Hello 2014, what a great year you are looking to be. And what better way to kick off MY ROOTS than with Steve Stevens, the longtime guitar player for Billy Idol and, more recently, Kings Of Chaos. After thirty years in the business, Stevens is still redefining himself as a musician. In 1999, he released a beautiful flamenco album called Flamenco A Go-Go where he truly shines on these pieces of music, a very pure connection between him and the guitar, like a part of his body comes out into the instrument. If you haven’t heard this album before, it’s worth every penny to pick it up.
After attending the Kings Of Chaos concert in LA this past November, I caught back up with Stevens to see what he has on his plate for 2014; and along the way he shared stories of his youth in New York, his first time in a recording studio, his go-to music for inspiration, his first concert and, of course, the first rock star he ever met. Stevens also has a new signature guitar and amp, which he will be showing at the NAMM show in a few weeks, and a new album coming out with Idol. Sounds like Stevens is also looking to have a great 2014.
What do you have planned for 2014, Steve? Anything exciting?
Yeah, we’re just finishing up a new Billy Idol record. We went to London to start it and we’ll hopefully be done with the record by the end of December. That’s going to coincide with an autobiography that Billy is working on that will be out as well. So that’s our plan for the first part of the year, to finish up the record and start promoting it. I’m not sure exactly when the release date is but it’ll be in 2014.
And this last year I’ve introduced a signature guitar with a company named Knaggs and a signature amplifier with a company called Friedman Electronics. So at the NAMM show this year, we’ll be debuting those two and I’ll be doing a show somewhere out in Anaheim, I’m not really sure exactly where yet, but that’s like the third week in January.
How hands on were you with the development process?
Very much so and what’s cool about them is I never planned on releasing a signature model of either of them. The amplifier was just a natural evolution. It was with a guy named Dave Friedman and he’s been building my effects and guitar amps for me for the last like ten years. For the last three Billy Idol tours we settled on this one particular amplifier and he approached me and said, “You know, people really like your guitar tone and all this kind of stuff.” He’s been getting requests to release it to the public so I said, yeah, sure. One of the things I was adamant about with both products was that they’re made in America and they’re handmade items. They’re not cheap but I’ve always been a believer in you get what you pay for, and especially as a touring musician I have to know that the stuff that I use is road worthy. If I put my name on it, I want people to know that it’s going to last a lifetime.
And with the guitar, Joe Knaggs previously was the head of the custom shop in Paul Reed Smith Guitars and one day approached me to do a guitar. It was a bunch of prototypes, about four different prototypes, that went back and forth, and part of the proceeds of that guitar go to MusiCares, which is an organization that helps musicians with drug recovery and rehab and things like that. So not only is it a great guitar but it’s a great cause.
You played with Kings Of Chaos to support the Dolphin Project back in November and that is an organization very close to Matt Sorum’s heart.
Yeah, Matt has got his hands in a bunch of different causes right now and I’ve done stuff with him for Wounded Warriors and he also has a school project that puts instruments into classrooms for kids because the budgets have been cut so badly with music teachers and music programs in public schools. I trust Matt and when he signs on to do something for a cause, he’s really looked into it. I know he did go to Japan and was there when the Japanese fishermen were basically slaughtering these dolphins. I’ve had experience in Japan with them putting exotic foods in front of you and you go, “What is that?” “Oh, it’s whale.” And I’m like, “That’s really bad, man, you can’t be doing that.” Whenever we do something for a cause, Matt is always sending us videos and information about it. And yeah, these are animals that can’t be slaughtered the way they are.
The big thing that I noticed about Kings Of Chaos was when I saw you guys up there on stage, there were no egos, nobody was trying to hog the spotlight. It was good to see so many musicians who are all well-known and well-respected play together like that.
Yeah, I think there’s no reason to do something like that unless you’re having fun. We’re all friends, we all know each other, we’ve all toured together in some form or another, and it’s just a great opportunity for everybody to kind of bring their own catalog of songs. And I think for the fans, it’s an incredible show and they get to see the absolute best cover band in the world (laughs) but it’s actually the real people performing it. We just got done playing in Mexico City and Paraguay and the audience went absolutely crazy. It’s all really good and you can’t approach a thing like that and go, “so and so and this;” that’s not what those shows are about.
Any chance you’re going to do some touring in 2014 with them?
There’s talk about doing some dates but obviously my commitment with Billy Idol comes first. Billy gears up for touring in Europe so we’ll have to see what my schedule is like.
Where did you grow up and what were you like as a kid?
I was born in Brooklyn and then my parents moved to an area in Queens called the Far Rockaway, which is right on the beach, and when I was a little kid there was a very famous protest singer who came from Far Rockaway called Phil Ochs. There’s actually a documentary, if you have any interest in learning about Phil, and he was a very political, anti-Vietnam War activist and did quite a number of records. Phil’s sister was my first guitar teacher. My dad brought home a guitar for himself when I was like seven and a half years old and my older brother had a bunch of friends who played guitar so they’d come over to the house and kind of get me started. Then Phil’s sister gave me lessons and eventually I got accepted into the High School of Performing Arts, which is the Fame school. But just around that time was when all the New Wave bands were happening in Manhattan and I kind of dropped out of school to be part of that club scene, which was the beginning of Blondie and The Ramones and Talking Heads and all those bands, and that seemed more my education than what I was learning in school.
How old were you at this time?
I think I was like sixteen at that point. So I dropped out, joined a band and then started playing in a band by the time I was seventeen and we did the same club circuit as Twisted Sister (laughs). You know, by the time I was seventeen and a half, I was playing four nights a week.
Did you have dreams or aspirations before music got to you of being like a doctor or a lawyer? Did any of that ever have a chance to enter your mind?
No. I got the guitar when I was so young and I started going to concerts when I was like twelve years old or so and that’s what I wanted to do. I remember my parents at one point having a conversation, “You’re going to need something to fall back on.” All the other kids in my neighborhood who played guitar were getting ready to go to college or whatever and they WERE considering being doctors and lawyers and all this stuff. I remember saying to my folks, “I’m not going to have something to fall back on because I’m putting everything into my music.” I felt that if I had something to fall back on, if I had any big disappointment, I would quit, you know, and I just felt that I’m not going to quit (laughs)
Well, we’re glad you stuck it out because you are an amazing guitar player.
Thanks. I don’t have any other options (laughs), especially at this point
When did the hair come about? Did that start in high school?
Wow, I don’t know about that (laughs) but growing up in New York, I loved the New York Dolls and Johnny Thunders always had great hair and my heroes were obviously Keith Richards and Ron Wood and all these guys who had, back then we called it the Rooster haircut. There were like a couple of hair cutters in Manhattan who knew how to do the Rooster. So yeah, the hair was just kind of an extension of that. I guess I’m lucky I still have it (laughs)
What is your earliest memory of music?
You know, no one in my family played an instrument but my mom and dad loved music and my dad had a really great record collection and as I mentioned, I have an older brother who also turned me on to music. But I think the first album that I bought as a kid was Tommy by the Who and that was the beginning of my record collection. So I think that’s a pretty good place to start. But music was always played by my family and fortunately it was something that was shared with my dad. It wasn’t like a rebellious thing because my dad was open to listening to rock & roll. I think the first concert I ever went to was a Jazz pianist named Dave Brubeck. My dad brought me to see him and I was nine or ten or something. Then my brother brought me to see great Jazz musicians like Miles Davis. I was really fortunate growing up, being like thirteen years old in 1972, it was the height of great English rock bands – Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. I loved a lot of early progressive rock bands like Yes and Genesis and all that kind of stuff. So I went to see all those bands when they came to New York. So I think I grew up at the right time for guitar players because you had Hendrix and Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton. Man, those were the best examples of guitar players you could have.
They didn’t intimidate you when you started to play? Like, how in the world can I be that good?
No, I think as a little kid I just wanted to be able to play a song, you know. When am I going to be able to be good enough to play a song and people will recognize it? I think for like tenth grade show and tell I went in and played “Pinball Wizard” or something and I remember the class cheering me on and hopefully it didn’t sound like a bunch of shit (laughs). It actually sounded something like the record. And I thought, Wow, this is great.
And it could have gone either way: you could have been encouraged to do better or you could have given up.
No, I never thought about giving up, and there were some lean times. The band I was in before Billy Idol, we all lived about sixteen of us in one like unfurnished loft in Manhattan. Didn’t have money, we lived on Spam and chicken pot pies (laughs) and Ramen. The usual struggling musician story but, you know what, I loved it. I absolutely loved every moment of it. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything in the world, being a part of that whole thing.
You appear to have a very genuine love for the guitar, for the instrument, like it’s a living, breathing creature. What about this instrument makes you feel that way?
It’s the only portable instrument. I mean, you can’t really strap a piano on your back and drums, the same kind of thing. Guitar has a history of being played in Spain but really the guitar was adopted by America as an instrument of protest. You have Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan playing these songs, and then The Beatles. And I believe the guitar in many ways changes people’s lives. Then if you look at Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker and what those guys were able to express in American blues through the instrument and the struggles that people have had, it takes on a bigger purpose than just being six strings and some wood. The guitar has always been a positive force in my life and it still fascinates me because you’re never good enough on it, for me at least. I never feel that, Ok, I’ve mastered the instrument. I still wake up and have my cup of coffee and play guitar and still try to challenge myself.
You started off on acoustic guitar, is that right?
Yeah, I started when I was seven and a half and I didn’t get an electric guitar till I was thirteen.
Keith Richards has said that the acoustic guitar is what makes a guitar player a real guitar player.
I agree with that. There is something about an acoustic guitar which enables you to write songs and I think any decent song I’ve ever written has always been written on acoustic guitar. The acoustic guitar is almost like a small orchestra because you’re able to kind of arrange chords in a way that you can see the whole arrangement of a song on the acoustic guitar whereas with the electric guitar you’re basically refining your part down to one element. It’s just a different mindset. But acoustic guitar is just a great writing tool.
Has playing guitar live always come natural to you?
Yeah, but if I’m playing a show or something, I still get a little bit of nerves and I think that’s a good thing. Whenever I’ve not been nervous before playing, it’s never been a really good show (laughs). I think being a little bit nervous is good, it gives you kind of a little adrenalin rush. But as a kid, I just loved being, I guess, the center of attention. It’s just a way for a little kid to make a big noise (laughs)
You mentioned earlier about going to the Performing Arts school and you’ve said before they didn’t have guitar and you had to pick another instrument. What instrument did you pick?
I got accepted into the school on guitar and then once I showed up they said there’s no guitar in the orchestra. There’s violins and violas and cellos and all that stuff but no guitar, and they said you had to pick a symphonic instrument. That was one of the reasons I dropped out of the school. I said, alright, I’ll play the viola and by that time I had already studied guitar all these years and to pick up a new instrument and not be very good at it, I lost interest.
When you first went into a recording studio, was that with Billy Idol?
No, the first album I ever recorded was the band I was in previous to Billy, which we were signed to Island Records, although the album was never released. It was a band called the Fine Malibus and I think we were doomed by our name (laughs). Don’t know why we had that name but we were produced by Jimmy Miller who produced the classic Rolling Stones records. We went down to the studio in the Bahamas called the Compass Point. It was where Back In Black was recorded by AC/DC and we were actually the next artists in after Back In Black; but the album was kind of ill-fated, really didn’t have the best songs, and it kind of fell apart. But what happened was we got back to New York and we picked up management and that manager was Bill Aucoin who managed KISS and he mentioned to me that he had just started managing Billy Idol. And I said, “Look, I would love to meet Billy. I’ve taken this band that I was in as far as I can and I really need a musical partner that I can learn from and is going to be my foil.” So we met and continued to work ever since, pretty much.
It’s common knowledge that the bass player and the drummer make the foundation of a band. Who do you lock in with when playing live?
It’s probably still the drummer because he’s your time keeper and I would think the style of guitar that I play is very dependent upon playing with the drummer. I’m very picky about drummers (laughs). So that is an important aspect and obviously the singer is the person who is telling the story so it kind of swings, different songs have different emphasis, so on any given song I can lock in with a different person on stage. It’s not always the same for every song.
I’m going to be very honest with you. I didn’t know a lot of your solo music. But I came upon your Flamenco A Go-Go album and I was left speechless. It was beautiful.
Oh great. I had done a record with the singer from Motley Crue, Vince Neil, and we went out on the road supporting Van Halen and that was like the pinnacle of excessive electric guitar playing – in a good way. But I came off the road after finishing that and I was so burned out on electric guitar, and also on the kind of lifestyle, the whole rock star thing, and I literally stopped playing electric guitar for about a year and just played flamenco style guitar. That was something I had started when I was a kid. I had a flamenco teacher. And it was kind of a cathartic process of doing that record and not playing electric guitar and it was a really important part of me growing as a musician. I finished the album in Hawaii with the guy who mixed it and from the beginning to the end of recording that record, it was a very almost spiritual journey for me to be able to do that kind of record. There’re a lot of pieces on that record that are still some of my favorite things that I’ve ever done to this day. Also, during the course of making that record, I had gotten sober, so I think that was a big part of it, like coming up for air (laughs)
What would you say has been the hardest part about fame or being famous?
I live in Los Angeles so I’m not really famous (laughs). I don’t think fame is ever anything. I think the hardest aspect is probably the twists and turns of the music business because it’s one thing to have success, and for me it came at twenty-three years old with “Rebel Yell.” It’s another thing to have a career and I tell that to musicians that I meet all the time. I say, “It’s not about having the initial success of getting your foot in the door. It’s about having a long-lasting career.” You know, thirty years later I’m still making records with the same guy, which is about personalities and being able to not put your ego forward and sometimes just shut the fuck up and play guitar (laughs). As Frank Zappa said, you know. As a guitarist, my job is to accompany a singer in most cases and to make them as strong as possible. I think that’s the most important aspect of having a career, is working with other people.
Who was the first real rock star that you ever met?
Robert Palmer. As I mentioned, I was recording that record down in the Bahamas and he lived down there and I met him. He came in the studio and we remained friends and he really helped me and would give me advice and years later I went to Italy to record a record with him, well after he had success with “Addicted To Love” and all that. He was one of the kindest, coolest, most musically literate people I’ve ever worked with. And so sad when he passed away because he really was an incredible guy.
What kind of advice did he give you?
When he came into the studio with the band I was with, he said to the engineer, “Who is the guitar player?” He wanted to hear the whole record and he said, “Who is the guitar player?” And the engineer pointed to me, and then Robert said, “Would you come over to my house tomorrow?” He said he was working on some demos and I came over and sat down and he said, “I’m going to be really honest with you. I don’t think you’re going to have success with this band or this record but you have something really, really unique.” It was a bitter pill to swallow but I kind of knew what he was saying and I appreciated it, his honesty, and then he said, “If you ever need anything,” and he helped get me a guitar endorsement and then when I finally got the gig with Billy Idol, I called him and he said, “Don’t put your guitar playing before the song.” He said that was the most important thing; just don’t think that the song is always a vehicle for your guitar playing. Listen to what the singer is saying. That was very good advice.
What is the most interesting piece of memorabilia that you own from your career?
I don’t know. I own a Grammy, I won a Grammy for Top Gun, so I guess that’s kind of interesting (laughs). There’s a flamenco guitar maker named Jose Ramirez and I saw a photograph of one of his guitars when I was thirteen years old and I always wanted one. So with my very first royalty check I bought a Ramirez flamenco guitar and that is my most prized guitar. It’s a beautiful instrument.
Is it one that you still play?
I record with it, yeah. I don’t bring it on the road or anything and the flamenco record that I did was recorded with that.
What still excites you about playing music?
Writing songs and being in the studio and obviously getting to travel, and now with my wife, we travel together. Even though I’ve toured for thirty years now, having a companion with me and experiencing things together is fun. In many respects, my wife has really kept my fire alive for what I do and we’re inseparable.
How long have you been married?
Five years. We’ve been together for twelve but married for five years.
Who is your go-to musician or band when you’re looking for a boost of inspiration?
Probably Led Zeppelin. I mean, Led Zeppelin covers so many things. First of all, Jimmy Page is the best, for my money, the best rock guitar writer and producer. Those records just still to this day sound incredible. They sound timeless and he just wrote the book as far as great rock & roll riffs. And Zeppelin has acoustic songs and blues tunes and psychedelic tunes. There’s still some real magic in those records that goes beyond just the notes. I still love them.
Last question: What makes a guitar solo into a great guitar solo?
First of all, play something people can remember (laughs). That’s a thing a lot of guitar players don’t always remember when they do the solo. And a guitar solo is an opportunity for the guitar player to tell his side of the stories. It’s a way of breathing through your instrument when you play a solo. Just be expressive and don’t play too many notes (laughs)
Live photographs by Leslie Michele Derrough & Jo Anna Jackson and top photo by Hristo Shindov
For more information on Steve’s signature guitar = http://www.knaggsguitars.com/index.php/2013/04/04/steve-stevens-signature-model/
For more information on Steve’s signature amplifier = http://friedmanamplification.com/products/amplifiers/steve-stevens-signature/