Five years ago I got the chance to sit down for a couple cups of coffee and a handful of trips down memory lane with Steve Lukather of Toto and two of my closest friends. It’s time to share some of that conversation.
Lukather looked back on his very first days as a session player, and fondly recalled anecdotes from the LA studio scene of the late Seventies. We also paid a proverbial visit to Grant High School in Valley Glen, where a band of soon-to-be first-call session players, and rock stars in their own right, were playing Steely Dan covers before the tunes were even released, and generally trying the best they could not to let their schooling interfere with their education.
Lukather also recalled his first encounter with Steve Porcaro at age 15 between music classes, by design of their prescient music teacher, erstwhile jazz trumpeter Mr. Neil. The teacher had noticed similar interests and sensibilities in his two promising students, and wanted Lukather to stay behind after class so they could meet.
The interview is now fully transcribed, and the most relevant parts of the talk are presented here, edited for brevity. No quotes have been altered, except to remove the odd mistake and the usual conversational fits and starts.
How old were you when you first started?
Back in the day, nobody had machines to do demos and all this stuff. Like, in high school, I got hip to this whole sessions thing. I met the Porcaro brothers when I was 15. Mike Landau and I grew up together, I’ve known him since I was 12. One of my favorite musicians of all time – one of the best ever. And we were playing around – here’s our neighborhood, this whole thing [gestures around the area]. We went to high school and met – the short version: We met Steve Porcaro, and we finally got in his band, and then we met Jeff and Mike, Paich, Jay Gruska and all the other guys. Carlos Vega was our drummer.
Our high school band was me and Landau on guitar, John Pierce on bass, Carlos Vega or Jeff Porcaro, Steve Porcaro or Paich on keyboards. We had different singers, and I sang some. We did a lot of Steely shit, we played the Katy Lied album before it even came out, ‘cause Jeff was in Steely Dan when we were going to school.
Matter of fact, rumor has it that Donald and Walter came to one of our high school gigs and saw us. Before there was tribute bands, we were probably the Steely Dan tribute band. Landau would be Denny Dias and I would be Skunk Baxter. That was the running joke, “give Lukather the rock’n’roll shit, give Landau all the jazz shit.”
And we were all studying music together, we were really serious about orchestration. I was taking guitar lessons. So we were kind of grooming ourselves to become what would be – looking up to Jeff and Dave. We wanted to be studio players like those guys. At that point I started to meet guys like Jay Graydon, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour and all the guys. Jay started throwing me some gigs, and I started playing Friday night poker games with David Foster. I met Foz, and he took a shine to me.
The Silk Degrees album was huge, and Dave and Jeff were going on the road. Steve did the first leg, and then I jumped on. Just out of school, I think – 18, 19.
18 years old, I started doing demo sessions. It was like being in the minor leagues. Starting out, getting your sea legs, figuring out things like how to get sounds, play with headphones and clicks, get parts together and do some reading. And then we gradually got brought up. Jeff and Dave kinda brought us up through the Boz thing, and then that kinda turned into the Toto thing, and all of a sudden, I started doing all these sessions in town. There was so much work back then, before machines took over. There was money and – it was a great time, man.
And the next thing you know, I sort of blinked, and Toto had a hit record, and all of a sudden I was playing all of these dates. I was living the dream. I always wanted to be one of the guys, and all of a sudden, there I was, being one of them.
You were young.
I was 18–19 years old. 19 when it really started to happen in a real way. 19 and 20 was when it was all – I was blazing in the studios at 20 years old.
See, that’s – driving around here, you know, we put on the first Toto record, listened to your solo on Hold the Line, saying “he was 19!” And then we wanted to run off the road, you know. Pack it in, you know?
You know, here I am at 53. I’ll be 54 years old in October. I blinked and 35 years went by. I mean, some of the great – the best times were the whole era from ’77 through ’84. It was such a fertile time. And then the machines took over. Then MTV came. It changed the whole game. All of a sudden it became not about the music anymore.
We grew up listening to the Beatles and Zeppelin and all this stuff, and then we got into jazz through the back door. There was this guy, Larry Carlton. His name’s popping up in all the Steely [Dan records]. I remember I heard Kid Charlemagne, it kinda turned me upside down, “I wanna be like that guy.”
Then the next thing you know, I’m hanging out with Carlton every day. ‘Cause he lived right up there [points]. And it was through my association [with Steve Porcaro]. If I hadn’t met Steve Porcaro, my whole life would be different. And we’re still best friends. All of us are. And the thing is, everybody that came from that band has gone on to be really successful players. And when we all get together, we talk a different language, ‘cause we’ve known each other since we were just little shits, you know – barely pubescent.
The one thing we always had was our obsession with it. We never had this feeling that we weren’t gonna make it. It was just like, “no man, this is it. There’s no ‘no’. One way or another, we’re all gonna make it.” We just didn’t know if we’d be together, and we still, all of us – there’s different versions of us that get together and play, but everybody’s really busy, knock on wood. We’re still busy.
I think it’s interesting what you’re saying about, you never thought you were not gonna make it.
Understand, back then, the playing field was much smaller. You couldn’t make records at your house. Somebody had a TEAC 4-track, it was like, “whoa!” We used to do stuff like that. Landau had one and Steve Porcaro had one. Two TEAC 4-tracks, and we used to try to figure out how to ping-pong shit. Early recording, you know, just in your house. But having a real studio was unattainable. And there wasn’t a million bands, there was maybe 30 bands. And you knew who everybody was, and nobody sounded the same. Now, it’s like, “who is that?” I mean, it’s derivative of everything else.
We were just trying to take all of our favorite influences, put’em in a blender, and that’s what came out. Depending on who was in the room, we had jazz guys, classical guys, rock guys, latin guys, funk guys, and you’d put them all in a room, you’d get this homogenous sound – by just playing how they play.
Together, they created this sound that everybody has different names for: The LA Sound, Westcoast, LA Shit, Slick – whatever.
[Espen:] Adult Oriented Rock?
Well, that’s a hilarious term, man, you know. And, depending on who you ask, that’s either good or bad. I think that it’s ironic that it’s come full circle, and that music is now kinda cool. The young generation doesn’t have the stigma attached. “No, I really like that Journey song, I really like that Toto thing.” They don’t give a shit.
You mentioned Jay Gruska, was he one of your childhood friends?
Well, yeah. We knew each other – when we were in high school, Jeff worked with him, and anything Jeff did, we wanted to be a part of. So he would bring us this cool new obscure music, new artists. [Gruska] was a new artist, Michael Omartian produced [his debut album]. And we really fell in love with this record, and we started doing four or five tunes off of it, and he came and saw us play. We all dug him, and he just flipped out that these high school guys – that band with the level of musicianship… He goes, “you guys are better than my band!” We laughed, and I struck up a friendship.
There used to be this club literally a block away called the Blah Blah Cafe. Al Jarreau was discovered there. I used to play every Tuesday night with Mike Porcaro and Carlos Vega, me and Jay Gruska. I played guitar and keyboards. And a lot of people came in and dug it, and I’d get sessions through that.
I had a rehearsal band with Jai Winding and Willie Ornelas, all these great players. Steve Porcaro and Jai Winding together, and then that morphed into the Boz Scaggs band. And then I met Foster, Willie Ornelas, Jay Graydon, Lee Ritenour, Mike Baird – and everybody lived ‘round here. We all were at the Baked Potato. Greg Mathieson, Pops Popwell, and I subbed for Larry Carlton, and that became the Baked Potato Super Live thing. I was 22? …21 years old when I did that.
Those were big shoes to step in, so I said, I’m not gonna try to play like Larry, I’ve gotta make this my own. So we wrote some quick rock’n’roll jams, did some of Greg’s tunes, and, you know, the rest is… Then 35 years go by.
That’s what fascinates me – all that talent in such a relatively small space, you know?
I can’t explain it to you, man, other than just a bunch of hungry guys that weren’t popular and weren’t good at sports, and girls didn’t really like us too much. A few of them did, but that was few and far between. We were just obsessed with our music, you know. That was the only thing we could do well, and do better than everybody else. So we used to stay in this little clique at Grant High School, and that was our little scene.
Did you have any music teachers at Grant that were important to you?
There was a couple.
Joe [Porcaro] mentioned one of them, I think his name was Neil?
Mr. Neil. He was the one who introduced me to Steve. He said, “you guys should know each other.” He was really cool. Matter of fact, my last year of high school, I paid my sister to do my term papers. ‘Cause I was making money playing everywhere, you know. And I was gonna be a musician, there was no doubt about it.
My parents were like, “it’s really important to us that you finish high school.” And they paid for my music classes, ‘cause they knew I was dead serious, and I was really studying hard. But you know, for some reason, that meant a lot to them, even though I was ditching all the time and everything, and bullshitting my way through it.
I used to pay my little sister to do my term papers and my homework and shit, and I purposely flunked all the math classes on the standard test, so they’d put me in the dummy class, so I never had to study – so I could show up and get an A on the final and pass the test. And so I was one credit short from graduating, and I had to take summer school. In order to graduate and to be able to get out of school at noon, me and Landau and Steve Porcaro would all go to 7 AM Gym, which was basically show up, sign in, and go have breakfast.
And I took Beginning Folk Guitar. I showed up, Mr. Neil takes one look at me, he goes, “all right, what the fuck are you doing here?” ‘Cause here I am with all the girls, I’m playing all this shit. Everybody else are trying to play an E chord, I was like [mimics fast licks]. He goes, “Lukather, what are you doing in here?” I go, “look, I’ve got one credit to get.” He goes, “are you studying right now?” And I showed him my books that I was studying with my teacher, he goes, “OK. Three hours every day in the morning, you go practice, and I wanna review what you’ve been doing all day after this, and I’ll pass you.”
So I basically got my practice time in, in summer school, and all I had to do was play and sing a tune for the final. Everybody’s playing [sings] Kum-ba-yah my lord, and I had this chord melody version of You Are the Sunshine of My Life or something. I was big into Stevie at that time, that was when the record had just come out. So we were just devouring Stevie Wonder at that time. So he just passed me, and we laughed about it.
And Mrs. Nolbert. We took harmony theory and piano, and sight singing in high school. So, we were all just a bunch of fuckin’ idiots. It was the first period after lunch, and I was always the idiot class clown anyway. I’d come in, my pants would be down to my knees, I’d be doing Jerry Lee Lewis on the piano. She was constantly throwing me out of the class. And we’d forget to practice, ‘cause we were already so obsessed doing other shit.
We had to do the sight singing [sings] “Do-Re-Mi, Do-Mi-So-Fa”, all that shit. So we’d write it all above the notes and just kinda bullshit our way through it. She’d grab the book [and go] “I knew you wrote that!” [laughs] She passed us, but begrudgingly. She wasn’t that cool to us, she didn’t like the rock’n’roller guys at all. She was like, “you guys are never gonna make anything of yourselves.”
Years later I was somewhere in Denmark, playing. I think it was the first Lobotomys tour. I’m at soundcheck, and all of a sudden I see this old lady, standing in the back, holding her ears. And then the guy comes over and says, “there’s somebody says she used to be your music teacher.” I’m like, “who? A woman, who?”
Here I am in Europe, and it was her, Mrs. Nolbert. And this is after Toto had been successful, I hadn’t seen her since high school. And at that time, I had long, scraggly hair, I was like [growls] having freakin’ beers in the afternoon, and she was like, “wow, look at you!” “Hey, I guess, you were wrong, huh?” She goes “we’re all so proud of you,” I go, “oh, really?” [laughs] Mr. Neil was the cool guy.
He was a musician himself?
Yeah. He had an open mind. It helped me, all of it helped. Anytime you were stuck, you know, playing music or reading it or interpreting it, even if it was cheesy, you always learned something, got something out of it. So none of it was for naught.
How about your first paid gig, you remember that?
I was nine years old. Birthday party. Played with guys that were twelve. I got paid two dollars. We played House of the Rising Sun.
At this point, Lukather’s son Trev sneaks in from the parking lot and ambushes his dad with a huge hug. There are smiles, laughs, tears and recent war stories, and arrangements are made for later. After proudly updating us on his son’s own musical career, Luke reverts back into nostalgia mode.
The thing is, now, there is no scene. All of the studios are gone. We used to meet at this place called Bartoni’s, it’s not there anymore. On Wilcox and Cahuenga, there used to be an Italian restaurant that we’d all meet at in between our daytime sessions and the nighttime sessions. You’d pick up gigs there, have a drink, all sorts of naughty things went on in there. But you know, there used to be a hang.
I’d be standing in the hallway to the studio, there were three studios going, and somebody would go “hey, I need a solo, come on!” So that’d give you three or four sessions in a day. In for ten minutes, fuckin’ out. Next thing you know, three records in one day. For three different artists.
And, you know, it was just fertile, it was like, everybody was working. Even the D-level guys were working. There was the A-level records, the big stars, and then there was like the up-and-coming, and then there was like people who just got a deal. Some of the young guys started, and they worked their way up. You’d start out single scale, then you’d get to two doubles, then you’d get double scale, then you’d name your price.
Everybody has a studio, Pro Tools going now, in their house. The scene was dying 20 years ago. And it really went away by – by 2000 it was over. Now all the guitar players, everyone’s got studios in their house. So people send files. I don’t have, I refuse to have a studio in my house. I have been down that road, I had a room in my house, and it was just a nightmare. It was constantly just, something broke, and the people in your house… You wanna go to work, then you wanna go home. When I was young and single, I didn’t give a shit. I like to differentiate.
It’s kind of a shame, I mean records don’t have budgets anymore, and Pro Tools makes it so that if you can kinda play OK, then you can make it OK and fly it. And the thing is, nobody really cares! The average Joe Blow doesn’t give a shit, [they go] “I like that song!” They don’t care about the quality and intensity that it takes to make a Steely Dan record. Even Steely Dan don’t make Steely Dan records anymore.
But the scene, it’s dead. I mean, it’s rare. It’s fun, every once in a while you get called to do a session, and there’s actual musicians there. “Yeah, this is great!” See, it used to be, I looked forward to, “who am I playing with today? Oh, great, Gadd and Will Lee are in town.” And then there would be the party afterwards and… That’s a whole other level, I don’t want to get into all that [laughs]. They tell me I had a great time.
But we took the work real serious. I mean, we didn’t really… It was the after hours club that got a little rough, or whatever. It was the time when that was acceptable behavior, almost mandatory. I’m not proud of it, if you look back – all of us older guys, now that we’ve lived through it all, and everybody’s real healthy. You kinda like look at it from a different point of view, you go, “God, all that money and time wasted, lost days and blah blah blah…” You just [think] “shit, I wish I had some of that back.” But then again, everything shapes you for what you are.
Even when I was crazy, I always had a strong work ethic. We couldn’t have done everything we did if we were that fucked up. I think the myth about how much drugs we all did was really blown out of proportion. It’s like, “how big was the fish you caught? It was [measures a big fish with hands] so big!” It was really only [adjusts the measure] that big, you know.
I wanted to ask you, though, about your first sessions that were serious, when you…
My friend Jai Winding really helped me, too. He helped me get on one of the first records I was ever on, was a record called Terence Boylan. It didn’t sell anything, but John Boylan, who produced the first Boston record, was his brother. And Jai was working with him at the time. Jai and I were really close friends. He invited me on the session.
Carlton was on it, Fagen was on it, Dean Parks, it was my first time that I saw my name on a record next to the cats. Wilton Felder and all, I was so excited. I waited for the record to come out, just to see my name on the inside sleeve. That was the first time I actually saw my name on a credit, I was still eighteen-nineteen years old.
Were you sweating it, though?
No, it was an overdub, it was easy. I wasn’t an alien to being in the studio. They were just bringing me up from the minor leagues to the majors.
So you were ready.
You know, I like to think so, I mean, once it started to roll, it rolled hard. And next thing you know, I was doing everything. And Foster was kinda copying everything David Paich did. Foster likes to tell the story that he invented the keyboard thing. Paich was the first guy to do the Rhodes and the piano with the chorus thing on it, David would do all that. We were doing the first Toto demos, that was all Paich. Foster saw that, stole it and made it his own. And all the people that Paich would work with, Foster would work with – I was lucky to be one of those guys.
I learned a lot from Foster. He was a great producer, great musician. But his only motivation to do anything was to make money. And he got lost in all that celebrity, “money-money-money”. But I’m really happy for him that it worked out.
He seems to be a great businessman.
Yeah. But deep inside, there’s a brilliant musician. He stopped tapping into that source. He was full-fucking-good. Unbelievable to be around. And he would inspire all of us to be our best. I had some great times with Foz, man. Brilliant musician. Really, really cool. We used to have breakfast every day – you see that building right there [points], that used to be a coffee shop called Charlie’s, I think. Every morning we’d meet there for breakfast. And just hang and talk about our dreams and hopes.
He was ahead of me in the game, I was kinda following up, he was my mentor. I played on Lisa Dal Bello’s record, some of his first productions, I think. Champlin, Danny Peck, Lisa Dal Bello. And then, all that whole scene, it’s… You’re taking me back to a time I haven’t even thought about in a long time. It was a wonderful time, probably some of the best times in my life.
Steve Lukather interviewed by Lars-Erik Dahle with Frode Mangen and Espen Mangen
Starbucks, Vineland & Ventura, Studio City, Los Angeles