"I just wanted to take all the bullshit out of the signal path."
Steve Lukather is speaking of the manner in which he recorded the guitars for his outstanding new record, Transition, but he could just as easily be discussing the changes he's made in his life over the last few years.
Lukather transitioned from being arguably the most successful studio guitarist in history, and one of the hardest partying rockers to ever see the sun rise into being an amazingly in demand live act (last summer he not only joined Steve Vai and Joe Satriani on their European G-3 excursion, he also joined up with a Beatle in Ringo's All Starr Band), and he is, in his own words, "Probably in a better head space than I've ever been in my life - and that says a lot because I've been through a lot in this life."
Once upon a time Lukather found himself hanging up on Michael Jackson when the megastar called him at 8 a.m., so I'm lucky to be speaking with the most recorded six stringer in history at dawn in Los Angeles - turns out he's been up for hours, got in his practice for the day, the gym, and 'the computer shit,' before I've downed my first coffee, but I'm catching up.
Before we get to the fun stuff (the music), I thought I'd ask about the changes in lifestyle and his jam packed schedule for 2013:
Lukather, "I'm feeling very blessed to have so much going on, it's a trip for me - I look at it, and I go, 'Shouldn't I be slowing down?' But actually, I'm speeding up, which is great because I have the energy to do it now, you know? I'm of clear mind, body, and soul and have been for years now, and I'm a completely different person than I used to be. It's all for the better, at least I think it is! I went through a lot of pain too get here, but hey - at the same time, no pain, no gain, isn't that the cliche?
"I woke up with one hangover too many - I looked like shit, played like shit, hated my self, and I hated a lot of people and things that were around me. I had to really clean house in every possible area. It was really hard. And then I lost my mom in the middle of it all. It was a brutal death, and it was just really hard to deal with it all at the same time.
"It kinda gets away from you - 36 years on the road, man, 36 years on the road. Someone should try that sometime and see how that feels - I busted up my teeth, and compound fractures, and you know, some of it's on the internet for all to gawk at, it's hard to deal with, it's hard to take a look at yourself publicly, and go, OK. Not like some of my peers and my other friends that lost their way in the midst of this rock and roll nonsense, I still have my stuff, so I can only live here today and look forward. I look at the past and some of it was great, and some of it was, 'What the fuck?' So what can I say? I've had a very extraordinary life and career, I can tell you that."
Listening to Transition, you can almost hear what Lukather has been saying here. He seems to have been freed from the excesses that found him overplaying, angry, and at times even sloppily in the past. The melodies are taut, his playing has never been better, and I mostly hear it in his singing - he's very present, it's almost as if he's singing in my living room. I would suggest that he has finally found himself, and he's damned comfortable with who he is:
Lukather: "Well, yeah - I kind of lost my way in the shred fests and the whole....when you're really beat down and you're hurting inside, and there's a lot of personal issues I'd rather not get into concerning what was going on around me that were deep and intense. You find a way to numb it - you know?
"You don't really see it in the midst of it, and you play how you feel. If I was angry, I would play too much, and still be frustrated - I would sound like what was going on inside of me. I look back on some of it with great shame. How did I let it get that bad? But there it is.
"I could see it in my face, I could hear it in my playing, I lost my view, I lost what it was that made me different from everybody else, but I think that I have finally found my voice and my heart again, and I'm playing the way I should be playing instead of wanking off, you know?"
I know - only too well. I myself have been that lost, that far gone, and I'm only too familiar with the ring of his own incredulity at his downward spiral and revival. While we're on an uphill climb, I mention that Transition is perhaps the most complete musical statement he has made. The guy has recorded thousands of records, written platinum albums, huge hits, and played before millions of fans, but this is likely the closest we have got to seeing the fifteen year old kid in the mirror:
Lukather: "Hey, thank you, man! I really tried hard on this one - it's the most honest me I can be, the most organic I can be sonically and emotionally.
"When I did the last album, I was at my lowest. I was going through all of it - I was sober, but I was feeling every punch. Man, you know how it is, I didn't AA, I didn't rehab, I just stopped - I even quit smoking cigarettes the same day. I said, 'No more toxic me.' And I never looked back and it's not hard for me. What was hard for me was to have to take a hard look at the things I had done, the things I had said, and the things I had played, where I say, 'What the fuck was that?'
"The thing is what is going on around you - you suddenly see and feel. All the emotions you stuffed away for many years, in my case decades. I had a pretty good shrink to get me through it - then my shrink died! What can I say?
"I would go on and on until this guy would go, 'What? You're kidding me, really?' And like I said, I've publicly apologized for losing my way, but the thing about it is, I got back on the horse.
"And now I feel good - Transition. The title of that and what it means is from the darkness to the light. I've had an amazing life, I've had a few falls, that's all. It happens to human beings. Especially in this walk of life, I mean, many of my friends and peers my age, they all kind of quit at the same time, but we haven't had a secret meeting! Everybody's like, 'You can't do that shit when you're fifty.' I started out as a teenager, it was all very innocent - 'Woohoo, let's rock 'n' roll and party all night.'
"I can't run as fast as I did when I was 18, either. I'm in pretty good fuckin' shape, I'm in better physical shape than I've been in 25 years."
Transition sounds incredibly organic - Lukather collaborated with co-writer/producer C. J. Vanston and much of the record was made with the pair sitting next to one another in the control room. I asked Steve how they approached the recording:
"Well, I really avoided many of the pitfalls of today's productions, which is all over-compressing stereo busses, using big power chords - I went to great lengths to open up with more harmony in the chords, rather than, well, there's more to chords than just fifths and thirds, you know? I went to great lengths not to just do fifths quadrupled - that sound is just so tired for me.
"C. J. Vanston, my co-writer, producer, and partner, and I, we really strive to make it rock and to not get too fusion-y, or to go over anyone's head. It was a challenge everyday to find that fine line, which I think we did. The reactions so far have been really great - I'm realy happy after working on it so hard.
"I'm not phoning it in, bro, I mean, a lot of guys my age, they make a record, they go out on tour and play their old shit to make money, or write songs that are just vehicles for guitar solos - and that's just not really what I do. Mind you, there are guys who play instrumental guitar that are just a million times better than me, but I think I play now to my stronger suit which is more nuanced."
Everything he says can be confirmed by a listen to Transition - there's no shortage of stunning guitar histrionics, but it fits contextually - there's no bravado, however, there is also no question that you're listening to one of the world's great axeslingers. I mention that in terms of having the right balance between songwriting, singing, guitar playing, and production, I am reminded of another recent album by a renowned guitarist, Scarlett - The Director's Cut, by Dave Kilmister of Roger Waters's band, who I am talking to the next day:
"Oh man! Tell him I said he's fucking great! I just saw that show (The Wall) - Tell him that I was at the mixing desk screaming when he played - what a great guitar player!
"You know - you get caught up in the race of it all, and it can become this thing. Internally, and even sub-consciously you've gotta keep up with the fastest gun in the west, and that's like trying to suck your own dick - what's the point? Even if you could, you could never tell anybody, and you'd never leave the house!"
So I ask about what it was like to be on the G-3 tour with the two greatest gunslingers in rock history, Joe Satriani and Steve Vai:
"I gotta say, I was very apprehensive. I didn't know if I was the guy that should do that tour. They're all friends of mine, I love them to death, and they are a couple of the finest guitar players I've ever heard in my life - it was truly humbling to stand onstage next to them.
"But they encouraged me - they were like, 'C'mon, you need to do this with us,' and I went out and did my 45 minute set, I opened every show, thankfully, and I got to do my thing. I sang, and played some of the more, you know - softer stuff, like Song For Jeff. I showed them a different side than shred. I didn't try to go out there and show them what I can do, because if it was a race, I woulda lost! I didn't want to be that guy. I'm totally the opposite really. I went out there full of respect and humility. They welcomed me, and the crowds - maybe they thought I was going to come out and sing Africa, or some shit, so I won a lot of people over. It was nice to get that from the audiences, because they can be tough, man.
"I was also able to do it again in Mexico with Joe, and John Petrucci, who's also a stunning guitar player. Those guys are so bad assed that it's funny. They're so good it just makes me laugh. It's like, 'Wow - fuck it all.' But in the end, we all came out and play and we're like a bunch of fifteen year old kids playing classic rock songs, and having a laugh. It was a lot of fun, an incredibly positive experience, and I thank Joe for inviting me along to do that."
End of Part I - tomorrow, Luke joins Ringo Starr's All Star Band, we talk more Transition and we finally get to Toto.