Steve Lukather on the Second Coming of Toto

“Our music has stood the test of time,” observes Toto guitarist/vocalist Steve Lukather. “We’ve had this long ride, and now it’s starting all over again.” Luke, as he’s known to his friends, has an excellent point. Toto, whose members past and present honed their impressive chops as studio musicians, have long been the favorites of audiophiles the world over, best evidenced by the ongoing impact of Toto IV (1982) and tracks like the ebb-and-flow magical rush of “Rosanna” and the percussive continental vibes that fuel “Africa.” (And Toto IV is all the more aurally satisfying thanks to its fully encompassing 5.1 mix, done by Elliot Scheiner on SACD in 2002.)

The band’s international impact has never been greater, as evidenced by the success of Live in Poland (Eagle Vision). Poland, which was shot at the Atlas Arena in Lodz, Poland while the band was on the road overseas for its 35th Anniversary Tour in 2013, bulleted right to the top of the DVD charts this past Spring (though it is, of course, best experienced on Blu-ray). Poland showcases how Toto is as formidable a collective onstage as it is in the studio. Toto will be hitting the road to co-headline a U.S. tour with Michael McDonald starting August 2. Here, Lukather, 56, and I talk about Poland's success, his ongoing passion for sound quality, and the reasons for the band’s perpetual cultural impact. From where I sit, Toto won’t be passing the reins anytime soon.

Mike Mettler: The last time we did one of these [in 2008], we were talking about that incredibly loud shirt you were wearing on the Falling in Between Live DVD — which is now on Blu-ray — so it’s nice to see you’re following the tradition with what you’re wearing for the Live in Poland set.

Steve Lukather: (laughs heartily) That’s great! Thanks for bringing that up, man. You know, I argued about this. I had a black shirt that had downward stripes, which was a little bit more subtle. But the director [Blue Leach] was all pissed off because everybody wanted to wear black.

Mettler: (laughs) Well, if you want to see all the textures on Blu-ray whenever you’re moving around onstage, wearing the circular shirt — actually, I’m going to call it the tortellini shirt — was the better choice.

Lukather: I kinda did it as a thing for the director. I had that shirt in the closet, and I hadn’t been wearing it. “Really? You don’t want me to wear black, then?” I put this thing on and they went, “That’s awesome! That’s perfect!” And then they followed me around.

It’s certainly not the worst shirt I’ve ever worn, if you go back in history. If ever there was a band that needed a stylist early on, it would have been us, but we kinda missed that boat. I’ve sort of becoming the Rip Taylor of guitarists. I know you’re going to run with that one. (chuckles) The days of taking myself seriously were like, what, 30 years ago? (laughs)

Mettler: Yeah, and speaking of time — celebrating 35 years as a band ain’t too shabby.

Lukather: It’s actually 38 years since we started our first album, and then it’s 42 years since I’ve known these guys. It’s really scary that I can say, “Oh yeah, 40 years ago” so casually, when that’s a long time. [Toto was released October 15, 1978.]

Mettler: In the Live in Poland liner notes, there was some discussion of recording a new Toto album for release sometime next year. Will we also be getting that album on vinyl?

Lukather: I hope so. The record we’re making is real hi-fi. It has that big, obnoxious production that people who love our music are really going to love: big harmonies, big synths, big guitars, big grooves, great virtuouso musicianship, and classic Toto melodies. Everybody sings on the record. It’s very fresh-sounding.

Mettler: You must love vinyl as a format for listening to music.

Lukather: Yeah, I’m an audiophile myself. It’s so funny when people talk with this reverence for vinyl. I just love it. People forget the bass response and the stereo response, and only focus on the warmth of it. I loved the days of sitting down and looking at an album cover while sitting between the speakers. Nobody was multitasking, nobody had cell phones, and there were no interruptions except for turning the album over. And then you’d go, “Did you hear the solo on Track 3? That was amazing! How about that drum sound? What an amazing tune! I’ve got to hear that again!”

Mettler: That’s why I call it appointment listening whenever I put on a record these days. I don’t do anything but listen.

Lukather: When you put music on a great-sounding system, you don’t want to do anything else. And Toto made records to be listened to like that.

Mettler: Honestly, it’s the musicianship that keeps us coming back to listening to Toto records. What do you attribute this “second coming” to?

Lukather: I don’t know. Don Henley told me once, “If you hang around in there long enough and hard enough, it’ll turn around.” And I think it’s just now happening. We’ve been through it all — the highest highs, the lowest lows, the good, bad, and the ugly. We’ve all changed as human beings and grown up. We’ve learned a lot, we’ve survived our failures, and our losses. We stood up and said, “Thank you, may I have another?” But all of a sudden I woke up at 56 years old and found with Live in Poland, I had the #1 and #2 DVD in the world. And with no hype! Are you kidding me? I keep pinching myself. I’m genuinely giddy, like a little kid going, “Realllly? People like us? Realllly?” I’m acting quite goofy, bro.

Mettler: I love the surround sound mix of "Africa" Elliot Scheiner did for the 2002 Toto IV SACD release. Elliot did a pretty cool DTS 5.1 surround mix in 2002 for your 1994 solo record Candyman, too. Do you like the surround format for studio material?

Lukather: Oh yeah. I got to hear those mixes in a perfectly tuned room. It was a trip, you know? Elliot and I are dear friends. He did all of that great Steely Dan stuff, and he’s an expert at 5.1 mixing without making it sound ridiculous. We thought he was the perfect fit. He was one of [late, original Toto drummer] Jeff Porcaro’s favorite engineers.

Mettler: I look at it as the listener needs to feel like they’re in the studio there while you guys are playing.

Lukather: Yeah, though that would be a pretty big room, because there’s a lot of shit going on on that track. (both laugh) We’ve always been known for a certain sound quality on our records. We spend all this time and are so meticulous in the studio making these records, and then they’re squashed on MP3s, you know? That’s not the way it was recorded. At least we used to have the natural compression of old-school radio. Now everything is squashed and squashed, and squashed again. It’s no longer as dynamic as we recorded it.

Mettler: Give me an example of a Toto track that you think is your best-sounding piece of work.

Lukather: There was one track that Elliot engineered — a song called “After You’ve Gone,” on an album called Mindfields [1998]. That particular track had a great mix with a lot of shit going on. It wasn’t a big hit single or anything like that, but it was nominated for a Grammy. The sound quality on that song is amazing. ["Gone" features a cool stereo-panned percussive intro, and its final 90 seconds find the swirling beat of "Strawberry Fields Forever" crossed with the marching jam of "Are You Experienced," all served up with Middle Eastern guitar figures to boot—MM]

People still use Toto IV as a reference. And Universal Mastering in Hollywood is using my last solo album [Transition, released January 21, 2013] as a reference example, along with some albums done by Al Schmitt, and Elliot too. That’s where Transition was mixed [by Pete Doell], and it’s an honor to be a part of their reference material.

I figure people may see the name and give it a shot because they’ve heard of me. I still believe in the old organic way of people finding out about music, rather than overhype. We generally can’t be accused of that! (both laugh heartily) People are scratching their heads, going, “I can’t believe these guys are still around and doing well. We didn’t kill them? I thought we killed these guys!”

The thing is, we’re a classic rock band. I wear that as a badge of honor. That to me is not a label to be laughed at. It means you’ve stood in there. I mean, we’ve sold 35 million records — very quietly. And we still do pretty well. Nobody can accuse us of oversaturating the market. We’re still here, and there’s an interest in us. Young musicians, college kids, families who grew up listening to it on classic rock radio — it’s all kept us alive. Every year is a lot of fun. I get to do so many cool things. The years have gone by really fast, and they’re going by faster and faster; it’s almost scary. And the other guys are still standing. We’re taking this with a lot of joy in our hearts and sending thankful feelings to the universe for giving us a second look and having another chance to take another run at this.

Mettler: Great bands always find the ways to endure.

Lukather: Yeah. And all artists are precious. People rip you to shreds online, but they don’t know me. We laugh a lot more about it now. Nobody’s perfect, man. There’s no such thing as perfection. We live in a world where 20-year-olds are getting plastic surgery. We’re living in a real-time Twilight Zone. But I get to wake up in the morning to a text from Ringo, my kids love me, and I play guitar for a living. I don’t have a bad life.

Mettler: Plus you’ve got the sword in your logo, which helps ward off those anonymous haters.

Lukather: (laughs heartily) Yeah. Jeff Porcaro drew a cartoon of a little Toto dog with a sword cutting the dog’s head off. He thought that was going to be our second album cover. The record company really didn’t see the humor in that, but we did.

Mettler: Ah, well, I’ve just figured it out. You guys are the ones who really won the Game of Thrones. That’s what happened.

Lukather: By sheer perseverance, my friend. That’s what makes the success of the Poland DVD so sweet, because it’s all these years later. All of a sudden, the door opened after it was welded shut, seemingly so, in the United States. It’s really cool. So I say drink it in. Smell it. Taste it. Our music has stood the test of time.

An extended version of this interview appears on Mike Mettler’s own site, soundbard.com.

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