"Little Steven" Van Zandt is a jack-of-all-trades of the highest caliber. In addition to being known as the right-hand man to New Jersey's two most iconic bosses, the fictional Tony Soprano and the very real Bruce Springsteen, Van Zandt fronts Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul. He has also starred in his own television series, "Lilyhammer," hosts a weekly radio show called "Little Steven's Underground Garage," runs the record label Wicked Cool Records, and has established the foundation TeachRock, which advocates for music education in schools. At each stop of Van Zandt's current tour with his band, teachers get in free and can register for a free, pre-show TeachRock workshop at teachrock.org/tour.
A Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul show aims to tell the history of rock 'n' roll in a revved-up fashion. It's a jukebox opera, with more than a dozen performers who expand on the genre's humble beginnings with other styles including funk, blues and doo-wop. It's a gift from Van Zandt, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who feels a sense of responsibility to share what he says is "the greatest music ever made."
Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul are performing at Kodak Center on October 20. Before heading out for the Soulfire Teacher Solidarity Tour, Van Zandt spoke over the phone about his many projects and his connection to Rochester rock music. An edited version of the interview follows.
CITY: How did you develop your work ethic?
Steven Van Zandt:Growing up in the era I grew up in, it was a renaissance period with very high standards and very high-quality stuff was going on all around you, so your standards were immediately set very high. When the greatest art being made is also the most commercial, that's how one would define a renaissance period. I think the fact that I achieved success kind of late helped create this feeling that you're always trying to play catch-up. I think part of it is being from New Jersey, too. You're always like second best. You're the underdog, so you tend to work harder just because of your environment. Maybe it's some kind of DNA thing mixed in there, too.
Does being involved in many fields make you better in one area?
In my case it does, although you always run into the danger of not dedicating enough time or energy to any particular thing. I think different parts of your brain are asked to do different functions for different disciplines. What happens with me, I tend to get refreshed on the thing that I'm not doing at any one given moment. The ultimate example of it was during my first year of "Lilyhammer." I flew literally every single Saturday. I worked every other week on the show in Norway, and I'd come home to my record company and radio show and everything else, and then I'd go back to Norway and everything was brand new again.
What has been one of your personal highlights as a bandleader?
This past tour has been extremely meaningful for me to reconnect with my work for the first time in 25 years. To see the enthusiasm from the audience has been extremely encouraging. It's been so encouraging that I'm in the middle of recording an album of new material for the first time in a long time. The first time around was great, but this time around I'm appreciating it more because I realize now how difficult this is to pull off. It's even more satisfying now that we've combined touring with my foundation work.
What's at the root of your passion for education?
It might be guilt to some extent, because I feel like, "Why did my generation have all the fun? Why did we have all the greatest music ever made? Why did we have all the greatest art and entertainment? The greatest economy ever?" We were so lucky. I think it's an obligation to pass along to the next generation something that's similar. At least they should have access to the music, so they get a chance to be inspired by it the way we were. That's why I started my radio show and that's why I'm doing the educational foundation, just to make sure the greatness of our art form is accessible for future generations.
Your record label released albums by The Chesterfield Kings. How did you hook up with this Rochester band?
When we started the radio show, we were looking for bands in the style of garage rock that we defined as traditional rock and roll. They were one of the foremost bands doing it at the time. My first broadcast of the show was live at the Hard Rock, and I think they just showed up and introduced themselves. I ended up working with them and I might be working with [The Chesterfield Kings bassist] Andy [Babiuk] again. We're talking about his new band, The Empty Hearts, coming over to Wicked Cool Records. Andy and I stayed close friends all these years.
What was the inspiration behind your song, "I Am a Patriot"?
That was one of the most difficult songs I ever had to write. I knew my thing was going to be criticizing the American government, but I wanted to make it clear that I was doing it from a patriotic point of view. I feel America is in fact a very special place; it's an exceptional experiment. It was the only country not formed by a common culture. We were this sort of stew of renegades, misfits and outcasts, and the only thing we had in common was our ideas. These are extremely important ideas but have yet to be realized completely when it comes to equality and some of the basic American ideals.
So it's up to us who are true patriots to continue to work at that, and criticize the American government when it falls off the tracks and starts to go the wrong way. I felt it was important to write that song, and I stared at that title for a year just trying to figure out how to do it. It was an important song to write when I knew I was going to be visibly the only guy in the business whose identity was political. My whole goal, my whole mission was to politicize my friends and the industry. To make it comfortable for people to be involved with issues and to speak out when it wasn't really cool.
Do you think music can still have an impact on politics like it did when you wrote "Sun City"?
To some extent, but we're far more fragmented now. We've become more fragmented every year, it seems, so we don't have that mass media cultural impact. It's difficult to reach everybody the way we did. I don't think we could have pulled off "Sun City" now, for instance. I think it would be impossible.
The whole world has now gone into this permanent recession, which is exactly what the bad guys want. All the authoritarian bad guys retain their power by the working class being so busy trying to pay the rent that they don't have time to think about politics. That's what we have now, and it seems in a more permanent way than ever before. It's a very weird time. We don't seem to be recovering and the economy seems to be permanently bad, and the rich just continually get richer and the poor continue to get poorer. And for the first time in my lifetime, there doesn't seem to be any way to stop it. So the answer to your question is "Yes, it can still have impact, but when everybody is so concerned about putting food on the table, they are not going to be too concerned about political issues."
What brings you joy?
Mostly creativity, it's what it comes down to. My family brings me joy - my wife, my friends, my dog - but the actual work is what I'm really all about. The creation of something from nothing is the most satisfying part of my life.