Steve Stevens on 30 Years with Billy Idol: The TVD Interview

Steve Stevens has one of the most impressive and colorful resumes of any rock n roll guitarist. His 30 year partnership with Billy Idol has delivered iconic classics such as “Rebel Yell,” “Eyes Without a Face,” and “Flesh for Fantasy.” He has recorded with Michael Jackson, Vince Neil, and Pink to name a few, and recently appeared on the E! show Married to Rock alongside his wife Josie.

Last week Steve Stevens and Billy Idol kicked off a brief California tour with the first show closing out the concert season at The Mountain Winery in Saratoga. The show was a tour de force of Idol hits and fan favorites that proved a testament to the staying power and chemistry that Stevens and Idol share on stage. I got the opportunity to speak with Stevens the day before the tour kicked off to chat about his fruitful partnership of 30 years with Idol.

TVD: What’s your favorite past or present touring moment?

Stevens: One thing that stands out was when we got to do VH1 Storytellers. That was one of the catalysts to get Billy and I back together. It created an opportunity to look at our songs in a different way by doing them acoustically. It was also the first time that Billy and I went back to New York together and it was a great trip overall. It was an important moment for us to get back together and work again.

What’s the most unusual place you have heard your music?

It still flips me out if I go to a supermarket and hear it because I know all of the experiences of recording that stuff and a lot of times we were pretty much out of our minds. People are going down the aisle, oh there’s the provolone, and I’m remembering the fucking shit that went down while recording.

When you and Billy were recording Rebel Yell did you have any idea the role it would take on or the significance it would come to have in modern music?

We didn’t look at it that way. I knew we were making a really good record. There’s just a feeling that you get. We spent four months on the road prior to that and there’s just a vibe you get when you know that you are onto something really good. We had the opportunity to work in Electric Ladyland studios (the studio that Jimi Hendrix built) so it was like all of the right things were happening. There were a lot of good people in New York making records at that time as well. At the end of the day we were playing it very loud; people would come in flipping out over what they heard.

How has your overall guitar tone changed over the years, or has it?

It’s gotten more organic. I think that’s something most guitarists from the 80s naturally gravitate towards because at that time there were lots of effects, chorus pedals, and all that kind of stuff. Back then everyone was using shitty 80s guitars with bad tremolo. There is a program called Jammit that enables you to play along with the master tapes of your favorite songs. I met with Scott Humphries who’s a producer that came up with this and “Rebel Yell” is one of the tracks on there. For the first time in 30 years I got to hear the original master guitar tracks. I hear them now and to me they are kind of weak. The performances are really good and it’s more about the song, but compare that to some of the stuff I’ve done with my solo record. I know a lot more about what goes into micing an amp now. It just comes down to a more organic sound.

You’ve been called the wizard of guitar effects, who else do you consider an innovator in that world?

Certainly The Edge would have to be the guy, also Tom Morello comes to mind, and Les Paul because he started it all. Hendrix and the guitarist from Sigur Ros who plays with a violin bow the entire night, that’s got to be considered an effect. I would say those are the ultimate effect guitar players.

You recorded the guitar solo for “Dirty Diana” with Michael Jackson, can you tell me about that experience?

I was living in New York at the time and I got a phone call from Quincy Jones, it’s not every day you get a call from Quincy Jones. I thought it was just someone fucking with me and I hung up the phone. He called back and said ‘Look, this really is the guy, I got your number from Ted Templeman (producer for Van Halen) and we’ve got a track on the new Michael Jackson record that we would like you to play on.’

The session was just like any other. There were not a lot of people in the room; it was just Quincy, Michael, Bruce Swedian (who engineered all of Michael’s records at the time) and me. The version that I recorded on was 10 minutes long and they had to edit it down. He said, ‘Look, this is what we need, this is the guitar melody and anything above that we’re going to give you a couple of passes to do whatever you want.’ Then they basically just edited it down to a pop song. It was a cool day in the studio, very musical. Michael was very involved with everything. It was a really great experience.

Do you ever find yourself walking into a random guitar shop, picking up a guitar and just shred?

No. I don’t really go to guitar stores. There’s one small guitar store here in LA that I go to. I’m not a big guitar store guy. I’d rather scour eBay personally.

What’s your favorite song from your solo years that you really enjoy playing?

Stevens: “Flamenco A Go Go” because I’ve played that a number of times. There’s an amazing Flamenco guitarist named Ben Woods who lives here in California. I’ve played “Flamenco A Go Go” with him a number of times. That’s always really cool to play and a lot of fun.

Is there a Flamenco A Go Go part two in the works?

At that time for a number of reasons I just decided not to play electric guitar for a year. So that record is all acoustic guitar, I don’t think I could do that again, but I certainly could revisit half acoustic and half electric, that’s always a possibility.

Is there a favorite song that you and Billy play together?

I always enjoy playing “Blue Highway” because it has an extended guitar solo and when we play it live—it’s a lot different from the recorded version. We end up doing a 15 minute version and it really becomes a whole jam at the end. It’s never the same. That is one of my favorites.

What are you listening to these days? What’s on your playlist?

There’s so many great reissues being done right now, I’m waiting for Quadrophenia reissue to come out because it has all of Townsend’s original demos on it. It doesn’t get any better than Pete Townsend as far as guitar songwriting. I also really like Opeth, Muse, and I think the most recent Foo Fighters record is absolutely brilliant. My wife listens to a lot of hip-hop, she really likes Lil Wayne. Occasionally there will be something on and I’ll ask, what’s that? I wish they’d (Lil Wayne’s camp) call me to come in and play on that.

Are you a bigger fan of the Sex Pistols or The Clash?

I saw The Clash when they played Bond’s in New York and I thought they were absolutely fucking great, but I would have to say the Pistols. I know Steve Jones and I’ve played with him on stage so many times, he’s a great rhythm guitar player.

The greatest thing about Steve is that he’s this iconic punk rock guitar player and he’s not afraid to say that he loves Journey and all this great guitar music. I think that is what being a punk is. I hate the whole idea of a punk purist who can only listen to The Germs or this and that. That’s not really punk rock. It’s not about technique; it’s about passion and honesty. I think that was the message of punk rock; that these musicians were going to be honest. There wasn’t that big wall between them and the audience, and I think Steve embodies that and I think that’s why he’s a punk rock legend.

Is there a new solo record coming?

Stevens: I just started working on some stuff and it won’t be all instrumental. I’m going to have some guest vocalists on it. I had planned on having it out by the end of this year but some other things have taken precedence over that. By the middle of 2012 I hope to have it finished.

Any new stuff with you and Billy?

Yeah, we’re writing and when we go out for this little run in the next couple of weeks we’re playing three new songs.

Is there any type of pre-show ritual?

Not really, we’ve had the same band for about three years now. We’re not one of those bands that says a prayer or any of those things before we go on stage. We’re more like, OK here we go. It’s just kind of understood. It’s more like, isn’t it amazing that after 30 years Billy and I are still making music together? We kind of look at each other and go, ‘Fuck! Can you believe it?’

That’s kind of the pre-show ritual.

Check out all of the exclusive photos from the Billy Idol show at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga, CA:

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