How did Toto go from Grammy-winning hitmakers in the ’80s to pop culture punchlines in the ’90s to headliners in 2019, with the band’s most successful concert tour ever?
Co-founder Steve Lukather explains the resurgence in one word: “Africa.”
That Toto hit from 1982 has had a curious rebirth.
“All of a sudden all these young people became interested in our music,” said Lukather, who leads Toto on its 40th anniversary tour into the State Theatre on Tuesday in Minneapolis. “Everything took off like wildfire. We didn’t see it coming.”
Dance-music acts such as Skrillex and jam bands such as Umphrey’s McGee started playing the song a few years ago. Then came Weezer’s left-field cover version, which zoomed to No. 1 on Billboard’s alternative chart last year.
“Weezer did it as a joke, I guess, and it blew up and now they’ve got to play it for the rest of their lives,” Lukather joked. Toto reciprocated by recording Weezer’s “Hash Pipe.”
“I tried to reach out to Weezer but — crickets. Whatever. It resuscitated their career. It did great for us. I have no bad feelings.”
Even though the band buried the tune as the last track on its album “Toto IV,” it became its first — and only — No. 1 song.
Lukather describes it as an “obnoxious overproduced song with silly lyrics” and a video that’s “so ridiculously bad that it’s funny.” Keyboardist David Paich penned the words after reading a National Geographic magazine.
Acknowledging that Toto has “never been hip,” Lukather knows the band has taken a lot of flak.
This summer, the guitarist ran into Jimmy Fallon, who was concerned that the members of Toto might be angry because the late-night comic and Justin Timberlake had spoofed the band.
“Why would we be mad at being made fun of? It’s pop culture. We laugh at ourselves. But when the houselights go down, we’re dead serious. I got nothing to complain about it.”
In an hourlong phone conversation, Lukather, 61, talked about Toto’s checkered reputation, his years as a super-busy studio musician (for Michael Jackson and Miles Davis, among others) and his encounters with Ringo Starr, Prince and Bob Dylan.
On touring with Ringo
Toto also might have gained some momentum from Lukather spending the past seven years on and off touring with Ringo Starr & His All-Star Band, playing Toto hits every night.
“People come out of all ages and dig the music,” he said of the Starr gig. “I get to be 10 different guitar players and pay tribute to Carlos Santana and be a rockabilly dude and back up all the Beatles stuff. It’s a joy.”
On being a studio rat
Like the other members of Toto — including Paich, keyboardist Steve Porcaro and his late brothers Jeff and Mike — Lukather got his start as a studio musician as a teenager.
He’s played on more than 2,000 records, including projects with Boz Scaggs, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Rickie Lee Jones and Barbra Streisand. That’s his guitar on Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical,” Lionel Richie’s “Running With the Night.” and Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time.”
“The heyday — ’76 to ’90 — was the era when I worked the most. We showed up, there were demos and no rehearsal and we created on the spot,” he recalled fondly. “That died with the advent of home studios; records weren’t made the same way anymore.”
On his own personal tastes
“I’m not a musical snob. I can listen to Miles Davis, Slipknot and the Carpenters in the same day,” he said. “I like good music and great musicians.”
On Toto’s many lead singers
The band is fronted by Joseph Williams, son of famous soundtrack composer John Williams. He and Lukather have been friends since they were teens.
Toto’s first frontman, Bobby Kimball, got busted for selling cocaine and was fired in 1984. But hereturned in 1998 for a decade.
“We gave him, like, 100 chances,” Lukather said. “It was hard to fill the spot. We’ve had trouble in that area. Thank God, we’ve had other guys who were credible, so we could keep moving.”
Fergie Frederiksen did a brief stint in the mid-’80s, as did Jean-Michel Byron in the late ’80s.
Frederiksen, who lived in the Twin Cities (and died of liver cancer in 2014), came on board in the middle of the recording of the “Isolation” album.
“It was really difficult for him. The songs [instrumental tracks] were already cut in such high keys,” Lukather said. “He did one tour with us. The pressure was a lot. He was just not a great fit, but we had a great time. We left on good terms.”
Williams has had two runs with Toto. “Joseph has a right to be here,” the bandleader said of the current vocalist. “He’s been here like 15 years.”
On recording with Miles Davis
The great jazz trumpeter wanted to record “Human Nature,” which Steve Porcaro co-wrote for Michael Jackson. Davis wanted Porcaro to record the introduction.
So Davis ended up hanging out with the Toto guys for a week. The notoriously mercurial jazz god was easy to get along with, Lukather said.
“He was cool,” the guitarist said. “He took a shine to us, a bunch of white boys from North Hollywood. He had a huge personality. He walked into the room and it lit up.”
After Davis heard the recordings he made with Toto, he called Lukather.
“ ‘Hey, man. Wanna join my band? I need you to come to New York tomorrow.’ But we [Toto] were leaving the next day for a three-month tour.”
On working on ‘Thriller’
“The first day, it was the Paul McCartney duet [‘The Girl Is Mine’]. We walk in [to the studio], and there’s Dick Clark and so many people hanging around. And Michael walks in and he’s carrying Webster — the TV kid [played by Emmanuel Lewis on the eponymous show] — like he was a ventriloquist’s doll.
“But the music was all serious. Michael and I, we’re the same age. He was very professional. He knew what he wanted.”
In 1977, before Prince was famous, he and James Newton Howard co-produced a song for pop singer Valerie Carter. Howard invited Lukather to overdub some guitar and introduced him to the quiet newcomer from Minneapolis.
“During the session, he’s sitting in front of the [recording] console, on a couch that’s lower. He disappeared. I forgot he was there. All of sudden, a head in slow motion comes over the console and stares at me and all of sudden disappears. Didn’t say a word to me. I started laughing.”
About six years later, Lukather encountered Prince at Sunset Sound studios in Los Angeles where the Minneapolis rocker was recording “Purple Rain.”
“It’s 10 o’clock in the morning. And he was dressed in a silver lamé suit,” Lukather recalled. “There was a basketball court between the studios, and he was shooting baskets with this big, huge wrestler guy with white hair. Then when he was done with basketball and just sitting there on the motorcycle from ‘Purple Rain,’ I said hi, and he looked at me and one eyebrow came up to acknowledge me.”
On Bob Dylan
In 1993 or ’94, George Harrison invited Lukather and a few other musicians to dinner at an Italian restaurant in Hollywood. He found himself sitting between Harrison and Dylan.
His opening line to the Minnesota maestro was something about his buddy Stan Lynch, of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, going with Dylan to see Sammy Davis Jr. in concert.
“All of sudden, he got all animated. He loved Frank [Sinatra] and Sammy and that whole era,” Lukather said. “Then he went back to being super-shy and not talking to anybody.”
Lukather asked Harrison if he’d ticked off Dylan. Said the Beatle: “No, I haven’t seen him that animated in years.”
Later that night, Lukather found himself at Jeff Lynne’s studio jamming with Dylan (on bass), Harrison, Lynne and drummer Jim Keltner.
Said Lukather: “A classic-rock wet dream.”