Exclusive Q&A: Steven Van Zandt on New Show, Life Without Clarence Clemons

'Bringing in Jake Clemons will help the audience emotionally, because we're keeping it in the family,' he says

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Bruce Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt perform at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Steven Van Zandt has a familiar problem: he needs to be in two places at the same time. He's about to go on a year-long tour with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, but his new Norwegian mobster show Lilyhammer (available in the U.S. on Netflix) has proven to be a hit, and there's demand for a second season. About a decade ago he faced a similar problem when The Sopranos was filming in the middle of a Springsteen tour. We chatted with Van Zandt about his busy schedule, the upcoming Springsteen tour, hiring Jake Clemons (nephew of Clarence) for the band and what songs he hopes to convince Bruce to break out on tour this year. 

Did you enjoy The Grammys last night?
It was fun, actually. There was a bit of sadness hanging over the whole proceedings, but they turned it into more of a celebration of life rather than focusing on the sad parts.

They really gave you some good seats right in front. The camera panned to you over and over again.
[Laughs] That's because Bruce and Patti give us their seats. I haven't quite achieved that status on my own yet.

It looked like you were even in front of Lady Gaga.
[Laughs] It was fun. Paul [McCartney] was to our right, Adele to our left.

I loved the Abbey Road medley at the end.
It was wonderful. Anytime you have Paul and his band playing those songs, something extraordinary happens. It's literally classical music for my generation. They play it note for note, which is how it should be played. You wouldn't improvise on Beethoven's Fifth, would you? It just adds a whole other level of depth to the whole proceedings.

I've really enjoyed watching your new show Lilyhammer. I think a lot of people thought your acting career was going to begin and end with The Sopranos.
That would have been fine with me. But a little while ago I'm in Bergen, Norway, producing an all-girl band called the Cocktail Slippers. Someone told me that a husband and wife team were there to see me. They gave me this one sentence pitch for a show: "gangster goes into witness protection and chooses Lillehammer, Norway." Now, I wasn't planning on playing a gangster again unless Marty Scorsese called. But I said to them, "The idea is intriguing and it sounds like fun, but I need to control my own destiny at this point. I'm not really a gun for hire." They said, "No, we want you to be one of the writers and one of the producers and really get involved." I said, "Well, let's see if we can work together." We spent a couple of months writing and decided that we could work together. We made a deal, and then spent another year writing the scripts. 

The biggest challenge was figuring out how much English to put in the show. It was tricky because something like this had never been done before. I decided to take a chance because there are a lot of people in Norway who understand Norwegian, but don't speak it. The premise was my character had been studying Norwegian during the year-long trial. He goes over there and he understands the language, but doesn't speak it. Subtitles tend to be tricky for Americans, but people are saying to me, "I've never really like subtitles, but this show sucked me right in." And the reason is, as you watch it, you become that guy because he's speaking English. It's a very interesting way of doing things.

I've read that in Norway some huge percentage of the entire country watches it.
That happened the first week. It blew everybody's mind – biggest viewership in history. And everybody, including me, thought, "Well, it's probably just a curiosity. We have a lot of fans from the E Street Band, and we do have a lot of fans from the old Sopranos. It must be a curiosity factor." But in the second week, the average increased another five or ten percent. Then in the third week, just two days ago, it increased another five to ten percent. So something really weird is going on over there. I'm hearing nothing but positive things.

Are they already planning a second season? 
Yeah, there's discussions about it. Netflix wants it. But I've got this other little logistical problem called the Bruce Springsteen tour. I gotta see how the hell I can do this. If we wait until the end of the tour to film it, we're talking 2014 for season two. And that seems a bit long to wait. So I'm gonna try and figure this out. We have to first determine whether America really likes it or not. We'll go from there.

You managed to film The Sopranos at the same time as a Bruce tour.
That was different in several ways. First of all, I wasn't starring in it, so they limited my part. That was unfortunate. That's why the Silvio part never expanded to being significant in the plot lines until that one arc when Jimmy was in the hospital. Then there were a couple of shows there where I was quite prominent. But other than that they had to limit my involvement because they weren't even sure when I'd make it back from tour. 

With Lilyhammer, you can't really it do it that way. We have to probably find at least six, eight weeks - whether it's all in a row or spread out, in order to get this done. We'll get into all that if it turns out the American audiences like it as much as the Norwegian audience seems to like it. 

Tell me about the decision to bring Jake Clemons into the E Street Band.
We had a lot of discussion. It was a tough thing to try and figure out. But in the end we felt it’s not going to be possible to replace Clarence, and it wouldn't really be fair to the person. So we decided to have a horn section.  In this case, we’re going to have two saxes, really, playing those parts. And whoever plays the sax part will emerge from the horn section, then they go back to the horn section. So it takes the pressure off that spotlight of suggesting that he’s replacing Clarence, which is just impossible to do. So we thought that was a good solution, and at the same time it’s going to fun for me, because as you know I’m a horn guy. So I’ll be able to have some fun with our soul and R&B roots and emphasize some of that during that tour. And then we have the added bonus of keeping it somewhat in the family with Jake being the nephew. And I think that helps us emotionally, and I think it’ll maybe help the audience emotionally to make that transition by keeping it in the family.

A lot of the new songs on Wrecking Ball are built around drum loops. How are you guys transferring that to a more E Street sound?
I'm going to let Bruce address the recording of the album, but a lot of those drums got replaced by real drums. And live, it'll be slightly different. The record is interesting, and it’s great by the way. It’s interesting sonically and it does go to some new places, but it’s not shockingly weird. It sounds like Bruce Springsteen, just doing some new things. It’s not anything radical, but yeah, when we play it live it’s going to be a little different. These songs work really well. It’s not like we have any trouble adapting them to play them live. We learned the whole album in like a day. It’s great, great, great stuff and easy to adapt to live.

Are there certain songs closely associated with Clarence that you won't do without him - like maybe "Jungleland" or something?
I don't know. We'll see. I'll let Bruce talk to you about that stuff, but we'll have to see. We’re starting with just the premise of a horn section and Bruce’s music being continued by this band. In some cases the sax will be part of the composition. Just like I was talking about before with the Beatles stuff, certain things you just want to hear. There’s times for improvisation, and there’s times to be precise, because that is communicating something that is special by its specificity.  And we will occasionally do that. And there will be times when we can get a little bit looser with things. But we’ll feel all that out as we go.  It's the early stages, we’re just starting to rehearse now, and I’m sure we’ll learn things as we go.

I think that the world needs a new Steven Van Zandt solo record. It's time.
[Laughs] I don't know if they ever needed that! When I started doing them I decided to make strictly political records, because nobody was doing that. I figured at least I'd have some sort of niche that justified my existence. But no, I don't think the world is waiting for a new solo album from me. There will be some musical things I will do over the next couple of years. First of all, I’m very interested right now in scoring movies and TV shows, so that’s what I wanna do next. I almost scored Lilyhammer, I wrote the theme song, which you hear in the beginning, and a few of the music cues as you watch the thing. Interestingly enough, the guitar you hear all the way through, that’s not me -  that’s the other guy. But the more Norwegian stuff, the weirder stuff, that’s my stuff. But that’s what I’m interested in doing, and I could really kind of get my musical rocks off scoring. Also, musical supervision which I’ve been doing for films, and just writing songs for movies. That’s mostly the direction I’ll be going in. 

Are there certain rare Bruce songs you hope to play on this tour?
I'm always hoping for that second disc of Tracks. It's no secret that's one of my favorite albums that never existed. But this Promise that we just put out was really one of my favorites also. So, we're going on this tour with two new albums really. It's going to be really fun to play stuff from The Promise and the new album. I'm always looking for those songs from the Tracks collection. They're fun.

At the Buffalo show on the last tour you finally got him to do "Restless Nights."
Because it was my birthday! I think that's one of our greatest songs, greatest records even. That disc is just full of great stuff. I always like to hear "Fade Away" or some of the more obscure things from The River.

The last tour was very focused on the past, with the complete albums shows and whatnot. I'm guessing that this tour will be a lot more focused on the present.

I didn't really think about that, but you may have a point. Maybe there's just more new stuff this time. That's certainly the truth. Like I said, we have two albums. But we're always going to play the classics, which is a real fun aspect of a show. We've always maintained a healthy balance between new stuff and stuff that people are coming to hear. If you come to five different shows, you're going to hear we've regularly changed about 1/3rd of the show every single night. So, by the time you come to five or six shows, you'll have seen at least three different versions of the show. 

Are you doing rehearsal shows before the tour begins?
I don't know yet. At the moment, our rehearsal show would be The Apollo, which is only the most important venue of all time. So, we gotta make sure we don't get the hook. What usually happens is we open up rehearsals near the end and bring people in. That's probably will be the same thing that'll happen here. We'll do something before The Apollo, I'm sure. You don't want to start with a live broadcast  never having made it through the set. Even for us, that's a bit much - although we do like challenges. Like what we did last night. That was fun.

Yeah, you guys played for the first time in front of who knows how many millions of people.
After you do the Super Bowl, everything else is kind of easy.

Watch the Lilyhammer trailer:

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