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For a guy who’s allegedly been referred to as the “world’s greatest guitar player” by Eddie Van Halen, who’s played the immortal intro to Michael Jackson’s timeless hit “Beat It,” as well as having played guitar on virtually every major label pop hit out there, you would think that five-time Grammy winner Steve Lukather, aka Luke, would have an impenetrable ego of steel. Fact is, even Luke hurts. The guitar legend unabashedly wears his heart on his sleeve and his new solo album, Transition, is a catharsis of sorts on many levels.
“The internet can be pretty cruel, man. People will try to point out your weakest flaws physically, or about your playing. They catch you at your weakest moment and you’re like a piñata with a baseball bat,” says Luke. “I’ve taken 36 years of criticism. Things like, ‘Our parents should have been sterilized so we can never play the shit music that we make.’ I’ve heard them all.” To respond, Luke (along with co-producer CJ Vanston and Fee Waybill) penned “Creep Motel” and “Judgement Day,” which feature lyrics like “It finally hits, you're full of shit, your tiny fingers dancing on your keys of hate.”
Transition also addresses several major turning points in Luke’s personal life. Songs like “Once Again” see him offering an honest and heartfelt reflection on his recent divorce and, the closer, a first-take instrumental rendition of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” pays tribute to his mother, who recently passed away (“Smile” was her favorite song). The album features an all-star cast of A-list musicians including Tal Wilkenfeld, Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers), and Phil Collen (Def Leppard), among others, and was written and recorded during an impossibly hectic 10-month period that saw Luke go on five, yes five, major tours. Luke breaks it down, “On January 1, I went to Germany to do this Rock Meets Classic tour with Ian Gillan from Deep Purple and some other people, including an 80-piece orchestra. Then I went out and did G3 with Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, which I was very honored to be asked to do. Then I went out with Ringo Starr all summer, and then I went out with Toto. I then went back out with G3 but with John Petrucci instead of Steve Vai. The whole time I was writing and mixing. That’s the short version. I wasn’t sittin’ around doin’ nothin’ for the year, I can tell you that.”
Luke takes us inside the making of Transition, explains his pared-down setup, gives the scoop on his new signature Ernie Ball/Music Man Luke III model —which features his new DiMarzio Transition pickups—and shares his take on the new face of the music industry.
I understand that you took a different approach to writing Transition.
I did it in a weird sort of way. I usually write songs and go in to cut basic tracks. On this one, I thought I was going to make little demos but the demos turned out to be really good. I realized that we didn't need to do it again. I said, “Let’s keep all this and just add people to it,” so we started adding real musicians to it as the songs were finished. I’d never done it that way before but it allowed me to cast the record like a director would cast a film. I could get what I thought were the right players for the songs and they really knew what they were playing to. Oddly enough, the way the album is sequenced is the order in which the songs were written.
”Transition,” the title track, has so many different sections that it’s almost like a prog-fusion odyssey. How was that one put together?
That was written with Steve Weingart as well as CJ [Vanston]. We had no rules. I originally intended to write an instrumental piece, which it ended up not being. I added some vocals. But I have a great love for ’70s prog rock like Yes or Genesis. I’m not trying to write hit songs, I’m trying to make an artistic statement. I just want to make a record that I enjoy listening to and so far the reaction has been pretty good. Having a record label give me that freedom—they didn’t hear anything until I turned in the mastered record. They trusted me and I try to deliver stuff that’s accessible yet still a little harmonically challenging. I’m not trying to write full-on fusion, freak-out music. Math music [Laughs], for lack of a better term.
But “Transition” goes beyond the confines of 4/4.
Yeah, it was in 7 I think. It’s not that whacked-out by today’s standards. I still don’t want to just write clichéd power-chord music. There are some guys that write music that’s so crazy that it makes me laugh out loud. It’s so cool but it’s like, “Wow, what is that.” I like to think that I’m fairly well versed but there are some young cats out there that are just blowing the roof off. I love it, man.
Tell me about “Creep Motel” and “Judgement Day.”
Those two songs are like bookends. They’re about internet haters—people sitting in their little rooms hating everybody. Hate breeds hate. I’m a really sensitive person and it really [expletive] with my head. I’m of clear mind, body, and soul, and have been for years, but there was a time in the mid-2000s where as a player, I lost my way, and I’m rather ashamed that some of these performances have found their way to the internet. And the worse they are, the more people see them, and the more they want to [harass] me about things that happened years ago. It’s really insidious. What’s next, you walk into a room and there’s a hologram of a “Like” and “Dislike” next to you, and if too many people point to the “Dislike,” you’re thrown out of the room? It’s like this Orwellian bullsh*t, hyper-critical society now. People won't even get up and jam anymore. They’re afraid everybody’s camera is out. You get this feeling of unrealistic perfection that you’re supposed to attain every time you play, sing, or do anything. It’s really screwed up. And these are the same people that come up to you and tell you, “Hey man, really nice to meet you.” They’re the same people with a fake name.