Luke: We live in a world were being really good is considered a sin…you’re slick, you’re soulless, you’re not really happening. If you wear black and white or red and white and fuck your sister, then you can be a really big rock star. You know what matters to me? I get a call from Herbie Hancock... I'm in Italy in my Hotel room 3 am in the morning and Herbie Hancock finds me and calls me in my hotel room and says “do you want to come and play with me and Wayne Shorter at the Tokyo Jazz Festival? Get your guys over here". Herbie fucking Hancock! Miles Davis played with him, one of the best musicians in the world! Any cunt ass muthafucker who says they don't like me because they've heard 3 songs in 25 years, and never bothered to look deeper than Rosanna, Africa and Hold the line... they think I'm some soulless cunt then you know what, that's what I am!
When a guy like Herbie Hancock finds me in the middle of the night in Europe... one of the heaviest musicians that ever lived... calls me up and says “Hey Luke, sorry to wake you up” you know? It was an honour! I'm like “Mr. Hancock what can I do for you? of course, what ever you say I will do! And by the way... how do you like your fries?”
EG: I notice you're also squeezing in some Santamental dates.
Luke: I'm trying to pull that together, I'm not sure that’s actually going to happen.... maybe you know more than I do?
EG: [laughs] well I read it on your website...
Luke: [Laughing] see, you know what's funny about websites haha... and I love these guys, they are so on the case it's unbelievable... they know before I do.
Luke: More than once I've been like “where am I playing?” I thought I was leaving a week away then I find out from my site I'm leaving on Sunday, and I'm going fuck! I thought I had a couple of extra days haha... it's my wife's birthday on Saturday...
EG: I love the idea that your website dictates your schedule.
Luke: They are more in touch with my tour manager and stuff. I'm just like “what’s up?” Sometimes it's kind of embarrassing how out of the loop I really am. But those people are my friends, I mean Arend from stevelukather.com is a really great friend and Steve from TOTO99.com is a great friend of mine. Their is a new business model coming up for websites and I've seen it, it's going to change everything. Lets just say… its about time the musicians and they’re fans get to each other without making some guy rich...paying for his G4 while some fat ass muthafucker gets $10 a record while you get $1... that’s why the record companies are fucking starving. Nobody wants to be signed to a major label anymore. Everybody has finally figured these people are full of shit. These muthafuckers own my work, I can never own my music because of these cunts. They signed me to a royalty rate that was 1977 before they jumped to CD's and started charging 3 times the rate, I didn't get a bump... I didn't get a raise...
EG: That’s incredible!
Luke: And they treated us like shit, we sold $300 million dollars worth of records for Sony and after 25 years we didn't even get a goodbye. These are evil, evil people who have nothing to do with music. They have reduced the musical development of the world to something you vote on TV. Let the computer do the work... these people can't play or sing who cares... looks pretty good! 90% of what you see and hear is not what you see and hear. Guys like me, are just a bunch of old relics.
EG: You probably believe that more than most...
Luke: I can laugh at it. I just sit back and find it funny. I've been around to long and I know too much... I know everybody who's worth a shit in this business. I don't know any of the young kids because they are not around longer than five minutes to get to know them. I've been on the road since 1976 and I know everyone in every kind of music, I like all styles of music.
EG: Well you must have played most being an A list session guy...
Luke: Yeah, I take it as a badge of honour, but people don't know what that takes to make it happen.
EG: One thing I struggle to understand is the lack of respect you receive, I can't imagine another industry where a guy at the top of his profession would face such flak.
Luke: Well you know what, my respect comes from my peers. What more do I need? My wife likes me...
Luke: I'm never going to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and after all these years I'm still making a living playing the guitar... fucking great life! I've been the victim of bad press from day one... to the point where they said our parents should have been sterilised so we couldn't have been born to play the music we play. I don't know how much harsher a review you could get haha!
EG: [Laughs] I can't believe anybody would actually write that...
Luke: Yeah, that’s one of my favourites... I quote it often. They hate the fact we play with McCartney and Aretha Franklin and that I've played on over 2000 records with some of the world’s greatest superstars.
It's because they thought we were a corporate band... put together. They couldn't be fucked to put in the homework and find we were actually a high school band who just happened to be good, not just good looking!
EG: Your live schedule is pretty intense, what keeps you going?
Luke: If I stop, I really don't know. I just love it. I love the life. It seems insane, I’m a middle aged guy… I'll be 47 in October and I'm still like a little kid... it keeps me young. Jetlag... I don't even know what that is anymore, I’m terminally jetlagged! I'm on the road 9 months a year; I have a great bunch of people around me to hold me up... I’m a small part of a big team. I think if anybody has a life worth a shit, they have people around them to help prop them up. I can't imagine anybody who's ego is that big that they'd say “I did it all myself” [laughs]
EG: You'd be surprised hahaha.
Luke: Well you know I am, and I run into guys that are on their first or second hit record and they believe all the lies that they are important. That goes away as quickly as them believing they'll be a millionaire after one hit record. It's a big lie. You won't make any money until after you've been around for 5 or 6 years. It's like glorified loan sharking.
I'm trying to teach that to my son, he's so horny to be out there... he’s all ready to go and I'm like “dude... don't sell you soul to the devil for 5 bucks”.
EG: You must have experienced something similar when you first started…
Luke: When I was 14 I was in a band with Mike Landau and some guy wanted to sign me for 3%, AND he owned all my publishing till I was 21. I had to write a certain amount of songs per year to stay in the contract and he promised me the world. Thank god my dad saw it... I was like lollipops and Les Pauls around my neck wanting to be a rock star, you know? I was heartbroken it didn't happen... but if I had adhered to that contract, I probably wouldn't be here right now. Some guy in the valley saw the golden carrot and he tried to fuck me up the ass with it, with his car! It's even worse now - this was 1972! No care or respect for me at all as a human being.
EG: They've come up with better ways to screw you since then!
Luke: Now they can make anybody a rock star…anybody! I could take an iron to my dogs ball sack, iron it out and make it a new look... put it in front to of a camera with a blue screen and computerise some music and sell it, it would be a rock star! It won't around for a long time, but those who buy into the bling bling and MTV crib shit would buy it, and all this bullshit... it's all bullshit...
I respect people, people that are so fucking good, much better than me. But they won't get heard because there is no place for them to get heard. I've been on Essential Guitarist, and I know guys like Greg Howe and Ritchie Kotzen - these guys should be superstars! These cats are absolutely stunning musicians who should be wiping there ass on 100 dollar bills. Mike Landau should be a superstar... what the fuck happened to that! And yet, Jack White rates up there with Rolling Stones 100 best guitarists, Eddie Van Halen was voted number 70 OK... that’s all I got to say hahaha.
The point is it's flavour of the month. It's not like the days of Rolling Stone when they'd interview Keith Richards shooting up or something haha. We were like wow; this is underground and deep shit. Today’s guys are all in the business of being a rock stars rather than musicians, it takes decades to be a musician...minutes to be a rock star. I spent hours, days trying to be good... not good looking.
All this manufactured bullshit... clean sound during the verse, stomp on the fuzz tone and scream at me during the chorus; I'm so fucking tired of it. The ‘anti musician’ thing... and I can hear the Pro Tools for god’s sake. Nobody sings that perfect, nobody plays that perfect! When they take a rest all of a sudden, everything is cut off... there’s no sound of ambience in a room, and they say we're slick haha, you got to be kidding me.
There are session players, even though the scene is pretty much dead who go into a session and play a verse and a chorus, they don't even get to play a whole song. The producer then says, “thanks very much, you're out of here”.
Luke: Yeah, and they just manipulate whatever you play.
EG: Is this why you mentioned to me before the interview, that the A list session scene is dead?
Luke: All the A level guys are looking for good road gigs, and they don’t even pay like they used to. It's so rare; we were part of the heyday of the session scene. I had such a blast; it was an honour to be in the same room with some of the best musicians - all over the world. I mean, there's Elton John, there's Aretha, fucking... just name a name, awesome! Being around that environment and just hanging out playing... even if it was crap music, we just polished a turd.
Luke: We got charts that had like 85 bars of E and nothing else. We just had to make something of it so we'd re-write the songs for them... it wasn't like little dots on the paper, we got paid for what wasn't on the page. Any cunt can learn how to read music! We had enough above and an attitude of like... ”fuck it, lets make it a party”. It was the most fantastic time of my life. I traded my hearing for insanity from all the fucking headphones on my head 23 hours of the day.
EG: [Laughs] so what advice would you have for any musician trying to get into the session scene?
Luke: Write songs and start a band.
EG: That bad?
Luke: Unless... there's a coveted spot for guys who do TV and film... just sight-read music and go home. But if you were trying to make a living from a session playing on records, you'd be broke in about 5 minutes. In the heyday they'd throw half a million dollars at a new artist for their first record. They'd hire eight A - list guys for a double session to sit in a room. I learnt how to get high doing those sessions... they'd hire you and you'd sit around all day while they got the kick drum sound [laughs]. It was fun! I learnt a lot of stuff and hung out with some great players. I used to laugh... I'd sign a bunch of W4's and leave them in them lying around in the studio, somebody just paid me for a session I didn't do because they assumed I was on it. We'd just play and play until we got a take you know? These days it's like "just play this riff a few times and I'll throw it around"... my favourite one is when they say "play over everything... play too much, and I'll figure it out later".
Luke: Nothing to do with the song... it's like the editing is where they get their nut.
EG: Does having a mastery of so many styles make you a bit musically schizophrenic when writing your own music?
Luke: I suppose it could, but I don't really think of it that much. I write for the project, I don't horde a bunch of stuff and then figure out "this is for me, this is for the band" I work much better of the fly, like recording a record in a week. I can come up with 20 songs, even if I haven't written all year. I tune my brain up to whatever the challenge is... and I welcome the challenge... the harder it is the better! The problem with writing and recording music is, if you have too long to think it out you'll probably throw away a lot of your best shit that you think “that’s to simple I have to get to something deeper”, when simplicity is wonderful.
EG: Do you think this is why you have lasted so long in the game?
Luke: Well I know where all the bodies are buried; they'll have to kill me now if they want to get rid of me.
EG: Is there any chance of you jamming with Holdsworth one day or say, Neil Schon?
Luke: Aww I know all these guys, they're my friends. Alan Holdsworth, I mean, what would I play next to him? I could get him beers and clean his guitar, maybe make him a cup of tea [laughs].
Luke: We have a good relationship. I have tremendous respect for him; I'm a humble cat. Some of my raves may go off a bit and sound like I'm pissed, but I'm actually quite the opposite, really humble. Neil Schon is a brilliant guitar player and a great writer. He's an old dear friend. I figure that my rule in life is, I have to play with guys better than me, otherwise I'm not going to learn anything. I've been playing with Larry Carlton since I was 17. Two years ago we won a Grammy! If you'd have told me when I was 17 we would win a Grammy for just jamming together and I would get paid for getting guitar lessons off Larry every night, I would have laughed at you.
EG: I loved the No substitutions album.
Luke: That wasn't even a good night [laughs] it was really early on in the game and thanks to my brother Steve Vai [who's another treasure of a dedicated musician] he saw something in it when starting a record company...
EG: Favoured Nations...
Luke: Yeah, well he said “this is exactly the kind of shit we want”. It was recorded as a lark haha we never even rehearsed, just showed up in Japan and said “what do you want to play?” First night was like “lets do a Jeff Beck tune and a bunch of your [Larry's] shit, I'd love to play 335 with you”... we didn't even bring any of my songs into the picture - just fuck it. Bissonette came from Australia with some of his guys; we meet in the dressing room, had a little taste of wine and went “what key are we in?” Off we went.
Luke: A week into it we knew we had to record this shit, just for ourselves to document how much fun we were having. Never thinking it would go beyond that, and Steve Vai god bless him, said “this is exactly what we want”. Steve and me sifted through and edited, mixed the record and it won a fucking Grammy haha... I mean how ironic is that! Larry and I both laughed at it. I mean all this shit we have put our blood sweat and tears into... we really thought it was a labour of love - no attention at all. A jam record we do in Japan after a few cocktails wins a Grammy. I learnt a lot from that, like... I’m trying way to hard!
Luke: I should relax and let the music come! The Japanese are wonderful like that, opportunities like that never happen. I'm going to Japan with Nuno Bettencourt, great guy, amazing musician. I've never played with him before... he'll probably blow me off stage but it will only make me better. I welcome a kick in the ass. I'm not sitting around practicing finger tapping, as a matter of fact; I don’t do it anymore. Unless your name is Eddie, Vai, Satch or Yngwie it's not allowed... Eddie first, as he brought it to the party. The cats I'm into at the moment are guys like Sco, Stern, Metheny, Henderson and Dean Brown from NY. I mean the real cats! These are the guys I look up to. Some guy playing a harmonic minor fucking scale at a ripping pace is about as exciting as fucking your Grandma [laughs]. It's a great parlour trick but where’s the music? When I jam with Larry Carlton and all of a sudden he breaks his improvisation... 5-part harmony for 5 minutes, not knowing what he's going to play next and never repeats himself after 4 weeks on the road... know that’s a guy I look up too.
The widdly, widdly shit is very impressive and I love it... I still love flash guitar and I think anybody who does it is amazing but often the compositional skills are not as good as the technical ones. I think about it like this... If you practice masturbation all your life and you get to fuck Claudia Schiffer, you can't get your dick hard! [Luke starts yelling] FUCK!!! AWWW, NOT NOW, GOD I HAVE CLAUDIA SCHIFFERS PUSSY IN MY FACE AND I CAN'T GET IT UP! AWWW, hahaha!
EG: [Laughing] plus, you'd have wrists like Popeye...
Luke: Know what I’m saying... you put to much pressure on yourself. I mean once you've invented the wheel, how do you invent another wheel? How good does EVH have to be... now he's taking shit! The guy invented a whole way of playing and now because he's middle aged people are like “he's lost it”... fuck anybody who says that! Look at the top ten of guitar players right now, who's the best player... is there any guitar haha?
EG: What about Luke solo albums - have you plans to make more?
Luke: I'm so busy I haven't had time... I'm well up for stretching out into that area though.
EG: You must get inundated with offers and opportunities. How do you decide which to take up and which to put on hold?
Luke: Well solo career wise; I haven't done that since 1996. The Christmas record only took a week, but it's a Christmas record and you only really take it out once a year [laughs]. I'm definitely over due to do something different, but it's scheduling, I make all my money on the road... and I love it. Two hours every night on stage and do whatever I want... pretty much.
EG: Well that’s the life we all want Luke... being able to do whatever we want!
Luke: It's bizarre, I'm, very lucky and I thank god. I've been everywhere in the world ten times... I get paid for the travel not the gig and the gig is the icing on the cake. I get paid for sitting around in an airport for 12 hours.
EG: Any chance of pulling in some of your buddies from Dream Theatre and Rush for a bit of hard core prog metal shit?
Luke: Yeah man! Well, Petrucci is an old friend of mine, we've jammed together before. We have the same guitar company... he's one scary cat. The whole band [Dream Theater] is just absolutely killer. He's another alien and such a great guy... somebody that good! I am still a student and if I want to hear greatness I like to be around greatness! I want to learn how the fuck they do that... what are they thinking about when playing that shit. I remember Petrucci, Steve Morse, Albert Lee, and myself jamming at the MusicMan thing and I remember thinking “what the fuck am I doing up here with these guys... I should be the beer roadie”.
Luke: For me, rehearsal fucked it all up. You want enough rehearsal to know what the changes are and let the rest happen. Nobody takes the time to learn the theory shit anymore so it can happen, and if people call me an old wanker, a muso, then great - I'll take that shit. I'm still trying to figure out my guitar lessons from when I was 15 and I'll be 47 in October. You won't roll out of bed one day and say, “now I know everything about guitar and I don't have to practice”. I guarantee Les Paul is still trying to find new licks! No musician on any instrument is going to be like... 'ahhh now I fucking get it'. You get a few moments of clarity in your life. Carlton opened up my eyes and ears to so much shit, he made it so easy to look at, in two seconds he showed me shit that would have taken me 25 years to learn.
EG: Have you ever given any thought to writing a forthright autobiography? You’re such a great storyteller and have some very upfront views. It could do very well...
Luke: You should hear the behind the scenes stories I have haha. Some of this shit is so deep I can't remember it. I lived the dream man and I can still laugh at my mistakes, decadence and stupidity. Nobody gets the joke more than I do.
EG: Just about every musician on the planet is jealous of your life.
Luke: [Laughs] How could they be jealous? They don’t even now me...I am the luckiest guy in show business today bud... and without rug burns on my knees or stretch marks on my mouth... [laughs] I pulled it off!
EG: Horrible images are invading my mind Luke hahaha.
Luke: [Laughing] That’s probably the best last line of an interview I've ever said! Feel free to use that one.
EG: [Laughing out loud] Yeah, that'll go on the front page!
Luke: My game is all about the humour man.... I laugh at myself, the guys and me are ruthless... no subject taboo! If you are stuck on a bus for 12 hours at a time you either go crazy or laugh your ass off.
EG: Thanks for the interview Luke, and good luck on tour!
Luke: Cheers Mate!
EssentialGuitarist.com, issue 12, November 2004