Exclusive: Steven Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren Open Up About the New E Street Band
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.
It was emotional to watch Jake take that first solo in “Badlands” during the Apollo Show. It was sort of a passing-of-the-torch moment.
Nils: It has to be. What can you say? There’s no “Clarence Two.” We can’t bring him back, or else we would have. And you’re dealt with that choice of not sharing that music again with the band, or sharing it as best you can. You navigate the best you can with dignity and class, knowing that you can’t bring him back.
How do you think Jake is doing so far?
Steven: The kid’s doing great. We’re tough guys, maybe for our generation…you can’t take for granted every generation having the work ethic that we have. We are psychotic. We’re fucking…we’re nuts. We just reach for greatness all the time, and we expect everybody around us to do the same. The biggest question was, “He’s a young guy, doing a lot of different things – would he be able to handle that kind of expectation?” I have to say, he rose to the occasion like a champ, working his ass off.
I don’t know how many important sax solos there are, probably 30 or 40. But they have to be perfect. It’s not a sax solo where you can blow what you feel like. People want to hear those exact notes because they’re now a part of the composition. You go see Paul McCartney and he plays those Beatles records note-for-note perfect, and that’s exactly what you want because that’s classical music. You don’t improvise fucking Beethoven. You play those fucking notes. Every note means something. Every drum fill means something. It’s in that sort of area when you talk about Clarence Clemons’ solos. They’re part of the composition, and so you have to nail those things note for note, and the tone. How often do you get in front of 20,000 people in your living room? Your first show is a live broadcast.
I loved when he started the solo on “Thunder Road,” and then the rest of the horns chimed in.
Steven: Yeah, all of those things have been extremely thought out. We tried it different ways, asking, “What’s going to work emotionally?” You think of everything. You don’t want to be surprised, and you certainly don’t want to let the audience down or do something that’s going to be confusing to the audience emotionally. You want to do things that are going to be satisfying and give them the show they’ve come to expect from us.
Tell me about learning all this new material.
Nils: Oh well, I never quite learn all of it. It’s a work in progress. I don’t have a photographic musical memory, so I can’t keep track of all the songs. I’ve just gotten really good at guessing what might be coming down the road. I obviously don’t have to rehearse “Ramrod.” There’s a lot of songs that are just imprinted in me. They’re basic enough that I focus on the stuff that I forgot, like intricate parts to some of the more complex songs and some of the albums in the past twelve years.
The whole tour is a work in progress. Bruce may give us ideas of five surprises coming down the pike and you might not see any of them that night, or you might see all of them. Invariably, he’ll get inspired and call a song we didn’t discuss. There’s a lot of ’em that we might be rusty with, but you can probably call and we’ll get away with it.
What was the first audible on the tour?
Nils: Oh geez, I think that he called “Seeds” on the first night and it wasn’t in the setlist, and all of a sudden he called that out in the dark. That’s the other thing – it’s so freaking dark up there. In the rehearsal hall, I can read Bruce’s lips and I can hear him. In a deafening sports arena, it’s meaningless. You know, Bruce and Steve have such a great history that a lot of times in the dark after a song, I see them just talking and laughing. And that to me means whatever’s written on the page is next. If they’re not talking or laughing, they’ve having a conversation, I immediately run over and I stick my head right in there because I know something is going to change. And then because I’m fairly athletic, I become the Paul Revere of the stage and let everyone know.
It must have been a blast playing with Eric Burdon at SXSW.
Steven: That’s a funny coincidence. Bruce did his keynote speech and he talked about what an influence the Animals were, and it all came down to that one song, “We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place.” He said every single thing he’s written comes from that one song, which made Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil very happy, let me tell you. So he was going on about that, and what do you know, it turns out he was in town, which was really a freaky sort of thing. We found him, and we didn’t rehearse. But he jumped on and we did it.
Nils: We all knew that we needed to learn that song, but I really didn’t know that Eric would be walking out. So that blew my mind. That’s another cool thing. As long as he knows the band is there musically, Bruce doesn’t need to make us sure of every detail. He might not know if someone is going to sit in, because often guests they think are coming don’t make it. Like I said, the whole show is like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
It was also great to see you play with Jimmy Cliff. I’m always amazed by how perfect his voice still sounds.
Steven: Yeah, he’s still terrific. It’s always nice when you can remind people that these people are still around and still great, and you can continue to give them support. I’ve always done that ever since I first walked into a recording studio with Southside Johnny on our very first album. I found Lee Dorsey under a car in New Orleans, working as a mechanic, to play on the album. We brought Ronnie Spector out of retirement, the Toasters, the Drifters. It’s always good to say “thank you.” They’re really one of a kind, that generation. These people were talented way beyond anything you’re seeing today.
On opening night in Atlanta, you guys played 13 songs written in the past decade. That’s pretty rare for any veteran act.
Steven: That’s more than half the show. That’s nice, isn’t it? That does say something. It says a lot about our audience, I have to say. We really have the best audience in the world, and I mean that. I’m not just saying that. They not only accept new material, they expect it.
How do you have time to get the right instrument if Bruce calls out some random song?
Nils: I have over 50 instruments on the road, and that’s insane for just one guy to have that many instruments well oiled and ready to go. I also have an emergency acoustic guitar and an emergency electric. In extreme cases I realize that I won’t have time to get the right guitar, so I grab an emergency one so I can contribute something. And I have the freedom to do all that, and Bruce knows that. He knows that to have a show that’s by the seat of your pants, it can’t be perfect and flawless.
How do you think the tour is going to evolve over the next year?
Steven: Generally speaking, in the first half of the tour we usually emphasize the new album and the second half of the tour tends to loosen up a bit, get a little bit more spontaneous, a little bit crazier. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was how it went this time. The first 50 shows, your primary purpose is to communicate the new album and whatever is on Bruce’s mind, which is usually something relevant now. After you do 50, 60 shows, you feel like, “OK, it got said,” and you continue to keep the essence of that show but things tend to loosen up a little bit.
Why did you bring in a percussionist for this tour?
Steven: There was more percussion on the new album, and bringing someone in is something we’ve talked about quite often. The reason we haven’t done it in the past was that Clarence tended to do a lot of it. So we thought, “Clarence won’t do it, so let’s get someone else to do those parts and add percussion to the other songs.” So it changed the flavor a bit. It tends to shift different songs you’d already been familiar with and gives them a little bit of a different approach, maybe a different angle, a different emotional communication, and then you’ll see the song a little differently, or it will revitalize an older song in a new way. All those things add up.
This is a very different E Street Band than what you joined in 1975.
Steven: Yeah, it really is. It’s just a broader, more rootsy…it’s an orchestra more than a rock band. It’s a rock band at its core, and that rock band has just blossomed into many different textures. With the configuration of a classic rock band, you are essentially playing the orchestra parts with your couple guitars and a keyboard. In our case, we always had a little bit more than most bands by having two keyboard, which already moves you from a rock band into the area of a gospel band. We were born already a gospel-inflected rock band.
The reason that a fuzz pedal was invented was to emulate a saxophone. As a band, you’re doing things that are much more orchestrated, but you’re doing it in a reduced fashion. So now it’s a little more of a literal translation. Now you take the essence of that rock band and make a few adjustments and start to flesh out those roots and come full circle, in a way. Instead of listening to your influences and interpreting them on your guitar, you’re now taking those influences and actually using them literally. It’s interesting.
Tell me your first reaction to hearing Wrecking Ball.
Nils: Well, I loved it. I got an advanced copy to start writing my charts and getting ready for rehearsals. I thought it was a brilliant record, a very timely record on the rough times we’ve been going through. It shows that with some hope and dignity, the human spirit will pull itself out of the some of the messes that we’re in. I’m real proud of Bruce.
I imagine that you listen to a new Bruce album in a different way than most fans.
Nils: Many times I’ve bought a Bruce record, like Devils and Dust or The Ghost of Tom Joad, and just listened to it knowing I’m not learning it. So instantly, this was a very different approach. I’m looking at chords, charts…I also know Bruce and the band very well, so I’m already thinking, “Well, in this song, the key is going to change. It’s gonna get higher. So how does that impact my part?” The beautiful thing is that when I heard this thing, I knew we were gonna perform it. So instantly I was able to go to that place and start really addressing my parts and present it with the E Street Band.
How did it feel walking onstage at the Apollo to do that first show? Lots of pressure?
Steven: It’s what I’m built for, to tell you the truth. That’s what we do. The more pressure there is, the more normal I feel. At the Super Bowl, once the audience hits a billion, it does get your attention. Even that, after the first 10 seconds, you just concentrate on the 3,000 or so people up against the stage and it’s just another gig. We’re a serious band and Bruce is a serious guy, a serious songwriter. We do serious things. When people need something serious done, they come to us. You need somebody to open the Grammys on a very tough night, that’s our job. That’s what we do.
Speaking of the Grammys, is it true that a planned Clarence Clemons tribute was canned because of Whitney Houston?
Steven: No. You hear all kinds of talk, but no. He was just going to be included in the usual thing.
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There was a lot of riding on you guys that night.
Steven: Yeah, and Whitney Houston died, so it was like, “OK, this is a job for the E Street Band.” We were already carrying the emotional pain of losing Clarence, so we were already in that state of mind. Everybody was shocked because of Whitney Houston, but we were already there. And “We Take Care of Our Own” was a perfect song. That was the perfect song at a perfect moment.
I think it’s pretty clear that Clarence would have wanted you guys to carry on.
Nils: I believe it wholeheartedly in my heart and soul when Bruce says, “If the audience is here and we’re here, then they’re here.” And they are. I stood right in front of Danny, used to run up on his riser, and Clarence and I were side by side. A lot of moments in the dark where Bruce was carrying the show, we’d be like, “What the hell is this song?” Stuff we hadn’t played 20 years: “How did it go? What was the key?” We’d laugh about it and figure out how to fake it if we weren’t sure, or we’d just have a moment in the dark to ourselves right in a freaking sea of 60,000 people. Those were really great times, and 27 years is nothing to sneeze at – but being greedy and loving Clarence like we all do, I would have taken another 27 if God was willing. Carrying on this tour as we are now is a form of healing for us.