AUSTIN, Texas - Steve Van Zandt is up on his soapbox, trying to save rock ‘n’ roll.
Besides his trademark bandanna, the E Street Band guitarist - again taking his customary place on stage to the left of his childhood friend Bruce Springsteen on their latest tour - wears many hats.
The 58-year-old Jersey guy was first introduced to the world as “Miami” Steve during the ‘70s with Southside Johnny and Springsteen. He became Little Steven when he left the E Street Band in the ‘80s for a solo career that produced the landmark 1985 anti-apartheid single “Sun City.”
He hooked up with the reunited E Street Band in 1999, and played Tony Soprano’s right-hand man Silvio Dante in HBO’s “The Sopranos.” Alongside all of that, Van Zandt has served as a tireless evangelist for the music he loves.
He hosts a two-hour syndicated weekly radio show, “Underground Garage,” which airs Sunday nights. On a 24/7 Sirius XM satellite radio channel of the same name, he mixes vintage rockabilly, British Invasion and punk acts like Gene Vincent, the Yardbirds and the Ramones with simpatico outfits like fuzz-tone duo the Raveonettes and the garage girl-group the Cocktail Slippers. The last is one of 16 bands signed to his Wicked Cool label that played at the South by Southwest Music Festival here in March.
Van Zandt took a break from Asbury Park rehearsals for the Springsteen tour to come to Austin, where he gave a keynote about the dire state of the music business, and the “crisis in craft” in music making. At SXSW, he sat down to talk about starting a ‘60s-style TV show, the possibility of a “Sopranos reunion,” and life with Springsteen.
Q: It’s not the best time to start a record label, is it?
A: You couldn’t imagine a worse time. So we thought we’d jump right in. It’s fascinating as an intellectual challenge to try to figure out where it’s all going. ... Having said that, it’s really difficult to imagine achieving my lifelong ambition of breaking even. (Laughs.)
Yes, the business is in absolute chaos. ... Add to that an economic holocaust.
But that’s not the biggest problem we’re facing. I think the biggest problem is how mediocre everything has become. ... We’ve somehow wandered into this misperception that it’s all about the art. And we’ve forgotten that it’s all about the craft - which, accidentally, coincidentally, or by its own merits, evolved into art.
Q: Last time I talked to you was back when you played (Philadelphia’s) Lincoln Financial Field with the E Street Band in 2003. You talked about how rock ‘n’ roll had become “an underground cult” that had been “pushed into a ghetto.” Your passion was about bringing rock ‘n’ roll back through the “Underground Garage.” You see Wicked Cool as an extension of that?
A: Oh yeah. We’re trying to raise the standards back up. The label will have an identity. It will be a garage rock label. But it will have every song worthwhile on every album. ... I’m determined to regain the trust of the audience. It was our fault we lost it - ours in a royal music-business sense.
Q: After not writing or producing for 15 years, you’ve got two songs you wrote on the Cocktail Slippers’ album. Why’d you stop doing that?
A: There came a time when I thought, there’s no reason to make a great record anymore. No radio station is going to play it. You can’t find rock ‘n’ roll on the radio. It was intolerable. ... So let’s not whine and moan about it, let’s do something creative.
Q: So there’s a going to be an “Underground Garage” TV show?
A: It’ll be called “Underground Garage A Go-Go.” A “Hullabaloo,” “Shindig!,” “Ready Steady Go!” kind of thing. With young hosts, young kids, dancing to rock ‘n’ roll on camera. The more rock version of “TRL.” More like the club scene in “Austin Powers.”
Q: Have you been able to sell that?
A: I’ve been trying to for years. And they’re very nervous about it. Because every music show has failed. And I’m like, “Well, I know every music show has failed, because they suck.” ... If I can get a TV show, then the world is going to change. I came within seconds of it being on ABC. Or it may end up on a cell phone. We’ll see.
Q: Bruce has been on a creative jag. With “The Rising,” “Magic” and “Working on a Dream,” that’s three E Street Band albums this decade, plus two on his own.
A: Yeah, it’s nice.
Q: What’s the key to that?
A: I think he just got really comfortable. He’s back with the E Street Band again. And he realizes there’s nothing we can’t do. I think he just got inspired. And may he stay that way forever, because I love doing a record every year, year and a half. He’s writing all the time, writing great stuff. So why not put it out?
That’s the only difference. He’s always been extremely prolific. He would write 60 or 70 songs per record, and put 12 out and put the rest on a shelf.
Q: Both “Working on a Dream” and “Magic” have a Byrdsy, Wall of Sound ‘60s feel.
A: No question. I love it. Those roots have always been there. He’s just feeling so comfortable right now in who he is, that he can show the roots a little more. ... It’s a wonderful place to be artistically, and may it just continue.
Q: Do you still play the role of consigliere with Bruce, like Tom Hagen to his Michael Corleone?
A: Not so much anymore. We still talk when something important comes up. But on a daily basis he has plenty of people around him. Musically, we still work together at rehearsal. But I’m not arranging the albums like I used to. I used to be very involved. With “Darkness (on the Edge of Town),” “The River,” “Born in the U.S.A.”
Q: You going to do any more acting?
A: I wouldn’t rule it out.
Q: Will there be a “Sopranos” movie?
A: I’m hoping. Silvio’s still breathing. Jimmy (Gandolfini) and (show creator) David (Chase) have to both do some major things, and then we’ll see if they’re willing to revisit it.
Q: So then you’ll break out that hairpiece again?
A: What hairpiece? That’s my real hair. It’s under this bandanna.