Let’s play a word association game: what’s the first word you think of when I say the word ‘Toto’?
For some, the answer might be Dorothy or Oz, but for many, the answer is ‘Africa’ – the epic power-pop ballad from the 1980’s.
Toto guitarist Steve Lukather is perfectly okay with that word association. In fact, he encourages it, as he tells Music Feeds‘ Jade Kennedy recently.
“Well see, you come to the show and you hear the other songs and you go, “Oh, I didn’t know those guys did that… Is that the same band? Hey these guys are really fucking good, man!”” Lukather says.
“I mean this is a powerful musical statement, it’s not just ‘that Africa band.’ But if that puts your butt in the seat to watch what else we can do then I’ll take that, you know what I mean?”
Toto the band has been around for four decades, but by Lukather’s own admission they have been the butt of jokes for many of them. He believed part of the issue stemmed from their ‘stupid’ name.
“We got unfairly picked on,” he says. “I mean, I know why now, having 40 years behind me – it’s because we had a stupid name. I was always like, “Come on guys, really? Why don’t we just stay with our high school name Still Life? Plus we came out at the exact same time as the punk scene hit, and we’re the antithesis of that. So they used us with the stupid band name, instead of Journey or somebody else – it could’ve been anybody from that era – but Toto, that sounds like the band to pick on, these studio guys, they don’t look right.”
“Studio guys” is an understated description for Lukather and his band mates, the Porcaro brothers (Jeff, Steve and Mike) and David Paich in particular. The musicians were adept enough at their craft to perform, write and produce on many studio albums: Lukather himself is credited on over 1,500 albums, by names including Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Olivia Newton-John, Donna Summer and Lionel Richie.
“We were playing on half the records that came out of Los Angeles for 20 years,” he said. “Maybe more than half. Some of the biggest records in history, that many people don’t realise I played everything on ‘Beat It’ (Michael Jackson) except for the solo, including the bass parts, and then Jeff Porcaro played drums. Or that ‘Human Nature’ was a Toto song with all of us playing and Michael singing. Nobody ever says our name in conjunction with all this stuff. It’s like we’re the redheaded stepchild, you know? But we’ve grown to laugh at it and just kind of accept that that’s who we are.
“Now all of a sudden, out of nowhere, everybody knows who I am and where I’m going and stuff like this. Maybe it’s because I’ve been playing with Ringo (Starr), I don’t know what happened but as soon as the band turned 40 years old all of a sudden this ‘Africa’ thing took off with all these kids. I don’t know if it’s a college thing, maybe a drinking game or a sorority thing or something you’ve got to do whether you like the song or not, it’s just part of your life – it’s how Jimmy Buffet got famous and shit, you know? I’ll take it any way. I never thought that song would ever be a hit record, so I mean I know nothing. All I know is that I’m very grateful that there’s a renewed interest in our band, we stuck it out 40 frickin’ years, running up hill, you know? Something kept bringing us back, I mean we’ve known each other since we were 15 years old – we’re friends, we’re brothers – we’re not fake, we’re just misunderstood.”
The band has re-released an album of some of it’s biggest hits, and embarked on a massive world tour starting in Europe this month and, according to Lukather, hopefully heading to Australia in early 2019.
“I mean there’s a lot of action going on with us,” he said. “I don’t know, there seems to be a renewed interest in the band from the millennial kids getting onto this ‘Africa’ song, it’s crazy, it’s been madness for us. Plus the fact that we have a new product coming out, a new remaster by us – finally, for once – the way it’s supposed to be done. And for the casual listener, maybe the people that don’t know we have all this other stuff, it’s a nice start; plus it’s got three cool new songs, and we’ve got more new stuff coming in the summer. So we’ve got a box set, two different versions of it – one with vinyl and all this other stuff – and we’re going to have one album of all ten new songs that we have. So we’ve got a lot of stuff going on man, all the tours are selling out, big arenas… we’re doing a DVD, sold out 16,000 people at the Ziggo Dome in Holland, we’ve sold out Albert Hall, you know, it’s crazy. We’re not only surprised but completely grateful and just going, ‘Wow… thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you’.”
Lukather says the band will be stripping things down to a good old-fashioned rock show for this tour. “The band is shit hot right now, that’s the thing,” he continues. “We’re playing better than we ever have, everybody’s on top of their game. We’re going to put really cool set lists together, we’ve got a big long show that’s more theatrical than everything just blowing up – everyone’s seen everything blowing up a hundred thousand times already – you need sunglasses and seizure medication when you go to a show now because it’s sensory overload, you know. So we’re going to go back to minimalistic kind of like, this is who we are, where you want to lean in and dig the hifi sound and dig what the band’s doing instead of looking at this monstrosity of a production with little peanuts standing there. Everything’s just to extremes these days, you know? I mean, I like the big show too, but unless you’ve got $100 million to spend on it, like, after you’ve seen [Roger Waters’] The Wall, what’s the point? It doesn’t get any better than that.
“What we’re known for is not what I’m going to be wearing on stage, or how’s my hair today, it’s like, how good are you going to play and have it be real? And I think kids are noticing the difference, now they’re going, ‘Why do I like this classic rock shit my parents listen to more than I like what I’m listening to on regular rock radio?’ Because everything’s been mixed with the same plug-ins and the same computers and the same reverbs and the same samples and the same auto-tuning and it’s like it’s the same production and the same guitar solos and the same drum sound and everything. But when I was a kid, The Beatles and the Stones didn’t sound the same, you know? The Beatles were the magicians of life, you know what I mean? How do you make music like this? Now it’s like everyone learns the magic trick, how to do the magic, so there’s no real magic any more. It’s like people winning Grammys for best vocal and it was completely produced, you know, it wasn’t a performance. I mean, it’s not fair. You know, people can say what they want about us, like, “Oh those guys are just slick studio musicians.” I never really thought that if you studied at something and got good at it that would be considered deficit.”
Having a hit like ‘Africa’ in their repertoire – and it isn’t their sole hit single; ‘Rosanna’ won them several Grammy awards in 1983 – is not something Lukather expected 40 years down the track.
“Hit records are a blessing and a curse: it’s a blessing to get one, but the curse is you got to play it forever,” he said.
“You think you’re sick of the fucking song? I mean, Jesus, how many times do you think I’ve played it since 1981? But it’s a blessing, because it gets people in to see us, you know? Then they find out we’ve got 17 albums then all of a sudden our whole catalogue goes. We’ve got half a billion streams on Spotify. Half a billion! That’s’ pretty good! That puts us up with the top 20 rock bands in the world. We’re number 11 on the iTunes rock charts thanks to ‘Africa’ today. That song is like, 36 years old. It’s insane!
“It was like what ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ for Journey is, you know? I know what it did for their career; Neal Schon and I are close friends, I love Neal you know, he’s one of my favourite guitar players. They’re a great band that also takes a lot of shit, but not nearly as much as us. But I don’t care; I’m 40 years old now in terms of this band. I’ve heard it all; you can’t say anything to hurt my feelings. You can wake up in the morning and someone writes, “YOU’RE A CUNT,” underneath a video on YouTube or whatever, and you just go ‘wow, someone took all that time to set up an account just to say that to me, in capital letters, who has never met me before? That’s weird!’
“I’ve lived the dream, man, so you know – I win. You can say you hate me, you can say you hate my band or whatever, but I’ve gotten to play with some of the finest musicians. And I mean, okay, the Rolling Stones didn’t like us but Miles Davis did. Whose opinion do you think I respect more? Miles Davis thinks we’re cool. He wanted me to be in his band, man. I mean he loved us; he hung out with us for a week when he was supposed to only be there for an hour. I mean, even in interviews – you can Google this shit: “What does Miles Davis say about Toto?” – I mean if you get a thumbs up from Miles Davis, man. That carries a lot more weight than some smarmy-assed hipster on the internet who only likes punk rock and thinks everything else sucks.”
In spite of all the hate and criticism, Lukather said he had, after many years, finally come to peace with both the good and the bad that came with his position in the music industry.
“I mean there was a time I was an angry drunk guy who pissed off the world because nobody liked us anyway, which was really reactionary and a very childish way to deal with it,” he says. “Now we just look at it like, if people like us great, if they don’t there’s a whole lot of other stuff out there. Is life fair? No, nobody’s life is fair, man. I’ve had more than my fair share of good fortune. I’m very grateful for this and I’m very humbled by it. You can laugh at us, you can hate the song or like the song, you can rediscover the band and listen to the other stuff we’ve done. People buy a ticket to the show then they discover the old guys have still got a lot of heat left, you know? My hair colour’s not real, but my hair is, you know? The music is real, there’s not a machine playing it, you know? So we’ve got to bring it. That’s what we do. Our gimmick is that we don’t have a gimmick. We’ve studied music our whole lives, that’s our gimmick. I still get up and practice every day. I’ve got a pile of books that I learn from. I’m still trying to get better at my instrument. Not the greatest, fastest – I just want to learn more, because as a human being you grow, wherever your interest happens to be. Do what you love, you know? Get good at it. Find something in your life that makes you happy and do that.”
Lukather says he had given up looking on social media and even watching the news, because it was all so toxic and negative and, in his words, he’s “still a peace and love guy”.
“The Beatles were my first idols, and now I’m playing with one,” he says. “On Ringo’s new album Give More Love there’s two songs we wrote together, and it’s Paul McCartney on bass, me, and Ringo. I play keyboard and guitar. Now if you’d told me that when I saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964 – I was what, seven years old – that some day I’d be playing with those guys… If you did the mathematical odds on that, it’s an astronomical amount of zeros at the end of it. It hit me when I did The Beatles’ 50th anniversary TV show. I’m sitting there, and there’s Paul, there’s Ringo, we’re hanging; I’ve worked with Paul and George and Ringo over the years. Ringo’s who I’m closest to, obviously, because we’ve spent a lot of time together, we’ve become closer friends. But getting to work with my heroes – what are the odds of that?
“Forget having a successful band, forget all the sessions I did. I’ve got a book coming out very soon about my life; I’ve had a very interesting life in spite of all odds. Nobody could ever say that haven’t paid our dues, man. So this is a sweet thing for us. Honest to God, we were always working, people would always show up when we played, but to have this new level of interest where The New Yorker magazine and all these people want to talk to us, asking what we think of this or that… I mean, we’re the same guys we’ve always been. I’m 64 years old and now you like my band? After 40 years of dodging the fucking bullets shot at us? It’s kind of weird but it’s weird in a nice way. I didn’t think I’d live to see it. But in honour of our dead brothers, Mike and Jeff Porcaro, I mean, I hope they’re looking at this from their point of view laughing – or maybe they’re manipulating it, who knows?
“I mean, I believe in God, I think he has more important things to worry about than a little band from Los Angeles. Like, when people win a Grammy or a sporting event and go, “Oh I’d like to thank God,” it’s like what, God didn’t like the other team? Is that what you’re saying? I mean it’s kind of silly when you start thinking about it. I mean, sure you can thank God; we should thank God for all of our blessings – our children and our dog and our house and our health and shit – but when it comes to award shows and sporting events, that shouldn’t be allowed to be said, it’s just gratuitous bullshit that doesn’t mean anything. God doesn’t like anyone better than anyone else. He doesn’t say, “I want this team to win, hahahahaha.” You know what I mean? They’re thinking of the fake God, with the white beard, you know? ‘I saw you touching yourself in the shower and now you’re going to go to hell’. I think that’s like a fairy tale, you know? God can’t be a Christian if God came before Christ, if you really think about all of that. I mean, I’m a believer but I don’t really go for the money spinning compository of the modern-day church and the evangelicals, you know? Where the money and bad behaviour is okay because their team is winning, you know?”
So what advice would one of the most successful musicians give to other musicians? “Go play music,” he says. “Stop with the machines. Get out there and make some mistakes, try to make a sound. Create something. Be influenced by the music you love, I mean you can’t help that, but take that and make it your own. That’s what I would say. Be human and stop relying on machines. Get your head out of the box, get outside and look up and notice there’s a blue sky up there, that exists beyond the box you’ve had your head in for the last 25 hours. It’s weird how we interact socially nowadays. Just have fun, get good at it and you might get lucky.”
Toto’s Remastered Greatest Hits collection featuring three brand new tracks, ’40 Trips Around The Sun’ is out now and you can get it right here