Interview: Steve Van Zandt

Mimi ON Jul 16, 2012 AT 2:21 pm

Steve Van Zandt

By Spencer Bright

To millions of rock fans, Steve Van Zandt is Bruce Springsteen’s trusty sidekick and guitarist dating back to their glory days working their way up in the seedy bars and clubs on the New Jersey shore.

To another audience of millions he is Silvio Dante, murderous sidekick to New Jersey mobster Tony Soprano in classic Channel 4 TV series The Sopranos. After an eight-year award winning run the last show in 2007 saw Silvio gunned down and left in a coma.

Van Zandt is known for his flamboyant style with his ever-present gypsy bandana – which he has worn since the sixties to mask the disfigurement he incurred going through a car windscreen – and colourful blousons. He does not disappoint today at our meeting at the Hard Rock Café in Paris in his multi shades of orange shirt the morning after yet another stunning three-hour marathon Springsteen gig.

Silvio, The Sopranos

Silvio too was a natty dresser as befitted the boss of the Bada Bing strip joint which doubled as The Sopranos HQ. He favoured sharp luridly coloured suits topped off by a magnificent immobile pompadour wig.

What is common to both characters, the rock star and mobster, is a highly expressive and elastic Italian American face. Thankfully instead of cold menacing eyes and a loping gait I am greeted by a genial, clear-eyed 61-year-old who looks you straight in the eye with a welcoming friendliness.

In late August we will see Van Zandt back in a sharp suit, as well as incongruously a Norwegian sweater, as Frank “The Fixer” Tagliano, a gangster who relocates to Norway in a witness protection programme in BBC4 Scandi-drama Lilyhammer.

Also making a reappearance almost as a character in its own right is his pompadour wig, though he insists he has not borrowed it from the Sopranos wardrobe department. ‘It’s a gangster look, they all have that same hair,’ he says. ‘It is not exactly the same, but I understand it does look similar. And if people watch it thinking Silvio came out of his coma and in to the witness protection progamme, that’s fine.

‘When I was offered the role I thought am I only going to play gangsters, but the idea was irresistible. Here was an interesting character in a fascinating unusual fish out of water situation.

‘Knowing Norway a little bit at the time, how there was literally no crime there – that one incident last year was a completely freak incident – these people don’t even jaywalk, they don’t lock their doors outside of Oslo and it’s just a wonderful society. It’s paradise actually. And into this paradise of peace you drop this one-man crime wave. So right away I could see the multi-layered plot lines. You have the business of crime, you have the personal level, but then this wonderful level of him trying to fit into their society, which is quite unique, No one has seen anything like it on television.

‘When you hear I’m playing a gangster again of course you think it’s going to be quite similar, but it’s actually not. The basic circumstances are radically different. You have Silvio whose entire life and job is keeping Tony alive. It made him quite neurotic and closed down and very careful and conservative in his own way. He is the only guy on the Sopranos who didn’t want to be the boss. He was actually quite happy being that under boss, the consigliere. And so he lived in that very traditional world of the New Jersey Mob.

‘Whereas this guy is a boss, so he is a bit crazier, a bit wilder. And in the circumstances you are going to see a lot of different sides of his personality than we saw with Silvio. I get to do a lot more. I am starring in the show, whereas in The Sopranos I was the seventh actor down the list. What I did was important in the Sopranos but it wasn’t a lead role. This is quite a different thing.’

The Sopranos, which premiered in 1999 when Van Zandt was 48, was his first acting role. ‘When I got the role I had to figure out, what exactly is this acting thing? I hadn’t been to any acting classes or anything. So I sat and I analysed it and the theory I came up with was that every characteristic known to the human species exists in all of us, from Hitler to Ghandi and everything in between. The acting job is to find what is relevant to that particular role, find it within ourselves and then inhabit it, bring it to life.

‘I love to learn things and rather late in life I was getting the chance to learn a whole new craft. And look who I’m learning from! You do a scene with Jimmy Gandolfini (Tony Soprano) and you walk away a better actor, he’s that good. And all of them – Dominic Chianese (Junior Soprano) who was in Godfather II, amazing actor. Edie Falco (Tony Soprano’s wife Carmela). And by the way with David Chase, he may well be the greatest TV writer ever, certainly one of the top three. So I had this wonderful school.’

Fate smiled on Van Zandt the day Chase was flipping channels and came across him presenting an award at the first ever televised Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame ceremony in 1997. Chase was a fan of Springsteen and Van Zandt. He even had Van Zandt’s four solo albums which had not sold well. And he also hailed from New Jersey.

Chase liked Van Zandt’s style of delivery and thought he would suit the character of Silvio. It was fortunate timing for Van Zandt who had left Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band over a decade previously in 1984 after working on the album Born To Run which made Springsteen a superstar.

Van Zandt left to pursue a life of political activism through music, but it didn’t quite work out. He had a UK hit with the anti-apartheid record Sun City, and campaigned against American foreign policy in Latin America, but his career took a nosedive. An attempt to become a record producer also failed.

‘I literally walked my dog for seven years. I was in a meditative state of suspension. Then I got the call from David Chase who was flicking around with his remote. It was like one of those Hollywood stories you wouldn’t believe. You have to start thinking about destiny, don’t you.’

About 18 months later he was a TV actor and in the year that followed became a DJ, first in a club then on radio where he still presents the successful Underground Garage show, and was invited by his old pal Bruce Springsteen to join a reformed E Street Band.

He may never have been a fully-fledged actor before, but Van Zandt was a showman who took on various personas. He used to be known as Miami Steve in The E Street Band and when he left let it be known he was now Little Steven.

‘Miami Steve was the role I felt was appropriate at the time. I was the Dean Martin role in the Rock and Roll Rat Pack to Bruce’s Frank Sinatra. I was the best friend, the second banana, in a way the consigliere.

‘I was the fun guy, the first guy you call to the party. Nothing intellectual or controversial going on, just rock and roll guitar player, archetype fun freak. And then I left and became Little Steven who is going to dedicate his entire existence to politics. A very big shift. So you change the name because the role changes.

‘It was not very smart to leave the E Street Band but I felt compelled to do it. I started reading about politics and realised we were supporting a lot of bad governments and our tax dollars were going to kill people and I felt extremely emotional and passionate about it and I thought, I can’t be quiet about this, I have to say something.

‘The Dean Martin is in me and the radical revolutionary is in there and the guy who helped bring down the South African government. And the guy who is a radio DJ is in there. A third of the people that know me on the street in America know me as a DJ. They may not even know about me being an actor on The Sopranos or Lilyhammer.’

These days his urge to change the world is channelled through his Underground Garage radio show dedicated to promote a strand of rock and roll that owes its roots to the British invasion of America that began with The Beatles, which he believes is being unjustly ignored by other radio shows and stations.

In his role as self-appointed ambassador for rock he agreed to become a judge on Hard Rock Rising, a battle of the bands competition entered by 12,000 bands promoted by Hard Rock Cafe. The winners of the competition have their own stage at this weekend’s Hard Rock Calling concerts in Hyde Park, and the ultimate winners Hey Monea! will support Bruce Springsteen.

Van Zandt goes round America giving motivational speeches about the need for young musicians to treat being a musician as a craft. ‘One of my main speeches is about the lost idea of craft. What we do is the same as a carpenter. It is not some gift that comes in the wind and you wait for the muse to speak, you have to work at it.’

He also tells them to learn from his mistakes, and not to leave a great band before it has run its course. ‘It is silly to have a great band and break it up. I tell people if you have a band that works do solo records in between, but come back to the band. A great band is a miracle.’ He was fortunate Bruce Springsteen gave him another chance. He’s not just Miami Steve and Little Steven, Silvio and Frank, he’s Lucky Steve too.

 

* Steven Van Zandt acted as judge of the Hard Rock Rising global battle of the bands. The winners Hey Monea! will support Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Hard Rock Calling 2012. For more details, visit www.hardrock.com

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