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Exclusive: Steven Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren Open Up About the New E Street Band

'It's emotional for me to walk onstage without Clarence (Clemons),' says Van Zandt

Nils Lofgren, Bruce Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt perform at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards.
Christopher Polk/WireImage
March 27, 2012 3:40 PM ET

The past month has been a time of frenzied activity for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. They taped two TV appearances, played special gigs at the Apollo Theater and SXSW, and launched a world tour in support of Springsteen's new LP, Wrecking Ball. Late last week, Rolling Stone chatted separately with E Street Band guitarists Steven Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren about the new E Street Band and how they're carrying on after the loss of Clarence Clemons.

You guys almost always do rehearsal shows before launching a big tour. Why didn't those happen this time?
Nils: Previously, the rehearsal shows were kind of a last-minute thing. I think probably what happened is that we were putting our own show together, which inevitably heads towards rehearsal shows. But because of the new record, we made commitments. We did the Grammys, two nights on Jimmy Fallon and the Apollo Show. Next on the horizon was the SXSW show. All of a sudden it was like, "Gosh, we have five different shows to prepare." Bruce always takes the time to slant the shows to the occasion, and we had to get our own show up and we just ran out of time.

Steven: It was interesting to witness our own extremes with the Apollo Show and the SXSW show. We went from emphasizing soul music at the Apollo to flipping 180 degrees for a Woody Guthrie celebration at SXSW. It was quite interesting to have that reinforced and have it be totally integrated in the work – not doing either extreme as a sort of specialty, gimmicky show, but actually having those roots so firmly planted in the material – and to be reminded how wide and varied the identity of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band actually is at this point. It's some kind of example of Americana in all of its forms.

It was a pretty bold move to debut the new band and new show at the Apollo, considering it was being broadcast live.
Steven: To do our first show as a broadcast, that's real balls. I'm proud of us for pulling it off. It was pretty close to flawless, I have to say. Keep in mind, we have a brand new five-piece horn section. We're still working on horn parts. We're still working on vocal parts with the singers. We have a couple new people involved. I took it for granted, but they were probably a bit nervous. They did great, though. 

We spent a lot of time thinking about this show and talking about it. The horn section was a good answer to the unanswerable: "How do you replace Clarence Clemons?" Well, you don't. It's real simple. The same way you replace Danny Federici. You don't. You have somebody else playing those parts, but you have to do something else, you have to morph it into a hybrid of what you were. It's not going to be the same.

How long ago did rehearsals begin?
Nils: They've been off and on, but we got together in the second week of January. We had to address what was in front of us, which was a lot, and kind of take our time and experiment and let things evolve. There's so many changes. Certainly the biggest change of all is Clarence, which is a terrible loss. I've been in the band for 28 years, and I'm pretty sure it's accurate to say that the band has never gone on the road with three-and-a-half albums of new material. When Bruce put out the Darkness On The Edge of Town package, there were 23 unreleased songs and they never toured behind that. And then you had 11 new songs. All this material is really valid and great and we've never integrated it into our show, which is already hundreds of songs that we haven't presented in over two years. It was an abnormal amount of new material to disseminate. It's just a giant, beautiful jigsaw puzzle of music. 

Steven: Usually we start rehearsals two weeks before the first show and kick around some ideas for the set, maybe do six rehearsals, period. Each tour has its own energy, and the writing is the script for the show. It's like a Broadway show or a movie. You have to start with the script, and that's always a new album for us. We've never been a nostalgia band. Every single time we go out, we're saying something new, something that's been on Bruce's mind in that period. In this case, instead of our usual five or six days, we did 10 or 12. We probably had 40 horn charts. That's a lot of work just to outline the charts, never mind tweak them and really get into the details of arranging, which, of course, I love to do, and Bruce is also really good at.

So that's going on, and we have to integrate this new album, adapt it – in this case, a little more adaptation, because it was a solo album. This is the first time this has ever happened, where he's touring with the E Street Band behind a solo album. But it's good, and we had the whole new album down in two days. Then you start kicking around ideas and doing older things. "My City of Ruins" ended up playing a major role in this show, really for the first time. It's always been an emotional song but sort of a specialty song, maybe an encore. This time it ended up playing a very, very different and central role.

This is the most difficult task ever. How do you address Clarence and Danny? How do you address that? You talk to ten different people and they're going to have ten different ideas. But it's really not easy. You're trying to do something that's very, very emotional, and at the same time, you don't want to make the show a funeral. You want to make sure the show is a celebration of life. It's a very delicate, very fine line to walk. And (Bruce) comes up with this rap – it's so fucking great, and so perfect. I'm awestruck. This guy still inspires me after 45 fucking years of doing this. I'm like, "Jesus Christ, that's so fucking good, so important." It's such an important moment in the show...It's probably the best start of a tour, I think ever, honestly.

I'm sure it was hard the first time you walked onstage without Clarence.
Nils: The first time that hit me the hardest was the Grammys. I'm standing there, and there's nobody to my right. It hit me hard. That's someone I'll miss the rest of my life, but I still love playing and it doesn't take away from the power of the songs of the band. 

Steven: It's emotional for me to walk onstage without Clarence, and it always will be. I still honestly once in a while get that feeling with Danny. I look over there and say, "Oh yeah, Danny's no longer…" That's never going to change. So I think the more people onstage, the more that helps. The more the configuration is different, the more that eases your emotional pain. In other words, you're not trying to replace them, you're doing a different thing. Through the years, since we started playing in 1965, you do a lot of different things. I've been in horn bands. I've been in country bands. You go into 100 different configurations in your life. Now it feels like another one. It's almost like you're in a different band, in a sense, even though the core of the band is still there.

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