Little Steven Van Zandt still considers the return of his Disciples of Soul to be “a little bit of a miracle, to be honest.” But he’s not stopping to pinch himself, either, as the troupe prepares for the May 3 release of a new album, Summer of Sorcery, whose “A World of Our Own” is premiering exclusively below.
“To keep this band together for two years has been an extraordinary achievement, and I’m so proud of them and their loyalty for sticking with me,” Van Zandt tells Billboard. He launched the Disciples of Soul back in 1982 and brought the group back to active duty with 2017’s Soulfire, its first release in 18 years, and last year’s Soulfire Live. “Everybody in the world wants to hire these guys, and they’ve just stayed with me. It really shows that the longer you keep a band together, the better they get. And these cats were great to begin with, so it’s really gotten to a high level at this point.”
Summer of Sorcery, meanwhile, casts a different kind of spell than Van Zandt pursued on the six previous Disciples of Soul studio albums. Comprised of all-new material after Soulfire mined the vaults of existing songs, the Summer of Sorcery features all new material and eschews previous discourses into autobiography or politics.
“I wanted to get away from those things,” Van Zandt explains. “I wanted to fictionalize my work. The politics seemed necessary in the ’80s… but now it just seems too obvious. It’s attacking us 24/7, and I just feel people need a break from it. We’ve never been more divided, so my usefulness is trying to bring people together, on common ground.” And with Summer of Sorcery Van Zandt feels that territory is sunshine and love.
“Basically I just wanted to create 12 different movies,” he says. “The overall concept is this broad idea of summer, of that first summer of consciousness where you are falling in love with life itself. You’re connected to that great sort of ritual of the rite of spring and the earth is blooming and coming to life, and you feel that in your soul, that sort of rebirth and hope and optimism. I want to try to capture that, and use that as the overall scene. It’s a looser theme, but still I need that anchor, a concept to work in. I can’t just do a collection of songs at random. So that’s what worked for me this time.”
Summer of Sorcery‘s 12 tracks also explore a variety of motifs, from the brassy soul rock of “Communion” to the funk of “Gravity,” rockabilly on “Superfly Terraplane,” doo-wop on “Love Again,” the Latino flavor of “Party Mambo!,” “Vortex’s” homage to Isaac Hayes’ Shaft soundtrack and the bouncy Gary U.S. Bonds feel of “Soul Power Twist.” “A World of Our Own,” meanwhile, has a shimmering Phil Spector quality that Van Zandt acknowledges as “the girl group entry of this album.”
“I always like to have one if I can,” he says. “The Chiffons have always been very big to me, even the Shangri-La’s, going all the way back to the Shirelles. That’s just something that always has appealed to me, very much. I got back into it by producing Darlene Love’s album (2015’s Introducing Darlene Love) and really connecting directly back to that part of my influences that I grew up with but never really used. So this time I did.”
Van Zandt and the Disciples of Soul are headed to Australia this month before kicking off a short run of U.S. and European dates during May and June. More dates will be added and he expects the group to play about 100 dates total into November, but he’s deliberately keeping things open beyond that in case Bruce Springsteen decides to reassemble the E Street Band for something new. “Obviously that’s my first priority, and it’s very possible if he wants to do something that we will hopefully maybe be recording and going out in 2020,” Van Zandt says, though he adds that Springsteen is still “recovering from having the first legitimate job of his life,” his Springsteen on Broadway run. “Fifteen months of five days a week — it could take him five years to recover from that,” Van Zandt says. “He’ll be back eventually, but I’m giving him time to recover.”
In the meantime, Van Zandt is also continuing his TeachRock Foundation that provides a free music history curriculum for more than 25,000 teachers who have registered so far, and his Rock and Roll Forever Foundation. He’s planning to re-release his entire Disciples of Soul catalog this year, too. And for a second year Van Zandt inducted a group of individual songs into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “We’re probably going to do it every year,” Van Zandt says. “I just felt there are going to be groups that are not going to get in, but there’s extraordinary records that have shaped history, and they should be recognized.” Also on his docket is another TV show to follow his well-received roles in The Sopranos and Lilyhammer.
“If (Springsteen) decides not to do anything, then I’ll probably go back to TV,” says Van Zandt, who has no specific projects locked in yet. “I’ve dedicated a good, solid two years to becoming reacquainted with my own life’s work and re-introducing myself as an artist, which has been very satisfying, and I’ll continue to do that on a regular cycle. But having done that I think it’s time to look back at TV and what I might be able to do there now.”