The Backstreets Interview by Christopher Phillips
December 10, 2015

A year and a half after the High Hopes excursion ended, it's tour time again. Next weekend, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band will reconvene for Saturday Night Live, a shot across the bow before hitting the road in January to play shows coast to coast. The River Tour 2016 will have Bruce and the the E Streeters playing the full River album from top to bottom each night, along with outtakes from the era and "other Springsteen favorites." The season really begins with tomorrow's onsale blitz (may the ticket gods have mercy on us all).

Before everything gets underway, Springsteen gave us a call at Backstreets HQ to fill us all in a little more on his plans, talking with editor Chris Phillips about The Ties That Bind, full-album shows, live releases, and this impromptu tour that he hardly saw coming, either.

Backstreets: So this tour comes as quite a surprise!
Springsteen: It was a surprise. It was a surprise to us, too, you know? We were kind of heading on a slightly different path — I had some new music, which was a little more of a solo record. I thought that I'd be out on that next. But then the box set came out, and we started to fool around with the idea of playing maybe a show… then, well, maybe two shows… and that turned into a short leg that we have going here in the States. It's a chance to let people experience the record start to finish, which we've only played once before.

Of course every time a tour ends, there are always fans wondering if that's the last time we'll see the band, so it's exciting that we get another chapter. Do you know what the lineup will be this time?
It's just the original post-[reunion] setup.

No horn section, no singers?
Yeah. So that should be fun. It was the kind of thing where I looked at it and decided, well, I have this project that I like a lot, but it's probably going to involve me playing by myself. And I figured if I get into that, it could be quite a while before the band ends up touring again. So having this little respite in there is gonna be a nice thing — it gives us a chance to get out there again before it ends up being a real long span.

It seems like this is designed to be short — just 22 cities, nine weeks, and done. Is that how you're viewing it at this point?
At the moment, yeah. I mean, could it go a little bit longer? It depends. It depends on… if we're having fun, if it suits itself to maybe a few more shows, we might consider it. But right now these are the only certain things we're doing.

Obviously, you have a very dedicated European audience, and we're hearing from a lot of those fans who have their fingers crossed. Given that the '81 European leg was such an important part of the River era, I know there are high hopes.
Yeah, that was the leg that established us in Europe — the River tour there was a major, major event for us. But I don't know yet, we gotta see — like I say, we initially planned for just a few shows, so I don't know if we're going to be doing a whole lot more than what we have planned, I can't really say.

- photograph by Jim Marchese

What inspired you to hit the road for this one? It was five years ago, almost to the day, that you were at the carousel in Asbury Park for the Promise show there, but that was a one-off. You've had the Born to Run box, and then the Darkness box... is there something about the River box that makes you want to go out and play it?
The idea of touring was just, well gee, we have this big project, these projects take a long time to put together, and what is the way to get it the most attention, and make it the most exciting? And that's obviously: well, we could play! It's been long enough since we've played that that tasted pretty good.

These days we don't have to go out and play 150 shows every time the band comes together. You can go out and play 20 shows, if you have something to do — or if you just feel like it. We're no longer bound by the previous rules of, "You've gotta have a record, then you've gotta go out and tour for two years.…" I don't think we have to do that anymore at this point. Though I'm sure we'll do it in the future.

But you don't have to.
You don't have to. You have a lot more freedom. You know, you can get the band together and play a few dates — with an idea behind it, and something that you think the fans might get a kick out of. We'll play the record start to finish, and then we'll play some of the special outtakes that are there, and we'll play some favorites, and it should be a nice night.

Do you know yet, in terms of outtakes, what you might gravitate towards? I imagine Stevie will be pushing for "Restless Nights." Are there favorites of yours on the new box?
I don't know — those will probably be the things that change from night to night, you know, the outtakes we pick to pull out. We'll see how that goes. I've got a few in my head, but I'm not sure yet 'til we start playing and see what's playing well.

One big thing that's happened since last time we talked is the live downloads. It's good to see you'll be putting all of these upcoming shows out once again, night after night.
Yeah, if somebody's at the show and they want a souvenir of it, then they'll be able to pick that up.

What's been your relationship with the series? Do you listen to any of them along the way?
Yeah, I do. I'll pick it up and listen to different sections at different times, to see how we're sounding and see how we're doing with it. But to keep it rolling, which is what we've tried to do... it's a more spontaneous kind of release. It's just nice to get the material out to the fans quickly, in much better quality than they would have gotten on the bootlegs.

Well, from our perspective, it's been a bright new day. An amazing thing, a long time coming, and there's a lot of gratitude and appreciation from the fan end. And the shows from the archives, with the Nugs releases that are digging back to past tours, have you been happy with that program so far, too?
Yeah, that's fun as well. Some of those classic shows, there's really no reason not to put them out. And some of them really stand head and shoulders above everything else. So we try to find out which ones the fans feel are really essential to them, and then see if we have good recordings of those. It's nice to get those out — it's just nice having a place where you can release so freely, where previously, for most of our career, we hadn't done that. So it's nice to be sort of servicing the fans in that way.

- photograph by Joel Bernstein

Tempe is an amazing document. When Thom Zimny came out to Monmouth [University] a few weeks ago and showed it on the big screen, it was just astounding, and I was wondering while I was watching... what went through your mind when you first saw it? You mentioned feeling lucky to uncover the footage, what do you see when you watch something like this, 35 years later?
I see a lot of skinny people! [Laughs] There's a lot of skinny little guys on stage!

You know, at the time — you think 30, you think you're old. We thought we were old at 30. And then you look back, and of course that's funny. But the band was at some sort of peak at that moment. We had a lot of material that we were drawing on, Clarence was at the peak of his powers, and moving, and just incredible… I had a lot of fun watching it. It's just fun to watch your younger self. And it was a very good representation of the band we were at that moment.

I was too young for that tour — I was nine years old at the time.
That's why I really like getting out things like the Hammersmith show, and the stuff we got out on the Darkness box, and then this. It's nice to get those pieces of the band when it was just starting, so if you weren't around, if you weren't born, if you were too young, you can get an idea of what we were doing then.

We were very against filming ourselves, and we didn't film ourselves very much. Looking back, that was a mistake. But I was young and a little superstitious, and I didn't want to break the magic by watching the trick too closely, you know? So we didn't film a lot. Looking back on that now, that's the one thing, if I could have done something different, I wish we'd have filmed much more of our work life. But we've been lucky that, somehow or another, mostly every tour, somebody got a camera out there and caught something. Now we film pretty regularly. But at that time... no.

When I was talking with Zimny about Tempe, about some of the disappointment that it's not a full show, his response was, "Man, we were lucky to have as much as we have!"
Oh, we were. And of course we searched for everything, to see what was there, but we just felt lucky that we had what we had. Because it was more than likely that we would have had nothing, given the approach we were taking at the time.

Was it filmed for promotion? For commercials?
I don't really remember — I don't remember what it was filmed for. It might have been... somebody might have asked and I just said "Okay." I don't remember it being filmed for promotion — but whatever it was filmed for, it wasn't used for! Like everything, like Hammersmith, it just went into the vault and just sat there. So I really don't know — maybe it was just filmed for posterity. But I didn't pay much attention to it at the time, because it was disturbing to me. If I saw people with cameras, or filming, it just made me too self-conscious when I was young, so I didn't want to have anything to do with it.

I was always concerned with, you know, the show is about this moment, it's about you, it's about tonight. This moment belongs to the people that are in the room, and that was my first and foremost concern. And anything that got in the way of that, I was against at the time. So consequently, we didn't film very much [laughs].

What changed in you, in terms of that attitude?
Well, you get older and you realize that some of this stuff should have been documented. I wish we had film of us recording The River, or recording Born in the U.S.A. now — I really wish that that existed. Looking back at the Born to Run and the Darkness [studio] footage we have, I really feel like, wow, I wish we had loosened up and had a few nights where we let someone in. But we were too one-track mind on the record. That's just the way we did things — that's was how things got done. But as I got older, I said, no, I wasn't gonna make that mistake again, and once we got into the '90s we started to film things more. I'm always glad to have it now.

- photograph by Joel Bernstein

So on this tour, you'll be playing the full River album, start to finish. I was lucky enough to be there at Madison Square Garden that first and only time, and that was just an incredible show.
Yeah, it was a great night. My memories of it were great, so it made it like, "Oh, yeah, we could do that again!" Because I remember it as being a terrific night.  That seemed to play well.

The album sequence really converts well to the live show — with all the peaks and valleys that you usually have.
Yeah — I mean, The River album was set up to play like a live show. And so it does play well — it plays very well like that. That's why we took all the time we did with it: it was our idea of new material that played like a show. Because the fans, up to that point, were saying, "Gee, you know, this record's great, but..." there was always the show, the show, the show — you know, that we're not quite capturing the show on one record. Which we weren't always attempting to do. The records are very different. But with The River, we were taking a swing at trying to get some of that feeling and some of that ambiance onto the album.

The single-album version, as much as I love it, wouldn't have had the same effect. Let's talk about that record a little bit.
Yeah, that was something we made, and gave it to the record company, of course, and didn't release — we ended up taking it back. When I listened to it, I've often used the word, it wasn't big enough. It wasn't sprawling enough. It didn't include enough. I'd gotten to the point where I wanted to include everything that I did, from the party material to my character studies, and I didn't think I could do that successfully on one album at that time. I didn't take it back with the intention of making two.... I just took it back with the intention of making it better.

Was the label pissed off when you took it back?
I don't remember that, you know? I don't remember them being angry — we were pretty lucky, in that they really always followed where I was going creatively. I'm one of the few artists whose label has always, for the most part, been behind whatever direction I've taken. So I don't remember that being a big issue at the time.

What made you want to include it in the box? I love that this hidden piece of history is now part of the catalog, and to me the differences are significant, but I was surprised by the decision — especially, I guess, given how much of it made it to either Tracks or the double album.
Listening back to it now, the thing that makes it quite special is the fact that the whole record was mixed by Bob Clearmountain, presaging Born in the U.S.A. It's a very different record. A record mixed by Bob… Bob is a transformer. It's a very different record than the double album that we made: if you compare, say, the two "Ties That Bind," their feel is very, very different. I like the single record now — I enjoy it, I listened to it when we put the box together, and I was, "Hey, that was a good record." It was fun to listen to. But it just didn't have the cinematic and sprawling scope of the record we ended up with.

The record we ended up with was sort of our goodbye to our garage sound, in a way. That was where we figured out how to make and mix it ourselves, and we left all the rough edges on, and at the end of the day, that's one of the characteristics I like about The River. The next rock record, obviously, was Born in the U.S.A., and so once we hit that, there was a different standard for the quality of sound and the way we released things.

How much of that sound and that sensibility do you credit Steve with?
On The River, very much. Steve was very much… he promoted the garage-y sound inside of the thing, and The River was one where i really gave Steve his way quite a bit. He really influenced it. I was interested in going that way myself, but he was a real partner and a real influence on the sound of that record.

What do you enjoy about doing a full album sequence? It's been a regular thing that you've gone back to since that night at the Count Basie [Theatre] in 2008.
I like it a lot because, first of all, in most of these cases we spent years putting that sequence together. Just sequencing. They are full bodies of work, and they were meant to be listened to from start to finish. I still make my records like that, you know?

It's very strange, I've always thought, that the first thing that people do, when they come out on tour, is they break the album completely up. They play a few songs here, a few songs there… it's actually very unusual, considering all the time and the care you take in the sequencing and in the content of the record.

So when you get to play these album shows, you get some of that back. You get the cumulative experience of a very particular place and time, a very particular group of songs. And that has its own identity. And I believe that the accumulation of those 20 songs together is greater than the individual playing of each particular song on any given night. You get a sense of a time, you get a sense of where your head was, the issues you were thinking about, who you were at that moment… it really marks a certain moment in your work life. So I like to play the records in their entirety. When you're done, you feel like you've had the full experience of the album.

Yeah, that's the feeling I had at the Garden that night. And even certain songs that you might laugh off when it comes to playing them individually, as you say… like "Crush on You" — when that comes, at just the right time, it's a blast.
[Laughs] Well, we'll be playing it!

Are there any shows by other artists that stand out to you, where you've gotten to see someone perform a full album? Did you catch the Quadrophenia tour or anything like that?
No, I didn't catch that. As a matter of fact, I'm not sure I've ever seen somebody do it. I did see the video of Van [Morrison] doing Astral Weeks, and of course that's one of my all-time favorite records, so I loved that a lot. I know a lot of other people are doing it, but I haven't seen… I know Steely Dan did a stand, I think it was at the Beacon, where each night they played a different record — I would have loved to have seen that. I know John Fogerty's done a few of his. I haven't had a chance to go out and catch them. But it's fun — it's fun to hear, and I think it's fun for the musicians to do.

Are there any challenges that go along with it? I'm thinking in terms of having a set sequence locked in, which doesn't happen for you too often. There was the Tunnel tour, and the start of the Rising tour, but in general...
Well, I think it's going to be a relief to a certain extent! [Laughs] I mean, usually up there, I'm a third or two-thirds through the song, and my mind is already going, okay, what am I gonna play next? I enjoy doing that — and my band does that better than anybody out there — but it'll be fun playing music like it's a little opera or a little play. It'll be enjoyable to do that. I'm looking forward to it.

The River Tour begins January 16, 2016, in Pittsburgh, PA. See our Tour/Ticket Info page for the full itinerary including ticket sale information.

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