Steve Lukather

April 22, 2011

“ALL THE INFLUENCES I’VE HAD SINCE THE FIRST time I heard the Beatles until I woke up this morning,” says Steve Lukather, “they all go into my head. That’s that human hard drive called the brain and the soul.” Those influences went from Luke’s hard drive onto his latest solo release, All’s Well that Ends Well, an open, honest collection of tunes that showcases his songwriting, playing, and singing talents. The tunes reveal the depth of a seasoned vet, with a huge range of styles that goes from Hendrix-y rock to tight funk-pop to Steely Dan-ish future jazz. The guitar work is stellar throughout, with Lukather’s emotional bends and fascinating note choices in classic form. What’s somewhat different on this record, however, is that Luke’s jaw-dropping chops are kept more in check than in years past. Gone are the beer- and delay-soaked barrages of notes that typified what he calls “drunken jams that were never meant for public consumption” and in their place are toneful, melodic, and dare we say sober musical statements that have dynamics, drama, and passion. As tough as Lukather’s detractors on YouTube can be, no one is harder on him than he is on himself. “I want people to know that I am aware that I lost my way and that I may have abused the opportunities that I’ve had,” he says. “Forgive me please. I’m human. But I was determined to get myself together and start over again and this record is the result.” For a guy who not long ago described his own playing as “not moving forward at all,” Luke has some serious positive momentum going.

There’s a big range of guitar tones on this record. You cover every level of distortion from squeaky clean to fully distorted. How did you track?

I just used my Music Man guitar and three different Bogner amps, which I’d never used before. I had a whole room full of amps but I kept going back to those. They just sounded great—so natural and full. I used a Tube Screamer once in a while, some T-Rex pedals, and maybe a Radial pedal. Any delay or room sounds were either done organically or at the mixing board. We were recording through an old Neve—the EMI Neve desk from London that “Dark Side of the Moon” was recorded on. You get some of that analog love mixed in with the modern technology of Pro Tools and it works really, really well.

You cover a lot of styles on this record. Do you think in terms of styles?

Obviously you can hear the Steely Dan influence on the one tune and a Band of Gypsys kind of a riff here and there. I just like so many different kinds of music. I think that’s why I’ve sort of fallen through the cracks. I’m too rock for jazz, too jazz for rock. I’ve never totally fit in anybody’s club.

The songs on this record have a familiar feel but just when I think I know where the chords are going, you’ll throw a curveball. Where does that come from?

Obviously, Steely Dan was a huge influence on me when I was a kid. That music touched me. I’m inspired by the music of my youth, and I try to modernize it in my own way. I’m so tired of the obvious chord changes in popular music. If I hear another song with Am-F-C-G as the chorus I’m going to lose my mind. I can shout out the chord changes to a lot of songs on the radio before they even happen. So what I consciously tried to do was not to go to the obvious place. I tried to find another chord or something where you could take the melody, revoice it, and go somewhere else. My partner, CJ Vanston, who cowrote a lot of the record, comes from that same school.

Say you have a generic change, like C to Am, with an E melody note sustaining over them. How would you de-cliché-ify that?

You could use a Bb in the bass with a C triad. But the idea is to try to find a way to get there that’s smooth. The melody stays the same, but the chords change and you go, “Wow. That’s cool.” There’s a physiological thing that happens to you when you hear a chord change that’s cool. That was kind of what I was trying to go for with some of these tunes.

What was your approach to layering guitars?

It depended on the tune and the section of the tune. In “Darkness in My World,” I doubled the neck-pickup verse guitars. Then, for the power chords, I quadruple-tracked them. I wanted a really strange, fuzzed-out distortion sound, but I backed it up with some cleaner sounds so you could hear the chords. I was sort of going for a Joe Walsh kind of approach on that.

The solo in that song sounds like it stays fairly close to the chord and scale tones that are on the rhythm tracks. You’re a guy who’s capable of getting way outside with chromaticism, whole-tone stuff, melodic minor lines, etc. How do you decide when to use what flavor?

I was going for more of a straight-ahead bluesier approach. I knew there were other tunes with more altered, weirder solos—a nod to my bro Larry Carlton—so I thought more of a straight ahead thing on that song fit better. Using theory is like using chops: You have to do it carefully and it has to fit the song.

Speaking of chops, you sound like you’re keeping yours in check and laying back these days.

I am not a shredder. I shouldn’t even try to be. Sometimes when I did try to be, I looked like an idiot. That’s not really what my strongest suit is. There are guys that are younger and better and faster and that’s all good for me. That’s really not the arena I need to be in. I need to be me, and when I stopped trying to be me is when I lost myself. It doesn’t mean that I can’t play fast necessarily, but I was doing it unnecessarily. I really pulled that part of my playing out of the equation, with the exception of one song, “Can’t Look Back.” I fought against that solo but everybody talked me into keeping it.

It’s a great solo, with a lot of sections and themes.

I was just warming up in the studio. My son was there and I was getting used to playing through the changes. I started blazing through it and my son was screaming, “Dad, that’s awesome. You’ve got to keep that.” My co-producer, Steve MacMillan is going, “This is great. Just do a bunch of takes and let me see if I can put one together.” I was saying, “Guys, we can’t do this. This is everything I’m trying to get away from.” I did about fi ve takes and left. I came back and MacMillan had put one together and that was it. I started laughing when I heard it. I played it for Phil Collen from Def Leppard— he’s a friend and he sang some backgrounds on the record and I asked him, “Do you think this is ridiculous?” He said, “No. That’s great.” So I sat down and learned it, and now I play that solo live.

The production, the mixing, and the mastering of this record are really open and dynamic. You didn’t crush it, and that really lets all the instruments breathe.

Here’s a big pet peeve of mine: people slamming their f***ing records with compression. Oh my god. Why wouldn’t you want to have dynamics on your record? I consciously made a point of not squashing the hell out of everything. First off, it opens up the ability for the guitar to speak a lot more, as well as the drums and everything else. The kind of music I dig and the kind of music I grew up listening to is all about leaving space and letting the music breathe on its own. Hearing a guy like Joe Bonamassa break it down and play real soft, it kills you, rather than a guy that’s on 12 shredding. Look at Jeff Beck. Why people love him so much is the dynamics. When he does do something outrageous, it knocks you over. That’s the approach I’m trying to get back to.

Think back to your studio days. You’re a kid, you’re a fan of Larry Carlton, Tommy Tedesco, Jay Graydon, and then suddenly you’re kind of a peer of theirs. Did that freak you out?

Oh yeah. I’m still a fan of all those guys. They’re giant musicians—Larry, Jay, Lee Ritenour, Dean Parks. I always said, “I want to be like those guys someday.” To think that some people might consider me part of that crowd, I’m deeply honored.

When did you feel like you had arrived on that scene?

I still don’t think that I have at this point. Those guys all believed in me and I owe them so much respect. I certainly don’t think I’m as good as any of those guys. I still have a lot to learn, but they sure make me feel good to be around them. And whenever I get around them, they sure as hell make me play better.

I appreciate the humility in your answer, but come on. In your session days you were the guy they called for Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson—you played on some of the biggest records in the world.

When it was all going down, it was almost so surreal I didn’t realize it was really happening. There’s a picture of me and George Harrison playing together in my office and I walk by it and go, “Wow, that really did happen.” But I’m my own worst critic, so it’s tough for me to think I had arrived then or even now. I guess I played well for the people that hired me or they wouldn’t have hired me again. Looking back on it all after all these years, I suppose I’ve paid my dues. I see my career as a gift that I am extremely grateful for.

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