"The Beatles are the on-switch to my life...."
We closed out part I of our interview discussing Steve Lukather's fear embracing tours with Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and John Petrucci last summer - who wouldn't be a little intimidated standing between the alien with the chrome guitar, and a guy who looks like a praying mantis with a monkey grip? Of course, I'm joking a bit - Joe and Steve are both damned handsome fellows, but the fact remains that as a guitarist, you'd better have some major cajones if you are going to go toe to toe with the pair in front of a crowd of shred fans.
Obviously, Lukather is no shrinking violet - he's played with every Beatle but John, he created the riffs that made Beat It a thriller, and he's had to man up and carry the flag for his own band, Toto, through some very harrowing times. I started this segment by asking how a guy goes from G-3 to being the front guy for everybody's favorite Beatle:
Lukather: "Ringo....Yeah, there's not a lot of guys that go from G-3 to Ringo, huh? To me, The Beatles are the on-switch to my life. I've had the chance to work with Paul and George over the years - but to actually get the call from Ringo, and to be in his band.... Now we're, we're like, we're really good friends! I get texts from Ringo, or to hear, 'Hey, it's Ringo, what's up?' You're playing and you turn around, and it's Ringo Starr smiling at you and playing the drums.
"If you would have told me when I was 8, or 9 years old, in my first band, praying that someday I'd play with The Beatles, well, you might have just as well told me I'd be landing on Mars, too! A surreal, and unrealistic dream, and here I am living it!
"It's an incredible band - Todd Rundgren, Gregg Rolie, Richard Page, Gregg Bissonette, Mark Riviera, just fantastic musicians, all world class. We have a blast, we all hit it off so well. The band is so strong, and we work so hard - it was a completely different mindset than I'm used to, but in a way it's what I have been doing my whole life. Just going, 'What are we doing today?'"
That might even be an understatement - this seemed like a good time to ask about Steve's career as a session guitarist. Until his book is finished, saying just how many sessions Luke has played, how many hits he has recorded is incalculable. Suffice to say, Steve Lukather is amongst the most recorded guitarist in history, and he was on the A-team that segued the hit making Wrecking Crew into the album rock all-stars that dominated the Los Angeles rock world from the late '70s until the new millennium announced great changes in the recording industry:
Lukather: "I'd morph into whatever you'd want me to be. I've always enjoyed the challenge of that. Knowing what not to play! I always knew what to play for the gig, depending on what was going on. 99.9% of the sessions I played, I had no idea what I would be asked to play.
"You had to bring whatever gear for what was going on that day. And it wasn't like you got demos and charts before the gig! That never happened! It's laughable to even say, or think that. Every guy that did that, and they were all my friends, there was certain things - you had to know what was up, and you really had to know what you were doing, and to be confident enough to change if they didn't like what you were doing. And still do it in one, or two takes, have a great sound, play in time, and be a cool hang."
One of Lukather's most heralded studio gigs was Michael Jackson's mega-hit, Beat It. You'd think that being hand chosen by the world's biggest pop star to supply the rock for producer Quincy Jones might make your heart beat a little fast, but not so for Cool-Hand Luke - he was at the top of his profession and taking the calls as they came. I asked if he was at all unnerved:
Lukather: "Not really! I had been working with Quincy a whole bunch, I had just done the whole, The Dude record of Quincy's that won all sorts of Grammys. Yeah, I did a bunch of stuff for Quincy, so being around that wasn't that weird for me.
"Michael called me on the phone, and I hung up on him - I didn't believe it was him! He was like (falsetto), "Hi, this is Michael Jackson." And I was like, "Fuck off!" It was eight o'clock in the morning, and I thought someone was just taking the piss out of me. Then Quincy's office called, and said, "No, that was really him, you should probably call him back." Oops, sorry.
"Working with Michael was great, he was my age. I didn't really feel intimidated. I mean, I loved The Jackson 5 growing up, but I really didn't.
"The only time, was like being around The Beatles - when I met McCartney on those sessions (Give My Regards To Broad Street), it was like, 'Wow - that's Paul McCartney.' But he was so nice - he ended up taking me and Jeff (Porcaro) to London to work on another project. So, when you're working at that level, you come in as a pro - you're not coming in starstruck. They don't want to have to deal with that."
Moving back to the present, We spoke about Lukather's incredibly busy schedule for 2013 - in addition to releasing Transition, he is also looking at more touring with Ringo's All Star Band, and a very special tour with Toto, celebrating the band's 35th anniversary. I asked if there was a possibility for any solo shows to support the new record:
Lukather: "Oh yeah! It's all schedule, schedule, schedule. I'm a work-a-holic, what else do I do? I get up at 5:30, I practice for a couple of hours, I work out, I do my computer shit, and then I start my day by 9 o'clock. I've got all this energy to do things, and sitting around the house isn't one of them.
"I'm on the back nine, and I want to make the most of it. I think I appreciate my life and career more than I ever have, and I have my health - I have a lot of friends who are not healthy, not well. Look at Mike Porcaro with ALS, I mean, that is a brutal disease - he's not doing well, there's no happy ending to this.
"I'm going to see the rest of the Toto guys today. We'll go out on the road and we'll help Mike out. But, as always in this fucking business, we can't just do this - we have to get sued by two different people. Everybody wants a piece of your ass. It can get a little frustrating.
"After I left Toto in 2007, when I was probably at my worst, I had to get away from it, and some of the people that were involved. Then Paich called me a few years later - no, David and I, Steve and Joe, we've been friends for forty years, since we were fifteen. So I was friends with those guys - there were a couple of peripheral people that I was not really friends with, I never was, even if they were in the original band, and I just didn't want to be around people who couldn't do their gig, faking it, or whatnot.
"So, David called, and said we should put it together again. I said, well, I'll do it, of course, but Steve Porcaro has to come back, you've got to come back, and Joseph has to sing - Simon Phillips came back, God bless him, a monster drummer, and Nathan East - monster bass player, and we went out and did it in the summer of 2010 and it was so successful, and so much fun to be back with my high school buddies.
"We were going to do some recording, but somebody said, 'We own you...' and blah, blah, blah. It gets ridiculous. I guess you're not really successful until you've got a few lawsuits against you!"
Transitions is Lukather's eighth solo record, and it is a great look at where he is today - the album is full of melodic pop, tons of great guitar, some fusion-esque interludes, but more than anything it's his singing that sells the songs - he's written some lyrics that are straight from the heart, and the record is, as he stated earlier, 'Very organic.':
Lukather: "My partner, C.J. Vanston is another monster musician. You meet someone and you click on a certain level - we were friends for twenty-five years from project to project, but we never really wrote together, or sat down in the studio together. We started on the last record (All's Well That Ends Well), and that was a very successful collaboration, so I said, 'Why don't we just start this thing together - we finished the last one,' and that's what we did.
"He got a lot of great performances out of me and knew just what to say, because he's a great musician and I respect his opinion. The best producers to me are all great musicians, because they understand how to get a great performance, and to keep you from ruining or leaving something out that was really good that you (the artist) were too critical of, which is what I always do - I'm always beating the shit out of myself.
"I'd say, 'Fuck that, that sucks,' and C. J. would go, 'No, no, no, no - you have to live with this for a minute man.' And he was right most of the time. I work best in collaborative situations because not only do I get things done, but I'm also saved from myself! The level of critique that I put on myself is more pressure than anybody on the Planet Earth, believe me."
No interview with Steve Lukather would be complete without talking guitars and gear, so I asked about the guitar tones on the album - they jump out of the mix and sound extremely in-your-face. A more organic tone than we've become accustomed to from the king of refrigerator racks:
Lukather: "I used the Music Man L3, which is the new version of my signature model guitar, and we went with passive pickups - Larry DiMarzio and Steve Blucher made me these great pickups (DiMarzio Transition DP254 and DP255). I wanted to go more organic for lack of a better term. I plugged straight into a Bogner Ecstasy and I manipulated the guitar with an Ernie Ball Volume Pedal. Any effects we added were plug-ins. I wanted to take all the bullshit out of the signal path.
"I tried to play more melodically and to use more interesting phrasing rather than just pentatonic blazing bullshit. You know, that's what I was originally known for, and that's what my strongest suit is. Certainly, there are guys so fucking good you just laugh, but as far as technique goes, I'm going back to who I really am - that's what separated me, stylistically, from other people. My goal was, 'No, no, hold back a little here."
You can hear it all over Transition, Luke is playing fantastically, and every note fits - there's never a moment of too little, or too much, he nailed it by simply playing himself. In fact that's what this all seems like to me - it is as if everything he has done up to now has been a dress rehearsal, and now it's completely Steve Lukather that we're hearing:
Lukather: "Well, thank you, man - that is the nicest thing you could say. I am working really hard at my craft, and perhaps righting a few wrongs along the way. Trying to find, well, I found my inspiration again. I've been practicing and refining - not practicing chops, per se, but I'm practicing refining what I'm doing to become a better, more soulful artist.
"You know, I've been through a lot of shit, so I mean, I can play the blues and mean it! The blues is not necessarily if I have $5 in my pocket, or not - the emotional shit is much more harsh than that. Work In Progress - that might be the next album project.
"I'm very blessed, very honored that I have so many opportunities at a time, especially when work is a little more scarce than it used to be. If I was sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring as a session musician, it would be really hard times right now."
Transition is being released January 21 on the Mascot label.
Thanks to Steve Lukather, Steve Karas, Peter Noble at Noble PR, and Mascot.