Steve Stevens: From Rockaway to L.A.
Written by Alison “MetalBabe” Cohen
After seeing Steve Stevens do a demo for Friedman Amplifiers at the LA Amp Show, Rock N Roll Industries Magazine asked me to interview the one and only guitar legend. We had a truly enjoyable phone conversation about everything from when he first picked up the guitar, his influences, the new Billy Idol CD, his time with Vince Neil, and being on reality TV show “Married To Rock.” Keep a lookout for the NAMM Issue of Rock N Roll Industries in print and online for our interview about Billy Idol and the latest CD ‘Kings and Queens of the Underground,’ which was released October 21st of 2014.
Metal Babe: You have definitely have had a very impressive career to date. Let’s start at the beginning… When did you first pick up the guitar?
Steve Stevens: I grew up in an area right outside Manhattan called Rockaway. When I was there as a kid it was a beach resort area. I have a brother who is five years older than me and all of his friends played guitar. This was the late ‘60’s and there were a lot of singer/songwriter/acoustic guitar players like James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and Crosby Stills and Nash. One day my dad brought home a fifteen dollar piece of sh*t guitar for himself, like with all those books and stuff. So every day when he’d be at work, I’d pull the guitar into my room and it became apparent that I was spending more time on it than he was. A couple of my brother’s friends said, “You’re making an awful racket, but at least it’s in time.” One of the musicians that came from my area was a protest singer named Phil Ochs. His sister lived in Rockaway and proceeded to give me guitar lessons.
Metal Babe: Oh wow. Who were your influences at that time?
Steve Stevens: I started playing when I was 7 ½ and I didn’t get an electric guitar until I was 13, so the first things that I learned were all folk music. Then I went to a summer camp and got this incredible teacher who was a flamingo guitarist. It was the first time that I had a teacher that I really respected. He had such a passion for the music. He had escaped Nazi’s in WWII and he just loved music. He lived for music. I was a real fan of flamingo music, as well as folk music, when I was just starting out. Then when I got my first electric guitar at 13, you know, the whole world opened up for me. It was all about Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and all the usual early 70’s guitar heroes.
Metal Babe: What is the writing process like with Billy Idol as far as lyrics and music are concerned?
Steve Stevens: It’s always different for every song. About six years ago we added Billy Morrison into the band, who is the rhythm guitar player and my best friend. As it turns out, he grew up in the same town as Idol, in Bromley, in England. As a young kid, he used to sneak in and see Generation X play. He’s got that perspective and that history, and he’s such a positive guy. He came onboard as a writing partner, and the three of us were really able to bounce ideas off of each other. Morrison is such a huge punk fan that he was able to tap into some of the earlier Billy Idol stuff. We don’t always go back that far, but with Morrison we were able to. So the three of us primarily wrote all the songs on the record. There’s one song on the record called “Ghosts of my Guitar,” which I came to Billy with. I had started writing the lyrics and the verse. It was kind of about Billy’s time in New York when we first met and about some of the characters that we knew there. If those guys are running with the ball, I’ll be able to look at it and arrange it. I guess after doing records for thirty some-odd years, I’m a pretty good arranger. (LAUGHS) So I can take another person’s idea, look at it through a different lens, and kind of throw ideas around. Every song is a different; there’s no rulebook.
Metal Babe: This was the first time that you have released an album on Billy Idol’s own label, BFI Records (Via Kobalt Label Services.) How was the process different from previous releases?
Steve Stevens: The record is self-financed. Billy financed the record. We did it initially without a label. That’s kind of like the new blueprint for bands. I mean, fortunately for Idol, he’s an established artist so he can bankroll his own record and do the record that he wants to do without the interference of anyone… No A&R or anything. Once the record was three quarters of the way done, a deal was made with Kobalt as the distributer. We’ve been doing this a long time. We kind of know what it should be and we know when it’s right and we know when it’s wrong. We go by our instincts and I think that allowed us a lot of freedom on this record.
Metal Babe: That’s great that you were able to do that. I have a couple non-Billy Idol questions for you. How did you end up with Vince Neil on the “Exposed” record/tour, and how was that experience for you?
Steve Stevens: Crazy. (LAUGHS) I was living in New York at the time, and I had never really worked with an artist from Los Angeles, especially one that came from the L.A. Sunset Strip music scene. Vince was everything that you’d thought he’d be. (LAUGHS) We had a really good team. Ron Nevison produced the record, who was one of the great 80’s and 90’s record producers. He did all those Heart records. So doing the album was a real change for me because with Billy Idol it’s all about playing economically and supporting the vocal and guitar solos if they’re needed, but not every song has a solo, and it’s not all about playing really fast or showing off. I remember when we were starting to put together the songs for the record. Vince would say, make the solo twice as long, and play faster. It was nice to be given this platform for the heavier side of my guitar playing. I think the guitar sound on that record is really good, and I’m really proud of that record. It was a great experience. We knew that before we finished the record that we’d be going out to support Van Halen, and Eddie’s a friend of mine, so that part of the touring was just fantastic. It was a real challenge to play in front of a Van Halen audience, you know, because if you sucked, they’re gonna let you know.
Metal Babe: That definitely sounds challenging. How did you end up recording ‘Give ‘em Hell’ with Sebastian Bach and are you going to do any live shows together?
Steve Stevens: I met him through this cover band that Sebastian would guest with in L.A., Camp Freddy (Now Royal Machines). I said to him… You may not know this, but when I was putting together The Atomic Playboys, I was trying to get a hold of you to come record with me. He was like, “No f*cking way! I didn’t know that.” And I was like, I guess it worked out fine for you. (LAUGHS) So, we became friends. We played shows together. We went down to South America with Matt Sorum and Rock n’ Roll Allstars… Gene Simmons, Duff McKagen. Those guys… So when it came time to do his new record he said, “Would you write some stuff for my new record?” I said, what are you looking for, what styles, and he sent me a couple of his solo things. Of course I know all the Skid Row stuff, so I just sent him guitar sketch ideas. Nothing lyrical, and said use what you can. He eventually recorded three of the songs.
Metal Babe: Awesome. The last solo album you released was ‘Memory Crash’ in 2008. Do you see yourself releasing another solo CD down the line?
Steve Stevens: Yeah, I just put together the beginnings of that. It won’t be an instrumental record. There are some musicians that I really want involved in the situation. I have a feeling after the Billy Idol tour, some point next year, we’re gonna take a break and it will be probably perfect time to get into another project. I can’t really say who’s gonna be involved in it now, but hopefully they’ll be available. It’s gonna be more of a band situation. It’s something that I’d like to tour behind.
Metal Babe: Great. We’ll definitely keep posted. You’ve also been on the show “Married to Rock” with your wife Josie in 2010. What was it like participating in a reality show?
Steve Stevens: That show started because the producers were aware of Camp Freddy. I’ve known Billy Duffy from The Cult since 1988. I’ve known Duff since I moved to Los Angeles, and I know Perry Farrell from Dave Navarro and Camp Freddy. We all kind of knew each other. Initially they approached my wife asked her to take a meeting to do this reality TV show. I said, it doesn’t hurt to take a meeting. Literally a half hour after she left the meeting, they said, we wanna send a contract for the show. And I said, if this is something that you wanna do, then you should absolutely be part of it. She’s definitely a larger than life character, and I was already gonna be on tour. So it was good by design because the show really focused on the wives and not so much the musicians. They would come out on the road and film some sh*t happening, and then they filmed our wedding. In the case of our stuff, there were some things that occurred that weren’t scripted. I just thought, if we’re gonna do this, we gotta really do it. Warts and all. Just be real about it. She did the majority of the work, and subsequently it helped her establish an audience. She has two clothing lines now. I’ve got nothing but positive things to say about doing it. I can’t speak for everybody that did it, but for us it was very natural.
Metal Babe: Especially since you were already friends with everyone involved. Anything else you would like to say to your fans?
Steve Stevens: I just hope people enjoy the new Idol record and come out and see us play.
Metal Babe: Thanks for your time. I look forward to seeing you out on the road with Billy Idol!
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