Q&A: Steven Van Zandt
It could be argued that Steven Van Zandt, better known as Little Steven, is in the best rock ’n’ roll band in the world as one of the lead guitarists for Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band. And that he was one of the most memorable characters of the most acclaimed television show in history as Silvio Dante on The Sopranos. And that he was as important a catalyst for the rebirth of the popularity of indie and garage rock for the last 15 years as anyone with his Underground Garage radio show, which is now so popular it can be heard in over 200 countries and has spawned two separate satellite radio stations.
And now, “Stevie” is making his mark again, this time as the leader of his own band, The Disciples of Soul, who play at House of Blues Las Vegas Dec. 14 in support of their Soulfire album. This tour offers teachers free tickets and a workshop on TeachRock, his Rock and Roll Forever Foundation’s curriculum to engage students in the history of rock ’n’ roll, which, it could be argued, might be Little Steven’s most lasting effect on our culture.
He performs at Mandalay Bay’s House of Blues on Dec. 14. Las Vegas Magazine’s Jason Harris caught up with Little Steven as he was traveling in between Columbus and Cleveland, Ohio for another gig.
You’ve played Vegas two times with Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, but is this your first Little Steven solo show in Vegas?
I think so. It's a little hard to remember the '80s at the moment. I got around pretty good in the '80s but I'm not sure If I did Vegas or not. We might have done The Joint (at the Hard Rock Hotel, which opened in 1995) at some point.
What should the audience expect from your show?
It's gonna be fun. People don't get to see a 15-piece band very often. It's a big sound. Five horns, three singers—it's a bigger sound than people are used to. It's kind of blowing minds, you know?
I was looking at some set lists. It looks like you are going through the scope of your entire career.
That's the idea. That was the whole point of Soulfire to kind of sum up where I'm coming from. Not only reintroducing myself to an audience but also introducing myself as an artist to a whole lot of people. They may know me from The E Street Band or Sopranos or Lilyhammer (the show he starred in on Netflix about a mobster hiding in Norway) or even the Underground Garage radio show, but they might not realize I was an artist. I focused on that on Soulfire, focused on the songwriting. I focused on me as a singer, me as a songwriter, me as an arranger-producer as well as a guitar player, of course. It's kind of been a new rebirth and it's been a very exciting year-and-a-half. We put Soulfire out about a year and a half ago and just put out the Soulfire Live! CD box, which is pretty much the show you're going to see with a bunch of extra songs on it with guests that have been dropping in over the past year. And now we've added the teachers’ solidarity part of it.
Tell me about that the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation at the TeachRock program.
We're inviting teachers to come to the show for free. We put aside 500-600 tickets for teachers. It doesn't matter what grade level they teach or discipline they teach. Any teacher can come to the show for free and bring a friend and if they want to attend the free workshop, we do that at 6 p.m. right after the soundcheck and we talk about our curriculum that my foundation has written up. We went public with it this year and we've already registered 12,000 teachers. We got a whole bunch of teachers teaching this curriculum already and we just started.
What's the response been from teachers who attend the show?
Oh man, what I didn't count on is how great an audience teachers are, man. They are like letting lions out of the cages. They don't go out that much and once you can get them out, man, they go wild. I've been loving that. It's been nothing but fun, man.
I've always found that teachers are happiest at happy hour Friday at 4 p.m.
(Laughs) We even get them out on school nights and they still go crazy. I'm very proud of the work my foundation has been doing. We worked on this curriculum for 10 years. It's really a big success already.
You and Bruce, you live and die by rock 'n 'roll. That’s been part of your legend and your friendship. But does it still have the same place in society now? Has its place changed?
We're back to being an underground cult, which is where we started in the early '50s. It's pretty much back to that underground cult status. But it's a very powerful cult and a very powerful religion for me. We continue to preach that gospel. There's enough of an audience going to still really make a difference and it's a great way to communicate. There's never been anything quite like it, you know. We've gone back to a pop era now. But the rock world still exists. Live it's probably bigger than ever in some ways and according to the streaming stuff, it's very, very big. It's just a matter of the business. The industry no longer recognizes rock 'n' roll as part of the mainstream business and it's certainly not selling any records anymore. But it's still quite strong in a lot of ways. I find that when people get in that room—in my case, they're coming mostly out of curiosity to my shows because I don't have any hits. So, they're just coming because maybe they know me from something else and they're just curious. We win them over every single time. Song by song, we win them over. You can see the enthusiasm. Judging by the enthusiasm, obviously rock is not dead. It's just gone back underground, you know?
Maybe that's where it belongs.
Exactly right. That's exactly what I say. That's probably where we belong. The fact that we were mainstream for 30 years is probably an anomaly. That was a mistake of history.
At its best, rock is a live genre anyway. That visceral feeling. That connection with the crowd. More than any other kind of music, you need to experience it live.
That's very true.
When you're producing younger artists, with the state of the record business now, what are you telling these guys and girls? Just tour, tour, tour?
That's right. Any way they can get on the road, do it, because that's eventually where they're going to make their living. The records now are just kind of a ticket to ride. They're not the end result anymore. They're the script for the show but they ain't the show anymore. Records are still important and that's what provides the material for the show, but it is touring and how good they are live that's going to make the difference. It's a challenge, man. We do all we can. We counted the other and we've introduced over 1,000 new bands in our 15 years of the Underground Garage. Most of them work during the week and play during the weekends and try and spread their thing around but it's tough. It's really tough.
You have the Underground Garage and Outlaw Country on SiriusXM. If you were going to put out a third radio station, what would it be?
I had started what they used to call “the oldies” and what I call a “renaissance” format of the ’50s and ’60s music that doesn't really exist anymore. I went pretty far along with that. I had selected a lot of songs for that and then never completed it. That's probably what it would be. We cover it pretty good in the Underground Garage but just to have a real focus on just the ’50s and ’60s, which is where everything comes from, it's important to have that accessibility. We certainly have a lot of it in the Underground Garage but we also cover all 60 years of rock ’n ’ roll, so it's a not a complete focus on the renaissance years of the ’50s and ’60s, but there should be a ’50s or ’60s format. Sirius has a good ’50s and ’60s sound, so they're fulfilling an important mission. That’s probably what I would do. I hadn’t really thought about it for a long time.
When you started Underground Garage, you couldn't have imagined it going to 200 countries. Especially because at that time, rock ’n ’ roll was horrible.
Yeah, man. It was the worst time ever. When I started the radio I show I knew every rock ’n ’ roll record that was being made in the world. You could follow every single one because nobody was even bothering to make them. I think that proved a point—if you build it, they will come. Once we got up and running, hundreds of new bands starting popping up suddenly realizing they could get on the radio. And not only get on the radio but after a couple of years, we were all over the world. You didn't need a manager or a lawyer or even a record company. You make a great record and it's gonna played worldwide on this crazy radio station. I think that really encouraged a lot of people to start forming bands again. We're very proud of the fact that we're the only ones playing new music out there and of course, at the same time, we're the only ones playing album tracks from The Rolling Stones 12 x 5, early Beatles or Who or Kinks or Yardbirds. You're not going to hear that stuff anymore anywhere else. It's nice to connect the dots. It's important to have the old stuff but it's just as important to have the new stuff and people can connect the dots between the two and see who's coming from who and where people are coming from. We throw in blues and soul and all the roots so you really have a complete picture in the Underground Garage.
Follow me on this one. You're doing about 2 hours a night for each concert, correct?
Yeah. Something like that. 2:20, you know.
What's going on with your fitness between this and the three-and-a-half hour burners you guys are doing with Bruce? How do I get that fit?
Honestly, the music literally lifts you up and carries you. No matter how you are feeling—you might feel tired or a little bit sick—however you are feeling, that music starts, man, and it's like jumping into the rapids in a little canoe. Zoom! It's just lifts you up and carries you. It's amazing, the power of music in that way. There's no other real explanation. We should have been dying decades ago, but we just keep going. We're getting stronger. I think this is the best band I've ever had.
We got more to do. I just finished a new album that's going to be out in May. It's my first album that I've written in 20 years plus. I wasn't sure what would happen because it's been so long. Once I started acting, I just stopped writing. I went on to other things. I had a little anxiety. I was like, "Man, I wonder if I can still write a new album." I mean, I wrote the score for Lilyhammer for three seasons, which is a little bit different. But writing your own album, it came out really good. This past year-and-a-half on the road really put my head back into my music, which I had pretty much abandoned unintentionally. When I called on those old writing muscles that hadn't been used in a while, they came through. The album should be out in May.
So, you might be touring with multiple bands soon.
We'll see what Bruce wants to do. I think after 15 months on Broadway—he'll be going right through December. He's been doing 15 months, 5 days a week. I think he's going to want to take some time off. So, we'll see. But if he doesn't, if he makes that phone call, then we'll do that. If not, we'll do Disciples of Soul next year until Bruce is ready to go back out.
Does the new album have a theme to it like the political stuff you were putting out in the ’80s?
The double challenge this time was not only writing it, but I didn't want to write a political album anymore. I did nothing but politics for those five solo albums in the ’80s. And then I intentionally did not do that on Soulfire in order to really emphasize me as a songwriter and a singer for the first time other than emphasizing the politics first and the music second. I wanted the music to come first this time plus I think at this point, politics is just redundant. When I was exclusively political, it was all kind of hidden and behind the scenes and nobody knew what was going on in the Reagan years. There was all kinds of sneaky shit going on behind the scenes that I felt needed to be exposed. Now it's just so wide open, man, it only feels redundant to talk about politics. It's like everybody knows what's happening. I felt it's more useful right now to try and bring people together and try and find some common ground between us because we're getting so divided in this country, so I want to emphasize those kinds of themes. I'm very, very happy with it.
How does it work with Bruce as far as touring goes? Do you guys talk about it? Is it something you discuss as a band?
We're spread out all over the place. I stay in touch with Bruce quite regularly. I've been to his show a couple of times which is just fantastic. And we talk sporadically. He wasn't quite sure how he was going to feel after this run. We'll see how he feels.
It's a good time for The E Street Band as solo artists. You guys are getting to showcase your skills in ways people haven't seen.
That's right. It's very good for the band. Then you come back to the band and you're all stronger and it makes the band stronger. So that's what I would recommend to every band who has people that want to do solo records or things in between. Do not break up the band to do it. You don't have to break up the band to do solo projects. Do both. Do them every other year, whatever. It's extremely important that young people understand that because we've all made that mistake. Learn from our mistakes. There's just no reason to do that. People think you gotta break up the band and go on to a solo career but that's just not true. If you have the amazing miracle of having a great band, which is a miracle, it's just some kind of chemical combination that nobody can define or understand and if it works it works and do not break that up. Do not take that for granted, man. Stick with it and a do a solo album every other year.
Are there any bands you are dying to see get back together?
A lot of them are on the way out, man. There's not a whole lot left. I've always hoped for The Kinks. I know Ray and I know Dave (The Davies brothers). They're just the nicest guys in the world. They're both fantastic guys. I know the bass player is gone but the drummer is still with us the last time I looked. That could be a wonderful reunion, but they just have never quite gotten along. That brothers thing. It's amazing how the brothers just don't seem to get along. There's a great rock 'n' roll tradition of that going back to The Everly Brothers. I still hope for that one. Other than that, I don't know who is still around. The Yardbirds find a way to still tour. The Who now and then. It would be nice to get some of the old Animals back together. They haven't really played together for a long time. (Hilton) Valentine, (Eric) Burdon. But there's not a whole lot of them left. But their influence will be forever and will live forever in Underground Garage, I'll tell you that.
The E Street Band, along with the fans who have been with you for decades, has picked up this groundswell of younger fans. Are you seeing that at your shows, too?
A little bit. Not quite as much as E Street. Some of our gigs are in clubs where kids aren't allowed. It will take me another year or two to reestablish and reconnect before that starts happening for me. When we play a theater or bigger places, we do see some kids. And I love that. It's always great to see that.
Is the box set of the albums you put out in the ‘80s still coming?
Everything got delayed because it's hard to get stuff out nowadays. It takes six months to get vinyl done, which is just unbelievably ridiculous. The entire catalog is ready to go. It's probably going to be delayed until next year. We got the vinyl box set of the (Soulfire) live album, which is coming, I think, in February along with a bonus disc of The Cavern (Club) show we did in Liverpool. That has Paul McCartney on it. And we have a Blu-Ray coming in February. And then I have the Lilyhammer score coming. That's gonna be March or April. Then a new album in May. So, we're not going to get the catalog out probably till next September or October even though it's ready to go.
It's good to be busy though, huh?
Yeah, it's good to get it all out finally. I hope, certainly by the end of next year, everything I've done is out, remastered, in great shape and moving towards the future for the first time in 20 years. So that's all good, man.
Are you still writing 25-page scripts for each episode of Underground Garage?
Yeah. We're doing more repeats these days because I'm on the road. Every new show is a 25-page script, which I did every single week for the first 5, 7, 8 years. I did it for about 10 years probably. That's how into it I was. We never repeat a show more than once a year at most so people won't get tired of hearing the repeats. We update them with new "Coolest Songs of the Week."
You’re one of the few rock ’n’ rollers who has had two famous nicknames. How did you go from Miami Steve to Little Steven?
(Laughs) I just felt that Miami was so associated with The E Street Band. It was my character in that movie. That was a character, the role I played in The E Street Band was that guy. The party guy, the wild guy, the rock 'n' roll guy. The first call when you're having a party, you know, I would be the first phone call that you'd make. You want somebody to organize the party? That was my thing. Just kind of wild and loose. I was kind of Dean Martin of the rock 'n' roll Rat Pack with Bruce as Frank and Clarence as Sammy Davis on steroids. That was a role I was playing with The E Street band, but then when it came time for me to be me, I felt I needed a different identity to start fresh. It's a different part of my character, a whole different set of characteristics than "Miami" Steve. He was just not that thoughtful of a guy. That was not the role. The role was just good soldier, occasional consigliere, under-boss occasionally, but basically a good solider out there having fun, representing the fun part of the friendship between me and Bruce and all that. Whereas Little Steven, I had to be a little more thoughtful, more political, a very different set of characteristics.
I've never seen camaraderie like you and Bruce have on stage. What's going on there?
Well, when we grew up, we saw all these bands having fun. We saw The Beatles movies, A Hard Day's Night and Help!, and we bought it. We took it literally and we were already friends. We were friends for almost 10 years before I joined The E Street Band. So, we go way back to being local guys, we were the two local freaks that reinforced each other's belief in rock 'n' roll. Nobody else really believed in rock 'n' roll like a religion like we did. We strengthened each other's resolve when everybody else was laughing at us and considering us borderline criminals. Misfits, outcasts. It was an important friendship that we had early on and it just stayed. It never went away. And then we ended up playing together and we communicated that friendship to the audience, which is what bands are all about. We didn't know till later that The Beatles are fighting with each other, The Stones are fighting with each other, The Kinks are fighting with each other, The Who are fighting with each other. They were all killing each other and hating each other. It wasn't this wonderful friendship that we all thought it was, but we took it literally. We actually were the best friends that they looked like on stage. We thought the other bands were, too. But it turns out it wasn't so true. In the beginning, it might have been true but by the end a lot of them were fighting with each other and that's a shame. But we didn't know that. In those days, information was not so forthcoming, so we bought the whole fantasy. We bought the illusion. And we made it real, you know?
When Clarence Clemons died, how do you transition from losing such a major presence into the next form of the band?
Well, that was a big one. That was a very, very tough period. We had a lot of serious discussions. In the end, we really had to think about it. Jake Clemons was there, which was a miracle. The fact that he was related to Clarence was a happy miracle, but you know, at the same time, we didn't want to stick him in Clarence's position over there on that side of the stage. That just felt wrong, so we had a transitional tour where we took out a horn section and we had Jake be part of the horn section and come out to the front of the stage for solos and then go back to the horn section which made that transition a little bit smoother and a little more comfortable for everybody. It was very important that it happened to be Jake because anybody else, I think it would have been a problem for audiences to make that transition. Jake made it a lot easier and we made it even easier by having that horn section and not putting that pressure on Jake to suddenly become The Big Man. That wouldn't have been fair to him. We wanted to transition that slowly so we took out the horn section and it worked very well. Now, at this point, Jake is very much accepted and he's earned his place in the band. We overcame that very tough moment. You know, because you can't replace a Clarence Clemons. You can't replace (original E Street organist) Dan Federici. They're not replaceable so you have to do something different. You have to move into a different kind of mode, taking what you have, it's still familiar, it's still The E Street Band but it's a different E Street Band. It's different. And we have such a great audience that they accepted those changes and we carried on and now we're bigger than ever, you know.
You do so much work as a keeper of rock history. Have you ever thought about your place in the history of rock 'n' roll?
Not really. I don't think I'm going to be remembered at all, to be honest but I think some of the work I'm doing will carry on. The education thing, I hope will live beyond me. I hope my radio formats live beyond me. They're extremely important to make sure the music made is accessible for future generations. TeachRock.org curriculum, if we can keep expanding it the way we are now, in the next couple of years man, we'll have enough coverage. We'll be a permanent addition to the school curriculum, doing the same job as the radio formats, make the renaissance accessible to future generations. We were the lucky ones. Look at what these kids got now. Our pop music was The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. I'm sorry, but you can't help but be a little bit nostalgic about that.
And mine was you guys!
That's all right. But it was a diminishing return in terms of quality. Once the rock era ended, of course, now kids are so distracted and have so many different ways of finding distractions. Music is not going to play that same role, but that could be temporary. We have to make sure it's accessible. We are finding all kids are into music. I just think they need to have a little more information about it to really have that relationship that we had, and that's why I'm so happy about the vinyl resurgence for the simple reason that there's credits on those records. Kids are going to be able to see credits for the first time and realize that this stuff doesn't just fall off trees. In fact, it takes an army of people to make these records. And that's what the whole education curriculum is about, too. It talks about the music in-depth. The fact that the kids are interested in music is a big plus because now you can get their attention. And that's what the teachers are enjoying about our curriculum. Our curriculum is the first curriculum that deals with the modern world, that deals with this generation as a different generation. Most of the teaching methodology right now is old school, "learn this now and someday you'll use it." Right? Well, that's not gonna work with this generation. They're faster than us. They're smarter than us. They expect everything to happen right now, so you gotta engage them. And the only thing that we found engages them is music. They all love music even though they don't have the depth of understanding about it that we did, they do love it. Thank goodness. Because that's the way in, man, that's the way in. They go in through that music tunnel and we get them and then we start to tell them what's really behind that music and man, you got their attention and that's the difference between what we're doing and what most people have been trying to do is we get their attention. Once a teacher has a student engaged, now they can teach. And that's the key to this generation. Engaging them because we got the biggest generation gap going on right now since ours. I thought ours would be the biggest generation gap in history but this one might be even bigger.