An Interview With: Steven Van Zandt

Posted: Monday 20 May 2019

Steven Van Zandt, otherwise known as Little Steven, is a legend amongst men. A rock and roll hall of fame member, he’s hailed as one of the founders of the New Jersey rock and soul sound and is highly celebrated for his work as part of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band.

Returning in 2019 with his first solo album of new material in 20 years and a headline tour to go with it, we thought it only right to catch up with Steven himself to get the lowdown on the album’s meanings and find out what it takes to be a successful musician.

You’ve just released your new album, Summer Of Sorcery, which is your first album of new material in 20 years, what were your main focuses when it came to writing this record? What stories did you want it to tell?

My main focus was to shift from both the autobiographical nature, as well as the political subject matter of my first five albums, to a fictionalised storytelling style where each song would be a separate little movie in which I could assume a different character.

For this album, the overall common theme being summer. Summer, both literally as well as symbolically, would provide the context on multiple levels, physically, emotionally and spiritually, and the listener will be experiencing it during actual summer, at least in the Northern Hemisphere!

I had no informational agenda, no specific stories to tell, but since many of the little movies are set in the present day, one could not help a bit of reality occasionally seeping into the conversation.

Sonically, what journeys does the album go on? Did you have any particular influences when you were piecing the music together?

The journeys are connected mostly by capturing the feelings and fictional memories of young love in my imagination and the many emotions those rollercoaster rides take us on. From romantic fantasy to elusive satisfaction, from motivation to frustration, from inspiration to bewilderment, from lust to revenge. The influences range from Sly and the Family Stone to Sam Cooke, Tito Puente, the Blaxploitation Film Genre, Bob Dylan, James Brown, Van Morrison, The Beach Boys and beyond!

What is it about summer that made you want to write an album dedicated to it?

The fact that summer represents the positive aspects of life, sunlight, romance, flowers blooming, freedom, end of school, hope, heat, lust, communing with Nature, optimism, harmony, unity… the complete opposite of present day reality. I felt we could use something uplifting right now.

How do you plan on conveying the album’s meanings live?

Rock is first and foremost a live medium. An album is the outline for the show. It’s the first draft of the script. In movies the director uses the script as the bones of the storytelling. He then adds the flesh to it. I see myself first as a producer/director/writer and the thing I enjoy most is creating radio shows, TV shows and especially live events.

Once I get to pre-production, I start adjusting the songs to work as a show. It’s rarely the same as the songs’ sequence that works as an album. Segues will be added, solos added or extended and, in my case, me being a band guy, additional ways for the band’s potential to be realised individually.

Your UK tour starts soon, what can fans expect this time around?

The most exciting rock and soul show they’ve ever seen, performed by the best musicians in the business, resulting in nothing less than enlightenment!

What’s the most epic story you have from all your years of touring?

Nothing comes to mind. For some, touring is the necessary evil party of their careers, they make as much money as possible in the shortest amount of time and then return to their lifestyles. For me, it is my lifestyle.

You’ve been an icon in the rock and roll scene for decades now, do you remember when you first decided that music was your future? How did you discover your sound?

Yes. The first third of the decision was made February 9th, 1964, when the teenage offering of that Sunday night family variety show was The Beatles. The second third was June 7th, 1964 (give or take a few days), when the teenage offering of a different family variety show was The Rolling Stones. And the third was, a night or two after seeing The Rolling Stones on TV, my friend invited me to his beach club where a local band, The Mods, were performing.

They were The Rolling Stones to me come to life! That blew my mind because they connected the dots for me. It wasn’t just English bands from some other planet, it could happen in New Jersey!

I discovered my sound when we put together Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. We had just seen Sam and Dave live, and me and Southside decided to be the white Sam and Dave. I was already a rock guitar player so when we added the horns, the sound of the band became a unique hybrid of rock and soul. I have returned to that sound now with the Disciples Of Soul for both the Soulfire and Summer Of Sorcery albums and I will stick with it now forevermore.

What would you say were the main factors in succeeding in your career as a musician?

- Extremely high standards set from growing up in a Renaissance period.
- Extremely high work ethic.
- Absolutely no other choices, no Plan B for my life.
- And luck.

Are there any bands around right now that you think have a bright future ahead of them?

There are plenty of good bands, my radio network has introduced thousands of new bands over the last 17 years, but bright future? No. Not until we find a way to create or restore an infrastructure to support them.

If you could give younger musicians any advice, what would it be?

- Seek Greatness.
- Compare yourself to the best of all time, not what’s going on now.
- Find a way to control your own destiny.
- Put a band together, make a list of your 50 favourite songs, find a local bar that has a bad night and make it your residency.
- Don’t worry about that which you can’t control.
- Don’t measure success by commercial popularity, measure it by artistic greatness.
- Follow your passion, ignore the rest of the world.

You’ve also had a successful TV and acting career, is this something you want to continue with in the future?

Yes. But I wanted to spend a few years reconnecting to my own music, which by the end of this year I will have done.

If you could be remembered for one thing, what would you want it to be?

He created a music history curriculum which keep kids from dropping out of high school? He created two new radio formats that promote the connection between new music and the greatest music ever made? He helped bring down the South African Apartheid Regime and got Mandela out of jail? He was a great Songwriter? He was a great Producer?

I don’t know. Fact is, I won’t be remembered. It’s just not in my karma this time around. If anything, for a few years anyway, I’ll probably be remembered as Bruce Springsteen’s best friend. Then again, can you name Winston Churchill’s best friend? George Washington’s? Nelson Mandela’s? I didn’t think so...

Little Steven & The Disciples Of Soul are on tour from now until August, so snap up your tickets to see this living legend, live :

O2 Academy Bristol: Wednesday 22 May Buy Tickets

O2 Forum Kentish Town: Friday 24 May Buy Tickets

O2 Ritz Manchester: Wednesday 21 August Buy Tickets

O2 Academy Oxford: Friday 25 August Buy Tickets

O2 Academy Newcastle: Tuesday 27 August Buy Tickets

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