’t produce it the way everyone else does. It does not sound like anyone else’s record.

Jeb: You worked with Eric Clapton on Behind the Sun

Steve: There is a funny story about that. I talked my way onto that album. I knew the producer on that one and I really wanted to meet Eric because I was a lifelong fan. I was so fucking nervous when I met Eric—I have never been that nervous meeting any star in the world. I played for free on that album because I just wanted to meet him.

We played “Forever Man” and I froze up and I didn’t know what to play and that never happens to me. I would play a little bit, but I didn’t want to play too much.


Anyway, when I showed up, Eric grabs me and starts feeling my fingers and he says, “You don’t’ have any calluses.” I said, “Eric, I just got out of the shower and ran over here.” He told me some really nice shit like how much he dug the solo in “Rosanna.” I was like, “Really? You liked that?” He was so nice to me. I played with him one other time, on stage at the Hollywood Bowl with Elton. I have a picture of that in my office.

Being around people like that and watching the process of what these geniuses do…I mean all of these people that I’ve been in the room with.

I’m writing my book. It’s called The Book of Luke and it has all of these biblical references in it. I am writing it with my buddy Lon Friend who was the editor of Rip Magazine. Lon and I have known each other since I was fourteen. I didn’t want to write stuff like, “When I was seven I got my first guitar” because everyone would already be nodding out. It is almost written in the Slaughterhouse-Five style. It is humorous. I am not writing about the sex and drugs and stuff. I have a lot of great stories about working with all of these great people. It’s all positive. I’m not throwing anybody under the bus. Why do that? I read a lot of biographies and I’ve found out what to do and what not to do.

Jeb: Did you play on “Dirty Laundry” by Don Henley?

Steve: Yes I did, that is Joe [Walsh] in the middle and me at the end. Joe and I were talking about that the other day. I was 23 when I did that.

I am a Joe Walsh fanatic and the song on my new album called “Last Man Standing” is a nod to Joe. It is the kind of song that he might have written. I play really behind the beat and stuff. Joe was a big influence to me growing up.

“Dirty Laundry” with Joe and Henley was really great. That was a really great record. Most of the Toto guys played on that along with Joe, Henley and me. I love Don. We got along great; he loved the humor. I was going to go on the road with Don at one point.

The thing about Henley in the studio is that you’re recording on the spot, so he is groovy with everything. Once he hears something, then it has to be that way every night. We started playing “Dirty Laundry” and it came time for my solo and I started ripping and he freaked out. He said, “You’re not going to play it the same way?” I said, “Dude, that was ten years ago, I don’t remember what I played.”

I never play solos the same way. I may start and end with a quote, but in the middle I play whatever. He wasn’t having it. All of a sudden it got a little tense. I said, “You know what Don, I’d rather be your friend.” I could see how it was going to be every night. I heard that if drummers do a drum tone different then they get a note on their door and almost get fired. I would rather be friends. Don and I are still friends. We have not played together in years, but we still have a laugh together now and then.

Jeb: Any last thoughts on the new album?

Steve: I’m really, really knocked out by the response. I’ve gotten the best reviews of my career. This is not some side project; this is what I do.

Going out with the Toto guys in the summer is more like a summer vacation where we do something positive for our bro Mike. Four of us are going through the midlife divorce, so it helps us, too.

www.stevelukather.net
http://mascotlabelgroup.com/mlg/artists/steve-lukather/
http://www.amazon.com/Transition-Steve-Lukather/dp/B00A6HHJ9C

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