Toto's Steve Lukather Has Something to Prove
The veteran rock group’s guitarist talks about Toto XIV and the band's summer tour with Yes.
Often in life, things are born out of unexpected situations. Take the case of the veteran Los Angeles-based rock band Toto. Had it not been for a contractual obligation, Toto might have never considered recording and releasing its latest studio album Toto XIV. As founding guitarist and singer Steve Lukather remembers now, in order for the band to put out its 35th Anniversary Tour: Live in Poland DVD, Toto's then-manager signed something (without the knowledge of the band) that required Toto to deliver a new studio album for its label Frontiers Records.
“Once we got it in our mind, like, 'Okay, if we're gonna do this, it has to be great,'” Lukather tells PopMatters. “We spent ten months making this record. We said, 'We're not going to try to be what we're not. We're gonna be really honest and true to what we do.' The people who like our music want to hear what we make. You make something, you throw it out there, and you hope for the best. And this has really gone beyond our expectations.”
The result is Toto XIV, a return-to-form record that recalls in some ways Toto's earlier sound from their first four albums. It is the first studio album in 27 years to feature most of the Toto personnel from The Seventh One record: Lukather, keyboardists David Paich and Steve Porcaro, and singer Joseph Williams. Guesting on the new album are longtime friends, singer Michael McDonald and percussionist Lenny Castro, as well as David Hungate, the group's original bassist. So far, Toto XIV has made an impressive dent on the Billboard Top 200 album chart, the first time a Toto studio record has done that since 1988.
“We harken back to our old era,” Lukather explains, “because we didn't try to change our sound radically. We didn't try to reinvent the wheel. 'Let us be what we are' and that's the music that came out.”
The fact that Toto is even still playing music in 2015 is somewhat surprising given that the group appeared to finished after Lukather left Toto in 2008. But in 2010, the group reunited to help then-ailing bassist Mike Porcaro, who was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. (Sadly, Porcaro passed away last March.) “That was going to be one little tour in 2010 [that] turned into this new lease on life and a new career brought together by lawsuits and all this other crazy shit,” Lukather recalls. “So my point is, we shouldn't be doing this but all of a sudden we're going, 'This is a lot of fun.' How many people get this opportunity again in life? Something has drawn us back, some reason for doing this again, and then all of us to be in the right head space to do it.”
Perhaps the most noticeable aspect about Toto XIV, which the band co-produced with C.J. Vanston, is the emphasis on the prog-rock side of the band over the Top 40 pop leanings and power ballads that characterized Toto's '80s output, especially on songs like the jazzy “Chinatown” and “21st Century Blues” (Lukather describes “21st Century Blues” as a homage to Steely Dan). Toto XIV’s opening track, the aggressive “Running Out of Time”, was the first song that Lukather, Paich, and Williams wrote together for the record. “I said, ‘We need an opener guys,’” Lukather recalls. “‘We got to come out swinging, and it's gotta be a strong Joe piece,’” but I wanted to fucking rock. It's a great opening song in the set, and that's very likely that's going happen. After we wrote that, it kind of set the pace.”
Some of the lyrics on Toto XIV draw on topical matters, such as “Unknown Soldier”, which is also a nod to the band's late drummer Jeff Porcaro. “Dave had the original title and he knew what he wanted it to be about because Jeff Porcaro was really into Civil War shit, and we were also looking at the world and where it's all at. We send these poor guys out and they come home and it's like, 'Thank you for losing your legs -- you can go fuck off now. We don't need you.' It's really tragic.”
Aside from the return of Joseph Williams, whose passionate vocals sound remarkably the same as they did on the Fahrenheit and The Seventh One albums from the mid to late ‘80s, keyboardist Steve Porcaro sings for the first time on a Toto record in more than 30 years with the charming ballad “The Little Things.” “He just finished six seasons of [the TV show] Justified, Lukather says of Porcaro. “He did that when he wasn't in the band. He's had a great career and he loves to rock and roll. He's one of my oldest friends. If it wasn't for the Porcaro brothers, I don't know where I'd be right now. My life would be completely different.”
Of all the albums in the band's catalog (stretching back to 1978), Lukather says of Toto XIV: “It's been ten years since we wrote and started recording an album. I never really saw it coming. So when we did it, we pushed ourselves and very hard sometimes. Judging by the reactions and the reviews, this could rank among one of our finest moments. It's a mature record. It sounds fresh but familiar.”
If Lukather sounds rather animated – maybe even a bit feisty at times – during our phone conversation, he may have a good basis for it. Like most of the popular classic rock bands of the '70s and '80s, Toto has never been the critics' favorite, despite the band's hit singles and albums, but its individual members have played on many records for top-tier artists (Michael Jackson, Madonna, Boz Scaggs, Chicago, Ringo Starr, and Steely Dan are some of their collective credits). Toto has also been part of popular culture, such as when the song “Africa” was used to hilarious effect in an episode of the sitcom Scrubs.
“The last couple of years were us crawling our way back up,” explains Lukather. “You've seen the same eight classic rock bands in every configuration for the last 20 years go out on the road every summer; we're like fresh meat. People go, 'Wait, forget about those guys.' We're a lot more than the radio hits, and we've matured into this really great live band. We're ready to kick some ass. We got something to prove, we're not Xeroxing in our parts and scratching our nuts for a paycheck. There's a fire lit under our asses, and we want to prove something -- if nothing else, to ourselves.”
To promote Toto XIV, Toto is co-headlining a summer North American tour with British progressive rock band Yes that will run through mid-September (Like Toto, Yes suffered a huge personal loss recently with the death of its original bassist Chris Squire). While the casual fan might see the billing as somewhat unorthodox, Lukather, a self-described Yes fan, explains that both those groups are linked historically. “I worked with Chris Squire on a Greg Lake record in the early '80s, worked with Alan White,” he says. “I played on Asia records with Geoff Downes. Steve Porcaro was in a band with Chris Squire at one point very briefly, he worked on the Yes Union record. We worked on Jon Anderson's records and he worked with us on “Stop Loving You” on The Seventh One album. So we'd run into each other, it's not completely out of left field.”
Toto has been together now for almost 40 years, although the release and commercial failure of its third album, (1981's Turn Back) -- prompted its then-label Columbia Records to consider dropping the band. Toto responded in a huge way with Toto IV in 1982, which netted the band not only the smash hits “Rosanna” and “Africa” but also several Grammies, including Album of the Year.
“We were just trying to find our way musically,” Lukather recalls of the period. “And I think we found it on Toto IV by just going, 'Okay, gloves are off. Everybody bring in what you got and we'll take the best songs.' The style just became that. We kind of matured into the band that we are now; that was the turning point for us. But there was a lot of pressure put on us; we were the number one studio guys at the time as well.
“At the time, we said, 'Fuck that, we're gonna do this, we're gonna prove them wrong. 'Dave [Paich] got into a great writing jag, and he was encouraging all of us to write. To me, that was the first real band album, and it took off. We hit the nerve, man. God blessed us with a hit record.”
Toto had its share of ups and downs following Toto IV, with its last Top 40 hit being “Pamela” in 1988. Yet the band soldiered on, despite personnel changes and changing tastes in the US, while finding popularity in other parts of the world. The band's long career is not without some personal setbacks, first with the death of Jeff Porcaro in 1992, and now the recent passing of his brother Mike – which makes the presence of their brother Steve in the band all the more poignant. “I'm crushed that Mike and Jeff are gone,” Lukather says. “Two brothers from the same family? It's crazy. I got four kids. If I lost two, I'd never smile again. Those guys are always in the room with us — Jeff and Mike are always gonna be in the room with us no matter what we do.”
Even Lukather himself went through a personal period around the time he left the band in 2008 following the absence of Paich and Mike Porcaro. “That was trying for me because there was nothing left there. I was not in a great head space anyway, some of it was my fault too. I had to get away from that and get healthy and take a look at my life. My mother died, my marriage died — it was very complicated time in my life, and I was boozing way too hard. I finally dropped all that shit, got really super healthy. It's life-changing stuff and, as I said, something keeps drawing us back. Two deaths, personnel changes, divorce, drugs, booze, lawyers, ex-managers, every possible hurdle can be thrown at us, and yet we're still here and strong and ready to go. With Lenny [Castro] and [David] Hungate back, Steve, me, David, and Joe Williams -- that's as close to the real thing you're gonna get.”
Meanwhile, Lukather excitedly speaks about Toto more in the present and future tense. “We're really excited,” he says. “I get up in the morning and practice every day, getting my chops up for this tour. We got a lot to prove and we want to be in top form. We're older guys who can get out there and kick some ass. We got some fresh material to play live and it's nice that people dig it. It's not gonna be like, 'Oh fuck, they're gonna play some of that new fucking album -- time to get beer.' We're selling a new record because people are buying it. We'll play the hits and other deep cuts and have some laughs and hopefully it'll all go well.”