Was the session scene as competitive as the band scene?
Back in the heyday, when I started, I was doing demo sessions for people. Before there was machines and all this shit, they had to hire people to play to get a record deal. So I had practical experience before I started doing real records, where I was playing with the “A” guys. And there was so much work that everybody was working. Even when I hit the scene, when I first started making records, I got to work with all kinds of people. Jay Graydon helped me so much. [Lee] Ritenour, [Larry] Carlton, Dean Parks…the “A” guys. Landau and I started coming up, and there was so much work that we were going “Hey man, I can’t make it. Call Mike”. Or “Call Luke”. It was a different era. People had budgets. It was incredible. Plus I was in a band. I was the happiest nineteen year old kid you ever saw. I got to work with my favorite musicians – all the names on the records I grew up listening to. You’d show up, and it would be a camaraderie. Cats would come in from Nashville, London or we’d go there. It was a blast. The best days of my life.
How often were you called for who you are and what you bring to the table, versus the producer just needing a warm body to play the part?
Well, reputations are made very quickly in town. L.A. is a small town. If you get a reputation as a really good player and a cool guy to hang out with…which really has a lot to do with it. You could be a great player and be an asshole, and you won’t get the gig. There’s a certain respect. There’s protocol – how to deal with the cats, what level you’re at, what level they’re at…I got lucky because my reputation started with the Porcaro brothers. I went to high school with them. Jeff [Porcaro] was a legend before I was even in a band with him. He was in Steely Dan. We learned the whole goddamn Katy Lied record before it came out. My high school band was me, Landau, John Pierce, Carlos Vega and Steve Porcaro – we were like a Steely tribute band.
I’d say that’s a step up from a garage band learning Sabbath tunes.
We were all studying music. Now, if you know how to play or you can read, it’s like “Oh, they don’t have any soul. Those guys are soulless.” Fuck that shit. Anybody that says technique is bad is full of shit. They just can’t play. I’ve heard all the criticisms. We’ve taken more shit than any band ever in history. I’ll put it to you that way. Ever. In history. Of anyone. I can laugh at it now. I’m to the point where I’m like “Come on, you can’t come up with some new criticisms for me?”
Do you think that your participation in Toto has ever suffered as a result of you guys taking on so much outside the band?
Nah, man. We always made it work. How can you not bring something home. It’s like “Oh, I’ve been working with Elton John for two weeks.” Is that not going to help my musical experience and growth? Between us, we’ve played with everybody there is.
Are there sessions you’ve done which you wish you’d gotten more notice for? For example, you played on half of Michael Jackson’s Thriller record, but Eddie Van Halen was asked to do the solo on Beat it. And in the end it was such a big song.
I played everything else – all the bass parts, all the guitar parts – except for the solo. Me and Jeff Porcaro made that song.
Would you have wanted a crack at it?
I don’t give a fuck. Eddie Van Halen is a dear friend of mine. What happened was that particular song was recorded already, and they sent it to Eddie to do a solo. This is in the days of two inch tape and the SMPTE code. [Note: The Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE --- pronounced SIMP-tee) is a professional organization which writes standards for recording systems used in North America. When they wrote the specifications for SMPTE time code, they made it possible for all manufacturers to use the same techniques for reading and writing time codes so that everybody's tape and equipment would work together. Class dismissed!] He decided he wanted to play the solo over a different part, so [engineer] Donn Landee cut the tape. When you cut the tape, you can’t sync up the machines anymore. He cut the SMPTE code. They didn’t know that. They sent a slave tape over, and that’s what it was. Jeff Porcaro and I had to make this record with Michael’s vocal, Eddie’s solo and Michael hitting “2” and “4” on a drum case. There was no click track – nothing. So Jeff, the legend that he is, played twice and was done. I overdubbed the guitar, the bass and all the other shit. It was just me, Jeff and Humberto Gatica in the studio. After we got all that shit together – I originally put walls of Marshalls on it – they said it was too rock n’ roll, so they wanted me to calm it down. So I had to do it again. I’ve got a million stories like this, bro.
How often did it happen that you’d show up for a session – or even finish a project – and then realize that one or two of the other guys in Toto were also on the song or album?
Me and Jeff were on a lot together. It was almost like they hired us as a duo. I was on more sessions with Jeff than not, let me put it that way. It was a fantastic time. I look back and I start thinking about how lucky I was to be in the right place at the right time. It was the last great heyday of session players. We were like the wrecking crew of the 70’s and 80’s.
And is it all still as exciting for you now, after all this time.
I still feel sixteen inside. I still have that fire, the humor and I try to take care of myself. I’m not fat. People think my son and me are brothers. I still care about life. I look back and I go “God, was that really almost thirty years ago?!” Every year seems to go faster and faster. In the blink of an eye, a year is gone. When you get older, you get married and you have kids, your priorities change a little bit. Back then, we were single, young and hungrier than shit. We’d spend twelve hours a day in the studio, because we didn’t have to go home to anybody. When you get older, you don’t necessarily lose your fire, you just put your priorities in place. I like to have a couple days off. I still work nine and ten months a year. But I don’t feel bad sitting on the couch for a couple of days, if I’ve got some time off. I want to sit down and enjoy the fruits of my labor.
I want to talk a little bit about some of the challenges you faced in Toto - you seemed to hit your stride early on, with several hits [Hold the line, Rosanna & Africa] on the first few Toto albums. Was there a great deal of anxiety about both Bobby Kimball and David Hungate leaving the band after the success of Toto IV?
Hungate didn’t tell us that he bought a place in Nashville and wanted to move his family there. He never wanted to be a rock n’ roll star. He’s a great musician, and we’re still friends. I love him dearly. But as soon as we’d finished tracking Toto IV, he chucked his bass across Sunset Sound and said “I’m done. I quit. I can’t do this anymore.” And he moved to Nashville. It was kind of weird for awhile. He went to become an A-level session player in Nashville, and now he’s sitting around not doing a whole lot. I saw somebody at NAMM who said “You’ve gotta call him and get him off his ass.”
How did the dynamics of the band change with David and Bobby’s departure from the band, Mike’s arrival, Steve withdrawing from touring and later, Jeff’s passing?
Bobby was fucked up. We gave him a hundred chances. Then when he got busted and shit like that, he wouldn’t show up and we wouldn’t know how to find him. This was before cell phones. He’d show up and he couldn’t sing because he’d burnt his voice from getting high. It was a very frustrating time. It was horrible. I mean, Bobby’s back now and he’s together. He’s great. He still sings his ass off. He’s a sober cat. I’m glad to have the real shit back. But we went through a time there where every album had a new singer. It was horrible for us. It really hurt our momentum. I mean, here we are on top of the world and we lose our lead singer?! Bad time for that to happen - we could have parlayed this thing [Toto] into a much bigger situation in the United States. We’re lucky that Europe and Asia, still to this day, are still huge for us. We can still play arenas and sell them out. As for the Fergie [Frederiksen] thing, I wanted Eric Martin to be our singer before Mr. Big. Me and [keyboardist David] Paich wanted him, Jeff was adamant about Fergie. Fergie was a nightmare in the studio. He couldn’t sing in tune at all. Live, he was ok, except he’d lose his voice every third show. So that broke down. Then we got Joseph Williams, who I thought was great. The first album and tour were killer. Fahrenheit and The seventh one, I thought, were a couple of our better albums. But on The seventh one tour, Joseph got the drug disease. Now we’re all friends, he’s straight and he does scores for TV. But he got fucked up, and we had to end that. So here we go, down that road again. And then the record company found us this nightmare cat [Jean Michel] Byron. I was shaking my head going “Guys, are we high here?! This is not the right cat.” That was an experiment gone wrong, and then I ended up doing the gig. We went around the block a hundred times, to come back to me.
Mike Porcaro seemed like an easy fix for the Hungate situation.
Mike [Porcaro] was an easy fit. Mike did the Toto IV tour. He was accepted immediately – I mean, there were three brothers in the band. Mike should have been the bass player in the first place, but because of the success of the Boz Scaggs rhythm section on Silk degrees back in ’75...
Why did Steve [Porcaro] begin to distance himself from the band?
David [Paich] played ninety percent of the keyboard parts on all of our records. Steve was like the synth He was feeling like he wanted to do more of his own music. We weren’t giving him enough love, or cutting enough of his tracks. And he went down a really tough road with the dope, too. Cocaine is a very dangerous fucking thing to play around with, you know? We’ve all done it. I was guilty too, but I never let it affect my life. Steve would stay up for seven days at a time. He was a mess. Now, he’s been sober for twelve years. And he has always worked on our records, he just doesn’t like to tour. And Paich doesn’t like to tour anymore, so Greg Phillinganes fills in for him when we go out, doing shows here and there. I’m the only guy that’s played every gig and every record.
Between all the Paich’s and Porcaro’s in the equation, have you ever felt like the odd man out?
No, never. I felt, if anything, more secure. I’ve learned so much from David and Jeff, you know? I owe them my whole career. And then we lost Jeff. Jesus Christ, that was devastating. Still to this day…
Toto seemed to make a transition from a more radio-friendly band in the 80’s, to having a more progressive sound in the last dozen years.
It’s been kind of a natural progression.
Has this come as a revelation to those who labeled you as corporate rock in the past?
Let’s define what “corporate rock” really means. Does that mean you sell millions of records? Green Day is a corporate rock band. What is punk music? You can’t be a punk if you sell a million records. If you sell a million records, you are corporate rock. You’re making money for the corporation. They make ten bucks, you make two. That’s corporate rock. That’s just a lame label. Us, Journey, Boston, Foreigner, the Cars, whatever...they lumped us all together like we were the same band. We’re certainly not. Most of those guys are friends of mine. I think Neal Schon’s one of the best guitar players in the world. He gets love, but not as much as he should. He’s a fucking brilliant musician. I know all those guys, and we were all lumped together like we were…
But we weren’t.
I think it’s safe to say that you were also involved in recordings by many of the media darlings of the time, which is kind of ironic.
There wasn’t an album that came out of L.A. between ‘75 and ‘90 that at least one of us wasn’t on. Yet we’d take all the shit. I’m never gonna be in the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame. They fucking hate us. And that’s the biggest joke in the world, anyway. I mean, the Lovin’ Spoonful is in, but Black Sabbath isn’t?! Because it’s a handful of ass-wipe Rolling Stone mentality critics who decide who gets to be in, and who doesn’t. John Mellencamp?! What the fuck is that guy famous for? Here’s a guy who’s got the same guys in the band for twenty years, and he makes them rehearse the entire set every day at sound check. How many times have you got to learn R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.?
The touring climate has changed as much as radio since 1990. Artists used to work their way up to larger venues.
The reality is the young bands can’t sell tickets. There are two or three cats who can do it, but one hit wonders? Who’s gonna pay fifty bucks to see some guy for one song? Guys like us can still put butts in seats, whether for nostalgia or because we’re good players or whatever. We’re not hip. The media hates us. But we still put butts in the seats consistently.
It seems like there are so many new artists who go from complete unknowns on Monday to arena superstars by midweek, and by Friday they’re gone again. That’s if they ever even get a shot.
The thing is – you spend ten years writing the best material you can, you put one album out, and you have to sell ten or twenty-thousand out of the back of your car before a major label will even look at you. When it comes time to do the second record, you’ve been on the road for two years. You’re not writing, the quality goes and your career is over. That’s a cliché. It doesn’t always happen that way. There are some great new young bands. There’s some good new shit out there. But this disposable, band-in-a-box, Pro-Tools nu-metal bullshit is…it’s the fucking same song: clean sound during the verse, stomp on the fuzz tone and scream angrily in the chorus. It’s a cliché, man.
It’s kind of funny, in light of what you’re saying, that Pat Thrall – arguably one of the great guitarists of his generation – has gone from recording and touring to running one of the most prolific Pro Tools studios in New York.
I saw Pat yesterday. Pat’s a great guitar player. He did the Lindsay Lohan shit. He met my son. He says “You’re Luke’s son.” My son goes “Yeah.” He says “I’m Pat Thrall.” My son goes “Dad, who’s Pat Thrall?” I said “He’s an awesome guitar player. He used to play with Glenn Hughes…” I gave him the whole history. Hey, you know Pro Tools guys make a lot of money. They make more money than musicians do, these days.
What makes a solo tour like the one with Nuno Bettencourt worth your while?
We came back from Japan a couple months ago. It was very successful, and really a lot of fun. He’s a brilliant musician. Killer band, with a Latin fusion rhythm section. We’re supposed to go to Europe for a couple weeks in the summer, I think. I love doing these outside projects. I don’t get rich from them, but they’re very satisfying musically. And that means when I come back to do my Toto thing, I’m fresh. If I just had to play “Hold the Line” for the rest of my life, I’d shoot myself. I won a Grammy with Larry Carlton two years ago, doing a jam record. We did the Tokyo Jazz Festival with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. We were invited personally by Herbie. I don’t think the cats from Foreigner would do that. They don’t have the chops. They’re a great band. They’re great at what they do, but they’re not journeymen. There’s not a lot of rock bands that get invited to play with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.
I was thinking about your work with Larry Carlton, the Santamental album you put out recently with guys like Eddie Van Halen and Steve Vai, and I had to wonder – who are some musicians you find intimidating? Who do you need to be at your absolute best to stand toe to toe with?
Maybe a guy like Allan Holdsworth, or something. Some cats are just aliens. I take my wife to see some of this shit, and it’s so over her head that it makes her nervous. It’s real muso music – impossible chords, weird time signatures…there’s some brilliant guys. When I was young, I might get a little nervous. But not anymore. I just do my thing. I started playing when I was seven. I’m forty-seven now. And I’m friends with all those guys.
That probably comes in handy when it’s time to call in favors.
I couldn’t afford these cats anymore. We do the barter system. Eddie comes and plays for me, I sing on his record for free. With Vai, I did the Yardbirds record for him and he came and played on my record for free. We use the barter system now. I made that Santamental record for, like, twenty grand. I’m real proud of that record. It’s real. It’s one twenty-four track tape. If it couldn’t fit on twenty-four tracks, it didn’t go on the record. And that was the first record my son ever played on. I’m proud of that, as well. I’m looking at my son and seeing the gleam in his eye. He just will not put the fucking guitar down. He’s always stretching himself. I’m walking by his room going “Dude, what time signature is that? How are you feeling that? That’s an amazing riff.” He’s my kid! So it’s his turn. I’m enjoying being more of the elder statesman. The experienced guy. I still practice all the time. I still give a shit about playing. But I see that freedom. My son’s never had a girlfriend. It’s all about the music. That’s his passion. He doesn’t have time to be distracted. He’s got that dedication, and I look at him and I see a little bit of myself and what I used to be like when I was his age.
Is he following your example?
He goes “Day, you’ve got tough shoes to follow, man.” He’s not even gonna use his last name in his career. I said “Don’t do it. Be your own, and people will find out. Don’t make it easy for them to punch ya.” Cause some people in the music media hate me. He might as well get a fair shot. “Oh, you’re Toto’s son.”
“Hey, it’s Toto Jr.”
I don’t want him to deal with that. The musicians will find out, and that’s fine. You know, my kid knows more about my music than I do. We’re going out to have dinner or something, I get in his car and he plays me some obscure Toto track from 1981. He goes “Dad, this is the coolest tune, dude. How’d you cut this?” And I’m scratching my head. Eddie Van Halen was over at the crib a few months back, playing me some new mixes. I sang on some of the shit. I always sing backup on their records – Ed and Alex are soul brothers from the 70’s, you know what I mean? One of my favourite bands of all time, his ex-wife lives three doors down from me, and we see each other all the time. So Ed comes by, and Trev [Trevor Lukather, Steve’s son] shows up. He goes “Guys, I want to play you guys a couple things.” So he starts playing album cuts off of Van Halen II – shit that Ed hasn’t heard since he cut the tracks. He’s laughing, and all of a sudden Trev breaks out some of my shit, like obscure shit off of Isolation that I haven’t heard in twenty years. And he’s sitting there grooving on it, playing it for us. And we’re like “Damn, I forgot I did that.” It was just a trip to see the youngster’s digging the oldsters’ music.
So this isn’t stuff you’ve shown him how to play – it’s just stuff he’s picked up on his own?
He picks all this shit up himself. I don’t give him lessons. If I hear him doing something I’ll grab a guitar and say “Now this is how I’d do it.” He goes “Oh, thanks Dad.” But most of the shit he just does on his own. He’s not a schooled musician. He didn’t want to do the whole music school thing. He just wanted to be himself. So consequently he plays really weird chords and weird riffs because he doesn’t know how it would normally be done - which is a great freedom to have. There’s an argument for people being over schooled, I guess. He does it his own way. He’s gonna lap me one of these days.
Music education isn’t for everyone. There have been some incredible unschooled players.
Tommy Bolin was fucking brilliant, schooled or not schooled. Hendrix wasn’t schooled. Neither was Stevie Ray. Neither was Jeff Beck. Yet the brilliance is there. Eddie Van Halen doesn’t know. The first time we hung out, we were sitting down at the piano. He goes “What chord is that?” I said “That’s a G-13 chord.” He goes “What, do I play a G chord thirteen times?” (laughs) So I tried to explain it to him. It was funny, it was so innocent. Yet he can play impossible chords he doesn’t know the names of. Schooling is like learning a foreign language. It’s great if you know how to speak it, but you’ll still get around if you can’t. I mean, it’s a lot easier to look at a really difficult riff than to have somebody show it to you ten times.
What’s something people don’t know about you – like, do you like to grow pineapples or have a mariachi fetish?
(laughs) No, but it sounds like I should get into both. Umm…what do people not know about me? I’m a pretty simple guy. There are a lot of stories, but I don’t have any dark, weird hobbies.
The Fuze, February 2005