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Q&A: Steve Van Zandt

The favorite sideman of Bruce Springsteen and Tony Soprano talks about touring, his favorite songs and why he'll probably never do another solo album

March 17, 2008 10:56 AM ET

Steve Van Zandt is so busy touring with Bruce Springsteen running his own record label and hosting his "Underground Garage" radio show that he postponed his interview with Rolling Stone four separate times. When he finally did get on the phone, he more than made up for it. During the wide-ranging interview, the E Street Band guitarist discussed everything from the odds of a Sopranos movie to why he'll never cut a solo album to why the band never plays his favorite Springsteen song.

Bruce has been dragging out some pretty rare songs on this leg of the tour so far.
You never know what's gonna pop out, you know? It's kind of fun to have so many songs to choose from.

What motivated him to open up the first show with something as random as "So Young and In Love"?
I don't know how many songs he has right now. Two hundred and fifty? Three hundred? He just flips through 'em, and says, "Heeeey, remember this one?" No particular reason other than just he hadn't done it very often, or hadn't done it for a long time. The wonderful... freedom... that our audience allows us is something that's fairly unique, We're able to do almost anything at any time and people seem to dig it.

Are they moments when he calls an audible — say "The Detroit Medley" and you guys just can't remember it?
We take a vote amongst us very quickly as to what key it's in. That happens. The nice thing about having so many people in the band is that no one person has to know everything. I might catch up on the second verse, you know what I'm saying?

You've played "Badlands," "Born to Run" and "Promised Land" at nearly every gig you've done over the past decade. Which one are you the most sick of?
We play those every time, huh?

Pretty much.
I know it sounds like an odd thing, because I used to think this about people in the theater: "They have to do exactly the same thing every night." There's not one single word different. I used to think, "How do you do that?" We probably change things more often than almost anybody. Maybe there's a jam band or two through history that maybe changed things more often than us, but I don't think it's very many. Even if you're playing the same song, if there's a different order or a different context, then it sort of changes a little bit because of what's before it or what's after it. And so it has a funny kind of "newness" every night.

I've heard you say before that your favorite Springsteen song is "Fade Away."
Yeah, that's one of 'em.

Why does Bruce never play it with the band?
I don't know! It's just one of those funny, lost little gems, you know?

Do you ever say to him, "Bruce, I'd like to play this song tonight?"
You know, I really should do that more often. I guess it's just kind of a slower one and we don't play that many slower ones anymore, so maybe it's just hard to fit it in. But I should bring that up. My other favorite is "Held Up Without a Gun." We never play that one, either.

You and Nils are singing a bit now on "Long Walk Home," which you didn't on the first leg of the tour. How'd that happen?
It just spontaneously happened one night. It was one of those songs I thought we weren't quite getting the most out of it somehow. Songs are funny. You record them one way and then sometimes live they need to be adjusted or expanded or changed slightly to capture the essence of it. Sometimes it doesn't quite translate literally when you do it precisely the same way. And that just struck me as we were playing it, you know. I thought, you know, it's not quite going to that place it needs to go to, which the lyrics in it suggest. Sometimes something is just great on record and never quite translates live for some reason. It can be a bit of a challenge and that's just one thing I love to do. I'm just a natural-born arranger and always have been. I just love it. I did a lot of the stuff on Darkness and, of course, The River and Born in the U.S.A., that was sort of my thing before I started co-producing with him.

You know, I was reading that you were almost a part of the 1992 tour. Could you tell me about that?
We were talking about doing something and I think we just decided to kind of wait on it or I got busy doing something. I honestly don't remember now. I think we just maybe decided to wait and get the E Street band back together.

How's Danny Federici doing?
He's doing great at the moment. It's a bit miraculous. I talked to him last week and he sounds great. I just hope it lasts. In a month or two we'll hopefully see him back.

Great. It's pretty incredible to think the same lineup of people who played on "Born to Run" are still in the band.
Yeah, I know. That's why it was so hard when Danny had to drop out for a minute. It was like the first time we were on stage without him. I love Charlie, he's doing a great job, but you can't replace Danny. You know what I mean? I look over there and it's like "Oh man." You know? It's just weird. Honestly, Charlie has an impossible job of trying to replace a legendary cat like Danny. He certainly is doing a great job, but you can't replace Danny.

People are concerned Max isn't going to be allowed on tour after Conan moves to 11:30.
The Conan show ends somewhere around New Year's Eve this year. Then there's a good five or six months before they take over The Tonight Show. There's still plenty of time before that happens and we'll see. Through the years Max has absolutely become an integral part of that show. It's not like he's just the music guy. He's the second banana, as we used to call it. He's the foil, the Ed McMahon. He's great being that straight man. So for Conan to give that up and say "Okay, man, I know this is important, I'll do the show without you," I mean it's radical, man. I really don't think Conan gets enough credit for being so amazing, and everybody else at NBC are just terrific — from the chairman on down, honestly. So we'll see. There may come a day when it's all over, but, not yet.

So the tour is going through October?
I don't know. We're all gonna certainly be around and not take any other major projects for the rest of the year. Let's put it that way. There may be some time off. I'm not sure it will be every single week, every single month right through October. I think this year, we certainly have carved out for this and we'll see what happens. I haven't really seen a schedule to be honest. I just know we have to be available this year.

I'm wondering if you ever think about making a solo album that's backed by some of the garage bands you champion on your show?
Nah, I really haven't. I haven't really had any time to think about that at all. I'm just trying to get our business on solid ground, which may never happen. But I'm hoping it does. We're kind of reinventing the whole music business at this point, not to mention trying to bring back the whole basic genre of rock & roll, which disappeared off the face of the Earth. Our two-hour syndicated show is over a million listeners in over 200 cities. And the Sirius satellite thing is going great and then we're spanning into Europe. We're expanding very well but now the next level is to get some TV going and get these new rock n roll bands actually seen, whether it's on YouTube or whether it's on regular TV.

So that leaves you no time for an album.
Yeah. I'm hoping I even get a chance to maybe produce a song or two for some of these bands. Or maybe write a song or co-write a song and get a little bit involved in getting into a studio — which is like a fucking vacation, man. To walk into a studio, for me, is just like walking onto a beach or something. I haven't really thought of doing a solo record although it probably would be a good one honestly because I've done nothing but listen to good rock music for six straight years. It's probably getting into my head somewhere. But I kind of said what I needed to say with the five solo albums I did. I didn't really want to make a solo album. I don't believe in solo albums. I'm a band guy anyway. The only reason why I made solo records was because I got so obsessed with politics and that is quite personal, I don't really philosophically believe in solo records. So that's why I don't play my own records on my radio show. I'm just strictly a band guy.

If you had to give a number of the percent odds of a Sopranos movie, what number is that?
I'd say you gotta one out of ten shot. And that's three years from now. Not likely, but slightly slightly slightly possible.

Good thing you survived.
Silvio's still breathing. So that's all I care about, but I don't really don't expect a movie.

The fans are always curious about the Nebraska sessions. Were any of them attempted with a full band? What happened there?
It was an interesting moment. If I recall correctly he started cutting them as demos for the band. This was before Born in the U.S.A. right?

Yeah.
I remember him playing them for me one day and said "Here's my new songs. We'll start rehearsing them as a band soon." And I listened to this thing and I thought to myself, "I gotta say there's something extraordinary about this." There was no intention of it being a record and no intention of it being released, but there was something just extraordinarily intimate about it. And I thought "What a wonderful moment has been captured here just accidentally." And I said to him, "Listen, I know this is a bit strange but I honestly think this is an album unto itself and I think you should release it." And he was like "What do you mean? It's just demos for the band." And I'm like "I know you didn't intended for this to be recorded but I just know greatness when I hear it, okay? It's my thing, it's why I'm a record producer and that's why I'm your friend and I'm just telling you I think your fans will just love this and I think it's actually an important piece of work. Because it captures this amazingly strange, weirdly cinematic kind of dreamlike mood. I don't know what it is. All I know is I know greatness when I hear it and this is it, okay? And this deserves to be heard I think people will love it and I think it's a unique opportunity to actually release something absurdly intimate."

So the band didn't even try to record them?
We may have cut one or two. I don't know if they ended up on Tracks. I think it just sort of became it's own thing and then he just wrote Born in the USA. I must say, again, the record company in that case, and I forget who it was, was very surprisingly and shockingly understanding about it. It was like "Well, we got this really cool electric album coming. So don't think we're gonna do this all the time. But we kind of want to put this thing out." I guess Bruce's manager Jon just managed to convince him that it was cool and then he went along with it.

I think "Trapped Again" is one of your few co-writing credit you had with Bruce.
There's a couple more. "Love on the Wrong Side of Town," from the second album. "This Time It's Real."

It would be great if you guys wrote together more often.
We really should have done more of that. We brought back Gary U.S. Bonds, which was an amazing success. It was totally Bruce's and he probably intended to produce it in the end, co-produce the single, then produce the rest of the album. I tried to convince him to buy the Power Station and start a record label. I really wish we had. Then we could have co-wrote and co-produced a bunch of legendary 60's cats. I thought we could build a whole label around that and just kind of have fun with it. I wish we had done that. But it was not the right time.

Do you think the tour is going to end here in New York as the last two tours have?
Jeez, I don't know. I have no idea. No idea. Really, I mean, I don't even know where we are this week.

I think you're playing in Nebraska in two days.
[Laughs] Oh, speaking of Nebraska! My life is on a need to know basis. I literally only get my schedule maybe the night before. So that's about as far in the future as I know.

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