Stevie Van Zandt talks to the CNJ and reveals the soulful side of Springsteen’s sideman
Guitarist who starred in the Sopranos is coming to north London to perform as Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul
03 November, 2017 — By Róisín Gadelrab
Stevie Van Zandt says the world is ‘spinning out of control and we need a spiritual centre to survive this’
“I DON’T really take days off, I don’t really relate to that, I don’t take vacations or any of that stuff, I guess I’m a workaholic. The actual content of what I do is something I love and have chosen to do, so it’s not like someone’s bending my arm.”
It is Saturday, a week before Stevie Van Zandt – musician, producer, Bruce Springsteen’s side-man, Tony Soprano’s consigliere, director, actor, activist, philanthropist and more – comes to Camden to perform as Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul at The Roundhouse on November 4, promoting Soulfire, his first album in 18 years.
Stevie is at home in New York, supposedly on time out the day after his US tour ended. And while he has a short time before he departs for the England leg of his tour, it looks like only the supernatural will stop him working.
“I live in Greenwich village, where Halloween is ground zero, so nothing at all will get done on Tuesday,” he says.
Stevie first performed with The Disciples of Soul back in the 1980s. His time has been split between playing in long-time friend Springsteen’s E Street Band (which he has no intention of leaving), playing mobster Silvio Dante in The Sopranos and Frank Tagliano in Norwegian Netflix series Lilyhammer, which, at points, he co-wrote and co-produced, running his own radio channel and various educational and charity projects. He is responsible for finally giving Springsteen his acting debut.
“I so appreciated that opportunity, the gift [Sopranos creator] David Chase gave me,” he says.
“I met so many wonderful people, it was the greatest acting school. I used that when I went to Lilyhammer. I directed the final episode, which was really fun because I managed to give Bruce his acting debut. Scorsese wanted him, Coppola wanted him and I got him. That last 24th show is his debut. It was a great experience, I’m kind of spoiled from it, I’m trying to create a new show right now.”
Naturally, Stevie has five scripts on the go, some of which still feature him as a mobster while others are a departure. But back to music. Stevie reformed The Disciples of Soul, albeit with a different line-up, after being asked to bring his band to play London BluesFest while here for Bill Wyman’s 70th birthday last year.
“It’s been a while,” he says. “I’m trying to make up for it by having this incredible 15-piece band. The album has a big sound to it so I wanted to reproduce that live. The audiences are having a lot of fun with this. It’s unusual to have a 15-piece band, no one’s crazy enough to do it but me.
“It’s a very expensive hobby but very rewarding. I’m treating it like a first album and tour. You have to look at it like that. Maybe 25 to 50 per cent of the audience have some familiarity with some of my stuff but at least half the audience is here out of curiosity. So we’re here to win them over.
“We have great faith in this material, having become reacquainted with it myself by accident.”
Soulfire, Stevie says, is a departure from his usual, more political material.
“I like the idea of a theme, a concept, songs adding up to more than individual tracks.
“This is my first non-political album. The concept of this record I decided to be me. For the first time it was not going to be a political album because of the climate. It is me as a singer, guitar player, producer, I’ve never had the music come first. In the old days it was political because of the environment, things were very secretive, everyone thought Reagan was God and I didn’t. I felt an obligation to point out some things going on that we were on the wrong side of, like South Africa.
“But now, suddenly, we can’t escape politics in America 24/7 – we need a sanctuary from it. Instead of being political, we’re going to bring a sanctuary, two hours of sheer musicality. Please, no more politics. It’s been very enjoyable that way. I’ve got the best musicians in New York, you’re getting a real show with this.”
Soulfire charts Stevie’s history from his early days.
“It felt like an album straight away. The material has held up…I thought, let me cover myself, do songs I’d written for other people, pick songs that meant more to me, put on covers of other people I’d never done before, let me show some roots, use an opportunity to show where I’m coming from… I sample my entire history, it’s a new introduction to me…”
Still, he hasn’t quite left politics behind. The album’s title track refers to the world “spinning out of control and we need a spiritual centre to survive this”.
Stevie explains: “The spiritual centre for me is the common ground deep inside where we’re all connected, not a particular religion, not what race we are, what our philosophies are for me, certain common grounds that exist when you dig deep down, that spiritual centre is being damaged every day by the divisiveness and nonsense in the air.
“For the first time in my life we’ve stopped progressing. We’ve been on a wonderful trajectory, there have been some bumps but since the Second World War this is the first time we’re going backwards, we’re entering a dark time.
“It’s more important than ever to find that common ground and hang on to it. It’s happening everywhere. We were tearing down walls, having trade agreements now we’re talking about putting up walls, breaking agreements, Brexit.”
He added: “I understand why people do this when we’re not looking at the world in a practical way. We have these fantasies. There’s a lot of difficult questions to be discussed, but we need to do it in a sensible manner. There has to be that discussion to straighten out that misconception.”
But for now, Stevie is focusing on his return to England. He said: “Mostly right now I’m very excited about bringing this show to England. England means the world to me, the British invasion was absolutely the beginning of my life and I’m indebted to England and any chance I get to get there I go there. They’re very soulful people, I really like coming and I promise we’re bringing the most musical show we’re bringing for a long time. We need a break, a bit of fuel to make it through the day people leave with more energy than they came with.”