'I'm always asking myself if I did the right thing' - Steven Van Zandt on Springsteen and leaving and returning to the E Street Band
E Street Band member Steven Van Zandt talks about touring with his own band, finding fame through his role in 'The Sopranos', fighting apartheid and his enduring relationship with The Boss
Some big-name musicians approach the business of doing media interviews with the all the enthusiasm of someone expecting to have their toe nails torn off. Steven Van Zandt is different. Whether you know him as an essential part of the E Street Band, or the consigliere in The Sopranos or as Little Steven when making his own music, he couldn't be happier to shoot the breeze with a journalist.
In fact, it's not easy to get him off the phone - and no subject is off bounds. He's just as happy to talk about Bruce Springsteen as he is about himself.
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He's in an especially good mood right now because he and his 14-strong band, The Disciples of Soul, are getting a great reception on the live circuit across Europe. He's got an excellent album, Summer of Sorcery, in tow and says he is enjoying every moment of the tour.
"It's translating extremely well live," he says. "You never really know [how audiences will react to new material], but it's worked out even better than I could have hoped."
The album comes just two years after Soulfire - his first album as Little Steven in more than 20 years. And, like many strands of his career, he says it was the result of a happy accident. "I had no interest in getting back into it [his own material], no ambition whatsoever, and this guy - just out of the blue - said, 'Why don't you get a band together and do some shows?' And I did.
"Soulfire was an album of songs I'd already written for other people. Then Bruce was on Broadway and I had no TV show on the go, so I thought, 'Let's tour with the Soulfire album'. And, then, on the road, ideas started to come to me."
The result is the spirited Summer of Sorcery. "It's a summation of all the influences I've had my whole life," he says. "It was an album I always wanted to make, one that wasn't autobiographical or political. It's 12 little movies, if you like - each with a different character. I wanted to capture that last-day-of-school feeling - it's a metaphor for optimism."
At 68, Van Zandt says he is as optimistic now as he always has been. Even the death of close friends, like E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, hasn't changed that. "I found an odd kind of way to deal with it. You spend the first half of your life confronting your demons, confronting your enemies, confronting your fears. But, these last few years, I've found that denial is quite useful. If I can avoid going to funerals, I avoid them - unless I have to go for the sake of the families. But I'd rather just remember people how I knew them."
Van Zandt's story is forever wrapped up in that of fellow New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen. He's been playing guitar with the Boss since 1975 - albeit with a break in the 1980s, more of which later.
"Me and Bruce come from the same place," he says, "virtually all the influences are the same. I took the more soul music route for myself and he took the more rock route for himself. There's a slight difference there. I don't really find too much of E Street Band's relevance [in his own music] other than the extremely high standards me and Bruce have when it comes to the composition and arrangement and production of the music.
"And, by the way," he says, "Bruce is one of the greatest white soul singers in history. If only he would do it more - and he never does which makes me f***ing crazy! One of the reasons I enjoyed The River revival tour so much is that's where a lot of his soul music is. God, I just love listening to him sing that way. And he never does - he just takes it for granted."
Van Zandt is no stranger to Ireland having played here with Springsteen more times than he can remember. "There was one tour in Ireland where we played smaller cities [Kilkenny, Cork and Limerick in 2013] and that was really memorable for me. It's great to get out and do the smaller places. And, I'm not just saying this, but you guys are one of our greatest audiences."
If Springsteen and the E Street Band tend to be most at home in massive stadium shows, Van Zandt's audience tends to be on a far more modest scale. And he's not complaining about it. "We come with Bruce to Ireland and we play to 180,000 people over three nights. I play clubs of 800 - I just have to accept the fact that 179,000 people have something better to do!"
He left the E Street Band in 1984 around the time that Born in the USA was being released.
"I go just as it becomes huge," he says. "I'm always asking myself if I did the right thing or not. But then, I think that I wouldn't have been able to organise all the anti-apartheid stuff and I've no regrets at all."
Van Zandt founded the Artists United Against Apartheid movement and it had a significant impact on drawing world attention to the racist policies of the South African government.
"It helped bring down that government," he says, "and one has to say that we saved lives. Is that worth the tens of millions of dollars I missed out on? Yeah, it is."
Springsteen dispensed with the band in 1989, before permanently reconvening them again 10 years later. Van Zandt has been an ever-present since. "I've been lucky," he says. "When you're a kid and you dream of being a rock star, you don't know if it will happen or how long it might last."
It was watching The Beatles' celebrated performance on the Ed Sullivan show as a 13-year-old in 1964 that first lit the flame.
"They introduced you to a whole new world... there were no bands then. This was a brand new idea. But it's always a two-part thing, for me. Much as I loved The Beatles then, they were halfway through their career and their sophistication blew your mind. It was The Rolling Stones who actually invited you in, who made it look easier than it was. They didn't have the perfect harmonies, or the perfect hair - except for Brian Jones. They were like the first punks. They were right off the street. They made it accessible."
He says there's still something of the wide-eyed kid in him, especially when he thinks of Paul McCartney.
"He came on stage with The E Street Band, which was wonderful, and then he invited Bruce and I to come on stage with him at Madison Square Garden which was wonderful, but him coming on my stage with The Disciples of Soul was the most incredible kind of endorsement I could have ever received in my life. This is the guy who is responsible for me playing rock 'n' roll, and he's there saying, 'Hey man, you're doing good'. It was the absolute thrill of my life."
Twenty years ago, Van Zandt's career went in an entirely unexpected direction when he was cast in a new HBO show called The Sopranos. He had no idea that when he was offered a part that he would be stepping into one of the greatest television drama series ever.
"It was completely by accident, which is how most of my life has been. David Chase [Sopranos creator] called me up and said, 'Do you want to be in my new show?' And I had literally nothing better to do.
"I'd no idea in the early days of filming how special it would be. I mean there's no sexy camera work or lighting. There are too many characters and subplots. It was breaking every single rule in the Hollywood book."
It was immediately hailed as a classic and one of the first big shows of what's come to be seen as a golden age of television. "Within three weeks of it airing, everyone is stopping me on the street to talk about The Sopranos. At that point, I'd already been a rock star for 25 years and," he says with an infectious chuckle, "it meant absolutely nothing. I swear to God, the power of TV is f***ing amazing."
He was even more involved in the cult series Lilyhammer. "Actor, co-producer, soundtrack composer, director of the last episode - I did it all!"
For the next few months, the focus is on Little Steven and The Disciples of Soul, but he has made himself available to work with the E Street Band on a new Springsteen album.
"Whether Bruce wants to do it or not, I'll find out over the next few months. I'll talk to him when I'm at home. I wanted to make sure my schedule wouldn't conflict with that because I always give him first priority. You know, he's been good to me."
Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul play Vicar Street, Dublin, on August 23