Interview: Robert Cavuoto
Toto is one of those rare bands whose success has given them transatlantic fame having sold over 35 million albums globally and touring the world since their inception. Despite member changes, deaths, and musical trends – they have survived for close to 40 years.
On September 16th, Eagle Rock Entertainment will be releasing a very special concert entitled; Toto: Live in Montreux 1991. It was the last tour with drummer and bassist Jeff and Mike Porcaro who passed away too soon in life and career.
For this 1991 show and tour Toto headed out as a four piece with Steve “Luke” Lukather on guitar and vocals , David Paich on keyboards/vocals, Jeff Porcaro on drums and Mike Porcaro on bass. The thing that struck me about the performance was the tremendous camaraderie and friendship between the members, all playing off of each other nicely and having fun. Steve dazzles the Montreux audience with a pyrotechnic display of guitar playing and comedic sense while being frontman. It’s a snapshot of the band that will never been seen again and as Steve Lukather told me, “Is a gift to their fans.” Fast forward and Toto will be embarking on a 2016 US tour that starts August 12th and takes them through September.
I sat down with Steve Lukather for a very interesting, entertaining, and insightful discussion about this unique video release, a planned 40th anniversary tour, and his career defining moment!
Robert Cavuoto: I really enjoyed the new DVD, Live in Montreux 1991, I thought it was a guitar driven show?
Steve Lukather: That four piece band only existed as an entity for a very short period of time and this is the only documentation of it. It was prior to our Kingdom of the Desire CD and the last tour we ever did with drummer Jeff Porcaro.
I remixed it with Niko Bolas, our engineers on Toto IV. It seemed right for him to do this. I spent a week in the studio rebalancing; we didn’t do any overdubs because the audience was so loud that if you tried to fix something it would be quite noticeable. It’s a real show and that’s what I like about it.
Robert: You pretty much had free reign on stage as lead vocalist and guitar.
Steve Lukather: We already had four lead singers and said “fuck this!” Let’s go out as a four piece, write all the songs ourselves, and be a rock band like we wanted to be when we were kids. We add a couple of background vocalists and percussionist and we went out for the summer having fun and trying out the new materials. We were just happy to be out of the studio – you can see it on our faces. You can see that we are sweating our asses off on stage. Jeff at one point said put this bandana on my leg which I don’t know why and my hair looks hilarious. [laughing] It’s a snapshot in time that will never be again.
Robert: It was ballsy to open with two unreleased song at such a big festival?
Steve Lukather: We were fearless. We always champion our new materials and the fans love it. We’re not one of those bands that tours every summer and plays the same 13 hits. When we play a new song people don’t go to get a beer, they want to hear the new stuff. At the time no one had seen this version of the band so we thought lets go kick some ass. We won them over right away and you can see it.
Robert: How important was this festival to the band?
Steve Lukather: The Montreux festival has grown since we first played it. We played last year and it’s in an arena. Back in 1991 they were doing in the casino and that was their headliners room. This festival was predominately comprised of four piece Bebop bands. We were one of the first rock bands to be invited by Quincy Jones. I don’t think it is a jazz festival now as much as a music festival. We have credibility in the jazz community as we’ve worked with Miles Davis and Herbie Handcock. We’re a different kind of rock band where nobody can really put us in a box. This made rock critics turn on us, they would say how can you play with Michael Jackson, Alice Cooper, Van Halen and Miles Davis? Instead of writing about the good, they just dismiss us as a bunch of shitty studio guys. People don’t realize what being a studio musician is all about! Jimmy Page took me aside once at a guitar player event in his honor back in 1992. There was every famous guitar player at this event in LA. Jimmy pointed at me and here I am thinking he is pointing at Eddie Van Halen and wanting to talk with him! I never met him and he took me a side and said, “I read in the press that you were getting shit for being a studio musician. I was a studio musician too. You should be very proud of it.” I hugged him and asked if I can tell people what he said? He laughed and was like “Yeah.” Jimmy is my hero. John Paul Jones was also a studio musician, if you think about it; Led Zeppelin was made up of studio musicians!
Robert: Toto has had several different singers and members in its history but the band is truly greater as a whole than the individual parts, what’s your take on that?
Steve Lukather: Definitely, I think of Toto as a band. We are back to the 80s or as close as we can with the loss of Mike and Jeff. We have Steve Porcaro, David Paich, Joseph Williams who sang on many of our multiple platinum records, Lenny Castro on percussion, Leland Sklar on bass, a legendary guy who has been playing bass for 40 years and myself. We are keeping the vibe alive and everything is going really well. There is a resurgence in the band lately, mainly because “Africa” is used by rappers. I guess kids find out we have 14 other albums. We’ve seen a spike in our sale and stream. We had 365 million streams in the last four years which is insane. It’s great because we get 50% on all our streaming rights from our last settlement. [Laughing]. You have to embrace this new technology. If you’re a songwriter by trade you are really getting ass fucked, if you’re a rock band at least you can go out and play live to make money. I’m a ruthless business man because we took over self-management. All the things that managers could never do for us, we are doing on our own. Once we took the ball back in our own hands everything changed for us. There is a new breath of life and we made Toto XIV. It has done great worldwide.
Robert: Did you enjoy being the frontman of that band during that time?
Steve Lukather: Yeah, I still am in many ways as I do a lot of the talking with the audience. I’m pretty fearless and have a weird sense of humor. I never asked for the job and don’t mind doing it. Even though I may be the loud mouth [laughing] I don’t have any problem expressing myself if I’m nervous or scared. Somebody has to step up and take the leadership role, so David and I are the founders and this is the band we always wanted to be in. I’m a proactive person and interact really well with all the business people. I’ve been managing myself for decades so I was more than ready to manage Toto. The buck stops with me; it’s my ass as I got all the skin in the game. I renegotiated with Sony, there was a lot of cock blocking going on as we thought they hated us and they thought we hated them. It wasn’t the case, there was just a misunderstanding. We made them a lot of money selling 5 million records in the last five years. That’s absurd in a day when no one is selling records. I just brokered a new deal with Sony, to do some new music and repackage some of our old stuff. We’ve got some great ideas for our 40th Anniversary coming up with a tour. If you had told me 20 years ago, I would laugh in your face.
Robert: Is it tough to watch the concert with the passing of Jeff and Mike?
Steve Lukather: Yeah, I shed a lot of tears yet laughed a lot too. Jeff and Mike looked so fucking alive, we all looked so happy and there is joy in the music and the process of making it. It’s a great gift to the fans as they need to see this. I only wish that we had more camera angles with Jeff, back then they didn’t have the lipstick cameras on the drums but he was always hiding behind his cymbals anyway. He never wanted to be the upfront guy.
Robert: How is it looking at yourself and your performance that night?
Steve Lukather: I was in my early 30s back in 1991, now I’m going to be 59. I still feel like that in side and still have the energy. We all did all the crazy things a band could ever do. I’m writing my autobiography and reliving a lot of things from the past. It’s all incredibly positive.
Robert: In your book what will you mention as Toto’s dark point?
Steve Lukather: The loss of course. We lost two brothers from the same family. I’m looking at their parents who are the nicest people on the planet. As a father of four children myself, if I lost two of them, I would never be the same again. Yet they handle it with tremendous class and dignity. I consider them a second family and they’ve embraced me. I love them. This is a gift for Jeff’s kids and all the fans who loved him.
Robert: When you are creating music and coming up with riffs whose voice do you typically hear in the back of your head or do you write for your own voice?
Steve Lukather: We like to throw the ball around a lot. With the “Rosanna” the reason there were two singers on it is because we couldn’t figure out who should sing it! I sounded good on the verses and Bobby sound good on the higher parts. Originally the song had a Bo Diddley beat but we changed its direction. We went and cut the track in two takes and I did that New Orleans solo vamp at the end which was spontaneous. The record was album of the year. It was our do or die record as the record company was going to dump us if we didn’t have a hit record. We felt that we should not be what we think we should be but rather be what we are. That was the turning point for us and it went off to sell 8 million records worldwide.
Robert: You are a tremendously talented guitarist, how do you feel that you have progressed, grown or evolved as a guitarist over the years?
Steve Lukather: I’m obviously not a big guitar player these days. There are so many amazing guitar players out there it’s staggering. I’ve carved out a niche for myself. I’m not trying to the biggest, baddest, fastest gun in the West; that’s a young man’s game. What I do is get up every morning and practice as it still means a lot to me. I’m refining who I am. I’m not looking to win the race as I’ve got off the mark. Once I started being myself then I connected with people. It’s like walking on a path and the path gets worn out. I like to get into the weeds and try new shit. When I work with other musicians I get inspired. If you keep using your brain and not doing the same lick on guitar it opens up your vocabulary. Knowledge is power not technique. It’s about having many options and playing something while retaining my own voice as a guitar player. There are so many guitar players that all sound very similar because they learned all the same shit off the internet. The magic trick is not magic anymore. There’s no mystic to it and it’s sadly missed.
Robert: You play with Ringo and his All Star Band, do you ever catch your looking back at him thinking, “I’m playing with a member of The Beatles”?
Steve Lukather: Playing with Ringo is one of the greatest things I have ever done in my life! He has become a very dear friend and inspiration. I cherish our friend and the opportunity to play with him. We wrote and recorded a ballad the other day and he was playing the bell of cymbal and it sounds like “Hey Jude” – because it’s the same fucking cymbal – played by Ringo! I don’t have to say, can you play like Ringo, it is Ringo [laughing]. Playing with Ringo has helped Toto as well. When I play with him people who are not familiar with me are impressed and look up who I am what I’m doing.
When I got invited to play at The Beatles 50th Anniversary; The Night that Changed America, we were about to walk on stage they are showing clips from Hard Day’s Night. I’m standing next to Ringo, Paul McCartney and George Harrison and it hits me; these were the guys I saw on the Ed Sullivan show and made me want to become a musician. I realized at that moment that I actually pulled off this little unobtainable dream that my father told me was impossible. Fifty years later it came true, I got a little tear in my eye. It was a personal moment where I went “Oh my God, I actually made it.” If you would have told me in 50 years I would be celebrating The Beatles anniversary and would be playing with three of the four members, I would never believe it. I’ve had a 40 year career and making records, touring and performing, I’m the luckiest guy in the world and thankful for this life; with all the good bad and ugly that comes with it. I have been writing “musician” on my tax return since I was a teenager. I’m the luckiest motherfucker on planet earth.