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Interviews   

Toto are still holding the line!


In 2008, when guitarist Steve Lukather confirmed he was really leaving Toto – and, therefore, that the band was done –, he was fairly adamant. At the time there seemed to be no hope of ever seeing the band back on stage. In truth, as he explains at length in the following interview, the guitarist was at the end of his tether and saw no reason to keep afloat a band that was no longer truly Toto. In a way, his reaction showed he was a man of integrity.

Still, what seemed improbable eight years ago has become a reality: Toto and the high-school friends that make up the band have treaded the boards again. First it was to come to the aid of another long-time friend, then to celebrate their 35th anniversary, and now they’re releasing a new album, entitled XIV. And they’re doing it for the right reasons, too, even if there was some encouragement from the justice system… but ‘Cause that’s what’s really bringing Toto together and helping the band move forward: long-standing, genuine friendship. In this respect, the guitarist is very outspoken in his comments about former singer Bobby Kimball (even if he carefully avoids mentioning his name most of the time), whom he obviously doesn’t hold too dear. On the other hand, he’s completely devastated when he confesses that there’s no hope for bassist Mike Porcaro, who suffers from a grave disease, and that “there’s no hope at this point” (ndlr: interview conducted before Mike’s death).

We talked with Steve Lukather about Toto’s return, the new album, the future of this group of highly talented musicians, and much more, with complete honesty and in a very friendly way.

« Every asshole that has a computer thinks that he can make a record! You can’t make The Wall on a fucking laptop bro! »

Radio Metal: In 2008 when you released a statement saying that you had left Toto, which led ultimately to the breakup of the band, you said that “this is not a break. It is over. I really can’t go out and play ‘Hold The Line’ with a straight face anymore.” What made you feel that way at the time?

Steve Lukather (guitar): I was in a cover band with a singer that couldn’t sing! I was destroying myself and this is why I was so miserable. Now, there were great players in the band who are still my friends: Leland Sklar, Greg Phillingans, Simon Phillips, etc. – great friends of mine! It just didn’t seem to be Toto anymore. A night I was standing on stage, I wasn’t playing and performing well, and I was drinking myself to death and I was like: “I’ve got to get out of this! This is not my high school band, this is not Toto!” I was losing myself in it and it was very destructive. It was a very bad time in my life: my mother was dying, my marriage was dying, I was having a child even though I was getting divorced… It was a very bad time in my life! And I was no longer with my high school brothers! They were all gone! So I felt that I was just doing it for the money and it wasn’t inspiring and it wasn’t the real Toto anymore. So I left. I never really thought we would play again. And then, when I quit, David Paich called me and told me: “What took you so long?!” And we started laughing and I went: “Look, I was trying to keep it together, to keep everybody working and keep everybody out there….” But it ceased to be fun, it ceased to be a happy situation, really… So I had to leave! And then I got really super healthy, three years went by and Mike Porcaro’s ALS got really bad and he needed help financially. So David said that we got to do something and I said: “I’m in but I want Steve Porcaro back and I want Joseph [Williams] back.” And so we did a tour in 2010. It was very successful and we had a lot of fun. We were able to help Mike and then we said: “Let’s do this until 2011! It’d be fun!”

So we did it with the guys and we were gonna do a 35th anniversary DVD, and we came to find out that an ex-manager had signed a deal for us that’s saying that if we ever gonna release it then we owed somebody a studio album. That got weird, lawsuits started happening, and our lawyer went: “Look, why don’t you just make a record?” And we went: “You know what? Ok!” You know, I was having fun with the guys, I was back with my high school brothers, we were helping Mike, we were helping ourselves – we all need money to live as well -, so everybody wins! And I was back having fun doing it again! And there’s a whole new lease on life on the band! If you’d asked me in 2007, I would have said no way! But shit happens! I was away from the people I wanted to be away from and I’m back from the people that I love, doing it for the right reasons! And we felt inspired again to make a record. And we made a great record! I mean, we really worked hard on it! Ten months of our lives! And the 35th anniversary DVD went number one all over the world, including the United States. It was really a surprise for us! And there seems to be a new interest in the band that was not in the configuration that I left.

The band reunited with Joseph Williams. How was it having Joseph Williams in the band again after all these years?

Well, Joseph and I remained friends during the whole time. We’ve been friends since high school. Even when he was out, he was composing film scores, he wasn’t on the road trying to be Mr. Toto, you know. And he retained his voice. He never burned his voice because he was never outdoing it, so consequently he has a better voice now than when he was in the band in the eighties! Plus he’s a great songwriter and a producer… He really brings a lot to the party. He’s not just the guy with whom you have to go: “Sing it again… Nope. Sing it again… Nope. Sing it again…” He’s a real artist and he’s a real friend! And I think because he was so good, it made the whole band sound better! He was very inspiring to us! Having a great lead vocalist like that really changes the game. Plus he belongs in there, man, he’s a bro! And we had a great success with him, so it made sense! It’s not like I went out to find a new singer on the internet or something, you know. He’s part of our family. He’s like us. He’s a real lifer musician: studious, proof tested, songwriter, producer, singer and one of the nicest guys in the world, one of my closest friends, I adore him. So I’m back surrounded by my friends again and it’s working. So I’m not arguing with success. I mean, I’d be stupid to run away. I just wasn’t happy in the 2007 version of Toto. That’s all. And I’m healthy now! Never been healthier! Six years have passed since I stopped drinking and smoking… I’m a different guy! I mean people change! It happens!

Steve Porcaro also rejoined the band. What did it change to have two keyboard players in the band like in the old days?

That’s the good news: the band really is back to its roots. When I hear those sounds that Steve Porcaro’s playing, like only he can, with David, and me standing there… You put that combination of musicians in a room and it sounds like classic Toto, even though it’s 2015. It’s great to have my brothers back on stage with me again!

However, last year drummer Simon Philips left the band. He had been in Toto ever since Jeff Porcaro passed away in 1992…

That was his choice! I mean, he just didn’t want to do it anymore. We’re still very close friends and I love Simon. He brought 20 years of greatness to the band and he was a great friend of mine. Like I said: there were people in the band that I was still very close to but there were people that I was not. You know what I mean?

« The money has been taken out of the recording business but that doesn’t mean we’re gonna stop trying, because we don’t do it just for the money, man, we’re artists! A painter doesn’t paint with cheap paint because paint’s expansive, right? »

Last year you qualified your new album Toto XIV as being a “real hi-fi” record with “obnoxious production that people who love our music are really going to love: big harmonies, big synths, big guitars, big grooves, great virtuoso musicianship, and classic Toto melodies.” Do you think we’re lacking that kind of generosity and almost larger than life spirit in rock music today?

Yeah because every asshole that has a computer thinks that he can make a record! You can’t make The Wall on a fucking laptop bro! Sorry! We make big records! Big expansive records because that’s what we were listening to when we were growing up. Listen to Peter Gabriel’s records! Listen to… Big records from our childhood! Everything from Sergeant Pepper up! Goodbye Yellow Brick Road! Yes, Close To The Edge! These are big huge productions with really well thought-out, intelligent songwriting! Without the clichés, you know. That’s what we were inspired to do when we were young. That’s what Toto IV was all about, that’s what The Seventh One was all about, that what all of our records were all about… So, I said that kind of sarcastically, like: “Ah ah ah!” But I meant it to a certain degree: we spent ten month and a lot of money making this record! We didn’t just throw stuff together to get a paycheck, you know… We said that if we were gonna to do it we want to make a great one! Because, really, it took us about ten years to do an album and if I waited another ten years to do an album, I’ll be an old man! So if we were gonna do a last record, it’s got to be a great one… to our standards. I mean, if you hate our band, there’s nothing I can do about that but if you like our music I think we delivered a great record with a lot of pain, soul, blood, sweat, tears, whatever. It took a long time and it was an arduous process.

It wasn’t always easy because you have five very strong personalities, all solo artists, songwriters and producers in their own right, and you stick us all in the same room, it’s been a long time and we’re all different people, we have a lot of fun and we laugh a lot but sometimes we were screaming at each other. And [creating through] that tension makes better music! All the great bands that you always hear about always have creative differences in the studio but that makes everybody try harder. When somebody that you respect and know tells that’s not good enough and you get mad, sometimes you play better or your write better. So we push each other a little bit. There’s this myth that older people can’t write fresh new music or the band is dead and all that shit… We wanted to say: “Fuck that’s not true!” If people try harder and spend the money and the time, you make great records! But there’s this whole thing: “Oh, you don’t have to do this anymore…” Well, you know, yes it’s true, the money has been taken out of the recording business but that doesn’t mean we’re gonna stop trying, because we don’t do it just for the money, man, we’re artists! A painter doesn’t paint with cheap paint because paint’s expansive, right? We have some kind of pride in this. It’s not just for the money! We care! We don’t want to let anybody down. I mean, there’s always gonna be someone going: “Oh, like this guy better…” There’s always gonna be a critique and that’s fine. You can’t please everybody but at the bottom line, we have to look at it ourselves and I think we delivered a good record. We’re proud of it!

In the sentence that I just quoted, you actually chose the word “obnoxious”, does that mean that some people get somewhat irritated by your music sometimes?

Well, I was referring to the old punk rock journalists from the 70s that have been very sarcastic. It was supposed to be funny. It wasn’t supposed to be serious [chuckles]. You know, if there’s a guy sitting there with a Sex Pistols t-shirt writing a review on our record, he’s not gonna like it. But he’s probably like 75 years old now or dead, so really it doesn’t matter. Again, I was making a joke.

The name of the album and the artwork seems to be a clear reference to the album IV and to some extent to the self titled first album and to The Seventh One…

Yeah!

And those three albums are your most successful albums and contain all of your most classic songs. So did you explicitly want to reference what can be considered as the peaks of your career with this new album somehow?

Well, I think it was a nod to it. I mean, we came to call it XIV because there are fourteen albums of studio material that we wrote from scratch, and I include the covers record [Through The Looking Glass] because we rearranged all the songs and recorded them fresh… When we got back together with the guys, the sword motif has always been like our logo for us, we’ve used it many times. That seemed to fit. And then, the XIV we just liked Roman numeral and we said: “Well, that’s good luck sign: it’s a multiple of seven and it also has four in it.” Somebody else thought this out and I said: “That’s a great idea! Let’s not fight that.” And it looks cool, so we said: “Let’s run with it!” It’s a multiple of seven and then the IV from Toto IV with the Roman numeral… Steve Porcaro’s daughter and her team designed the album cover and did all the photos and everything like that. So it’s a big family affair!

« I might say some shit today that’ll make no sense five years from now but that’s my right as a human being »

On the new album you have a song called “Unknown Soldier (For Jeffrey)”. This is a homage to Jeff Porcaro, right?

Yeah. Jeff was a big civil war buff; he read book and was interested in that. Also Dave and I took that as a… The fact we’re still shooting at each other in these wars in the world 2015… I mean, throughout the history, if you look, no one ever wins! Ever! And I don’t know why we’re still so stupid enough to do this, except that this is just all about the cash, it’s all about the money. And the people making the money don’t really care about human lives because they figured they sent them off to die for their profit. There’s so much division in religion and racism… Look at what’s happened in your country, my friend. Come on… It was horrific. Horrific! It’s like we’re becoming barbaric again! It’s 2015, man! We should be way past all this shit! So this is just us writing through our point of view. Jeffrey would have been involved in the writing of the song. He was in the room with us in his spirit, you know. We wanted to dedicate it to him. This a very important song to David in particular. He had the start of the idea of the song and I helped him finish it. And we wrote it the old school way: an acoustic guitar, an acoustic piano and a little cassette player. And then we labored over the lyrics a lot. So that one was special, so we dedicated that to Jeff. Jeff and Mike were very much in the room with us. Always. Mike’s not doing well man… I mean, it won’t be long now. It’s the saddest thing in my life to lose another brother like this. ALS is a horrible disease. A Horrible way to die man. It’s a long eight year process wasting away. Needless to say, the family’s in turmoil right now. It’s a bad time. We’re trying to do what we can to help. That’s all we can do. And pray for his peace because there’s no hope at this point.

The album ends on a song called “Great Expectations”. What kind of expectations are you referring to?

First, this is one of my favorite things that we’ve ever recorded. That’s the band that I thought we would be. That piece of music is very… David, myself and Joseph wrote that piece. We just had little ideas and Dave put all of our ideas into one piece that sounds like a big nod to our friends in the band Yes. You know, there’s a little Close To The Edge vibe: reoccurring theme, big harmonies… I play bass on that song doing my Chris Squire impression [chuckles]. I love that piece of music. It’s “Great Expectations” because it’s been ten years since we did a record. It’s kind of a little nudge-nudge wink-wink, you know what I mean? But it’s a love song too, the beginning of it. You know, the old Dickens’ book, Great Expectations… I don’t know. You tell me. We want to let people use their own imagination with this stuff too.

And what are your great expectations now for the band?

Well, man, believe it or not, we’ve got a big world tour starting end of April and we’ll take it all the way through September, with two months in Europe and then we have a month in the United States. We’re just very excited. We’ve got some really fun stuff going on there that’ll be announced soon. And then we’re going in 2016 in the rest of the world as well. So we’re gonna be on the road for the next two years, promoting the album. And the gigs are selling out! Jesus, I just got to know today that ten-thousand-seats arenas are already sold out in Holland. We’re already half way there in Paris. UK dates are selling out and this is like three or four months in advance, without even the new album out yet! So I think that from the success of the last DVD, people see: “That’s the band? Wow!” Lenny Castro’s coming back out on the road playing percussions. He hasn’t been out on the road with us since the eighties. He’s played on every hit record we’ve ever had from the beginning! David Hungate, our original bass player, is back. So we’re really bringing a great show. We’re putting together the setlist right now. It’s gonna be very exciting! We’re gonna play some of the big hits, we’re gonna dig deep into the catalogue and play some of the new stuff too. So it’s like a two-hour plus show. I think it’s gonna be really kick ass. People are gonna see a new and old Toto at the same time.

When the band was reformed in 2010 you clearly stated that there would be no new album. Now you have a new album coming up but recently said that you were “not sure Toto will do another record” after this one. Do you mean this could be the last Toto record?

Well, we got sued man! [Chuckles] It’s either we make a record or we’re gonna end up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. So we said: “Well, if we’re gonna be forced to it, let’s do a good one!” Well, bro, this one took ten month and it’s been ten years since the last one… If you look at the record business, it’s not exactly doing that well. In ten years time, ask me! I don’t think we’ll be rushing into the studio any time soon. We will have a fortieth anniversary, which will be amazing to me. If you would have told me when I was a kid that someday I’d celebrate forty years with this band, I would have laughed at your face! But it’s only a couple of years off now. By the time we finish this tour, we’ll be damn near close! So, I don’t know about another album but I think that if this is our last album, I could be very proud of it. I don’t know. I say a lot of shit that you’re quoting me from eight years ago… Yeah, at the time I was a little bit angry and I said a lot of things but shit happens! I could be dead tomorrow. Right now I’m having a good time, so we must live for today, as I once wrote when I was a kid… I cannot predict the future my friend! All I can say is how I feel today and I might say some shit today that’ll make no sense five years from now but that’s my right as a human being I guess, you know, we all do it.

« Will I sit around and play “Hold The Line” in my house by myself? Never! But that song’s been very good to me! It gave me a career! »

For most of the bigger audience people often seem to reduce Toto to your worldwide classics “Rosanna”, “Africa” or “Hold The Line”, at least these are the songs everybody know from Toto. But it’s very unfair to summarize Toto with these songs. Don’t you sometimes find the popular success of these songs somehow restrictive?

No man, if we have hit records then that means we connect with people. I was nineteen years old when we did “Hold The Line”, okay? I’m fifty-seven now. I mean, who knew this shit was gonna last so long? Obviously this song has touched a nerve. We had no idea it would last that long! It’s part of pop culture! You pray to have a song like that, to have a hit record. It’s very difficult to connect with everybody an a worldwide basis on one particular song. In fact we’ve got seven or eight of them. It’s rare. And people want to hear their favotire song. Will I sit around and play “Hold The Line” in my house by myself? Never! But that song’s been very good to me! It gave me a career! So you can’t argue with success. Will I like to have another hit record one day? Yeah, I will! But I don’t know… Top 40 radio doesn’t play music from people of our ages… We’re getting a lot of radio airplay on the new single “Orphan”, believe it or not. We’re just going crazy: “Hey, this is great! Fuck, right on!” But you know, a lot of it is a little bit more corporate in that as well, put it that way. But these songs have lived on for damn near forty years! How can I argue with that? I mean, everybody when they’re in a band wishes to have hit songs! Believe me!

Everyone in the band sings and actually sings very well…

By the way, we’ve all worked on that very hard! I mean, Joseph is the natural singer but I spent a lot of years in the woodshed, a lot of years studying voice to become a much better singer. Particularly live. It’s important to me. I’m always growing. I practice my guitar every day. We’re all musicians that care about our… We aren’t just a bunch of old guys trying to make money until we die. I wake up caring. I still care about getting a little bit better, pushing our limits. We want to give the best we can for our live performances… And also for me! I mean, I still give a shit about… I’m not just gonna sit in my coach, get old and not give a shit anymore. I really think there’s always something to learn. Those vocals are very hard and a very difficult thing! And I think that we’re getting better and not worse at it. Like you said and I’m glad that you noticed that! Thank you!

Doesn’t it sometimes feel like there are too many cooks in the kitchen when working on the vocals? And actually why does the band need to have a lead singer on board?

We throw the ball around like a team does, like a basketball team, you know. Some of these songs have three lead vocalists in the same song. That’s a storytelling thing with a different twist to it. I mean, we’re not just a hard rock band where the singer goes [loud screaming]: “Ahhhhhh!” I mean, there’s a million bands like that. We thought it was a clever way to do it. It adds different sounds, different tones. Sometimes lyrically it made sense. We just have fun with it! We didn’t make any rules. Sometime we try, like: “Let me try this one!” Or I go: “Nah, Joseph, you try this one.” Or: “Dave, this is your song! You should do this one.” So it’s pretty much about who wrote the song, this is how we go about doing it. If we wrote it as a band, sometimes we sang it as a band. If you look at our biggest record, “Rosanna”, two lead vocals: me and [Bobby] Kimball. “Africa”: Paich and Kimball. There are multiple vocal on most of our biggest hits. So it’s part of our thing.

When we talked to David Paich two years ago he told us: « Funnily, when I write Toto’s songs, you’ll hear a lot of harder things and people assume that it’s Steve’s look at it, but Steve writes most of the ballads whereas I myself love the harder rock things.” Do you think that’s a Toto specificity?

Nah, I think we’ve all liked it all. I mean, David was a big influence to me as a songwriter when I was young. Paich was writing the riffs, he was… You know, when I first heard his music when I was a kid, it just hit me! It hit me in the heart! David Paich is a genius in my mind. I don’t mean an Albert Einstein genius, I just think he’s a really clever songwriter because it’s accessible and melodic but, at the same time, if you take a song like “Chinatown” on the new album – which I found was an old song from 1977 that we never finished and for some reason it fell on my desk again when we were looking for material, when we were just starting writing material for this new album, and I said: “Paich, remember this fucking song? You gotta finish this!” – it has these chord changes in it with very strange modulations but yet anybody can listen to it, you know what I mean? It’s very melodic but structurally and harmonically it’s very clever and very strange. An unschooled musician would never write that music, you know what I mean? David’s greatest gift is to be very clever but also very accessible. And so I’ve learned from that. Yeah, when we write together I like that hardest stuff but it’s ironic that I’m the guitar player and some of the ballads we’ve had as hits I wrote on piano… So… [laughs] We don’t have any rules! When we put this team back together with Joseph and Steve Porcaro, everybody’s a songwriter; everybody’s a solo artist in their own right. So we really push each other to write our best stuff and we wrote together as well.

« Sometimes I wanna punch him in the face when I’m doing a guitar solo because he’s always telling me what to play! So I say: “Shut the fuck up Dave!” But sometimes it makes me play better! »

David also told us a funny thing, he confessing that: “Inside myself I’m a closet heavy metal guitarist…”

[Big laugh] He’s inside the closet, alright!

And continued: “When I come back, I wanna come back as a heavy metal guitarist.” Does he sometimes take one of your guitars in secret to play heavy metal riffs?

No, he doesn’t. I think was just fucking with you [chuckles]. I mean, he knows guitar! I mean, sometimes I wanna punch him in the face when I’m doing a guitar solo because he’s always telling me what to play! So I say: “Shut the fuck up Dave!” But sometimes it makes me play better! I mean, if I can impress a guy that has heard everything that I’ve ever played for forty-three years, since I was a kid in high school… You know, I have to work hard to impress him. But he’s not impressed by fast shit. He wants me to play weirdest stuff. So sometimes he gets the best out of me that way! That’s what I was talking about, that creative tension… If I’m just sitting by myself, then I just gotta please myself. When I’m in a room full of guys that I grew up with, it takes a lot more to impress them. And it’s not by being flashy. It’s by being clever. It’s a big difference.

Actually your previous album Falling In Between had that harder edge, almost metal sounding on some songs. What do you think about that album now in retrospective?

I think we made a good album! It was a difficult album. The vocals took forever for obvious reasons. It was the last album we did with Mike as a primary member, songwriter and producer. So that will always have a special place in my heart. I thought that was a good album but that was us then, ten years ago. We just made the record we wanted to make at the time, with everybody contributing writing, sitting in a room, writing every song together, pretty much. I haven’t listened to the whole thing in a long time to be quite honest with you. Usually when I finish a project I’m sort of done with it until I learn it to play live. And this new album is completely different from that. We came from a different point of view and made it completely different with different people. It’s all a part of our history, I’m not denying it. It was very well received and it did well for us. Unfortunately the band fell apart during that tour but that shit happens, you know.

In 2008 you said that “at 50 years old [you] wanted to start over and give it one last try on [your] own.” Actually you did three solo albums in the mean time, so what did these solo albums bring to you that Toto couldn’t?

Well, there was no Toto and I’m a songwriter, a producer, an artist and I like to tour… I’ve had success, I mean, on a smaller scale but I can go out and make a great living just doing my songs. I’ve got ten solo albums. I just got back from Japan and Asia, I did another live DVD with my friend Larry Carlton, with an all-star band: Keith Carlock and Jeff Babko… That’s very exciting. So I’m always doing stuff, man. I’m out with Ringo Starr, I’ve been in his band for three years and we’re gonna keep going. I worked on his new album [Postcards From Paradise, out March 31]. I will do another solo album down the line. I really enjoy doing that! I’m an artist, man! I’ve got a lot of music in me! I’m not gonna go out and play “Hold The Line”, “Africa” and “Rosanna” by myself… There’s a person (note: former singer Bobby Kimball) doing that and not doing it very well… What can I do about that? I can’t do anything about that. Anybody can play these songs. But, you know, I like to make new music. I’m an artist and I work very hard to cultivate that, and I really enjoy doing it. You can tell the difference between my records and Toto records.

And do you have any plans for a new solo album in the near future?

Oh, man, I don’t have any time for the next couple of years but I’m sure I will, and I think it’ll be something different. The three albums that I made in a row are almost like a trilogy and now is time to turn the corner and do something a little different. But right now I’m in Toto world and I can’t even think about solo stuff. But eventually I will. I know I will.

Interview conducted by phone 15th, february 2015 by Nicolas Gricourt.
Retranscription and traduction: Nicolas Gricourt.

Official Toto website: totoofficial.com.



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