Behind the Curtain: Steve Lukather and Toto

Steve RosenCategories:Behind the Curtain

Rock Cellar Magazine

During Steve Lukather’s 40+ years as a guitar player and professional musician, he has done some stuff and seen some things. Some remarkable, insane, unbelievable things. Here are just a few of them:

  • Played with two of the four Beatles—Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr—and became a member of the 12th incarnation of Ringo’s All Starr Band in 2012.
  • Produced several unreleased tracks with Jeff Beck.
  • You know what? There’s no reason to even list a third achievement. I mean the dude sat in a studio and recorded Jeff Beck while he was cutting guitar tracks. What else do you need to know about the guy?

I can tell you a lot more about Steve Lukather because I’ve known him close to four decades now. In fact, I’ve interviewed Steve probably as many times as any other artist. Number one on the list of multiple interviews was Edward Van Halen, but certainly Luke comes in a close second. Over the course of about 10 or 12 years in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, I spoke to him literally dozens of times.

Photo: Mark Walton for Rock Cellar

Just because I’ve interviewed a guitar player multiple times in and of itself doesn’t necessarily mean anything if the conversations themselves don’t mean anything. Any rock journalist can sit down with the same musician year after year—usually revolving around a new album release—and go over the same old stuff and ask the same tired questions and come away with the same boring story. To be honest, I had fallen into that trap from time to time. Every interview wasn’t magical because the chemistry between two people could be unpredictable and sometimes the results ended up being combustible.

I had met and sat across the table from dozens of artists on more than one occasion, and though there was a brief history there and a previous exchange of ideas, that didn’t translate automatically or guarantee a wonderful interview upon the second meeting. Since I first started writing around 1973, I have probably conducted over 2,000 interviews [rough estimate]. Virtually every guitarist, singer, bassist, drummer, rhythm guitarist, producer, engineer, sax player and amp builder had been gracious with his/her time and was invested in the idea of wanting to share their thoughts and personal feelings about the way they made music. In other words, they were totally on-board with the notion of participating in an interview.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defined an “interview” simply as “a meeting at which information is obtained (as by a reporter, television commentator, or pollster) from a person” and at the heart of it, that’s what it was. The majority of the musicians who were willing to sit down for a half-hour interview understood that loosely-worded definition and what it entailed.

Photo: Glen La Ferman

Here in a nutshell was the accepted etiquette for an interview:

  • Show up. It hasn’t happened often but sometimes the other party is nowhere to be found and this can make for a difficult conversation when you end up talking to yourself.
  • Be in a semi-talkative mood. Again it doesn’t happen often but once in a while you’ll get an interviewee who doesn’t want to talk, has nothing to say or nothing they want to say and is basically just so essentially rude or arrogant that they end up answering questions in single-word responses. You know you’re in trouble when you talk more than they do.
  • Pretend you’re having a good time. Sometimes the person you’re speaking to is so uncomfortable, ill at ease or just downright pissed that he/she is sitting there that they not only answer in monosyllabic grunts but those verbal snorts are usually in the form of curse words too foul to repeat here (this hasn’t transpired on too many occasions but it has happened). Even worse is when the subject doesn’t necessarily act in an adversarial fashion but will degrade you through sarcasm (“What kind of a stupid question is that?) or a sense of intellectual superiority (“I talked about that years ago. What are you trying to glean now?”).
  • Say something smart, funny, engaging, enlightening, sad, prophetic, disturbing, newsworthy, romantic, personal, amusing, bemusing, Just don’t be boring or predictable.

Pretty simple, really. With artists I’ve talked to more than one time, you’d think this set of rules wouldn’t even be a problem but that’s what I was alluding to earlier: Just because you’re meeting someone for the second or fourth time, it doesn’t mean the outcome will be a positive one. That has never been the case with Steve Lukather.

From the first time I met him 39 years ago, the insanely gifted musician exhibited all the qualities in the Number 4 Rules of Interview Etiquette listed above and more. At that time back in 1978, I was already writing for the Japanese magazine Player and the editor during that period wanted a story on Toto, who were then just forming. Toto would be embraced like kings in Japan and Lukather’s stature there nothing less that guitar god.

I can remember driving to Steve’s house the first time. He lived just over the hill from my little guest cottage in the Hollywood Hills and I knew the drive there couldn’t take more than 10 minutes—but it did. The guitarist lived in one of those neighborhoods where every other street named sounded exactly the same: Oakstone, Oakridge, Oak Way, Oak Drive, Oak Street, Oak Trail, Oak, Oak, Oak. A half-hour later I finally found the house and parked.

Sitting in his driveway was a beautiful Porsche and glancing inside the garage, I thought I saw a Ferrari. Luke had done immensely well as a session guitarist. Along with players like Mike Landau, Steve represented a sort of second wave of studio rat since he followed on the heels of brilliant musicians such as Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour and Jay Graydon. The house was very cool but not ostentatious. I knocked on the front door and the first words Steve Lukather ever said to me were, “Where the f—k were you, man?” I told him I’d gotten lost and he laughed. I liked him immediately. I could tell he was just having fun [See Rule 4] and that in turn put me at ease.

We sat in a very spacious living room and Luke proceeded to regale me with tales of doing sessions, putting together Toto and life as a rock guitar player. When he talked about his heroes—Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck—I could see the sparkle in his eyes and the grin on his face and I knew he loved those guitarists as much as I did. Though he was an astonishingly gifted guitar player and a frighteningly good pianist in his own right—not to mention an accomplished producer and award-winning songwriter—I don’t think Luke ever thought of himself as even living on the same planet as those iconic figures. That was something I would sense every time I’d interview him over the next several decades. As successful as he would become—winning Grammys, ultimately producing Jeff Beck, playing with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr and so much more—he never thought of himself as breathing the same air as Beck, Page and Jimi Hendrix.

Luke loved to talk and we spent a long time together. I found out early on that he was not afraid to say what was on his mind and though he personally never attacked anyone verbally, he did take shots at the music business and other aspects of the musician’s life he was leading that left a dirty taste in his mouth. When I got up to leave, he said, “Don’t get lost going home.” Or maybe he didn’t say it but I’d like to think he would have.

I met Luke again the following year for the release of Toto’s second album, Hydra. I made the short drive to his house and this time I knew exactly where I was going. As I pulled up, I noted a few other cars in the driveway and just thought Steve had some friends over. Again, the guitarist greeted me like a long-lost friend and invited me inside where I immediately saw Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro and his brother, keyboardist Steve Porcaro sitting on the couch. I was blown away but at the same time a bit overwhelmed since I didn’t know they would be there and I hadn’t prepared any questions for them. Still, I went about my business and set up my very amateurish cassette player and began the conversation.

What was so memorable and noteworthy about that second meeting was watching the interaction between Luke and the two Porcaros. The guitarist, drummer and keyboardist had all attended Grant High School together in the San Fernando Valley and had been childhood friends. In fact, virtually the entire Toto band had gone to Grant High and this included keyboardist David Paich. Can you imagine if you were in a group from a rival high school participating in a Battle of the Bands and those guys were your competition? You’d pack up your guitars and drums and scurry back home and start practicing for the next thousand years.

So as I sat there and watched and felt the dynamics of the conversation among these three world class musicians, I was truly mesmerized. Sitting in front of me were arguably three of the finest players in the world and what was even more incredible was the fact that all three had grown up together and were now in the same band.

I had seen this type of camaraderie, this bonhomie, before. If any of you reading this have followed previous Behind the Curtain stories, you know about the Metal Roundtable I wrote about previously where guitarists Dave Meniketti, Vivian Campbell, Pat Thrall and Night Ranger’s Jeff Watson and Brad Gillis came together one afternoon to have a discussion about heavy metal. There was a similar feel to the conversation on that day among those successful and gifted musicians but even that was a little different than the connection I perceived between Luke and the Porcaro brothers. The players at the Metal Roundtable came from different bands and though they may have toured together in the past or ran into each from time to time, there was no real meaningful relationship shared by anyone.

Lukather and the Porcaros represented an entirely different animal. These were players touched by god, growing up together as little kids, all finding success in the session world and then joining together in the same band. Based on all of that, I watched the ease and familiarity with which they spoke and dealt with each other. It was a remarkable thing. They were all part of this unspoken fraternity of “cats,” an expression they bandied about in referring to the hippest, coolest and baddest musicians around. Each of them had been initiated into this rare fellowship and they all belonged there and if you weren’t in it, you were never going to get in it.

What I’m trying to say was how lucky I had been to have had a small glimpse into how these apex players dealt with one another on a personal level. It was beautiful. Jeff Porcaro was funny and smart and in fact Luke always deferred to Jeff and showed him the utmost respect. Steve was also a humorous fellow and very friendly but he didn’t have the same dynamic personality as his brother.

My experiences with Luke were always positive and cheerful though as I’d touched on earlier, he was not one to shy away from how he was feeling. On more than one occasion during the early days with Toto, he would rail and go on and on about the upstart punk bands who barely knew three chords and would hold up as a badge of honor the fact that they couldn’t even tune their guitars. The punk movement created a sort of backlash against musicians who really could play and Toto were sometimes the recipients of this negative feedback. It made Steve crazy that he had worked all his life on learning how to play the guitar and now that was looked down upon. He hated it and rightly so.

One of the more memorable afternoons I spent with Lukather was in 2008 when he released Ever Changing Times, his fifth solo album. It was a prophetic title. Steve was different and maybe it was because he’d just had a daughter named Tina or maybe it was because he was about to undertake yet another Toto tour in Japan with old friend and musical acquaintance Boz Scaggs. Luke turned 50 in 2008 and maybe he decided it’s just not important what other people think about your music. He was softer and not quite as angry a young man as he used to be.

The interview took place over the holidays and as affirmation there was a Christmas tree adorned with twinkling lights, a fire in the fireplace, and babies and family walking all around the house. The home was being remodeled—to accommodate an expanding family—and the Porsche in the driveway were all indications of just how remarkable Lukather’s career had been. He still couldn’t come to trips with the why of it all—why he was able to play with everyone from McCartney and Starr to Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai and why he’s played on albums with everybody from Peter Criss and Alice Cooper to Michael Jackson [Luke plays bass and rhythm guitar on “Beat It”], Elton John and Aretha Franklin.

As Luke pondered the whys of his life, Swink, the family’s little pug dog, walked by chewing on a guitar string. It had just been removed from Trevor Lukather’s [Steve’s 19-year old son] Ernie Ball guitar. Steve shot an admonishing look at his son and told him not to leave strings lying around. Not yet 20, Trev already played the guitar with astonishing feel and passion and though he did enjoy a famous last name, he was just a teenager who still needed a parental reminder now and again that he had a lot to learn about the world. I went out to Trev’s car and he played me some of the music he had been working on. The guitars were muscular, melodic and commanding and running through the lyrical lines and heavenly solos was a little bit of Papa Luke.

As we walked back into the house, I could see that Steve was justifiably proud of his young son. We spoke a while longer and by then I could see that more of his family had shown up for the holidays so I made my exit. To this day, I am still in contact with Luke. I have his phone number and email and if I ever need anything, I just give him a shout.

He has never let me down and I am honored to call him my friend.

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