Steve Stevens: Sonic Sorcerer

I vividly remember the first time I saw Steve Stevens onstage with Billy Idol.

I vividly remember the first time i saw steve Stevens onstage with Billy Idol. It was 1982, and the venue was a small Bay Area nightclub called the Berkeley Square. As still evidenced by a cassette-tape recording that I made of the show that night, the band was beyond riveting as they charged through a steamy set of Generation X and new Idol tunes, bringing the packed room to a frenzy with powerhouse performances of “Hot in the City,” “Mony Mony,” “Dancing With Myself,” “Untouchables,” and “White Wedding.”

Plugged into a pair of Marshall half-stacks, Stevens threw down with an uncanny mix of punk aggression and shredder precision. His rhythm grooves drove like a cavalry charge, his lead lines were smooth and fluid, and his use of “spotlight” effects that he integrated into cascades of rhythmic delays was insanely cool. I came away from the club in awe of Stevens’ ability to seamlessly lace hard-rock drive with prog-like sonic adventurism, and make it all work so perfectly in the context of Billy Idol’s high-octane delivery.

Who could have imagined at the time that Idol and Stevens would forge such a lasting partnership? Like many bands of the era, this pairing could have been a one-album/one-tour deal. But the duo kept honing their music, and they would hit the big time a year later with the release of Rebel Yell.

Following 1986’s Whiplash Smile, Stevens went on to do a number of things on his own. He released the solo albums Atomic Playboys and Flamenco a Go-Go, guested on Michael Jackson’s Bad, performed on the soundtracks for Top Gun and Speed, and played on Vince Neil’s solo release, Exposed. In 2008, he released MemoryCrash, a tour-de-force album that garnered him a feature in the July 2008 issue of GP.

But the connection for Billy Idol and Steve Stevens transcended all this, and some 33 years and ten albums later, these guys still enjoy writing songs and performing together. Given what is presented on the new album, they obviously have no plans to change the recipe anytime soon.

“The thing about the history of Billy Idol music is we’ve always liked to combine elements of dance music with rock and roll, and this is kind of an updated version of that,” says Stevens. “Throughout the ’90s, we tried to shy away from what we had done in the 1980s, because it was like, ‘Oh, that’s not cool anymore.’ But there’s a whole generation of kids now who dig ’80s music and are drawing on it. Certainly, a lot of alt bands were influenced by the early Billy Idol stuff, as well as Generation X.

“Our previous record, Devil’s Playground, was kind of one-dimensional and more in hard-rock territory. I know people liked it, but I think Billy got lost in that a little bit, because of all the powers that be were whispering in our ears to move away from what we had done in the past. On this record it was great, because we said, ‘Screw it. We’re going to do what we do naturally, and find a producer who can update it.’ Also, Billy financed the record himself, so there wasn’t an A&R guy steering us in one direction or another. I’m 55 now, and Billy is 58, and we feel differently about the world and ourselves than we did when we were in our 20s. So, of course, the music is going to be a bit different. But we embraced that, and just decided to do what comes naturally to us at this point in our lives.”

How did this project compare to how you’ve made other albums with Billy?

It was done really quickly, and we could actually enjoy it, because we didn’t labor over it for ten months or more. Trevor Horn produced it, so the decision was made that we would go to his studio—SARM in London. He was going to pull together the tracks before we got there, and we were going to pack as much work into two and a half weeks as possible. Billy and I actually stayed in an apartment right across the street from the studio, and we pretty much just lived at the studio for that time. Also, having a producer that has his own recording studio and his own engineers is really a benefit, because everything is ready to go when you walk in.

What did it mean to you to make a record with Trevor Horn?

Well, I’m a huge Trevor Horn fan. I even saw him front Yes at Madison Square Garden. I love the fact that his career has spanned so many things, and he even touched on a little bit of the prog thing. But I found it amazing that we were one of the last acts to record at his studio, because it’s going to be torn down. Originally, it was Island Records’ recording studio, and that’s where all the Bob Marley records were done, as well as Blind Faith, Traffic, and early Genesis. Even “Stairway to Heaven” was recorded there. It’s getting fewer and far between where you’re actually getting to go to these legendary studios, and you definitely feel a sense of history when you’re in that room. It’s inspiring as hell. Trevor has an incredible Neve console and a couple of SSL rooms, and, of course, we made full use of it. We were recording in the digital domain, but you try to warm up things as much as possible by using vintage mics and all that stuff. I have API mic preamps in my home studio, and I use a lot of BAE stuff, too. So when I went in, I’m one of those ridiculous guitar players who goes, “We should use a Neve preamp with this and an API with that [laughs].”

Give us an overview of how you recorded the tracks.

We cut the backing tracks live. Trevor had a drummer that he works with, and I didn’t realize that Trevor is also a bass player. He’s the bassist on the record, and he’s incredible. I mean it was like having Paul McCartney join your band. I know the cliché about the producer being the fifth member of the band, but Trevor really was. We tracked all of the songs live off the floor, and his bass lines were really melodic and inventive.

Had you made demos of the songs?

Yes. I have a home studio, so I sent over all the songs in their demo forms. I played bass on the demos, and did all the drum parts with Superior Drummer [toontrack . com], which is a great songwriting tool. They’re real drum performances—they’re not quantized or anything like that—so we knew what the drums would actually feel like. Some of the demos had electronic elements on them, and Trevor added some as well, so when we cut the tracks live we had some sequenced things to play to.

What gear did you bring for the sessions?

I had to really pare down what I was going to bring. I sent over my Dave Friedman signature amp and cabinet, and the guitars I brought were a Knaggs Signature prototype of a model that’s coming out next year, and a John Suhr S-style guitar that I think they made for Scott Henderson. I’d gone to Suhr’s shop one day, and this white guitar was just laying around. They told me Scott didn’t like the neck because it was too bulky or something, but I like chunky necks so I took it. It has turned out to be my go-to guitar for clean stuff. I also brought a Pedro de Miguel flamenco guitar, which is a really beautiful nylon-string, and a Music Man Armada—which is a great rhythm guitar, because it’s a neck-through design and the tuning and stability on that guitar is unreal. I brought a Les Paul, too, which is just a 2012 Standard, but it has coil-tap and out-of-phase switches, and I thought it would be great for covering a lot of different areas. Most of my guitars are loaded with Bare Knuckles pickups. For effects, I sent over a small pedalboard, and Roland sent me a care package of pedals. I also got a list of all the gear that was available at the studio. Trevor had a Martin D-28 and a Collings C3, as well as an old 1961 Gibson Barney Kessel that I used on “Ghosts in My Guitar.” Trevor Rabin played it on the Yes 90215 album, and it was mind-blowingly beautiful. There were some other amps at the studio: an Orange Rockerverb 50 that I used on “Postcards from the Past,” and a Carr Viceroy. I wanted an amp that sounded like an AC30, so I used the Viceroy on “Ghosts in My Guitar” and “Love & Glory.”

How did you decide what to play through on each track?

Well, if it’s a heavy guitar part, I always go to my signature Friedman. I designed that amp with Dave Friedman, so I pretty much know every sound I’m going to be able to get out of it. I will say that the engineers at SARM were really helpful, because we’d put the track up at the end of the day that we were going to work on the next day—and I also had my guide guitar there from my home demos—so we knew what we were going to go for. All the engineers there played guitar, so they’d get some sounds up as a starting point. When I came in the next day, they would have something that they thought replicated what I was trying to do on my demos, and, nine times out of ten, it was pretty damn close. So it made my job easier, because all I had to do was catch the performance. I wasn’t spending hours trying to get a good guitar sound.

Do you track your guitars dry or with effects?

It depends on the track, but there’s nothing that sounds as good as plugging your guitar straight into the front of the amp. But if I knew I was going for a specific effect, we would often track with that effect. The song “Postcards from the Past” is one example. When I first got Pro Tools, I realized how you could do these stutter edits and other things that are really cool, but you can’t do that stuff live. Then, Boss came out with the Slicer pedal, and so what I do live is lock that to pedal to a MIDI clock, and our drummer is on a click track when I use it. “Postcards” is one of these songs that we’ve been playing live for a year and a half, and I knew I was going to use the Slicer on the recording, so I put it in the send and return of the amp, and, as I said, it’s locked to MIDI, and it gates my guitar, so we tracked with that effect. There’s also quite a bit of DigiTech Whammy on the record that was done live.

“Postcards from the Past” also sounds a bit like “Rebel Yell.”

Right. We tried to get back to the initial idea of what I had done on “Rebel Yell,” where if there’s going to be a guitar solo, try to get some crazy sound effect—or do something inventive—rather than play a blues-based pentatonic solo. With Billy coming from the whole 1977 London punk scene, those guys weren’t really into guitar solos. And if they did a solo, it was kind of a Chuck Berry/Steve Jones thing. So when we did “Rebel Yell,” we really tried to avoid the clichéd solo by doing something inventive.

Back then, what drove you guys to start combining elements of electronic music and hard rock?

I met Billy in early 1982, when he had just moved to New York, and the initial idea was to build on what he had done as part of the original punk-rock scene. He had already hooked up with his producer Keith Forsey, and Keith had done some Georgio Moroder and Donna Summers records, so he was in the dance-music world. So the three of us thought, “Okay, we’ll combine dance elements with the energy of punk rock, and I’ll update the guitar-hero thing.” Oddly enough, the link for me was what a lot of the early progressive rock guitar players were doing—guys like Steve Howe, Steve Hackett, and Robert Fripp. They were using effects and sounds and creating soundscapes, and Fripp was doing Frippertronics by then. We were trying to figure out how to do this thing, and one day, Billy put on a record by Siouxsie and the Banshees— who I’d never heard before. The guitar player in that band was John McKay, and he was so inventive. I thought, “This is cool,” and a light bulb went off in my head. That was a big influence on how I tried to use sound effects in a new way. A lot of it was trial and error, but that was the original concept.

Was it an advantage to be living in New York at that time?

Yeah, I think so. The guitar players in Los Angeles were so influenced by Eddie Van Halen, and they were all trying to sound like him. I was as enamored by Eddie as anyone, but I didn’t want to sound like him. I was still being influenced by all these bands that I used to cut high school to go see—like Television and the Talking Heads—so I definitely had a New York slant. I loved Eddie’s sound, though, and, to me, the greatest thing about him wasn’t all the flash solos or anything, it was his rhythm-guitar work. I remember one day I was with Billy when Van Halen’s version of “Pretty Woman” came on, and he went, “That guitar player is incredible.” So even Billy Idol thought Eddie’s rhythm stuff was great!

There’s a fair amount of acoustic playing on the new album. Was Trevor Horn a factor in that?

Every time we do a record, I always have my nylon-string guitar with me, and I’m always the first one to go, “Hey what about some flamenco here?” And usually they’ll say, “Hey, save it for your own record [laughs].” But I think having Trevor Horn producing allowed me to do that, because he has worked with Steve Howe, and has a real understanding of how to put nylonstring on a song. Every time I would play my acoustic on something, he would get on the studio talkback and go, “That’s lovely.” So it was great to be working with someone who is open to that.

It sounds like you’re combining steelstring and nylon-string guitars.

If I’m going to double a guitar left and right, I try to avoid using the same sound, because they almost mono themselves out. Whenever we tracked with Trevor’s Martin, we’d also use his Collings 12-string to give that kind of shimmer on the other side. And then we’d track my Pedro de Miguel nylon-string down the center as the solo piece. The nylon guitar is almost like a human voice. It’s warm and you can really annunciate on it. So that’s basically the setup we used on “Eyes Wide Shut” and the title track.

How did you develop your flamenco chops?

I was frustrated with guitar teachers as a kid because, back then, the local guitar teacher was always some old fuddy-duddy trying to teach me standards and other stuff that I didn’t want to learn. So I went to a summer camp in Long Island, and the guitar teacher there—who was a Romanian gypsy who had actually escaped the Nazis in the second world war—was playing flamenco. I didn’t know what it was, but I remember the first day he started to play for us, and it was like, “What style is that?” He explained to me what flamenco was, and the guy had so much passion for it—I mean, he lived for his guitar—and I couldn’t help but be influenced by him. I just thought, “I want to be like this guy who’s not just teaching kids and waiting for his dinner break.” So he taught me some flamenco stuff, and, then, when I heard Al Di Meola with Paco de Lucia, I went, “Oh, so you can play Spanish-style guitar with a pick.” I’m certainly not a traditional flamenco player, but I try to replicate what I hear.

You also use a Godin Acousticaster nylon-string live, right?

Yeah, I hooked up with Godin about 16 years ago. I’d played on a record with Vince Neil, and then we toured with Van Halen. That was like the pinnacle of the heavy-rock thing for me, and I kind of got burned out on it. I moved to Los Angeles, and I was just feeling like my ears had been bombarded with volume and notes, so I decided to do the Flamenco a Go-Go record. I’d just gotten my home studio, and I needed a way to do programming and stuff, and I found out about Godin having this MIDI nylon-string guitar. So I went and talked to them at the NAMM show, and asked if I could use one of their guitars on the record. I’m probably the world’s worst keyboard player, and the Acousticaster enabled me to get the MIDI note information into Logic. Now, during the course of the Billy Idol show, I have a ten-minute solo piece, and I trigger strings and ethereal pads with the Acousticaster. Godin is an incredible company, and they’re so supportive. For live use, especially, there’s nothing better than their acoustic guitars.

Before the Vince Neil experience, you’d worked with Michael Jackson. What was that like?

You know, the thing I’ll say is that it was a very similar situation to working with Billy Idol. When I got into the studio, it was me, Quincy Jones, Michael, and [engineer] Bruce Swedien. There was no entourage, no elaborate catering, or any of that stuff. And we recorded at Westlake, which is the studio where we cut the very first Billy Idol record. We were just four guys bouncing ideas around, but I think that was largely because Quincy was like a father figure to Michael. They were having fun and laughing, and while I can’t speak about any of the weirdness that went on afterward, my experience of working with the guy was purely musical genius. It’s funny, though, after we had gotten the guitar stuff done, all Michael wanted to know about was these hard rock groups. He’d say, “Do you know Motley Crue? “Do you know Van Halen?” “Do you know David Lee Roth?” I’d go, “Michael, I come from New York. I know the New York Dolls and the Tuff Darts, but I don’t these people.” Michael was definitely a fan of rock and roll. He told me he had seen Queen and was friends with Freddie Mercury, and I think he was the first urban artist to bring the big rock and roll show to that world.

How did Billy Morrison come into the picture with Idol?

Billy is my best friend, and, about six years ago, he was playing in an all-star cover band called Camp Freddy—which was Matt Sorum, Chris Chaney, Dave Navarro, and Donovan Leitch. I started guesting with them, and when Dave would go out on tour with Jane’s Addition, I would fill in as the main lead guitar player. And that’s where I started to really enjoy having Billy as a rhythm guitarist. Billy Idol would occasionally come up and guest with us, and, one day after we had done the Devil’s Playground album, I said, “I wonder what it would sound like if Billy Morrison came in and played guitar with us?” You see, some of these songs I had been playing for 30 years. So I was thinking that maybe this would be a way for me to reinvent some of the guitar parts. I’ll play the parts I never got to play live—because the albums had so many guitar overdubs—and Billy will cover some of the rhythm stuff. I invited him down to a rehearsal, and it worked like a charm. It made the band sound fuller, and he allowed me to play parts that I wasn’t burned out on.

What was the leap to having him involved in the songwriting for this album?

As it turned out, Billy Morrison grew up in the same town in England that Idol did—which is Bromley—and, as a kid, he used to sneak in to see Generation X. So the two of them were able to bond over this home-town thing. Little by little, as we started to write, Billy Morrison came in as a writer. The three of us co-wrote about seven songs on the record—all of the ones that were done at my place. We were able to bounce ideas off of each other, and that really was the songwriting team for the record—with the exception of the two songs that Greg Kurstin wrote and produced with Idol.

The friendship thing is more important than anything when you’re writing. Billy Idol and I have been together for 33 years, and we’ve shared so many experiences. As this record was set to coincide with his autobiography, there are a lot of personal things in there for him. He knew that he could trust me to know where he was coming from, and he could trust Billy Morrison, because he came from the same town. The main thing is it was fun. Those guys would show up at noon, and we’d sit around and have coffee, and the day would usually start with Idol saying, “Alright, I’m working on this part of the book, and this is what I want to write about.” And even if it was just like an outline or a theme of something, we were able to riff on it. For me, it almost felt like scoring a film more than songwriting.

Is that different than the way you and Idol have previously written songs?

Yeah. We’ve usually started with a guitar riff. A lot of times, we’d go on pure adrenaline, and put the words on afterwards. But, in this case, the lyrics were really important. Billy was adamant that we leave space for the vocals.

Production-wise, this album has a ton of depth and texture. Can you talk about how you accomplished that kind of sound?

We knew that Trevor Horn makes glorious- sounding records, and that’s what we wanted from him. We’d say things like, “Make it sound three dimensional—give us Trevor Horn!” I mean, Billy and I were together when the first Frankie Goes to Hollywood record came out—which Trevor produced—and we thought it sounded incredible. So, this time, it was really finding the right people, and allowing them to be themselves more than anything.

How is your live rig configured these days?

Jeez, it’s a lot of gear, but I have to replicate a 30-year career. I’m trying to make the guitar sounds as faithful to the records as possible. Dave Friedman [of Friedman Amplification] started putting my guitar system together 14 or so years ago, and, basically, I have my Friedman SS amp, and I also have a John Suhr PT-100 head—the Pete Thorn amp—and I switch between the two. The PT-100 is used mostly for my super clean stuff—“Flesh for Fantasy” and those kinds of things—and then it goes through a rack of effects that’s always changing, but there are some T.C. Electronic delays and an Eventide 7600. A tap is taken off of that, and it goes through two power amps that drive speakers offstage. So I have one center cabinet behind me, and all the effects cabinets are hidden backstage. A mix of that is put through two wedge monitors in front of me. All of my acoustics and my guitar synth come through there, too, so I’m getting a mix of all my guitars in front of me.

I always say to Dave before we go on tour that we really need to simplify this, and we try to, but in order to replicate all of these sounds—and that includes some Generation X stuff—I have to switch from very raggedy organic punk guitar to a “Flesh for Fantasy” guitar sound five minutes later. There’s no way I can get around the need for a versatile system.

Do you get down to the micro level of tone chasing with guitar cables and things like that?

When I’m recording, yes, because it does make a difference. There’s a company called Intex that makes these military- grade cables that I brought to England, and Trevor Horn flipped out on them. So I used those, and Lava Cable has also built a bunch of cables for me. Each of them sounds a little different, and I find that if I have a guitar with single-coils—like my Suhr S-type—I’ll use a Lava cable, or even a coil-cord, because it will take some of the harshness out of the pickups.

Are all your distortion sounds generated by the amp?

Yes. It’s all the Friedman. The only time I use a distortion pedal is on the breakdown in “Rebel Yell.” Everyone always thought that the line behind the vocal there was a keyboard, but it’s actually guitar. On the original recording, it’s just a DI. We strung a bunch of fuzz pedals together, and there’s also an octave effect from a Boss OC-2. Now I have an Electro-Harmonix fuzz pedal that goes through a bunch of filters, and I’m using a Source Audio Hot Hand to control it with my hand. That signal goes into the clean channel of the Suhr amp, and that’s where I’m trying to get the Robert Fripp fuzz sound—at least that’s what I’m hearing that in my head.

Was the intro to “Rebel Yell” originally tracked with one guitar?

Yeah. We tracked it with a DI and an amp at the same time, because the amp sound had the aggression, but it didn’t have the precision I was looking for. I got that idea for the intro from years of playing Leo Kottke stuff, and it was an afterthought to use it on that tune. Billy Idol and Keith Forsey would always say, “At the beginning of a song, we need something like a flag raised to let everybody know the cavalry’s coming [laughs].” So I said, “What about this thing?” They both went, “Yeah, that’s what we need.” Same idea with the harmonic pick scrape at the beginning of “White Wedding.” Even the heavy guitar that comes in halfway though “Eyes Without a Face”—the only reason that occurred is we would always leave 16 or 32 bars in the middle of a song, because we knew we were going to do dance remixes and stuff. So we cut the tracks longer than they needed to be, and then have breakdowns where we’d just go down to a bass or some kind of edit.

In the case of “Eyes Without a Face,” I was thinking we had this ballad, but it can’t just be a ballad—this is a Billy Idol song. So if I remember correctly, I asked them to leave me in the studio for a couple of hours to see what I could come up with to get some electric guitar in the middle part. We knew it wouldn’t fit anywhere else in the song, but when we pulled the acoustics, out it totally changed the picture. Those guys came back, and they went, “Wow, we don’t know why, but it works.” Then, Billy ended up doing that whole rap thing in the middle, and it became one of those light and shade things where we both kind of shift into another gear.

What sort of influence did the Beatles and Queen have on you?

I think it was their ability to branch out, and not be afraid to move their musical horizons further. If you listen to the progression from Queen’s first record to “Bohemian Rhapsody,” it’s almost like how the Beatles progressed. That’s what gave us the courage to try things like “Eyes Without a Face” and “Flesh for Fantasy.” If someone would have told Billy in 1977, that his music would sound like that five years later, he would have said, “You’re crazy!” But you progress as a musician, and you try new things.

What the best thing about playing guitar for you?

I always tell people, “Nothing bad ever came out of playing guitar.” The business side of things can get mucked up sometimes, but the guitar has only brought joy to my life. I’m still one of those knuckleheads who loves getting a new guitar. You open the case and it smells incredible. It’s still exciting, and I feel the same way about it as I did when I was a kid. I don’t know why that is. I’ve talked to other guitarists who’ve had long-term careers, and some are burned out on it. It becomes the business that pays the mortgage and this and that, but it has never been that way for me. It has always been the love of the instrument. I’m really blessed that way.

Do you still get inspired making records with Billy Idol?

I’ve worked with so many incredible singers over the course of my career, and Billy is certainly the one who makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I know that a lot of it has to do with our shared history and all that, but the guy is just a great singer and he has gotten better. When we’re on the tour bus, and he breaks into an Elvis song, it’s like, “Oh my god, if people could hear this!” I will also say that having a musical partner for 33 years, and starting my career with the guy I’m still working with is like—well, how do you suddenly turn and see your brother or your sister, and not feel how much you appreciate them? There’s something to be said for that, and how we we’ve been able to make it work and continue to make music that we like. So few bands have that going on, and even when they do, it’s like they don’t travel together. One guy has a dressing room down the hall from the other guys, and they only see each other onstage.

That’s not the case with Idol, because from the very beginning, he wanted to be part of the band. It’s a punk rock thing. He loves getting in and rehearsing with us, and joking and hanging out with his band. Sure, Billy Idol’s name is on there, but its not done out of sheer ego. Everyone in the band just has so much respect for the guy, and we really enjoy being onstage with him. You never know what the hell is going to happen!


Here’s a track-by-track listing of the gear Steve Stevens used at SARM Studios in London during the Kings and Queens of the Underground sessions. –AT

“Bitter Pill”
Guitars Suhr T-style, Knaggs SS, Martin D-28
Amps Friedman SS, Vox AC30
Pedals DigiTech Whammy

“Can’t Break Me Down”
Knaggs Influence Chena
Amps Friedman SS, Fractal AxeFx II

“Save Me Now”
Guitars Gibson Les Paul Standard, Knaggs SS
Amps Friedman SS
Pedals Suhr Koko Boost

“One Breath Away”
Collings C3 Acoustic, Knaggs SS, Suhr S-style
Amps Fractal AxeFx II, Kemper Profiler
Pedals DigiTech Synth Wah

“Postcards from the Past”
Guitars Music Man Armada
Amps Friedman SS, Orange Rockerverb 50
Pedals Boss Slicer, Suhr Koko Boost, Digi- Tech Whammy

“Kings and Queens of the Underground”
Martin D-28, Pedro De Miguel nylonstring, Knaggs SS
Amps Friedman SS

“Eyes Wide Shut”
Guitars Collings C3, Martin D-28, Pedro De Miguel nylon-string
Amps Friedman SS

“Ghosts in My Guitar”
Guitars Collings D3, Martin D-28, Suhr S-style, Music Man Armada, Gibson Barney Kessel
Amps Friedman SS, Carr Viceroy
Pedals Drybell Vibe Machine, Boss Fuzz

“Nothing To Fear”
Guitars Gibson Les Paul, Suhr T-style
Amps Fractal AxeFx II

“Love & Glory”
Guitars Suhr S-style, Music Man Armada
Amps Friedman SS, Carr Viceroy
Pedals Strymon El Capistan, Boss DD-7

“Whiskey & Pills”
Guitars Gibson Les Paul Standard
Amps Friedman SS
Pedals Cry Baby wah

“Hollywood Promises”
Guitars Knaggs SS, Gibson Les Paul Standard
Amps Friedman SS
Pedals Suhr Koko Boost