Steve Stevens: Inside the “Theater of the Mind”
Steve Stevens is the rare guitarist, and even more rare rock guitarist, who can display more versatility in his day job than most will in their entire career! And that’s not counting the dozens of outside projects in which he has been involved in. Don’t let the still-wild hair or black nail polish fool you; Steve Stevens is anything but a one-trick pony.
Stevens is, of course, world renown for his work as guitarist and co-writer for Billy Idol. In Stevens, Idol found his musical soul mate; one who could not only rock but rock with taste, flash and more importantly, originality. The duo, which produced a stream of hits during the 80’s, is still going strong as 2005’s Devil’s Playground easily attests.
Instead of using his status to garner a few high profile and higher paying gigs, Stevens chose projects to reflect different sides of his musical personality from the fiery fretwork he displayed with Robert Palmer, Michael Jackson and the Thompson Twins (check out his six-string anarchy on Roll Over, or the ‘better than it should be’ cover of The Beatles Revolution) to his “we’re not worthy!” performance on 1986’s, Grammy-winning “Top Gun Anthem”.
He formed Steve Stevens’ Atomic Playboys and released their first (and only) album in 1989 which, while not a chart-toping hit, further cemented his status as one of rock’s flashiest and most versatile axe-slingers. With Billy Idol, he had tremendous creative freedom but, ultimately, was bound to serve the song at all costs. Here, his guitar was allowed to roam over whatever sonic terrain it felt like. The album had it all: funk, soul and Middle Eastern acoustic flourishes all intertwined with sheets of pounding hard rock. And if he felt like taking a one minute and 45 second guitar solo, as he does on the hellacious title cut, so be it!
Just when global sales of Aqua Net could get no higher, the 90’s came. Guitar solos, spandex and long hair were out and many of the 80’s guitar heroes either went into seclusion or were forced to cut their hair and grew goatees as an attempt to stay relevant. Stevens did neither. Instead, he joined the Vince Neil Band for a one album stint. While the album may have been a creative misstep, it did feature boatloads of his scorching lead work and gargantuan guitar tones. Even then, his acoustic flamenco playing was being flaunted in the most unexpected of places. Stevens soon rebounded by rejoining Idol to record the thoroughly rockin’ theme song to Keanu Reeves 1994’s hit film Speed.
Stevens’s next project was the perfect showcase for both his prog-rock sensibilities and flamenco playing: Bozzio Levin Stevens. The trio, which featured innovative bassist Tony Levin and drum legend Terry Bozzio, allowed for plenty of musical interplay within their lengthy, abstract improvisations. Here, Stevens playing was completely ‘in the moment’ without the limitations of pop song structure. After two albums with BLS, Stevens love for Flamenco guitar came to the forefront with the masterful, Flamenco A Go Go.
The all-acoustic affair was the work of an artist who after 20 years in the industry could still dazzle with his musical restlessness. Leaving his day-glow painted Les Pauls at home, Stevens was every bit as impressive wielding nothing more than his nylon-strung flamenco guitar. Perhaps the most illuminating aspect of Flamenco A Go Go is how it not only displays the growth and sophistication in Stevens’ compositional sense but how strong those talents had been all along!
All of this leads us to the recently released, and very electric, new album, Memory Crash. Recorded mostly at his home studio, The Purple Room, Memory Crash is a Steve Stevens tour de force featuring the hard rock riffs, impassioned acoustic playing, fascinating tones and yes, even those ray gun sounds that we’ve come to expect from Stevens. But that’s not too say that you’ve heard it all before, there are still a few tricks up his black leather sleeve!
Popjunkie recently entered Steve Stevens’ “theater of the mind” to talk about his new album, the future and of course, guitars.
Let’s talk about the genesis of this record. Instrumental guitar albums are such a niche thing nowadays: what inspired this album?
I’ve really avoided doing an instrumental electric guitar record my whole career; although I did my Flamenco A Go Go record. What really changed my mind was when we went out on the road after the last Billy Idol record and did a stint on the Warped Tour. That convinced me that there’s a new generation of kids who are really into guitars. And that wasn’t the case through the 90’s you know? It was almost like being a virtuoso guitarist was more like a hindrance than a help (laughs)! So, I thought the time was right. That combined with seeing kids as young as 14 years old on You Tube playing my Top Gun Anthem, I thought there was an audience out there. I thought, “I might as well show ‘em what I can do!” So, that’s what gave me the confidence to do my own instrumental record.
Did you have anything that you set out to achieve with this album?
I think that my record is different from other guitar instrumental records that may be focused more on the ‘shred thing.’ Mine I think focuses more on imagination and composition and it just so happens that the guitar is the instrument I express myself on. You know the stuff that I grew up listening to and the guitarists that I dug so much when I was like 13/14, were all the English prog-players like Steve Howe and Robert Fripp. I wanted to keep the spirit of that style of guitar playing alive on this record.
A lot of times, when people have a home studio they tend to make everything sound perfect but with Memory Crash, the music feels alive; it’s raw and energized and doesn’t feel overdone.
I think that’s largely due to using a lot of vintage guitar amps and old-style recording techniques. I use Pro Tools but I don’t like records that sound like they’re what we call, “in the box”, which is that whole, ‘everything’s done within Pro Tools’ sound. I recorded all my guitars and stuff with tube pre amps and ribbons mics. We mixed the record on an analog console as well; we didn’t mix it in Pro Tools so it kept the warmth and the character.
You did a large majority of the record by yourself.
The other main musician on the record is (Billy Idol drummer) Brian Tichy and he’s kind of coming from the same school as me. His favorite drummers are all those 70’s guys, John Bonham and so on, and that helped to keep the record “human”.
Did you track the album with live drums or were they added later?
I don’t have the capability to record drums at my studio so the album was actually completed with me using a drum program called BFD. I programmed all the drums, tracked my guitar to the programmed drums and then brought all of my tracks over to Black Sound Studio in Pasadena and replaced all the electronic drums with Brian. In a couple of cases, my guitars didn’t fit with the live drums so we re-recorded them.
For Josephine has a very cool odd-time breakdown in it. Very Prog.
Yeah, that’s my homage to Steve Howe of Yes! Someone recently told me it sounded like something off of Relayer which I took as a compliment! I figured I’d put that at the end of the record and that’s my little thank you to Steve Howe.
Is that your vocal on the song For Josephine?
Yeah, it is yeah.
That’s the first one since “Woman Of 1,000 Years” on the Atomic Playboys!
(Laughs) Yeah, right! You know, I’m not a singer but it’s written for my fiancé and I couldn’t imagine anyone else singing that song, so it is what it is (laughs)!
Are you using a pick or fingers for the fast acoustic passages on Small Arms Fire & Prime Mover?
That’s with a pick. I have a nylon-string, flamenco guitar that’s made by Pedro de Miguel. I got that guitar because I was listening to Gerardo Nunez who’s an unbelievable flamenco player and I found out what guitar he used. He’s got the best recorded flamenco tone of all! I eventually just got the same guitar!
There is a large variety of textures in your guitar parts.
Yeah, I love putting ear candy in my music. I listen to music a lot with headphones, my nightly ritual is falling asleep to playlists that I make on my iPod! And records like, Close To The Edge by Yes or Selling England By The Pound by Genesis, all have such cool little ear candy for you, “theater of the mind” kind of stuff. I guess I’ve just been brought up on that music, it’s in my blood.
What kind of effect were you using to get that Uni Vibe tone?
The Uni Vibe I use is made by KR, and Kevin, who owns that company, has become a buddy of mine; we’re internet pals, and he and I would send each other vintage Hendrix footage. An example would be Cherry Vanilla on this record. I was really going for the later, Roomful of Mirrors-era Hendrix and even the stuff he did after Electric Ladyland, like War Heroes. So, I’d kind of tell him a sound and he’d whip something up and send it off to me (laughs) and I did that with a number of companies that I work with.
We have a mutual acquaintance in John Suhr – did you use his new Badger amp on this record at all?
I sure did yeah; the Badger is on a lot of this record. All of the Strat-style playing is a Suhr white Strat that was actually built for Scott Henderson. I called John and said, “I need a Strat, I’m starting this record and I don’t have a good Strat. I’d been out to his shop and he showed me that noise-canceling technology that he’s got and I fell in love with it because I’ve always loved the sound of Strats but they always were too buzzy for me! And he solved that, it doesn’t alter the sound of the pickups or anything. I think that’s why there’s a Hendrix-y vibe on this record which I’ve never been known for that simply came about by having a great instrument.
Was this guitar used on The Day of the Eagle?
Exactly, same guitar.
So what’s next for you? Will you going to tour for this record?
Well, I’m back in the studio with Billy Idol, we have a greatest hits record coming out that will have 3 or 4 new tracks on it so we’re starting to record those and then we go out on the road starting in June. Since Brian is in Billy’s band, hopefully I can squeeze in some solo dates on my off days.
I always ask this to whom ever I chat with - what is something that you are finding inspiring right now? It does not have to be musical either.
I’m inspired by, and I know it sounds cliché but I’m inspired by life itself really. I’m in a different place in my life, I’ve finally found my real partner, my fiancé and she’s part of my life and my music. She coordinated the photos for the record, got me the photographer to do it and all that. And it’s great to have somebody that understands you; I don’t have to explain myself. We’re gonna get married this year and I’m real excited about that. You know, I think I’ve finally… for many years I was very restless (chuckles) in my personal life; always looking for something to fill a hole. There’s the old adage that, “healthy mind, healthy body, healthy creativity” so I’m really in a great place to make music right now.
Popjunkie must thank Jeremy Bonaventura and Peter Morticelli at Magna Carta Records for making this interview happen.
A huge thank you to Steve Stevens for not only, taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk to us but for all these years of great guitar sounds!