In Cleveland later this month, E Street Band guitarist and consilgliere Steven Van Zandt will have the pleasure of inducting The Small Faces/Faces into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In the meantime, he spends his vacation time on stage with the E Street Band, as the wrecking ball swings around the U.S. En route by train to Washington DC for the April 1 concert, Steve spoke with Brandon Shaw for Backstreets about the Faces and the British Invasion, Wrecking Ball, The Promise, his new show Lilyhammer, and life with the E Street Band in 2012.
BS: First off, can you tell me about what the Faces meant to you both as a fan and as a musician?
SVZ: They were one of the important bands — which turned out to be two important bands, in a way, but the first incarnation, they weren't that exposed in America, and we didn’t see them that often. I don't know how often they came over, but they weren't one of the major British Invasion bands. They were in the second wave. Once Steve Marriott left and they went into that second phase, with Rod [Stewart] and Ronnie [Wood], we got much more familiar with them. They came more often; we already knew Rod Stewart and Ronnie from the Jeff Beck group. They had a lot of fans by then, so we were more familiar with them with the second incarnation.
Most of my influence was the first wave of the British Invasion, the first time around: the Stones, the Kinks, the Beatles, and the Who, the Animals, things like that. The second wave was wonderful, terrific stuff — Small Faces, Traffic, and those groups — they were the second part of the '60s. They were terrific groups, but not as influential to me personally as the first wave were. We stayed tuned in to what was in England, and as a result, we kept discovering all these great bands.
Did you and Bruce have any of your famous debates over Rod and Ronnie over the years?
Well, there wasn’t much debate about Rod Stewart; he just was one of the most amazing singers of anyone I've ever heard. So there wasn't any debate, never a question. He blew everybody's minds and really seemed to come out of nowhere with the Jeff Beck group. We weren't aware of his earlier work — what I didn't know until later was his work with the Birds, not to be confused with American group Byrds. They never came to America, though. There were four or five groups as part of this British Invasion that just didn't invade, they were one of them.
Our first discovery with Ronnie Wood was as the bass player with the Jeff Beck group. He was absolutely amazing; he was an unbelievable bass player with that group. So he sort of surprised us by being such a great guitar player with the Faces, but no, there was no debating about that. They were just great.
Some fans have noted Small Faces songs like "Afterglow of Your Love" as having similarities to some of Bruce's earlier music as well.
I don't hear any immediate comparisons, but they were terrific writers. We must have 15 Small Faces songs on the Underground Garage format (Sirius/XM Channel 21). I don't hear any direct influence there, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me.
The entire British Invasion was based on the '50s pioneers — the soul music artists and these white English kids trying to imitate American black records. They were just failing in a glorious way to imitate these records; they couldn't do it. This is why this new hybrid was created, this new sort of rock — it came from this failure at being able to recreate something.
This hybrid was certainly the biggest influence on us as the E Street Band. Starting with Mick Jagger and going to Paul Jones and Manfred Mann, then to Spencer Davis, these are the guys who were incredible white, soul singers. The Beatles were a terrific soul singers — Paul McCartney in his own way was channeling these Little Richard-type of vocals in a way. The Rolling Stones had a lot of these types of interests, and then afterwards it was just one great singer and one great group after another.
Let's talk E Street. Do you have favorites from Wrecking Ball and The Promise?
These things change week to week. The Promise was just full of great stuff. "The Little Things (My Baby Does)" may be my favorite. "Gotta Get That Feeling." "Wrong Side of the Street." It was just full of some of my favorite things ever in Bruce's history. That is now neck-and-neck with my favorite E Street album, which is the second disc of the Tracks box set.
Wrecking Ball is very much a coherent sort of record; it's almost like a concept record. The record is one of his most integrated works, where the songs are literally very, very connected to each other, and the whole work is quite consistent to the overall meaning. I love a lot of aspects of it. I love the fact that it's sort of a summing up of a lot of what he's been doing over the last 20 or so years as a solo artist. There are elements of everything he's been doing — all of those folk roots, country/blues roots, and even the Celtic stuff, the New Orleans stuff. It's fun hearing those other kinds of roots in his music. It really feels like one big piece to me.
"Death to My Hometown" has been a favorite of mine this week, but you know, next week it could be something else. To me, it's all very much one song that goes into different shadings, and different textures; sometimes some very different approaches to who is speaking and what's being communicated. It all adds up to something very strong and very coherent, which is what makes this music so powerful overall.
Is there any sense of whether more material from The Promise will make it into the set?
As the tour goes on, things will change quite a bit. As you know, Brandon, things change across the tours, as the tour itself develops. I think you'll hear a sprinkling of things changing every single night, but the first 50 or 60 shows want to be focused on the new album, and that's what's on Bruce's mind right now, that's what's relevant right now, and that's what's going on right now, in terms of our culture.
Then usually the second half of the tour... well, the tour may morph into three different tours. But usually the way we do it is these two sorts of halves of a tour. During a second half, you'll usually hear more of these rarer tracks played. After 50 or 60 shows, if you're interested in saying something, it's usually been said by that point. Then you go into the deeper cuts, and you say a variety of different things in addition. You'll keep the essence of whatever the new record is, of course. That is what will be communicated the entire tour. But I think the second half of the tour can get a bit more flexible, while keeping the essence of the new album.
We've seen across these last couple of tours a lot broader of an age range. How would you say you and Bruce react to seeing so many more young kids at the shows these days?
Who wouldn't like that, you know? It's always great to see three to even four generations out there. It's something that I think is a perfectly natural thing when you've been round as long as we have, for people to bring their kids, or now even their grandkids. It's nothing but fun to see these six- or eight-year-old kids singing the lyrics to a song, it’s always quite fun.
What is it about "Restless Nights" that you couldn't let go of? Bruce's quote that night after playing it was, "Damn it, he may have been right all those years!"
[Laughs] It was fantastic to finally do it — it's certainly one of my favorites. Bruce has always had a bit of a prejudice against his best pop songs [laughs]. The songs that other people would make a career of, he's interested in leaving behind. It never fails to be annoying, but he's that kind of a guy! Some of those songs are pop songs in a very traditional sense, which means they may not be saying anything particularly relevant socially. They may not be saying anything important. They may be love songs, like most traditional pop songs are. Ninety-nine percent of everything we've ever heard on the radio: after a while, it stops being exciting to write, lyrically.
He probably takes it for granted, because he's so fucking talented. So, you know, God will punish him for it [laughs].
Would you like to see more of the great performances of the past released officially, like Hammersmith '75, or Houston '78 in the Promise box set?
I think so, maybe. I really have never paid that much attention to these things. I'm sure there are some really good things out there, if you've by some chance recorded it well enough — you know, that's a whole other question. But if they're recorded well enough to release, I guess it's a possibility. We don't look back very much and very often, to be honest. And what you have with the Hammersmith and Houston shows, he tends to really make them special in a new way. Finding these tracks from Darkness for The Promise; finding this entire show from [the] Born to Run [tour], Hammersmith — this makes it a bit more special, relevant, and a bit more present tense, really, than just going back and re-releasing something. Our tendency is to look forward, rather than back, but that doesn't mean something from the past couldn't be released again. I wouldn't rule it out.
There have been a lot of questions about the band and life without Clarence. Can you speak to life offstage, in hotels, off the road, and if the band is still close offstage?
Not quite as much. As the years have gone on, we tend to do our own thing offstage. In fact, since we have a lot of days off, we're often not even in the same city. So it's very different from the early days, where you went out and stayed out, and travelled together, hung out together, rocked out together. Me and Clarence were very close in the early days. We went out after the shows, got into trouble [laughs], but that was a different day, a long time ago.
These days, since '99, since the reunion, we've all got our own sort of interests. I'm always staying busy: I've got a show, I'm doing press, doing Lilyhammer as well as working with Sirius, and doing work with a syndicated show. I've been doing a lot of that this tour — Lilyhammer came out just before the tour started. Having the show come out during rehearsals was a big deal. It broke all the records in Norway and Norwegian TV. It was made for Norwegian TV. I'm playing a gangster again, so everyone enjoyed that. You do that, you do the radio show, my foundation, which is doing the history of rock 'n' roll in schools.... The minute I get off stage, I begin work. People think the minute I get on stage, I begin work, but it’s the opposite. The minute I get on stage, that's a three hour vacation; the rest of the day, that's when I do work.
I tend to be very, very busy these days, and I have been since the reunion, for these 12 or 13 years. We tend not to see each other all that much, which makes it fun onstage. You see each other in those three hours there, and that makes it fun.
It's very cool that Lilyhammer is Netflix's first original series.
They could've had anything; they're a very successful company now. It's a huge compliment to us. They could've chosen anything, and they chose my quirky little Norwegian show with subtitles. That was a huge statement for them, saying that they believe in the global community and think it's for real. It's been wonderfully received, and I'm thrilled with it.
It got over a million [viewers] every week over there in Norway. They're showing it once a week. Netflix puts all the episodes out at once, which is how most people watch TV in America now anyway — so Netflix is ahead of everyone else with that. But in Norway, with over a million viewers every week — this is a country with only five million people total! So that would be the equivalent of, like, 60 million viewers here each week. This is quite an unprecedented hit over in Norway. When we started showing this to Americans, there are some people who really aren't crazy about subtitles, but they saw this show, they were drawn in because the lead character is speaking English. People are able to relate because this character is speaking English and taking you through Norway. So this is quite an experiment, and it really turned out to be a great idea.
It doesn't hurt that I'm a gangster who goes into the Witness Protection Program, of course. Instead of Utah or Nevada, he's in the middle of Norway. This is a country where there's no crime, the people are very different.
Do you think a lot of this audience was built off of The Sopranos? How would you compare the two shows in terms of content and development?
In Norway, people can be naked all the time on television. Here, we show sex only in prime time. There, sex is cool; nudity is cool; that is perfectly normal life to them. They don't like violence, though. So they're the opposite of us. We've got problems with someone naked, but we'll show things getting blown up — it's exactly the opposite. We're pushing the envelope here; it's not a complete drama or complete comedy; it's really what you would call a dramedy these days. It's not quite as violent as Sopranos. It's a little bit funnier probably, there's a younger skew than Sopranos. It’s a little bit lighter in general, I think. People are just digging it.
The character looks similar to Silvio, but Silvio had to worry about Tony Soprano all the time — he was this very loose cannon. He was very neurotic, very worried all the time. He was the only guy on the Sopranos who didn't want to be the boss. Whereas this character, with Lilyhammer, Frankie the Fixer does want to be the boss. He’s a little wilder, a little more out there, more outgoing in general, so I get a chance to do more with the character, really. Especially being in Norway, it gives me a lot of things to work off of. People who like The Sopranos tend to like Lilyhammer, but at the same time, it's quite a different show.
I'll see you in Detroit. Maybe I'll bring a "Price You Pay" sign, do something crazy, and wind up on stage playing it with you.
Do it, man! I'll see you then.
- photographs by Michael Zorn (1, 2) and A.M. Saddler (3, 4). Brandon Shaw is the author of the forthcoming book Twenty Five Hours a Day, due out later this month