Steve Stevens is, quite simply, a guitar legend. He is the guitarist with Billy Idol, he has recorded with the late, great Michael Jackson and Vince Neil, he has performed on the soundtrack of one of the most popular films of the 80s and his playing on the new Billy Idol album Kings and Queens of the Underground will be released on October 21st. He was kind enough to give Korea Guitar an hour of his time. Here’s what he had to say…
How did you get attracted to the guitar?
Steve Stevens: When I was seven and a half years old, my dad brought home a $13 guitar for himself. It came with a book and everything. And, little by little, it started spending more time in my room than with my dad. This was really the time of the folk singer/songwriter. You know, Dylan was huge at the time and it was just emerging with people like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. I didn’t get an electric guitar until I was thirteen years old so all that time was spent playing acoustic guitar.
And what was your first electric guitar?
SS: I got an electric guitar when I was 13, and it was a Univox copy of a Daniel Armstrong, one of those clear ones. And, I think for 130 bucks, my parents got me the guitar, a little amp and a fuzz pedal. (laughs)
what are you playing now?
SS: With a career now with Billy Idol, that spans 30 years, we try and recreate the records faithfully, so there are lots of different sounds. I travel with about a dozen guitars. I bring some Les Pauls with me and now I’m affiliated with a company called Knaggs. I bring a bunch of their guitars with me. It depends really on the setlist. We do three or four Generation X songs, so I try and bring along a good punk rock ragtag guitar.
Who influenced you to become a guitar player? You started as a punk guitarist. Were there any punk players that inspired you?
SS: The weird thing is that punk music was such a socio-economic thing in London and Billy, obviously with Genreation X was a big part of that, but in New York, I guess our big punk rock band was the Ramones. No one really said at the time that the Ramones were punk rock. They were just 4 guys who played simpler and louder and faster and had melodies kind of like the Ronettes or something. But around the time that I got my first electric guitar, the English guitar thing was happening in the early 70’s and the beginning of progressive rock. For me, people are surprised to know, my true guitar heroes were Robert Fripp and Steve Howe and guys who were playing all different styles within the context of a rock band. I always loved the idea of how they approached guitar, which is to orchestrate the song with different guitar sounds and different guitar styles. I’ve never been one of those guys that gets one guitar sound and play that sound throughout the whole song. I try and create different textures in a song.
Steve Howe was a big influence on me because, when I heard the (Yes) Fragile album, I went ‘wow, this guy’s playing all of these styles that I already know in a rock context, you know?’ Then I started to get into Steve Hackett and all of the early progressive rock guys were a big deal to me.
What was your first concert?
SS: The first concert I ever saw was The James Gang, but I was really young…my brother brought me. I don’t even remember who the guitar player was. It could have been Tommy Bolin or Joe Walsh. I don’t really remember. But the first concert that I went to with my friends, was Emerson, Lake and Palmer on the Brain Salad Surgery Tour at Madison Square Garden in quadraphonic. And it blew my fucking mind. (laughs) You know, there was no guitar player in the band. Greg Lake plays some stuff but he’s primarily a bass player. But the seeds of hearing that Moog synthesizer, it really shaped what I wanted to do guitar-wise. Certainly when I got to do Rebel Yell and stuff, an example of me emulating a Moog would be the breakdown in the song Rebel Yell, where Billy does the “I walk the ward for you”. All of those lines behind him are guitar, and people think they’re keyboards but they’re just me emulating a mini Moog on guitar.
And that all came from ELP?
SS: Yeah it came from my love of Keith Emerson.
(Amazed) That’s guitar?
SS: Yeah, it’s all guitar on that cut. On Rebel Yell, there’s very little keyboards on that song. The only real keyboard is the intro, that sort of marimba sounding thing. Everything else is guitar.
You blew me away. I had no idea.
SS: (Laughs) You know, the first Billy Idol record had a lot of keyboards on it, and I was pretty adamant that on Rebel Yell, I was going to do everything with guitar that I possibly could to keep the keyboards off the record. Obviously Eyes Without A Face has keyboards on it but a lot of the other stuff is guitar, where people think it’s keys.
Can you explain the reasoning behind artists releasing CDs once every 8 or 9 years as opposed to the 70s or 80s where bands were releasing albums every year or every 2 years?
SS: With Billy Idol, it always took us a while to release a record, you know? For whatever reasons. You know, Rebel Yell was 1983-84 and then Whiplash smile was the latter part of 1987. We always took a while to do a record. We tried to write on the road and stuff. We’d have songs, and we’d come off the road and the songs were like “I’m so lonely’ or ‘I’m on the bus.’ We needed a normal life to have things to write about.
But really, with the new record, it’s been 8 or 9 years because with Billy, he has to really want to do it. He’s just not one of those guys who will do a record for the sake of doing it. The last record we did was more in the harder rock territory and the whole reason for doing this record was that it coincides with Billy’s autobiography and the record is really personal to him. It almost felt like writing a soundtrack to someone’s life. It was like score something rather than writing songs. We wrote a shitload of songs, but they all had to kind of link together for this one theme.
How do you feel about the new CD, now that it’s all done and pressed and ready to go?
SS: I really like it. We got to work with Trevor Horn on it and we got to record in London, which I’ve never done before. So, the whole experience of recording the record was pretty amazing. We recorded in Trevor’s studio and I think we were one of the last acts to actually use that studio because it’s since been torn down. That was originally Island Recorders which is where all of those early Genesis albums were done and Blind Faith, traffic and actually a lot of Led Zeppelin 4 was done there. Stairway to Heaven was done there. It was a real sense of history.
With this record, I wasn’t really concerned with a lot of the guitar playing. I know that sounds odd, but, we really wanted to make sure that the songs were strong and we knew that we were really attempting to please the existing Billy Idol fans, but we’re trying to appeal to a different generation at the same time. It’s not so easy to do that. A lot of the classic rock acts, like ourselves, they shy away from that because they just end up recreating records that people have bought in the past, or songs, because they think people just want that. And in many cases they do, but we took a gamble with this and tried something new. It feels fresh to me, you know?
That’s something I’ve noticed about all the Billy Idol albums. They’re always very different.
SS: Yeah, and obviously, to keep a partnership together, you know for 33 years working with the guy, we trust him and I try and play what’s absolutely correct for a Billy Idol song and don’t let the fact that I’m a guitar player get in the way of that. A lot singer/guitar player duos, don’t last the test of time because egos get in the way. I think a lot of singers wish that guitar players wouldn’t play as much. So, I’m really aware of that and try to really support my musical partner there.
Doesn’t that piss you off. Don’t you just want to rip a solo off sometimes?
SS: Umm, You know, I have other outlets to do that. I just found it challenging on a different level, and working with Trevor Horn, I just gave him everything that I could possibly think of for each song and said, “Use what you want.” (laughs)
So, now you’re preparing for a world tour. What do you do to get ready for a tour?
SS: We’re one of those bands that, we do spend the time to rehearse. We usually do 3 weeks in rehearsal, that’s with full production. My wife travels with me, so our touring is just an extension of what I do at home. We just lock up the place and take it on the road. At this stage in my life, I really enjoy sharing my life with my wife and going to different countries with her. I’ve been doing this for 33 years and it’s great to experience that with someone else.
Is there anywhere that you haven’t played that you’re looking to hit on the new tour?
SS: I played in South America with other bands, so we’ll be going to South America with Billy Idol. I’ve also never played in Japan with Idol, so I hope that will happen as well.
Well, if you’re in Japan, hop on over to Korea. We would love to see you guys.
SS: That would be awesome, man. It would be absolutely great. The world is a smaller place and we play a lot of places that 10 years ago we never thought we would play.
What do you do to prepare for a show?
SS: We sound check every time we have a show, run through any songs we need to. Then, because I’m the musical director, I usually go out in the house and listen to the band out at the soundboard, tweek some things. Then, these days we do meet and greets. After that, I try and have a guitar in my hands at least an hour before the show. I don’t know if I practice scales, but I just get used to having the damn thing in my hands.
I want to change the subject a little bit here. Recently, Gene Simmons of KISS said that Rock is dead. What are your thoughts?
SS: Well, I’m glad that he said it because it’s really getting a lot of people pissed off. (laughs) In every interview now, they’re asking people about it. I’ve seen replies from Dave Grohl and Dee Snider and all these people disputing what he says. I know Gene, I’ve actually toured with him and I really like the guy. You know, he may have said that just to stir the pot and get people talking and get people pissed off about the state of the business. When I was a kid, there was the stuff that you heard on the radio, before the dawn of the Jimi Hendrix and the Psychedelic explosion, that was like bubble gum crap, you know? And that was controlled by the record companies and they had their staff writers who wrote songs for those bands. And that’s kind of where radio is and the modern big record companies are because they can control the artists and churn out these records that are perfected to the tenth degree with auto tune and editing and all this kind of stuff. That certainly doesn’t apply to me as a guitar player. Unfortunately, the best music in history has always come about when there’s a purpose greater than just making a product. And that means a war. If you think about all the music that was made during the Vietnam War, it was the height of the Rock and Roll era. What’s one of the greatest electric guitar performances of all time? Hendrix playing the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, recreating the sound of bombs being dropped on people. You know, man, it may take some horrible situation like that to galvanize the youth to care about music again, to have it mean something more than what they’re bumpin’ to at the club to. I hate to say it, but for me as a kid, when I was first playing electric guitar, my family was dreading my brother getting his draft number. And the music reflected that. It reflected people’s friends dying in war. The punk rock movement in London in ’77 came about because they were fed up with not having a job and having no future. There was a reason for the music to exist. And right now, there’s no real reason for it other than money. You do have artists that really care about what they’re doing, but it’s not making a cultural impact. I hate to be on some high horse here about this, but music has always been the best during really, really challenging world times.
So, is the age of the rock star gone?
SS: Well, there are two different issues. One is, can you survive as a musician monetarily and I think for the people like myself as a kid, I wasn’t aware of making money as a musician. Before I joined Billy Idol, I lived in a loft with 12 other guys. We didn’t have a pot to piss in. When we did Rebel Yell, I was living in the basement of my parents house. I didn’t have any money or anything. It didn’t matter to me. And I think if you have the need to express yourself, you’re gonna do it whether you’re making money or not.
The other issue is, are there rock stars anymore? I think the fact that grunge came along and said ‘We’re not gonna exploit a larger than life image and we’re just gonna wear flannel shirts and look at our sneakers and mope around’, really allowed rap music to have characters that were larger than life. And they took that ball and ran with it. I think rock music is still feeling the effects of the guy on stage not looking any different than the guy who just made your sandwich in the shop. (laughs) I can’t relate to that, because the guys that I emulated and loved, even if they were Mahavishnu Orchestra, those guys on stage looked like they came from another planet. They looked like they were possessed by some other religion or something. They weren’t glam and they didn’t wear make-up or anything, but they had an image. Devo had an image. The Ramones had an image. It doesn’t mean you have to look like the New York Dolls or something, but I still think that bands need an identity and image to build their fan base.
You just answered my next question. How important is image?
SS: I think it’s important because it makes you part of a gang, you know? You want your band to have an us against the world mentality. I remember one of the first things when we got Billy Idol’s band together. There was no money, but we had 4 guys in the band and Billy brought in a bunch of white Haynes T-shirts and spray paint and said, ‘Alright, we’re gonna make T-shirts and we’ll all look like we belong together.’ And I got it. I understood what that meant. Even in the 80’s, you didn’t just have Motley Crue, you had The Stray Cats, who all looked like they belonged in the same band together. Even Run DMC, they had an image. I think that’s part of the fun of being a musician, man. The thing that got me to want to strap on a guitar and make a fool out of myself was seeing Little Richard on the Johnny Carson show. To me, I didn’t want to be a doctor or a lawyer. I wanted every day to be like Halloween. (laughs)
Would you have made it if you had been wearing jeans and T-shirts?
SS: Look, the fact of the matter is that a big part of the success was MTV and the dawn of music videos and there was nobody better looking than Billy Idol. And in a way that worked against him when he was in Generation X because they said he was too pretty to be in a punk rock band cuz you had to look like Johnny Rotten or The Clash. So, he moved to America and started over again. For the 80s generation, he is their Elvis Presley. With Billy’s image, it doesn’t matter what he’s wearing. He’s one of the great rock stars.
What we did behind the scenes was as important as important as image. I was so oblivious to videos. The only time I enjoyed doing a video was when it was a live performance, like Rebel Yell or a live version of Mony Mony. The concept videos to me were just silly little things to get your record heard. I was just another marketing tool.
How crazy were the 80s? There’s a new behind the scenes video where Billy Idol states that if you saw him in the 80s, he was high.
SS: You know, it wasn’t like we were sitting around shooting dope or something. We certainly didn’t mess around too much doing the first 2 records. I wasn’t aware of any drugs in the studio. Fortunately, I could never play under the influence of anything, so my party would always be after the studio or gig. The only time the drugs and the partying got in the way of the music was after Rebel Yell when we sold 5 million records worldwide and we were the cash cow at a very small record label where the pressure for the follow-up record, we became very aware of. I think that affected us and we all dealt with that in different ways that probably weren’t the smartest thing to do.
After Whiplash Smile, you had the opportunity to play with Michael Jackson. (On the Bad CD, Stevens performed on Dirty Diana)
SS: Yeah, I finished the tour with Billy for Whiplash Smile and I had signed a solo deal to Warner Brothers and Billy decided he was gonna move to Los Angeles and I wanted to stay in New York, so I said, I guess that’s it. I’ll just do my solo thing and I was signed to Warner Brothers by Ted Templeman who was Van Halen’s producer and the head of A&R at Warner’s. He was friends with Quincy Jones, so the story I got was that Quincy called Ted and said, “Hey, who’s the new guy cuz we’ve done Beat It with Eddie Van Halen and we have another rock track.” So Ted suggested me.
And how was it?
SS: It was cool. It was really no different than what I was used to doing with Billy Idol. With Billy, it was usually just 4 people in the studio…Myself, Billy, our producer, Keith Forsey and an engineer. When I went in to work with Michael, it was Michael, Quincy, myself and an engineer. It was no different really. There was no entourage then. I think at that point, when Quincy Jones was still in Michael’s life, things were a lot healthier and the vibe couldn’t have been better. I mean those guys were having a blast making music and I was just happy to be a part of it.
Was there a certain amount of pressure, what with Michael Jackson coming off the most successful album of all time?
SS: Right. But there was no pressure that I felt. I just wanted to do a good job. I certainly wasn’t going to try to be Eddie Van Halen. Beat It was such an amazing track. I just said, listen this is what I do.’ And once I started to do all these crazy ray gun sounds, Michael was really into that. He loved science fiction, so we got on really well that way.
When you’ve written or performed something that is so iconic, like the guitar riffs in White Wedding or Rebel Yell, did you know right away that those songs would be that big?
SS: Ummm, no. And here’s the weird thing. I didn’t co-write White Wedding. White wedding was actually the last track to be done on Billy’s first solo record because we didn’t have a single. Our producer, stuck Billy in the studio for an all-nighter and said ‘you better come out with a damn good one.’ But once we had recorded it, that was kind of, when it came time to do the next record, we knew that was the starting point, the quality had to be that good to start with. But the songs that I co-wrote on Rebel Yell, which are all but one, I honestly can’t remember how they came to us. It’s a weird thing, but the ideas were just there and I would bring them into the rehearsal studio. With Eyes without a face, I just came up with these chords and as I mentioned, I was living in my parents’ basement. There was only one crappy radio station I could get and it was an oldies station in New York, CBS-FM. They played nothing but 50s and 60s songs. I was fucking around with these chords that were like Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. So, I’m sitting there in rehearsal just playing these chords and Billy walked in and said, ‘oh, what’s that?’. I said, ‘Oh that’s nothing. I was listening to Frankie Valli’ and he goes ‘no no no what is that?’, you know. I showed him and on every song and Rebel Yell, that ‘s kind of how it happened. I’d have a little musical bit and it was kind of like we were both on the same wave length and channeling something and we just kind of went with our instincts. Little by little as the record was coming together, all the right pieces were in place. We were in Electric Lady studios recording that record, which was Jimi Hendrix’s studio, and we had a great engineer, Dave Whitman, who had recorded Led Zeppelin and all the KISS records. So, ALL of these elements were just so right for us. We had a shit hot drummer and we found a great bass player. It was like all these little ingredients made for this great meal.
So you don’t go in to write a hit?
SS: No, and to this day we still don’t think in those terms. You just write the best songs you can and like in the case of the new record, we probably wrote 30 songs and sent them all off to Trevor Horn and narrowed ‘em down. Then there were a couple tunes at the end of the record that Billy wrote with some other writers and that’s how we do it. Until it feels like a complete record we just keep hammering at it you know?
Is Billy good on guitar?
SS: Yeah, I mean, Yeah actually. I like jamming with him ‘cuz his guitar heroes are John Fogerty and John Lennon and Marc Bolan. That’s the guitar stuff he likes. Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry. You know, the worst thing for me is playing with a guitar player who plays anywhere near what I play (laughs) ‘cuz we kind of cancel each other out. So, I really enjoy jamming with him and I will say, every song we write, usually starts on acoustic guitars. The two of us and Billy Morrison, who’s our rhythm guitar player, co-wrote a bunch of songs, so it’s just three guys playing acoustic guitars to get some songs together.
Could you describe the feeling of stepping onto a stage in front of 100,000 people or more?
SS: I don’t know if I’ve ever played to that many people. (laughs)
SS: Yeah, I think the largest show I did was Live Aid. I played with The Thompson Twins. I think that was 90,000 people which was pretty unbelievable. But by and large, when we do festival shows, they’re usually about 60,000 people. The amazing thing now is, that when the audience sees Billy and myself together, it’s like our musical relationship has outlasted, in many cases, people’s marriages. They remember us playing Eyes Without A Face, for their folks or their folks telling them to shut it off. And maybe their parents are no longer with them. People get really emotional over the fact that these two guys they’re seeing are still together and still having fun onstage. So, the songs kind of take on a bigger meaning than just playing the notes and singing the words, you know? I hate to say that we’re part of a musical legacy but we are in a way. And it’s an amazing feeling, man. It’s better than any drug, it’s better than any meal, it’s just like you’re home. And the gratitude you get back from people is like a religious thing, man. It’s a high. And, obviously playing guitar solos that people know, they know them by heart, there aren’t many guitar players out there that can say they have music like that. There’s a lot of great guitar players out there. There’s a lot of really talented and proficient guitar players, but being part of music that is so universally known, I’m really fucking lucky that I have that.