Little Steven,
The TVD Interview

Between his work with Springsteen and the E Street Band, his championing of both old and new music through a one-in-a-million satellite radio station known as the Underground Garage, and, more recently, his return to fronting a band of his own, Little Steven has as much right to James Brown’s old title as anyone else in show business.

After roughly eighteen years of being occupied with two-thirds of the above items (to say nothing of his lauded turn on The Sopranos or his actor-writer-director capacities on Lilyhammer), Van Zandt reemerged onto the solo circuit this past May with Soulfire. With the Disciples of Soul on backing duties, the record is a veritable genre smorgasbord that runs the gamut from doo-wop and Chess blues to country and Tamla soul. In other words, Little Steven provided a strikingly thorough showcase of the rich traditions that led him to the altar of rock and roll in the first place. No small feat for the most famous practitioner of rock-as-religion.

We were able to catch up with Little Steven amid the final weeks of his US tour to talk his return to being a bandleader, the importance of rock and roll education as exemplified by both the Underground Garage and his foundation, Rock and Roll Forever, and his dream compilation record.

So Soulfire was your first solo LP in eighteen years. With that in mind, did you notice any discernible difference in your approach to the recording process itself, whether that be compared to your previous solo albums or your work with Bruce and the Asbury Dukes?

Interesting question. Not really, I’ve always done things kind of live and analog, and I still am, but it’s a little bigger now. I really have fallen in love with the jigsaw puzzle of arranging horns, strings, and background vocals. Basically what I got into with Darlene Love’s album last year, and I continued that with this album. I used to do more with the strings but I added the background vocal this time around. Other than that, no real difference in the recording.

I think the only other difference may be that I can’t use streetwise rock musicians anymore. You start off using rock musicians in a rock band. Now, the stuff has become a little sophisticated to the point where I really need session guys to be more precise, and then finding sessions guys who can also go on the road and actually perform has been the biggest challenge. There’s only a handful of guys who can handle stuff like this, I mean, I’m playing ten different genres of music during these live shows. They have to play with authenticity and have a sense of history, and there’s not a whole lot of folks who can do that, so they’re in great demand.

On this tour, which is only about eighteen weeks long, I’ve changed personnel several times, so different people are coming and going even on a four-month tour. It’s been an adjustment with that but I’m a bandleader so it’s always going to be a great band. In the old days, I think people were just less busy.

As for the songs themselves, the bulk of the writing definitely possesses a certain Leiber and Stoller type flair along with a touch of Holland-Dozier-Holland. Plus, going off what you said about just how many genres you’re incorporating into your shows, Soulfire seems to be drenched in a bit of everything, from blues to doo-wop to country and western. When you were in the process of writing these songs, did you have any particular records from the ’50s and ’60s in mind? I know most of these compositions were written over the course of multiple decades so that might be tricky to pinpoint.

They’re always in mind. They’re permanently in my DNA. In this case, I really wasn’t ready to write a whole new album. I did this quite spontaneously in between our European and Australian tours with the E Street Band this year, so I did it in about six weeks. I hadn’t thought about it before that, really. So what I did was, I covered songs that I had written for other people, and that seemed to not only be the easiest way to make the record but also a way to reintroduce myself as a songwriter and as a singer for the first time, rather than someone communicating political ideas and issues.

They’ve always been very political albums, so this is the first time where I’ve really been able to put the music first. I felt that this environment, politically, didn’t need more of that. I don’t feel the need to explain Donald Trump to anybody. He does that everyday. It was really a nice moment to put politics aside and just concentrate on the music for once.

From what I can glean, it almost seems like this record is something of a mission statement for you, in that it’s both a songwriting retrospective as well as a summation of the very music that you’ve committed your life to.

Yeah, and including some rootsy stuff which I threw on there just to further explain where I’m coming from. A blues thing, a doo-wop thing—I’d never done that before, so it was really fun to do that for a change. It also opens up the future. I’m going to stay with this rock-meets-soul genre and this sound now to see where it evolves to, but I’ve certainly opened myself up to covering songs, which I had never done before. There was a James Brown song, an Etta James song, and it really opened up a whole new dimension of expressing yourself through other people’s songs. You don’t have to write everything in order to make a record.  

Seeing as how The Vinyl District is centered around vinyl and records, I would normally ask what were some of your favorite records growing up or what four or five albums would you classify as being the most essential to not just your growth as an artist but also just to your life as a whole. But in your case, that’s a fool’s errand if I’ve ever seen one.

Depends on the day [laughs]. I do have a pretty varied sense of influences. You start with the Temptations’ Greatest Hits. I think if I had to pick an album that’s the greatest of all, it would be that one in terms of everything, in composition, arrangement, production, and performance. I don’t think you could name a better album than the Temptations’ Greatest Hits.

Of course, there’s the British Invasion. My favorite Stones record was 12 X 5, which was one of their two albums that came out in America but didn’t exist in England. I think those are two of their best albums, 12 X 5 and December’s Children. You gotta throw a Beatles record in there, and it could be anything really. It could be Help! or Beatles for Sale. For blues, it could be Howlin’ Wolf’s His Best or The Best of Muddy Waters. There’s also The Best of Sam Cooke. Something like that.

Were you more taken with albums or singles?

Well in the beginning it was just singles. The first album anybody bought was Meet the Beatles!, which was their first record released in America but actually the second album in England. Up until then, it was just singles by the Four Seasons and songs like “Duke of Earl” and “Pretty Little Angel Eyes.”

Before the Beatles, I never really identified the music with the artist. It might’ve just been me being a dumb kid, but that was the first time I associated the group with the music, so that was a real difference. And with it being an album, a bigger relationship began, soon followed by A Hard Day’s Night, which really took it to the highest possible level of intimacy in terms of the relationship between an audience and an artist. Not only did they introduce the first real album anybody bought, but that movie put them in your life and in your psyche in the most intimate relationship anybody had ever had since Elvis, who was kind of doing the same thing. But, the difference between being a band and an individual was everything to me. I was never particularly interested in Elvis or anybody else as a solo artist. I was completely taken with the idea of a band. Four or five guys working together to communicate friendship and community. That’s what got to me.

Growing up in Middletown, NJ, was there much of a record store culture there at the time, or did you have to travel elsewhere to find the nearest shops?

Hard as it is to believe, the place where I bought my records and first guitars is still there, but it’s in Red Bank which was our closest town. Middletown was being built as a suburban neighborhood, but it wasn’t really a town in terms of stores and movie theaters. Red Bank had Jack’s Music Shoppe and the theater where I saw all my movies, the Carlton (now the Count Basie Theater).

What were those first experiences like, just entering a record store for the first time?

Oh, it was very exciting, wandering into this world that exists strictly for your pleasure. It was like going into church for me because rock and roll would soon become my religion. In those days, a record could change your life, so you lived off the energy coming from those singles. It was not something casual like it seems to be today. It was your life and your oxygen.

For a bona fide music historian such as yourself, the radio gig must be just about the best thing in the world since it’s the perfect reason for digging for both new music and old music that might’ve gone under your radar.

Absolutely, and I think they really need each other. That’s why I don’t understand most of the radio world these days, so afraid of playing new music. They won’t play new music from artists they play every single hour. When Paul McCartney comes out with a new record, I’m the only one playing it. If the Rolling Stones come out with a new record, I’m the only one playing it. Ray Davies, Cheap Trick, Joan Jett, they’re all still making great records but nobody will play them.

I gotta say the curating done by your station, it’s always just incredible to me because, for example, it’s one thing to play A-sides like “Don’t Look Back” or “Why Do I Cry” by the Remains, but then when you whip out something like “Once Before,” I mean you guys play the deep tracks of some hideously obscure and under appreciated artists, which leads me to believe that you guys aren’t just playing the songs of your youth by the bands that were basically the blueprints for your careers, but there also seems to be a very educational side to all of this. You all seem genuinely committed to informing the people of all this great music.

Totally right, that’s what it’s all about. It’s that combined with a bit of gratitude for the bands that I grew up with who have no place to go. It’s about making sure younger generations get a chance to hear the greatest music ever made and educating them about it, and at the same time, saying thank you to the groups that made my life what it is. Now, the oldies format starts in the ’80s, y’know [laughs]? There’s a whole lot of very cool stuff that is not being played, and it’s a shame, so I’m trying make up for that.

On a related note, along with what you do via the Underground Garage, you are quite literally educating people on the great tradition of rock and roll through the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation, specifically through its American Story program.

Yeah, teachrock.org has a hundred lessons up online right now. We add a lesson every two weeks. With a little bit of luck, by the end of this year we’ll be adding a lesson every single week. So that’s just beginning, and it’s already doing quite well.

What’s the feedback been like thus far?

It’s been very successful. The teachers are just loving it because, of course, they’re all fans of music, but so are the kids so that gives them an immediate common ground. It gets their attention immediately, and that’s what teaching is all about. We just got accepted by the entire New Jersey school system to have our curriculum used, so that’s a first. Hopefully other states will follow.

In terms of cultural cache, rock and roll might not be what it once was, but anyone who listens to the Underground Garage for just an hour knows that there are without question some absolutely great, new rock outfits doing their part as well. The “Coolest Song in the World” segment more than attests to that. Was that kind of underlying message to that feature? The idea that rock and roll is still kicking, you just need to know where to look for it.

There’s just no logical reason to be in a rock and roll band anymore. It just doesn’t make any real sense, so they must be doing it purely out of passion. You want to support that even more. Every year, these kids are coming up with great stuff. We play the cream of the crop, and there’s something new every week. Once in a while, it’s an older band that’s putting out a new record but quite often it’ll be a new band. It gives you hope because there’s just no reason to be doing that. There’s no linear path to success anymore. The infrastructure is gone. I’ve been trying to rebuild it for twenty years now with the radio show and I’m still trying to get a TV show on.

A TV show?

It’d be kind of a version of the radio show. It’s a combination of American Bandstand and Soul Train with Shindig! and Hullabaloo, where you have kids dancing to rock and roll, which no one has seen in fifty years. There’d be four different stages with four different bands playing every week. It’d be very fast-paced with a comedy element as well, kind of a Laugh-In aspect.

Speaking of things no one has seen for some time, what do you think the reason is for the lack of any real scenes these days? One could argue that Australia may have the makings of a psych scene in Perth, but apart from that, nothing jumps out.

It’s the fragmentation of society itself. Before you have a scene, you need to have a musical common ground, and that doesn’t seem to exist at the moment. That could change tomorrow, but the last real scene was in Seattle in the late eighties and early nineties. Since then, rock and roll as a cultural force has been driven even further underground. We’re back to being an underground cult. I’m not sure people are necessarily into seeing bands anymore, not in the way we did. It still happens, but I don’t think it’s a local phenomenon like it used to be. I think people would rather take pictures of each other [laughs].

Alright, if you could do a compilation record à la Nuggets, excluding straight rock and roll, what genre would you center it around?

Oh I could do a great doo-wop compilation right now. It could be any number of things. We started to do this back in the old days. We were going to do compilations for driving songs and beach songs. I just don’t have the time anymore, but that’s the kind of thing we should be doing. For a doo-wop record, I would have the Students, the Jive Five, the Doves, the Earles, the Tokens. Depending on if I wanted to do a greatest hits of doo-wop, I would include Curtis Lee and Gene Chandler. I could easily do thirty or forty song compilations.

Little Steven and company still have a number of remaining shows in the US before they head across the pond from November through December. Be sure to check out Van Zandt’s site for tour date info as well as to stream Soulfire.

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