Bluesfest’s Little Big Man: The Full Interview

It’s only Steven Van Zandt’s nickname that is little. Everything else about this musician is larger than life.

By Brian Wise.

Little Steven’s biography credits him as musician, performer, songwriter, arranger, music producer, music supervisor, TV producer, actor (The Sopranos and Lilyhammer), director, Broadway producer, TV and film composer, and live event producer, international DJ, activist, historian and teacher. He is also a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and recognised internationally as one of the world’s foremost authorities on both Contemporary and Traditional Rock and Roll. (You can hear him talk about it on his radio show, Little Steven’s Underground Garage).

In his spare time Van Zandt has also been a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band for the past 44 years and is probably one of the best known ‘sidemen’ in history. But for his forthcoming Australian tour he is taking centre stage and has resurrected his own band, the 14-piece Disciples of Soul. They’ll be touring behind a new album, Summer of Sorcery, which highlights a power-packed bunch of songs.

“I’m very proud to have kept this band together now for a year and a half, which is a miracle,” says Van Zandt when I catch up with by phone. “They the biggest musicians in the US, the most wanted session people and it’s the first time in my life I’ve ever done two albums in a row with the same band. I’m very proud of that. The album Summer of Sorcery will be out in May. The same band as the Soul Fire band. They’re amazing, because I cross a lot of genres within my music and a lot of sub genres and they require authenticity. Somebody counted eleven different genres in my show, and you have really to be quite knowledgeable to play with authenticity and so I have been very, very lucky to have this band. It will all 15 of us coming!”

Little Steven’s career is pretty much an open book but there are aspects that can still surprise: his hosting of the esteemed Blues Awards in Memphis last year, his commitment to musical education, including a having a blues school named after him.

In fact, Steven’s involvement in the Blues Awards helped to lift its profile and give it some of the cachet it deserves.

“Well, I have been in and about the blues world for several years,” says Van Zandt when I mention his role as MC. “I have a blues school named after me in Notodden, Norway – it’s a festival in the middle of nowhere really. In the middle of the woods, it’s a wonderful, wonderful festival. One of the most respected blues’ festivals. I was honoured to have the school named after me.

“We do a week of education for kids to come in and we use some master classes, where the musicians come early for the festival and do some teaching and we talk about everything, from the business to song writing to playing obviously, and so it’s been a wonderful way of connecting to that world. I have found it a very healthy cult, I mean people don’t realise it but there’s 500 blues festivals around the world, and if you’re not in that world you may not know it, you don’t realise it, but it quite a bit healthy cult. I like it because it puts instruments in kids’ hands.

“That’s something that I continually appreciate as the world starts to change to like there is fewer and fewer people becoming musicians so the blues world always encouraging young people to play. I want to encourage that as well.”

Van Zandt is also the founder of the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation, created to address the challenges of an environment in which schools face cuts to arts funding.

“It actually started ten or twelve years ago,” he explains. “The music teachers of America came to me and said Congress just passed the No Child Left Behind legislation, which was designed to increase math and science scores, which had become dismal here in America. But the problem was by obsessed with testing they eliminated all the art classes in America. I was just appalled to hear this, so I went to Congress and I talked to them about it and it was obvious that nothing was going to change.”

Van Zandt’s solution was to help design a music history curriculum that would connect students with their heritage. Not only does the Foundation provide free teaching materials for a music history curriculum but it also actively encourages students and the 25,000 teachers registered so far by giving them free access to concerts. He intends to continue that connection while in Australia.

Little Steven admits that the best known song in his set will be the hit that he wrote for Jimmy Barnes, ‘Ride the Night Away.’

“I wrote that for Jimmy, and then I cut it with Southside Johnny also,”he says, “then I recorded it on the Soul Fire album for myself. It’s a great connection to Australia actually and I really got a chance to reproduce it with Jimmy last time we were here when he wanted recut it. So I jumped in as a producer and we recut it in his studio, which was a lot of fun. I”ll always have the wonderful Australian connection.”

The first single from Steven’s forthcoming album is ‘Terraplane Superfly.’  The Terraplane, was a car famous in a lot of blues songs. What’s a superfly terraplane?

“It’s a dressed up ragtop sort of street legal you know working man’s pimp mobile. it’s just a customized street machine that’s a fast car. Just a tune we made up for fun.”

It’s a metaphor in other words? “Yes, just what we want it to be.”

All of the songs on the new abum, some of which he might preview on the current tour tour, are originals.

“This one is 100% original songs, and that was the idea,” he explains. “I can only do so much covering myself, covering songs I’ve written for other people. I wanted to evolve this record and this sound and this genre. I wanted to see where it evolved to, because I have never done that before in my life. I never done two albums in a row with the same band, I’ve never two albums in a row with the same genre. My records have always been very lyric oriented, because they were very, very political. They were very autobiographical following my life very closely, so the music was kind of a sound track to it and it was varied completely depending on what I was talking about. For the first time I wanted the music to come first if you will and I wanted a record that wasn’t all biographical – and my first record that wasn’t political.

“So, I’ve managed to do that. You know there’ll be hints of autobiography in there, and hints of politics, but really it’s not it’s completely fictionalised album. That ‘Superfly Terraplane’ opening line is all about being 17. I’m going back in time and picturing being young again, and experiencing that first summer of consciousness that first summer of love, where you’re just learning about life for the first time and falling in love with life. I wanted to recapture that a bit and make each song very cinematic and very fictional for the first time.

“I am very proud of it. I was able to do all those things. It took a year and a half of touring to do it because I was able to just absorb the Soul Fire Tour to the point where I was able to turn it into original songs again. So, that will be coming in May. We will do a song or two from that record, but basically we will do the SoulFire Tour in Australia, which is the appropriate show. It reintroduces myself as an artist and I think it’s important to do that show first.”

Of course, Little Steven was a founding member of  Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes and Johnny is still going strong.

“Oh yeah, yeah,” says Steven “Well, you know when you have those roots you know that’s the best in life, I think. The Rolling Stones really taught the world. If you have those roots, in blues and R&B, it’s a really strong foundation, man. I mean it goes back to the 20th century. It goes back to wherever you want to start with, Charlie Patton, Son House, and it just gives you this very strong foundation to grow from, and it just gives you longevity man.

“It’s been there forever and it’ll be there forever and it just keeps you grounded and gives you a foundation, a platform to jump off from without ever losing that connection to the ground – you’re still tethered in a good way to something that is more powerful than you are – and that history lives right through your new work and right into the future.

“So, I think that’s the same thing with my stuff, with Bruce, with a lot of the rootsy-oriented people, Jimmy Barnes to an extent also. When you have those kind of roots you tend to keep those standards high. Because they are the standards of history. You look back and you want to try and reach those standards that you grew up with that you live by. You’re constantly reaching for those heights and you never quite get there. Unless you become a drunk or drug addict, unless you have some physical reason it tends to get better generally. We may not be as pretty, but we tend to be musically get better in many ways!”

I suggest that this sort of music doesn’t go out of fashion either: it may not be in the mainstream all the time, but it never goes out of fashion.

“That’s the good thing about never being fashionable. I mean in my case, I don’t have any hits, so I never disappoint my audience by not playing their favourite hit,” he laughs. “I don’t have any! I’ve never been fashionable, so I’m never out of fashion, and that gives you an extraordinary amount of liberation.

“We literally win the crowds over one song at a time. Most of the crowd in my audience are hearing the song for the first time. So, they are there out of curiosity – maybe they’re a Springsteen fan, or maybe they’re fan of the Underground Garage [his radio show] – and we know we have to win them over with this music that they’ve mostly never heard before. That’s what we do. That’s what been so satisfying over this last year and a half. The one advantage that we’ll have in Australia is we’ll have a least one song people know, that’s one more song that most countries know!”

Little Steven’s Underground Garage is not only one of the most popular shows on the Sirius satellite radio network in the USA but it is always an eclectic collection of songs.

“We find something new almost every week,” says Steven. “I mean there’s a lot of great, great new bands – the Kirk Baker Combo whose now in Spain. We have Ryan Hamilton and the Harlequin Ghosts that are great. There are dozens, and dozens. We find them, and it’s wonderful and I think we’ve proven the point if you build it they will come.

“When we started the radio show, I was actually familiar with every single rock record being made at that time. There were so few. It was merely thousands, and we would play a band and they would be okay and you wanted to encourage them. Now, by the time they get to their second, third and fourth album, because they’re hearing their music on the radio show suddenly they’ve become terrific bands. It’s the same thing that happened with the British invasion. The radio pirates basically broadcast the British Invasion back to Britain. So, everybody got a chance to hear themselves and then you get better. That’s what we’re finding. We counted the bands we introduced a couple of months ago. We’ve introduced over a 1000 new bands in 15 years. A 1000! Most of them are still doing day jobs, I mean it’s very difficult to break through. Only a few of them go through – like the Hives and first time we played the White Stripes, a few groups like that. We have got a few break through, but not too many.

It’s difficult. There might have been half a dozen out of the 1000 groups – probably only about a half a dozen maybe a dozen – have broken through and are able to make a living. So, it’s difficult, it’s difficult these days. We try to encourage the audiences to buy the records, but of course their mostly not. They’re streaming them and that doesn’t really help anybody very much.”

Any Australian bands in there?

“Well we play a dozen Australian bands regularly all the time,” responds Steven. “The Easy Beats on right through whatever Don Mariani is doing these days, The Stems. I’m sure when I’m down there I’ll come back with a dozen new bands. I’m sure they’re there.”

“You don’t need big lawyer, or manager, or record company. If you make a great record, we play it. And it gets played in 100 countries. It helps a lot of bands when it comes to the live show cause that the only place they can really make a living or try to make a living. They’re not gonna sell any records anymore so we do utilise airplay. Sometimes a promoter will call and ask about a band they’ve heard and add them to a festival, which is great. As long as they’re doing that, we’re accomplishing something. Moving these bands towards a career at least. Even if they do have to keep working a day job you know during the week. At least we can turn some focus to them and hopefully get them some live gigs. We try to do what we can.”

Summer of Sorcery is released on May 3. Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul are at Bluesfest this weekend and on tour in Australia.