Steve Lukather talks new solo album Transition track-by-track
Guys like Steve Lukather know the deal: You walk in the studio, hear a track once, plug in your guitar and blow the place away. You make something from nothing. Don’t overthink it. After a while, you get pretty good at it.
Which is basically how the Toto guitarist and session star began recording his new solo album, Transition. “It was total clean-slate time,” Lukather says with a laugh. “I got together with [co-producer] CJ [Vanston] in December of 2011, and I didn’t have lick one. So we just wrote and recorded. The whole thing just rolled.”
The first song Lukather and Vanston tracked, Judgment Day, kicks off the album, and the manner in which other numbers were written and cut is how they appear on the record. “It felt very natural to do it that way,” Lukather says. “It’s like I’m telling a story from beginning to end.”
There was no mucking around with endless takes and punches, either – every performance is a single master from front to back. “We didn’t want to go back and redo things,” Lukather says. “We overdubbed the drums and bass and all that, but everything I did with CJ, we laid it down and kept it.”
Being that he’s played on something like a bazillion records, Luke has made a few friends over the years, and he called on pals both new and old to guest on Transition – in the bass department alone he’s got fellow session aces Lee Sklar and Nathan East, along with Jeff Beck’s go-to girl from Down Under, Tal Wilkenfeld. “The whole approach was to write a song and cast it like a director making a movie,” Lukather says. "‘This song sounds like Sklar… This part is Nathan.' We imagined the person in the tune.”
Transition is Lukather’s eighth solo album, and he sees it as the end of a trilogy that began with 2008’s Ever Changing Times and continued on 2010’s All’s Well That Ends Well. “Stylistically and lyrically, I think I began a thread and saw it through,” he says. “I’ve maintained a certain direction – I didn’t go out and do a country album or a blues album or a metal album. I think I’ve found my voice.”
Transition will be released on 21 January. In Europe, you can pre-order the album here, and in North American and the rest of the world, order it here. On the following pages, Steve Lukather walks us through the disc track-by-track.
“I looked at CJ and said, ‘Here we are – first day of the record. What do we do?’ He started playing, and then I joined in. We did these cool little voicings, and suddenly there was a riff – we wrote the whole song in an hour. That really set the pace for the whole record.
“Lyrically, it’s a song about people calling you out and blaming you for shit that you never did or said. The internet’s a weird place: People say so much crap, and of course, everything that’s written on it is supposed to be the truth. Well, guess what? It’s not! So it’s Judgment Day – all the internet hating and bullshit. I guess I was feeling like I was on the whipping post that day, so that’s what came out. As we got more into the record, things brighten, and we go from darkness to light.
“I used my L3 Music Man, which is the latest version of my Luke guitar, with the passive DiMarzio pickups – also called the Transition pickups! How’s that for a coincidence? [Laughs] I used that on pretty much the whole record.
“Toss Panos is on drums. He brought a real different feel to the song. He’s like a rock ‘n’ roll Elvin Jones. Sklar’s on bass, and he’s awesome, as always. And that Phil Collen on background vocals. He’s a good buddy of CJ and mine. He’s got a great voice, and he just knows what to do and what a song needs. He toughens up the chorus and gives it an extra ‘oomph.’”
“Fee Waybill came up with that title. He helped me with the lyrics, which I darkened up a little. I gave him the germ of the idea, and he came back with all this cool stuff.
“It’s like a fucked-up blues a la Steely, but a little more raw than that. I’m trying to write stuff that feels good but goes in a different harmonic direction than straight blues. The chorus is great; it’s anthemic and big and cool. It’s a real ‘fuck you’ to everybody. Who doesn’t love to sing nasty words, you know what I mean?
“I dug being able to do the free-form, drop-D solo thing on it. Sounds pretty cool. Lee Sklar plays bass on Judgment Day and this one, too. We’ve known each other a long time, man. He’s one of the greatest groove players of all time. When he plays something, it just feels right. He comes in and sets the groove.
“I even got a tiny bass solo out of him. I think I’m the first person to ever do that. He did this little bit after my guitar solo, and I was like, ‘There it is! I finally got a Lee Sklar bass solo!’ He said, ‘No, no – fuck that shit!’ [Laughs] But I left it in. It’s too good, man.”
“This is a very personal song. It was a rainy day when I showed up at the studio and told CJ, ‘I want to do something like Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight.’ I was looking for something simple, a nice, beautiful, clean melody. People don’t hear that side to me sonically, where I play with my fingers and don’t go apeshit.
“It’s a sad song about the breakup of my marriage and how devastating that really is. I didn’t just lose my wife – I lost my best friend. So the song is about me waking up in the morning and being alone again. I reach out in bed... and nobody’s there. Thank God I have my dog with me [laughs]. But really, it hurts to be alone. It’s no kind of fun at all.
“There’s a little bit of Tom Pettty in the chorus. I tried to make the most out of the open chords, so they ring out a little differently. I don’t really think of the solo here as a ‘solo’ per se. There’s a lot of places on the record where the bridges goes to guitar melodies, but they’re not these big solos. It’s more like the guitar is taking the place of a voice.”
Right The Wrong
“I wrote it with CJ and my son Trev – that’s Trev playing that over-the-bar muted guitar part. He wrote the melodies and lyrics with us. Talk about talented – he just signed a major management deal with the people who work with Mumford & Sons. 2013 is going to be his year. He’s my best pal.
“Chad Smith is on drums. How cool is that? I ran into him, told him I was doing a record, and he was like, ‘Yeah, and… ?’ He was waiting for me to ask him to play on it, and of course, I said, ‘Dude, c’mon. Come play on it.’ He came by the next day! [Laughs]
“Chad is unbelievable, as we all know. The stuff was recorded already, so he was able to play to the track. He’s such a great feel player, but he’s got a looseness that’s all his. He finds the space and lets the song breathe. I didn’t want the Steely Dan perfection-grid thing – I wanted Chad to float over it. And let me tell you, he floats, man.”
“That’s a wild riff. CJ came up with it initially. I brought in Steve Weingart that day to do keyboards, and I said, ‘All right, we’re going to write the extravaganza,’ even though I didn’t have note one. But I knew I wanted something cool and melodic so that we wouldn’t have to call the jazz police on ourselves.
“We ended up writing it backwards. We came up with these really beautifully changes, a little Jeff Beck-ish-type intro and a recurring theme, not unlike all the prog records I loved from the ‘70s. Groups like Yes would have a really cool riff, and then it would get soft; then you'd have an acoustic drift in, and then, finally, you get the vocal. I love that! There’s a Pink Floyd-esque kind of a solo section in this song – Weingart did a killer job on that.
“I brought Tal Wilkenfeld in on bass. I met her through Trev. She’s like one of the family now. I call her ‘number five’ – she’s the fifth child. What a brilliant player. She was in and out in, like, 20 minutes. We played her the track one time, and she said, ‘OK, I know what to play.’ She did some really wicked stuff, the kinds of things I never would have thought of.”
Last Man Standing
“After the song Transition, I came up with the title Last Man Standing. Lyrically, it’s about an older guy who’s contemplating death and all the mistakes he’s made. It’s an interesting concept: Since I’ve fixed a lot of the shit I’ve caused, do I get credit for that?
“It’s the transitional track on the album, going from darkness to light – things start to get happier. Like I’m waking up and going, ‘It's a beautiful day! I’ve made it through the worst, and I’m not all fucked up.’ That’s the message: Even if I’m the last guy who knows it, I’m OK.
“Joe Bonamassa gave me a really cool Les Paul that I used for a chunky part on this song. It gives it a different kind of lift. The song is really a tribute to Joe Walsh, one of my longtime heroes who's also a friend. I channel Joe a little bit in the solo. He’s such an influence, so how could I not? I wear my heroes on my sleeve.”
Do I Stand Alone
“It’s a little more of a political thing in the way of, ‘OK, what’s wrong with the world today?’ You turn on the TV in the morning, and it’s nothing but bad news. It’s an anthem-like piece of music, and it rocks.
“I tried some different delay things, and I palmed the back of the bridge for one of the riffs to make it kind of interesting. I tried to take the open-position chords and let them blossom. I fooled around with the amps in a different way, but that’s about it. Once you get a great sound, you should commit to it; otherwise, you just fuck everything up.”
Rest Of The World
“I didn’t write this one. I was looking for something a little more hopeful, or at least a track that was less angry. I wanted to end the album on a nice note – even though it’s not the last track, but we’re getting there. Although I liked the bluesy, Joe Cocker-type feel of this song, I was unsure of doing it at first. CJ wanted me to try it. We fought with it and tried it a bunch of different ways, and it finally ended up working out.
“It’s probably the commercial song on the record. From a guitar standpoint, it’s different for me, what with the reverse phase and the way I was playing the blues. I tried to Steely it up. It’s got a wicked Bernard Purdie/Jeff Porcaro shuffle. It grooves.
“That’s Nathan East playing bass. Man, talk about a guy who knows just what to do! He’s played with Toto on the last three tours. I’ve known him forever, since the first Randy Newman session we did together in 1980. Nathan's amazing – he walks in, does a couple of takes, and I’m like, ‘OK, you’re done.’ Guys on his level know what a song needs. You don’t even have to tell them anything. How can you not love that?”
“That’s a single live guitar take. I did one pass and was done. There’s no click or anything – I just played. I did this song on the last tour as the second encore and just loved it. I was feeling it, and so I wanted to include it on the album.
“The lyric – ‘Smile though your heart is aching’ – that’s what I was like during my darkest times. I was a clown who was empty and miserable and crying inside. My mother died, and she loved the song, so I wanted to do this as a dedication to her.
“It’s not a flashy performance, it’s not perfect, but it’s simple and pure. We turned it from a guitar-and-Fender-Rhodes piece into more of a Stevie Wonder/Talking Book/Innervisions song. It’s touching.”