Steven Van Zandt on Scoring ‘Lilyhammer,’ ‘The Sopranos’ and his ‘Summer of Sorcery’

Dean Budnick on August 9, 2019
Steven Van Zandt on Scoring ‘Lilyhammer,’ ‘The Sopranos’ and his ‘Summer of Sorcery’

Summer of Sorcery is a bit of a miracle,” Steven Van Zandt confesses, as he describes the origins of his latest studio album. “It’s certainly a rebirth and a real artistic breakthrough for me. My previous records were very autobiographical and very political, and I wanted to change both of those things. I’ve had enough of analyzing myself and there is no need to explain politics anymore; everybody gets it now. So I wanted to make 12 little movies and play a different character in each. So that’s what I did.”

Van Zandt is currently on a global tour behind that new record, alongside his 14-piece collective, the Disciples of Soul. He originally assembled the group to perform at London’s BluesFest in October 2016, but the experience proved to be so energizing that he entered the studio with the ensemble to record 2017’s Soulfire, a collection of songs he originally penned for other artists.

While supporting Soulfire on the road, he began to envision a new record with his big-band, which became Summer of Sorcery, marking the first time in his solo career that he’s recorded consecutive albums with the same roster of players. Van Zandt’s gigs with the Disciples of Soul conclude on November 6 at New York’s Beacon Theatre, and he says it is possible that he could enter the studio the very next day with Bruce Springsteen & the E-Street Band.

Was there a particular song that showed you the direction your new album was going to take?

“Summer of Sorcery” was the song that I wrote when I felt, “OK, this is the album.” When I wrote that, I was wandering into new territory for me—a bit more poetic, a bit more singersongwriter. I wanted to try and explore some new areas and, when I wrote that song, I thought, “This is the album; everything else now will have to fit in to complement this.”

A key to it all was the fact that I’ve kept the same band for what will be three years in September. We toured for two years and, about a year into it, ideas started coming to me organically. This is the first time in my life that I’ve made two records in a row with the same band, and that matters.

On this record, you’re writing in the voices of 12 individual characters. Is there a year that represents your own summer of sorcery?

I live in a very frustrated place most of the time with my lack of output, and these past two years have been the most productive in my life. I really don’t think I could be more productive so, in that sense, this past year was my summer of sorcery. Of course, the song involves so much more than just that but, from the moment we did Soulfire to Summer of Sorcery was two years, almost to the day. I could not imagine being more productive, and that’s rare for me. Between Soulfire and Summer Sorcery was the Soulfire Live! project, which was massive—four hours of music, a double DVD and a seven-vinyl album box set in between the two major projects. That’s as productive as one can be, and I felt really good about that.

The romantic fantasy part of the theme is a summation not of any one moment. It’s a feeling you have in general when you get out of school and summer’s coming—it may be a combination of different years put together in your mind, but I do believe, sincerely, that we all have that romantic fantasy and it remains with us. I came up with the concept of, “OK, in this very dark time in our civilization, I need to do something that’s optimistic, hopeful and lets me recapture that moment that reminds us of why we love life and when we first fell in love with love and when we first felt that thrill of unlimited possibilities.”

It’s a great concept, a great idea, but I wasn’t sure that I could do it. I wasn’t sure I could tap into that, but I found that it was just below the surface. I said to myself: “Why is this so easy to tap into?” And I realized it was because that’s the romantic fantasy that we all carry around with us because we never arrive. We never get there—we never fully arrive— it’s just beyond our reach, which is why it stays with us. So I said, “I need to tap into this because it’s universal and I think this is gonna work for everybody because I bet everybody’s the same as me.”

There is a lot going on in this record and the happy part of it for me was being able to use all my influences. One nice thing about growing older is you’re really able to integrate your influences in a very natural way and you don’t have to think about it as much. When you’re younger you’re worried—“How much of my influences should I reveal, am I getting too close?” You don’t want to be an impersonator but, at the same time, you don’t want to be a thief—we’re all thieves really, but you don’t want to steal too much. You try to figure out exactly what that balance is between finding your own identity and borrowing somebody else’s. That’s something we all have to face growing up, and now there is none of that. It’s very natural and that’s one nice thing about this album, it was almost effortless. Of course, a lot of that is having a band that has been together for two years, and they know exactly what I want to do.

Can you name of some of those influences for listeners who might wish to seek out their music?

I’m hoping you’re gonna hear Sly & The Family Stone, Tito Puente, Sam Cooke, James Brown. There’s a whole blaxploitation theme represented by “Vortex” and I hope people will go back and check out blaxploitation theme songs. On “Superfly Terraplane,” in the title, you have Robert Johnson meets Curtis Mayfield and then, in the song, you have Little Richard, Chuck Berry, some Beach Boys and a mariachi thing in the middle. That song alone will keep you busy for a little while.

Those are the artists that immediately come to mind, and I sincerely hope that people do go back and listen to the “Best of” from any of those artists. They will discover wonderful things that we grew up with that are as just as inspirational now as when we grew up with them. That’s why I keep those influences right there in public view on my sleeve. It helps me relate to the songs as well, but I hope people recognize something, go back and are able to enjoy the originals.

You recently provided advice to developing artists by suggesting, “You want to have some kind of identity that people can recognize and relate to you; it’s the role you’re gonna play in their lives.” What role do you see playing in your fans’ lives?

It comes from a narcissistic position of saying, “If I have some kind of talent, if I do have some kind of gift, if I work hard on my craft and if I am able to get so good at my craft that I become effective in terms of my communication, then what is it that I want to communicate? How can I be most useful?”

In my case, in the ‘80s, I felt I could be most useful by explaining what was going on politically in the world. At that time, it was all hidden; nobody knew what we were doing behind the scenes. Everybody was enamored with this cowboy grandfather figure in Ronald Reagan and thought he was god and I didn’t, so I talked about many of the bad things he was doing—we were supporting half the dictators in the world and pretending we were the heroes of democracy. We were completely hypocritical and, as an American citizen and as an American patriot, it’s important that we acknowledge when we start to go off the path intended by our founding fathers. So my usefulness back then was in researching various situations and making those into stories because I’m in a storytelling art form. But I would put a book list on every album to show where the stories were coming from. I’m not in an informational sort of craft, I communicate emotional information but, if people wanted the actual information on where that emotional information came from, then I would supply the book titles.

However, I feel that my usefulness right now is bringing people together and giving them sanctuary from the politics, which is exactly the opposite of my purpose 30 years ago. Right now, people are entrenched in their opinions and I want to provide some way for them to get together. I have no politics in my show and I haven’t really been a part of that in public for a long, long time. I didn’t criticize Obama and I didn’t criticize Trump. I am trying to remain very neutral and stay out of the fray right now. I feel that my usefulness, at this point, is to create some neutral territory where the two sides can come [together] and find something in common, which is the music and, hopefully, be transported to a place where there are no politics or a sense of opposition and give people a little break. I feel that your usefulness can change according to society’s needs.

Later this summer, you’re going to release two volumes of scores to Lilyhammer , which was the first Netflix original series. I happened to be in Norway, where the show is set, shortly after its premiere and there was a real mania for it. As you look back, what did you take away from that experience?

I am particularly proud of being able to showcase the actual Norwegian actors and cinematographers and directors. I was the only one that was not Norwegian and, for the first time, America and the rest of the world got a chance to see the talent of Norway. They had never sold a single show to anybody, and we sold it to 130 countries.

You’re right about the mania. The prime minister would tweet and tell people: “Don’t bother me for the next hour, I’m watching Lilyhammer!” It was huge there obviously but, being the first Netflix show, it says a lot about the balls of Ted Sarandos [Netflix’s Chief Content Officer]. This was in the middle of a controversy because of some price changes they had done. So they decided to go into this whole new realm of original programming, and the first show he chose was a TV show from Norway, with subtitles. America doesn’t like subtitles, so it was insane for him to do that.

I was coming from HBO, which is my other family. HBO had been the big guy on the block for 30-40 years, and I watched Netflix go right by them in like three years in the foreign territories, which was really something to watch. It was thrilling to be there when TV became the most important adult art form and replaced movies, which is what happened with The Sopranos on HBO. Right after that, movies became all about comic books and video games and, probably for the first time in history, people were looking for adult entertainment on TV—that was due to the great vision of the HBO leadership and, of course, David Chase, and the wonderful Jimmy Gandolfini pulling it off. So I watched that from a front row seat and then, 15 years later, I happened to be there to watch it happen again, this time, with Netflix on an international scale.

I went to Cannes with Lilyhammer, to a couple of TV marketplace events where shows were sold, and talked to people from 8-10 countries a day. We’d talk for a minute about Lilyhammer the show, which they would end up buying, but they wanted to mostly talk about this new thing called Netflix, and was it true that they bought a show for America from a foreign country—something that was not in English. They were completely fascinated by that because that meant that the world was now opening up—when it comes to TV production, 98 percent of all the money is in America. So these TV producers or networks in Spain and Italy and Germany and Japan were thinking, “You mean we might be able to sell a show to America?” It was just thrilling and mind-boggling to them.
So I happened to be there at the birth of the international market.

Then, what happened is Netflix started opening up in different territories, which I was very happy to witness. I suggested that they open up in Norway first because I thought that was the perfect business model—to open up in a foreign country with a show being produced it that country.

It was a real thrill to see all that happen, and I have to thank David Chase who gave me the gift of a whole new craft, acting. Then, I was able to take that craft and turn it into five new crafts on Lilyhammer. I not only starred in it, I coproduced it, I cowrote it, I directed the final episode and I did all the music except for a little bit of the first season. That was directly due to David Chase, again, having faith in me the way Ted Sarandos would have faith in me 15 years later. Very few people have had faith in me in my life and, when they do, man, I make sure I deliver. [Laughs.]

You’re immersed in your music right now, but do you have the hankering to give it another go in the TV realm?

I just need help finding the time. I had a little window, but it closed quickly and I decided I needed to spend a couple years reconnecting to my music. I am so glad I did that.

Now, we’ll see what Bruce wants to do. If he wants to go back out, that’ll be a couple years. November 6, at the Beacon Theatre, will be the last show of this tour this year, and then, with a little bit of luck, we’ll be in the studio together on November 7, which should give us enough time to have a record done and then get it out for the summer of 2020.

So I’ll be looking to do TV somewhere in 2021-2022, maybe. At the same time, I want to keep the Disciples of Soul going, too. It’s gonna be tricky because you really have to put aside six months to do a TV show and that’s gonna be tough to find.