Steve Lukather

Bridges to Toto’s Past
Lukather and Williams: Allison Morgan.

Discussing his ninth solo album, Steve Lukather is a ball of energy – reflective, witty, ready with a joke. “I have the humor of a 16-year-old, shoved in an old man’s body!” he laughs. With Bridges, the Toto guitarist/vocalist/co-founder had a goal – to make a Toto-sounding album, because there will never be another.

To make it happen, he enlisted current and former Toto bandmates including keyboardists David Paich and Steve Maggiora, vocalist Joseph Williams, drummers Simon Phillips and Shannon Forrest, along with bassist Leland Sklar. Also contributing are Lukather’s son, Trev, and other friends including Gov’t Mule bassist Jorgen Carlsson.

How was the approach to Bridges different from your last album, I Found the Sun Again?
Well, I Found the Sun Again was cut live except for the vocals, in eight days. That was my self-indulgent record. We did it as a jam, live in the studio. All my solos were live and I pushed myself to do that, with no fixes; I wanted it to be real. That one was for me! We cut it right before the lockdown, then I sat in my house for two years thinking, “We’re never going to play live again. My life’s over. Am I just going to wander around my house and die?” It was a very fu**ed-up time. I was clinically depressed. My doctor was worried about me.

When he broke into session work in 1976, Lukather made heavy use of his ’73 ES-335. His ’59 Les Paul Standard was the go-to for most of the ’80s; that’s it on “Rosanna,” Lionel Richie’s “Running with the Night,” Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” and countless others. “The Boz Scaggs stuff was done with it and my ’58 goldtop, which I regrettably sold many years ago,” Lukather says.

I’ve been going since my first recording session when I was 18 years old – 47 years ago. You go non-stop and all of the sudden all of us – all of us as human beings, but especially musicians who’ve been on the road and in the studio and not stopping for all those years – it was like running into a brick wall at a thousand miles an hour.

Before the end of the pandemic, I called my record company and said, “I’m sitting here with nothing to do. Would you send me some money to do a record? I want to do an ’80s throwback with the Toto guys.”

“Any and all” times a session called for Tele tones, Luke called on his ’51 Esquire. His ’71 Les Paul Deluxe was heard on Toto’s first hit, “Hold the Line,” and is in the Musicians Hall of Fame.

I also played bass on a lot of the record. I wanted to do a more-produced record with an AOR feel. I even thought, “Let’s produce it like that.” I got together with the guys and we wrote songs that were songs. It wasn’t “Let me show off on the guitar.” For Toto fans, let’s give them what they want. We had a lot of fun and did the whole record in three weeks. I sat on it for a year and mixed it after a tour. Then I finished and was like, “Okay, we can go back on the road again.” After two years, we couldn’t wait!

When did you find time to record Bridges, considering Toto’s tour with Journey and then the headlining tour?
A year ago, right as the pandemic was ending. We’d show up at Joseph Williams’ house, and he’s got a big setup in his living room. We’d say, “Let’s write a song today!” David, myself, and Joseph would write and record every day, then start overdubbing – the opposite of my last record where everything was live and done by the end of the day so I could [record vocals] at night and we’d go on to the next song. This one was like, “Let’s produce it up!”

Do you think it met the goal of delivering a Toto feel?
The record is shamelessly ’80s Toto, really. If you asked me what era, probably between The Seventh One and Kingdom of Desire. It’s kind of a cross between them because I’m singing a lot of it. Joseph is singing, too. It’s as close as we’re going to get to a Toto record at this point.

Did your attitude regarding production elevate expectations in regard to the songs or how they sound?
It was all about having fun and not giving a s**t about trying to follow any trends or anything. I’m 65 years old. I’m not kidding anybody – I stopped dyeing my hair, man! I was inspired by Brian May! One of my favorite human beings on planet Earth. My son said, “Dad, stop dyeing your hair.” I get s**t from friends all the time: “You’ve got hair, man! I don’t want to hear about your white hair. I have no hair!” (laughs) I’d been dyeing it since I was 30.

The album still has a bit of a live feel.

I went to Simon’s studio and we did a great reunion and had a lot of fun and a lot of laughs. Everybody thinks that because somebody isn’t in the band anymore that we hate each other’s guts, and that’s not the truth. We still work together. We still love each other. Our original singer, Bobby Kimball, has dementia so he’s out of the loop or I would’ve had him sing something.

Lukather had been playing Bogner amps since 2012, Helios 100 heads with matching 4×12 cabs (top) since ’17. Luke’s pedalboard holds mostly standard boxes, one exception being his signature Rodenburg 789 GAS, which can blend an array of overdrive sounds based on classic Ibanez pedals.

We’ve been through everything you could go through – we’ve been through deaths. I’m on the road with the 15th incarnation of the band, and it’s going great! I still love to do this. Some guys don’t want to tour anymore; David can’t, physically, but he still plays gigs every now and then.

Did you go in with a certain approach for your guitar tracks?
I dialed down my playing in terms of trying to be flashy. I wanted to keep it super-melodic and simple. The last album I was able to say, “Okay, look at me play!” This one was much more, “Let’s do what’s right for the song.” The solos were a performance. I didn’t edit a bunch of takes together. I tried to keep it as real as possible.

As with Toto, the album showcases various musical styles.
Yeah, all of our old albums used to have rock stuff, prog stuff, funky stuff, ballads, pop tunes, even a fusion thing now and then. Whoever had a song, or if we co-wrote a piece in the studio, we never had an agenda. It was, “Okay, let’s do this today.” Paich, Joseph, and I work really quickly. With every song, the music was written and recorded within an hour, then we’d work on the melodies and words.

Lukather and his signature quilt-top LIII in green-purple onstage with Joseph Williams.

Was it weird wanting to be home but then getting restless when the pandemic came?
When the lockdown hit, we didn’t think it was going to go for two years. The first two months were like, “It’s great to be home. I get to see the kids every day. I can sit around the house.” It was like a vacation. Then it got serious when people started getting sick and dying. It was no joke. The bottom line is when we were able to start working again – recording, going on the road – I couldn’t wait to get back out there. I’m 65. How much time do I have left before the dirt nap? I want to be out there working.

Joseph Williams gets credit as producer.
When we started, there were no titles handed out. It’s really hard to produce your own vocals… for me, anyway. I produce other people’s vocals fine. My own? I hate everything and it would never get done. Joseph is a great producer and engineer. There was nobody but the three of us in the room. I brought my live gear over – my Bogner amps, my pedalboard. I did the whole record on the green Music Man Luke III.

No other gear was involved?
No, that’s it! Everything you hear is that exact setup. My live pedalboard, which I didn’t use a lot when in the studio because I usually like to use stuff on the desk. I had a couple of distortion boxes or whatever. I just cranked up the amp and plugged in. We got different sounds, but I didn’t change gear. First, I love that gear. Second, I’m lazy!

Lukather has played signature Ernie Ball Music Man Luke guitars for more than 30 years. The model has evolved through four iterations with options for materials, pickups, and dress. Some of his personal guitars sport gorgeously flamed and figured tops like these LIII and L4 models.

Talk about the songs, starting with “Far From Over.”
My son, Trev, brought us the riff, and he played all the clean guitar parts; he uses Music Man guitars, too. I told him, “Write me something cool.” He brought in this great riff and a half-completed track, and we ended up finishing it together. I overdubbed a bunch of the crunchier guitar stuff and did the solos. I wanted to play buttery solos on this album – not, “Let me impress you with my technique.” At this point, there’s so many people better than me, it’s laughable. I just played to my strengths.

“Not My Kind of People” has some savage, bitter lyrics.
My dear friend, Stan Lynch, who used to play drums for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, is a word man and co-wrote four things on the record. We wrote the music first; I came up with that riff. I called Stan and said, “This is an angry song. You know what we’ve all been through. Your side, my side, the way we’re looking at life. There are a lot of a**holes in the world. This is a song to them.” Within the day, I had the first draft of the lyrics. We were just laughing and cracking up. He’s brilliant.

“Someone” has distinctive sections but flows nicely.
To me, melody seems to be lacking in rock music. I don’t even know what kind of music we play. I suppose it’s rock because I like to turn up my amps, but it doesn’t fall into a category where you say, “This is rock like so and so.” It’s always been that way with Toto and me. I dig melodies and harmonies. We went with it. This is more of a pop song. I don’t think anybody is gonna buy me singing about my “wet-ass p***y.” (laughs) Please write that!

I love big, produced records. I make no apologies for it. Toto had great success, but we were never the critics’ darling.

If Toto was never a critics’ darling, was the 1982 Album of the Year Grammy for Toto IV a fluke? 
Our jaws dropped. If we didn’t have a hit, we were going to be dumped off the label. The first album (1978’s Toto; see “Pop ’N Hiss” in this issue) was a huge success, filled with all kinds of music. Toto IV was a do-or-die record. “Rosanna” was the first thing we cut. We knew we had something there, and suddenly the record company liked us again. It was a great success for us. We had matured by then. With Hydra and Turn Back, we were experimenting, but we always perform better when we don’t think about it – we just do it.

Toto IV had all kinds of stuff. We were like, “Whew! We dodged a bullet. We still have a career!” When it blew up and then with the Grammys – we weren’t members of NARAS, we didn’t vote for ourselves – we didn’t think we were going to win. We played on a ton of nominated records that year. (Drummer) Jeff Porcaro was on Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly, which I thought was going to win because it’s one of the best records ever made. I’m a huge Steely Dan/Donald Fagen/Walter Becker fan. We were almost embarrassed when we won.

Collectively, we won multiple Grammys; I won one for Best Rhythm & Blues Song for George Benson’s “Turn Your Love Around,” which I wrote with Jay Graydon and Bill Champlin. When we won against Stevie Wonder (Ed. Note: Wonder was nominated for “Do I Do” and “That Girl”) we said, “There’s something wrong here.”

For some reason, the stars aligned and it was our night. Nobody was more surprised than we were. My recollection is vague because it was so surreal. It was a great night, and something I’ll cherish. My parents were in the audience, so they got to see their investment in me pay off.

“All Forevers Must End” is a heartfelt ballad but it’s not too over the top.
That was with Randy Goodrum, who helped write “I’ll Be Over You.” He’s one of my favorite collaborators and we’ve written a lot of ballads. We hadn’t written together in a long time, and I had all the music written. That’s me playing keyboards. I’d gone through a breakup and was beaten down, so it’s a sad song. We write love songs sometimes, and it’s not necessarily cool, but I’ve always done that.

“When I See You Again” is bright and upbeat with punchy guitar chords.
That’s very mid-’80s Toto, like Isolation. Very inspired by that era. Stan Lynch came in again with some lyrics.

There’s a blues sting on “Take My Love.”
That song was written for me by Steve Maggiora. He’s on the road with Toto now, playing keyboards and singing. I said, “I want to do a blues tune, but not 12-bar blues.” He said, “I’ve got something for you.” It was exactly what I wanted! The solo is me imagining I can play like Gary Moore. I can’t, but I love the style!

“Burning Bridges” is lightly funky at first, and there’s a buzzing guitar tone.
I got that guitar sound with the reverse-phase position from the back two pickups, and I rolled off the Tone control until I got that honky, half-wah sound – sort of Jeff Beck meets Billy Gibbons.

Is that slide?
No, it’s me on the wang bar. Faux slide.

“I’ll Never Know.”
That was very Pink Floyd-inspired. David Gilmour is one of my all-time favorite guitar players. He’s also, I’m honored to say, a friend.

The whole thing with Toto – and with me – to this day, is, “Why not?” If you were never in style, you can never be out of style. That’s how I look at my whole career.

This article originally appeared in VG’s August 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.