The men behind the instruments; agreeable, versatile, faceless. Exiled to vacuous little cells, manacled by patchcords and ordained to wail behind veils of anonymity, they dutifully serve their time. Toto,the sum of parts drawn together by studio circumstance and destined to skirt in and out of the public's fickle eye, a group which disbands and re-assembles between sessions to serve up the leftovers of overwrought chops and shorn-off ideas. It's a story as old as the Hollywood Hills themselves, as crackled and yellowed as the lead sheets for an old Terence Boylan session. It's a story we well know. Or do we? Don't be fooled by the shy, elusive smirk.
"People have a big misconception about what we are," pines Luke of the cool hand. "They think of us as these hemorrhold-ridden studio players who need these rubber donuts to sit and with these big thick eyeglasses, reading music all day long. That's not what we're all about, man. You don't see any charts at our sessions unless they're string or horn charts. We just go and play our music. That's always been a pitfall for us, because most bands play one way, and that's the only way they can play - that's it. They learn their 10 songs a year, and that's what they play all year long. We sit around and jam on Sly Stone tunes, and we play Hendrix tunes at rehearsals. There's a whole different side to us."
Lukather: versatile, personable, venerable. His spontaneous guitar arrangements have been burned indelibly into catalogs' worth of the past two decades' recorded music, in styles ranging from the show tune to pop-rock to bebop to Randy Newman. There's no substitute for that kind of education, and its rewards make themselves obvious to anyone cueing up a recording on whose date the contractor was astute enough to throw the call Luke's way.
And they should make themselves obvious to anyone cueing up The seventh one, the most recent collection of well-oiled but volatile tunes from Toto, Steve's oftmaligned steady gig. Tight, tasty and sometimes feverishly unruly, Luke's skilled guitar work locks in and propels, then veers off and takes the veteran L.A. quintet's music in some unexpected directions. Whatever or however he plays, though, he holds it up to the scrutinizing light of experience, and he's much too far from proud to say it comes from anywhere else. "Basically," Lukather claims, "I steal everything from everybody and make it work for myself. Listen hard - you'll hear it."
Lukather, nonetheless, is one of the few L.A. "session" guys who's earned himself enough credibility to be stylistically recognizable even after having passed through both the homogenizing studio door and the great, inescapable sieve of influence, which he claims included religious encounters with British guitar royalty, as well as more conventional contact with contemporary players. It's probably that credibility which allows him to get away with sticking Yngwie-style heavy metal runs smack in the middle of funk tunes from his rock band's latest pop album. "Oh, on Pamela," he laughs. "Well, I've got to cop to that. The solo on that particular tune was kind of an accident. See, Edward [Van Halen]'s a real good friend of mine, and Mike Landau, Bob Bradshaw, David Paich and I got together with him and a couple of other guys, and we went up to Las Vegas to hang out and have some fun. The day I came back, we were doing the solo on Pamela, and Paich looked over at me and said, 'C'mon, man, gimme some of that Van Halen stuff [laughs].' I gotta cop to that, 'cause it's kind of a rip from Ed; I don't usually play like that. He's the best at doing it, so hell, give credit where credit is.
The Steely Dan influence had even more practical significance in the formation of Toto. "We knew each other in high school, man. That's one of the big misconceptions about us, that we're studio musicians. We were playing in high school bands together before we ever, ever did a record date. We had a killer high school band - me and Mike Landau on guitar, Steve Porcaro on keyboards, Carlos Vega on drums and John Pierce on bass, just a badass band. We learned the whole Katy lied album before it came out because Jeff brought the tapes in. We were playing these tunes live at high school dances and people were going, 'Wow, that sounds like a Steely Dan song!' Jeff used to come sit in with us and play, and it was great - good years, you know? Those were the formative years, when everybody started listening to more than just one kind of music. At the time, I was just basically your hardcore rock 'n' roll guy, and then I started listening to jazz and classical music. I had this great teacher, Jimmy Wyble, who opened up my ears to some new sounds, and Landau and I used to sit together and practice all the time. We went to the Dick Grove school when there were like, three people in the class, and Dick was teaching the class himself - this was 12, 13 years ago."
As things got more outside musically, they became increasingly more interesting to young Steve, and even before he would go on to record with virtually everyone who's ever put out an album, accept his first Grammy or cash his first royalty check, he was repeatedly assured that he'd have serious learning to do. One such reaffirmation came years ago, when hearing a certain guitarist sent his dreams of bright lights into a temporary tailspin. 'I love to put on Allan Holdsworth's records and listen to him rip," he says, "because as far as that style goes, he's the guy for me. He was Yngwie before there was an Yngwie, but he played with such taste that people thought, 'God, how does he do that?' I remember hearing the Tony Williams Lifetime album [Believe it] 10 years ago, and going [yells], 'How the fuck is this guy playing?! What the hell is this?!' And this was also just as Ed was emerging. Allan's was a completely different style from Ed's, but when I heard those two guys, I was going, 'This is it for me. It's over. I have no career here, and I should consider something else.' It was really depressing, but it also made me work harder. I'd started getting a little overconfident before I'd heard these guys, and then I realized, 'Fuck, man, I suck. I'd better go take a really good look at myself and get back into the woodshed."
Tempering Holdsworthian energy with Carltonian emotion and Claptonian simplicity, Lukather funnelled the results of his woodshedding directly into his most recent work with his own band. On the raucous Stay away, he faces off with slide maestro David Lindley in an earbending salute to restrained havoc."Yeah, man! That's the raw shit. It was fun, because Lindley and I did all that stuff live, standing face to face. I figured that it would be great to have him do it, because he's such a monster slide player, and I don't really play slide that much, although I have on certain records. He was working right down the hallway with Linda Ronstadt's band, and that's how they both got involved with that particular song. It almost didn't make the record, because everybody went, 'Oh God, that's pretty out,' but Dave and I were like, 'Well, we just gotta work on this, guys; we just gotta get into it. 'We wanted for once to put something on that was just different, and I'm sure when people hear that for the first time they'll say, 'Hey, man, I dig that tune, but I never heard you guys play like that.' So Lindley agreed to do it, and then Linda said she wanted to sing, so we put her on, and it was one take all the way through; Lindley and I ran it down once, and we kept the second one. He and I never even talked beforehand. We just set up, he got a sound, I got a sound, and all that [producers] George [Massenburg], Billy [Payne] and David said was, 'Gimme the raw shit, man, think 'Stolles.'' So we played a bunch of anal stuff, and it ended up sounding really cool. It had a real rough edge. I'd like to do a whole album of that shit."
On the other side of things are tunes like Mushanga, which, like its sonic and thematic predecessor Africa, is a highly produced track which seems to share very little with the "learn to burn" credo around which Lukather structures many ofhis musical concepts. His singing gut-string solo highlights another dimension of his multifaceted talent, and the restraint he exercises is yet another holdover from the hours he logged alongside the studio stalwarts. Studio chops are about something other than technique, and, as Steve explains, putting them to good use is, well, all in a day's work.
"On Mushanga, that's one of those stereo Yamaha guys, with every string left-right, left-right. I liked goofing around with that, it was a lot of fun. We had this guy Andy Narell, a great steel drum player, come in for that one. I did the solo and I left some holes tor him, and he came in and decided to double me in a couple of areas, and it came out sounding real interesting and fresh - I'd never heard a sound like that before. When I do stuff like that, I try to make the song realize its original intentions, rather than just play a bunch of bullshit to get myself off. When I was doing sessions, I'd ask, 'What kind of sound do you hear on this?,' rather than just start flailing away, and if somebody said, 'Well, just do whatever you want,' then that's what I'd do. But you give the benefit of the doubt, and you try to understand how someone else is hearing the material, because a lot of times people are bashful, and don't want to tell you exactly what they want, even if they definitely have something in mind. You can waste three or four hours fucking around until it comes down to what they really want, and then you realize, 'Well, you were right, that was the right concept. Why didn't you tell me four hours ago?' You just keep an open mind."
"I mean, I've known Larry for years, and I've sat next to Ray Parker and Jay Graydon and Dean Parks, and the list just goes on, and these are guys whom I learned a great deal from about how to think and play on records. It's a different thing, a different way. You've got to go in there and do what's right for the song and the artist. And if you're playing with another guitar player, you've got to play together, with the other player, and perhaps come up with apart that's very, very simple and unflattering to yourself, but which makes the whole song happen and makes both players look good. That way you keep getting called back, and they'll say, 'Man, guys, what a great little simple part that was; it really made the tune happen. ' I mean, Graydon and I used to come up with great parts together. When I first started doing dates, he was the guy I was playing with all the time, and he hooked me onto a lot of work. That was the joy about having George and Billy this time, because my stuff was loose, and if there's some shit that's out of tune it bothers me a bit. But they said, 'Look, relax, will ya?' and then I tried to just block everything out. Every fucking album, I'd just sit and worry: 'Jeez, is this bend a little limp like this?' or 'Is this part a little rusty right here?' or something, and this time, they wouldn't let me do that. They wanted to keep a couple of rough edges on the shit, because we really have the tendency to over-buff our stuff."
Lukather consciously goes straight for the marrow on several other tracks from The seventh one, through complex lines on Home of the brave and a soaring solo passage in the decidedly unbuffed A thousand years, which drew its inspiration from a stop at another key weigh station on Steve's winding musical sojourn. "On that tune, I had just gone to see Pink Floyd two nights before. Gilmour is one of my favorites, sonically. The guy just plays the tastiest shit; it's so unflash, but it's so hip. That inspired going with a nice, real direct Strat sound to this big panned, effects-from-hell kind of burn sound. Playin' melody, you know? You can really be effective playing very simple melodies with the right sound and the right feelover the right changes. I mean, sure, there were a lot more options than what I played on that particular piece, but, rather than showing off technical prowess, I thought, 'Let's do something soulful, something maybe a little bit more memorable than something you have to slow down to half-speed on your machine to actually learn to play'"
Today, Steve's got an ear out for that kind of stuff; after all, he is something of a flash fanatic himself. However, recent trends have encouraged an emphasis on flash, and a seasoned veteran sees right through it. "You know; a lot of these cats who imitate Yngwie, a lot of the younger players who aren't famous, I don't know if they've got it or not. There's a whole void of rhythm guitar these days. I'm not talking about Yngwie; I'm talking about everybody who's trying to see how fast they can play whole-tone or harmonic minor scales. It's not real musical to me. I mean, there's something to be said for the technical ability it requires - if you're a guitar player, you can really get off on it. I put that shit on in my house and my wife says, 'Take that off before I start killing people.'"
"I'll tell you," he adds, "I would be scared fuck-all if I were a ten-year-old trying to learn guitar now. It's like, if you don't have the solo from Eruption down in a year's time, you're history; you'll never have a career. I mean, my first song was Gloria, and it was a whole 'nother thing. Between playing with Graydon and Ray Parker, man! Parker's one of the baddest rhythm guitar players in the world. Now, he puts out these pop records and doesn 't even play guitar on any of them, but he's a funky, funky rhythm player who comes up with unbelievable parts. That whole Boz Scaggs record, Down two then left, and then Middle man, sitting next to Ray, man, damn great rhythm. It'd be interesting to turn on some of these younger metal cats who don't even know who Ray Parker is.
"I learned how to play rhytbm guitar before I learned how to play lead guitar, which is something that doesn't happen these days, and it's kind of frightening because soon there are going to be a lot of guys with vicious chops that are going to have the worst time you've ever heard in your life. They can't play with a drummer; they're great closet guitar players, guys who sit in their house and have these amazing chops, and when you put 'em in a band in front of people, they fold up like an old dry leaf. There are a lot of great players, too, though, so I don't want to generalize completely, but you know what I mean."
The prognosis? "I think we should force some of these guys to listen to every Rolling Stones record every recorded, and say, 'Dig what rhythm guitar's all about, man, dig Keith Richards, dig Brown sugar and Honky tonk women and dig how simple it is and how good, how great it feels.' I just love players like that. I dig a guy like The Edge, man, a guy who's got relatively no chops in comparison to some other guys. I dig his sound and his time and his groove and the parts he comes up with. That to me is great stuff."
Obviously, Lukather's playing philosophy is to speak less than thou knoweth, but knoweth a lot. Rather than learning by drilling things into memory by rote, though, he prescribes moving into jazzier realms through open-minded selfeducation. "It's just a matter of digging sounds and experimenting with them. It's just trial and error, you go out there and play a bunch of bad notes, and determine which are the bad ones and which ones sound good to you. And it's just a matter of sitting in your room and just playing to records: put on a record that you like and just blow to the whole fucking thing when there's nobody around, so you can make all the mistakes you want and not feel like an asshole [laughs]. I still do that when I have the time to be able to just sit around and practice in my house, although the last thing I want to do after a full day of playing is sit and practice; I'd much rather just watch a Honeymooners re-run [laughs]. But when I practice, I make little tape loops with a bunch of changes, 'cause I play keyboards too, so I've got this little home studio vibe in my house and I'll put a drum machine on, and I'll just blow over it to try to find some fresh new things. There're a lot of times when you're just rehearsing the same songs over and over, there's only so far out you can take the stuff. I mean, how outside can you get on Rosanna?"
Not far enough. Like Carlton and Graydon before him, Lukather soon became frustrated with the less-than-demanding nature of most sessions, and the sheer repetetiveness of pop music in general. With Toto covering costs sufficiently, Steve's all but left the studio behind in search of more spiritually lucrative musical opportunities. He recently played a successful one-off show in Japan with Jeff Beck and Carlos Santana, and is still deliberating the possibility of a sparetime solo project which may call on the playing and songwriting talents of friends Danny Kortchmar, Steve Stevens and Ed Van Halen. But in the meantime, Lukather continues to enjoy playing live and exploring Toto's formidable improvisational talents, as well as stretching out in an even freer context with some friends in Hollywood.
"I play in this band at the Baked Potato here in Hollywood called Los Lobotomys," Steve relates enthusiastically, "and it's a great jam band with killer players coming to sit in. We play all instrumental music. You can play anything, 48 choruses if you want, and there's no such thing as a wrong note. I get that release; I go play that gig for me. It's like anti-pop music. Because you know, I love playing rock 'n' roll and rock 'n' roll pop (whatever you want to call it), but I like to do other things, too, to grow as a player, like playing with a bunch of jazz cats. This saxophone player, Brandon Fields, and this keyboard player, David Garfield, really know how to fucking blow jazz. It's serious, and when I play with those guys I play differently, and I copy a lot of stuff from them. It makes me think differently from when I'm playing with guys who are just stone cold rock 'n' rollers; they have another idea of what that's all about, and I like to think of myself as being somewhere between the two, if I'm lucky.
"But at the same time," Lukather observes, waxing slightly philosophical, "I don't reallY think about what I play; it just comes over me. All musicians are like this. I mean, what makes us play the notes we play? Where does it come from? What makes a person play this particular succession of notes on this particular day ? It's never the same. I just try to go for it and stretch out, and not sound like anybody else. I'm a product of all my favorite guitar players, past and present; you've got to keep listening to everybody though, just to see what's out there and to see what people are digging."
Even if people are content to count him among those they dig, Steve is still determined to keep moving forward. "I don't even know where I fit into all of this," he says. 'I just try to do the best I can whenever I can do it. I like to sneak a little flash into the melody, that's all. And if somebody else comes along who's really great, you'd better believe that I'm going to have that record on in my house and that I'll be trying to figure out what that guy's doing, because things are pretty competitive these days. I've gobt to be going in an upwards direction, and taking techniques and bringing my own stylistic vibe to them, because otherwise, I get stale.
"And it really comes down to something very basic. When I played with Beck, I saw first-hand, up-close, eyeballs practically four inches away from his hands, how he does what he does. And it's mind-blowing to see how simple it seems, because it's not really simple, it's finesse. That's what's missing in a lot of players, including myself [laughs]. There're guys like Beck and Clapton, or Ed or Landau, or any of those guys; they pick up a guitar effortlessly; and there's this vibe to it. They play one note, and you know the guy's a motherfucker. They don't have to play 82nd notes flailing up and down the neck. If a guy just does a bend, you can tell if he's good. And I like guys who come from more of a blues base. Running Paganini scales up and down the neck is great, but I can't listen to it for long periods of time. My wife would scratch my eyes out. I mean, it's great to learn, to have under your fingers and use as a tool, but to live your life every day for, 'Well, what's the next new arpeggio to learn at 100 miles an hour?' as opposed to going out and playing in a bar with some band and grooving and learning how to play in front of people and... I don't know, it's just a new world out there, like I said, and I'm just glad I'm an old fart now, you know?"
Again, there's no substitute for experience. "With any amount of success you have," Lukather cautions, "there's always the disappointment factor. If you haven't gone through that yet, you will, and that's where you learn. You learn humility, you learn what it's really all about, and you earn longevity, I just want to be around for a long time. I don't want to be a 'Whatever happened to...,' you know? Granted, in terms of kids going wild for me, I'm not in the league of an Yngwie or an Ed... but I'd just like to be around for a long time and contribute whatever small little thing I can to whatever this whole big picture's all about, because I just love playing music. I love playing guitar, and I love being in this band with some of my best friends in the world, and I just can't imagine waking up and not having this to do every day. Sometimes I'll piss and moan that I'm tired or that something's a drag and I don't feel like doing it, and I just gotta slap myself and say, 'Fuckin' A, sure beats working for a living.'"
Guitar World, September 1988