It’s 2018 and the kids love Toto.
Well, more to the point, they love ‘Africa’, the bizarre 1982 synth-pop smash hit from the American rock-fusion band’s fourth album Toto IV.
The song has been equally lauded and detested since its release. But, ask just about any millennial what they think of the song and they’ll have plenty of complimentary things to say.
It’s an unbelievably strange resurgence. And it’s not just music lovers with bad memories of the omnipresence of that opening synth who are perplexed.
“I’ve got no fuckin’ idea,” exclaims Toto founder and guitarist Steve Lukather when asked what it is about ‘Africa’ that has connected in 2018.
“I could never have called this. We’ve always worked, but to have everything blow up again over this silly song… All these young kids are coming to our shows. We’re at half a billion streams, getting ten million a month. All of our albums are selling. It’s a trip for us.
“This thing has taken on a life that we could never have imagined. We’re just laughing, going ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. That song? Really?!’ But, it struck a nerve and we’re riding the wave.
“If that’s what gets people in to see us? Fantastic! We’re gonna play it, we do a nice big long version of it, it’s a lot of fun. But we play a lot of other stuff too. We have other hits. People go, ‘Oh I didn’t know this was the same band’.”
It sounds as though Lukather and his band – who have sold over 40 million records and been a staple of classic hits radio for decades – have always had a complex relationship with the song.
‘Africa’ was actually a deep album cut
“We had fun making the record as producers, messing around with real instruments and real percussion, all these new synths and 24-track tape machines all synced up.
“We were having the time of our lives. We were kids! We wanted to make these huge, produced records, and that’s what we did!
“Then Dave [Paich, keyboardist] and Jeff [Porcaro, former percussionist, now deceased] brought in the lyrics and we started cracking up.
“’Come on Dave, really? This is ambitious. This is insane! Everybody’s gonna laugh at us!’
“We were making the record before we knew what the lyrics were gonna be. At the last minute, we’re like ‘Really?’ But Dave and Jeff really sold it to us. Of course, we took a lot of shit about it when Toto IV came out, but then it became a number one record.”
So it’s a pretty huge surprise to see people born over a decade after the song’s release championing it all of a sudden. Love for the song has spread rampantly online, and fans famously petitioned Weezer to cover the song, which they did earlier this year.
“Now it’s blown up again: the memes, the cartoons, the Weezer thing… we’re just going ‘Okay, this is great!’ We love it.”
To Toto’s credit, they are making the most of this unexpected surge in popularity. The band, three-quarters of whom have been there since the start, are embracing this new chapter of what has been a pretty wild story.
“These are my oldest friends,” Lukather says. “I’ve known them since we were teenagers. To look over and see the guys that I grew up with and have gotten older with, it’s comforting.
“We’re all we got. We went through this whole journey together – the good, bad and the ugly. Now, to have this resurgence in the back nine is really pretty cool.”
While it’s ‘Africa’ that’s bringing young audiences in, Lukather says the band’s live show, refined over decades of good old fashioned hard work, that keeps people interested once the novelty has worn off.
“The band is really shit hot right now,” he says. “We’re not a bunch of old tired guys who are gonna shuffle out on stage and bullshit our way through it to collect a cheque.
“We’re still playing like when we were kids. We still care. I practiced for an hour today. I don’t have to do that, but I do.
“We’re all lifer musicians who don’t rest on our laurels and Xerox the same shit in every night. We try to really keep it exciting and make it fun for us. We’re still playing the hits and all that stuff, but we also sneak some music in there too.”
The average age of a Toto audience member is 35
“You’d think it’s a sea of white haired people: it’s not,” he says.
And he says that young audiences are not expecting what a band like Toto are capable of.
“The young kids are not used to seeing guys play the way we do,” he says. “We’re not playing to machines and hard drives and shit. It’s all real. There’s something that comes off the stage that’s different when it’s that way.
“We’re not a punk band where we go out there on full energy and that’s what sells it. We’re detail guys when it comes to what our music’s all about. On the other hand, we’re not sitting in chairs reading music either, we’re a rock’n’roll band.”
Over the past 40 years, Toto have thrived in spite of never really fitting in.
“If we were never in style, we were never out of style,” Lukather says.
“We were just there. Some people loved us, some people hated us. Some people think we’re just that ‘Africa’ band, then when they hear us they see we’re nothing like that.”
But the quality of musicianship its members possess means they have almost certainly played on more hit records than any other group in history.
“We’ve taken all these punches; we were never the cool band, but we ended up playing all these cool peoples records, and we’re the same guys,” Lukather says.
Lukather alone has played on literally thousands of massive songs, from the likes of Aretha Franklin, Joe Cocker, Cher, Miles Davis, Donna Summer, Paul McCartney, Joni Mitchell and Elton John.
But there’s one track that really looms large in his musical history.
“When you think of ‘Beat It’, you think of Eddie Van Halen and Michael Jackson. Well, it’s really Jeff Porcaro and me. That’s the whole record. I played all the guitar parts and all the bass parts and Jeff played drums.
“We had to make the record backwards to Michael’s vocal and Eddie’s solo. Yet nobody mentions our name. We’re constantly the red-headed step-child of rock’n’roll. But we’ve had a really long career. So, nobody’s mad.”
Toto play the following shows:
Sunday 30 December – Falls Festival, Marion Bay
Monday 31 December – Falls Festival, Lorne
Wednesday 2 January – Falls Festival, Byron Bay
Thursday 3 January – Hordern Pavilion, Sydney
Friday 4 January – Festival Hall, Melbourne
Sunday 6 January – Falls Festival, Fremantle