Never mind that more people around the world might know the face and the voice from his acting performances in hit TV shows such as The Sopranos and Lilyhammer, rock and roll is veritable lifeblood for Steven Van Zandt. From strutting stages as a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, co-leading Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, and pursuing a sporadic yet trenchant solo career, Van Zandt has become a veritable compendium of the glories of the rock genre. He’s a member of the nominating committee for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (and an inductee himself), and DJ of the syndicated radio show, Underground Garage. So if you need a quick hit of the transformational properties of rock and roll—spiritually, sonically, philosophically—you need look no further than the guitarist, singer, songwriter, and all-around professor of rock who has plied his trade as “Little Steven” for going on five decades.
Putting this massive cache of street cred back between the grooves where it belongs, Little Steven’s new album, Soulfire [Wicked Cool/Big Machine/Ume], is simultaneously a celebration of the sound and style that has propelled his career, and a declaration of the enduring power of music. Recorded in his own New York City studio following a string of European dates—and backed by his 15-piece band, the Disciples of Soul—the album captures spirited re-workings of several of the most significant songs of Van Zandt’s career, along with some new material, and a few choice favorites from other artists.
Alongside several of Van Zandt’s compositions (originally written for himself, Southside Johnny, Richie Sambora, David Ruffin and The Temptations), and songs he co-wrote with Bruce Springsteen and Gary U.S. Bonds, are tear-the-roof-off renditions of the Etta James track “The Blues Is My Business” and James Brown’s Black Caesar soundtrack entry, “Down and Out in New York City”—all rendered with a full horn section, three backing singers, and the kind of dues-paid-in-full authenticity you rarely hear on a record these days.
Just how does one capture that authenticity? As Van Zandt relates, you’ve got to master the Five Crafts of Rock and Roll…
You’ve been in some sizeable bands over the years, from Springsteen’s E Street Band to Southside Johnny’s Asbury Jukes, but what’s it like fronting the formidable wall of sound you have achieved with the Disciples of Soul?
I love it. I really love it. There’s nothing like the power of having them horns behind you, you know? You can hear it on “The Blues Is My Business.” You can hear the power of those horns combined with the blues-style guitar. I also do all of the arranging for the horns, so I know where the holes are. Some things are overlapping with each other, but you want everything to have its proper place.
What’s particularly noteworthy regarding this album is how clearly the guitar comes through, when so often it can get buried in a band this size.
That’s one of the reasons I’ve used the same engineer—Bob Clearmountain—on almost all of my records, because his expertise is making sure everything has its own frequency and has its own place. Believe it or not, no matter how good the arrangement is, I want that little bit of extra insurance that things are going to be able to be heard, because it bothers me when I hear somebody else’s record, and the guy goes to play a tom-tom fill, and you don’t hear every note of it. Or like you were saying, the horn part gets buried or a guitar part gets buried. I want everything loud! [Laughs.]
You had been playing a lot of live dates with this band prior to recording, and you can hear that energy in the studio.
That was the unusual opportunity on this album, because you don’t usually get the chance to play the stuff live first. So we took that energy right into the studio, and, yeah, it was done very quickly—five weeks, including the mix.
Did you record the tracks live, then?
It’s mostly live, but my studio is not the biggest room in the world. It’s probably the same size as [small studios such as] Motown, Chess, or Sun. So we were always doing the rhythm section together, and then we’d overdub the horns and the girls. However, we ended up keeping about half of my live vocals. I didn’t expect to do that. But some of the drums were leaking into the vocal mic, and it made the drum sound even better [laughs], so I kept those vocals.
Engineers will often go to all kinds of lengths to avoid signal bleed…
[Laughs.] I’m not one of those guys. I’m like, everything can leak. If the room was just a little bit bigger, I would do everything live. But you do want a little bit of control, or else you’re literally doing a live album.
The rock-meets-soul sound—I think of it as the “Jersey Sound”—is utterly distinctive. How did that sound come about?
It just became my thing, you know. It was very organic, but, in those days, before you went into a recording studio, you really had to have your own identity somehow. And that one, I just fell into, from the musical elements I grew up with. Of course, the British Invasion was the most important thing—and they were already being influenced by soul music—and the two styles went side by side throughout the ’60s. There were, like, eight rock and roll TV shows on every single week. No matter where you were, whether it was England with Ready, Steady, Go, or Hullaballoo and Shindig in America, you’d have the Rolling Stones come on, and then Marvin Gaye, the Kinks, and the Temptations. Every single rock and roll show had soul music integrated. We didn’t think much of it at the time. It was just normal to us. I just always liked the horns. I remember the day that me and Southside [Johnny Lyon] and Bruce [Springsteen] went to see Sam and Dave. It just completely blew our minds. So me and Southside were going to be the “white Sam and Dave” with a rock guitar [laughs.] Take Sam and Dave, add a rock guitar, and you’ve got the sound.
As cocky and ambitious as that sounds coming from a bunch of scrawny white kids back then—with all due respect—it somehow just worked.
But the true proving ground was doing this stuff live, you see? That’s what people don’t do as much anymore. And I’ll tell you, a lot of bands skip the most important phase of their careers—which is being a bar band. Everyone needs to go through that bar-band phase, because that’s where you learn your craft. That’s when you learn how to interact with an audience, how to interact with band members, and you try stuff out, man. You see how it’s going over. That was the nice thing about growing up in New Jersey. You didn’t have the high-pressure of an inner-city situation, and you had more room and more time to develop.
Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes hit on a strange situation. We found a bar that was about to close because a hurricane had caved the roof in. It was August, and they were like, “We’re going to keep this bar open for one more month and make some of that summer money.” So we were able to go in there and play the music we wanted to play—which was the first time anyone had done that in New Jersey, because usually you had to play the Top 40. They gave us the door, they took the bar, and we started to play, you know, Sam and Dave album tracks. We introduced reggae to New Jersey at that time, and we were doing Drifters songs, too—basically, whatever we felt like. And slowly that sound just coalesced. It happened naturally, and it was all my favorite stuff in one—a little bit of Smokey Robinson, a little bit of Rolling Stones, a little bit of Muddy Waters.
A lot has changed in the music industry since those days. For example, the creative process is easier, because everyone can stick Pro Tools on their computer and record in their living room. Do you think people are missing something by being able to do it so easily?
Yeah, I do. I think they’re missing almost everything. There are five crafts of rock and roll: One, everybody has to learn their instrument—or their voice if they’re a singer. Two, you need to start analyzing your favorite songs. This is part of the arrangement process, but it starts off as an analysis. What are the instruments doing? What are the chord changes? What’s the melody against those chord changes? What is the bass doing? Why is the drum fill there? The third craft is performing live. You learn to interact with an audience, and with your band members, and you need to learn what effect the music has on the audience. The fourth craft is writing. Because you have analyzed and arranged those songs, you’re now able to have higher standards. So you’re going to write your songs at a higher standard than you would if you had skipped that phase. If you’re not analyzing your favorite songs and figuring out what goes into them, then you’re not going to be able to evaluate your own writing. And then you have recording, which is the fifth craft. That is a whole other craft to learn. Yeah, you can learn some of that at home, and it probably would be helpful to do that. But it’s different in a studio situation with a real engineer and a real producer, and, you know, a band. Again, you get that input from other people, and that usually makes the tracks better.
I think you really hear that “fifth craft” in the final results. Records can sound clean and pristine today, but there’s nothing like capturing the energy of a band that knows how to play and interact with each other.
Perfection is really the wrong way to go when it comes to rock and roll. You don’t want it to be perfect. You don’t want it to have super clarity. I want to hear what everybody is playing, but, at the same time, I want to hear that little bit of—well, that’s why they call it a mix. The instruments are mixing with each other [laughs]. If it’s too super clear, then it’s not organic. I want that sound like when you walk into a room and the band is playing. You can pick out the instruments, but they’re all mixed together. It’s this sound that comes at you. That’s the sound I want on my record.
And that’s still the thing, right? Let your ears decide.
It’s hard to describe why it’s cool, but you just know it when you hear it.
As much as he’s the consummate musician, Steven Van Zandt is very much not a gearhead. He cares little for discussions on the intricacies of pickup types, effects pedals, and string gauges. He does, however, have a keen awareness of what a pro requires from his tools—as well as how to choose gear that gets the right sound for a song.
A Stratocaster player from way back, Van Zandt pulled out some surprises to get the job done on Soul-fire, selecting his 1954 Gibson Les Paul Custom and a Les Paul Standard for several tracks, including the searing blues soloing on “The Blues Is My Business.” He’s still very much “a Strat guy,” though, and you hear this characteristically wiry, stinging sound on the back-to-back solos on “I Saw the Light.” The first half is whammy-bar heavy with overdrive—courtesy of a driven Leslie cabinet—while the second half jumps to lithe slide work. Ever since the theft of his original 1950s and early ’60s Strats while on tour with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in the ’70s, Van Zandt has stuck with later renditions, turning most often to a ’70s Strat and a late-’90s Fender Custom Shop model.
Live, Van Zandt has relied on Vox AC30 combos for many years, although, for Soulfire, he also employed Marshalls when the sound fit the track. As for the rest of it, he tells us the requirements of big-venue shows throw up realities that might run counter to the proclivities of many gear-obsessed guitarists.
“There are no subtleties once you get to an arena,” he says. “Forget it. You can change guitars all you want, and hit all the pedals you want, but, basically, you sound the same. If the guitar’s really doing a different job live, then it makes sense. I’ll do some songs on a 12-string Rickenbacker with Bruce live, but it has to be a substantially different job. After that, you’re changing guitars just for fun.”