Last time we spoke to Steve Lukather he was in bed with a severe bout of 'flu. So poorly was he that his usual Parental Advisory joshing was replaced by uncharacteristic reticence. "God yeah, I remember that," exclaims Luke, now fortunately back in the land of the living... and the colourful turn of phrase. "It was nasty, I got rashes on my body and shit like that. Terrible way to start a tour. Still, you drink your way through it!"
The reason for our conversation this time is to talk about Steve's collaboration with long-time hero, co session ace and guitar great Larry Carlton. Their live album, No substitutions, was recorded in Japan in front of a small club audience and shows the two players in stunning form on songs from Luke's past and Larry's famous 1980s albums, the eponymous debut and its follow-up, Strikes twice.
"I actually played organ on that first record," Steve bursts forth. On night crawler, there's a Hammond organ part on the bridge and that's me. Bastard didn't give me credit though! I was 18-years-old and it was when we'd just become friends. We were going to play poker that night and he goes, I need someone to play the melody and I said, I play keyboards; I can do it. He goes, 'Really? Well go ahead and do it'. So I did it. It was only like eight bars."
More than any other guitarist we know, Lukather loves to praise his peers and could talk for hours about Beck, Gilmour, Holdsworth and of course, Carlton. "Larry, man. The whole Crusaders thing, all the stuff he was playing on Steely Dan records. The royal scam was a life-changing event for me. I said, I want to play like that guy. I can't help being influenced by the great cats I've had a chance to play with."
Larry and Luke have been friends for 25 years, so how come they've never made a record together until now? "I know. It's so weird how it happened; almost like fate. Larry goes to Japan all the time and plays at these prestigious jazz clubs where they try to put weird pairings of people together. They gave him a list of guitar players and he said, I wanna play with Luke. I was really flattered, because we'd known each other all this time but never really played together. I was doing my thing, he was doing his. He moved to Nashville, we didn't really see each other that much any more and he just called me out of the blue and said, Hey it's Carlton; do you want to go to Japan with me? I said, Come on man, let's go."
And then it dawned on Steve what he'd let himself in for. "I went, Fuck! I've got to get my shit together. But it's great because he brings the best out in me; it's like having a lesson every night because he's a true be-bopper and I come from rock and roll; that's how I was brought up." Those of us who were weaned on those great jamming albums of the 1980s have missed them. There's been a famine of this kind of stuff and many guitarists are gagging for it to happen again. "Your mouth to God's ear, bro!" agrees Steve. "But I just don't think anyone's going in that direction any more. When Larry found his niche in the smooth jazz thing, they have a tendency to not want it up too loud; it doesn't fit the format. But when we play live he really cranks the shit up."
Your album is being received really well around the world. "It's great, man. This was just something for fun, but it looks like we could have a career! Maybe actually do a studio record, write some new songs, stuff that's tailor-made for both of us. When I came into it, it was Larry's gig, so I said, Larry, play whatever you want. I brought in Becko's tune, The pump, because it's a great tune to jam on and I brought in All blues, an old standard that I remember Larry doing in the old days. I said, I know all these old great tunes that you don't play any more, let's do those. So I didn't bring any of my own."
So did Carlton have to re-learn the old numbers too? "Nah," says Luke. "He's one of those wizard guys. He says he doesn't have perfect pitch, but I beg to differ. He doesn't forget things; his facility on the instrument in five-part harmony is just awesome. We did this song, It was only yesterday, from his first album, and the intro used to be on piano, but now it's a full-on guitar intro. Actually the two of us do it together. He does the chord melody stuff; we've done 40 shows this year and he does it differently every night; it's absolutely astounding to watch him just create on stage like that. We're not just talking about blowing some lines and playing a few chords, we're talking about stuff that separates the man from the boys. It's just total mastery of your instrument. I've never seen anything like it."
We saw Carlton earlier this year with his jazz outfit Fourplay and were mightily impressed. "Those guys are great," concurs Steve. "But he doesn't get a chance to really blow. They're all brilliant players, but it's really interesting about some jazz. What I've noticed is that it's almost like you've got to put a governor on it; you're only allowed to go so far. Larry gets to play the blues once a night and bring the house down, but most of it's very composed. What Larry and I are doing is just full-on blowing - wherever you want to go man, take a hundred choruses, no-one cares."
Lukather's modesty prevents him from accepting that Larry must also be getting something out of this collaboration. "Well, he just cracks up on the fact that I'm a hambone. I'll get out there and jump on the tables and shit like that. I have a few chops that he doesn't have, that's all. But we complement each other, we're having so much fun and people see it's not all staged. They were honestly going, Wow, I've never heard him play like that before. You can see we're not just going through the motions; we're actually putting our butt cheeks together and blowing. I'm just a fan that gets to stand on the same stage."
Come on Steve, how live was it really? "Exactly live. We didn't fix anything. You can hear the little imperfections, warts and all. Anyway, there was no way we could match the sounds to fix anything."
No substitutions is out on Steve Vai's Favored Nations label and Luke has nothing but praise for Vai. "Steve and I sat down and we had four takes of each song, recorded on two sets each night," he says. "Then Vai heard it and he really dug it. It was perfect for what his label was trying to do and he really got behind us. All of a sudden we're getting great reviews and shows are sold out all over the place. It's kind of a wild card. I never expected any of this to happen; we thought a few people might dig it, but it's doing much better than that."
Even though on the album, each guitarist is panned to the opposite side of the stereo picture, both have such signature sounds and touches that it's instantly recognisable who's who. "That's so true," agrees Steve. "I was always brought up that way; find your own voice. I'm still incredibly influenced by all my favourite players, but everyone has their own touch and if you develop that it becomes subconscious. I can play through Eddie Van Halen's rig and I'll sound like me playing through Eddie Van Halen's rig, and vice versa. Everyone thinks it's a magic amp or a magic guitar, but no man, it's the guy. I've heard Eddie play a piece-of-shit guitar and he still sounds like Eddie. If Jeff Beck played a fucking toy guitar it would sound amazing!"
I remember we were doing a show in Japan in the eighties and I was walking down the hallway and I could hear this playing; it could only be one guy. It was before he recorded Where were you. He was doing all that shit with the tremolo and I walked in and he's playing through a Roland keyboard practice amp and a Strat that was just lying around. There are no tricks to it. I've sat in his living room and watched him acoustically play the guitar and hear amazing things come out. There's no pedal you can step on and sound like Jeff Beck and there's No 335 that's going to make you sound like Larry Carlton. Everybody thinks it's the gear. Sorry guys, but I'm here to tell you it's not the gear."
Steve's convinced he's become a much better player because of the Carlton collaboration. "Oh yeah. It took me back to school again," he agrees. "I started listening to Coltrane and Miles Davis and that has turned me into a whole other human being, which is great because there's not a lot in rock and roll that I find exciting these days."
In fact, so disenchanted is Luke that he goes as far as to say that musicianship is at an all-time low. "I think the 1980s stuff went over the top; it became like sport instead of music. But some great players came out of that era. What I'm seeing now is that nobody really cares about being a good musician; they all want to be rock stars, which is fine, but you'll have a five-year career and then never play again. My son is 14 years old and he can play anything on any radio station that comes on, but he's bored with it. He plays guitar and bass but I go, Dude you've got to get a little bit deeper than this, man. Anyone can play root, fifth and anybody can play first position chords. Do you want to be a musician for the rest of your life or a rock star for five years?"
Steve is adamant that new technology has impacted on the music, too. "Oh yeah, man. Nowadays you don't have to play good, because they put it in a computer and fix it. It's really that scary. You don't have to play in time any more. They've just made it too easy for kids. Some of them write good songs, I'll give them that; there's a couple of really great young bands but no virtuoso players any more. And you don't hear guitar solos on the radio because it's the anti-guitar-solo era and I think that's a backlash from the eighties."
Where's the new Robben Ford? A couple of blues guys are good. Kenny Wayne's good, but they're all blues guys playing other guys' licks. But they're young, their balls haven't dropped yet, for Christ's sake; let them get out there for 10 years and get some pussy. How can you sing the blues when you're 14? Mind you, Jonny Lang sounds like a 50-year-old, whisky-ridden black dude. He's a nice kid too."
So does Luke have any good news for rock guitar? It doesn't seem so. "Well, usually at the beginning of every decade, whatever happened before gets flushed, but what I'm seeing now is a really horrific sight, which is all these girl and boy bands and everything's like McDonalds: tastes okay, but tastes the same everywhere. But where's the new Nirvana? We need something, desperately. Obviously Oasis didn't save the world and they're sucking their own dicks right now because everybody's laughing at them. Sorry to tell you guys, but you're really are not The Beatles. That was a bad PR move. I like their records and they are at least great ear candy."
"The guys in The Black Crowes did the same shit; it's like, don't talk and then people will dig you. If you haven't got anything nice to say, shut up. People laugh at first, but eventually it comes back to bite you. It's like the Spice Girls saying they'd sold as many records as The Beatles. Well maybe so, but girls you're not quite as good as The Beatles, are you?"
"I love the fact that 30 years after their demise those guys can put out a record and sell 13 million copies in two weeks. What does that tell you? It tells you they're the best band in the world. I had the chance to work with Paul and George. Unbelievable! And George Martin. Just to be around that and see how effortless it is for these guys; they were magic, man, and I got to touch it!"
Intermusic.com, February 2002