They're known as a bunch of LA session players who got together and formed a slick supergroup. But in reality the members of Toto met at school, formed what Steve Lukather describes as, "a Steely Dan tribute band" and have never looked back. Their finest hour commercially was 1982's Toto IV, which spawned the worldwide hits Rosanna and Africa. But the band have released an army of albums, devoured with delight by devoted fans around the world.
The line-up best known and loved is that of Steve (Luke) on guitar, David Paich on keys, Jeff and Mike Porcaro on drums and bass, with Bobby Kimball on vocals. Over the years the personnel have changed - Simon Phillips taking over after Jeff Porcaro's untimely death 10 years ago, and with a range of successful and not so successful vocalists when Kimball quit the group. Luke and Paich have always added their tonsils ta the proceedings, but now that Bobby's back in the fold, Toto sound complete once more.
Through the looking glass is a sometimes reverential, often light-hearted and occasionally hilarious tribute to the people who have left a musical mark on Toto, with offerings to Dylan, Cream, The Beatles, Bob Marley and even non-Toto fan Elvis Costello (of whom Luke manages a wicked impression).
Of course each group member has other fish to fry - Luke with his jam band Los Lobotomys and he and Phillips, with their fusion group, Doves of Fire. But Luke's most interesting guitar collaboration has been his tour and live album with Larry Carlton. No substitutions, Live in Osaka, was a breath of fresh air which also gained the pair a Grammy. And as soon as time in their respective schedules becomes available, Steve and Larry plan to feed their lick-starved fans by repeating the exercise.
"Yeah, we're talking about doing another," begins Luke. "Larry's got his commitments and I'm out with Toto until the summer, but we're definitely going to do something else together because we really enjoyed it. We put no thought into it; just went to Japan and after a week we thought we should record it. But then I played it to Vai when he was getting his label together and he said, I can use as much of this stuff as you guys want to give me. We really had a blast, and winning the Grammy really validated the album."
Now one of the bastions of the LA guitar communitY, along with friends like Carlton, Van Halen, Mike Landau, Steve Vai et al, Luke was once the precocious young gun. Does it concern him that there are no new players coming through to take over from the old guard? "Yeah it does," he confirms. "I keep looking, and in LA you'd think I'd find someone. But the studio scene is finished unless you're doing TV and films and that's a shame. There's no need for guys who can play well now, because everything's so sequenced and perfect that the only time they use some loose-assed guitar player is if they want to make a track sound real."
So we can expect to hear no more Lukather session gems, such as Randy Crawford's You might need somebody, Lionel Richie's Running with the night or Don Henley's Dirty laundry? "No man, I got out of it years ago, so I'm not doing any sessions anymore."
Through the looking glass shows the varied tastes of each band member, but why no album of original Toto tracks to mark their quarter century? "We'd all been doing other things and there was just no time," confesses Steve. "But we wanted an album to mark our 25 years and so Paich came up with the tribute idea. He said, Why don't we do a bunch of songs from our childhood, or by people we've worked with and who are our friends. So we did it in Simon's front room, no technicians or roadies, just five guys in a room. Simon was the engineer and the tea boy! We'd work from 12 till six every day, jam stuff and come up with different arrangements. We just had a blast and shoved it out there to see what would happen."
How did the band choose the songs? "We went through our record collections, selected some tracks, then met over dinner to discuss which ones we'd end up doing. One stipulation was that it had to be from the time we were growing up, so it was mostly late sixties, early seventies. Essentially it was stuff that we played together in high school - a lot of people forget that we were a band in school."
Doing cover tunes, a band like Toto - who so many critics love to hate - must run the risk of damnation from certain quarters. "It's true, man. People have the originals imprinted into their brain and a lot of them got very upset when we did them. Everybody else does it and it's fine, but as soon as Toto do it everyone says we're being sacreligious!"
Known for his use of Bob Bradshaw rack systems, Steve has a revelation about the equipment on the new album. "Simon has this tiny Marshall 1 x 12 combo in his garage and I used that amp for the whole album. It just goes to show that I don't need a refrigerator full of effects. In fact, all the effects were put on at the mixing stage and I didn't use anything while we were recording. It was just the Ernie Ball Luke guitar and the baby Marshall."
We then asked Luke to talk us through every track on Through the looking glass. Here's what he had to say...
Could you be loved (Bob Marley)
"Actually, this song was in my wife's record collection. She's got a really eclectic collection and I said to her that I'd love to do a Bob Marley track and she said, What about Could you be loved? So we went in and did it and then Paich said he'd like to stick a rap section in there. Now, I just can't relate to rap music. Okay, it's a great groove and all that, but I can't get into it. Anyway, he got this Jamaican guy, Tippa Irie, to come in and do this rap while I was away with Simon in our Mahavishnu band. It's kinda stepping over the edge for us but, who knows, we might even get a couple of plays on the radio because of it. In fact, if this song didn't have our name on it, it would probably already be a hit!"
Bodhisattva (Steely Dan)
"When we were in high school, we were basically a Steely Dan tribute band. It was me and Landau on guitar, Carlos Vega on drums, Steve Porcaro on keyboards. Jeff Porcaro was the drummer in Steely Dan at the time and so we were obsessed With learning the whole of the Katy lied album before it came out, and Bodhisattva ended up opening our set. It's also a bit of a tribute to Jeff as well - it's 10 years since he died. Steely were really important to us as kids. They were what we wanted to be like. They were very melodic and they had some great guitar solos. We reharmonised some of the chords so it's not an exact copy, but it's enough of a nod to Jeff Baxter and Denny Dias... those guys are my friends."
While my guitar gently weeps (The Beatles)
"I ran into George Harrison one night and, because I'd worked with Paul McCartney on Give my regards to Broadstreet, I figured it would be a good excuse for me to introduce myself. I mean, the solo in I saw her standing there is the reason I took up the guitar in the first place at seven years old! Anyway, we got on, he liked my sense of humour and I didn't lick his ass too hard - and he actually knew who I was.
"Then I said, Look, we're gonna do a show for our bro Jeff Porcaro who'd just passed away, there's all kinds of people playing and all the money's going to charity. Would you like to come down? And you know what? He showed up and said he would play! So not only do we have a fantastic evening, with all these great guys getting up and playing for Jeff, but I get to go up to the microphone and say, Hey... I met this guy the other night; he's the reason we all play. Thanks very much, George Harrison! He comes out and the place is just weeping. And we became friends. He invited me out for dinner once and there was Bob Dylan, Jim Keltner, Jeff Lynne and we all ended up jamming Beatles tunes at Jeff's place. Dylan was on bass, Jim Keltner on drums, me and George on guitars and Jeff on keyboards.
"We stayed in touch, but after he got stabbed we lost touch, because he changed all his numbers and stuff. I knew he was ill but I didn't know how ill and the sad thing was I never got the chance to say goodbye."
I can't get next to you (Al Green)
"This was actually the first track that we cut for this record. We used to do a lot of Al Green stuff back in the old days and, if you listen to that song, you can hear where the gem of Hold the line came from. It was a cross between that and Hot fun in the summertime by Sly and the Family Stone. This was us going back to that original groove."
Living for the city (Stevie Wonder)
"I used to live, eat and sleep Stevie Wonder. He's played live with us too! We were playing at the Budokan in Japan and I was playing this solo and all of a sudden the crowd goes apeshit and I'm thinking, Wow man, I'm tearing this place up! Then I look behind me and there's Stevie, who's just walked on. He was amazing. I listen to all his stuff, but especially Innervisions and Talking book. For our tribute to Stevie we decided to do it a bit differently, by featuring the guitar instead of the Fender Rhodes. We actually called him and asked if he'd like to play on it, but unfortunately he was out of town."
Maiden voyage/Butterfly (Herbie Hancock)
"That was an idea that Simon and I had because we're the jazz guys in the band. I wanted to do something more musical and Herbie is a buddy of mine - he's jammed with us too. And we decided to put Maiden voyage together with Butterfly. Simon came up with about 75 per cent of the arrangement and I came up with the rest. We overdubbed the other guys and I'm really pleased with the way it came out."
Burn down the mission (Elton John)
"This wasn 't on our list, but Kimball sat down at the piano one day and started doing it. And it was amazing. We all went, We've gotta cut that now! And we did and it was a blast. That one pays more of a nod to the original than a lot of the other songs. But we've all worked with Elton - I've done four or five albums with him - and we had Davey Johnstone and Nigel Ollson on backing vocals."
Sunshine of your love (Cream)
"I was really against doing this song because it's a perfect record, much like While my guitar gently weeps. But Simon used to play with Jack Btuce and he was set on doing it so we said, Why don't we do itin 7/4 time? And then what about the middle? Well, why don't we rewrite it? So we started fucking around with it and it started to come together and now I really like it. But you can't mess with the original version of a song like that. Jack Bruce heard our version and he realIy liked it. The first thing he said was, Do I get paid twice because you put White room in there too?"
House of the rising sun (The Animals)
"This was one of the very first songs I ever played when I was in a band at nine years old, talk about returning to the beginning. Bobby Kimball is from New Orleans and the first time we jammed it was when we were doing a show down there. Paich, just for a joke really, started playing it in the soundcheck and Kimball started singing. Now that wasn't the arrangement that ended up on the record, but it gave us the idea to do the song. I said, Why don't we take the Dave Gilmour approach to it? So then we changed the chords around and our version came out sounding a little bit psychedelic. Dave Gilmour is one of those few guitarists whose name typifies an actual style of playing. I've copped a lot of stuff off Dave and he's a friend."
Watching the detectives (Elvis Costello)
"Elvis has always been really mean about Toto. We started at the same time on the same label and, whereas he was the critics' darling, we were the whipping boys. And whereas he always said shitty things about us, we never said anything. This was another CD from my wife's collection. I played it to the guys and they were like, Dare we do this? So I said, Come on, I'll do the full Elvis! So we cut the track and we did a sort of hi-fi version, because his is really loose and 'garagey' and we're not exactly known for our garage sound. Anyway, when it came to putting down the vocals and I started singing like Elvis, the guys were cracking up. I started getting into it and said, I want to be him; get the lisp happening and everything. I was in hysterics and we had to record it line by line. But it came out great. I doubt he's heard it - I don't see him buying our records - but we did it with respect because I like Elvis and I don't mind if he doesn't like me."
It takes a lot to laugh,... (Bob Dylan)
"This was a throwaway blues track to try to get Paich singing, because he doesn 't like singing on the records. So we said, Dave, pick a song and sing it. And he chose this. We don't usually do blues tunes on our albums, but Dave put on this big top hat and just sat there and sang it. It allowed me to get the Dobro out and do stuff I don't normally do. We did it more or less live and it's a kind of bonus track."
Guitarist, March 2003