Steve Stevens - Spring 2018

LA-based guitarist and songwriter Steve Stevens is perhaps best known for his work and huge success with Billy Idol, and there can be no mistaking that for more than 35 years Steve has influenced and inspired generations of musicians. But there are so many sides to his contributions to the world of rock that go far beyond Rebel Yell. 2017 saw Steve embark upon a solo UK and European tour where fans really got to see him perform a showcase of hits from across his entire career, something very special indeed. With Steve’s 2018 calendar already looking packed with tours, collaborations with other musicians and the prospect of new music, we felt it was absolutely time to have a conversation with him to get the full picture on everything that’s going on. We catch up with Steve at home in LA as he prepares to begin rehearsals for the forthcoming UK and European tour with Billy Idol……

Before we look to the future and to some of the things you have going on in 2018, I would like to take a moment to reflect on your recent incredible solo tour with Franky Perez. With Gus G along for the ride this was truly a very special tour indeed and this was reflected in the phenomenal reviews that resulted. What are your memories of this tour?


It was really good fun first of all! Franky and I have known each other well over 10 years now. We kept saying ‘you know, we should do something together’ you know, and playing a show is only a couple of hours out of the day when you’re out on the road. It’s great to have your mates around and people whose company you genuinely enjoy, not only musically but also as friends. Since doing that tour, Gus and I have become friends. I just saw him for dinner here in LA. It’s great. It’s good to show people that a show can be versatile and that it’s not all about shredding. It’s just good old rock ‘n’ roll guitar playing!


You did of course play tracks from across your career – an incredibly strong body of work. How did it feel to get a chance to play all those songs in a single performance? It must be rare for you to have that opportunity.


The biggest revelation for me was how much fun it was to play Atomic Playboys stuff and I think enough time has gone on. Having Franky sing them gave a whole new life to that material so that was really good fun. That material sounded fresh, and obviously there’s no other place where people are going to hear Dirty Diana other than if I play it, (laughs), and once again Franky interpreted it absolutely brilliantly. We only played 1 or 2 Billy Idol tracks during the show and I did that purposely. If people want to hear Billy Idol they’ll come see Billy Idol and this was an opportunity to give them a whole other side of what I do. 


Was it also a good opportunity to reflect on your huge achievements from over 35 years? Do you ever get the chance to look in the rear view mirror and really celebrate what a really strong body of work that you have there?


Yeah, I’m not really good at doing that! (Laughs). I’m way too critical of myself. I really enjoy playing the tunes, obviously, but I’m not one of those self-congratulatory people. I don’t know, maybe I should be more so but I’m just not. I’m always thinking about the next thing or how I can challenge myself musically, and I think that as an artist that’s kind of how you stay excited about still playing music. I’ve been making records for over 35 years now and I think if I don’t challenge myself I’ll get bored, or at least that’s the way I look at it.

You’re perhaps best known for your work with Billy Idol but there is a huge list of incredible collaborations and you’re currently working with Sebastian Bach on his new record. How did this collaboration come about and what can you tell me about the progress that being made?


Well I co-wrote 2 tracks on his last record (Give ‘em Hell) and I’ve known Sebastian since I moved to LA pretty much and whenever he is putting together new music I always get that phone call from him. We’ve played many shows together. I’ve given him a couple of tunes and I know he’s at the beginning stages but he’s always somebody that if he needs songs or guitar parts I’m more than happy to help out. 


I know that Sebastian himself has said that he wants his next album to be less aggressive, perhaps looking for less heavy metal and more of a mix between The Eagles and Motley Crüe, or something he referred to as a ‘California’ record. Have you had that sort of brief when writing material for Sebastian? And I suppose a broader question is when working with other people, what approach do you take? How do you decide what would work for a particular artist and what sort of direction do you give yourself?


I’m one of those guitarists who is really influenced by the lyrics. That’s where I take my cues from. It tells me everything and that’s my roadmap and that’s quickest way to get to the emotional side of what your co-writer is trying to convey. So I usually look at lyrics and see how I can compliment them. And also a lot of times people will say they want something that is influenced on something they grew up on. Musicians are like that. I think those years between when you first pick up the instrument and start playing, when you’re about 13 or 14, those feelings and those emotions will stay with you for a lifetime. I’ve seen even with music listeners that the music you are exposed to during those years really stays with you. You just develop your love of music at that point, and I know most musicians tap into that so I usually try and have a conversation with my co-writer about that.


You’re clearly in demand as an artist and guitarist. Do you find there are opportunities you would like to take but can’t simply because there isn’t the time?


Occasionally, yeah that will happen, but then I will be lying in bed – you know, I have a home studio – so I’ll be lying in bed thinking ‘oh, get off your ass! (Laughs) That thing you said you couldn’t do, well you have a couple of hours so you might as well do it!’ 


Do you put a lot of  pressure on yourself to try to do everything? Do you ever give yourself the chance to really relax too?


I have to totally be away from the business. My wife and I try to take a vacation and get away. If I go on vacation I don’t bring a guitar with me or anything and it’s totally divorced from the act of making music, but if I’m at home that doesn’t happen!


You have worked with the very best: Billy Idol, Ozzy Osbourne, Vince Neil, Franky Perez, Michael Jackson and the list goes on. Who would you actually like to work with that you haven’t worked with yet?


Yeah, Peter Gabriel would be one. I am a huge fan, I love his musicality and I love the sound of his voice. From the time I got the Genesis Foxtrot record, I went ‘Wow! Who is this singer!?’. I’m a guitarist who loves working with singers. I think that came from watching early videos of Elvis and things. I was always that kid where my mom would go ‘oh, I love Elvis’ and I’d go ‘yeah, but who’s that guy behind him?’ you know (laughs). So I think that’s something I’ve always loved. I’ve always loved working with great singers and I’ve been really, really fortunate, as you’ve said, to work with the best of the best and it’s always an incredible experience. 


Do you see that there might be a possibility of working with Peter Gabriel?


I’ve never spoken or me him. He’s one of the few sort of  ‘proggy’ musicians I’ve never met. I was fortunate to work with Chris Squire of Yes on a couple of things, and he was a huge hero of mine. It’s great and really fulfilling and you kind of pinch yourself and go ‘fuck me’. I saw this guy at Madison Square Garden when I was 13 years old and now I’m here tracking with him. You can’t put a price on that.

You’re touring with Billy Idol in the UK this summer beginning in Manchester on June 20th. Following extensive residencies in Las Vegas, how will it feel to venture further afield, and are you actually ready to venture further afield?


Yeah, we’ve started rehearsals and we’ve knocked the cobwebs a little bit, but we’re all feeling like we’ve done Vegas and we’re in one place and that’s a great experience but I will get to travel with my wife and actually get to see cities and meet people. So it feels like we are really ready to go out on the road and travel a bit.


What’s special about playing in the UK and what special memories can you share?


Well, I had never recorded in England until we did the last record (Kings and Queens of the Underground) with Trevor Horn and there’s always new experiences for me. I’m such an Anglophile and was so influenced by the English bands. I’m quite snobby that I didn’t like American rock bands when I was a kid. I liked Aerosmith and what-not, and American blues players because you guys were selling it back to us. The UK has such a history of music and rock ‘n’ roll. I’ve worked with a lot of English musicians and to have 2 guys in the band that kind of grew up there I’m always learning new things about it and I feel like I’ve got a kind of pass with the English audience because I’ve made my career with Billy Idol for 35 years. So I think they’ve accepted me!


Kings and Queens of the Underground was recorded in the UK wasn’t it? 


We recorded Kings and Queens in the UK at Trevor Horn’s studio, and we were the last artists to work there. Unfortunately they renovated the building after us, it’s now condominiums, which is happening all over the world to recording studios. But what we didn’t realise was this was actually Island Records’ studio where all the Genesis records, Bob Marley, Stairway to Heaven was recorded and you definitely felt this presence of greatness in that studio. That old expression ‘if walls could talk’, you definitely feel it when you are in there working. 


Sadly, the closure of studios and small music venues does appear to be all the more common. In your 35 career have you seen a big shift in the way that you might create a record? Is today’s modern technology really able to replace the experience of recording in a full recording studio?


Obviously the financials are what dictates that. There’s nothing that’s going to replace 4 or 5 guys standing in a room together discovering their songs. With some modern records you’ll have people sending files around the world and people adding parts and things. For some music that’s okay. For electronic music that’s fine but for rock ‘n’ roll, discovering those beautiful mistakes that you fall on as a band are I think kind of missing from some rock records. Still, where there’s a will there’s a way, and people will continue to record the old-school way. That’s the way we did the last Billy Idol record, and actually next year I’m going to be doing a record with Franky Perez, a band project, and I was very adamant that it has to be done old school. That doesn’t mean analogue tape. That’s a bit of a misnomer because the last time I went into an old school studio and recorded on analogue tape was a couple of years ago and the producer was like ‘Yeah, we’re gonna record analogue’ and I forgot about how long it takes to rewind the tape, and when the tape had rewound I had forgotten what part I was going to play! (Laughs) So there’s certainly something to be said about modern digital recording and they’ve got it to the point now where it does sound really good.

 

I think it’s a fair point to make that technology can be our friend! Picking up on Kings and Queens of the Underground, this is quite simply a stunning album and this year will see its 4th birthday. What plans do you have to write new music with Billy?


Yeah, we’re gonna go out and do these dates and then we have American dates as well, and I think we will then sit down and start planning on a new record. At least that’s our plan!


You have hinted there that you are working with Franky Perez. Will this be a full album and what sort of direction will the music be taking?


Definitely classic rock. Definitely all of the stuff that really influenced me from 1970 to 1974. As I said, I try and tap into those records that inspired me in the first place. And once again I wanted to feel like a band, you know. Some of the guys who I toured with in England will hopefully be involved. We’ve co-written a couple of things and so far the label response has been great. It’s not what they expected. The first song we wrote was 7 ½ minutes long (laughs!). But the response has been great. I believe that songs and records should be a journey and that’s hopefully what I will try and create: that feeling that I had when I was a 13 year old kid. 


I think the fact that one of those tracks is 7 ½ minutes long just shows you are exploring something different.


Yeah, I said to Franky ‘let’s write our Stairway to Heaven right out of the box! (Laughs). Let’s not be subtle here. Let’s not fuck around. Let’s write the big one!


One aspect I did want to take a moment to focus on is the tremendous amount of support you give to causes such as Sober Recovery and Adopt the Arts. How important is it for you to use your position and fame to draw attention to such causes?


I mean if I can help in some way… To be honest, Adopt the Arts is Matt Sorum’s organisation and he’s a buddy of mine, and I’m really proud of my musician friends who are really at the forefront of some of these great causes. If someone asks you to play a show to benefit others how can you say no? I went to the Fame school in New York, the high school for performing arts, the one they made the movie about, and I can’t imagine what my life would be like had I not had a school like that where I was surrounded by other misfit creative kids who didn’t quite fit in. It’s also been proven that even if a young kid doesn’t go on to become a musician, having music in their life really helps with behaviour and attention and general well-being. Unfortunately, here in the US all of the arts funding has been rescinded and they don’t have musical instruments in school and they can’t pay the teachers, so I’m very supportive of that aspect of charity.


You’ve previously said that you would like to write your autobiography. Just from what we have been taking about today and your reflections on your career, this would make for a very special rock n roll tale. Is this something you are still considering?


Yeah, I was actually approached by a publisher but I didn’t think that the fit was great for a number of reasons. My story is really a quintessential New York rock musician story and I’d been playing so many music scenes before Billy Idol. I started in my first cover band where we played the Long Island scene with Twisted Sister. I don’t if you saw their film (We Are Twisted Fucking Sister!). Even if you’re not a Twisted Sister fan it’s really interesting to see that whole Long Island dance scene and what was going on. And then I moved to Manhattan and was in a band that lived in a music building. There was like 10 floors and every weekend you’d have Johnny Thunders or Sylvain Sylvain come in. Sylvain was actually the guy who gave me my stage name! So I really am a product of that New York scene: late 70s and 80s. All that stuff that happened even before I met Billy Idol and obviously the experiences after that, so I think people would be really interested to hear all the crazy shit that went on in New York in the late 70s!


Absolutely, and it’s great that on your Facebook page that you do just that – share the occasional story from your formative musician years. We do get a real feel for what was happening at that time. 


Well I’d love to do a book.


Well it looks like 2018 is going to be a very busy year for you. At the risk of sounding incredibly greedy, what else can we expect this year from Steve Stevens?


After we do the European Billy Idol tour, we’re hopefully going to do more US dates and that should probably bring me up to the last months of this year. I’ve set out to do writing for the record with Franky for release next year and I’ve already let people know that I really need to dedicate that time. So that’s pretty much chockablock what my year looks like!

 As our conversation draws to a close, we reflect on what an incredibly exciting time this is for Steve. An imminent UK and European tour with possible US dates to follow, the prospect of new music with both Billy Idol and Franky Perez and embryonic ambitions for an autobiography beginning to take flight. 2018 will clearly be another year of huge success and we feel very privileged be a small part of this journey. 


For more information visit http://billyidol.net/steve-stevens and https://stevestevens.bigcartel.com