At the end of 2016, Steven Van Zandt aka Little Steven, was ready to take a deep breath, and some time off. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band toured for the better part of the year in North America and Europe behind the re-release of “The River.” As Springsteen’s guitar soloing consigliere, Van Zandt knew that the band had a string of dates in Australia and New Zealand in early 2017, but nothing after that. It would have given him time to pursue other endeavors, perhaps even a new television project.
As he and his wife, Maureen, were making arrangements to celebrate ex-Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman’s birthday in London, the guitarist/TV mobster from HBO hit “The Sopranos” got an offer that he couldn’t refuse.
“I had no intention of coming back in,” he says over the phone ahead of a tour stop in Buffalo. “There had been no real plan to reconnect with my own work — as silly as that sounds now,” Van Zandt said. As he prepared for his trip, the guitarist was contacted by a promoter who asked him about performing at a blues festival in London on the same weekend as Wyman;’s birthday and asked Van Zandt if he could throw a band together and headline one of the nights. “If it hadn’t been Bill Wyman’s birthday, if I didn’t happen to run into this crazy promoter and he didn’t have this wild idea to have me headline a show, none of this woulda happened,” he said.
Thus, after 25 years away, Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul were unexpectedly reformed.
Though Van Zandt says that he will “never get back to being the frontman I was in the ’80s” at the peak of his solo career (he left the E Street Band in a performing capacity just before the release of “Born in the U.S.A.” in 1984), the axe man says that his two years on the road with his band has been more than gratifying and that he’s “halfway back” to where he was. In 2017, Van Zandt released “Soulfire,” an album of songs he’d had written for other artists, quickly followed up in 2019 by “Summer of Sorcery,” released earlier this year. It’s his first collection of solo material since 1999’s “Born Again Savage,” which was released right as Springsteen reunited with the E Street Band (the album was actually recorded in 1994 but the record company didn’t release it at the time).
“It’s been a challenge, but a healthy one,” Van Zandt says of relaunching his solo career. “But it keeps you working. ‘Summer of Sorcery’ has been just a wonderful show to do live. It was an accidental circumstance kinda thing, which describes most of my life (laughs), but here it is.”
It’s one thing to be known for his work playing Springsteen and having his hand in production on iconic albums from “Born to Run” through “Born in the U.S.A.” (“Nebraska” not withstanding), but getting the affirmation from a legend on his own material was the sign for Van Zandt that resuscitating his solo material was the right decision.
Ahead of his show in London, Van Zandt invited Paul McCartney to swing by (McCartney famously played with Springsteen and company in Hyde Park in 2009 where they went over curfew and had the power clipped) to take it in and hope on stage with him. On the off chance that Macca would take him up on his offer, Van Zandt quickly put together a swinging version of the Beatles’ “I Saw Her Standing There” and rehearsed it quickly with his band during soundcheck. Well, McCartney ended up hopping on stage and they did the revamped version, which was in the vein of rip-roaring rock-n-roll standard “Maybellene”. But, there was something else, though, that stuck out to him.
“It was one of the most thrilling moments of my life,” he says of McCartney joining him and the Disciples of Soul. “Coming on my stage, endorsing what I’m doing, my own personal music, that was just beyond my imagination. That kind of endorsement from a guy who is responsible for me doing this (playing music) — one of them — it was a remarkable moment.”
While reforming the Disciples of Soul has been a way for him to unexpectedly stay busy while Springsteen was on Broadway, Van Zandt also found time to dip back into his catalog to find material to release as a two-volume soundtrack to New York mob drama “Lilyhammer,” which was the first original series to be released on Netflix. The two versions are snippets of the score Van Zandt wrote himself and odds, ends and an assortment of covers that were performed on the show before it ended in 2014.
“You’re always kind of checking to make sure your memory of it is accurate,” Van Zandt said of the music he wrote during those four years. “We all have a bit of narcissism that’s required but you want to make sure you’re not imagining something that isn’t there. There’s great performances and cool melodies and really enjoyed that particular artistic adventure.”
“Lilyhammer” saw him play Frank “The Fixer” Tagliano, an ex-mobster exiled in Norway. Tagliano’s gregarious personality drew in stark contrast to Silvio Dante, the mobster Van Zandt had famously portrayed on “The Sopranos.”
“On my first promotional tour, I had to explain to people what Netflix was,” he recalls of the show’s launch. “I was like, ‘Well, it’s kinda like Blockbuster but they’re makin’ their own stuff now. People were like, ‘Why would they want to do that? Why would they want to create original content?'”
Instead of it being an uncomfortable foray to an uncharted new world, Van Zandt says it “was the most wonderful business deal” he’d ever done. Originally, Van Zandt was going to bring “Lilyhammer” to Starz since he knew Chris Albrecht from HBO, but by a stroke of luck — or location — Netflix was across the street from the cable network and Van Zandt figured that he might as well go there as well. Starz didn’t have any budget left that year for the show (Albrecht asked him to wait a year), and it ended up being Netflix’s gain.
“I’ll never beat it,” he says. “It was just me and [Netflix chief content officer] Ted Sarandos and there was nobody else in the office, basically. It was a very, very small group of people and Ted was really the only guy I met,” Van Zandt remembers. The company had signed ‘House of Cards,’ at the time, but it wasn’t ready and by default Lilyhammer became Netflix’s first show. “I said, ‘Ted, are you sure you want to take a chance on us for your first show, a show with subtitles?’ Van Zandt asked. “And he was brave enough to say that it just works. I give him a lot of credit to have those kind of balls to take a chance like that on the first show. I took a chance on Netflix and they took a chance on me.”
Now, 20 years since “The Sopranos” first aired on HBO, Van Zandt isn’t surprised that the show continues to maintain its popularity and cultural importance.
“It comes around every 10 years or five years, it’s there all the time,” he says of the landmark HBO series. “Which is nice because people can discover it, and they do.”
He doesn’t know if Dante will be in the upcoming “Sopranos” prequel, “The Many Saints of Newark,” Van Zandt says he is confident that the film will be rewarding for longtime fans of the HBO mega-series.
“I think it’s going to be great,” he says of the film. “The fact that David Chase is doing it automatically, in my mind, makes it a really, really safe bet. He’s one of the most brilliant guys I’ve ever met and I love everything he does. I think he’s great and we’ll all find out (about the movie) together.”
As for his day job, Van Zandt has shows booked with the Disciples of Soul through November and is ready to go whenever Springsteen gives the go-ahead. And that could be much sooner than E Street Nation is anticipating.
Earlier this year, Springsteen appeared with Van Zandt at the first show of his tour at the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills in May, ahead of a For Your Consideration appearance he was set to make for Netflix the next night. There, Springsteen said he had just finished an album of songs for the E Street Band. (As for “Western Stars,” Van Zandt loved it, saying “he’s so versatile and has a wide range of talent when it comes to his artistic vision. And it’s always interesting when he picks a new hybrid genre to explore and I thought it was wonderful.”)
Speaking of the mysterious collections of tunes his longtime pal says he has written, Van Zandt said that they’re “still rumblings and we’ll see what happens,” but said that he has left his calendar wide open after his final Disciples of Soul dates in November.
“I certainly am planning on the possibility,” he says of a new Springsteen and E Street Band record. “I wanted to leave room in case he wants to do a record with the E Street Band and we will have time to do it November, December and be able to deliver it in January (of 2020) and then be out (on the road) in the summer of 2020. IF that’s what he wants to do.”
Despite being fairly tightlipped on his knowledge on what’s to come on a future E Street album, Van Zandt said that the recording would be fast, with the band being able to “knock out a couple of tracks a day.”
As for his own foreseeable future, Van Zandt plans on keeping the Disciples of Soul together and not have a 25-year gap between material, calling “Summer of Sorcery” an “unexpected artistic rebirth,” but that “Bruce will always remain a first priority to me and we’ll see what he wants to do,” and that he isn’t quite done with doing TV just yet, especially given his unexpected roles of the seismic shift of that landscape.
“I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time for the two major revolutions in that took place on TV,” he says of HBO and “The Sopranos” and the rise of Netflix Originals. “I’m lucky to be in two of the most unique TV shows in history. The nice thing about the modern world is that people keep discovering them every day. Somehow, in between all of my things, I have to find six months in a row where I can do a TV show again.”
“Summer of Sorcery” and “Lilyhammer Vols. 1 and 2” are out now via Wicked Cool/UMe