It's rare to get a rock star on the phone at 9 a.m. on a Saturday. It's even rarer when it's actually an hour earlier where he is. Yet the phone rings, and there's Toto's veteran guitarist, singer, and songwriter Steve Lukather himself on the line, eager to dispel any notion that there's a groggy, hungover hedonist reticent to chat at this early hour.
"Oh man, I get up early every day," he insists, sounding remarkably chipper though it's not even midmorning. "I've been up for an hour and a half already. I go to bed, I work, I play, and I'm in bed again by midnight. Listen man, the days of being a fool and staying up all night are way behind me. Besides, I'm also used to it. I've got two little kids at home."
We've caught up with one of Toto's prime principals in Oklahoma, where the band's just played a sold-out show the night before. Lukather -- or Luke, as his friends call him -- has been out on the road with the band for the past couple of weeks, following a tour he did earlier this year with Ringo's All Starr Band. Toto will continue on the road for another month or so, and then in October, Lukather will rejoin Ringo for another round of shows that should take him into the new year.
While it seems like a heavy schedule, Lukather -- an acclaimed and highly celebrated player in his own right -- claims he hasn't tired of the road yet, even after 35 years of playing ever-ready radio hits with Toto, serving as one of Ringo's regulars, participating in the G3 tour with pals Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, and occasionally even on his own.
"This is what I do," he says of his succession of steady gigs. "I go out there with a guitar around my neck and people scream. Fucking A! Who wouldn't want that? Besides, we travel pretty well. It's not like I'm bouncing around in the back of a van eating bologna sandwiches and drinking cheap beer. Yeah, it can be a little tough sometimes, but if you take care of yourself, it can be a great life. What am I supposed to do -- sit at home watching Jeopardy and eating bon-bons?"
If Lukather effuses enthusiasm, there's good reason. Toto is currently celebrating its 35th anniversary with four original members still in the fold: Lukather, vocalist/keyboardist David Paich, keyboardist Steve Porcaro, and bassist David Hungate, along with longtime vocalist Joseph Williams, newly recruited drummers Keith Carlock, Shannon Forrest, and backing vocalists Mabvuto Carpenter and Jenny Douglas-McRae.
Audiences still clamoring for the songs that became staples throughout the late '70s and well into the '80s. Those tunes are still famously familiar -- "99," "Africa," "Rosanna," "Hold the Line" -- all seemingly tailor-made for easy-listening bliss, with elements of jazz, rock, and a progressive posture all tossed in for good measure. Along the way, they've racked up sales of 35 million albums, reaped multiple Grammys and, as individuals, performed on a combined 5,000 albums aside from their own efforts, guesting with the likes of Paul McCartney, Ringo, Michael Jackson, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Stevie Nicks, Paul Simon, Van Halen, Steely Dan, Boz Skaggs, and Eric Clapton, among many others.
It's a mind-blowing list of accomplishments they've achieved both individually and collectively, offering ample reason for Lukather to be proud. Toto's also touting a new CD and DVD, 35th Anniversary: Live in Poland, a concert compendium of the band's hits and album tracks recorded in June 2013 before a sold-out audience of rabid fans in Lodz Poland's Atlas Arena.
"Things are really going great," Lukather beams. "Nobody feels beat down. We don't have to sing three octaves down. Nobody hates anybody. We really do love each other. We're like brothers, and we're still having a blast. It feels like brand new. We're getting rave reviews, and we're in a really good place right now. Everything seems to be working for us. We're working on a new record, and I'm still having a bunch of laughs with my high school buddies. Everything's so positive. You'd think after all this time, we'd be burned out and have some sort of chip on our shoulders. But that's hardly the case. In fact, it's quite the opposite."
While the band's been around since 1979, the members have actually known each other a lot longer, having originally met in high school. Which makes their total time together closer to 42 years. "We take our music seriously but not in any other area," Lukather confesses. "We're the first guys to laugh at ourselves."
That's probably fortunate, because there's been no shortage of parodies tossed their way. The band members were transformed into characters on South Park, while Family Guy did an entire episode on "Africa." "That stuff killed me," Lukather insists. "I loved that! We can have the piss taken out of us and we love it. We just laugh our asses off. We've become a part of pop culture, and we consider it a great honor."
Still, silliness is hardly the kind of thing normally associated with a group that began life as a collection of serious-minded studio musicians. "I always wanted to be in a band," Lukather recalls. "I started out hanging out with all these musicians and that's how the studio thing came about. It was really interesting to me, but we always had this idea to be in a band too. So somehow it worked out that way. I don't think any other group of studio players ever put together a band that had platinum records. So I think we pulled off that little dream. Who knew that you'd blink your eyes and 35 years later there would still be interest in that music and that people would be listening to us at all? I consider that a coup."
Yet, at the same time, Toto's never found itself in the critics' good graces. Despite the multiple, chart-topping hits and sold-out concerts, the taste-makers consistently scoffed at the image -- or lack thereof -- created by the collective with clear pop pedigrees. It's a scenario that's plagued Toto its entire career, the lack of respect among the pundits who have always been reticent to give them their due.
"When we first came out, the Sex Pistols were out at the same time as us," Lukather explains. "We couldn't be more polar opposites. I know (Sex Pistols guitarist) Steve Jones. He's a great cat. But the critics only pick up on the divide. They only want to dwell on the image. I take my work very seriously, but I don't dwell on that image thing at all. Then again, here we stand, 38 years later, and there's still an audience out there, multiple generations of fans, and I feel very fortunate to still have this gig and be able to do all this."
When asked why Toto still hasn't been able to win the critics over, Lukather offers an interesting explanation. "I'll be honest," he says. "I don't think the name of our band helped matters any. I was always asking, why the fuck do we have such a dumb name? It made it easy for us to be made fun of. Our high school band name was Still Life, and I think we should have kept that. That said, with all the stupid band names that are out there now, maybe Toto isn't so bad."
Lukater goes on to claim other reasons as well. "We were never cool," he claims. We were never in style and so we were never out of style. We were just always there. I take that term 'classic rock' as a badge of honor, a badge of longevity. I don't see that as a negative at all. It means we've been here awhile and paid our dues."
That animosity generated by the pundits still seems to sting. "You get one of those damned critics who claims they hate us drunk at a party, and then put on 'Africa' and you can catch them singing along. So they're busted right there. You can't be some 75 year old guy and try to stuff yourself into a Sex Pistols tee shirt. Punk didn't age well. You can't be a 55 year-old punk rocker."
It's an interesting bit of trivia to note that in 1983 Toto became the only band that's ever turned down the cover of Rolling Stone. "We were pretty sure it was going to be a hatchet job," Lukather remarks in retrospect. "They were gunning for us. We told them to go fuck themselves. They had trashed us from day one and we weren't going to let them set us up to look like assholes. So they were pretty pissed off and that was our own punk rock attitude. That probably wasn't such a great career move at the time, We probably threw gasoline on the fire and that just might have been a dumb move. When we won all those Grammys, they didn't even mention it, even though they were covering the awards."
Nevertheless, Lukather claims to have had the last laugh. "We're like the tortoise and the hare," he suggests. "We're like the tortoise. We slowly went along and took our punches. But we're the band that nobody can kill, even though everyone's tried in every possible way, and yet we're still standing. I personally have played with 75 people in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but we're never even mentioned, like the database doesn't exist. That's how silly and petty it is. So we just kind of laugh it off."
However, even now, the band remains defiant in their own way. "We sell out arenas all over the world, so if there's anything left on the bucket list, it's to be successful in the U.S. But we've made the turn. We've taken our punches, we've taken all the shit thrown at us, and we keep getting up and asking, 'Thank you, may I have another?' It's like, 'These motherfuckers will not die!' So they figure, 'Well, I guess we gotta like them.' Even if you don't like us, you gotta admire that we're still around."
Still around, and with a new album due next March -- its first new studio effort in a dozen years -- there's more than enough reason to give Lukather sizeable satisfaction, critics be damned. "I'm the luckiest guy," he insist. "I have the coolest job on planet Earth. What do I have to bitch about? I'm good enough to play with Paul McCartney, and good enough to play with Ringo. We've played with people that we grew up and listened to respect us. I've gotten to play with practically every one of our heroes. I scratch my head and thank God every day. My dream as a kid to be a musician came true, and not many people can say that."
Toto perform with Michael McDonald, 8 p.m. Wednesday, August 20, at Hard Rock Live at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, 1 Seminole Way, Hollywood. Tickets cost $54 to 74. Visit hardrocklivehollywoodfl.com.