Latest release: All’s Well That Ends Well (Mascot)
Even if you don’t recognise the name, it would be difficult for any real rock music fan to have not heard the work of guitarist Steve Lukather. Best known for his role with the long-running LA rock band Toto, Lukather has won five Grammys and played on more than 1500 recordings with some of the greatest names in the business, including the biggest-selling album of all time: Michael Jackson’s Thriller. To list all the people Lukather has performed with would take the entire rest of this article, but his jazz-inspired guitar work can be found on albums by Paul McCartney, Elton John, Diana Ross, Cher, Olivia Newtown-John, Chet Atkins, Kenny Rogers, Joe Cocker, Leo Sayer, Meatloaf, Alice Cooper, Aretha Franklin, Randy Newman, Roger Waters, Stevie Nicks, Tommy Lee, Warren Zevon and Boz Scaggs, on whose Down Two, Then Left album Steve featured in his first role as a session musician in 1977. Following a long haul on the road supporting his most recent solo album All’s Well That Ends Well, Luke – as he is known to friends and fans alike – is about to visit Australia with the G3 Tour, Joe Satriani’s guitar-army concert tour package that makes its return in 2012 after a five year absence, and that also features Steve Vai.
“I’m really honoured to be working with Steve and Joe,” Lukather says pleasantly after some idle banter about the weather. “Steve and I go way back… we did the Larry Carlton record together years ago. I have been friends with these guys for a long time and I am a huge fan, let’s just say. So when Joe asked me to do it, I said ‘Really? Are you sure?’ and he was like ‘Yeah!’ We’re friends, we’re fans of our guitar stuff. It’s not a competition you know. If it was, I would truly lose! I think we complement each other and stylistically we’re all very different. I’m bringing something different because I sing when I play a little bit and I have a different style. But it’ll be a blast and I can’t wait to do it.”
Not only will G3 give Luke a chance to play alongside some old friends, it will also provide an opportunity for him to perform to local audiences outside the role he is otherwise best known for here.
“For me it’s great because I’ve never been to Australia as a solo artist,” he says. “I’ve been with Toto a few times, and that was great but I’m not doing those songs. I have a different side of me, a career outside of that with the solo stuff and as a guitar player.”
After embracing sobriety following a dark period of his life where he went through divorce and lost friends and family members, the 54-year old musician declares he has re-discovered his love for his instrument. The period since the release of All’s Well That Ends Well he has used to reinvent and redefine himself and to turn his life around. He’s now enjoying his playing more than ever.
“I quit boozing and smoking and partying and all that other crap a few years back and I got back into the woodshed as a musician, a writer and a soloist,” he explains. “You know I get up at 5.30 o’clock in the morning and I practise for two to three hours of a day in the quiet of my home and I’ve really fallen in love with the guitar all over again. Not in a let-me-see-how-flashy-I-can-be, but refining the style that I came out of the box with, which is sort of a mix of a jazz sensibility in a rock arena. As opposed to trying to compete with Joe and Steve and their unbelievable speed and chops. So I’m coming in from a different way, but I’m really enjoying it. When Joe first asked me to do the tour, at first I was a little nervous, but then I thought, This will be a blast! I bring my own band, I do my own forty-five minute set. I get to open the show. In the G3 position there’s always Steve and Joe and they have that strong rapport and this huge fan base. So I hope that people will like what I do as a third ingredient.”
Despite the sheer volume of his work, he isn’t quite as well known as Vai and Satriani, who are much more recognised in their careers as solo instrumentalists than Lukather. But he isn’t complaining. He may not be completely unknown, but he isn’t hugely famous either, and that’s how he likes it.
“I get to be who I wanna be,” he says. “Like, I get to walk down the street. I have a couple of friends who can’t even walk down the street. I’ve been with them and I’ve seen what happens. All I ever wanted to be was a working musician. And that’s who I am. So I’m living the dream! I’m very appreciative of it. I’ve been doing it my whole life.”
His relative level of anonymity has its other advantages too, especially when it comes to stepping out with massive guitar heroes like Vai and Satriani on something like the G3 Tour.
“The advantage is that no one has a pre-conceived idea, and if they do, they may go, ‘Oh, is that the Toto guy? Is he gonna play “Africa”?’ And I’m not gonna do that! And I guess I hope I might do something that will make them go, ‘Oh wow, that was really cool. I wasn’t expecting that!’ That’s the desired effect I would like to have,” he says. “Guitar players might know who I am, but I dunno man! I’ve never come down as a solo artist. Let’s just say that this is an experiment and I hope the patient lives.”
Toto, which he formed with high school friends David Paich and Jeff and Steve Porcaro, was laid to rest in 2008 after 29 years of touring and recording, 17 albums and more than 30 million in sales. It was during the final phases of the band’s life that his own Ever Changing Times album, featuring his son Trevor, was recorded and he felt that it was time to let go. He left the band, and it quietly folded without him.
“There wasn’t really much of the original band left,” Lukather says of the final days of Toto. “I was missing my high school boys and battling with a lot of personal issues that I had and I was in the middle of drinking myself to death, so I thought that it would be a good idea to get the hell out and restyle my whole life. Which is exactly what I did. So I thought it was time to put it away.”
And away Toto may well have stayed but for the increasingly debilitating illness affecting former bassist Mike Porcaro, brother to keyboard-player Steve and the late drummer Jeff. To help cover medical bills, Lukather and Paich put Toto back together for a brief concert run through Europe in 2010.
“When Mike Porcaro got sick, Paich called me up and said, ‘Look, we gotta do something’,” the guitarist recalls. “You know, with the Internet we don’t get the royalties we used to get. We got Joe Williams (vocals) back, and we got Simon (Phillips, drums) and we did it for one little summer thing, and we had a good time. So I think we will do it as a little summer thing once in a while. We raised some money for Mike and four of us are going through a mid-life divorce and it helps us get through it, so everybody wins.”
He is adamant, however, that Toto will not be making any more studio records. As it currently exists, Toto is a live band only, a group of old friends reuniting to play some music and help out one of their own.
“We’re not gonna make another album just to make another album,” he says. “I make music the way I wanna do it and I’m in the middle of a new solo album as we speak. All’s Well That Ends Well has been really successful, I think I’ve made a point that I’m really a serious solo artist and (it’s) not just a project that I do in my spare time. This is my new music, and I’m enjoying it more than I ever have in my life.”
If Ever Changing Times was a transitional release, All’s Well… is dark, created at the height of the guitarist’s personal turmoil – death, alcohol dependency and divorce. The somewhat ironic title was inspired by a sarcastic remark that was made to him at the time.
“Everything in my life was kinda falling apart. You know my marriage had ended and my ex was pregnant, and my mother died and friends of mine died, and a whole lot of other things in my personal life and my life was falling apart, and I was sort of pulling myself out of the aether,” Luke says earnestly. “The lyrics are really dark and I was really suffering at the time of writing and performing that, so it think that comes across lyrically. Even, somewhat, musically.”
In the end, however, things did work out better. He kicked the drugs and got his focus back. He was able to look at where his life was, and where it had been, and was finally able to see things from a lucid viewpoint.
“You know as a father of four and someone who’s been in the music business making records for 35 years I’ve seen everything change. I’m an older guy. My lines are clear now. I can see everything really clear. I can see my past transgressions and my mistakes. I was letting the party get the best of me, you know. 35 years of Saturday night eventually catches up with you,” he says with a grim laugh. “I didn’t see it. But it was there. I was suffering. My life was suffering. I really needed to re-start my whole world. It’s really great. I’m ready for a whole new experience. Hence me doing the G3 Tour. And then I’m off to go play with Ringo Starr. He called me to play in the All Starr Band. I’m getting the chance to do all these weird, wild and wonderful things… I’m just glad I’m alive to be able to do all these things.”
Another guitarist who is enjoying a new lease on life lately is Lukather’s friend and some time neighbour Eddie Van Halen. The pair famously colloborated on Michael Jackson’s immense funk-rock hit “Beat It” from Thriller, and Luke later did some backing vocals on the Van Halen albums For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, Balance and Van Halen III.
“He’s a dear friend of mine. Eddie Van Halen and I go back 32-odd years,” Luke says. “We listened to each other’s troubles and helped each other through hard times.”
Like many others, he’s stoked about Van Halen’s comeback album, A Different Kind of Truth.
“I’m really happy for the guys,” he says, sounding almost as proud as if it was one of his own albums. “You know they went through a lot of dudes to put this record together. I went to the preview for it at the Forum, the rehearsal studio. It was fucking great man. It was great to see Eddie playing his ass off again man. To see the band again like that, it’s good for the genre of music. It really separates the guys who can really play and are really inventive, and they have been living proof for some years now.”
Steve Lukather sees it as an antidote for the stagnant rock music scene. It’s a scene he has been a part of his entire adult life, and one which he has seen fade into a murky kind of mediocrity and sameness.
“You know rock n roll music, whatever that’s supposed to mean, melodic rock… it kinda all started to sound the same,” he says. “Then you hear Eddie fucking ripping a solo and you go, ‘That’s what it’s supposed to sound like!’ I don’t compare my own stuff to this because I’m a quirkier guy than that, but fuck! Good old fashioned, rip your guts out rock n’ roll! And their old stuff is sounding better than ever. They’re doing the business, they’re selling out everywhere. It’s great for music. A great thing for us all. To see them grooving like that, it’s good for my heart.”
Steve Lukather will be appearing on the G3 Tour alongside Steve Vai and Joe Satriani:
27/3: Royal Theatre, Canberra
29/3: Panthers, Newcastle
30/3: Hordern Pavilion, Sydney
31/3: Palais Theatre, Melbourne
1/4: Palais Theatre, Melbourne
3/4: Festival Theatre, Adelaide
5/4: Convention Centre, Brisbane
6/4: Byron Bay Bluesfest, Byron Bay