Interview By Robert Cavuoto
Vault Date: March 18th, 2011
Steve Stevens is most notably recognized as the guitarist for Billy Idol, a partnership of 30 years that has produced countless top 10 singles and platinum LPs. He is by far one of the most gifted guitarists to emerge from the ’80s music scene with his background being forged with the greats of the early ’70s like Hendrix, Beck, and Page. Unknown to most Steve also became an avid prog rock fan, especially the likes of King Crimson and Yes.
Combining his hard rock background with Billy’s punk and dance influences, Idol became one of MTV’s early video stars, as such albums as 1982’s Billy Idol and 1983’s Rebel Yell became blockbuster hits — spurred on by Stevens’ inventive guitar work and outrageous glam rock image. I caught up to Steve to talk to him about Idol, his solo career, and his outrageous new reality show with his wife, Married to Rock.
Rob: You mentioned in your emails that you were in the studio with Billy Idol, can you tell us what’s going on?
Steve: Yeah, Billy and I are back in the studio with our original producer Keith Forcey with the three of going through ideas. As of right now, we plan to release groups of four new songs at a time, throughout the year. We are exploring more blue’s rock and more vintage stuff. I have a bunch of old Silvertone amps that I’m using in the studio. Billy and I have been working together for 30 years, so where do you go? We want to explore other areas and try to move in a little different direction. Everybody would love to have Rebel Yell part 2, but for us, we have already done it and play all the songs live. Also, a bit of news, Billy is also working on an autobiography.
Rob: Things have really changed regarding how people listen to music since the ’80s. Gone are many of the hard rock and top 40 radios station, gone are the 24-hour music video channels, now people are file sharing and stealing music. How do these things affect the way guys approach writing, recording, and getting your music heard?
Steve: Right now we have some unique ideas on how we can approach that – of course, this could change tomorrow. The group of 4 songs would be put out throughout the year and when there are 12-13 songs we package it and put it out as an LP. This works well for us because we are pretty meticulous about what we do and it takes a while to do a Billy Idol record. Instead of locking ourselves away for a year where fans won’t hear from us, now we stay in contact with them throughout the process.
Rob: Tell me a little about Devil’s Playground, outstanding comeback rock CD with a great variety of song types but never really get the attention it deserved?
Steve: One of the key things to Billy Idol’s success is that there have always been strong singles. Most people don’t realize that the breakthrough song for Rebel Yell was “Eyes without a Face”. The LP was hanging in there until “Eyes without a Face” broke and that’s the song that put the LP on its course. With Devil’s Playground as you mentioned, it’s a rock LP, and it was a decidedly different direction for us. I don’t know if there was that one song to get the mainstream airplay and get the attention. That’s my take on it. I don’t know if we were thinking in terms of singles on that record. I only co-wrote 4 songs. Our drummer at the time Brian Tichy was writing with Billy and they went more in the more punk and hard rock vein. It was a fun record to do. As you said, it didn’t get the attention that it should have.
Rob: What do you attribute to the longevity of Billy Idol?
Steve: We have been together 30 years and sometimes we look at each other and say “fuck, can you believe it?” We are very different musically and we both bring different things to the table. Had Billy when arriving in the states after Generation X got a punk guitar player it would have been like so what? I think sometimes diverse people and diverse influences make the music more interesting. That’s said there are conflicts. I think we both have mutual respect for each other and I think he is the greatest frontman I have ever worked with, and I’ve worked with some monumental people. I hope he thinks the same about me. The other thing to the equation is that we work well with Keith Forcey, he is the third guy in the room. He is able to pull the best bits out of both of us and cook it. The three of us in a room have a good time. Both Billy and I have shared crazy experiences, its kind of funny looking back on those things and can’t believe we are still working together. Why fuck it up now, it lasted 30 years, what are we going to say, “I’m sick of you” then alright “fuck you” (laughing). We have made it work this long, it’s almost like family.
Rob: You and Billy have known each other for 30 years, what’s one thing you know about him that most people don’t?
Steve: I would have to say its how much Billy knows about music, not just Rock n Roll. It was a really eye-opening when we went back to his parent’s house in England. Billy was in London at the time and I was there two days before him so I was able to see how he grew up. I remember looking through his record collection and seeing all his classical and jazz records. I can talk to him about Miles Davis or Coltrane. He is a real music history buff. He is a rock star and all, but he’s also really smart and bright.
Rob: Billy Morrison joined the line-up this past tour, can you tell us how that came about?
Steve: Billy is one of my good friends and we met while I was playing guitar as a guest spot in Camp Freddy when Dave Navarro isn’t available. He and I had been working on a project last year where we had written all these songs together and the project never took off because the other musicians went off to do other things. There we are with 16 songs and no band when I get the call from Billy Idol’s management that we are going to gear up for a new tour. They tell me that they want to bring in some new elements to it and ask me what would I like to do? I hit them up with the idea of adding a second guitar player and I know that Idol and Morrison would get along. They both grew up in the same town in England and are into the same rock stuff. Morrison probably knows more about the Generation X stuff than I do. So I brought him in for a couple of days to see how he would do. It worked out great. He also freed me up somewhat and allows me to play a little looser. He was primarily a rhythm guitarist but I told him to take the solos for the Generation X stuff since he lives and breathes it. I like having another guitar player.
Rob: When did you come to realize that you’re playing style was truly unique?
Steve: I always felt it was unique when I was in my first band, The Fine Malibu’s. We spent a lot of time writing and rehearsing and we had our own rehearsing studio. It was the 1st real band I was in as far as originals were concerned. I took that style into Billy Idol. I think it came from liking music outside of guitar players. I have always loved Hendrix, Page, Beff – but also keyboard music like Keith Emerson and weird prog bands. So I took those influences and put them into the guitar. It developed over the course of time but didn’t crystallize until doing the Rebel Yell LP.
Rob: How do you compare yourself to the neoclassical players like Malmsteen, Lynch, Randy Rhodes? Do you identify with these guys or were you trying to do something different?
Steve: To be honest I don’t concern myself with what I’m doing on the instrument. With Billy Idol, I’m more interested in writing a decent song. If there is a solo, great, but it has to reflect the song and not just me going off into noodle land for 30 seconds (laughing). I can appreciate the technical expertise of those guys, but I can’t listen to a whole record of shredding. I recently say Yngwie and thought he was fantastic, he also has an incredible sound as well. Most of the guitar players who shred, they have this super distorted thing with no tone happening. You have to know when to play fast and when not to play fast. Shredding is great as long as it’s tasteful.
Rob: When did you get into Spanish and Flamenco style of playing guitar?
Steve: One of my first guitar teachers, when I was 12, was a Flamenco guitarist. Up until that time, my parents would get me these disgruntled old teachers that were pissed off that they had to teach me. I wasn’t able to connect with these guys, they were trying to teach me songs that I wasn’t interested in learning. I wanted to learn Hendrix. One summer I went away to a music camp and this teacher was a Flamenco guitarist from Romania. He escaped the Nazi in the Second World War and was a gypsy. This guy had so much passion for playing and great stories of Flamenco being the music of a nomadic people. I just identified with it and started to listen to other Flamenco players from that early age. After I did the Vince Neil tour opening for Van Halen I said where do I go from here and wanted to break things down so I did the Flamenco-A Go Go CD.
Rob: Tell me a little about your follow-up solo CD, Memory Crash?
Steve: I was approached to do an instrumental solo record. I’m a groove guy and the CD has a lot of solos and atmosphere. It kind of touches on my prog influences. When I do a record I always want to make sure that someone who doesn’t play guitar will want to listen to. That’s the litmus test.
Rob: You talked about working with monumental frontmen, how was it to work with Michael Jackson?
Steve: For me, it was that Quincy Jones was in the studio with Michael. It was a loose atmosphere. They already had the track so I set up my gear and Quincy said to just do my thing. I remember that I would come into the room and Michael would hum a melody and ask if I can put it in. It was just the three of us in the studio. I was among the best of the best that day trying to do the job. I did what they needed and brought my best.
Rob: How many guitars do you own?
Steve: Good question, probably close to 100. I’m not a collector and I don’t have a 59 Les Paul or a mid 60s Strat. Most of my guitars are new; I sold the collectible guitars over the years because they were just collecting dust in storage. I’m pretty hands-on with my guitar and get really get in there. I can go down to Guitar Center and pick up a Les Paul and make it into the guitar I like with parts that I have.
Rob: In an emergency and you had to run out of your house and could only grab one guitar what would it be?
Steve: That actually did happen to me! I had a fire about 10 years ago in my home. My studio was literally at the end of the house where the fire was. It was a Saturday night at like 2:00 am when I was woken up by the fire dept saying to get out. I thought, what do I do, and what am I going to take. I have a late 70’s Flamenco Rivera which is the most expensive guitar that I own and the first thing I took was my photo albums. It’s strange what goes through your mind when something like that happens. I wasn’t even thinking of gear. I figured I have insurance and if it goes, it goes. What guitar do you take at that point? I looked at the studio and with all the gear and guitars and thought I can’t just take one thing.
Rob: Speaking of guitars, what became of the Les Paul you tossed in the reality show, Married to Rock, during an argument with your wife as well as the Hello Kitty guitar?
Steve: (Laughing) The Hello Kitty guitar is in storage. At first, it was for the joke and then I actually liked the way it sounds and used it on tour for Mony Mony. Its kind of a silly thing. Also when my wife isn’t on the road with me, it kind of reminds me of her.
Les Paul was trashed.
Rob: Did the neck break?
Steve: Yeah, I’ll say this; you can’t always believe everything you see on TV (Laughing)
Rob: If you could work with any other artist who would it be?
Steve: I would love “try” and do something with Peter Gabriel. I’m a huge fan of his. He is just such a creative guy and not sure if my style would work in any way. I would just like to be a fly on the wall when that guy is in the studio.
Rob: What do you want to be remembered for as a guitar player?
Steve: Good question, hopefully allowing my personality to shine through the instrument. Allowing the real emotion to show. The guitar is the tool that I use; there is a lot that I hoped and emotionally bring to the music.
Rob: As a kid growing up in the Brooklyn, did you ever think you’d end up where you are today?
Steve: Yeah I did (laughing). I always wanted to be a musician or rock star or whatever. That’s what I wanted to do. There was a point where other kids in my neighborhood were playing and their parents made them have back-up plans like going to college. I refused to have a backup plan and drove my parents crazy. I’m going to put everything I got into making it. I remember I went to a concert, at MSG, it was ELP playing, and I remember sitting there looking at the stage before the band went on saying, “that’s what I want to do”. I was praying to God, let me do that! And literally two seconds later someone threw a bottle and it hit me in the head. I was rushed to the hospital and missed the concert. I took that as a sign that I’m going to do this! (laughing). I’m going to have to fight for it, but I’m going to do it.
Rob: Are you sure it wasn’t one of your parents trying to bring you to your senses?
Steve: Right (laughing)
Rob: What do you do when you are not performing or recording?
Steve: I try to do whatever my wife wants (laughing). We go to museums and crazy parties as well as travel. We have been going to Vegas and if we can get away we like to go to Hawaii and Palm Springs to unwind. We are pretty inseparable as a couple so we like to do everything together. She is my partner and I like to include her as much as possible in my life.
Rob: You were on the reality show with your wife Josie, Married to Rock, how did it come about?
Steve: Josie would start to come to the shows and people would notice her and one night Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne were there and Sharon pulled her aside and said I want to do something with you. It all happened within a month and she got a call from E Entertainment and they wanted her to be on this how as a rock star’s wife. She told me about the opportunity and I said I’m getting ready to go out on the road for 7 months and I’m not going to be around to do it. She said they don’t want you (laughing). I said great. By the time she got home from that initial meeting, they sent her the contact. My part was easy; I just needed to be around for a couple of days doing things. They also were kind enough to give us this lavished wedding. Our parents had never met before so at the very least we got a great wedding out of it.
Rob: Was it difficult to deal with the cameras?
Steve: No I really don’t care. At this point, I’m pretty secure in my life. The one thing I did tell my wife is that we are not actors and I don’t want anything scripted. What happens is what happens. You really can’t control what they get and you have to be comfortable about that.
Rob: At every wedding in America, they play “Rebel Yell” and “White Wedding” – it’s pretty standard, were those two songs played at your wedding?
Steve: (Laughing) I never even thought of it! It wasn’t played. Funny story about “White Wedding”. When we were doing the first Billy Idol record, “White Wedding” was the last song to be written. Billy pulled an all-nighter in the studio and came back to the hotel with a big ghetto blaster in the morning and played me the song that he wrote about his sister getting married. The original intention wasn’t “hey you’re getting married and I’m so happy that you’re getting married”. If you read the lyric I’m really amazed that people would want to play that at their wedding (laughing).
Rob: When you are playing “Rebel Yell” and “White Wedding” live for the billionth time, what is going through your head?
Steve: There are very few songs that I get sick of playing, I don’t know why that is. “White Wedding” is always a little different every night, there is something about it that has its own looseness and the way it can be interrupted teach night. That said, I do get a little tired of playing Mony Mony (laughing).