Steven Van Zandt: Bruce Springsteen 'Is More Ambitious Than Tony Soprano' (Q&A)

12:43 PM PST 04/05/2012 by Tim Appelo
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The guitarist-actor-radio host talks to THR about his latest tour with the E Street Band, his past with the HBO mob boss and his future with Netflix. Plus, how the band is carrying on without saxophonist Clarence Clemons.

Steven Van Zandt is man of many hats -- or bandannas or mobster coiffures. He’s touring with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, starring in the first-ever Netflix series Lilyhammer as a Sopranos-like mafioso relocated by the witness-protection program to rural Norway and hosting the addictive radio show Little Steven’s Underground Garage. He’s also doing cool charity work that gives fans the chance to meet him on tour.

The Hollywood Reporter: Why are you auctioning tickets on Charitybuzz.com to hang with you when they see the Bruce Springsteen Wrecking Ball Tour?

Van Zandt: We’re just trying to raise money for the Rock and Roll Forever Foundation, which is writing the history of rock 'n' roll for schools.

THR: It’s cool yet scholarly. Martin Scorsese, Bono and Springsteen are on the board, and director Warren Zanes is from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Van Zandt: The ulterior motive here is to affect the dropout rate, which is an absolute epidemic. Instead of saying, ‘Take the iPod out of your ears!’ we're going to say, ‘What are you listening to, and let's trace it back.”

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THR: What is it like to do the E Street Band tour without Clarence Clemons, who died in June?

Van Zandt: It will not be the same ever again. Clarence or Danny [Federici, who died in 2008] are people you don't replace. You have people playing their part, so it will be a hybrid; it will be the E Street Band, it will be different, and we will carry on their work very respectfully. In the case of Clarence's solos, we will continue to make sure that it’s done correctly, but the now the band with a five-piece horn section will tend to put a little more emphasis on our soul music roots than a typical tour had.

It’s interesting, in a way, it’s coming full circle. The whole rock band thing was a hybrid of soul music and rhythm and blues. We would sort of simplify it and adapt it to two guitars, bass and drums and one keyboard. That’s where the distortion of guitars started to happen, to reflect that bigger orchestra sound. The fuzztone was invented to imitate the saxophone. Now with five horns and extra singers, you start to do a more literal translation of our roots -- only this time the roots have been absorbed by Bruce and come through his writing.

THR: Is Springsteen’s new music influenced by the loss of Danny and Clarence?

Van Zandt: I can't speak for him, I can only tell you my impression of the big picture. Certainly one could make a case for a sense of loss, be it personal in the sense of Clarence and Danny or of that sense of loss having to do with our American ideals. I’m not saying that Bruce was necessarily thinking that way, but I could interpret it that way, and that's certainly an interesting way of looking at it and it wouldn’t be wrong. I've known him 45 years, and he just continues to amaze me -- how hard he works at it and continues to search for the truth and find ways of communicating what's going on, very much in the present tense. And that's always kept us from being a nostalgia band.

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THR: You’ve blown up as an actor. Does that change your approach to the stage?

Van Zandt: Naw, it’s really kind of a separate thing. Sopranos was a fascinating moment, just catching our whole culture by surprise, a fun ride to be on while I'm learning the craft.

THR: How is your Lilyhammer gangster different from Silvio on The Sopranos?

Van Zandt: Going back and becoming one of the writers and producers was a wonderful way to take the whole gangster thing and put it in a different setting. Silvio’s job was very narrow; all he really did was to watch Tony’s back and try to keep him alive. So he was cautious and deliberate, and the only guy on the show who didn't want to be the boss. This [Lilyhammer] guy really is a boss, much more outgoing and a little bit crazier and wilder and gets into these situations in Norway, and no one can predict what will happen.

THR: Is there a Sopranos movie in the works?

Van Zandt: No. Lilyhammer is quite a bit different, and at the same time it does sort of satisfy all the people who ask me about the Sopranos movie every single day of my life. I can now say, get Netflix and you could have so much fun if you have a gangster jones.

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THR: Bruce is a more moral boss than Tony, but is he any less ambitious?

Van Zandt: I guess he's more moral, that involves no discussion, but is he as ambitious? That’s interesting. Um, probably Bruce is more ambitious than Tony Soprano. Yeah, I'm not sure Tony Soprano had the great vision of where to exactly go with his career, so to speak.

THR: Bruce might have the edge in the smarts department.

Van Zandt: I do believe so, and I think Tony got a bit hung up on his own personal problems. The career was Silvio's problem to worry about, Tony was more self-indulgent, in the sense of self-pitying about his own problems. Working with Jimmy Gandolfini and those guys was just one of the great joys of my life. As a actor just learning the craft, you literally do a scene with Jimmy Gandolfini and you walk away a better actor.

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THR: A Netflix exec told THR, “We are committed to a second season of Lilyhammer.”

Van Zandt: If I ever get off the road and get back to a set, I certainly want to do it. It’s just a matter of finding the time, and that will play out. But be it that show or that character or something else, I'm very, very interested in the whole TV world. I think with Netflix making this very interesting move, to choose us as its first original programming, was a remarkable decision they deserve a lot of credit for, as visionaries. They talked about the new global culture, but here they are actually putting their money where their mouth is; this is a Norwegian TV show which they chose to be their first American original programming.

THR: How much did Lilyhammer cost?

Van Zandt: Probably a third or even a bit more cheaper than an American production, but you get a lot of bang for the buck in Norway. The government very much supports the arts over there, unlike us. We do our best to ignore it. Tragically, we're the only country in the world who think art's a luxury.

THR: What’s distinctive about this Springsteen tour?

Van Zandt: We have the first example ever where Bruce did a solo album and the E Street Band did the tour. So it’s been an additional interesting challenge to adapt the songs. I started out as an arranger. You'll fool around with the beginning or ending or something in the middle, you may put a modulation in for a solo or extend an ending. Sometimes something you sing on an album is very effective in a lower register, but when we're live it wouldn't quite be able to carry, so you raise the key a bit. You get a sense of that immediate, of that rock power coming from the E Street Band. Every single texture is added to the mix and becomes this new sort of hybrid mix of what Bruce originally wrote and recorded and what the people will see live.

THR: How does the record speak to you?

Van Zandt: To me, it reflects an America that has changed. The early entrepreneur, Henry Ford or Thomas Edison, had a respect for the products they were making, a certain respect for how it impacted society. Now we literally have bean counters running our country, running business with callous disregard for people or how it affects society. Entire financial institutions who just shovel paper and shovel money and deal with mergers and all it does is eliminate workers and dilute the quality of the product. Except for oil companies, who are always consistent, most business people had some connection to their communities. That’s very much gone, and I think that's reflected in a lot of these songs. Bruce is telling stories of real people. Bruce is nothing if not constantly surprising.

Twitter: @timappelo

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