I’m Still Standing: Steve Lukather on His New Album, Close Encounters With the Beatles and that Leaf Blower Incident
This story first appeared in Rock Cellar May 13, 2021.
Steve Lukather is the guitarist extraordinaire of Toto, best known for the classic hits “Hold the Line,” “Rosanna,” and “Africa.” With the band’s tour sidelined during the lockdown, Lukather has made good use of his time, releasing his latest solo album, I Found the Sun Again, in late February. The tracks feature Lukather’s trademark guitar solos, which sound live because, he says, “All that stuff you’re hearing is being played live. No sequences, there’s no click tracks.”
Lukather is also a renowned session player and here he’s assisted by some of the best: keyboardist Jeff Babko, drummer Gregg Bissonette and bassist John Pierce. Toto keyboardist David Paich and singer Joseph Williams are also on board. Like Lukather, Williams is on The Players Club/Mascot label, and he released his new solo album, Denizen Tenant, on the same day.
I Found the Sun Again features five originals, including “Serpent Soul” and “Run to Me,” written for Ringo Starr‘s 80th birthday. A member of the All-Starr Band since 2012, Lukather has formed a special relationship over the years with Starr, who appears on both the track and its video.
Three surprising choices are covers: Robin Trower’s “Bridge of Sighs,” Joe Walsh’s “Welcome to the Club” and “The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys” by Traffic.
We spoke with Lukather from his home in Los Angeles, where last August his neighbor’s gardeners revved up leaf blowers way too early one morning. Lukather’s nuclear response, captured on video, went viral — and solved the problem.
Rock Cellar: You recorded your new album in a short period of time
Steve Lukather: We did it in eight days, the whole thing, top to bottom.
Rock Cellar: Tell me about the recording process.
Steve Lukather: No rehearsals, no demos. I picked songs, Jeff Babko and I had co-written some stuff, and he wrote the charts out. Not everything was written out, it was just a good road map and some stuff that we figured that was needed in the songs and the right voicings, but most of it was just improvised and all the solos were live. The only thing I overdubbed was the vocals after I did a few small double-guitar parts, but right after the tracking and by the end of the night, we had a song ready to mix. And we did that every day.
All that stuff you’re hearing is being played live. No sequences, there’s no click tracks. I wanted to see if I could do it the way we used to do it. In the old days we had to play. All the solos were kept, so those are real performances. And I was really super proud of that. Hired the right players, they were all world class. Gregg Bissonette, Jorgen Carlsson of Gov’t Mule on bass, David Paich and Jeff Babko on keyboards, myself; John Pierce played bass on a couple songs.
And Ringo on the one Beatle-y song that we wrote for his birthday.
Rock Cellar: How did Ringo come to play on “Run to Me”?
Steve Lukather: Well, it was written for his 80th birthday. Since we couldn’t have a birthday party due to lockdown, we were supposed to be on the road and everything like that, everybody sent videos to him. And this one came out so good I just said, ‘Hey, can I put this out?’ So we put it out in the summer, it was a little happy summer song, a little teaser for the record even though that song is the oddball song of the record.
It’s still part of my DNA, that kind of music. So I thought, ‘Man, Ringo’s on it, let’s put it on the record.’ Once again, I’m very proud and honored to have him on a record. He’s been real good to me. Joseph and I wrote a song for his new EP, Zoom In, which came out great. The last album I did [Starr’s Give More Love], Paul McCartney played bass on the two songs that I wrote with Ringo, so it was me, Paul and Ringo. That was pretty cool. I had a wonderful Beatles experience.
Rock Cellar: What were Joseph Williams’ contributions to the album?
Steve Lukather: Background vocals, and he was around when I was doing my lead vocals, so he was helping me produce my way through that. Because I trust his ears so well. He knows my voice and what he can get out of me. But we didn’t do much fixing or nothing like that because it was all done that night and we said, “OK, done! Next!” I doubled a line or two but that was the way they used to do records in the ’70s. And that’s what I wanted to do in the ’20s.
Rock Cellar: What went into the decision to release Joseph’s and your albums on the same day?
Steve Lukather: Joe and I are the only guys in Toto that really wanted to go on the road and work. We had a deal at the same label. I said since David and myself and Joe work on each other’s albums, it wouldn’t be weird if you put the two albums on shuffle. You’d get a very interesting, almost Toto record.
But on the other hand, it just made sense that we could go out and tour with Toto, play our new music, but also play the Toto hits and the deep cuts. Sput [Robert Searight] from Snarky Puppy plays drums, John Pierce from Huey Lewis’ band and my oldest friend, session guy John Pierce, played with us in high school, is on bass.
We’ve got this kid Steve Maggiora on second keyboards and ridiculously incredible high vocals. And X [Dominique “Xavier” Taplin] from Prince’s band, he’s awesome. And Warren Ham on sax and all high vocals.
Rock Cellar: What was the inspiration for the title track, “I Found the Sun Again”?
Steve Lukather: That was my girlfriend Amber. She inspired that. ’Cause I was living alone for a long time. She just changed my life.
Rock Cellar: The covers that you did were songs that have not been routinely covered. Why did you choose “Bridge of Sighs”?
Steve Lukather: ’Cause I wanted to capture that era when it was recorded in the early ’70s. I knew it would be a really fun song to play on. I just love the lyric, I just love the whole vibe of it. And I knew we could do something with it. So I took the cover songs first, ’cause that was gonna set the tone of what I wanted to write pretty much for the record. “Low Spark” came out so good because it was a real in-the-studio jam.
Rock Cellar: Were you a Traffic fan back in the day?
Steve Lukather: Yes, that’s the thing, these are an homage to the people that I love. I didn’t want to do the obvious covers that everybody does.
Rock Cellar: How did you choose Joe Walsh’s “Welcome to the Club”?
Steve Lukather: Because I’ve been a big Joe Walsh fan since 1969. And now he’s a dear friend. And we’ve worked together a bunch over the years. His music still really influences me as a producer and writer. I just wanted to pay homage to Joe. I love him.
The same with Robin. I don’t know Robin really, but I assume he loves playing and we both share a love for Hendrix. I love his music, I always have, it’s just always heavy and moody and cool.
Rock Cellar: That was a great era.
Steve Lukather: It sure was. It inspired me, so that’s what I wanted to get back to. I wasn’t trying to write a new hit single with Miley Cyrus and Cardi B, you know. I’m just being an artist doing what I want to do and I have a great record label that lets me do that.
Rock Cellar: Can you give me a preview of your new documentary?
Steve Lukather: I’m working on a documentary for sure, but my director is [still] stuck in the U.K. right now. Until he comes out we can’t really work on it.
We’ve already got some great stuff with Ringo, Slash, some of the guys in my band, my family. We were really movin’ along there for a minute, it just stopped. He had to go back to the UK. So that’s on hold, which is OK because then there’ll be a happier ending.
Rock Cellar: Over the years with the All Starr Band, have you peppered Ringo in questions about the Beatles’ albums?
Steve Lukather: Well, when he wants to talk about it, yeah. But see, he doesn’t know any of the technical stuff. I got to get all that out of Paul and [producer] George Martin and [engineer] Geoff Emerick. I wanted to ask, “How did you get the sound on ‘Revolution’?” I got to get all that out of Paul, George Martin, Geoff Emerick. They gave me the details. It was really awesome.
Rock Cellar: What was the biggest surprise?
Steve Lukather: The biggest surprise was how they did the songs, four tracks, and in some cases three tracks. They didn’t get the 16-track until the last couple of albums. The White Album and Let It Be, Abbey Road, was as high tech as they had at the time. Maybe the first 16-track recorder.
Rock Cellar: You have Toto’s Dogz of Oz tour scheduled to start in July 2022. What can fans expect and will you include your solo work?
Steve Lukather: They can expect to hear all the big Toto hits, they’re gonna hear the Toto deep cuts, they’re gonna hear songs off Joe and my new solo albums. And a lot of really great playin’. The musicians are just staggering. Really good players. So I just can’t wait for everybody to see it and hear it and play it, just a lot of fun stuff to do.
Rock Cellar: What started the leaf blower incident?
Steve Lukather: It was just an accident — 7:00 a.m. with three leaf blowers next to my fuckin’ bedroom. I live up in the Hollywood Hills where the houses are closer together and this guy next door, who I was having a little tiff with, he just started doing it at 7:00 a.m. What the fuck, 7:00 a.m.? So I said, “You want me to fuckin’ turn my amp up?” So I said, “Nah, I’m not going to do that.” So my girlfriend said, “I dare you to do that.’ I said, “You dare me to do that?”
All right. So I went and put my amp on the kid’s trampoline so it wouldn’t destroy the dog’s ears. Cranked it up to 10 and just started playing and screamin’ at the cat. And my girlfriend filmed it, I didn’t know that she was gonna film it. She put it up, it went viral, all over the world. It’s the best press I’ve ever had. Hilarious, in my pajamas, screaming. Just mindlessly shredding, I have no idea what I was even playing, makin’ noise.
Rock Cellar: How did that finally end up?
Steve Lukather: He got real quiet. Didn’t do anything. Now, it’s cool. I think he saw and said, “Uh oh, this guy’s crazy,” so he backed off. That’s what happens when I’ve got nothin’ to do.
Rock Cellar: How about a Lightning Round? Favorite Ringo song.
Steve Lukather: “Here’s to the Nights,” that just came out, that Diane Warren wrote. It’s really good, it’s a great song. Everybody’s in it, I’m in it in a mask, which is pretty funny. Me and Benmont Tench from Heartbreakers. ’Cause we were actually in the room when everyone else was Zoom.
Rock Cellar: Most overlooked Toto song.
Steve Lukather: Hard to say. Dude, there’s like 400 songs. A lot of people only think that we’re the “Africa” band. We have 17, 18 albums out. So that’s hard to pick. There are some deep cuts on the albums. But that’s up to everybody else.
Rock Cellar: Greatest session guitarist.
Steve Lukather: I have to say Tommy Tedesco, who is the grandpa of all the studio players. He was just a magical guy. He could play anything, he could read anything and he was just the guy that we looked up to. That’s the guy that could do it all. And then from that, we got a little bit more rock and roll with our attitude and our sounds and our parts that we come up with. But it all came from that Wrecking Crew era.
Rock Cellar: You’ve said that people don’t understand what session players do.
Steve Lukather: Everybody thinks we just read dots and we don’t. That’s what we don’t do. Ironically, we get the shittiest pension. The viola player playin’ footballs all day long, just whole notes, gets six figures a year. ’Cause they’re recording for TV and films. They’re two different things. And we, the recording musicians, who by today’s standards would be getting writer’s credit on everything we come up with, get nothing.
Rock Cellar: The artist, alive or dead, you’d like to play with that you haven’t.
Steve Lukather: Jimi Hendrix. And who wouldn’t?