Steve Van Zandt is known mainly for 2 things, his more than 50 years of friendship with Bruce Springsteen, more than 40 of those as his lieutenant in the E Street Band, and his celebrated role as Silvio Dante in one of the most legendary TV series in history: The Sopranos. But his remarkable solo work is often overlooked, whether writing or producing in the shadow of Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, or fronting his own band The Disciples of Soul, under the pseudonym Little Steven.
He now returns to Madrid for the 2nd time in less than a year to revalue efforts like the more than remarkable Men Without Women (a record any Springsteen fan should have in their collection), lost classics like I Don’t Want to Go Home, or material from his latest Soulfire. Guitars Exchange had the opportunity to speak to him just before his performance in the Noches del Botánico, on July 11 in Madrid.
GUITARS EXCHANGE: Men Without Women, your debut album, is still sounding great after 36 years since its release, as well as the follow up record Voice of America, but barely made it on the U.S. charts, yet were big hits in Scandinavia, like Sweden and Norway. How would you explain this?
STEVEN VAN ZANDT: Thank you. We could spend a long time discussing this, but my first thought would be most of the world, especially Scandinavia, has an admiration for all things Americana that ironically doesn’t exist in our own country.
My music being trendless, timeless, and having no category where it comfortably fits, may be a unique hybrid of influences, and may never be fashionable in America, but it’s roots are directly and intentionally connected to American tradition.
In other words you can hear where it’s coming from.
That’s what I like. And Europe seems to agree.
G.E.: Your music has always had a political edge, but now that the world is looking at Trump as president, it seems that in your last album to date, Soulfire, the political element was less important than ever, was this intentional?
SVZ: Yes. Everything I do is intentional. I try to practice what I preach which can be summed up by “live with Purpose”.
There was very little political awareness in the 80s. Mass media political discussion really didn’t exist. I felt it necessary to point out the massive criminal activity being perpetrated by my government in the shadows while our President, a very popular happy smiling grandfather, distracted the barely paying attention public with his comic cowboy act.
Now it is the opposite situation.
We are inundated with politics 24/7. There is no escape. What is going on is quite obvious and out in the open. Even discussing politics feels redundant at the moment.
So I feel I am most useful right now reintroducing the audience to traditional Rock and Soul which will transport them to a better place spiritually and replenish their strength with positive energy.
G.E.: When can we expect the follow up to Soulfire?
SVZ: We have the live album out now digitally from the first tour last year. The CD should be out soon with an additional 11 tracks, then the vinyl, and DVD in a few months.
We also plan on releasing my entire catalogue as a box set for Christmas, and the Lilyhammer Score maybe before that.
I’ve started writing and we will go into the studio in the winter and hopefully have a new album out for next spring.
G.E.: When you look at your solo career, is there anything you regret? or something that you would like to have done differently?
SVZ: Just about everything!
I regret not having a manager. And I still regret it. It just wasn’t in the cards for me. But I’ll never stop looking.
And I regret treating my career purely like an artistic adventure, and forgetting the career part!
One hit makes all the difference in the world. I made sure Bruce Springsteen had a hit. I should have done the same for myself.
G.E.: As for your gear, you’ve always been a Stratocaster man, What makes this model so special to you?
SVZ: I find it the most versatile of all the guitars. It can be clean and funky, it can be dirty and heavy. Whatever one needs for any particular song.
G.E.: Which guitars are you using on this tour? and amps?
SVZ: I mostly still use my ‘99 reissue ‘57 Stratocaster. I also use a Custom Shop Jeff Beck Strat, a Les Paul, and occasionally a Fender Jaguar. The amp is a Vox AC30.
G.E.: Which guitarists have influenced you the most throughout your career?
SVZ: Many. First it was George Harrison, and John Lennon from the Beatles. Then Keith Richards and Brian Jones from The Rolling Stones. Dave Davies from the Kinks. Pete Townsend from The Who. Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page from the Yardbirds. Mike Bloomfield from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Then finally Jimi Hendrix. They turned me onto the two schools of Pioneers.
The Blues Guys: Willie Johnson, Willie Kizart, T Bone Walker, Jimmy Rogers, Hubert Sumlin, Louis and David Myers, Buddy Guy, BB King, Albert King, Freddie King, Elmore James, Otis Rush, Eddie Taylor, etc.
And the Rockabilly Guys: Scotty Moore (Elvis Presley), Danny Cedrone (Rock Around The Clock) Art Ryerson (Crazy Man Crazy). Carl Perkins Cliff Gallup (Gene Vincent/ Blue Caps) Paul Burlison (Johnny Burnett and the Rock and Roll Trio) James Burton (Ricky Nelson) Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, Link Wray, etc.
G.E.: If you had to choose a guitarist for the Disciples of Soul, between Springsteen and Nils Lofgren, who would you choose? I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but any ideas? - or if you prefer which one would be the best Disciple?
SVZ: I would choose Marc Ribler.
G.E.: One of the things I find interesting about you is that you are a true believer in rock & roll, besides being a big scholar of its history, What is happening recently, where there are no bands or artists around to carry the torch?
SVZ: You’re not paying attention! If you tuned into my radio network, Little Steven’s Underground Garage, you would have heard one of the thousand plus bands we have introduced over the last 16 years! Rock may never be “mainstream” again. You’re right about that. It has gone back to being a cult. Where we belong!
G.E.: What do you think was the last great rock band, Nirvana, White Stripes…? Will there be another explosion?
SVZ: Nirvana would be the last successful band of the Rock Era. It ended with Kurt Cobain’s death. There are still some success stories-Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters, Social Distortion, Chili Peppers, Green Day, and yes the Hives and White Stripes that we helped break. We are back in a Pop Era as far as radio and records go, but Live, Rock still rules. And any one of our thousand bands could break through at any time. We’re all just one hit away!
G.E.: I really enjoyed the album you made with the great Darlene Love in 2015 (Among the Believers is a spectacular song) but it didn’t make much of an impact, Why do you think that is? Is there a chance of a follow up record?
SVZ: It is one of the biggest disappointments of my life. I can’t make a better record. And to tell you the truth, nobody else can either! The days when records were marketed properly are over. There should have been a campaign. It should have won album of the year at the Grammys since it obviously was the album of the year. That year and every year! But I will always be grateful to Sony for signing a 73 year old woman making her debut album.
G.E.: I have always wondered about your beginnings, How did you end up in the E-Street Band instead of being the co-leader of Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes? I only ask because the 3 first records of the latter are produced by you, and you’re the main composer in the band.
SVZ: Bruce and I had already been friends for ten years by then. He had 7 shows booked out of town and wanted to put the guitar down for a change so he asked me to temporarily leave the Jukes and do those shows. I was not only co-founder, I was also managing the Jukes and had grown bored with the “bar wars,” always fighting with the bar owners. So I said fuck it, why not. Went out for 7 shows, stayed 7 years.
G.E.: Your friendship with Springsteen is one of the longest, most beautiful in rock history, but I would like to know about the details in your working relationship. For instance, it is well known that you arranged the horns for Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, besides co-producing the work on The River, Which contribution to his work are you most proud of?
SVZ: Both The River and Born In The USA which I also co-produced were the culmination of a lot of hard, focused, relentless work. And the tangible results of fifteen years of friendship. The River will always hold a special place in my memory. It’s not only my favorite collection of his songs, it’s his best vocals.
G.E.: When the band started, the only guitar players were you and Springsteen, Do you recall in which songs you were the lead guitar? Is there a solo you are particularly proud of?
SVZ: I’ve only played one solo on a Bruce Springsteen record so I’m most proud of that one! It’s on “Gotta Get That Feeling” from the Darkness outtake album called The Promise. I also arranged the horns and background vocals on that track.
G.E.: How did the E-Street Band re-adapt once Nils Lofgren appeared?
SVZ: We stopped wearing high heels.
G.E.: For someone who loves rock like you, What did it mean to know and work with names such as the Drifters, the Coasters, Ronnie Spector, Darlene Love, or Gary ‘US’ Bonds?
SVZ: It means a great deal. It’s not only an honor, it’s a pleasure. Singers had a different level of talent back then. They are a joy to work with. I wish I’d done more. If I ever get a minute I would produce and write for more of them for sure. They’ll be all gone soon. And they won’t be replaced.
I was very happy to see Jack White following my tradition and working with Loretta Lynn, Tom Jones, and Wanda Jackson. I hope he does more. Every young artist who has any success should work with a legend.
G.E.: From your memorable appearance in The Sopranos, your acting has become something well-known as well, Do you have a new project on the go?
SVZ: I’m looking at things now. I wanted to give my musical rebirth at least two years to get reestablished. If Bruce doesn’t go out I will keep the band going but I will work a new tv show somehow into the mix.
G.E.: Thank you so much for everything, it’s been a real pleasure.