“It’s not like I sat down with Justin Bieber to write a hit!”: Steve Lukather on how he made an old-school record for a modern audience
The Toto icon shares his thoughts on signature guitars, weird music and why new solo album, I Found The Sun is a “bunch of old fuckers in a room playing music the way it’s meant to be” – and that’s just how he likes it.
Image: Alex Solca Photography
With a career spanning more than four decades and multiple Grammy awards – both as the sole continuous founding member of Toto and as one of the world’s most sought-after session musicians – Steve Lukather has long been synonymous with tasteful musicianship and bullet-proof focus in the studio, often nailing what would later become revered as an iconic guitar part in a single take.
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We caught up with the man himself to talk about his new solo album I Found The Sun Again, his guitars and the highlights of a career at the front end of the music industry.
I Found the Sun Again is your eighth solo record – how did you approach the writing and recording of this project?
“You know, I don’t count things anymore. I’m 63 years old and I’ve been doing this for 45 years and I really still love it man. This is my most recent effort at trying to make a real record like we used to do in the old days, for today’s market. I don’t know who is going to listen to it, it’s not like I sat down with Justin Bieber to write a hit – in fact he stole one of ours but that’s a whole other story!
“Actually, I hate to call this a solo record, I didn’t do this on my own, I called some of the best musicians I know! In many ways it felt like casting for a movie, these guys can handle anything you put in front of them. No rehearsals, no demos, no click tracks, nothing like that. We played music like music was intended to be played – live!
“We had a quick look at the charts to make sure everything worked and then I said, ‘I’ll point at you for a solo’ and that was enough. We tracked a song a day for eight days and then we mixed it. No one was allowed to fix anything in the computer.
“We brought a 1971 attitude to 2021. That’s what the whole record was about, playing with my friends Greg Bissonette (drums), John Babko (keyboards), David Paich (piano and organ), Jorgen Carlsson (bass) from Government Mule, and John Pierce (bass). Ringo (Starr – drums) honoured me with a performance, too. I wrote that song Run To Me for him and it stands out in the album – it’s so Beatles inspired, but all the Toto records had one song with some weird shit. We liked weird music, we could do a lot of stuff and we did!
“I know what I want to hear in a performance. I don’t want to hear, ‘Yeah we’ll snap that to the grid, time correct that, EQ this, Melodyne that’. It’s like, ‘Dude… can you play?’ That was the blessing with this record, I wanted to see if I could still do it. Now this way of working may not be for everybody. It might be a bit self-indulgent, I admit that, but I made this record for me. My record company was just wonderful, they said, ‘Just make your record and play a lot of guitar on it!’”
The new record contains some beautiful covers of songs by Traffic, Joe Walsh and Robin Trower. What inspired those choices?
“I picked the covers first. I wanted to set a tone for what kind of record I was going to make with music by three vastly different artists that had inspired me over the years. I thought these would be fun jam songs too – if I got the right guys in the room I could make some fire. And that’s what happened – and it’s real and dynamic and beautiful with an anticipation that you can’t program. I captured that and I’m proud of it. It was a bunch of old fuckers in a room playing music the way it’s meant to be.
“For Low Spark of High Heeled Boys we want to take you on a dynamic ride not slap you with a three-minute block of compression! We’ve all seen that black rectangle waveform on the screen, what it looks like. There’s a sound to that, cool, I get it, but my sound is dynamic grandpa sound!
“Welcome To The Club – that was a tribute to my dear friend and musical hero Joe Walsh. I’ve been a fan of his since 1969 and The James Gang and I’ve followed everything he did since. I’ve stood in line waiting to see one of his shows as a teenager and he always delivered. Then we met, started playing on a couple of the same records, I was getting closer and closer to him! He and Ringo are in-laws so when I joined Ringo’s band it meant I got to see him more. I sent him the track and he loved it.
“Bridge Of Sighs – I love how dark that song is, I love Robin Trower and we both obviously love Jimi Hendrix. This is an homage to both of them. I thought this would be a good one for a live studio jam. I approached it almost like a twisted version of Voodoo Chile – we got everyone in the room and went crazy. Fuck it, let’s just play man – and that was the take! But we’ve all been playing for 100 years, it’s all we know how to do! When it comes to Hendrix, you need to remember that was going on in real time for me! I didn’t go back and find out about him after the fact – it was happening right in front of me. That shit leaves an impression.”
You have a reputation for efficiency in the recording studio that made you a first call player for artists such as Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and Aretha Franklin. How do you prepare for a recording session?
“Well you have to be trained to do that basically. You have to know what’s coming. I learned from the older guys who gave me a clue. I saw how stiff the competition was, and how getting into that scene was near to impossible, especially at 19 years old.
“I played on Quincy Jones’ The Dude record, that was the first time I’d worked with him and he took a shine to me. I was able to deliver so he kept hiring me. He said, ‘Hey I’m doing Michael Jackson’s next record I want you to be on it.’ I thought, ‘Shit, I’ve made the A-list!’ It was really cool to get the call and work with all those guys. We had so much fun and I learned a hell of a lot. Quincy was amazing to work with.
“Playing with Lionel Richie was definitely a highlight. I got to the studio and plugged in, I was just fucking around, warming up. They had the tape rolling, I said, ‘Let’s do one’ they said, ‘You just did! That was it, that was the take!’”
“So for a while it was me and Mike Landau. I’ve known Mike since we were 12 years old, we’ve been soul brothers forever, we go deep. We were in bands together all through school – that’s how we met the Pocaro brothers and I veered off into Toto and Mike went into sessions. We knew when we were little kids that we wanted to do this. It wasn’t just a dream, there was no way it wasn’t going to happen. We were convinced.
“Mike is one of the finest guitarists to ever play the instrument. Ever, in any style. He’s got a touch… he got a little extra from God. He’s such a soulful, deep musician and I just adore him.”
You are also responsible for some legendary guitar lines with Toto – your solo from Rosanna was described as the finest four-bar solo of all time.
“Oh come on, who said that? My mum?”
No it was Tim Pierce and Karl Rydlund…
“Really? Well coming from those guys I’m speechless! I was just going for it, trying to do something cool on a record. These were the times when guitar players were trying to show what they had. Each guy had something and they wanted to show it off! It was healthy, no-one was trying to one-up anybody else, that came a little later in the 80s with all the intense Uber-shredding that started and Ed [Van Halen] was sitting there going, ‘I created a monster, fuck!’ They misinterpreted what his musical intent was and turned guitar into more of a sport.
“I know that always bothered him. We were friends for 40 years and I miss him terribly. Every single day man. It just shows how fallible we really are. At this point I’m on borrowed time. I know that but I took the road the hard way. They tell me I had a blast!”
You have enjoyed a long-standing relationship with Music Man guitars – your Luke signature model is now in its third generation as the L3…
“Music Man are family and have been since 1993. When I started with them, I’d just left Valley Arts who had sold out to a Korean company and didn’t really feel like a place I wanted to be anymore. At that point Sterling Ball was working with Eddie [Van Halen] on a new guitar, in fact they’d been making a lot of really cool new stuff. One day I was at Eddie’s house and Sterling was there with him testing out the new model and they asked for my thoughts. It just felt great, I loved it and when Sterling offered to make an instrument for me I said okay!
“Gradually Sterling and I realised we were kindred spirits and I just love the quality of the work the company does. Every time they send me something it’s even better than the last! I did the whole record with this one fucking green guitar over there on the stand. It’s the new one, the L3 with the new signature pickups and the best wang bar I’ve ever had. I try and use that expressively, I wish I was Jeff Beck but you know, there is only one!
“A guitar just has to fall into my hands right, to have a certain feel. I like a simple guitar, nothing fancy. It has to respond to me. The L3 does all that and you just know, it’s craftsmanship, made by people. I feel that. Music Man are the kings of that and I love them all as human beings.”
Having lived through the highs and lows of an ever-evolving industry for 45 years, what advice do you have for players who admire your work and want to follow in your footsteps?
“Oh man, I don’t know if I’m the guy to do this, it always gets me in trouble. I see a lot of people spending a lot of time perfecting their linear technique, speed and scales and emulating their heroes. We all did that when we were kids, it’s a lot easier now that you can see the guy on YouTube!
“We had to work harder, to try and slow down the record and figure out what Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page were doing. There’s nothing wrong with learning the technique, fuck, I’m astounded by the dexterity. However, it’s become like a magic trick, but when everyone knows how to do it it’s not magic anymore. It’s amazing, flawlessly executed – but where are the tunes?
“That is what is sorely lacking to me – songs! I see it everyday, you go on YouTube and there’s some seven-year-old girl ripping everyone a new asshole. These people have got all these chops and they’ve got no songs. Who is going to whistle that? But I’m an old man from the old school so you know, throw darts at me. I can’t compete with that. At one point I tried, at the height of it, and it was miserable. Now I just think, ‘Let me be me, the most honest me I can’. That’s what this record is about.”
I Found The Sun Again is out now on Mascot Records.