Musician, songwriter, producer, actor, director, activist, radio DJ, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, and one of the founding members of Bruce Springsteen’s iconic E Street Band: Steven Van Zandt brings his infectious, rousing rock & soul band Little Steven and the Disciples Of Soul to Australia for four life-affirming headline live shows this month, proudly presented by Frontier Touring.
Little Steven and band will perform four exclusive headline dates with Perth (Metro City 13 April), Adelaide (Thebarton Theatre 16 April), and Perth being added to the shows already announced at Melbourne’s Forum Theatre on Tuesday 23 April, and Sydney’s Enmore Theatre on Thursday 25 April.
I have to start off by saying thank you for adding Adelaide to the tour schedule. We’re always a place that seems to get left off a lot of big international touring acts, so it’s great that you’re going be playing the iconic Thebarton Theatre.
Yeah, I know. It was a bit of a challenge. For some reason people come down there and nobody suggests Adelaide or Perth. And I’m like, “Why is that?” We come all this way down there, let’s do everything.
Absolutely.So I don’t understand it, but whatever. We’re doing the right thing, that’s for sure. We know that.
Is there a different buzz for you when you’re out there touring with your own band doing your own music?
Oh, it’s a very different experience. Fronting the band is a whole different thing. It requires all your time and energy and, with Bruce it’s really a vacation. Like you drive the train and everybody else can just ride along. But when you’re doing it yourself, you don’t have time to take a sip of water. It’s a constant, you’re always in the spotlight. It’s a very different gig but it’s fun to bring these songs to people. I think the music has value and this band is amazing. Wait until you see this band. It’s a fourteen-piece plus me and it’s very, very powerful, the best session guys in New York. You’re going to hear something that’s quite unusual. That big a band is unusual to begin with, but they’re very, very good.
So it’s been a lot of fun. People come to the show out of curiosity mostly. They might know me from E Street or even know me from Sopranos or Lilyhammer or whatever. They come out of curiosity and they leave as fans. We win them over one song at a time. It’s been a really, really satisfying and productive couple of years here.
Has Australia been in your sights for quite a while to come and tour?Yeah, beginning when we actually recorded the first album Soulfire, before the Australian tour that we did with the E Street Band. So I knew we were going be coming out, so I started then talking to Michael Gudinski and Peter Noble saying, “I wanna come down,” and it took three years but finally we’re making it down there. Ever since I first came there I just love the country and I think it’s a very, very unique country. The people there are very special and very different and I really, really love it. It’s one big rock and roll beach party, the whole country as far as I’m concerned. I’ve been trying to get back there ever since, and finally we got Byron Bay as our anchor and then we’re surrounding it with everything else. So it’s worked out well.
With Soulfire being your first album in fifteen years, did you feel pressure in some ways to finally get an album out?
I didn’t really, I didn’t miss my own thing exactly. It was a bit weird, you know. I did my records in the 80s and then I said what I wanted to say being autobiographical and all very political. Then the 90s came along and I drifted for a while and then started acting and did Sopranos for ten years and then Bruce put the band back together and I went right from Sopranos to Lilyhammer, and before you know it twenty years went by and I hadn’t even realised that I’d left my own work behind. A cat just came to me one day and said, “Why don’t you put a band together and play my blues festival?” This is right after Bruce started playing Broadway, I think. So what the hell? Maybe it’s time.
So I got reconnected to my own music by accident and I realised at that very first rehearsal, “Wow, this stuff really holds up well.” It’s got a strange value to it, this rock meets soul sort of thing that I created back with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and I carried that same sound into my first solo album. Then I started doing different things. I returned to that sound for Soulfire and this new album, Summer Of Sorcery, coming in May which will be the first time in my life I’ve ever done two records in a row with the same band. So it’s really been a wonderful couple of years of reconnecting to my own stuff and then connecting an audience to it because most people just don’t realise I ever was an artist, really. It’s been a long time. It’s been good.
Did you get that excitement back when you started working on this new material and having another album follow in relative quick succession as well? Was it hard not to take advantage of that energy while it was there to keep the ball rolling and make another album?
Yeah! Exactly, exactly right. Exactly. I was hoping that the Soulfire tour would inspire new material, and it did. So to keep everything rolling, we went right from Soulfire into the live Soulfire project, which was massive. It’s three CDs and seven vinyl records. There’s a Soulfire Live box with all kinds of stuff on it and that was a big project. Then we went right into the new album from that. So we’ve been pretty much non-stop productivity but I couldn’t have done the new album if we hadn’t done a year on the road. It was that year on the road really absorbing the stuff and getting my head back into my own stuff, allowed me to then write the new songs. It couldn’t have worked out better, honestly. It really has been just like you wrote it up in the book. It’s been perfect.
Do you think that the momentum will continue and there might be another album or two there? Or you just don’t know?
Well, I’m going to continue this forever now. This will be the new thing forevermore. I give Bruce priority, so if Bruce wants to go back on the road in 2020 I will do that with him and then I’ll come back to the Disciples after that. We’ll see how that works out. Somewhere in between there eventually I want to get back on TV as well because I do enjoy that also. So we’ll see about that but I will continue making new albums now every other year or every two years, whatever it is, with the Disciples and then two more and in between things that Bruce wants to do and then eventually I’ll find a way to get back on TV.
The work that you do with your foundation TeachRock.org must be really satisfying?
Yeah. Again, it wasn’t really planned at first. The music teachers came to me ten years ago and said, “Listen, they’re cancelling all the art classes in America, can you find out what’s happening?” I went to Congress and I talked to Teddy Kennedy and I talked to Mitch McConnell and then they passed this legislation called No Child Left Behind. The idea was to improve science and math scores, I guess, which had been steadily going downward but to improve those scores they cancelled all the art classes in America. Just like that. So I came back to the teachers and said, “Listen, we’re not going to put instruments in kids’ hands for a while, that’s for sure. But why don’t we try something else? Why don’t we try and do a music history curriculum? And this way at least we keep the arts in the DNA of the education system. This will keep something happening in there that’s having something to do with music and we can do it cross curricular. You can do it in English class. You can do it in history class, social studies, whatever. We can do it with every kid, because you don’t have to be a musician to learn music history.”
They liked that idea and they endorsed it. So I wrote up 200 outlines, I outlined 200 lessons and then I didn’t want to go public until we had at least 100 online. So we went public last year right at the end of the American Soulfire tour. We are actually are up to 150 lessons now. So what we do is we put aside 4-500 tickets for teachers, and we’ll be doing the same thing down there with you in Australia. The teachers, all they have to do is register with Christine at teachrock.org and they get the curriculum for free. They can come to the show for free. They can bring a friend. We even do a workshop in between the sound check and the show, sort of. So it’s a wonderful way to keep music in people’s consciousness.
It turns out that these classes are very, very successful. The kids, this generation of kids, man, they’re tough to get hold of. They’re smarter than us. They’re faster than us and they don’t have any patience. They don’t have any attention span. So teachers are having a tough time and they’ve been having really big success with our curriculum, because it’s about music and all you have to do is ask the kids who their favourite artist is and they’re interested. You immediately have their attention. So it’s been very, very successful and we’re going to continue doing that. We’ve just started really going public with it like six months ago. There’s 25,000 teachers registered already. 25,000, yeah! They probably teach about 100 kids each during the year. So that’s 2.5 million kids already having our music history curriculum.
Wow! It must be a real buzz, the fact that it’s gone over broader than just America and that it is happening here in Australia?
Yeah. You probably don’t have the same problems we have. We have a very serious dropout problem in high schools. Literally 50%, half the kids of the poor neighbourhoods are dropping out of high school and half of them go to prison. It’s a direct line from dropping out of high school to going to prison. That costs our society billions of dollars, not to mention the crime damage and damage to the families and all the rest of it. So we target that with this curriculum. We designed it for the kids that really are not interested in normal type of education and it’s very successful that way. We’re very happy about it.
I know from here in Australia we only see what’s happening in America on the news but is the political situation the same, worse or spiralling out of control?
Well, we’re really in a dark time at the moment. I think it’s really hard though and it’s not just here. You’ve got Brexit going on in England, which is a disaster. You have all kinds of fascist parties popping up all over Europe. We pulled out of the Paris Accords. We pulled out of the Asian Accord. Things are a little weird. We’re in a weird period of time but I think my usefulness now, and I used to be extremely good at this, but now I feel like my usefulness is trying to bring people together rather than being political. I think what’s happening in politics is now quite obvious. Doesn’t need any explanation really. So I think I’m more useful trying to bring people together and using music as the common ground.
We’re so divided now, especially in my country. We are literally close to a civil war here. It’s really bad and I think the same thing is happening in Europe. It’s all over the place, so we need to put our partisanship aside and stop dividing ourselves so much. We need to try and come together, and that’s what I did with the Soulfire tour and the Soulfire album and the same thing with the new album. I’m trying not to be partisan at all. I want to take people, when they come to the show I want to transport them for two hours away from the madness. Everybody needs a break from the madness these days and we’re doing that. With this band and this music, people really get a sense of the whole tradition of rock and roll. They get a sense of history from it and they find it inspiring, and they leave our concerts with more energy than they came with. That’s what it’s all about.
Where do you take your inspiration from particularly when you listen to the new single, Superfly Terraplane, what sorts of stuff were you listening to when you wrote that one?
I’ve got a bunch of influences that I’ve integrated into my own personality, my own identity. It’s quite a range of things, really. You’ll hear them on the new album. Superfly Terraplane you’ve got a bit of Little Richard, a bit of Chuck Berry, a bit of the Beach Boys and then there’s the whole Mexican mariachi section to the middle. I like mixing things up and combining different things together. On the new album you’re going to hear a bit of Sly and the Family Stone influence. You’re going to hear Sam Cooke. You’re going hear a bit of Tito Puente. I like a lot of the Latino things. You’re going to hear a bit of Van Morrison, a bit of James Brown but all of them sort of through my own thing.
It’s been fantastic talking to you and we look forward to your show on Tuesday at Thebarton Theatre.
Thanks, man. Spread the word, man. We want to fill that place up.
Yeah, we will. We’ll do our best.
Tell the teachers they come for free. We want to say thank you. It’s our way of showing gratitude to the most underappreciated, underfunded and under paid human beings on the planet. We’re trying to say thank you for them.
Interview By Rob Lyon
Catch Little Steven & The Disciples Of Soul on the following dates…