Steven Van Zandt Discusses the Return of Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, His Love of Motown and More (The Interview)

Ken SharpCategories:Featured Articles

Rock Cellar Magazine

Guitar player, songwriter, producer, actor, political activist and lord of his own music radio kingdom with Sirius XM’s Little Steven’s Underground Garage, Jersey’s finest, Steven Van Zandt, is an artist always on the move.

With Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band on an extended hiatus, Little Steven has re-kick started his solo career in recent years, releasing two new studio albums and a live record. His latest, Summer Of Sorcery, is a groove-tastic sonic love letter to the good ‘ol days of the ‘60s and early ‘70s with affectionate knowing nods to many of his key musical avatars:  James Brown, Sly & The Family Stone, the blue-eyed soul of The Rascals, Motown, Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and yes, dollops of the raw, sweaty garage rock heard daily on “Little Steven’s Underground Garage.”

Summer of Sorcery (pick up a copy here) is exquisitely produced and performed, boasting massive hooks, sonic ear candy galore, snapping horns and surprising time changes, this is truly a throwback record in the best sense of the world, imbued with deep love and passion and extraordinary songs that would be smash hits in an alternate universe. Join us for a conversation with Little Steven as he steps out of the garage and rightfully steps back into the recording/performing spotlight.

Rock Cellar: In 2017 you recorded your first solo album in over 20 years. While your work in The E Street Band is crucial along with your success as an actor on The Sopranos and Lilyhammer, was it weighing heavily on your mind that that you had been neglecting your god-given talent as an artist and songwriter and needed to get back to Little Steven, the solo artist?

Steven Van Zandt: Funnily enough, the answer is no. I don’t know exactly why, other than I had outlined my first five solo albums when I first started doing those. They were all very thematic and linear in their basic conception, I had answered all the questions that I had laid out for myself of what was going on in the world and putting those things out and shining light on things I thought needed to be illuminated and learning about myself.

All the things I wanted to do I did on those first five albums of mine, and I kind of felt kind of satisfied at the end of that. At that point the record industry wasn’t that interested in me anyway.

I had foolishly treated the enter thing as an artistic adventure rather than as a career. Looking back on it now I was extraordinarily naive about it and I greatly regret that.

But that’s just how I was and how I was at the time. Those records are all very autobiographical and all very political and represented exactly where I was at the time. Then I started acting and Bruce put the band back together and 20 years went by (laughs) and I wasn’t really conscious of it. It wasn’t really bugging me to get back in.

I was creating music for Lilyhammer; I did all that music except for a few of the things in the first season. I started getting more and more into Lilyhammer, I was co-writing it and co-producing it and then I directed the final episode so I really got into that.

My one new craft was The Sopranos, a wonderful gift from David Chase that turned into five new crafts for Lilyhammer. So I was busy and doing music to some extent. Getting a chance to finally produce Darlene Love was a major turning point. It was her first solo album at the age of 73.

It was a wonderful experience and I’m so happy I fulfilled the promise I had made to her 20 years earlier.

For me, producing is like a vacation. It’s nothing but fun. I really got back into producing for that record. Then purely by circumstance, Bruce was doing the Broadway thing, and knowing he wouldn’t be doing any E Street stuff for a while, I did not have a new TV show in place yet and a promoter in England contacted me and said, “Throw a band together and play my blues festival.”

It just felt like the right time. I hadn’t done anything that for 20, 25 years so I thought, “let’s give it a shot.” It was a little bit of a revelation to become reacquainted with my own work, I must say. I know that sounds ridiculous but I tend to deal with what’s in front of me at any given time. I’m really not a nostalgic type of person. All of sudden I’m hearing these songs for the first time in 20, 25 years and even longer than that and I was like, “Man, this stuff had held up rather well, it’s got its own value.”‘

It’s its own genre in a strange way, this rock-meets-soul thing. So I returned to it, but I knew I wasn’t ready to write a whole new album so I did an album of covers and songs I’d written for other people called Soulfire and used it as an introduction of my work as well as a re-introduction.

I realized most of the audience will be surprised to even learn I was an artist. It was a very important turning point. I not only enjoyed making Soulfire and found this whole new band, and that record really turned out great. I thought to myself, “I write differently for other people than do for myself” and I want to do that. I wanted to continue and get back into it. I wanted to change those two big things, which is all of my records being political and all of my records being autobiographical. I wanted to fictionalize the songs for my new album and make them into 12 little movies and I’ll play a different character in each one.

Politically, of course, in the ‘80s it was a whole different story. You felt like you really needed to shine the light on the things that were going on ‘cause they were all hidden, it was all behind the scenes.

Rock Cellar The new album is a throwback in the best sense.

Steven Van Zandt: The Soulfire record made it clear to me that I write ever differently for other people than I do for myself so I said, “I wanna write some of those for me!” I’ve never written those songs for me because I’ve been limited by the scenes and the politics, so that’s exactly what I did.

I’m very, very proud of the new album. It was a major artistic breakthrough for me. It was very liberating for me to actually write songs that I would have written for Southside (Johnny) or Gary U.S. Bonds or Darlene Love or Ronnie Spector.  But instead I was writing them for me, and it’s the first time I’ve ever done that.

So in my mind, it more than justifies coming back now with a whole new rebirth because it really is a whole new rebirth. It’s a whole new way of writing and arranging and producing and just having that liberated feeling of, “I can write anything for me for a change.” (laughs). So as I always do, I put together a bunch of my influences; I like to hear my influences in my work. In fact that’s how I choose songs for the Underground Radio show. That’s what tradition is all about and that’s what garage rock is all about.

Musical tradition is all about being able to trace where things come from and that’s the case with this album. You’re gonna hear Sly & The Family Stone and you’re gonna hear Sam Cooke. You’re gonna hear James Brown, you’re gonna hear The Beach Boys, you’re gonna hear some Tito Puente and there’s even a little Van Morrison on this one. So it’s a mixture of things that are my influences, and basically we took that entire Soulfire tour and put it into a blender and out popped these new songs and that’s exactly what I was hoping would happen.

Rock Cellar: A sorcerer conjures magic, do you look at writing songs and recording them in the studio in the same way, like you’re pulling off a magic trick?

Steven Van Zandt: The craft part of what we do, no matter how experienced you get or no matter how good you get at your craft, there’s always that little intangible. There’s that little thing you can’t quite define. Every single song I’ve written in my life I’ve felt was the last one I was gonna write because of that. You’re not quite sure if you’ll ever write another great song because there’s a little bit of magic and mystery and mystique to the process. I’m all about craft, I’m all about it, I work at it, work at it, work at it and you get better and better and that’s what it’s all about. But there’s still that little thing you can’t quite define.

There is a bit of sorcery in every great song.

Rock Cellar: The opener, “Communion,” with its amazing musical twists and turns is a smash hit in an alternate universe.

Steven Van Zandt: Wow, thank you man, that’s so nice to hear. It’s really been this way for a long time with me, my writing and my arranging and producing is integrated but I’m always thinking about the live show at the same time, so I knew I had to write a whole new show as well as a whole new album. “Communion” is the opener on the album and it will open the new show too.

Rock Cellar: “Superfly Terraplane” has all the earmarks of rock and soul with a garage/bubblegum feel as well.

Steven Van Zandt: It’s really the one rock track on the record, and even on that one I threw a mariachi section in the middle. (laughs) I like combining various things. The song is a tribute to Little Richard and Chuck Berry and even The Beach Boys, and the title of the song is a combination of songs by Robert Johnson and Curtis Mayfield. That’s what I’m all about, combine Robert Johnson and Curtis Mayfield and turn that into a Little Richard/Chuck Berry/Beach Boys song with a mariachi middle.

Rock Cellar: It also has that garage rock/bubblegum flavor of Paul Revere & The Raiders too.

Steven Van Zandt: Yeah, I love Paul Revere and The Raiders and I’m sure they’re in there somewhere. (laughs) They had those six classic tracks of theirs that are six of the best records ever contributed to rock history.

Rock Cellar: You’ve cited wanting to write songs and create a “hybrid” in the flavor of Sam Cooke, The Beach Boys, Sly & The Family Stone and James Brown among others on the new album. Speaking of paying homage to your musical heroes, back on your first solo album, there’s a song you wrote called “Forever,” which to my ears resonates with a Smokey Robinson “Tears Of A Clown” magic and would have been a smash had it be released in the mid to late ‘60s.

Steven Van Zandt: I’ve always fantasized about producing “Forever” as well as “I Played The Fool” from Southside’s third album, another Smokey Robinson-flavored track, for Smokey. I always wanted Smokey to cut those two songs and fantasized about finding the time and finding him and having him do that. When writing “Forever” I sat down and consciously wanted to evoke a Smokey Robinson vibe. The Motown thing in general runs very deeply through all of my work.

If it’s not Smokey I’m going after David Ruffin of The Temptations or I’m going after Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops. You’re gonna hear a lot of that in my work, like “Inside Of Me,” from my first album, or “Some Things Just Don’t Change,” which was a David Ruffin kind of song. Yeah, Smokey is one of my main influences and I just adore the man; he is absolute genius sand such a big part of early Motown success.

Rock Cellar: Your voice works well on a song like “Forever.”

Steven Van Zandt: Well, every singer is an actor whether they know it or not, so I have a whole bunch of different characters I assume depending upon the song.

I tend to become the singer which is communicating that particular emotion of that particular song. But that’s the job. It’s the same as an actor with a script as a singer with a song; it’s the same thing, really. So yeah, Smokey is one of my go-to personalities. (laughs)

Rock Cellar: As a songwriter, what’s the greatest lesson you learned?

Steven Van Zandt: I do master classes on songwriting and what I learned myself is I struggled for years to learn how to write songs. I was getting nowhere, and then one day I was on the oldies circuit in 1972, ’73 where they had put all of the classic legendary pioneers out to pasture, basically, The British Invasion had unintentional consequence and put all of the heroes out of work. Everybody from the ‘50s and early ‘60s could never record again. They were taken out of the industry and put on this oldies circuit.

I happened to find my way into being a member of the band, The Dovells, who did “You Can’t Sit Down”: and The Bristol Stomp,” two of the greatest records ever. I enjoyed hanging around being with all of my heroes and mentors. It hit me right there, I’m gonna write a Leiber and Stoller song for The Drifters. I’d just met Ben E. King who was on that tour; I’m not sure if he was on the tour as a solo act or as part of The Drifters.

I said, “I’m gonna go back to the beginning and take myself to school here. So okay, where does rock and roll all begin?” Well, for me, it begins with Leiber and Stoller. So I decided that I was gonna write a Leiber and Stoller kind of song as they’d have written for The Drifters and I wrote “I Don’t Wanna Go Home.”

It was the first song I had ever written that I really liked, I  went, “now that’s a real song!”  And ever since that moment I have used that in my classes and I say to people, it’s difficult to see yourself.

It takes many, many years and there are some people who never really understand themselves or get a chance to really see themselves objectively. So I say write songs as if you’re writing for someone else. You can see whoever your favorite band is, be it the Drifters, The Beach Boys, The Stones, The Kinks. Whoever our favorite band is, you can see them quite clearly in your mind, so write a song for them.

This is very enabling. It has a remarkable effect on your abilities because suddenly your craft is really coming to life.

There are five crafts of rock and roll. Of course the first craft is learning your instrument, but the second craft is analyzing records and becoming an arranger. You have to do that first and understand what the role of the bass guitar is or why the drums are doing fills where they are or what’s the configuration of a song? Why does this melody work with that chord change? You have to analyze all of that stuff.

Then the third stage is performance, but everybody is skipping that bar band stage these days, which is really a mistake, You have to make a list of 50 of your favorite songs and find a band and go out and play ‘em and by playing these songs, you absorb them in a very different way that you do just by listening to them. Why is that important? ‘Well, because now you have set your own standards, by playing your favorite songs for months at a time and now you go to the fourth stage of craft, which is composition. You’re writing to a standard, the standard of your 50 favorite songs.

You now have a standard set up, but if you skip that stage and you don’t have that standard set up then you’re gonna write in a very mediocre way. But if you have the greatest songs you can think of and you’re comparing yourself to them, it’s gonna raise your own standards so that’s what that’s about.

The fifth stage is learning how to make records. So that’s the kind of thing that I apply to myself now, This record, when it comes to fictionalizing your life, I employed that very same craft, writing songs that I’d imagine being recorded by other artists.

Rock Cellar: “A World Of Our Own” is pure Spector/Ronettes.

Steven Van Zandt: Exactly. It’s a girl group song, be it The Ronettes, The Chiffons, the Shirelles. Exactly right.

Rock Cellar: You brought up Leiber and Stoller earlier, they wrote some of Elvis’ greatest songs. I’m curious about your memories of seeing Elvis Presley live with Bruce at the Spectrum in Philadelphia in 1977. What are you recollections? 

Steven Van Zandt: I was never a big fan of Elvis, to be honest. I certainly appreciated what he did and his accomplishments and how important he was. He certainly popularized the entire rock genre and is largely responsible for its success, and I really like his early Sun records and a few others. But I was never really a big Elvis fan; Bruce was the big Elvis fan.

To be honest, I was never really a big fan of any individual. Of course I went back and studied them, people like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley and Little Richard. But I would never have gotten into music myself if it wasn’t for the band thing, which came with the British Invasion. That added a whole different dimension for me as far as the communication that a band establishes by being four or five guys or girls all working together.

It communicates friendship, it communicates family and ultimately it communicates community. As for the Elvis show I saw in Philly in ’77, it was good. He had that exaggerated Las Vegas thing going on then that was such a cliché at that point, but I took it for what it was and I enjoyed it. Bruce was the bigger fan by far. That’s why when he wanted to meet him we took a cab to Graceland and he jumped over the wall and I didn’t. (laughs) I was like, “Go ahead man, I’ll be here.” (laughs)

Rock Cellar: Moving on to hypothetical time machine territory: you can go back in time and see any concert as well spend a day in the studio as a fly on the wall watching an album or favorite song be recorded, what do you select?

Steven Van Zandt: Immediately what comes to mind is “Like A Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan. The recording of that would have to be one of them. I would have liked to have been there when The Stones recorded “Tell Me” or The Beatles recorded “I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party” or The Who’s “Call Me Lightning” or The Kinks recording ‘”Til The End Of The Day.” I’d liked to have seen The Temptations recording “I Could Never Love Another (After Loving You),” which is the greatest vocal performance in history by David Ruffin.

Rock Cellar: Growing up, what’s the most exciting rock show you ever saw?

Steven Van Zandt: Boy, that’s a tough one. I saw some amazing shows. The Who with Keith Moon is certainly one of them. The Stones with Brian Jones was one of them. I saw Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart and that was a great show. The early Rascals were some of the most exciting shows I’ve ever seen. Sam & Dave were amazing. I wish I’d seen the original Temptations. I have every film and video of them; I’m such a big fan of theirs.

The Beatles would have to be one of them. I saw them the second time they played Shea Stadium in 1966.

Rock Cellar: Could you hear them?

Steven Van Zandt: Yeah, they sounded perfectly great to me. I must have been in a lucky seat or something but they sounded like the record to me. I was only 15 and loved it.

Rock Cellar: Decades later you played live with an actual Beatle, Paul McCartney.

Steven Van Zandt: On my live album we did a lunchtime thing at The Cavern Club in Liverpool and mirroring the way the Beatles did eight songs, we did four of the songs they’d performed at The Cavern and four of which were Beatles songs with horns. That’s only on the vinyl box.

But it was such a kick to do that as a tribute to an amazing band. Playing with Paul has been amazing.

Paul came on to play with us, Bruce and The E Street Band and that was extremely exciting.

Then Paul invited Bruce and me to join him at Madison Square Garden, which was fantastic. But Paul coming on my stage for one of my shows, hat was the thrill of my life! Now we’re talking about something that is beyond. (laughs) Luckily, I didn’t have time to think about it too much ‘cause he surprised me.

Luckily, I had prepared a Little Richard version of “I Saw Her Standing There” just in case the day ever happened that he came onstage with us and thankfully we were ready. But it was a complete surprise and one of the thrills of my life. It was him endorsing me and my band and my work; that was really something important.

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