"I’m not ready for the dirt nap yet": How Toto outlasted the haters, took back their career and won over a new generation

Salon talks to Toto's Steve Lukather about rock longevity, the future and what it means to be "the 'Africa' band"

By Annie Zaleski
Published July 7, 2016 11:00PM (EDT)
Steve Lukather   (AP/Andrew Medichini)
Steve Lukather (AP/Andrew Medichini)

Toto guitarist/vocalist Steve Lukather is an early riser, and his strongest vice these days is coffee. Being a morning person suits him well, however: It's when he digs into the group's business—he and a team of people have taken over managing Toto in recent years—and does freewheeling press interviews, in which he's candid about the legacy, up-and-down fortunes and burgeoning comeback of his band.

"Our biggest Achilles heel has always been, we want to fucking build our audience back again in the United States," he says. "In the last few years, it’s turned around. When we took our career back ourselves, the 'no’s' became 'yeses,' and that was just the most amazing thing. We were told, 'It can’t be done. Sorry guys, you tried, you had your time,' whatever. But I’m not buying this shit. Not when I look around and see our peers doing what they’re doing. I go, 'Why them and not us?'"

More and more these days, the answer is, "Why not us?" Once a critical punching bag, Toto has become an ingrained and even beloved part of pop culture, courtesy of songs such as "Rosanna," "Hold The Line" and especially "Africa." The latter has been sampled countless times—to name a few, Wiz Khalifa, Nas, Ja Rule and Jason Derulo—while in early 2016, Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard released a viral vacation video set to (of course) "Africa."

In fact, it's not a stretch to say that younger generations have come around to Toto's meticulous, sonically pristine approach to classic rock, which combines studio finesse, instrumental technique and onstage charisma and chemistry. It's a long time coming, in a sense: Toto's members boast extensive (and impressive) studio résumés—it's what brought the band together in the first place back in 1977—and their session work is legendary. Lukather's discography is a whopping thirteen pages on his official website, owing to work with Don Henley, Stevie Nicks, Cher, Chicago, Hall & Oates, Cheap Trick and basically nearly every other massive rock and pop star of the '70s and '80s. The sound of "Thriller"? It's not just Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones—the members of Toto had a massive influence on the LP's sound as well.

As Toto gears up for their 40th anniversary, expect high-quality reissues—"Eliot Scheiner, who worked for Steely Dan, legendary, 28-time Grammy winning guy, he’s a dear friend of ours, engineer is gonna do all the remastering for our first generation, unEQd shit," Lukather says—and an extensive world tour, among other things. Lukather's also working on his autobiography, an opportunity which came about after a colorful appearance at the GRAMMY Museum.

"I had these people literally pissing in the aisles laughing at my stories about Miles Davis and all these things that happened to me," he says. "I have so many stories. And right afterwards my agent goes, 'You have to write a book now. This is it, man. You have stories that you’ve gotta get down. People would love to read this shit.'"

In the near future, Toto is doing a U.S. headlining tour starting August 12—they're in part supporting 2015's "Toto XIV," their latest album—while keyboardist/vocalist Steve Porcaro recently issued his first solo album, "Someday Somehow."

Lukather himself chatted with Salon from the road, as he was spending a few weeks on the road as part of Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band: He's been a member of that supergroup since 2012.

"He’s become a very, very dear friend of mine, I really love the guy," Lukather says of Starr. "He lives near me so we hang out at home, so I wrote two songs with him for his new album. So I’m sitting in his room writing, and I’m playing guitar looking at Ringo Starr playing drums and I go, 'Okay, you gotta be fucking kidding me.'

"He’s unbelievable; he’s an inspiration to us all. He’s every bit as witty and funny as he ever was in 'A Hard Day’s Night.' And he’s in incredible physical shape, he’s not hobbling around at all. Shit, I got a fucked up shoulder, I’m hobbling around more than he is. He’s incredible! His mind and body are in the right mental place, like I said he’s an incredible inspiration of how to grow old gracefully."

Ever garrulous and animated, Lukather jumped right into conversation after some small talk about Toto playing Cleveland, a city the band (incredibly) hasn't played in 25 years.

[Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

There was a lot of career errors made. Since I took over managing the band, along with my staff, all of the no’s turned into yeses and all these really positive things are happening. Things are on a huge upswing. I just made a brand new deal with Sony for the 40th anniversary that’s coming up. There’s a lot of really great stuff going on. For a classic rock band like us, taking over your own career and us managing ourselves, with a wonderful staff of people that are knowledgeable—I’ve got all the skin in the game.

I found out a lot of things and dug deep and was able to find a lot of money that was owed to us and make friends with all the streaming services in the deal that we had. We got a really great streaming deal. I don’t think Sony realized how valuable we were. When I found out that in the last four years Toto has had 365 million streams, their jaws hit the floor. They underestimated the little dog, as I like to say. [Laughs.]

Over the years, I have friends that I’ve made that have moved up the food chain at a lot of these new companies, and they’re like, “Hey man, I just wanted to tell you, you might want to make the call, because I saw some checks go out that would throw your jaw on the floor.” So I did some homework. As I get up early, soberly and together, I actually really enjoy the job of looking after my boys. It’s a band—we all throw the ball around—but I’m just being proactive in a leadership sort of way.

I always suspect sometimes bands get into situations where people are acting on their behalf and the players have no idea what’s going on.

That happened to us. There were so many fucked up things. You just have to sit down and reassess your whole life and career and go, “Something’s not right about this. I hear about all this money that everybody’s supposed to be getting. How come we haven’t gotten it?” A lot of musicians, we start out young, we’re jumping off tables, we’re getting high, we’re chasing girls, whatever it is you do when you’re a teenager. And then you get into your 50s, and even looking at 60 years old, and going, “Okay, that was all fine and dandy 35 years ago, but what’s going on now?” Because unfortunately, the part that’s not fun is being a businessman.

To be in a band that actually can say, "We’re gonna have a 40th anniversary and we’re still doing great business around the world and there’s a lot of interest in what we’re doing, we’re making some music" — it doesn’t feel like we just got together for a victory lap to make some money before we start throwing dirt on our own faces.

I’m not ready for the dirt nap yet. I’m still on fire. I jump out of bed more on fire than I was 25 years ago. I think I’m just excited about life and trying to get as much out of it as I can and having a blast. I’m very grateful—underline the word grateful—to still be around.

What are the 40th anniversary plans?

First off, I’m in the middle of writing my autobiography, which will coincide with the 40th anniversary with new music, a whole bundle of all of our old stuff, some unearthed stuff that we’ve found, the remastered stuff from the originals. All this “remastered” bullshit, people remaster from the remaster of the remaster of the CD, and it’s like putting too much frosting on a cake — there’s no cake in it anymore.

I went back into the vaults about two weeks ago in New York and heard the original half-inch, un-EQd master tape of [1982's] "Toto IV," and I almost had tears in my eyes. You could crawl inside of it, the transfers. I haven’t heard anything sound that good in so long. I had forgotten what the original thing was all about, and that’s what we want to get out to people. Everything is so digital, streaming, high-tech, that there’s a certain reality—it's like listening to a cello in a room, there’s a sound that resonates that you can’t record. You try to just go back to the egg.

We have some stuff that has been unreleased and maybe unfinished that we may mess around with. We have a two-year tour that we’re starting to plan around the world, and our career in the United States has gone up 300 percent, so we’re gonna finally have the U.S. catch up to what’s been going on.

We’re still playing arenas and headlining festivals around the world. We co-headlined Sweden Rock with Def Leppard, 45,000 people last year. We just did 17,000 people, hard tickets, in Amsterdam at the Ziggo Dome, sold out the Budokan in Japan, so we’ve got some value out there. We’re sort of like this old Les Paul found underneath the bed that you had forgotten about. Classic rock bands these days, the same eight bands go out every year in some various permutation, and we never were a part of that. We’re playing really well right now and everybody is really fired up, so when people come see us and they’re very surprised.

What I found out is, my buddy who works at Spotify who hipped me to all this stuff, he goes, “By the way, I want you to know that your average audience is under 35 years old.” So we look out in our audience and it’s not the sea of white-haired people that you would think. A lot of people are into our band that somehow got turned onto us through “Africa” because all of the EDM people are using the song to end their sets.

We did a collaboration with this band What So Not and Skrillex on a piece that we wrote together that’s gonna be coming out. So we’re embracing the old and the new. We’re not like a bunch of stiffs going, [affects grouchy voice] “Oh, I hate all this new music. I hate everything.”

Quite the contrary, actually. I’m excited about it. It was really interesting to work with those guys and see their process, and then they saw us doing our thing, and we all collaborated in the same room together. It was quite a cool experience. That happened about a year and change ago, and it’s gonna be coming out hopefully before probably next year by the time this is all said and done. It will coincide with everything, which will be pretty cool.

It’s funny that you say that so much of Toto’s audience is younger, as that's the sense I get, too.

I’m really surprised. Let me give you an example: 2012 was our 35th anniversary from when we started the first album, and we had sold 35 million records worldwide. Fairly impressive for a bunch of people that think we had, like, three songs that were worth a shit—when in fact we had a lot more hit singles than people think. What happened was, between that moment and last year when we played Barclays Center in New York, Sony came out to us and handed us a plaque for 40 million sales. We’re like, "Okay, what happened in the last couple years?" [Laughs.]

I think what’s happening is these kids hear the song and they go, “Well, what else have these guys got?” And they find out we’ve got 14 other albums and they buy 'em, and all of a sudden we’ve got this new interest. We’re almost like an underground thing. People like to be into shit that’s under the radar, and then they find out that they actually like some of the other stuff that we do. They come see us live, and we’re really fucking good live, and we’re creating a new audience for ourselves in a very organic way. Which is very exciting and very surprising, I have to be honest, I look up in the sky and go, “Thank you God! Thank you!”

We are like the tortoise and the hare. We’ve taken so much shit from day one from the press and the rock critics and all that stuff. They tried to kill us, and we can’t be killed. After a nuclear disaster there will be very little life on earth and us. [Laughs.] Because we’ve withstood every disaster. Two brothers dying in the band. Death, drugs, divorce, being ripped off by business people and bad management, getting screwed over by the ex-record company, which now all those people are gone. We just stayed the course. People lapped us, passed us, laughed at us, and now all of a sudden we get this respect, like, “Wow, you guys really hung in there. You guys are good."

One of the guys writing my book with me is this guy Paul Rees, he used to be the editor of Q Magazine in the U.K. And he said, “We were not allowed to write about you.” The fucking editor said, “We can’t write about you.” It’s like that whole Jann Wenner attitude, they deny the fact that my band has played on over 5,000 records, 220 nominated records, some of the biggest records in history, and we’ve sold 40 million records on our own, yet we don’t exist. They’re gonna eventually have to deal with us face to face, because we’re not gonna die.

Why was it that they wouldn’t cover you?

I’ll never know! There’s nobody like us in rock history. I’m not saying we’re the greatest band in the world—that would be ridiculous. I’m standing next to a guy who used to be in the greatest band in the world, the Beatles, so I know what greatness really is. But we have contributed a lot. We were the fucking house band for “Thriller,” but nobody ever mentions our name. Stuff like that.

I mean, I’m cool enough for Miles Davis to call me on the phone and go, “You want to join my band?” So if Miles Davis thinks that we’re cool, I don’t really give a shit what some smarmy rock critic says. And we’re so over it—I think they’re on to picking on Nickelback now, which is maybe a more worthy subject.

We can play. We played on a lot of different records in a lot of different styles. Played on a lot of hit records—either wrote, played, produced, arranged. We’re always there, but nobody wants to admit that we exist, as far as mainstream media. Which doesn’t bother me, because all of a sudden we’ve become this underground band. You can’t be out of style if you were never in style, so we just sort of existed, bubbling under. People like our stuff, some people hate it, but that’s like anything, right? Some people love donuts, some people are allergic to 'em. It’s all the same shit.

There’s a lot of options out there, but we’re classic rock that hasn’t been overridden like a horse. Some of these bands are like, “Okay, I’ve seen it, I’ve heard it.” They play the same 12 songs every time, which is great for memories every once in awhile, but we’re not that band. Some people think, “Oh it’s that ‘Africa’ band, I hate that fucking song,” and for some reason they think that’s all we do.

Which really, that’s the most oddball song we’ve ever written in our career, and it turns out to be our biggest song. I was the guy saying, “This is a great fun track, but what the fuck is this song about, David [Paich, Toto keyboardist/vocalist]?” I said, “If this song is a hit I will run naked down Hollywood Boulevard.” Well, being 58 years old, I don’t think anyone wants to see me run around naked anyway, certainly not in the light of day.

The other thing people don’t realize is we have a great sense of humor about this shit. I’m sitting there watching “South Park,” I’m a “South Park” character. I’m watching “American Dad” and the alien’s getting fucked in the ass by Stan listening to one of my songs. What the fuck? [Laughs.] “Family Guy” did a whole episode on “Africa,” which is hysterical, and I’m just sitting here watching this on TV and it comes up. A “Jeopardy” question. And so you realize, we’re part of pop culture. I love the Jimmy Fallon-Justin Timberlake summer camp thing, that was fucking hilarious.

How cool is it to be part of pop culture? People laugh, and nobody laughs harder than we do. But at the end of the day we plug in and fucking play and blow minds. That’s what we do.

It’s funny you say that people don’t realize that you’re on “Thriller,” because that's so obvious to me when I think about you guys.

Let me give you an example. “Human Nature” is a Toto song, written, played, and produced pretty much by us, with Michael singing. “Beat It” is Steve Porcaro and me, and Eddie Van Halen played the guitar solo. I played everything else—bass, all the guitar parts, Jeff [Porcaro] played drums, Steve [Porcaro] the synth. We did the McCartney duet ["The Girl Is Mine"] live and all that stuff. We were all part of that. I was Quincy’s go-to guy since I was 21, 22 years old. I played on all "The Dude" [Jones' 1981 LP] stuff.

If you look at our collective discography, not only is it eclectic, but it’s like every famous person you’ve ever thought of in the last 50 years of music, one of us had something to do with at least once. I’m not saying this to be egotistical—I’m saying this to say that we’ve had our hands in a lot more shit than just that “Africa” band. It just doesn’t get any press, which is why I’m writing a book to finally set the record straight. I just happened to be offered the book first before anybody else because I’m, I guess, somewhat of the mouthpiece of the band. But it’s certainly a group effort.

There is that trend that a lot of bands that were critical punching bags are getting critically reexamined. It’s good to hear you guys are getting that shine.

I remember, I was doing a Don Henley record, his first solo album, in 1980. We did "Dirty Laundry" and all those great songs. Henley’s one of my favorite singers. I’ve maintained a friendship with Don over the years. I played on all the Eagles solo records. I was sitting with Don once at the end of a session, we were getting the shit beat out of us at the time, and I said, "What the fuck is it Henley? Why?" He goes, "Look man, you hang in there long enough, they’ll turn around. If you take your punches...."

At the end of the day, we’ve taken more punches than just about anybody in rock 'n' roll that I can think of anymore. And we’re still here. And we can laugh at it! It’s like, "Okay, is that all you got, man? Really? Okay." And ha ha ha they make fun of us, I think some of the shit is hilarious. Like, what else you got to say, man? I’m still here, we’re still doing it. I still get up and practice my guitar every day, I still love music. I haven’t become bitter and tainted. My book ain't gonna be about me wasting my time getting even with my critics. That would just be sad as well—unless of course I have a really humorous anecdote and something that would be funny. Nobody loves everybody. Everybody gets kicked in the balls these days, metaphorically speaking.

What’s the biggest challenge for you writing the book, because you do have so much to choose from?

I want my own TV show, that’s the end game. Imagine if Daryl Hall was funny. And no disrespect to Daryl, who I dig. I’ve worked with him, I love those guys. But Daryl’s a pretty serious cat. Imagine if there was a little bit of Howard Stern in Daryl, and that’s how I would be with my own TV show, without necessarily the vagina jokes or anything like that. But I just have a whacked out sense of humor. My end game is to have a really cool music, arts TV show, which I might be able to parlay out of my book, plus play live all the time. I love to play music, this is what I love to do. I’m not waking up in the morning going, “Fuck, I wish I wasn’t on the road. I fucking hate the road.”

Don’t think for a second that I don’t know how fucking lucky I am, because I do. But at the same time, there’s a lot of work involved in keeping an almost 40-year career going, despite all odds. You have to be versatile. Certainly we’ve taken our punches at this point. It’s come to “thank you, may I have another” more times than just about any band in fucking history, and yet we’re still here and we’re looking at somewhat of a resurgence in our band for some reason.

Kids are listening to our music, they don’t even know who it is, they go, “I like that. What is that?” They didn’t read that Jann Wenner thinks we’re the worst thing in the fucking world. They don’t give a shit. Kids don’t care, they just like what they like, and there’s something really positive about that. If I want to look at criticism, I’ll look at our Facebook page where the fans that spend money on us go, “I don’t like this,” or "Why did you do this?" or “Why don’t you play this?” or “You guys could be doing this,” not just “You suck, fuck off and die.”

Everybody has to deal with that: “You ugly piece of shit! Die motherfucker.” It’s amazing what people will write on the fucking internet. [Laughs.] You gotta go like, "Wow man, really?" We had one review that said that our parents should have been sterilized so we could never be born to play the shit music we make. You want to sterilize my mom, man? What the fuck?

That’s really harsh.

[Laughs.] I mean are we that bad? God, we must have hit a nerve with someone. But we laugh at this shit. I mean, I think we’re no different from anybody else. If you’re an artist, not everybody loves you, but we have this innate desire for everyone to love you. “Why won’t people love me?” [Laughs] It’s actually pretty funny when you say it out loud.

[But] I come out of bed laughing. I go, "Wow, another day above ground, and I get to play the guitar for a living." I write “musician” on my tax returns for the last 40-some odd years. It’s a great gig. Hard to get these days--certainly hard to sustain any length of a career. When we all die out, all of us classic rock guys, it ain’t never gonna happen again.

I know. I think about that too.

I look at Ringo and I go, “There’s never gonna be another Beatles. You guys changed the fucking world.” And I was standing there. If you’d have told me 50 years ago that I’d have worked with three of the four Beatles, and I’m in a band with Ringo for five years, I would have said, “Fuck, you gotta be kidding me.” Because I’m standing there when I’m a little kid seeing them on "The Ed Sullivan Show,” I go, “That’s what I’m doing for the rest of my life.” My parents say, “Oh, isn’t that cute.” They give me a guitar and a copy of the record.

Fifty years later, I’m standing ready to go onstage at the Beatles’ 50th anniversary of “The Ed Sullivan Show” on TV, and I’m in the All-Starr hand-picked band, and there’s Paul and Ringo, and I’m going, “I really fucking pulled this fucking thing off! In spite of all odds, I’m standing here with the guys that changed the world, the reason why I play, and they invited me to be a part of this.”

And I’m beyond honored. Beyond. I can’t even put it into an adjective to let you know how much that meant to me. It actually choked me up. I was like, “Wow, I really fucking pulled this off.” When you’re a little kid, and you have a dream and you pull off that dream, how many people on planet Earth can say that? And I can say it out loud and mean it and have lived it and gone, "Well, if somebody took me out tomorrow," and after losing 34 friends in two years, anything’s possible. Every day I wake up and take a breath and look out the window and go, “I’m the luckiest motherfucker in show business.” I’ve got four great kids, even my ex-wives like me. So I’m not that bad of a person. [Laughs.]

In writing this memoir, because you’ve done so much, how are you narrowing things down?

That’s hard. That’s why I have a co-writer in Paul Rees. I have every year-at-a-glance datebook since 1977, so I know every session I’ve done, where I was, who I did. I have a lot of pictures, I’ve kept a lot of memorabilia that’s interesting stuff, but it’s gonna be really hard to put that into 300 pages. I’ve got stories about every artist I’ve ever worked with, just about. Funny ones. Some really weird ones, too. I’m not writing the book to shit on anybody or how much drugs I used to do back in the heyday or sexual stuff. That’s, like, so cliché and just like, yawn, boring. I have really great stories about how certain records were made, who did what, funny scenarios, things that happened in the studio, things that happened on the road that are really fun and informative without being salacious or weird.

Well, and that’s the interesting stuff.

Yeah, nobody wants to [hear], “Oh, yeah, I did a bunch of blow in 1983.” So fucking what? So did everybody else walking the planet in the music business. Like with that show “Vinyl,” I couldn’t watch it. It was like the cliché of clichés. It’s like just a caricature of really what happened. People try to write about music or do TV that were not there, didn’t live it, or if they did they don’t want to admit the truth of it. Or some TV executive wants to schmaltz it up for reasons unknown. “Oh, it’ll be better for ratings.” What happened to just good, hard truth? Because sometimes the truth is hysterical.

I know you played on Stevie Nicks' hit "Stand Back." Did you cross paths with Prince in the studio?

I did, I did when I was young. I worked with him before anybody knew who he was on a record for Valerie Carter, who was signed to the same management label. James Newton Howard, the famous film composer now, was then a keyboard player/record producer. I was the same age as Prince, I’m just a few months older than him, and here was this guy, this little dude, like. I’m playing guitar on an overdub and we’re at Sunset Sound, and all of the sudden, I’d be playing and his little head would pop up and I’d just see his eyes, and he'd just stare at me and go back down again. I’m going, "Who the fuck is this guy?" Oh, he’s Prince, he’s like this new genius guy from Minneapolis. Well, it’d be nice if he actually talked.

And then I remember I was doing a record at Sunset Sound years later, and he was mixing "Purple Rain." He was sitting out on the basketball court at 10 am in the morning, in this silver lamé suit, sitting on the 'Purple Rain" motorcycle that was not on, with a bodyguard. And I was like, "Hey man, how's it going?" And he’d just kind of nod his head at me. But then he hung out with Jeff Porcaro, who was our drummer who passed away, he hung out with Jeff once and said how much he liked our music, which was really nice, I thought that was pretty cool to hear. And I was very sad to hear how he died, because I was a big fan.

Awesome, that’s very cool. Do you have anything else you want to add?

I think the bottom line of this whole conversation is the fact that I’m very fired up about my career right now and the band. There’s a lot of exciting ideas, fresh ideas. Not just a bunch of old guys trying to cash in for the last desperate suck.

And fans can tell the bands that do that. It’s so transparent.

Oh man, people smell shit from ten miles away these days. You can’t bullshit people, they know if it’s fake, they know if it’s real. They know if you’re passionate about it or you’re walking through it. We want to give people value for what they’re throwing down. It’s hard to make a living these days. If somebody throws down their hard money, we got to deliver. It’s more important than anything to us.

And fuck it, we’re all-in. I gotta do this. This to us, is like, I don’t want to say a victory lap, but we’re determined to do this, and we’re really excited and motivated. We’re not just rolling our eyes going, “Well, I gotta pay ex-wife number 45 all my money, so I have to go on the road and play ‘Hold the Line’ until I fucking drop in some bar in a casino somewhere in buttfuck nowhere.” You know what I mean? “One original member left.” [Laughs.] I love these bands that there’s no original members. It’s like, "Wow, how do you do that?"

Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

MORE FROM Annie Zaleski

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Michael Jackson Music Prince Ringo Starr Steve Lukather Thriller Toto