Nearly 20 years have elapsed since Steven Van Zandt released his last solo album, but, hey, the guy has been busy. In addition to playing guitar in Bruce Springsteen‘s globe-trotting E Street Band, Van Zandt has presided over his Sirius XM radio channel, Underground Garage, for the last 14 years, and beginning in 1999, made his bones as an actor playing two different gangsters with memorable hood-ornament hairstyles: Silvio Dante, consigliere to Tony Soprano in David Chase’s iconic HBO series The Sopranos (1999-2007) and Frank “The Fixer” Tagliano, a New York mobster in Norway in the Netflix series Lilyhammer.
Although Van Zandt continues to write and develop TV projects, he tells Billboard that he realized how much he missed recording and performing his solo work in 2016, when he reformed his solo band, Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul, to honor a friend’s request that he play London’s BluesFest that fall. The performance went so well that Van Zandt took the 15-piece band he’d assembled into the studio during a break between the European and Australian legs of Springsteen’s last tour and recorded what will be his sixth solo album — a collection of favorite songs that he had written or co-written over the last 40 years, plus a cover of a favorite James Brown song. “We didn’t labor over it. We did the whole thing in six weeks,” he says. “A lot of the vocals are first takes.”
The resulting album, Soulfire, which will be released on May 19, hearkens back to Van Zandt’s classic first solo album of gritty, greasy, horn-accented ’60s -style rock and soul, Men Without Women. Fans of his work with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes and Gary U.S. Bonds will also appreciate updated versions of “Love on the Wrong Side of Town,” “I Don’t Want to Go Home” and “Standing in the Line of Fire,” which Van Zandt has tricked out with doo-wop. spaghetti western and jazzy arrangements and, particularly on “Blues Is My Business,” searing blues guitar that would have made Stevie Ray Vaughan smile.
In a wide-ranging interview, Van Zandt talked about his new album, his honest friendship with Springsteen, the current political climate and how he misses his Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Edie Sedgwick when he’s on the road.
You’ve been quoted saying you need a ‘big picture’ to record an album. What’s the big picture for Soulfire?
The big picture was me. Soulfire is a collection of stuff I’ve done in the past. Each song is an element of who I am: There’s a doo-wop song on the album; a blues song, R&B and some jazz. For people who are going to be hearing me for the first time, it’s an introduction to who I am. For those who are familiar with my work, Soulfire is a return to how most people identify me, which is that soul-meets-rock thing.
In addition to touring with the E Street Band, you’ve been very busy over the last few years with the Norway-set Netflix series Lilyhammer, and your Sirius XM show, Underground Garage. Does the release of Soulfire mean you’re going to concentrate on your own music again?
Little Steven, the songwriter, producer and arranger stayed alive doing the Lilyhammer score. That pretty much took up three or four years of my life, and all of my musical energy went into that. But the performer part – where I go onstage and communicate my songs? I walked away from that without really being conscious of it. I got into acting, and that led to learning how to write and produce. I directed the final episode of Lilyhammer. Then Bruce started touring again and, suddenly, 20 years went by. When it all stopped, I thought, I shouldn’t have walked away from [my music]. It’s really good stuff, and it deserves to have somebody out there reminding people about it. So, I’m back to it now, and I’m going to stay with it. We’ll tour every other year when Bruce doesn’t, and hopefully, I’ll do a TV show in between.
Do you have something lined up in terms of TV?
Not yet, but I will, eventually. I’ve got seven scripts of my own out there and another 25 treatments.
Are any of your projects music-related?
Not really. When I became a writer and co-producer on Lilyhammer, the first thing I did was write in that [my character] opened a club. Almost every show I write tends to have a club in it — or somewhere where we can stick some music — because what else are we going to do with music these days? I mean, the only radio play I’m probably going to get is going to be on my own station.
It’s a good point. Rap and pop now dominate commercial radio, and I often hear people in the music business saying, “Rock is dead.” What’s your take?
I call it an endangered species, which is why I’ve dedicated most of the last 20 years to preserving it, with the radio show and with my Rock and Roll Forever Foundation and its TeachRock school curriculum initiative. The rock era is over. I clock it from [Bob Dylan’s] “Like a Rolling Stone” to the death of Kurt Cobain, which was almost exactly 30 years. At that point we returned to a pop era and rock returned to being a cult, which, to be honest, is probably where it belongs. It was never meant to really be the mainstream. We just staged a coup d’état on the charts in the mid-’60s.
You don’t think that musical trends are cyclical and that rock will come back?
No, because the infrastructure that created rock is no longer there. I’m talking to the Hard Rock Café about developing [its clubs into] a rock-and-roll circuit where people can play, but the local radio stations that supported rock are gone. The local clubs are gone. Frankly the mainstream taste for it is gone. I’m always working to fix that though. I’m working on a TV variety show that would be like the old Shindig, Hullabaloo or Ready Steady Go! types of shows. I have the radio element [Underground Garage]; I’m trying to get a rock element via the Hard Rock Café, and if I can put together three or four pieces of infrastructure – radio, TV, live, Internet – I think rock can become a substantial cult again where people can actually make a living. But right now, you can’t make a living playing rock and roll.
What advice would you give to a young rock band today?
I don’t know what to tell them. Get a local gig — a local residency — and see if you can make it work.
Given the role you’ve played in rock history, and your deep knowledge of the genre, have you ever thought of writing a memoir likes Bruce did?
I started writing a book about six, seven years ago, and it was really quite difficult. Like I say, I’m 10 or 12 different people, so it was always, which one are we going to write about today? Plus, I know too much. I’d feel like I was ratting out the whole world. And in the end, I was just like, it’s too soon. I don’t have a happy ending yet.
Did you read Bruce’s book?
Yeah. It was very good. He’s an even better writer than one would have hoped for.
Were there any parts where you disagreed with his take on something or his recollection of an event?
It was mostly great and mostly accurate. There’s a few things we remember differently. Let’s put it that way. [Laughs]
Can you give me an example?
No, we don’t want to go there. There was a moment or two that may have gotten inadvertently left out.
Thunder Road left me with the impression that you were one of very few people in Bruce’s world that could completely level with him.
Yeah, he hated it, but I felt it was the responsibility of a friend to do that. I carried it right into The Sopranos. My relationship with Bruce was the same relationship that Silvio had with Tony Soprano. Silvio was not afraid of Tony. Bruce and I grew up together, so I’m never going to be afraid of him. You want a buffer in between the leader and the day-to-day problems that a band has. [Longtime Springsteen tour director] George Travis fulfills that role for Bruce now, but in the old days, I was that guy. I was a very good consigliere.
One of my favorite songs on Soulfire is “St Valentine’s Day,” which was on the soundtrack to David Chase’s 2012 movie, Not Fade Away, about a band trying to break through in the ‘60s. I love that movie and was surprised that it didn’t do better at the box office. Do you think it also suffered as a result of rock’s fade from the mainstream?
Yes, that movie suffered the same way rock and roll has suffered. There wasn’t a mainstream audience for it, which is why I told the studio to release it in Europe first. Once they like something over there, they like it forever. The Sopranos was unusually popular in Europe. There are more Sopranos DVDs sold in Norway per capita than any other country, and, when Not Fade Away came out, I was there doing Lilyhammer, a show that one-fifth of the population of Norway was watching every week. I’m not kidding. We had a million viewers in a country of 5 million. So, I told the studio. Let’s open the film in Norway. We’ll make it a fucking event. It’ll break it all over Europe, and then you’ll have a shot because it’s a great movie. David Chase is one of the fucking great geniuses of our time. But [the studio] ignored me, and the film had no marketing and no momentum.
Another of my favorite tracks is “Down and Out in New York City” from the 1973 film Black Caesar. It takes some pretty big balls to cover James Brown on a studio album.
[Laughs] I agree. I impressed myself with that one. It was one of those things that came from my radio show. We have a tradition where, on Black Friday, when everyone is shopping after Thanksgiving, we do “Blaxsploitation Friday,” where I play all the songs from that genre. “Down and Out in New York City” is one of the six or seven fantastic songs that came out of that, so I said, let’s give it a shot.
Your version has more of a jazz element than the original.
But that genre has some jazz in it. I mean Roy Ayers did the soundtrack to Coffy, and even Marvin Gaye did Trouble Man. So, we took [“Down and Out”] a step further. I came up with a horn line in the middle of it, and I was like, wow, this is really starting to feel like my own. There’s enough of me in this that I’m going to put it on the album.
Your version would be at home on the Black Caesar soundtrack.
Don’t do me any favors here, okay? I don’t want to be standing too close to James Brown for comparison’s sake. I need people to have forgotten about James Brown a little bit before they can enjoy me.
Many of your earlier songs and albums — I’m thinking “Sun City,” “Leonard Peltier” and “Los Desaprecidos”– were politically astute, but Soulfire is not that kind of album. Did you make a conscious decision to keep it apolitical?
Yeah. I felt like it’s time to focus on me as a songwriter rather than the content per se. There’s a hint of the politics in the title track, which opens the album. It says the world’s spinning out of control, and we need a spiritual center to survive this. It sums up all the politics I really need to say right now
What’s your take on President Trump?
I believe he’s just a distraction. I think we have a far bigger problem right now, which is that the Republican party in general has embraced a couple of really bizarre planks in their platform – being anti-environment and anti-equality. It’s completely un-American. For me, it all comes down to one issue: if we can get money out of political systems, the whole world will change. It all comes down to the Supreme Court decision for Buckley v. Valeo, which said that the spending of money is covered by freedom of speech. Which is insane! If money is speech then lack of money means you don’t get to talk.
I noticed that you’re working with Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine on this album. Did he come to you or vice versa?
I met Scott several times, and I liked him. I told him, I’m thinking of coming back into the business, do you want to manage me? The one mistake I made the first time around was, I didn’t have a manager. And I really suffered because of it. You’ve got to have an advocate out there. So, Scott said, “Yeah, I can do part of it, but I’ve got these other partners who deal with touring: Ken Levitan and and Kevin Spellman, from Vector Management.
Are you going to be writing with [Big Machine artist] Taylor Swift any time soon?
I know she’s just staying up nights waiting for that. Taylor, you’ve got to wait a little longer – just a little longer.
Are you still involved with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
I’m on the nominating committee, yes.
What are the three to five acts that haven’t been anointed yet that you’d like to see get in?
Oh god, we all have a list, you know. For me, the top two would be Procol Harum and the J. Geils Band. That’s where I start, and then Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio. There are some doo-wop groups, too.
What about Ian Hunter? Are you a fan?
Yeah, I like Ian. Whether it’s Ian or Mott the Hoople.
He’s still putting out albums that are really good.
And I’m the one playing them. I was the only one to play his new record, which is fantastic. It’s a tribute to David Bowie.
Yeah, people should be playing this stuff. They’ll play “All the Young Dudes” all day long, but they won’t play his tribute to Bowie.
You’ve just finished almost two years of touring with The E Street Band, and you’re about to go out on the road again for this album. Do you love performing live that much?
No. I miss my dog and my wife.
What kind of dog do you have?
A Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Edie Sedgwick. I wish she could travel everywhere, but they have all these stupid fucking dog laws overseas. You can’t bring your dog to England. But other than that you’ve got to go out there and sell it, man. I’ve got to go out there and play it for people because like I said, the only airplay I’m going to get is on my own station.
Will you tour North America when you return from oversees?
Yeah, we’re looking at September/October. It depends on whether Asia comes in or not. We’ll try to hit as many places as we can. It’s a little bit tricky with a 15-piece band, you know. I mean, I thought it was bad the first time I toured with, like, an 11 or 12-piece band. Now I’ve got 15. I’m trying to achieve my lifelong ambition, which is to break even.